Calvin and the Reformed Tradition

Naive Histories Beware!

Naive Histories Beware!

Fans of Richard Muller’s work have waited patiently as soteriological crumbs fall from his methodological table. They will not be disappointed with the feast presented here, which pockets the gains of Muller’s longstanding “reappraisal” (not a thesis, he reminds us) of Reformed orthodoxy in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and then cashes them in on three specific questions within the doctrine of salvation: the extent of Chris’s saving work, union with Christ within an ordo salutis, and the assurance of salvation.

Muller is the inveterate enemy of simplistic appeals to both “Calvin against the Calvinists” and “Calvin for the Calvinists” reconstructions. He patiently demonstrates the complexity and diversity of the early modern Reformed tradition. This book is neither an introduction to Calvin nor to the Reformed tradition on salvation. Muller enters directly into contemporary debates among historians and pseudo-historians (i.e., dogmatic/constructive theologians) and challenges all to read the source texts carefully.

The Muller “Reappraisal”

Chapters 1 & 2 set out Muller’s formal thesis: it is historically naïve to support either a “Calvin against the Calvinists” or “Calvin for the Calvinists” narrative in toto. Both narratives make significant historical mistakes about the Reformed tradition’s relationship to Calvin. He points out that few theologians accepted the title “Calvinist” and that Calvin’s ideas were shared by a group of second-generation Reformers who each informed future discussion in various ways.

Although Muller seeks to reshape the question, it is clear that his real ire rises in response to the against crowd. Long-time readers of Muller recognize the targets of which he continues to find contemporary examples: predestination as a central dogma, scholastic method as determining the systems of the 17th century, and the “neo-orthodox” Christocentric reading of Calvin.

Extent of Christ’s Work

Chapters 3–5 cover the question of Christ’s atonement and specifically the diversity of “Reformed” views into the 17th century. This question primarily demonstrates Muller’s thesis (not thesis, reappraisal!) that Calvin did not serve as norming norm for future Reformed theologians. Chapter 3 outlines Calvin’s view on the extent of Christ’s saving work. He shows that none of the later Reformed can lay sole claim to Calvin, thereby opposing a strand that sees Amyraut as the one true Calvinist in the 17th century. Chapter 4 shows how Amyraut appealed to Calvin on Ezekiel 18:23 (“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?”). Muller argues that Amyraut’s interlocutor, Du Moulin, reads Calvin more faithfully. But, significantly, Du Moulin does not reproduce Calvin’s view. Rather he presents his own form of “hypothetical universalism.” Du Moulin’s disagreement with Amyraut is not about the extent of Christ’s saving work, but about Amyraut’s “speculative” appeal to multiple conditional divine decrees. Chapter 6 takes Muller’s thesis further and introduces John Davenant, an English “hypothetical universalist,” who earlier opposed Amyraut’s mentor, John Cameron. In these three chapters, Muller demonstrates the diversity of Reformed views on the issue of Christ’s satisfaction.

Ordo Salutis

Richard Muller

Richard Muller

Chapters 6 & 7 approach the question of an ordo salutis (order of salvation) in Calvin and the Reformed. Since no one in the 16th and 17th centuries used the term, a stalemate has ensued on whether Calvin held to an ordo salutis. Muller sidesteps this by examining commentaries on Romans 8:28–30. Writers like William Perkins referred to this text as the “Golden Chain,” and Muller demonstrates that this is an implicit, though not formalized, ordo salutis.

The study of Romans 8 leads Muller in chapter 7 to address contemporary debates on Union with Christ. Again appealing to exegesis, Muller argues that the current Union vs. ordo dichotomy—Charles Partee & Julie Canlis are his main targets—is improper. Both Calvin and later Reformed authors appealed to Romans 8:1 as the exegetical basis for understanding union with Christ. He shows that several early Reformed orthodox authors viewed the unio (Romans 8:1) as the ground of the ordo (Romans 8:28–30).

The Practical Syllogism

Chapter 8 continues the attack on dichotomizers with an exploration of the practical syllogism for personal assurance of salvation in Beza and the early Reformed. Against what he calls a “neo-orthodox” separation of Calvin from his successors, Muller argues that Beza is just as “Christo-centric” as Calvin and that the practical syllogism does not separate one’s assurance of salvation from one’s faith in Christ.

Keep History Primary

It is important to keep the genre of this work in mind. Muller insists that he plays the part of historical theologian only, and he seems to hold himself to that commitment. His arguments always aim to overturn and refashion historical theses and he appeals only to interpretations of historical texts to warrant his conclusions. As much as this reviewer wants to hear Muller’s own constructive proposal for how these authors might contribute to theology today, Muller allows himself only a negative role. This book proclaims on nearly every page: Beware facile appeals to early modern sources.

Of minor quibbles I have but two: (1) Muller gives his chapter theses in rather difficult form. A historical thesis is necessarily nuanced, but seven-line sentences leave the reader wondering which part of the main point is truly the main point. (2) Perhaps because many of these authors were translated into English in the late 16th century, Muller maintains certain English/Latin terms from that time (e.g., ‘impetration’). The sources use “apprehend” for something like fiducia or personal trust, but Muller never helps the contemporary English reader find a middle ground between our two contemporary meanings “understand” or “arrest a criminal.” For instance, Muller explains a quote from Ursinus by repeating the crucially ambiguous term: “Faith is merely the acceptation or apprehension of an ‘alien righteousness’ and in no way a cause of that righteousness.” (183) A touch more orientation to the contemporary English reader may have helped with clarity.

The great contribution of this book is to refocus study of Reformed orthodoxy on the exegesis from which dogmatic formulations sprung. Muller’s use of example expostions of biblical texts presents a fruitful approach to understanding these early modern theologians. Muller’s reading of the early Reformed presents a direct challenge to contemporary movements like Evangelical Calvinism that appeal to a particular narrative of Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy in order to explain their own position. Anyone who makes claim to the 16th century Reformed traditon for a doctrine of salvation needs to be familiar with this book.

(Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!)

This entry was posted in Book reviews, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Calvin and the Reformed Tradition

  1. Hi Jon, that was a good summary of the book (which I have not read yet) so thank you. This is a good blog so well done.

    As a key advocate of Evangelical Calvinism, I do want to register something of a comment though, given you used our work as an example in your review.

    What Muller and others don’t seem to understand, and you hint at this in your fine review, is that ours is a work of constructive theology that draws upon our Reformed heritage, but especially the influence of Calvin (and Barth, Torrance, and a host of others of course) for inspiration and resources. We are not arguing that EC is Calvin’s theology repristinanted, or that this is the only form Reformed thought can or should take today.

    Overly defensive views such as those of Muller, Clark, and Trueman thus evidence a good deal more theological impetus than their supposedly ‘pure historical’ stance would at fist imply. I drew attention to this in an ATI Journal article to which Muller responded like a bull dog, arguing past my comments in order to maintain his own rhetoric.

    All work that uses history should be rigourous, absolutely, so show us where in the EC book we got that wrong? Muller and others really have to come out and make some positive and constructive contributions to theology at some point rather than presenting negative assessments of others works (Canlis and Partee for starters), and stopping short of putting this together in a constructive way.

    This is where Horton’s work is different – at least he gives his conisidered conclusions and shows where and how he is using the tradition in order to enrich the church today. While Horton’s ‘federal theology’ (which even Muller admits is different from the theology of the early reformers such as Calvin etc) is not compatible with EC, at least he makes a case for it, is honest with the sources, and then makes his own contributions. Those of us advocating EC believe we are doing the same thing – it is just that Muller et al don’t like it. Well, argue against it on the merits of its content.

    Thanks agan for the blog and the good review.



    • Jon Hoglund says:

      Thank you for the quick response! I had also considered Muller’s lack of interaction with Horton. But then again, neither does he mention Evangelical Calvinism. On the method side, I felt the same frustration, that if I take Muller’s standards seriously, it doesn’t seem possible to do constructive theology today with any appeal to earlier theologians. My most charitable read of him would be that he only challenges historical reconstructions, but of course we all read historically with our own interests. (I will look at your ATI interchange. Thank you, I was unaware of it.)
      I recently enjoyed the EC book, and I applaud that it is true constructive theology. My mention of the movement came mainly from the fact that at least in regard to Union with Christ, EC builds on a particular interpretation of Calvin. To the extent EC builds on Calvin, Muller is waiting in the ring. Whether he succeeds is beyond my expertise (but I now have a longer reading list!).

  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Jon,

    I’m the other EC guy (at least the other one with his name on the book along with Myk’s). I too want to thank you for this fine review, and now my reading list has been expanded as well :-).

    I have read a lot of Muller over the years, and engaged with him so much during a season of time (through blog posts), that I am sure I must have scared most of my readers away for that period ;-). I am also a former student (and teaching assistant), and still friend of Dr. Ron Frost; he and Muller had a fun exchange on the “Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation” back in 97. Muller’s rejoinder to Frost was the same tact the he more recently used with Myk; i.e. didn’t even engage with the material claims being made by Frost (and/or Myk). I note this bit of personal history just to clarify my relationship with Muller over the years, and how that has been colored as a result of how I was initially introduced to him by Frost.

    I can only echo Myk’s point in his comment. I can also say that this problem is not Muller’s alone, but his whole company (that he is a part of in post Reformed orthodoxy). I used to engage with R. Scott Clark (of Westminster Theological Seminary california fame) quite frequently before the elders of his church made him take down his blog. I used to challenge him in the same way that Myk is now challenging Muller (which I have thrown down the same challenge with Muller multiple times over the years at my blog as well … but you see the problem, I threw it down at a blog 😉 ). Getting back to Clark, he seemed to think, like Muller, that simply engaging in the descriptive work (as important as that is!) of historical reconstruction was enough to materially engage and undercut (defeat) constructive/Dogmatic theological claims. But it really isn’t! I have numerous quotes that could help substantiate my assertion here, especially in re. to Calvin’s theology, and his availability to be read and retrieved through various lenses. Since his theological foci were multivalent, and there was no centraldogma (Muller) with Calvin. If this is the case–and Muller himself argues as such–then to appropriate and emphasize certain theological motifs that were undeniably front and center in Calvin’s theology (like his unio cum Christo and unio mystica theology) are just waiting to be tapped into.

    Anyway, I could say a lot more. But along with Myk I am waiting for Muller, Clark, Trueman, and the whole crew to engage in the work of theology of retrieval and constructive theology. To presume that, as Muller & co. does, a historian can defeat material constructive theological claims is to engage in at least a category mistake (it’s the wrong discipline). Here’s what Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer asserts in regard to Muller’s mode and approach: n danger of walking away from the theological duty of ‘historical theology’ to challenge ‘systematic theology’ in its constructive task.” [cf. Maarten Wisse, ed. Reeling Brouwer, “Scholasticism Reformed,” 243, fn. 8] I have this quote embedded in my book review of Muller’s “After Calvin” that I did for my blog a couple years ago. So me and Myk aren’t the only ones who think this of Muller & co. If he (and they) want to engage with constructive appropriation of Calvinian themes, then we are ready.

    Thanks again, Jon, for the review!

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Woops, I left an open tag.

  4. Pingback: A Boring Post: Are Evangelical Calvinists more ‘Scholastic’ than the Scholastics of Today? « The Evangelical Calvinist

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