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.
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!)