Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation

Article by   April 2013
Mullercalvinreformed93.jpgRichard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 288pp., paperback, $39.99


Richard Muller's latest book, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, is the product of many decades of research and analysis regarding the relationship between Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. If the death-blow to the "Calvin versus the Calvinists" thesis has not already come, this book seals the fate of the questionable historiography of scholars such as R.T. Kendall, Brian Armstrong, Alan Clifford, and, more recently, Julie Canlis and, to a lesser extent, William Evans. Muller's vigorous arguments in Calvin and the Reformed Tradition depend on an acute and extensive analysis of much primary and secondary literature, with plenty of breathtaking footnotes. Many calling themselves Reformed evangelicals will find Muller's conclusions not only quite foreign, but perhaps even unwelcome. He also does not shy from humor at times (e.g. pp. 58, 69, 121, 123), a welcome corrective to much of the painfully stale academic work in publication. 

Regrettably, this book will only be fully appreciated by scholars and pastors who have done quite a bit of work in the primary and secondary sources in the eras that Muller looks at. The first chapter, particularly, looks at important methodological issues. Muller deconstructs several master narratives that typically misunderstand Calvin's context and significance (p. 17). The rather grotesque idea of a "balanced humanism" (Calvin) versus "rigid scholasticism" (the Calvinists) is shown for what it is - skubalon! (see pp. 27ff). After all, Calvin often made use of scholastic distinctions; and even when he purportedly rejected certain distinctions, there is evidence that he still made use of their basic concept (e.g., God's absolute vs. ordained power). The seemingly "total inability" of scholars to recognize these strains in Calvin's thinking leads them into all sorts of claims about later Reformed departures from the "balanced Christocentrism" of Calvin (pp. 27, 278). Speaking about "total inability", Muller shows that when we discuss the doctrine of "total depravity," we need to understand that historically the term means that man is totally unable to save himself (p. 60). So the term is unsuited to describe Christians.

There exists somewhat of a crisis among many Reformed evangelicals today concerning Calvin's place in the Reformed tradition. Calvin was brilliant; no one denies that. But, as Muller notes, Calvin was not the sole founder of the Reformed tradition (p. 41), so the term "Calvinist" really ought to be abandoned  for the simple reason that Calvin (a second-generation Reformer) was at best first among equals in the time of the Reformation (see pp. 17, 44). Contrary to what some might think, later Reformed theologians are actually a great deal more sophisticated than Calvin, and frequently offer better answers to more sensitive questions (see, pp. 34-36).  For example, the "unconditional election" of Calvin as the arbiter of what is and what is not Reformed has had deleterious consequences for scholars and churchmen who have failed to carefully read the writings of Calvin's (in places, more learned) contemporaries (p. 68; see also p. 60).

A rather intriguing phenomenon in the debate concerning Calvin's relationship to the later Reformed tradition concerns the simple fact that a lot of scholars claiming that Calvin's followers departed in significant ways from the Genevan Reformer have not done the requisite reading to make such bold claims (p. 281). For example, Muller notes Charles Partee's claim ("Calvin is not a Calvinist because union with Christ is at the heart of his theology - and not theirs.") and rightly shows that Partee doesn't actually reference any later Reformed writers to support his claim (p. 63). Julie Canlis makes similar accusations, again without documenting any solid evidence (pp. 240-43). In fact, the "limited analysis" of Post-Reformation sources made by scholars pushing the various forms of the "Calvin versus the Calvinists" thesis buttresses Muller's claim that 19th and 20th century concerns and prejudices are sometimes read back into the 16th and 17th centuries (see p. 62).

Muller recognizes that a great deal more work is needed on various questions that he raises in this book (p. 279). The book is principally about historiographical method in many ways, but discussions of Calvin on the extent of the atonement and Ursinus on the causality of salvation show Muller's method at work (chs. 3, 6).  On the latter issue, a great deal more work needs to be done, especially in terms of "causation" and the doctrines of union with Christ, justification, and sanctification. Chapter five, which looks at the thorny question of hypothetical universalism, is a positive step towards helping scholars, who have been groping around in the dark for some time now, to understand all of the various issues at stake in the debate over the extent of the atonement. Needless to say, the idea that one has to hold to "limited atonement" (a potentially misleading term) to be Reformed is more the result of present-day "Reformed" thinking than what we find during the Post-Reformation eras. Too many brilliant Reformed thinkers (e.g., Davenant, pp. 127ff.), and perhaps even Calvin himself, held to a position that cannot fit nicely into the "L" of Tulip, even because of the anachronism involved. Of course, "limited atonement" if understood as full sufficiency with efficacy limited to the elect (which Davenant holds to) is not something Muller is arguing against. Nonetheless, the "perseverance of the Scholars" will, I expect, yield some intriguing results in the coming years on questions surrounding the aforementioned issues.

Incidentally, there is one rather salient point in the book regarding TULIP that should be mentioned. The acrostic is perhaps an early twentieth-century acronym (not of Dutch origin, as the Dutch word is not in fact "tulip" but "tulp"), and, according to Muller, "it is quite remarkable how little the acrostic has to do with Calvin or Calvinism" (p. 59). Holding to TULIP may be a good start for someone wishing to call themselves Reformed, but there are probably about 10 other points (or two extra flowers) that need to be embraced, as well.

In conclusion, only when scholars and pastors properly understand Calvin's significance in his own historical-theological context, and the Reformed tradition as a fairly diverse phenomenon (p. 283), will they be in a position to appreciate that our Reformed history is much more complex than simply reading the Institutes and then deciding whether Calvin's "heirs" were faithful to a manual that was designed for pastors. One practical way in which the church can better comprehend the Reformed tradition would be to get rid of the term "Calvinist", since the Reformed heirs of the Reformation did not identify themselves as "Calvinists." As Muller rightly argues, "'gather ye rosebuds while ye may,' but don't plant TULIP in your Reformed garden" (p. 69).  

Overall, this is a fine book. I am happy to commend it, but also disappointed that it probably will not receive the wide readership it deserves. 

Mark Jones, Senior Minister at Faith Vancouver PCA. 


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