The Theology of John Calvin

Article by   August 2009
The Theology of John Calvin
By Charles Partee
376 p.
Westminster John Knox (October 2008)

If all's well that ends well, then all is well with this new study of Calvin's theology.  Which is to say, I find myself in agreement  with much of the brief conclusion of this long book, a book  revealing a great acquaintance with both  the primary and secondary   sources of Calvin's thought.  In the conclusion to it Professor Partee asserts that the Institutes is not a work of deductive reason, but a comprehensive and systematic confession of the love of God the Father revealed in Jesus Christ the Eternal Son and effected by the work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin's first concern is with true Christian religion, not with culture, or philosophy. Agreed.

But my oh my,  how twisted  and convoluted  is the road that leads here! This is a theology of Calvin written under modern conditions. The contemporary academic world is characterised by a frenzy of publication, driven by the authorities' concern that academics should be productive in a way that is easily measurable, and awarded tenure and promotion, or neither, accordingly.  As one would expect, the Christian academia has fallen into line with this approach . And so, in theology for example, around every major historical figure has arisen a buzzing swarm of secondary literature, 'research findings', expressing every possible opinion about that person and his significance, as well as some opinions that are impossible. So it is with Calvin. And so it is with Professor Partee.

But first, a little more about where Professor Partee is coming from. He is concerned to be what he calls a 'no-school' Calvinist, someone  who  reads Calvin off the page  (xv) and so he  distances  himself from the three other types of reader of Calvin's theology that he identifies: Opponents of Calvin, the Caricatures; Proponents of Calvin, the Calvinists;  and the  Misponents of Calvin, the Assumptions.

But what exactly is a 'no school' Calvinist? (Presumably a Calvinist. But not a Proponent style Calvinist.) Negatively, it is the claim that Calvin cannot legitimately be claimed by orthodox  Calvinism, or by Schleiermacher, or by neo-orthodoxy.  No-school Calvinism attempts to read Calvin as directly as possible. To d o this it often adopts the  Loci method, reading Calvin doctrine by doctrine with no conviction of a common thread, beads on a string without any string showing. (xv) Partee cites Francois Wendel's Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought as a proponent (but not a Proponent) of no-school Calvinism.

Two things strike me about this. One is, you would not know from his book that Professor Partee followed this no-school school.  While there is a good deal of quoting and paraphrasing of Calvin, increasingly so as the book progresses, there is little or no direct, detailed  exegesis of Calvin, much less a reading of Calvin as directly as possible. And  despite what Professor Partee implies, in Calvin's work the various loci of theology are held together by a visible thread, at least in the Institutes: the knowledge  of God and of ourselves is the overarching and recurring theme of the later editions of the work. So to read Calvin primarily as a loci theologian is already to read him indirectly.

Nevertheless, this is a noble aim, to return to the 'real Calvin', After various sections of orientation, the course of the book follows that of the 1559 Institutes, and  the out look becomes more promising. But to begin with at least, the style  that the author adopts to achieve  this gets in the way.  On page after page the secondary literature on Calvin arises like a mist to obscure what could be a clearer view of the original text. To begin with, at least, the author keeps up a commentary on the commentators, reports on the reporters, and  seems  to prefer  scholarly  chit-chat about the Reformer to the Reformer himself. The strict diet of the author's many aspersions and asides against the upholders of one or other of these schools of interpretation (all of whom are out of step in one way or another), leaves an acid taste in the mouth.  In this exercise  in assessing the secondary literature, it is Partee who has the last word, never Calvin.

So  Partee  visits the layers of secondary  literature, telling his readers  what Professor` X and Y and Z say,  and adds another layer consisting of  comments of his own, in summing up what he has presented to the reader.  One might think that someone who emphasises   Calvin's uniqueness, a no school Calvinist, as he says he is, might seize the opportunity to demonstrate  where Calvin's uniqueness lies, but he passes by a golden opportunity to do so.

Nevertheless, once  he  begins to fight clear of  this approach,  Professor Partee's precises  and summaries of Calvin's thought as this is expressed  particularly in Books  II and  III of the Institutes have much to commend   them.

The other irritation is that Professor Partee, who is the author of  Calvin and Classical Philosophy (1977,) surprisingly makes quite a  meal of  reason, rational, rationality, epistemological, and other assorted philosophical terms. He is at pains to say, somewhat  recurrently, that Calvin's is not a philosophical system, not rational, not epistemological. The irritation arises because  of the author's lack of appetite for careful distinctions.  Calvin is concerned with reason as consistency,  as providing system and order, (as concerned  as  is, say, Paul in I Corinthians 15), and is appalled by the possible presence of demonstrated  self-contradiction in Christian theology, though of course, he stresses that the ways of God are ineffable, incomprehensible, mysterious and the like. The Creator-creature distinction is rock solid.  But he is certainly not a rationalist, starting from autonomous reason, or common sense,  or 'logical principles' and  he  is very hard on opponents, such as Sebastian Castellio, who have a hankering after being rationalist in any such sense.

Or take the celebrated  opening of the  Institutes, 'Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.' Epistemology? Certainly. An 'epistemological antithesis'? We can agree with Professor Partee at least to this extent: probably not, depending on what his terms mean.  A metaphysical dualism? Again, it all depends: certainly a duality, God  and  ourselves, but certainly not a Manichean-like opposition between God and ourselves.  But aren't these men of staw? Whoever has suggested   such  an antithesis or such a dualism?

Finally, the author has a thing about  confessing the faith and what it implies. According to Professor Partee, for Calvin the Christian faith is a confession,  an encounter and not a rational system of belief, (though it is, he reckons,  a comprehensive and  a systematic confession). It is not an explanation of anything, it involves the heart as well as the head,  it gives no priority to rational connectedness,  it is not a system of philosophical theology. The question is, if one agrees to some or all of these sentiments,  what will the author by good and necessary consequence deduce from  that?  One might, in all conscience, go along with much of it. Nevertheless, Calvin was strong on the cognitive content of the faith, and  merciless to those  who, for mischievous purposes, strove to disorder it. It's not clear that Professor Partee's sensitivities over the head and the heart quite hit that particular Calvinian button.

Paul Helm, "Review: The Theology of John Calvin", Reformation 21 (August 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at

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Paul Helm is Professor Emeritus at the University of London.


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