Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Review)

Published: RTR 74, no. 2, 2015

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

Richard A. Muller, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

The tenets of this 2012 work, as part of the overall corpus of Mullerian scholarship (Muller rejects the terminology, ‘the Muller thesis’), has already embedded itself into the Reformed academic psyche. Pitted against the ‘Calvin against the Calvinists’ school, and ‘Calvin for the Calvinists’, Muller has shown exhaustively that Calvin should not be taken as the sole founder and measure (sometimes with a Barthian overlay) of the Reformed tradition. Reformed theologians were consciously confessional, not Calvinistic, and within those boundaries, there was considerable diversity of argumentation and expression. Muller argues that it is foolish to think of Reformed theology being Calvin’s theology or ‘Calvinism’, to which later theologians were either faithful or unfaithful.

The present work asks if Calvin was a Calvinist, and looks at the familiar but highly contentious issues of Calvin on limited atonement, ‘two wills’ theology in connection with Amyraut, the development of hypothetical universalism, early Reformed developments on the ordo salutis, union with Christ in early Reformed thought, and the alleged Calvin-Beza fault line on assurance.

Muller maintains that the language currently used to discuss the 16th–17th century atonement debate is misleading, since they thought in terms of ‘satisfaction’ rather than ‘atonement’. With that caveat, did Calvin teach limited atonement? The concept is anachronistic, but Calvin’s voice, combined with other voices, contributed to the later formulation, not as a mere duplication of Calvin. Certainly, Amyraut was wrong to seek shelter for his controversial teachings with Calvin. Calvin rejected two ultimate wills in God and universal grace, repeatedly argued that ‘world’ in the NT was about people and class, and argued for the infinite sufficiency but limited efficacy of Christ’s satisfaction. On sufficiency, this was for Calvin the basis of the indiscriminate offer of the Gospel, connected to the preceptive will of God rather than His decree or ultimate will. On efficacy, Christ was given for the gain of the elect, not the reprobate (which one would have thought ruled out a link from Calvin to Davenant and Du Moulin, but Muller still hears a hypothetical universalist note in Calvin’s thought).

On the ordo salutis (18th century terminology), union with Christ continued to be foundational, even as the ordo was developed (contra Gaffin), so it is wrong to draw a dichotomy between (a humanist) Calvin and later theologians (often styled scholastic). Further, Calvin may not have had a strict order, but that does not mean he had no order.

Muller cautions against finding central themes in the Reformation theologians (such as union, in which all doctrine is derived from a Christ-principle, or the ordo, with predestination at the back of it), particularly if that centrality is discerned by the placement of material within a composition. Early modern theologians did not think in terms of metanarratives, and re-arranged material for didactic purposes (regeneration before justification in Calvin’s Institutes is Roman Catholic polemic, not an ordo decision).

On assurance, the basic approach of the syllogismus practicus (practical syllogism) is present in Calvin, and for no theologians was it associated with legalism. A fundamental Calvin-Beza division is unwarranted, although various exponents had differing emphases.

As with everything Muller writes, his familiarity with the source material is staggering—he gives every impression of being indigenous to the Reformation era—and his argumentation usually unassailable. One matter could be clearer.  Muller does not want to indicate who were the purest Calvinians in the 17th century, since that would only validate the wrong-headed master narratives of the Calvin against/for the Calvinists (p. 48). Neither does Muller want to introduce a new master narrative. How, then, did the Reformed themselves decide what ‘Reformed’ was? Muller affirms that the 17th century theologians thought that ‘Reformed’ was remaining within creedal bounds. However, were all views within creedal bounds perceived to be equally ultimate, and if ‘creeds’ were the standard, how was creedal movement negotiated? The Westminster divines did not adopt the Scots Confession, departed from the Thirty-nine Articles for more than political reasons, and used but necessarily recast the Irish Articles. The measure was not ‘Calvin’ (though in terms of esteemed Reformed theologians, he was first amongst equals, to mildly kick against the Muller thesis) nor ‘creeds’, but Scripture. The Assembly’s operating parameters were set in the Assembly vow: ‘I will maintain nothing in the point of doctrine but what I believe to be most agreeable to the Word of God.’ No doubt, they could not imagine that such would take them outside of Reformed and Ecumenical creedal bounds, nor too far from Calvin, either, but ‘Reformed’ was, at its heart, that theology that makes the best argument from Scripture.