Saturday, November 30, 2013

‘Calvinism’– Latte? Cappucino? Americano?

 "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
  "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
  "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

The quotation-marks around ’Calvinism’ in the title are not accidental. We are here primarily concerned  with the issue between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. The issue is about the words, not things, and in particular the fact that various people have various things to say about the word 'Calvinism' at present - its legitimacy, and what it refers to and may refer to. Words can be fought over. Whoever captures the word,  captures the thing. But frequently the words resist capture.  I shall argue, the word ‘Calvinism’ wriggles freely,  for good or ill. I shall sketch two such attempts at capture, one scholarly, the other rougher, to capture the meaning of ‘Calvinism’. Each fails, as it must. The rougher attempt first.

‘Doctrinal Calvinism’

There are those who are disquieted over the fact that many are claiming the name ‘Calvinism’  for themselves who are Baptists, and many who are charismatics do the same. Shock-horror! Charismatic Baptists? Where will it end? Such people tut-tut like the Dame in a Pantomime. But it is nothing new for people to adopt the name ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Calvinism’ for something narrow than was produced by the copious theological mind of John Calvin. I remember that in my youth , in the damp cellar of a Preston second-hand bookshop, I came across some books in the series called ‘Doctrinal Calvinism’,  published in the nineteenth century. I think that of the two or three titles  I retrieved – I have them no longer, alas - one contained a selection of the writings of Bishop Ezekiel Hopkins, another of John Bunyan, and maybe one of John Howe,  one-time Chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. An Anglican and a Baptist and a Congregationalist, I believe, each ‘doctrinal Calvinists’. To be sure, that title was not a self-description, but one given to them. But it was not an unreasonable title. I remember also for a time possessing the Works of Hopkins, which Thornton’s bookshop in Oxford sold me,  which contained an exposition of the covenants worthy of Witsius. He was Bishop of Londonderry, I believe.

What on earth, then, was doctrinal Calvinism? It was, and is, I think, the soteriology that is to be found in first 20 or so Chapters of the Westminster Confession and which was adopted by the Savoy Confession (or Declaration) of 1658, and the  Baptist Confession of 1689 almost verbatim.  (You can see the 3 confessions compared here. (

The publishers of the books I mentioned no doubt hoped to tap into this ‘Calvinism’ that was common to people in the C of E and among Dissenters. (And now, perhaps, 'charismatic' is a word that also currently receives the Humpty Dumpty treatment.) A smart marketing ploy, in my view. There is a lot more to these chapters of the Confession than the famous Five Points, of course. The adopting of these parts of Westminster was carried out in the conviction that there is a logically contingent connection between the theological material expressed in these chapters, and ecclesiology, as there is.

Those who raise their eyebrows at such behaviour have the idea that Calvinism is not only a theology but an ecclesiology. Certainly Calvin’s theology comprises not only Book I-III of the Institutes but Book IV as well, the longest book of the four, and it could be argued, the climax of the whole production.  But there is a problem for those who make this claim these days, for embedded within Book IV is an account of the duty of the civil magistrate to uphold the true or Reformed religion from anything in the civil realm that would tend to undermine it, beginning with the outlawing of untrammelled proclamations of other religious teachings, such as those of Rome, or of Faustus Socinus, or of the Jews or Turks. And I don’t think that those who believe that presbyterian church-government is an intrinsic part of Calvin’s theology nowadays routinely think that intolerance of other religions is or ought to be an intrinsic part of the civil magistrate’s duties.  They could say that it is a part of Calvinism, but that they disagree with it. Not the sort of precedent they want to set,  I assume

‘Calvinist’ or ‘Reformed’?

Besides this rather  shrill opposition  to ‘doctrinal Calvinism’ , as a bona fide expression of Calvinism at a more scholarly level, it is increasingly being pointed out  that ‘Calvinism’ is misleading as the name for the theological trajectory of Reformed Orthodoxy. Calvin was a member of a theological team, not a one-man team, nor its captain. What developed after his death in the Reformed Church is no more ‘Calvinism’ than it is ‘Bucerism’ or ‘Zanchism’, even though Calvin achieved a greater prominence than these, for a variety of reasons, not least the prestige of Geneva as a centre of the Reformation.

It is also pointed out that what is misleadingly called ‘Calvinism’ can mean less than the ‘Five Points’, and also more than them in that as Reformed theology developed there were various emphases given to Christian doctrine by different individuals and theological schools. An account of some of these differences in respect of the work of Christ can be seen worked out by Richard Muller with his usual care and erudition in Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On The Work Of Christ And The Order Of Salvation. So within the parameters set not by Calvin but by the various Reformed Confessions there was a considerable difference in emphasis. Confessions of faith are, after all, political documents.

These claims about the relatively narrow scope of ‘Calvinism’ in Reformed theology are  based on a historiography which pays some attention to lines of sameness as well as of divergence in the teaching of the Reformer. But it recognises that much of the legacy of John Calvin was underdetermined by comparison with the theology that was developed later, theology that even so was indebted to Calvin. Areas of such development are, for example, the decrees of God, and the covenants, and the work of Christ. Calvin cannot be held responsible for theological constructions of his legacy, occurring after his death, any more than, say, Andrew Fuller, who defended the propriety of general invitations of the gospel, can be held responsible for every preaching extravagance that people since  Fuller have thought was an ‘offer of Christ’.  Those who wish to dissent from these scholarly claims will have their work cut out to do so. They will have to present a much more detailed Calvinism than they are used to doing.

Which is yours?
 But note that this restriction of ‘Calvinism’ to Calvin’s own theology, and resistance to its extension to the theology that engendered the Confessions, and to which they in turn gave rise, begins with the earlier view of ‘Calvinism’, the ‘Calvinism’ of the Five Points and of doctrinal Calvinism. (Not the same thing, but each has a solely soteriological emphasis.) The scholarly critique recognises or legitimises that ‘doctrinal Calvinism’ we noted earlier, legitimises it by taking it seriously. Its critique is more scholarly than that of the whingers were noted earlier, but it is a criticism which legitimises what it is a criticism of. Not even scholarship is capable of copyrighting ‘Calvinism’.
So which is yours to be,  the ‘Calvinism’ of the 5 points,  a ‘doctrinal Calvinism’, a ‘Calvinism’ which identifies it with Calvin’s children, who went their own way when the discussion went beyond Calvin himself, or the ‘full package Calvinism’, which is not a full package at all, since Calvin’s view of the magistrate’s role in upholding the Reformed faith has been excised from it? (And in this roll-call 'Neo-calvinism in its various guises has not even been mentioned. )
Whichever it is, no-one can stop you calling your choice ‘Calvinism’. You see, unlike ‘Cadbury’s’ or ‘Chevrolet’ or ‘Calvin Klein’ ’ there is no copyright or  trademark  that covers the use of the word ‘Calvinism’. Any more than with 'inerrancy' or 'justification' or any other central theological term.
Irritating, isn’t it?