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Calvinism

John V. Fesko

Calvinism: A History, by D. G. Hart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013, 339 pages, $35.00.

One of the ailments of contemporary Christianity, Reformed or not, is the tendency to view one’s place in the world as having little historical antecedent. In the broader evangelical world Christianity begins with one’s profession of faith and in the Reformed church Reformed is typically associated with one’s personal experience or upbringing. Historically, however, Reformed churches have been shaped by two chief factors: the confessions and history. The confessions (the Westminster Standards for the Presbyterians and the Three Forms of Unity for those from the Continental tradition) have typically fared better than history, whether because parents catechize their children, congregations recite their confessions and catechisms, or ministers subscribe to these doctrinal formulae. History, on the other hand, can be tedious, and to some—far worse than being heretical—history is boring. But history is as much a factor in shaping the theological convictions of a denomination as its confessions. This is not to say that history is somehow normative, but rather that it explains how and why denominations write their confessions—it provides context.

For the past generation, if Reformed Christians wanted to study a survey of their historical past, its origins, debates, and significant figures, they had to turn to John T. McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism. But now, D. G. Hart has written Calvinism: A History, a book that will surely serve well as a replacement for McNeill’s earlier volume. As tedious and boring as some histories can be, Hart writes in an engaging style and covers a lot of ground, from the Reformation’s inception in Zurich with Ulrich Zwingli to the growth of the Reformed churches in South Korea. As with any survey of a large swath of several hundred years of history, Hart peers over the various events like a jet airliner at 30,000 feet. He moves briskly, noting the various contours, passes, rivers, and theological valleys of the geography. He does, however, drop down for a closer look at the landscape from time to time. Another of the book’s strengths is that Hart pays attention to the complex nature of history. Far too often historians engage in hagiography—they present the Reformation as if simply preaching propelled it and no other factors had a role. As important as theology and preaching were to the Reformation, politics was an equally influential factor. In a word, history is messy, and there are seldom silver-bullet answers as to how and why things happen. Hart avoids hagiography and offers a sober and insightful analysis of the development of the Reformed tradition.

Despite the book’s many strengths, there are two minor areas for further consideration. First, there are a few theological imprecisions in Hart’s presentation. He claims, for instance, “Dutch Reformed Protestantism gave to Calvinism its memorable mnemonic TULIP ... also known as Calvinism’s five points” (79). Yes, the Synod of Dordt (1618–19) responded to the five Remonstrant articles, but the acronym TULIP did not arise until the nineteenth century. Hart detects cleavage between Calvin and Beza on election, because the latter “developed the notion that God had predestined those whom he would save and those whom he would condemn before the beginning of time” (80). Whether one is an infra- or supralapsarian, both argue that God predestined before the beginning of time. He claims that the Westminster Assembly “followed Dort on the atonement” (88), yet the Standards do not mention the common sufficient-efficient distinction present in the Canons of Dordt. Hart also identifies Herman Hoeksema as an infralapsarian (245), which undoubtedly will raise the hackles of the Protestant Reformed Church.

Second, my chief question concerns the title of the book, Calvinism. At numerous points Hart rightly recognizes that Calvin was one of the foundational theologians for the Reformed tradition, but certainly not the only one. At several points he notes how others, Bullinger and his Second Helvetic Confession (74), the Reformed Harmony of Confessions (75), which combined numerous Reformed and Lutheran confessions, Guy de Bray and the Belgic Confession (59), and Ursinus and Olevianus through the Heidelberg Catechism “supplanted Geneva as the leading provider of Reformed theological training” (48). There were a host of other contributors to the development of the Reformed tradition, and unlike the Lutheran tradition, which actually codified several of Luther’s personal writings into their confessional corpus, the Reformed tradition has never elevated any one theologian to the level of fountainhead status. The Reformed churches have always been defined, not by the theology of one man, but by their confessions and catechisms. Moreover, as much as some might try to label certain doctrines as “Calvin’s doctrine of man,” or his doctrine of predestination, or his doctrine of God, there was very little unique to Calvin’s formulations that could not be found in the earlier church or among his contemporaries. The whole point to Calvin’s letter to Cardinal Sadoleto was that the Reformed church was not sectarian but catholic in the best sense of the word. Hart even has a section in his book entitled “Calvinist or Reformed?” where he acknowledges that Reformed Christianity existed before Calvin became a Protestant, “So calling the churches to which he belonged Calvinist is anachronistic” (20). Nevertheless, Hart decided to title his book Calvinism. Why not title the book The Reformed Churches, or something similar? In all fairness, Hart is in good company. As noted above, McNeill’s earlier volume employs the term, as do recent volumes by Philip Benedict (Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism, Yale, 2004) and Dewey D. Wallace (Shapers of English Calvinism, Oxford, 2011). It may be impossible to extricate this term from the popular theological and cultural lexicon, even from academic titles. My own preference, however, would be that the term should be scuttled to reflect the theological ethos of our tradition—we are Reformed Catholics, not the disciples of one man.

These quibbles aside, Hart’s book should be required reading, not merely for seminarians but for anyone who is a member of a Reformed church. Pastors would do well to offer Sunday school instruction based upon Hart’s book. In the same way that we might trace our family history so we have a better understanding of who we are and where we are going, the same can be said about our own theological heritage and identity. Not only will it inform them about the past, but it will help people in the church understand who they are, or should be. Moreover, I believe that this book will be an encouragement to many in our churches. In a day when Reformed Christians make up a mere fraction of the world’s so-called professing Christians, the impression one might have is that the Reformed churches are all but dead. But Hart’s book ends on quite a sunny note. As criticized as Hart is for his views on the doctrine of the two kingdoms and his perceived antipathy to transforming culture, he notes that the Reformed faith, despite its small beginnings, buffoonery, and hubris, has become a global phenomenon (304). Hart does not use the imagery, but in the sixteenth century one of the emblems for the Reformed faith was the burning bush of Exodus 3. Rather than signify God, sixteenth-century Christians applied the symbol to the Reformed churches—though they were engulfed in the flames of persecution and weakness, they were not consumed, because of God’s faithfulness and kind providence. Hart’s book is certainly this—a testimony to God’s faithfulness to the Reformed churches, and a series of Ebenezers, that should give us hope that the Reformed faith will only continue to grow, even if its adherents are weak and at times persecuted. Hart’s book, therefore, should be read and studied. It is definitely worth the time.

John V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as professor of systematic and historical theology and academic dean at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, November 2013.

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