More Than the Institutes And More Than Calvin

In case you’ve missed it, the Calvinpalooza [a term coined  on the Heidelblog on 29 January 2008]  that began last year is in full swing now with Calvin conferences popping up all over the globe. WSC is having its very own Calvin Conference: Calvin’s Legacy, on the 16th and 17th of this month. Calvin is a monumentally important figure in the history of Western Civilizations  and he is quite worth studying and celebrating. He is one of the fathers of the Reformed Churches, so those of us who live ecclesiastically and theologically in his tradition have a second reason for remembering him. As we do, however, we should bear in mind that he was one of our fathers and that he wrote more than his famous Institutes.There are a few programs for reading through the Institutes this year and that’s terrific. I sometimes fear that the Institutes are more talked about than read. At the same time those who are new to the Reformed tradition and those who’ve been influenced by the notion that Calvin is the sum of the Reformed tradition should know that, prior to the 20th century, Calvin was not generally regarded as the be all and end all of the Reformed faith.

vitringa_institutesPictured is a small handbook of Reformed theology by Campegius Vitringa (1659-1722), a Cocceian biblical scholar, theologian, and church historian and a student of Herman Venema. It’s just a text I happened to have on my desk (thanks to Wes White). I don’t know that the reader will want to drop his copy of Calvin’s Institutes to pick up Vitringa, but the latter is symbolic of the fact that there were literally dozens of important theological texts in the Reformed tradition after the Institutes. Some of Richard Muller’s journal articles have been collected in After Calvin and his work on the Reformed tradition (including Calvin) extending to the early 18th century is summarized in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols). If you want a serviceable introduction to this period in Reformed theology see Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment. Many of the primary works from this period are overlooked because they have yet to be translated but this problem is being addressed by the Classic Reformed Theology project and by the work of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society, which is responsible for publishing Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and is now working on other projects.

Already in the early days of the Calvinpalooza one sees all the competing Calvins emerging. There is the tolerant, “mainline” Calvin who sounds remarkably like Karl Barth. There is the “Five Point” Calvin who sounds like the Restless and Reforming fellows but, as Muller has reminded us in The Unaccommodated Calvin, as we spend 2009 re-reading and re-assessing Calvin we should do so with the consciousness that he was at the headwaters of a stream and that he should be read in the light of that stream.

Calvin wasn’t a Barthian or even a proto-Barthian. He wasn’t a proto-Schleiermachian. He wasn’t a proto-evangelical. He wasn’t restless but he was Reformed. He was at the headwaters of  and part of a churchly, orthodox, confessional tradition of reading the Scriptures. In the modern world that tradition has largely been swamped by other movements, but there continues to exist a remnant of orthodox Calvinists who still believe what Calvin taught and practices the faith as Calvin practiced it. That little band receives him as a honored father but also as primus inter pares.

Part Of A Broader Movement
By the time Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes in 1536 Luther and Melanchthon had been establishing the foundation for Protestant thought for more than 15 years. The first edition of Melanchthon’s Common Places appeared in 1521. Luther’s Bondage of the Will was published in 1525. The Augsburg Confession, which Calvin would later sign, was published in 1530.  As early as 1523 there had begun to develop a distinct Reformed confession. Heinrich Bullinger published the first treatise on covenant theology in 1534. The point is that, though he is often treated by modern writers as the singular Reformed voice, Calvin was heir to a broader Protestant consensus.During his life, Calvin was part of a broader movement. He wrote, taught, and preached, and was conscious of doing so, alongside a good lot of other Reformed writers, preachers, and teachers. Martin Bucer was becoming a Protestant, a follower of Luther, in the late teens. He began writing Protestant and Reformed theology in the 1520s and 30s. When he got to Geneva Guillaume (William) Farel had already been there for several years, laying the foundation of the Reformed Church. Peter Martyr Vermigili and Girolamo Zanchi became Reformed in the 1540s. Martyr helped to lead the Reformed reformation in Zurich, alongside Heinrich Bullinger, and Zanchi taught in Strasbourg, and later in Heidelberg.  Pierre Viret was a key figure in the Reformation of Lausanne and Geneva in the 1540s and 50s and traveled widely as a preacher after leaving Geneva. Theodore Beza began teaching in 1549 and became Calvin’s colleague in Geneva and his representative to the French Churches and his Stand-in during the 1550s and his successor from 1564 to 1605.

We know relatively less about these other figures because, in the 20th century, for reasons that had more to do with systematic theology rather than history or historical theology, Calvin became virtually sole face of Reformed theology, as if the entire Reformed faith teetered on one man’s head.

Calvin had a great lot of students who studied at his feet, read his Institutes, heard him lecture on Scripture, observed his work in Geneva, and who learned his theology, piety, and practice. They took that instruction with them to plant churches in France, in Germany, and across Europe. Among these students understood Calvin’s theology, piety, and practice and translated it, adapted it, and modified it to suit their needs in different circumstances. We should note that, unlike many scholars since the early 20th century, they did not treat the Institutes as if dropped from heaven like the Quran. They treated Calvin with great, deserved, respect. They treated him as a revered teacher, leader, and in some respects, a pioneer. They did not treat him or his Institutes as the end of Reformed theology. They treated Calvin as a father and the Institutes as a starting place for Reformed theology. As circumstances changed, as seminal Reformed ideas (e.g. covenant theology) needed to be expanded, as his practice (e.g. worship)  needed to be refined, they did so and they did it without guilt or without hesitation because they understood that they were operating with shared assumptions, shared principles, and a shared hermeneutic. They could elaborate and adapt Calvin’s theology, piety, and practice to new circumstances because that is what Calvin taught them to do, because that is what Calvin did with the theology, piety, and practice he inherited from Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer.

The Relative Absence Of Calvin In Reformed Orthodoxy
So far I have tried to put Calvin into a broader historical and theological context. This being the 500th anniversary of his birth there is bound to be a certain amount of parochial pride and hyperbole but contrarian that I am, I hope that the gentle reader will remember that, as important as Calvin was and remains, the peculiar position he occupies today is largely a modern invention.By saying this I am not diminishing Calvin nor am I diminishing his astonishing accomplishments, about which I will say more below. I am, however, doing what historians do, and that is attempting to spoil the party a little. That’s what contextualization is: spoiling the party. Modern folk like to think that they are the brightest and best that have ever been. Narcissists that we are, we think that if we are the brightest and best that have ever been and if we think Calvin was the be all and end all of Reformed theology, then that must be so.

One of the more surprising and even shocking things I found when I began advanced studies in Reformation and post-Reformation history and theology is how infrequently, relative to modern writing, Calvin was cited by his orthodox followers. In many discussions I’ve had since c. 1980, apart from God’s Word and the Reformed confessions, one way to end a discussion was to quote Calvin. If it is so for us, why wasn’t it so for them?  This was truly troubling. Calvin was a profound influence on me. One of the history profs at my undergraduate university allowed me to do a lot of directed study so that I did a sort of great books course on my own. One semester I read the Institutes from cover to cover. That was the first comprehensive account of the faith I ever read. I hadn’t read Berkhof (in any version). I hadn’t read Sproul. I think I had read Packer’s Knowing God and I had probably read Van Til’s The Case for Calvinism.

As I began my doctoral work I expected to see Calvin’s name appear as routinely in those  texts as he does in modern texts. I didn’t expect footnotes (which are a relatively recent invention) but I did expect to see acknowledgment of Calvin’s importance. When I did not I began to theorize as to why not. I theorized that he was too controversial and that it wouldn’t have served the rhetorical purpose of the author to associate himself too closely with such a controversial figure. That was probably true in some cases. There were probably other reasons for not openly citing him but I had a nagging, almost guilty, feeling that there was another reason he wasn’t being cited as often as I expected: he wasn’t as important to them as he has become to us.

The relative absence of Calvin in the writings of Reformed orthodoxy doesn’t mean that he wasn’t important. In fact the practice of citation varied widely. Some authors cite almost no one or they cite primarily patristic writers or some other group of writers determined by rhetorical needs and circumstances. On the other hand, the great Dutch Reformed theologian Gijsbertus Voetius cited authors casually and extensively almost  like a modern writer. Still, Calvin does not appear as often as one might expect.

One reason for this disappointment is the disproportionate influence Calvin has come to have over the Reformed identity in the 20th century in the wake of Karl Barth. As I write I’m not even certain any longer how much Barth actually cited Calvin, but I think it’s fair to say that Barth saw himself as recovering Calvin’s theology and certainly Barth’s followers have attempted to position him as the genuine, modern heir of Calvin’s theology over against the decretal, federal theology of Calvin’s orthodox successors. Because of Barth’s massive importance and influence in the 20th century there has arisen a sort of Calvin Studies industry. Of course this is part of the trend toward academic specialization in the same period.

The body of literature on Calvin, however, is truly amazing especially when one considers the relative lack of literature on other Reformed figures in the same period beginning with the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth in 1909. How many English language biographies of Calvin have been published since 1909? How many of them make a genuine contribution (i.e. add something new to our understanding of Calvin)?  How many summaries of the Institutes are there? How many surveys of Calvin’s theology? I call this “dogpiling” and I urge my students not to do it. Dogpiling occurs in when a writer either does not know the secondary literature or doesn’t care and jumps on the pile any way. Why would someone willingly pile on? Because the compulsion to contribute something on Calvin is too strong. It’s almost sacrilege for a self-identifying Calvinist not to write on Calvin. Why is the compulsion so strong? In part it is the intrinsic attraction of and to Calvin. In part, however, it is the social importance Calvin has attained in the period. In other words, it’s about creating identity markers, not about actual Calvin scholarship. Here’s an interesting bit of evidence for my thesis. Did you know that there is yet an untranslated (into English) Latin treatise on the Trinity? In the same time when multiple biographies have been written, a new edition of an English translation of Calvin’s NT commentaries (an attempted revision of the OT commentaries did not come to fruition) appeared, no one has bothered to translate this work into English. There’s a Korean translation but not an English translation. Further, not all of his correspondence is translated. Few things are as important for understanding a figure than his own diaries or his own correspondence. If we really want to understand Calvin more fully why hasn’t that work been done? How can that be? If Calvin and Calvin studies are so important, why, when there is so much labor being expended in the study of and writing about Calvin, has not this basic  work been done? The partial answer is that the interest has too often been less in what Calvin actually said and wrote, where, when, how, and why, but in the use to which a version of the Calvin story can be put for various modern agendas.

Reading Calvin Well
The phenomenon that stimulated this series is the appearance of several plans to read through the Institutes. This is fine and salutary, especially for those who have not read the Institutes or for those who’ve not read them for a long time. To see folk, especially those outside the Reformed tradition and outside the confessional Reformed orbit, reading Calvin is a wonderful thing. Nevertheless, there is much more to Calvin than the Institutes.

Curmudgeon that I am, I fear that, in the enthusiasm of the anniversary, will read the Institutes stop there. This has been one of the great sins of the modern Calvin studies movement. There is an inordinate number of essays in which Calvin’s view of x or y is described with great finality solely on the basis of the Institutes and then often from a few lines.

Take his view on the Christian Sabbath. Most accounts of Calvin’s view of the Sabbath would have it that he was a lawn-bowling, Sabbath-denying antinomian. If all one reads of Calvin are a few lines from the Institutes in splendid isolation from his historical context (against which “sabbatarians” was he arguing and why?). If, however, one reads Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy (and other sermons), one gains a rather more complete picture of his theology, piety, and practice of the Sabbath. Calvin’s rhetoric on the Sabbath was virtually indistinguishable from that of the later Puritans.

In fact, if we’re to read Calvin correctly, we must read him the way he intended to be read. The Institutes were the harvest of his biblical exegesis. He revised the Institutes almost constantly on the basis of his biblical study. His biblical study also came to expression, however, in his preaching. The three endeavors are organically linked. To read Calvin rightly one needs to take account of not only what Calvin said in the Institutes, when he said it, why he said it and to whom and in what circumstance, but what else he said in his biblical commentaries and his sermons.

For the truly thorough Calvin student it shouldn’t stop at this troika. Calvin wrote other treatises on many other topics and thus one should consult the relevant treatises. One should also consult, where possible, his correspondence. His intentions and context are much illuminated by his personal, often private, account given to his friends of his work. Thankfully, much of this work is in English.

There is one other body of literature that the Calvin student will want to consult. It’s the body of literature to which almost no one but a few hearty scholars pay attention but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. I refer to the records of Calvin’s ecclesiastical life. Some of this is found in the correspondence and in the sermons and in a few treatises, but most of it is found in the minutes of the Register of the Company of Pastors.

These minutes are a wonderful insight into Calvin the pastor, the shepherd of needy and broken sheep. In Reformed Churches before Calvin and since there have always been a series of related ecclesiastical assemblies. One is the congregation itself, with which most are familiar. Another, however, is the consistory, which, in Dutch Reformed practice is the monthly (or so) meeting of pastors and elders to consider pastoral issues in the congregation. Another assembly, in Dutch Reformed terms, is the Council (which includes the deacons) and that assembly is to address the practical needs of the congregation. Beyond that  are regional and national assemblies.

To my shame I am not expert in the church polity in Geneva. I shall have to work on it this year. I believe, however, that there were local consistories in the congregations in Geneva, there was at least one body of deacons to address the temporal (financial and physical) needs of the congregations and certainly there was a broader assembly of ministers, the Compangie des Pasteurs (Company of Pastors) which included pastors from Geneva and the surrounding rural areas. I don’t believe there was a formal Swiss Synod, in which Geneva participated (though the Genevan churches often consulted with Bern, Zürich, and other cantons), but there were French Synods to which Calvin corresponded and in which Beza was active.

In the Register of the Company of Pastors one finds a record of a living, breathing, ordinary congregation. The company of pastors seems to have functioned in the way a local consistory would today. They dealt with venal and venial sins as well as gross sins. They heard confessions of sin, they counseled, sought reconciliation between sinners, they disciplined, they prayed, and they planned. Because of the nature of church-state relations in the 16th century the Company had the power to level financial penalties. Forgive me for thinking that might be an especially effective tool in some congregations today!

As a pastor I’ve always found it encouraging to know that my forebears faced the very same problems then that I do now. They held the same sorts of long, difficult meetings. They disciplined recalcitrant, stubborn, and impenitent sinners. They heard confessions by repentant sinners, whom they embraced with affection. They had to sort out thorny ethical problems, including the divorce of Calvin’s own brother Antoine!

There are a couple of ways of accessing these minutes. Philip Edgecumbe Hughes made a translation of the minutes that covers the periods when Calvin was in Geneva. There is a broader academic project that is preparing a critical French text (it’s very difficult work!) and from that a critical English translation. I doubt that the Hughes edition is still in print but I think the more recent critical edition is available. A quick search on suggests that both versions are still available.

Calvin wasn’t just a writer and theologian. He reckoned himself a pastor. He had a theology, yes. He had a piety, yes, but he also had a churchly practice and that churchly practice was vitally important to him and inseparable from his theology and piety. I hope that the enthusiasm for Calvin that so many are demonstrating in 2009 will translate into an appreciation of not only his doctrine of salvation but also the rest of his theology and in the way that it worked itself out in the life of the church.

This post first appeared as a series, in 2009, on the Heidelblog and appears here slightly revised.