It’s Here: Muller on Calvin and the Reformed Tradition

This is going to be fun. Anyone who is interested in the history of Reformed theology, in finding out what the classical Reformed authors (of which Calvin was one) actually said, must get to grips with the work of Richard Muller. By the way, before I continue, by “get to grips” I don’t mean, “copy the footnote data from WorldCat into a footnote or bibliography and go on to write as if Muller hadn’t written.” It’s remarkable how often one sees this. No, by “get to grips” I mean that one must actually get the book, open it, read it, and take account of the claims made and the evidence presented. Here’s his big argument in this volume.

…the essays in the book pose the argument that developing Reformed approaches to the work of Christ and the order of salvation do not fit easily into a set of standard and sadly current caricatures and misrepresentations both of Calvin and of later Reformed thought on such issues as limited atonement, hypothetical universalism, union with Christ, and the order of salvation. (pages 10–11)

To get to grips with Muller is not always to agree with him. He doesn’t always agree with himself! There is an earlier and a later Muller on certain issues:

There are…several places in the present volume where the differences between my early work in Christ and the Decree and my present understanding of the place of Calvin in the development of Reformed thought and in relation to later orthodoxy are evident—notably in the discussion of Christ’s work and its limitation and the discussion of the practical syllogism. In both instances, I recognize that my earlier analysis allowed more cogency to the neo-orthodox line of argumentation about the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources than was warranted.

What happened? He reports that, 30 years ago, he allowed “aspects of the faulty” 19th- and 20th-century “master narratives” about Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy to “deflect” his attention from the “original contexts and implications of Calvin’s thought and of the thought of various Reformed writers.”

History is telling the truth about the past as best we can. There is truth to tell about the past. To deny that is to fall into skepticism and to reduce history to politics. That’s folly. Nevertheless, no one, not even Muller, gets it right all the time. A good historian necessarily revises. He is always learning, always going back to sources (ad fontes) in their original context, always seeking to overcome anachronism (reading the later back into the earlier), and to clear away the dust of (i.e., to criticize) received narratives in light of further study. In this way Muller is following his teacher David Steinmetz, who likewise was not content to settle on received narratives once he found them to be false.

Agree or not you will always learn from Richard. I’ve been learning from his work since 1993 when my tutor, John Platt, said that Richard’s work had caused him to reconsider his well-received (and still helpful) work in Reformed Thought and Scholasticism: Arguments for the Existence of God in Dutch Theology, 1575–1650. He told me to “follow Muller.” Carl Trueman (and I) tried to help communicate some of the new approach to the history of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (1998) but even that volume has been succeeded in certain ways by Willem van Asselt’s marvelous Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. I’ve replaced Protestant Scholasticism with Van Asselt’s book in our Medieval-Reformation course.

If you teach or write about the history of Reformed theology I hope that you’re accepting Richard’s invitation to reconsider historiographical methods. In a sense his program is less about conclusions, as the preface illustrates, than it is about methods. The study of the history of Reformed theology has been victimized by poor methodology for far too long. Why it persists after 1978 (when Muller began publishing) or after 1998 when the new consensus was summarized, is hard to say. One possibility is that some folk have a good bit at stake in the old story built on poor methods. Barthians were able to set him against the evil, rationalist Reformed orthodox, to make Calvin a proto-Barth and Beza the “bad boy of Reformed theology” (Paul Schaefer’s summary of this argument). Other’s have done the same in the service of their own heroes.

If you’re interested in learning more about Muller’s project and work here’s the Office Hours episode with him and the lectures he gave last year on campus and a fairly complete Muller bibliography. Here are more posts (and even more) like this one.

Have fun.

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  1. I recieved this as a stocking stuffer. I was prepared for having to plod through the book due to my lack of historical knowledge, however I was greatly pleased at how readable and easy to follow his arguments are. I was also delighted by his humor.
    ….I’ll leave off with my favorite quote thus far:

    “…”gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” but don’t plant TULIP in your reformed garden.”

    Thanks for the recommendation,
    Ginger Zagnoli

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