Was There a Mainstream of Reformed Orthodoxy?

Protestant Scholasticis-FeaturedIt’s being argued (on discussion lists and in private emails) that there was never any mainstream of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries. The proof? Some cat or other emails to say, “here’s an sentence from this important 17th century writer who taught something you say is outside the mainstream.”

My response? Watch this carefully now: So what?

Look at the current theological climate. Is there a mainstream of Reformed theology? Can you find writers who identify with Reformed theology or who are in Reformed churches who hold some idiosyncratic view? Of course you can! There is a universalist of sorts in the CRC. He sends stuff to theology profs from time to time arguing that no one has ever responded to his views, ergo he must be right. Apparently it hasn’t occurred to him that there might be other reasons why folks haven’t responded to him.

There are other examples. Take a more important figure such as G. C. Berkouwer. In his early days he seems to have been quite confessional, but over the years, as he engaged Barth’s theology closely, he did not come away untouched. Later in his career he adopted some of Barth’s views. Now, Berkouwer was an important and influential theologian, but does that mean that all his views represented “the mainstream” of Reformed theology (as defined by conservatives and confessionalists)? No.

Yet, in centuries to come (assuming they are to come), one could cite this universalist (whom I won’t name because it only feeds the beast and brings another torrent of emails) or Berkouwer or Norman Shepherd as visible (in varying degrees) Reformed theologians and construct a picture of Reformed theology from them. Would that be an accurate picture? Well, it depends on what is claimed about them. If it is claimed that this is what most confessional Reformed folk believed in the 20th and 21st centuries, that would be false.

I don’t know of any significant Reformed theologian of the 20th or 21st centuries who has adopted this person’s version of universalism. Most all of the confessional Reformed theologians have rejected Norman Shepherd’s soteriology and covenant theology as seriously defective. Berkouwer’s account of Reformed theology has been influential but most confessional folks have rejected his (later) doctrine of election and have come to doubt his account of the history of Reformed theology.

If it were claimed “here are three distinct versions of Reformed theology that were, at different times, and for different reasons, and to different degrees, on the margins of Reformed theology in the 20th and 21st centuries,” that would be much more true.

The same sort of context and critical evaluation is necessary when reckoning with the 16th and 17th-century editions of Reformed theology. In order to assess who constituted the “mainstream” of Reformed theology of the 16th and 17th centuries, one must do some reading. It’s always a balancing act between the “one” (that which unifies) and “the many” (that which distinguishes).

To start, I recommend Richard Muller’s work, all of it. It’s hard to find now, but you should read his monumental 4 volume set, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics to get the overview or his Calvin and the Reformed Tradition and Willem van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment is getting older (aren’t we all?) but it’s still helpful. After that, one should begin reading sources. Some of them are in English, many of them are in Latin. I realize that’s a problem, but that’s the way it is. For those who read only English, start with Calvin’s Institutes, Beza’s Confession, and his Questions and Answers, Olevianus’ Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ames’ Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism, Wollebius’ and Compendium. From there go to Owen, Turretin, Witsius, and Brakel. There are modern, relatively accessible editions of the major works of these authors in English (and some are even available online). Owen alone will take you several years! You might start with his volume on justification, since that’s the topic of the day.

There are authors whose work is in English, but accessible primarily to those with access to academic libraries or Early English Books Online. You can see a list of some of this literature here. Among these are William Perkins (there is a hard-to-find modern edition of selections of his works in English, but otherwise, until the modern edition comes out from RHB, forget it) and Leigh.

There are other writers who were also a very important part of the mainstream, who set the theological agenda whose works remain untranslated. This list is quite large and defies typing out here, but it includes Zanchi (the little paperback on predestination is problematic for a variety of textual-critical reasons), G. Voetius, Amandus Polanus (whose work Wollebius condensed), Petrus van Mastricht (a little bit of one part of his major work is in English), J. H. Heidegger (the primary author of the Helvetic Consensus Formula), and Johannes Cocceius, whose work has never been published in English.

If you had access to these volumes you could see that they represent literally shelves of Reformed theology that have been lost to us and largely forgotten. Just because, however, we are not familiar with them today does not mean that they were not important and influential in their own time. Take the case of Caspar Olevianus’ major work on covenant theology. That work, De substantia has never been trsnslated into English, but it was one of the two most important treatises on covenant theology in the 16th and 17th centuries. Let us not commit the fallacy of thinking that because it’s not on our shelves today or because we’re ignorant, that therefore those works with which we’re not familiar today weren’t important. Lot’s of very important works remain untranslated for a variety of reasons that would take too long to explain here.

It is a fact that the fellows listed above were some (most) of the “heavy hitters” of the 16th and 17th centuries. There were others—I’m working from memory, but these were the fellows who defined Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In these authors, and in others, I find a general consensus that was strong enough to be called a “mainstream.” Now, there is a bias in our age against “universals,” i.e., those things which unite one particular with another. It is the spirit of the age to deny universals and to look only at what distinguishes. Thus, there is a natural skepticism about this or any claim to there being a “mainstream” of Reformed theology. It’s not as if there is not prima facie evidence for my claim. Ever heard of a little thing called the Westminster Standards? Where do you think the divines learned their theology?

For those from European traditions tempted to dimiss the Westminster Standards as “Presbyterian” and therefore foreign (no pun intended) to our tradition: stop it. The 17th-century European Reformed theologians and churches did not regard the Westminster Standards as unrelated to their own theology. In the classic period, there was one theology in Europe and Britain. This business of speaking about “Dutch Reformed” theology as if it were hermetically sealed from Britain and the rest of Europe is simply unhistorical and false.

So, before I get any more emails from folk asking about my reading of the 16th and 17th centuries, based on the learned scholarship of some internet theologian, my first question is this: Have you done the reading? If not, do the work and then we’ll talk.

[This post was first published in 2007, on the HB and has been slightly revised]

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