Today is John Calvin’s birthday. He was born in 1509, in Noyon. In his honor let us watch a video and discuss it.
[Editor’s note: In 2013 someone posted a video featuring the American church historian Martin Marty discussing John Calvin. That video is no longer available online. The current biography channel video, however, is also a great illustration of of the very confused popular story about John Calvin.].
This video is a great example of much that is wrong with both academic and popular historiography. Here we see a world-renowned historian, Martin Marty and a narrator, repeating academic theories that were disputed over a century ago (e.g., B. B. Warfield) and that, today, are known by Calvin scholars to have been quite misleading.
The principal error of this video is the assertion that Luther had one religious or theological system and Calvin had another. [Ed. note: The current video makes this same mistake.] This claim was first made, in the modern period, by Alexander Schweizer (1808–88), who argued that there was in Lutheranism and in Reformed theology a series of “central dogmas.”1 The Lutheran Central Dogma was said to be justification by grace alone through faith alone. The Reformed Central Dogma was said to be predestination. He argued that the Reformed orthodox devised a speculative and deductive theology based on their doctrine of God. Schweizer re-cast Reformed theology in Schleiermachian terms, even though 16th- and 17th-century Geneva had nothing in common with 19th-century Halle and Berlin, but Schleiermacher had re-defined the Christian faith as an expression of the consciousness of absolute divine dependence (Gefuhl).
This approach was widely influential in the modern period. It influenced Heinrich Heppe (1820–79), who’s Reformed Dogmatics (a series of selections from the Reformed orthodox, organized according to Heppe’s values) would influence Barth and become a principal sourcebook for those seeking to understand Reformed theology. This story was widely influential in the modern period. It was transmitted to modern scholars by Ernst Bizer and others.
The great difficulty is that this story is almost entirely without foundation in the original sources. In that case why was it credible? How could a scholar of the magnitude and influence of Martin Marty get things so wrong? Ironically, despite the attempt of modern historians to move beyond “confessional history,” the Central Dogma story fit into the prevailing, confessional Lutheran account of Calvin and the Reformed as crypto-sacramentarians, i.e., those who pretended to agree with Luther but, who, at bottom, were really just Zwinglians who talked like Protestants. The Lutherans confess that the Reformed are “crafty sacramentarians.” Marty is a Lutheran historian. The Lutherans told the story of the Reformation first and, as often happens, the first story won and the revisionists have struggled ever after to correct the story. Further, that deep distrust by Lutherans of the Reformed continues to influence the way the story of the Reformation and of Calvin’s role in it, is told. Thus, when Schweizer proposed the Central Dogma theory, it fit an prejudice that Calvin and his followers were all about that evil dogma predestination and Luther and his followers were animated by God’s free grace.
Another part of the explanation lies in the difference between intellectual historians and social historians. These two tribes have drifted farther apart in the late modern period so that social historians don’t tend to read primary sources or the best literature in intellectual history. Marty is a good social historian but this interview illustrates the weakness of relying on even long-accepted tertiary (textbook) accounts of the history of doctrine. I guess he knows Richard Muller’s name but that he hasn’t read much of Muller’s monumental Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics or The Unaccommodated Calvin or much of the rest of the Muller literary corpus. Following Muller, there has developed an entire body of literature challenging the older accounts of Calvin, Calvinism, and Reformed orthodoxy. See e.g., Trueman and Clark, eds. Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment or Willem van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism.
Calvin was deeply influenced by Luther. He was conscious of deviating from Luther’s theology on, e.g., anthropology, Christology, the Supper, church government, and the principle by which worship is organized but he agreed fundamentally with Luther on the Reformation solas and he spoke about them in the same or very similar ways as Luther.2 He accepted and built upon Luther’s basic hermeneutical/theological distinctions between law and gospel and God hidden/God revealed. Further, to hear Marty, one would think that Luther never wrote about predestination. That would be a shock to Luther, who was well known in Europe by the early 1520s for teaching the doctrine of predestination. That is why Erasmus responded to him in defense of the freedom of the will and Luther responded point by point in The Bondage of the Will (1525), which treatise he considered his most important. At the Colloquy of Montbeilard (1586) Reformed invoked Bondage of the Will as a summary of their understanding of election and reprobation. Lutheran orthodoxy, however, abandoned significant aspects of Luther’s doctrine of predestination and conveniently assigned the doctrine to their (now) enemy Calvin, who became associated in the modern period with the doctrine while Lutheran historians (and those influenced by Lutheran historiography) played a shell game with De servo arbitrio.
Marty’s account of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is simply appalling. He clearly has never read book 3 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion or if he has, he quite misunderstood it. In Book 3 Calvin took exactly the a posteriori approach Marty attributes to Luther. According to Calvin, we’re never to ask, “Am I elect?” The question is: do I believe? Calvin never ordered or constructed the sort of doctrine of predestination that Marty attributes to him. The version of predestination Marty attributes to Calvin is a caricature of supralapsarianism, a distinct minority in Reformed theology—the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Divines taught infralapsarianism—that not even all supralapsarians have held.3 To speak of a “lucky few” in the context of the doctrine of election, as if the church had not been teaching election and reprobation for 2,000 years prior, is outrageous. Thomas Aquinas explicitly taught unconditional election and the decree of reprobation of the fallen. It was taught in the 9th century in France and St. Augustine taught it in the early 5th century. This narrative says more about the Enlightenment view of humanity than it does about the history of doctrine.
It is this sheer assumption that there must be (because of the Lutheran confessional assertions in the 1570s and 80s) a fundamental difference between Luther and Calvin and that assumption drives the narrative that the Reformation in Geneva was “harsh and uncompromising.” Life in Wittenberg was no picnic for the Schwärmerei (Anabaptists) either, but because Luther and Melanchthon are the “good guys” in this narrative and Calvin is the “bad guy,” the Reformation in Geneva is said to have been “harsh.” Well, if it was so rotten in Geneva, why did folk from across Europe flock to Geneva in the 16th-century, while Calvin was there to torture them? The Red Cross didn’t come into existence until 1881 but Geneva was flooded with refugees from England, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany, and East and Central Europe more than two centuries before the formation of the Red Cross. That fact alone suggests that Geneva could not have been as ugly as the dominant narrative would have us think. In fact, Calvin was not a tyrant in Geneva but it’s inconvenient to let the facts get in the way of a popular meme.4
There are other, more minor, issues. The video creates the impression that magisterial Reformation was a violent uprising. That’s misleading. The Reformation movements did create considerable upset but the Peasant’s War (1524–25) was more associated with the Anabaptist Radicals, who were not Protestants, than it was with the Magisterial Reformers, who were much more conservative of the status quo. The Reformation was a “revolution” that swept through Europe but mainly of an intellectual variety. There were significant social and institutional changes but we have to tell the whole story. Many civil authorities took the opportunity created by the Reformation to instituted long-desired changes. There was iconoclasm in the 1560s but much of the earlier physical changes made to churches etc was instigated by magistrates, not by mob violence.
Finally, the idea that Calvin and Calvinists found an “answer to their painful spiritual predicament” (i.e., the alleged doubt they experienced about whether they are elect) is utterly without foundation in Calvin, Reformed orthodoxy, or the Reformed confessions. It is a theory of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) and his followers. The Protestants did have a doctrine of good works as fruit and evidence of faith. Martin Luther taught it c. 1518 in his sermon De duplici iustitia and in a 1519 sermon and in De servo. He continued to teach it for the rest of his ministry. The notion that Calvin and Calvinists were mired in doubt and introspection is rooted in the assumption that must have been the case more than in the actual teaching of the Reformed. Did some Reformed become overly introspective? Certainly. Did some Lutherans turn inward looking for experience? Yes. They were called pietists. As a matter of history, however, Calvin was not a theologian of doubt but of consolation. Calvin and the Reformed learned their doctrine of good works from Luther.
The Biography Channel and the History Channel have their virtues. They provide entertainment that can sometimes be informative. In this regard, I think Rick Harrison of Pawn Stars is often a good, critical historian and a better example of how to do history than Marty is, in this instance. Why? Because he has money at stake. In the show, people bring in items that they think are valuable that they want to sell for quick cash. In order to make money Harrison must value those items correctly. He has learned through hard experience to tell fakes from the real thing.
This is an excellent example of how to do critical history. He knows not to accept fake Rolex watches because he knows the marks of the real thing. He knows that certificates of authenticity can be easily forged but a Rolex cannot. He has to get to primary sources—which he does with antiques as well—a practice that, in this instance any way, Marty has neglected.
Remember, the job of the History and Biography channels is to sell stuff. In order to do that they entertain. History, telling the truth about the past as best we can, getting it right, is not their first job. If they can teach a little history along the way, that’s fine but their principal job is to keep you entertained and attracted so that you’ll watch the commercials. There’s nothing wrong with that but consumers of these channels should not be fooled into thinking that what they offer is accurate, critical, responsible history.
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- The Ecumenical Creeds
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- Resources For Understanding John Calvin
- “‘Subtle Sacramentarian’ or Son? John Calvin’s Relationship to Martin Luther” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 21.4 (2018): 35–60.
1. Die Glaubenslehre der evangelische-Reformierte Kirche, 2 vols, (1844/47).
3. In broad terms supralapsarianism says that, logically considered, when God decreed to elect (save) and reprobate (damn) he did so considering humanity as potential but not yet as created or fallen. The infralapsarians, broadly, taught that God when God decreed to elect, he did so considering the fall and he decreed to allow those who would fall to remain in their fallen state. Here’s a simple chart.