Review of Tadataka Maruyama, Calvin’s Ecclesiology: A Study in the History of Doctrine

There are too many treatments of particular aspects of John Calvin’s theology. The proliferation of books and articles of course relates to Calvin’s large and varied writing corpus as well as his ongoing popularity, especially growing throughout the twentieth century. The problem is that most of these studies look at Calvin’s theology abstractly, separating it from his context and from the reform work he was trying to achieve in the burgeoning Protestant church in Europe. Most works on Calvin’s doctrines then treat all of Calvin’s theology as flat, lacking growth, and without historical sensitivity. Any scholar wanting to write about Calvin’s theology faces the challenge of bringing new insight to overworked topics with competing historical interpretations for each.

Tadataka Maruyama’s study of Calvin’s ecclesiology refreshingly breaks the normal molds of Calvin studies and provides a historically rich investigation of Calvin’s teaching on the church. This thorough work is interesting, engaging, and insightful in tracing the ways that Calvin thought about the church across the differing stages of his ministry career and wrote about it in his various outlets. Richard Muller’s preface correctly commends Maruyama for his mastery of Calvin’s primary sources and use of the major secondary sources on the relevant issues.

This book will shine as a true methodological gem in historiography. Although every monograph has its faults—I think here of Maruyama’s acceptance of J. Wayne Baker’s take on the relationship of Calvin and Bullinger’s covenant theology without even consulting Cornelis Venema’s masterful study—this work is a tour de force in modeling historiographical methods for Calvin studies. First, Maruyama engages Calvin in the original languages, clearly grasping even the issues involved for assessing the various critical editions of Calvin’s opera. Because of his use of original language sources, Maruyama pulls evidence from Calvin’s less cited works, invigorating his research with a sense of freshness lacking in studies that tout differing interpretations of the same lines from the same tired prooftexts.

Second, Maruyama emphasizes the growth of Calvin’s ecclesiology grounded in the development of his work as a reformer of the church. Especially as this book probes into the later years of Calvin’s ministry, the events driving and shaping reform in Switzerland and France to Calvin’s own expositional and theological writings become very clear. Maruyama avoids the fatal trap of treating Calvin like a talking head, arguing without a context. Although this argumentative approach is methodologically grounded in responsible historiography, its lesson is pivotal for the church today. We should never pretend that we can formulate theology apart from our ends to bless and help the church. If anyone has engaged the theological task without a view for the purity and prosperity of Christ’s body, they should put down their pens and repent. Theology is for God’s people to know their maker and redeemer. Maruyama’s portrait of Calvin reminds us of that very point.

Third, this book takes seriously how Calvin reworked his own material and expanded his writing corpus in various directions. Calvin’s Institutes are the primary example here, as Maruyama investigates how each edition of Calvin’s Institutes relates to the debates and issues circling Calvin’s work when he prepared each edition, taking the successive contributions to his ecclesiology one step at a time. The use of Calvin’s letters and treatises about various controversies is another example of this book’s investigative strength.

The basic premise of this book is that Calvin’s ecclesiology developed across three phases: Catholic, Reformed, and Reformational. The labels themselves are perhaps misleading and not always crisply explained from the outset, but nonetheless prove helpful when the categories are grasped. Maruyama argued that Calvin’s “Catholic” ecclesiology was his view that the Church was ultimately the whole company of the elect with a manifestation in history. Although the terms were lacking, Calvin’s view corresponded to what became known as the invisible-visible church distinction. This first layer of ecclesiology remained the substratum of Calvin’s view of the church throughout his career but makes sense as the theoretical foundation was developed by a theologian who was not yet active in true churchly ministry yet.

As Calvin’s career progressed and he became involved in the workings of the church itself, particularly in connection to his time in Strasbourg, he focused more on the church’s historical form, which Maruyama called his “Reformed” ecclesiology. Another strength this book shows is how Maruyama helpfully delves into Calvin’s relationship with other theologians. I have not read a better treatment of Guillaume Farel’s theology, and the discussion of Martin Bucer is also in depth. These sidelights help show the factors behind what motivates Calvin’s thought on the church as she existed in his time as he engaged with other thinkers working for her reform as well.

The final stage was Calvin’s “Reformation” ecclesiology, which simply refers to how he began to think about the unity of the Protestant churches. Given that his Reformed ecclesiology posited a particular external form for the church, he began to consider how churches with that form relate to churches of another form. Calvin wrote in order to promote unity among Protestant churches across Europe. At the same time, he saw the Roman communion and the Anabaptist sects as outside the scope of a pure and viable church.

The one obvious weakness in this book is its organization. Weighing in at about four hundred and fifty pages, it contains only four chapters, making each chapter very winding and hard to grasp in a unified way. It really needed more cogent divisions to help readers hold onto its developing points and not get lost in details. It probably could have been divided topically, tracing the historical development in Calvin’s thoughts along narrower lines in each chapter, rather than following a strictly chronological outline. If readers can overcome this drawn-out organization, they will be rewarded with an expansive treatment of how Calvin thought about the church and its place in the world across the years of his ministry.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


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