After Calvin: Recommended Reading

There is a popular view of church history that tells a story in which there was a pure, believing church during the apostolic age and then, for all intents and purposes, there was not a church (except for the Waldensians who alone preserved the church like a manuscript in a clay jar). In this version of church history, the church reappeared either in the Reformation or perhaps not until the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. This history seems particularly to suit American evangelicals, who do not like history anyway and are distrustful of the past. One of the great motivations for the founding of this republic was to break away from ancient European entanglements and to start afresh, to establish a new “city upon a hill” (John Winthrop’s phrase). So it is convenient that the church should effectively recommence at the same time as the establishment of the American republic.

Even among Reformed folk, who should know better, a similar sort of story circulates. In this version, there was a glorious Reformation in which the church returned to God’s Word alone and was led by a warmly spiritual, authentic, godly, Christ-centered visionary, John Calvin. This story says that in the early twentieth century, we were delivered from the darkness and cruelty of Reformed orthodoxy (“scholasticism”—cue the “Snidely Whiplash” theme) by a return to the genuine spirit of the Reformation. Of course, that genuine spirit was defined by whoever was telling the story. This is why so many folk use the phrase “always reforming” (semper reformanda) who have little sympathy with John Calvin’s theology, piety, or practice.

There is another way of telling the Calvin story. In this version, Calvin was part of a broader patristic, medieval, and Protestant tradition, and he taught students and worked with colleagues, and those students and colleagues understood Calvin’s principles and hermeneutic (way of reading Scripture) and they carried on those principles and approach to Scripture during Calvin’s life and after.  They applied that theology, piety, and practice to their own circumstances and to new challenges faced by the Reformed churches.

In the spirit of the “More Than the Institutes (and More Than Calvin)” series, here are some recommended titles to introduce you to Calvin’s (and the Reformed) theology, piety, and practice after Calvin. Like the list of Calvin titles, this list is not exhaustive.

Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (PSER). This volume, the brainchild of Carl Trueman, is not light reading but it is accessible. It remains a valuable collection of seminal essays that seeks to place sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed (and Lutheran) theology in its context. In this volume, David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, W. Robert Godfrey, David  Bagchi, John Platt, Carl Trueman, and others offer a coherent alternative to the account of Protestant theology that dominated the scene until about 1978. It begins with Luther and continues through to the early eighteenth century.

Since the publication of Protestant Scholasticism, two newer introductory volumes have appeared. The first is by Willem J. van Asselt, Theo Pleizier, P. L. Rouwendal, and Maarten Wisse, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. This is a fine, coherent, well-written introduction. Since its publication, I have used it in place of PSER as a survey text in my lecture course. In 2020, Ryan McGraw published Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology. I intend to read and review, in this space, this work in the coming months.

Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. This is a collection of a very important series of journal articles by the scholar who, more than any other, has revolutionized the study of Reformed theology over the last thirty years. Prior to Muller, with a small number of notable exceptions, the dominant story about Reformed theology was some version of the Snidely Whiplash history, wherein Reformed orthodoxy and scholasticism was the villain in the melodrama, and the audience hooted and hollered whenever Reformed scholasticism came on stage. Here is a fairly complete bibliography of Muller’s work.

Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree.  With this 1986 volume, Muller initiated a revolt against the Calvin vs Calvinists approach that dominated the study of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Was classic Reformed theology dominated by the doctrine of the divine decree? Did the Reformed Orthodox deviate from Calvin by starting with a (superlapsarian) doctrine of the eternal decree from which they deduced the rest of their theology? Prior to this book, most people said yes. After this book, it was no longer possible to read the tradition that way, at least not easily.

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. What Robert Preus did for Lutheranism, Muller’s four-volume series did for the study of Reformed theology. It is the definitive study of the methods and aims of Reformed theology in the periods of early, high, and late orthodoxy (from c. 1540–c. 1700). For decades English readers could only access classic Reformed theology through an English translation of Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics. As valuable as Heppe was, his compressed treatment was idiosyncratic and sometimes left the reader with a misleading impression of the nature and theology of Reformed orthodoxy. This series does not cover the entire system, but it is more than enough to get one oriented toward a lifetime of recovering classic Reformed theology.

Richard A. Muller, Grace and Freedom: William Perkins and the Early Modern Reformed Understanding of Free Choice and Divine Grace. Few figures are as important to Reformed theology in the English language as William Perkins. This is an important volume from the dean of the modern study of the history of Reformed theology.

Willem J. Van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius. A great deal about Cocceius has been written by those who have never read him. This is not true, of course, of Van Asselt. This is a brilliant study of one of the most important figures in the history of Reformed theology. I recommend this title partly because it is a study in how historical theology should be written and partly because it fundamentally undermines the old story about the nature of Reformed covenant (or federal) theology.

Festschriften are rarely required reading. They are typically uneven in quality, but the Festschrift in honor of Richard A. Muller is a delightful exception. Jordan J. Ballor, David S. Sytsma, and Jason Zuidema, eds. Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition.

One of the most important developments, in the English reading world, in the study of Reformed orthodoxy and scholasticism is the plethora of English language translations. Among these are the six volumes in the Classic Reformed Theology series, which includes important texts from the classic period of Reformed theology including Johannes Cocceius, The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God, Caspar Olevianus, Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, Robert Rollock’s Commentary on Ephesians, and most recently, treatises by Theodore Beza, Amandus Polanus, and Francis Turretin, collected in Justification By Faith Alone. We also have translations of Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, The Synopsis of A Purer Theology, Petrus van Maastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology, and the entire Works of William Perkins (10 vols) and the Works of John Owen (16 vols). Here is a list of other works available in English and our resource page on Reformed scholasticism.

Honorable Mention:

When I began to try to figure out the history of Reformed covenant theology, Lyle Bierma’s The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus was one of the first works I read (when it was still a PhD diss. long before publication). He does an excellent job of dismantling some of the older histories of covenant theology (e.g. the “two streams” approach) and of introducing the reader to an important source of Reformed federal/covenant theology. To Lyle’s foundational work, I added a more comprehensive study of Olevianus’ theology, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant.

Willem J. Van Asselt and Eef Dekker eds., Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise. Another valuable collection of essays growing out of a movement in the Netherlands that parallels the development in the English-speaking world of a renewed interest in the actual sources of Reformed theology in the classical period.

Carl Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man. John Owen must be ranked among the most important theologians of English Protestantism. Neglected because his side “lost” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Owen has enjoyed a renewed appreciation in the twentieth century, and this volume, along with his earlier work, The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology. To this should be added Sebastian Rehnman’s terrific study, Divine Discourse: Theological Methodology of John Owen.

There are other excellent titles to be read; among them is Mark Dever’s work, Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England. This is another hard-to-find work, but worth the effort. Before he was the “nine-marks” guy, Mark produced a very readable and truly outstanding study in English Puritanism and Calvinism. This volume may have been the final nail in the coffin of the Calvin vs. the Calvinists approach to Reformed theology.

Gijsbertus Voetius was a central figure in the development of Dutch Reformed Scholasticism and orthodoxy, and the literature surrounding his work has grown considerably in recent years. Andreas J. Beck is a leading contributor to the renewed interest in Voetius, and his 2022 work Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676) on God, Freedom, and Contingency: An Early Modern Reformed Voice, is a significant example of the new work on Voetius.

For many modern students of Reformed theology, especially those influenced by neo-Calvinism (that movement coming out of the Kuyperian Reformed movement in the Netherlands and North America) Thomas Aquinas has been a frequent whipping boy. For those, however, with open minds and a willingness to engage the Reformed tradition carefully, it is clear that the Reformed writers of the classical period did not regard Aquinas the way that many in the neo-Kuyperian traditions have. Engaging with Reformed orthodoxy (and reading Aquinas) for the last thirty years forced me to revise my understanding of Thomas. In that light, the 2018 volume edited by Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen, Aquinas among the Protestants is a valuable contribution as they chronicle the Protestant use of Thomas. Check out this interview with David VanDrunan on this work.

There are a few handbooks designed to guide students into various aspects of Reformed theology, one of these is Paul T. Nimmo and David Fergusson, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology. Another valuable work is H. J. Selderhuis, A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy. Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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14 comments

  1. “I will pass over other similar monstrous lies with the simple comment that they all pale into insignificance in comparison with the slanders that the Roman pontiffs have dreamed up against the Albigenses, the Waldenses, and other faithful servants of Christ.” – John Owen, Biblical Theology

    • An important qualification — the Waldensians were actually strong opponents of the various dualistic Cathari sects that were present in the foothills of the Alps, in the parts of what is now France that later became centers of the Huguenot movement and the parts of what is now Italy that came under the rule of the House of Savoy.

      It seems likely that John Owen wasn’t aware of the problems of the Albigensians. He was far from alone in the Reformation era; the Albigensians had long since died out and there was nobody to defend them and Calvinists were predisposed to assume anyone persecuted by Roman Catholics was probably okay. There were low-church Anglican writers even as late as the end of the 1800s who were defending the orthodoxy of the Albigensians in their publications. Also, while most of the medieval inquisitors understood the difference between the Waldensians and the Cathari sects, not all did, and the Waldensians sometimes got swept up among the victims of the Albigensian Crusade.

      People from a Baptist background who have read the “Trail of Blood,” a 1931 book by James Milton Carroll arguing for “Baptist successionism,” are the ones today most likely to be defending Cathari groups that should not be defended. But that is not a new error, and some of it was happening long ago, and was happening in Reformed circles.

  2. “While writing the Seneca Commentary Calvin lived in the house of a cloth merchant, Etienne de la Forge, a devout Waldensian from Piedmont. This man was an ardent reader of Luther and a fearless propagandist of Protestantism. He made a practice of distributing to the poor packages accompanied by tracts and passages of Scripture, and he kept open house for religious refugees from the Netherlands. Calvin must have observed these evidences of incautious zeal, for which de la Forge would later pay the penalty of death by fire. Who can say what influence Calvin’s host ultimately had upon his religious attitudes?”

    – John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism

    • I’m not sure who Jackson is, and this is a comment from close to a decade and a half ago, so I realize he may never read what I write.

      But I’m ethnically Italian, and my ancestors were from the Italian Alps (though not the Waldensian Valleys) and I’ve had a strong interest in the Waldensians for many years.

      Dr. Clark is correct that a great deal of mythology has accumulated about what the Waldensians did and how faithfully they preserved God’s Word through the medieval period. That mythology today is mostly propagated by people who advocate Baptist “Trail of Blood” views, but historically was taught by Reformed people, including some leading Reformed theologians of the Reformation and Puritan eras.

      But it seems beyond serious dispute, given that the Reformation took root at the lay level in many of the parts of Europe where underground Waldensian groups had been active for centuries, and that the House of Savoy had once controlled Geneva itself, and there were clear connections between Calvin and some individual Waldensians, that, at a bare minimum, the Waldensians provided a pre-existing underground church and network of travelling itinerant merchant-preachers that was prepared to come out of the shadows and actively promote the Reformation.

      I’m well aware that the Waldensians were not fully Reformed in their early years. Modern Waldensian historians acknowledge that and recognize that the Synod of Chanforan in 1532, at which most of the Waldensians accepted the Calvinistic version of the Reformation, was a turning point in Waldensian history and doctrine.

      However, the Puritans who defended the Waldensians in the 1600s didn’t necessarily know that. A copy of a Waldensian confession sent to Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s had an erroneous date on it of the year 1100 which, if it was correct, would have meant Peter Waldo joined a pre-existing movement rather than creating the movement. Many of the historical errors of the Reformed historians of the Reformation and Puritan eras were based on honest lack of information. The Waldensians were a severely persecuted church, and some of the key documents exist in only a few copies, and it’s only been with the opening of Roman Catholic diocesan archives of medieval heresy trials, and of secular archives of civil punishment of itinerant Waldensian preachers, that we’ve been able to settle some questions about what the Waldensians believed at different points in pre-Reformation history.

      The best thing that we can perhaps say is that, like persecuted churches even in the modern era, so much of Waldensian history is bathed in blood and fire that it’s simply impossible to prove beyond doubt some of what is claimed about Waldensian doctrine. I do hope to republish next year the two key medieval Waldensian documents, the medieval “Noble Lesson” (basically a theological document in the form of a sung ballad to teach people who couldn’t read) and Waldensian Catechism which underlies the later Hussite Catechism (and interestingly, is divided into 52 Lord’s Days — wonder where the Palatinate might have gotten that idea for the Heidelberg, considering that the Elector Palatine provided refuge to numerous Waldensians fleeing persecution? 😉 ), and two Reformation era Waldensian confessions that are clearly Calvinistic and based on the Gallican Confession.

      Those won’t settle the question of what Waldensians believed before the Reformation. It may be impossible to settle that — we can’t even figure out today, with modern technology and communications, precisely what some of the persecuted Chinese house church movements believe, and it’s even harder to monitor the persecuted underground church in North Korea.

      But if we’re going to evaluate a church, we need to look at its official confessions, and it’s been difficult for a very long time to do that with Waldensians since most of the key documents are in Italian, French, or the regional dialect of Occitan, and the English translations were generally made in the 1600s or 1800s and most of them have been out of print for a very long time due to lack of interest in the English speaking world.

      Let’s just say some of what people can find about Waldensians when Googling on the internet has significant problems.

  3. Thank you, Darrell!! Would many of those Baptists whom you mentioned c/o “The Trail of Blood” be primarily from The Independent Fundamentalist clubs? I was in those in the early to mid 80s, and 2 of those churches instantly gave us that book.
    I’ve been a God Caused Calvinist since 88/89, and I recently ‘skimmed’ over that book again.
    Thank you for your valuable information, Sir! I gratefully look forward to more!

    • Thank you for your thanks. The role of the Waldensians, who for a long time were the only Reformed group in what is now Italy (and initially the only Protestant group legally allowed to exist), is a story that should be told more often. Unfortunately, it’s been mixed up with myth and misunderstandings. While the Reformed once played a role in that, a significant portion of the people perpetuating myths about Waldensians today are those in the “Baptist Successionism” movement.

      My understanding is that James Milton Carroll, the author of the “Trail of Blood” book, was a Southern Baptist. However, Baptist successionism is now identified more with groups outside the SBC.

      I don’t think I’m the right one to comment on how commonly the “Trail of Blood” is used in IFB circles because I don’t know that my personal experience with the IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist) movement is necessarily representative of the experience other Reformed people have had. I’ve actually been treated quite well, and I get along well with most IFB pastors I’ve known, with only one glaring exception, and that was close to thirty years ago. I don’t know if that means the local IFB pastors in this area are more willing to deal with what Bob Jones University would call “orthodox allies,” or if it’s personal because they know I’m a hard-right conservative and that’s quite rare in the media, or if the local IFB pastors just know their church history well and recognize that while I’m definitely Reformed, I’m quite different from the YRR movement that has a bad tendency to be disruptive and go into existing churches and try to change them into something they were never intended to be.

      That raises a separate but related issue.

      I know from direct firsthand experience that Calvinism has acquired a terrible reputation in much of American evangelicalism. A lot of that is caused by people with whom most confessional Calvinists would not want to be identified, but we get blamed for their bad behavior.

      One of the ways I’m able to get around that with older men is pointing out that they usually appreciated D. James Kennedy and Francis Schaeffer. Another approach is to give pastors who are academically inclined copies of some of the older Presbyterian books on Waldensian history, since quite a few Baptists have a positive attitude toward what they know, or at least think they know, about the historic Waldensian movement.

      My goal, when dealing with people who have been “burned” by bad experiences with self-identified “Calvinists,” is to get them to recognize that what they’re really upset about is not those people’s doctrine but those people’s divisiveness and disruptive behavior. There’s no call for going into someone else’s church and trying to turn it into something it never was. Calling a church to return to its foundations is one thing. Changing it into something its founders would never recognize, and doing that by disruptive methods that undercut the authority given to local elders and deacons, isn’t Reformed and shouldn’t be done by people who call themselves Reformed.

  4. I fully agree, Sir, and thank you! I’ve seen and experienced some ‘haughtiness’ from some that I try not to imitate at all! Sort of in that unwanted ‘know it all’s’ class. And most often they DON’T know it all! Ever learning, as we need to say. You explain and describe well, Darrell! Thanks again!

    • Appreciated… not sure I deserve the compliments, though this is one subject on which I have more than a bit of experience — trying to explain and defend the legitimacy of being Reformed in a world where there are many evangelicals and fundamentalists of various types, but the Reformed faith is almost completely unknown.

  5. Well said again, Sir! I’m grateful our Gracious and Merciful God called and led me into the Reformed Faith! Hope and pray it’s for all Eternity! Yahweh Bless, brother Darrell!✝️📖🛐

  6. Ordered Christ and the Decree. Can’t wait. It’ll help me in my discussions with an Anglo Catholic who actually has said the Reformation was a schism. He’s convinced it was nothing more than a break from the true Church, Rome. So I’ll hopefully be able to discuss the reformation and reformers in a clearer way I hope.

    • Victor,

      It’s a great book but I’m not sure that it will help with that debate in particular. Muller’s job in that book is to clarify the nature of Reformed orthodoxy after the Reformation.

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