A friend familiar with a recent Orthodox-Anglican dialogue passed along some details of the proceedings, including that the Orthodox gave the Anglicans six steps or concerns that had to be addressed before talk of communion could be entered into seriously. For those with a truly ecumenical spirit, the fact that four of the six could be agreed upon immediately is source for some joy.
But one of the other concerns was the so-called "Calvinism" of the Anglican and broader Protestant churches. While the concern might simply be with a broader kind of Augustinianism, it would do us well I think to reflect a bit on the term Calvinism and it's theological and historical usefulness (or lack thereof).
Earlier this month Dr. Richard A. Muller, the P.J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, gave a lecture in which he asked and answered the question, "Was Calvin a Calvinist?" In this far-reaching and comprehensive address, Muller succinctly summarized his decades of work demolishing the myths and historical fallacies of a great deal of secondary research.
A basic way in which the relationship of Calvin to the broader Reformed tradition has been misconstrued, including his relationship to predecessors, contemporaries, and followers, is in the idea that Calvin's work, or a particular aspect of his work, serves as an index for judging the rest of so-called Calvinism. Calvin’s theology (or a part thereof) becomes the sole standard of arbitration, the gold standard of determining the level of some contemporaneous or following figure’s adherence to Calvinist orthodoxy.
As Muller contends, such elevation of Calvin’s work mistakenly “assumes that later Reformed theologians either intended to be or should have been precise followers of Calvin rather than also followers of Zwingli, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, and others, and not merely followers of Calvin in general or Calvin of the tracts, treatises, commentaries, and sermons, nor the Calvin of the 1539, 1543, or 1550 Institutes, but the Calvin of the 1559 Institutes.”
A related error is that figures like Bucer, Bullinger, Vermigli, or Wolfgang Musculus, all of whom were older contemporaries of Calvin and who disagreed with him sharply on such important issues as the relationship of the civil and ecclesiastical magistrates, the use of excommunication, and the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, either did or ought to have judged themselves in relation to the work of their junior colleague in Geneva, who was younger by some decade or more than many of these other eminent figures.
Muller's lecture will appear in print soon, and is worth close examination. In this piece Muller captures the spirit that has animated his decades of work, including publication of such important volumes as The Unaccommodated Calvin, After Calvin, and his magisterial 4-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.
This year also marks the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, and there have been celebrations of Calvin's legacy on a global scale. In many cases, unfortunately, the caricature of Calvin as the "chief codifier" of the Reformed tradition has been perpetuated, throwing more heat than light on the historical and theological landscape.
In addition to Muller's own top-notch scholarly work, I recommend going to the sources themselves. For Calvin, in addition to his Institutes of course, his exchange with Cardinal Sadoleto is a brief, accessible, and pointed summary of the Reformation complaint (I examined one aspect of Calvin's letter in a short piece posted at First Things online on Calvin's birthday this past July).
Former Calvin College professor Lester DeKoster, who passed away earlier this year, said in his introduction to the Calvin/Sadoleto correspondence that Calvin's treatise serves as "a kind of charter for the Reformed branch of the Reformation." DeKoster himself has a book made newly available again that argues the bold and controversial thesis that Calvin's preaching forms a crucial component of the formation of the modern West. In Light for the City: Calvin's Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty, DeKoster writes, "Preached from off the pulpits for which the Church is divinely made and sustained, God's biblical Word takes incarnation in human selves and behavior, creating the community long known in the West as the City. Calvinist pulpits implanted the Word even now flourishing in the great democratic achievements of the Western world."
For a resource on Calvin's Institutes, see A. N. S. Lane's A Reader's Guide to Calvin's Institutes. And for a popular and readable biography, see Herman Selderhuis' John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, translated from the Dutch by my friend and colleague Albert Gootjes. And for an accessible introduction to the Reformation itself, see Glenn S. Sunshine's The Reformation for Armchair Theologians.
On this Reformation Day 2009 it will do us all good to remember that whatever our thoughts of the Reformation, whether positive, negative, or mixed, exposure to the claims of the Reformers themselves and their own self-understanding must form a fundamental basis for any responsible evaluation.
Update: The text of Dr. Muller's lecture is now available online (PDF). I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. In addition, Dr. David C. Steinmetz is going to be giving this year's Stob Lectures on Wednesday and Thursday of this week on the theme, "John Calvin: Reshaping Christian Tradition in Reformation Europe."