Mini-Review: Calvin and The Reformed Tradition

March 19, 2013 — Leave a comment


What does it mean to be a Calvinist? Was Calvin even a Calvinist? Does being Reformed mean you follow every jot and tittle in Calvin’s writings? Did Calvin actually teach TULIP?

These are some of the questions that underlie the essays in Richard Muller’s Calvin and The Reformed Tradition: On The Work of Christ and The Order of Salvation. The opening chapter a method for studying the Reformed tradition in the early modern era before Muller turns to a perennial question: Was Calvin a Calvinist? The answer is surprisingly complicated since it hinges on what you mean by “Calvinism.” If Calvinism is Calvin’s own position, then of course he was, but then no one else is because no one uncritically follows everything Calvin taught. If Calvinism is the system put together by his followers, then Calvin can’t be one since it post-dates his own thought. If Calvinism is another way of saying “the Reformed tradition in general,” then additional problems emerge since Calvin was not considered the primary expositor of the tradition and there are many who are considered Reformed that differ considerably with Calvin. In the end, Muller argues for dropping the label and opting instead of Reformed.

Having dealt with the issue of Calvin’s relation to the tradition that sometimes bears his name, Muller moves on to the question of limited atonement. Any familiar with Calvin’s thought will realize there is not a straightforward answer to whether or not Calvin taught “limited atonement” (the L in TULIP). It turns out that the term “atonement” is not all that helpful to describe Calvin’s thought anyway because he doesn’t use it frequently and especially not in connection with answering the question “what did Christ’s death accomplish?” (or alternately “for whom did Christ die?”). The whole debate illustrates the sticky nature of using later terminology to describe an earlier thinker’s thought. It seems though the way limited atonement is formulated in later Reformed orthodoxy differs somewhat from Calvin’s thought, but not in a particularly radical way. The relationship is still difficult to fully discern.

The remaining essays in the book cover Calvin’s understanding of Ezekiel 18:23 and Amyraut’s confusion over it (chapter 4), Davenant and Du Moulin’s approaches to hypothetical universalism (chapter 5), the development of the Reformed ordo salutis (chapter 6), the relationship of union with Christ and the ordo salutis (chapter 7), and finally “Calvin, Beza,, and the Later Reformed on Assurance of Salvation and the ‘Practical Syllogism'” (chapter 8).

These essays will be very interesting to readers who are already interesting in Reformed theology in general, and it’s historical development in relation to Calvin in particular. Other readers, perhaps not so much. Muller is an excellent historian, and though not a dry writer, does offer up some rather dense passages. The book isn’t an easy read, but neither is it overly difficult. Muller’s thoughts are well organized and each chapter offers an extensive synthesizing conclusion to give readers the gist of what Muller believes he has shown in each study. In the end, anyone interesting in Calvin and Reformed soteriology will likely want to get a copy of this on their shelf.

Richard Muller, Calvin and The Reformed Tradition: On The Work of Christ and The Order of SalvationGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, November 2012. 288 pp. Paperback, $40.00.

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Thanks to Baker Academic for the NetGalley review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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