Carl R. Trueman's essay "Calvin and Calvinism" (in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin
) provides a helpful overview of some the issues affecting Calvin scholarship in relation to later developments in what is popularly called "Calvinism." In particular, there are the twin tendencies either to play Calvin against later Calvinism (as in much neo-Barthian writing) or to virtually identify later dogmatics with Calvin's theology (as in much conservative polemics).
The burden of Trueman's essay is to look at the question of Calvin in relation to "Calvinism" in primarily historical
terms. This entails looking at a complex process of development
that includes both continuity and discontinuity (as well as diversity), and doing so with the realization that Calvin, though helpful and foundational for Reformed theology, is neither absolutely authoritative nor normative, but part of a wider complex of theologians and (especially) confessional standards that form the basis of what is better termed "Reformed theology" (rather than "Calvinism").
As a historical inquiry, Trueman points out that this process of development is not merely an issue of dogmatics, but also of all the other kinds of historical forces that are at work, whether philosophical, conceptual and linguistic, or cultural and sociological, taking into account the kinds of purposes various figures had in writing and the various genres they produced.
The bulk of Trueman's essay focusses in on the issue of "scholasticism" since the development of later Reformed dogmatics is often couched in terms of the rise of "Reformed scholasticism." This sometimes happens in a way that suggests that Calvin and other early Reformed thinkers were free of the kinds speculative and metaphysical concerns that later developed. But Trueman questions the way in which "scholasticism" is typically understood and offers some analysis of the developments.
Trueman wants to define "scholasticism" in terms of method rather than a shift in dogmatics; in terms of form, rather than content. As such, scholasticism doesn't represent so much a shift in the substance of Reformed theology, but the context in which that theology was expressed: the migration of Reformed dogmatics into the academy with its patterns of pedagogy, along with developments in polemics in response to both a more sophisticated Roman Catholicism (e.g., Bellarmine) and new forms of Protestant heterodoxy (e.g., Arminianism and Socinianism).
Thus Trueman suggests that the differences between, for example, Calvin's Institutes
and Turretin's must not be seen so much in terms of a theological development or change, but due to their differences in purpose, intention, context, and so on. Where Calvin intended his Institutes
as a defense of French Protestantism, providing "common places" meant to function alongside his biblical commentaries, Turretin sees his text as treating areas of ongoing theological dispute for the purpose of training students in the Genevan Academy. In neither case was the text in question meant to function as a comprehensive "systematic theology" as that was later understood.
From these observations Trueman turns to the question of metaphysics. After all, it is sometimes suggested that later Reformed dogmatics was characterized by a "speculative metaphysics," such as a deductive decretalism that departed from earlier Reformed understandings. Trueman addresses this concern in a series of steps.
First, he notes that while the early Reformers sometimes took rhetorical stances against metaphysics, they were, in fact, very much steeped in those very metaphysical assumptions, derived from the later middle ages. Moreover, their attacks were often more narrowly focussed than is prima facie
apparent (e.g., aimed against certain kinds of nominalism or the faculty of the Sorbonne, rather than metaphysics simpliciter
Second, the development of later polemics against Jesuits, Arminians, Socinians, and the like necessitated a greater metaphysical self-awareness on the part of the Reformed in order to explain and defend their doctrine. Of course, the beginnings of this go back even to Calvin, for instance, his defense against Pighius, as well as the other early Reformers.
Third, Reformed use and development of metaphysics arose within a heavily exegetical context, in continuity with medieval precedent though transposed into a Renaissance rhetorical practice, and with a great deal of diversity, ranging from forms of Thomism to Scotism to kinds of neo-Platonism, developing in directions that were more subtle and varied. Thus, Trueman notes by way of example, later Reformed scholasticism was, in many respects, far less
deterministic than Calvin in deploying varieties of causality and allowing for a robust notion of God's permissive will.
Finally, Trueman suggests there are some confusions afoot in discussions of Reformed scholasticism, for instance, confusing "rationality" (e.g., using syllogism) with "rationalism" (e.g., Cartesianism) or the painting of dogmatics with broad "isms" such as "Aristotelianism," when such categories are themselves polysemous and problematic.
Given these observations, Trueman concludes that the development of Reformed theology is wrongly seen as merely a dogmatic shift, that the pluriformity and eclecticism of Reformed theology needs to be recognized, and that, nonetheless, there is no identity between Calvin and later Reformed dogmatics, but rather a development that must be assessed in historical categories rather than in terms of speculative theological models.
So much for Trueman's analysis. I cannot help but agree with much of what Trueman says here, but there are a number of complicating factors - ones that are important theologically for the present task of the church - that I also think we need to consider and that receive short shrift from his account, sometimes leaving me with the impression that historians such as Muller, Trueman, and others have missed the broader Reformed forest for the nicely historicized trees.
 While I realize that it was not Trueman's purpose in his essay, there is, nonetheless, an important, additional layer of historical inquiry that goes beyond the production of various texts within their own historical context, namely, the ways in which those texts came to be used in later dogmatics, teaching, and the formation of the tradition. As Trueman himself notes, while Turretin's Institutes
was never intended as a comprehensive systematics text, it did come to be used in that way by, for instance, Princeton Theological Seminary, thereby shaping subsequent Reformed dogmatics in the Princeton tradition, dogmatic self-understanding, the theological culture and character of American Presbyterianism (perhaps coming to see itself as essentially disputational), and the like.
To whatever degree Trueman is correct about the nature of the development of Reformed thought in the 16th and 17th centuries, there is also a historical story to tell about how the misperceptions of that development arose, why the developments have come to be largely understood in terms of a substantive theological shift, why such an account might even seem superficially plausible, and so on. And that story is, I suspect, a story about how the tradition was received and passed on, how some kind of Reformed "canon" emerged (e.g., why Polanus was largely forgotten or John Forbes left to moulder), what changes occurred in theological curriculum, and so on. While it is important to construct a more accurate narrative of the 16th and 17th centuries, the project is half-finished if that narrative is left on its own as a historical curiosity apart from how later Reformed generations appropriated that narrative, even if in distorted or spotty ways. Effective history is also always a history of the present.
 I don't accept the all-too-easy distinction, verging on separation, between form and content, method and substance, that Trueman's account of scholasticism suggests (though I realize the form-content polarity Trueman uses may not be intended to be as sharp as it might appear). Such distinctions have been subjected to extensive and, to my mind, persuasive criticisms by thinkers from Donald Davidson to Jacques Derrida. Trueman is certainly correct that scholastic methodology can be applied to a wide variety of "contents," doesn't entail any particular "content," and, moreover, that we can account for formal shifts in Reformed dogmatics by looking at pedagogical and polemical contexts. Furthermore, I'm sure Franciscus Junius didn't sit down one day and say, "Let's change the content of Reformed dogmatics by recasting it all in these interesting scholastic categories."
But such formal changes do
, I think, produce substantive shifts in content, even if unintentionally: the medium, after all, is part of the message. Can one really maintain that, for instance, the application of Ramist binary taxonomy does nothing to shape the substantive outcome of such a method or carries no baggage with it in terms of ontology and epistemology? Thus, while it may be mistaken to point to doctrinal transitions and discontinuities as an explanation
for formal and methodological developments, it does not thereby follow that such developments fail to mark (or at least produce) significant shifts in dogmatic substance, even if unintented and unforeseen, as a kind of "negative externality" of such pedagogical and polemical negotiations.
This, of course, does not mean that the perceived shifts criticized by, for instance, the neo-Barthians, are in fact the shifts actually engendered by such methodological changes. And even if they are, it does not mean that such substantive shifts were immediately apparent rather than, say, having to await the transposition of such shifts into consequent pastoral praxis, the production of ensuing theological culture, or new ecclesiastical and social contexts. That is to say, resultant dogmatic innovations reveal theological changes at their origins, even if those changes find their etiology in social, pedagogical, polemical, or other factors rather than deliberate theological choices.
 Take a specific example: the oft-heard claim that later Reformed dogmatics developed into a deductive decretalism that was a departure from earlier Reformed theology, most notably Calvin, who places predestination under the doctrine of salvation rather than the doctrine of God.
Trueman rightly points to Muller's explanation of Calvin's organization in the Institutes
, in which he proposes that the placement of predestination is explained by the changing genre of the Institutes
and by Calvin's use of Melanchthon. Muller's argument is, on the whole, compelling and, thus, I quite agree that we cannot use Calvin's placement of the topic to relativize his predestinarian views since he was, after all, a thoroughgoing predestinarian.
Moreover, as Muller argues elsewhere (and Trueman reports), predestination never came to function in any major instance of Reformed orthodoxy as a kind of "metaphysical axiom" from which the rest of the theological system could be logically deduced. For the most part, the doctrine remained christocentric and soteriological, embedded within the locus
of faith and justification, christology, or ecclesiology, both in dogmatics texts as well as in confessional symbols. (It is an interesting question, however, why Reformed theology continued to choose to confess and reflect upon predestination in continuity with Calvin's own emphases, despite the rise of a scholasticism that would circulate the alternative ordering available in both medieval theological texts and those of Roman Catholic polemicists.)
But all of these fine observations do nothing to blunt the recognition that where one places predestination within the theological sequence (along, of course, with how the doctrine is expressed within that sequence) does
have an effect, even apart from functioning as a "metaphysical axiom" - not merely on organization or method or form, but in the very meaning of the doctrine itself in relation to the whole. This is the case not only in terms of pastoral concern, catechetical pedagogy, and theological emphasis, but also the overall shape of the teaching itself - whether divine sovereignty is contextualized primarily by, say, God's will and power as aspects of the divine essence or by the revelation of God in the cross of Christ.
We also must remember that Muller's most detailed analysis of the issue (in Christ and the Decree
) only applies to the period up to 1630, though his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics
does push further. After the mid-17th century, however, Reformed texts do increasingly place predestination, along with the divine decrees, in the context of theology proper, as a transition into the doctrine of creation. In some respects this was a return to the common medieval order (seen, for instance, in Peter Lombard or Thomas Aquinas), though with some, sometimes significant changes (e.g., Aquinas' discussion, though placed before his exposition of the Trinity, nonetheless presupposes an already broached trinitarian ontology and is immediately contextualized by his discussions of divine love for all creatures in and through the Word, God's justice founded upon his mercy, and his providential care for creation).
Perhaps the reordering of topics in Reformed theological exposition was, in large part, a result of pedagogical dependence upon scholastic models or polemical interaction with Roman Catholics and Arminians (who drew, in turn, upon Jesuits such as Molina). Whatever the case and despite continuities with previous Reformed dogmatics and confession, there is a reasonable case that such re-ordering and re-contextualization did, in fact, mark a significant change in theological content in terms of the overall contours of the doctrine.
For instance, one might argue that while it is the case that, in the abstract, the doctrine of election as confessed in the Westminster Standards is very much in continuity with the wider Reformed tradition (e.g., in terms of its ontology and commitments), its placement within the order of chapters in the Westminster Confession is a departure from the wider Reformed confessional presentation, accomodating itself to the emerging dogmatic ordo
. In addition, unlike every other Reformed confession, the order of presentation within
Chapter 3 is not, first of all, christological and/or trinitarian, but proceeds from metaphysical and causal observations (left largely unspoken in other confessional
documents), assertions within which the christological and soteric are afterwards enclosed. Insofar as the Westminster Standards exerted a wide influence - especially within English-speaking Reformed theology - and arrived in tandem with wider shifts in dogmatic presentation, the resulting tradition did, quite arguably, come to be reshaped.
Thus we need to construct a wider historical narrative, tracking not only incremental shifts within methodology, formal organization, or pedagogy, and not only within the 16th and earlier 17th centuries, but further to place those shifts within a larger trajectory, noting continuities and discontinuities with medieval teaching and tracking the effects of whatever shifts did occur upon consequent historical development of the tradition.
I cite this example of predestination, not because I have any particular axe to grind. I'm am fully comfortable with the absolute predestinarianism of the Reformed confessional symbols and would be quite willing to defend it. I cite this example, rather, because the notion of a rising "deductive decretalism" as posited by neo-Barthian critics (and attributed to Calvin himself by Alexander Schweitzer already in the 1850s) has been thoroughly de-bunked.
, it seems to me that those critics have only held sway because there is a prima facie
plausibility to their account, a plausibility that arises from the larger direction and developing articulation of the Reformed tradition against the backdrop of modern forms of thought. History is not simply a one-way street, involving antecedent and contemporaneous causes and explanations. Rather, the meaning that historical developments have held from the start often remains to be unveiled by ensuing and successive events.
By all means, we should let level-headed and careful historians continue their analysis of historical contexts and narratives of development. Only in this way can we avoid the kinds of historical caricature and swagger that have sometimes infected theological critique. But we also cannot allow such precision and focus to elude the necessity of that wider genealogical scrutiny, which makes for an effective theological interpretation of the tradition.