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Introducing: “Know the Bible” series
Mon Jun 17, 2013
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Mon Jun 17, 2013
by Justin Holcomb
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Sun Jun 16, 2013
by Josh Mcpherson
A Historical Tour of Reformed Theology
Earlier this week, Justin Holcomb gave an overview of the Dutch and Scottish Reformed traditions as part of our All of Life series. In this post, we have a letter, the eighth to be precise, from a scholar to a young Calvinist.
My time in Geneva has got me in a historical state of mind. So let’s change gears a bit and go back to questions you asked in your second letter, about the history and background of the Reformed tradition. This will also help us to avoid becoming completely mired in the soteriological aspects of Reformed theology (i.e., questions about election, predestination, and salvation). While this is what most people think of when they hear about “Calvinism,” in fact it is a fairly small (though essential) slice of the bigger vision that is Reformed theology.
There are people who can do a much better job than I can of narrating the history of the Reformation. (I’d recommend Alister McGrath’s engaging account in Christianity’s Dangerous Idea.) I’ll give you just a thumbnail sketch, with a specific focus on the history of Reformed theology. While it is dated, I think it would still be very helpful for you to look at a number of the essays collected in B. B. Warfield’s Studies in Theology, including the essays on Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and others on the development of Reformed theology in Calvin and later.
We celebrate Reformation day on October 31, commemorating the day in 1517 when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg (Germany). This was a call for debate, protesting what Luther saw as a degeneration of orthodox Christian theology in the late medieval church. So this was a protest that called for reform: hence the appellation “Protestant Reformation.” There were both earlier and later rumblings of the same themes in Jan Hus, William Farel, and John Calvin—a Frenchman who eventually landed in (or was dragged to) Geneva.
Now originally, the Reformers were really about reform, not schism, but given the extremity of their stance (proportionate to the extremities of both late medieval corruption and the counter-Reformation’s response), this ultimately issued in new churches—or new branches of the church, we might say. So out of the Reformation arose the Lutheran churches (shepherded especially by Luther’s successor, Philipp Melanchthon), and then churches whose origins were closer to Calvin. Some elements of the Reformation also took hold in England, leading to the emergence of Anglicanism. (The Anglican Articles of Religion, often called “The Thirty-Nine Articles,” is quite a powerful statement of Reformed theology. Would that more Episcopalians actually believed it today!) Some of the most exciting work in historical theology over the past decade has concerned what is called “post-Reformation” theology, or sometimes “Protestant scholasticism.” This involves the development of Reformed theology in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in continental Europe, in the work of people like Francis Turretin. My colleague at Calvin Seminary, Richard Muller, is the guru in this area.
Calvin’s vision for Reformed Christianity especially took root in the Netherlands and Scotland, giving us two distinct but related streams of Reformed theology and practice. Arising out of the Netherlands would come a strain of theology most generally described as “Dutch Reformed.” (This was also the faith of some of the earliest American settlers who founded New Amsterdam, which is why the Reformed Church in America is the oldest denomination with a continuous ministry in this country.) It is this side of the Reformed tradition that gives us some of the most significant Reformed creeds and confessions: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Dutch Reformed theology would later be articulated by Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Louis Berkhof. It would also be the stream that produced folks like Richard Mouw, Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff—names that I hope will become more familiar to you. Today this side of the tradition would be linked to institutions such as Calvin College and Seminary and, to a lesser extent, the Free University of Amsterdam (as well as institutions in Canada, South Africa, and Indonesia). And it is the tradition that informs denominations such as the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Reformed Church, a recent offshoot of the Christian Reformed Church. (If John Frame can write of “Machen’s warrior children,” Abraham Kuyper has his share of warring children as well.)
Through the influence of John Knox, Scotland gave birth to another stream of Reformed theology, crystallized by the Westminster divines in the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Westminster Catechisms. It is this Anglo-Scottish stream that would give rise to Puritans like John Owen, Richard Baxter, and, later in the colonies, Jonathan Edwards. This strain of Reformed theology would eventually be articulated in America in Old Princeton, and would be associated with figures we’ve met already: Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and A. A. Hodge. Today it would be associated with Westminster Theological Seminary (founded by some who left Old Princeton in 1929), Reformed Theological Seminary, and Covenant Seminary, but it also seems to play a surprising role at places like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (More on that “surprising role” some other time.) Denominational expressions of this stream would include the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), as well as the “mainline” denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA).
What’s perhaps surprising is how little these two streams—the Dutch and Scottish—seem to cross. (In the vein of Tertullian’s famous question, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” we might ask: What hath Amsterdam to do with Edinburgh? Or what hath Grand Rapids to do with Philadelphia?) Once in a while there’s a confluence. The great biblical scholar Geerhardus Vos began in Grand Rapids and ended up in Princeton; Cornelius Van Til’s “presuppositionalism” seemed to be forged at the intersection of the two; Francis Schaeffer’s cultural critique owed something to both; and Michael Horton is able to swim in both streams. But for the most part, unfortunately, these two traditions seem to pass as ships in the night.
I think this historical tour is important to help you situate your own entrée into the Reformed tradition: the Calvinism you’ve discovered flows from a (largely) Scottish source and bears the imprint of Old Princeton. It’s the same portal through which I entered the sprawling tradition that is Calvinism. But I hope “zooming out” might help you appreciate that the Reformed tradition is bigger than Scottish Calvinism—indeed, Calvin is quite a bit bigger than Scottish Calvinism.
I’ll look forward to hearing from you. And since this comes so close to your birthday, I’m enclosing a treat: George Marsden’s magisterial biography of Jonathan Edwards. Enjoy!
This post is adapted from James K. A. Smith’s book Letters to a Young Calvinist, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2010.
Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.