Richard Muller and the Demise of “Calvin vs. the Calvinists”

In the world of Reformation and post-Reformation Protestant studies, the name of Richard Muller looms large. Among the many scholars working in the field, Muller distinguishes himself for his seemingly endless and virtually encyclopedic knowledge in his area of expertise. Not only is Muller a brilliant scholar, but he has also spearheaded the
decisive defeat of what he and many others consider to be caricatures and distortions of calvin-in-genevaReformation and post-Reformation Protestant theology, one of which is the (in)famous “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” thesis – the idea that the Reformed theologians following in Calvin’s wake, beginning with Theodore Beza, compromised the great Reformer’s teaching and constructed a system at odds with Calvin himself. The demise of this notion under Muller’s attack is assumed to be so complete that the mere mention of his name is regarded as sufficient to subdue any remaining stragglers still ignorant of his undisputed victory.

It is for this reason that I find extremely interesting what Muller writes at the beginning of his magisterial work Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics about this very issue:

As for the terms “Calvinist” and “Calvinism,” I tend to avoid them as less than useful to the historical task. If, by “Calvinist,” one means a follower of Calvin who had nothing to say that was different from what Calvin said, then one would be hard put to find any Calvinists in the later sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. If by Calvinist, one means a later exponent of a theology standing within the confessional boundaries described by such documents as the Gallican Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, then one will have the problem of accounting for the many ways in which such thinkers—notably, Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, Bartholomaus Keckermann, William Perkins, Franciscus Junius, and Gulielmus Bucanus, just to name a few—differ from Calvin both doctrinally and methodologically. One might even be forced to pose Calvin against the Calvinists. Given the diversity of the movement and the fact that Calvin was not the primary author of any of the confessional norms just noted, the better part of historical valor (namely, discretion) requires rejection of the term “Calvinist” and “Calvinism” in favor of the more historically accurate term, “Reformed.”[1]

There are two things about this paragraph that I – as a highly appreciative but not uncritical follower of Calvin and the Reformed tradition at large – would like to briefly highlight.

1) Simply stated, there are differences, both doctrinal and methdological, between Calvin and the Reformed orthodox theologians that came after him. While Muller has indeed provided a helpful and necessary corrective to many of the more superficial historical reconstructions and radical disjunctions sometimes posed between the late medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods, it would be a mistake to over-read his argument and conclude that no differences whatsoever obtained between Calvin and the later Reformed. Although the phrase “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” does create some problems, even Muller himself makes the remarkable observation (detractors take notice!) that when Calvin is compared with the post-Reformation orthodox, “One might even be forced to pose Calvin against the Calvinists.”

Clearly, this is the thesis that Muller ultimately rejects. But it is important to realize that he does so not because there no truth in the statement itself, for even he recognizes that there are indeed significant differences. Rather, he rejects the idea on methodological and terminological grounds, namely, that Calvin alone does not define the tradition that followed him and that said tradition should neither be considered exclusively as “Calvinism” nor should it be divorced from the wider theological and philosophical currents and prominent thinkers of the day. Nevertheless, Muller’s statement gives credence to our contention as Evangelical Calvinists that although the Reformed tradition cannot be reduced to Calvin, neither can it be reduced to the “Calvinist” or Westminsterian form that it assumed later on. There is, in other words, space for fruitful and constructive retrievals of Calvin’s theology (i.e. Evangelical Calvinism) that take different pathways than those cemented by the Reformed scholastics.

2) The fact that Muller’s objection to the “Calvin vs. the Calvinist” thesis is primarily grounded in methodological concerns raises an interesting point regarding Muller’s own counter-thesis regarding the “broad doctrinal continuity” between the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox.[2] To arrive at this conclusion, Muller argues that

Much of the literature assumes a discontinuity between the thought of the Reformers and their orthodox successors without recognizing that a change in form and method does not necessarily indicate an alteration of substance. Scholastic Protestant theology has been described as rationalistic, intellectually arid and theologically rigid—without due attention to its own statements concerning the use of reason and the import of dogmatic system for faith. Such descriptions ignore the process of development—itself quite original and creative—that brought about the orthodox or scholastic Protestantism of the seventeenth century…

In order for the Reformed scholastics to receive an adequate interpretation, therefore, we must not only allow for development and change within the tradition, but we also need to trace that development and change in terms of a movement of thought not simply from Calvin to the orthodox but from the theology of an entire generation of Reformers, including not only Calvin but also Bullinger, Musculus, Vermigli, and their contemporaries.[3]

Clearly, Muller is arguing that methodology is largely determinative of results. Sure, he says, if we simply compare “Calvin to the orthodox”, then we will end up with the false conclusion that the Reformed scholastics distorted Calvin’s theology. However, if we adopt the right methodology – by tracing the entire “movement of thought” from the medieval period through that of Reformed scholasticism, then we will arrive at the right conclusion – one of substantial continuity that is not overthrown by any elements of discontinuity.

Fair enough. However, it seems very odd to me that Muller also wants to maintain that

The term “scholasticism,” when applied to these efforts indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content: the method could be (and was) applied to a wide variety of theological contents and it could be (and was) applied to other academic disciplines as well…And despite the persistence of a few writers who insist that “scholasticism” brings with it a set of particular theological and philosophical concerns,10 there is, certainly, a consensus in contemporary scholarship that “scholasticism,” properly understood, indicates a method, capable of presenting and arguing a variety of theological and philosophical conclusions, and not a particular theology or philosophy.[4]

Why is this odd? Let me put it in somewhat stark terms. On the one hand, Muller argues that one’s method largely determines the results of one’s study. On the other hand, Muller argues that one’s method hardly determines the results of one’s study at all. Is the inconsistency not obvious? Since he wants to maintain continuity between the theology of the Reformers and that of the scholastics, Muller must argue that the undeniable change in method from the Reformers to the scholastics involved little to no alteration in the results of Reformed theological inquiry. Yet to defeat modern interpreters who attempt to drive a wedge between the Reformers and their scholastic successors, Muller must argue the exact opposite, namely, that adopting a particular method does indeed determine in large measure the results of one’s inquiry. So my question to Muller is this: which is it? You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

I do not want to deny that Muller has done a great service in helping us to better understand the history of Reformed theology. However, I think that Muller’s zeal to reinforce the continuity between the theological substance of Reformed orthodox and the Reformers (with the added bonus of excluding theologians such as Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance from the Reformed tradition as neo-orthodox) lands him in his own quandry, for in order to support his thesis, he must deny to others (Barth, Torrance, et al) what he allows to the Reformed orthodox. On the other hand, if he is willing to grant to the Reformed orthodox the freedom to change method and alter somewhat doctrinal content in contrast with their forebears, it would seem only right that he grant the same freedom to those Reformed theologians, such as Barth and Torrance (and Evangelical Calvinists!) who simply want to bring their tradition into greater conformity with the Word of God.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.30

[2] Ibid., p.46.

[3] Ibid. pp.43-44, 46.

[4] Ibid., p.35.