Old Question: Was Calvin a Calvinist?
Preface: Another blog post for those who question my credentials to write on this matter. I don’t claim infallibility. On this matter, I do claim not to be a complete moron.
If I may be candid, historically speaking it’s a dumb question.11.It’s the sort of poorly-phrased anachronistic speculation that drives me nuts. To liken it to the political realm, it’s like when people ask if Abe Lincoln would be a Republican today. Same country. Same party. Same office. Yet the evolution of politics in American history makes cross-generational comparisons difficult, to say the least. It’s an imperfect analogy for Calvin, of course.22.Whereas there are many generations between the 1860s and today, Theodore Beza was Calvin’s son-in-law, star pupil, and direct successor. I get all that. Still the point is made. In my opinion, a much better question is this: Would Calvin have been a Calvinist?3But even then it seems to me that the answer is that we don’t know.3.It remains speculative, but this is at least acknowledged by the manner in which the discussion is framed, which in turn helps take the edge off the discussion.
Beza did something with Calvin’s theology that changed it. No doubt about that. But what sort of change was it? That is, what was the exact nature of the change? That’s the question that’s too seldom considered. Was it a faithful codification or an unfortunate departure? Was it a a clarification or a oversimplification? Was it an explication or a deviation? Was it a development or a digression? Was it a thoughtful extension that retained Calvin’s methodology or was it an undiscerning extension that tied off the loose ends Calvin intentionally left open-ended?44.As an aside, I always find it interesting how people’s answers to these questions seem to reflect their own temperaments and thought patterns. If they’re the logical/systematic sort, then yes Calvinism is faithful to Calvin. If they’re more than artistic/narrative sort, then no it’s not. Seems to me this says more about the interpreter than the text. Maybe my experience is aberrant–I hope so!–but I’ve never heard any Christians, pro- or anti-Reformed, talk about this. It occasionally comes up in scholarly circles, but that’s about it.
Sometimes Reformed Christians approach this line of reasoning with a defensive posture, assuming that what’s being implied is some sort of malicious intent (or perhaps just error/ignorance) on the part of Beza. Let’s take that off the table. Clearly Beza was an excellent student who tried to accurately systematize Calvin’s thought. The question is, would Calvin still have affirmed the theology in the form Beza altered it or would he have thought it a rigid thing that took the essential biblical mystery out of his theology?55.Sometimes good, well-intentioned students misrepresent their teachers even while trying to honor them. Good scholarly arguments have been made for either side. This is, to my mind, the point around which the discussion ought to revolve. What can be said with certainty is that Beza’s system, i.e. Calvinism, is a descendent of Calvin’s thought.66.Personally, what I can tell you is that as a historical document I can appreciate Calvin’s Institutes, but I have zero affinity for Beza’s work that has since been titled Calvinism.
Just my two cents.