Thursday, January 15, 2009

Calvin Questions

I just saw that it's been a week since I've posted something on here. Apologies for that. With the break in Sunday School I don't have quite as much that I feel like I need to get up here. I am working on an essay on Robert Lewis Dabney (as promised) and I will be putting that up in a series of posts in a few days when I finish.

For now I wanted to put something up responding to two of the really interesting questions that I remembered from the Q&A session with Dr. Griffith at the Calvin Conference this past weekend. First, one person asked a question relating to Calvin's millennial views (and eschatological views more broadly). Dr. Griffith pointed out that this really was not a topic during Calvin's time as it is now. Carrying this a bit farther we should emphasize that the American and English focus on millennial viewpoints is rather unique. Well through the second half of the 20th century this simply was not a question for Reformed believers on the continent. Even today it is simply assumed that Dutch, German, and French Reformed believers have an amillennial viewpoint (though it is not usually called that since there isn't much of an opposing view that they need to argue against) unless they go out of their way to distance themselves from that perspective.

Instead the millennial debate really began with the work of Joseph Mede (an early 17th century professor of divinity at Cambridge). Mede advocated a literal thousand year reign of Christ that would proceed the second coming. Without going into the details of his eschatology this was the first serious articulation of historic premillennialism (very different from dispensational premillennialism as we find in the Left Behind novels) that was later picked up by students of Mede and also by men like Jonathan Edwards. Many of the Westminster divines were historic premillennialists (the rest were amillennialists with a few exceptions). Postmillennialism, in its present form, did not really appear in any real strength until the 20th century in America (though there are some figures who at least appear to advocate eschatological views similar to modern postmillennialism they are not identical) as closely tied to the theonomy movement.

This helps to emphasize the danger of different millennial viewpoints trying to claim Calvin as teaching a particular option in the above debate. This simply was not a question for Calvin (nor for his students and successors such as Theodore Beza and Francis Turretin). Similarly it was not a question for Herman Bavinck at the beginning of the 20th century. So Calvin did not write in language that was sensitive to this debate and did not temper his statements to acknowledge these different views. We can make some educated assumptions about where he may have landed based on other things he taught about eschatology but we cannot ascribe a definite position to him. For more on this general topic however I would recommend going over to the Reformed Forum and searching for "Jeff Jue." They conducted a discussion forum with Dr. Jue (church history at WTS) on the eschatological views of the Westminster Assembly. It's a little over an hour long but very good and informative. Dr. Jue's dissertation is available on google books but it is a dissertation and so is tough reading since it is written at a high academic level.

The other question that struck me was closely related as it asked what the relationship was between Calvin and Calvinism. I thought that Dr. Griffith's answer was very helpful in saying that there are certain aspects of Calvinism (or more broadly the Reformed faith) that are not clearly articulated in Calvin though his name is on them. Still this reflects the development of theology and new debates that have arisen since then. Much of this is related to the claims of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and the other neo-orthodox (also known as dialectic) theologians who tried to drive a dividing wedge between Calvin and the Protestant/Reformed Scholastics on the issues of predestination and definite atonement. For anyone who was curious I wanted to link to a few books that are focused on this exact topic:
  • Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins by Richard Muller - Much of Richard Muller's work has been specifically directed to answer this charge that there is a vast gulf between Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, and especially Calvin and the Scholastics who followed like Theodore Beza, Peter de Vermigli, Francis Turretin, and others. This book is focused on those issues brought up by neo-orthodoxy. This is a very educational book on Predestination and Christology and I think that you would find it very helpful even if you aren't wondering about the relationship of Calvin and Calvinism.
  • Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics by Richard Muller - This is far deeper and more comprehensive than most people need to go on this subject but since it is a $200 set available for $80 I wanted to make people aware of it. Muller contends that 16th and 17th century Reformed thought is badly misrepresented in the church and so he presents the writings and teachings of the Scholastics on a number of topics but centrally theological prolegomena (first things), Scripture, theology proper, and the Trinity.
  • Protestant Scholasticism: Essay in Reassessment edited by Carl Trueman and Scott Clark - This is an anthology of essays all focused on the topic of Calvin and the Calvinists. A good book but written on an academic level where I think that the first book on this list will be more helpful.

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