Anachronistic Calvinism

James Bratt may think that historians of Calvinism need to explore the ways that this form of Protestantism interacted with or even shaped the forces of modernity, but scholars who study early modern Europe have moved on from the Calvinist exceptionalism that goes with neo-Calvinism:

. . . the essential historical importance of the story told here does not lie in its connections to metannaratives of modernization; it lies in its centrality for understanding that now-bygone era when confessional principles and attachments becamee structural elements of European society. The stance of recent historians who have approached the subject with a sense of anthropological otherness unquestionably appears more appropriate than that of whose who continue to insist on its links to that quicksilver concept of modernity. The particular variant of the broader Reformation call for evangelical renewal that insisted on purging from worship all rites without explicit biblical sanction and on eliminating from eucharistic doctrine all possible confusion between created matter and a God who is spirit first gained official sanction within a small, distinctive corner of the Continent nestled on the periphery of its largest states. From there, the polysemous message of its early prophets was able to go forth and crystallize dissatisfaction with the Roman church across much of the Continent, in some areas by virtue of its capacity to offer ordinary Christians motivation and models for forming alternatives to the established church, in others by virtue of its ability to convince rulers and their key theological advisers of its fidelity to Holy Writ. The consequences shook many states to their foundations. The establishment of Reformed churches in defiance of the authorities, the resistance of Reformed believers to state-sponsored ecclesiastical innovations they viewed as infringements against the purity of God’s ordinances, and the fear of a Catholic plot to roll back the advances of the Reformation: each precipitated some of the bitterest conflicts of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even when the religious transformations associated with the movement’s spread did not occasion full-scale civil war, the alteration of the traditional form of worship — occasionally as many as three or four times within a few decades — placed the local clergy before a series of difficult decisions of conscience that led many to resign their posts. For ordinary believers in virtually every generation, the decision of whether or not to join a Reformed church, to embrace a specific contested point of Reformed doctrine, or to refuse to abandon one when ordered by the authorities to do so could be a literally life-changing decision, casting individuals upon the paths of exile or assuring them of access to positions of power and respectability. The story of the establishment and defense of Europe’s various Reformed churches is fundamental to the history of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, 543-44)

In other words, Reformed Protestantism didn’t begin as a w-w but as an effort to reform church, doctrine, and liturgy. No one was willing to go to the stake in order to integrate faith and learning, or to practice slaughtering animals and selling the meat Christianly.

Benedict continues modestly:

If the fatal flaw of theories crediting Calvinism with distinctive consequences for economic behavior or political development (me: think Kuyper) is that they exaggerate the spillover effects of religious doctrine outside the religious domain, the great shortcoming of the recent emphasis on the parallel consequences of the Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic Reformations is that it downplays each faith’s distinctiveness within the domain of culture and religious life. For all of the undoubted similarities between the various confessions and for all of the porosity of confessional boundaries to the motifs and practices of the new devotion of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it made a difference in peoples’s life experience whether they were raised as Lutherans, Reformed, or Catholics. It made a difference as well where and when within each tradition they were raised, for none were monolithic or static. Each confession had its own set of styles of devotion. Each had its own doctrinal and psychological points of friction.

In other words, can you believe it, Calvinism was a religion. Getting from there to Kuyper’s lectures is another matter altogether but the way history generally works is that what comes first sets the standards for what comes after. The other way around is anachronistic — or worse — Whiggish.

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20 thoughts on “Anachronistic Calvinism

  1. Like. And because being Reformed is a faith, we can even have unity while having disagreements about how this faith impacts culture.

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  2. Generally favorable review by Bratt, although:

    “When covering so many eras, places, and institutions, an author will inevitably err on some details. In the chapter treating the domain I know best, the Dutch Neo-Calvinist tradition, I counted four errors of fact and two strained interpretations.”

    Did he tell you what they were?

    He’s also a bit dismayed that you didn’t cover “The Church as Organism” (my quotes, not Bratt’s), but admits that may be a topic for another book.

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  3. And yet, this is the fatal flaw that William Cavanaugh has so rightly deposed. The secular faith you engender is just that, anachronistic… rather, a genetic fallacy of the worse kind. The move you make from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ with the Benedict piece is as muddy as the thinking of the Neo-Calvinists you demure.

    Even though we ought rightly fear the Hegelianism of world-wide views, it does not follow that religion has no cosmological import. This is something both Neo-Cals and R2Kers fail to comprehend. As one of my good chums who has graduated from your seminary has repeatedly reminded me, the flaw R2Kers make is adopting a post-liberal Lindbeckian hermeneutic. This is one major reason you speak past each other so damn much.

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  4. Erik Charter
    Posted April 16, 2014 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
    Generally favorable review by Bratt, although:

    “When covering so many eras, places, and institutions, an author will inevitably err on some details. In the chapter treating the domain I know best, the Dutch Neo-Calvinist tradition, I counted four errors of fact and two strained interpretations.”

    Did he tell you what they were?

    He’s also a bit dismayed that you didn’t cover “The Church as Organism” (my quotes, not Bratt’s), but admits that may be a topic for another book.

    Dr. Hart’s errors are nothing next to his omissions. Everybody makes mistakes, but glaring omissions take a lot more work.

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  5. Yes, philosophy… It allows me to actually live with men, rather than kill them as you do in your asinine Ref/Presby denominations.

    As Barth once quipped, When you open your mouth, you have entered into the realm of philosophy. Yes, even for a lunatic Hungarian whose credulity is as metaphysical as the Hegelian’s.

    This is the legacy of Neo-Calvinism you all partake of, the inability to relate philosophy to theology, just as anti-scholastic as your opponents… What a sordid sot

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  6. BA, well then I guess we are all lucky to have you here so you can tell us what we really believe and how we ought to believe. I am sure that you would not just throw us aside and leave us in our benighted state. After all, we are just humble Reformed folk desperately in need of an enlightened and authoritative philosophical elite to lead us into the promised land.

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  7. Well DG, I am in excellent company then. Needless to say, no one is fooled by the parlour trick you are pulling.

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  8. Brighton, if you would rise to the level of being either cordial or comprehensible that would be a lovely beginning. Otherwise you’re just a drive-by oddity with an attitude. “It allows me to actually live with men” indeed.

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  9. Tom (Who Hasn’t Read the Book) Van Dyke – Dr. Hart’s errors are nothing next to his omissions. Everybody makes mistakes, but glaring omissions take a lot more work.

    Erik – Yeah, because every book has to cover every possible angle on a subject and be at least 2,000 pages long.

    This from the guy who only reads the results of google searches.

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