Where the people of God govern

Calvinism contested origins

DG Hart’s history of Reformed Protestantism takes us through its entire 500-year history – from 16th-century Zurich and Geneva to modern locations as far flung as Seoul and Sao Paulo. Reviewed for The Tablet by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

Calvinism: A history by Darryl G. Hart (Yale University Press)

Why should Catholics read a book about Calvinists? One good reason: Catholics probably invented the name.

During the aggro of the Reformation, a useful rhetorical strategy for papal loyalists was to tag the various reform movements in the Western Church with the names of leading personalities within them: the implication being that these groups were no better than fads, personality cults. That gave us such loaded terms as Zwinglian, Lutheran, Calvinist.

It worked both ways, of course, so among several variants on ‘pope-lover’ thought up then, ‘papist’ has survived into our own age, complete with its original sneery edge which, on the whole, the word ‘Calvinist’ has lost. Yet this name is still problematic. Perhaps ‘Calvinism’ was a catchy title forced on Darryl Hart by his publishers: as a good historian, he is perfectly aware that it is an inadequate description for the family of Christian Churches now spread across the world.

Calvin didn’t invent these Churches, and as late as the nineteenth century, they regarded him as just one leading theologian among several sixteenth-century Reformers. Their chosen self-description was simply ‘Reformed.’  These Reformed Christians of Reformation Europe took their cue neither from Calvin nor Martin Luther, but from religious leaders in the powerful Swiss city of Zurich, principally the preacher Huldrych Zwingli, a generation before Calvin appeared on the Reformation scene.

A year or two after Martin Luther made his protest against one very specific aspect of late-medieval religion, indulgences, and then found himself willy-nilly cast as a rebel against the whole Western Church, Zwingli began his own revolt against the church hierarchy. The relationship between Luther and Zwingli was never good, and that has made it all the more difficult to decide how their rebellions relate to each other – how much Zwingli owed to Luther.

It is entirely possible that they came to similar conclusions independently, because their stance against late-medieval Catholicism was based on the new availability in good scholarly printed editions of Augustine of Hippo, the greatest Western Christian theologian of all time.

At the heart of Reformed religion, and Luther’s too, is one major strand in Augustine’s thought: the power and majesty of God can only cast the harshest possible spotlight on our human imperfection. Only God’s love, balancing his majesty, can bring us to salvation, entirely on God’s terms – necessarily a completely arbitrary decision whether or not to grant us eternal life, never based on our piffling efforts to perform worthy actions. 

The implication is also that God’s negative decision consigns us to eternal suffering: maybe God even positively decides that. The Reformed have stuck to their guns on this more than Lutherans, but predestination is part of Augustine’s message, in turn drawn from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: so Luther, Zwingli and Calvin all stand in a Catholic tradition. All would have said they were the true Catholics, while the Bishops of Rome had altered the script. 

Yet Protestants could concur on virtually nothing else. One early definition of Reformed Protestants would have been that they were Protestants who didn’t agree with Luther on a host of matters, such as whether sacred art was permissible in churches, or whether Christ was present in bodily form in Eucharistic bread and wine.

Many Reformed shared Zwingli’s worries about the seductive power of sacred music, and to this day will only sing good biblical words in church: the Psalms of David set in the fashion of simple rhyming verse, to a handful of tunes which were the pop music of the sixteenth century.

Another characteristic of Reformed Protestants is that as much as Catholics, they take seriously the nature and form of the Church. That is why another proper name for the Reformed is ‘Presbyterian,’  referring to their passionate belief that church government should be entrusted to presbyteries, or committees, chosen by and answerable to the whole people of God.

A drawback of this is that the Reformed tend to take such matters so seriously as to stalk away in high dudgeon from other Reformed Protestants who do not get them quite right, particularly if the state chooses to interfere in the dispute.

Darryl Hart spends a lot of time in this book explaining the bewildering number of ecclesiological schisms among the Reformed.

By contrast, since the great Reformation splits, Catholics have so far been pretty good at not splintering still further (give or take a Petite Eglise or two)…

Full review in The Tablet: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/issue/1000375/booksandart

Review in The Christian Post: http://www.christianpost.com/news/calvin-not-the-founder-of-calvinism-reformed-scholars-book-points-to-other-leaders-102677/

Wikipedia on Darryl Hart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D._G._Hart

Darryl Hart @ Hillsdale: http://www.hillsdale.edu/academics/display_profile.asp?cid=859075650

Buy this book: http://johngarratt.com.au/index.php/affiliatelist?id=70&affiliateid=8

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