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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 112. The Calvinistic System.


Comp. § 78, pp. 327–343, and the exposition of the Augustinian System and the Pelagian controversy in vol. III. §§ 146–158, pp. 783–856.—Dorner: Geschichte der protestantischen Theologie, pp. 374–404.—Loofs: Dogmengeschichte, 2d ed., pp. 390–401.


Calvin is still a living force in theology as much as Augustin and Thomas Aquinas. No dogmatician can ignore his Institutes any more than an exegete can ignore his Commentaries. Calvinism is embedded in several confessions of the Reformed Church, and dominates, with more or less rigor, the spirit of a large section of Protestant Christendom, especially in Great Britain and North America. Calvinism is not the name of a Church, but it is the name of a theological school in the Reformed Churches. Luther is the only one among the Reformers whose name was given to the Church which he founded. The Reformed Churches are independent of personal authority, but all the more bound to tho teaching of the Bible.

Calvinism is usually identified with Augustinianism, as to anthropology and soteriology, in opposition to Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Augustin and Calvin were intensely religious, controlled by a sense of absolute dependence on God, and wholly absorbed in the contemplation of his majesty and glory. To them God was everything; man a mere shadow. Blessed are the elect upon whom God bestows all his amazing mercy; but woe to the reprobate from whom he withholds it. They lay equal emphasis on the doctrines of sin and grace, the impotence of man and the omnipotence of God, the sinfulness of sin and the sovereignty of regenerating grace. In Christology they made no progress. Their theology is Pauline rather than Johannean. They passed through the same conflict with sin, and achieved the same victory, by the power of divine grace, as the great Apostle of the Gentiles. Their spiritual experience is reflected in their theology. But Calvin left us no such thrilling record of his experience as Augustin in his Confessions. He barely alludes to his conversion, in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms and in his Answer to Sadolet.

The profound sympathy of Calvin with Augustin is shown in the interesting fact that he quotes him far more frequently than all the Greek and Latin fathers combined, and quotes him nearly always with full approbation.812812    According to the Index of the List of Authors quoted in Calvin’s Institutes, which is appended to Beveridge’s translation, Edinburgh, 1856, vol. III. 626-663, the number of his quotations from the principal fathers is as follows: 228 from Augustin; 39 from Pope Gregory I.; 27 from Chrysostom; 23 from Bernard; 18 from Ambrose; 14 from Cyprian; 12 from Jerome; 11 from Hilary; 7 from Tertullian. Of classical authors there are, in the Institutes, 7 quotations from Plato; 5 from Aristotle; 9 from Cicero; 3 from Seneca; 2 from Plutarch, etc. The Index theologicus in Opera, XXII. 136-143, gives 7 columns of quotations from Augustin. This does not include the commentaries.

But in some respects Augustin and Calvin were widely different. Augustin wandered for nine years in the labyrinth of the Manichaean heresy, and found at last rest and peace in the orthodox Catholic Church of his day, which was far better than any philosophical school or heretical sect, though not much purer than in the sixteenth century. He became the chief architect of scholastic and mystic theology, which ruled in the Middle Ages, and he still carries more weight in the Roman communion than any of the ancient fathers. Calvin was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, but fled from its prevailing corruptions to the citadel of the Holy Scripture, and became the most formidable enemy of the papacy. If Augustin had lived in the sixteenth century, he might, perhaps, have gone half way with the Reformers; but, judging from his high estimate of visible church unity and his conduct towards the schismatic Donatists, it is more probable that he would have become the leader of an evangelical school of Catholicism within the Roman Church.

The difference between the two great teachers may be briefly stated in two sentences which are antagonistic on the surface, though reconcilable at bottom. Augustin says: "I would not believe the gospel if it were not for the Church."813813    Contra Ep. Manichaei quam vocant Fundamenti, c. 5: "Ego evangelio non crederem nisi me moveret ecclesiae auctoritas." This famous anti-Manichaean passage is often quoted by Roman Catholics against Protestants. Calvin discusses it at length in his Inst. (Bk. I. ch. VII. § 3), and tries to deprive it of its anti-Protestant force, but he admits it in the sense that "the authority of the Church is an introduction to prepare us for the faith of the gospel." Calvin teaches (in substance, though not in these words): "I would not believe the Church if it were not for the gospel." The reconciliation must be found in the higher principle: I believe in Christ, and therefore I believe in the gospel and the Church, which jointly bear witness of him.

As to the doctrines of the fall, of total depravity, the slavery of the human will, the sovereignty of saving grace, the bishop of Hippo and the pastor of Geneva are essentially agreed; the former has the merit of priority and originality; the latter is clearer, stronger, more logical and rigorous, and far superior as an exegete.

Their views are chiefly derived from the Epistle to the Romans as they understood it, and may be summed up in the following propositions: God has from eternity foreordained all things that should come to pass, with a view to the manifestation of his glory; he created man pure and holy, and with freedom of choice; Adam was tried, disobeyed, lost his freedom, and became a slave of sin; the whole human race fell with him, and is justly condemned in Adam to everlasting death; but God in his sovereign mercy elects a part of this mass of corruption to everlasting life, without any regard to moral merit, converts the elect by irresistible grace, justifies, sanctifies, and perfects them, and thus displays in them the riches of his grace; while in his inscrutable, yet just and adorable counsel he leaves the rest of mankind in their inherited state of condemnation, and reveals in the everlasting punishment of the wicked the glory of his awful justice.

The Lutheran system is a compromise between Augustinianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Luther himself was fully agreed with Augustin on total depravity and predestination, and stated the doctrine of the slavery of the human will even more forcibly and paradoxically than Augustin or Calvin.814814    De Servo Arbitrio, against Erasmus (1526). He never retracted this book, but declared it many years afterwards to be one of his best. He was followed by Amsdorf, Flacius, Wigand, and Brenz. See Church History, vol. VI. 430 sqq.; Koestlin, Luther’s Theologie, I. 773 sqq.; Luthardt, Dogmatik, p. 120 (6th ed.), and his Lehre vom freien Willen; Harnack, Dogmengeschichte, III. 714 sq.; and Loofs, Leitfaden zum Studium der Dogmengeschichte, 2d ed. Halle, 1890, pp. 322-324, and 317-350. But the Lutheran Church followed him only half way. The Formula of Concord (1577) adopted his doctrine of total depravity in the strongest possible terms, but disclaimed the doctrine of reprobation; it represents the natural man as spiritually dead like "a stone" or "a block," and teaches a particular and unconditional election, but also an universal vocation.815815    See Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I. 313 sqq.; and the works on the Formula Concordiae.

The Augustinian system was unknown in the ante-Nicene age, and was never accepted in the Eastern Church. This is a strong historical argument against it. Augustin himself developed it only during the Pelagian controversy; while in his earlier writings he taught the freedom of the human will against the fatalism of the Manichaeans.816816    Calvin was well aware of Augustin’s change on this point. "Origen, Ambrose, and Jerome," he says, "believed that God dispenses his grace among men, according to his foreknowledge of the good use which every individual will make of it. Augustin also was once of the same sentiment, but when he had made a greater proficiency in scriptural knowledge, he not only retracted, but powerfully confuted it." Then he quotes in proof a number of passages. Inst. III. ch. XXII. § 8. It triumphed in the Latin Church over Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, which were mildly condemned by the Synod of Orange (529). But his doctrine of an absolute predestination, which is only a legitimate inference from his anthropological premises, was indirectly condemned by the Catholic Church in the Gottschalk controversy (853), and in the Jansenist controversy (1653), although the name and authority of the great doctor and saint were not touched.

The Calvinistic system was adopted by a large portion of the Reformed Church, and has still able and earnest advocates. Calvin himself is now better understood, and more highly respected by scholars (French and German) than ever before; but his predestinarian system has been effectively opposed by the Arminians, the Quakers, and the Methodists, and is undergoing a serious revision in the Presbyterian and Calvinistic Churches of Europe and America.

The Augustinian, Lutheran, and Calvinistic systems rest on the same anthropology, and must stand or fall together with the doctrine of the universal damnation of the whole human race on the sole ground of Adam’s sin, including infants and entire nations and generations which never heard of Adam, and which cannot possibly have been in him as self-conscious and responsible beings.817817    Augustin based his view of a quasi pre-existence of all men in the loins of Adam on a false exegesis of Rom. 5:12, ἐν ὧ, by following the Vulgate rendering in quo (in whom), and referring it back to Adam; while it has the meaning because (ἐπὶ τούτῳ ὅτι = διότι), or on condition that (ἐπὶ τούτῳ ὥστε, ea ratione ut, inasmuch as). It is neuter, not masculine. On the exegesis of that famous passage, and the doctrinal discussions on it, see my extensive notes in Lange’s Comm. on Romans, pp. 172 sqq. They have alike to answer the question how such a doctrine is reconcilable with the justice and mercy of God. They are alike dualistic and particularistic. They are constructed on the ruins of the fallen race, instead of the rock of the redeemed race; they destroy the foundation of moral responsibility by teaching the slavery of the human will; they turn the sovereignty of God into an arbitrary power, and his justice into partiality; they confine the saving grace of God to a particular class. Within that favorite and holy circle all is as bright as sunshine, but outside of it all is as dark as midnight. These systems have served, and still serve, a great purpose, and satisfy the practical wants of serious Christians who are not troubled with theological and philosophical problems; but they can never satisfy the vast majority of Christendom.

We are, indeed, born into a world of sin and death, and we cannot have too deep a sense of the guilt of sin, especially our own; and, as members of the human family, we should feel the overwhelming weight of the sin and guilt of the whole race, as our Saviour did when he died on the cross. But we are also born into an economy of righteousness and life, and we cannot have too high a sense of God’s saving grace which passeth knowledge. As soon as we enter into the world we are met with the invitation, "Suffer little children to come unto me." The redemption of the race is as much an accomplished fact as the fall of the race, and it alone can answer the question, why God permitted or caused the fall. Where sin has abounded, grace has abounded not less, but much more.

Calvinism has the advantage of logical compactness, consistency, and completeness. Admitting its premises, it is difficult to escape its conclusions. A system can only be overthrown by a system. It requires a theological genius of the order of Augustin and Calvin, who shall rise above the antagonism of divine sovereignty and human freedom, and shall lead us to a system built upon the rock of the historic Christ, and inspired from beginning to end with the love of God to all mankind.


NOTES ON AMERICAN CALVINISM.


1. Calvinism was imported and naturalized in America, by the Puritans, since 1620, and dominated the theology and church life of New England during the colonial period. It found its ablest defender in Jonathan Edwards,—the great theological metaphysician and revival preacher,—who may be called the American Calvin. It still controls the Orthodox Congregational and Baptist churches. But it has provoked Unitarianism in New England (as it did in England), and has undergone various modifications. It is now gradually giving way to a more liberal and catholic type of Calvinism. The new Congregational Creed of 1883 is thoroughly evangelical, but avoids all the sharp angles of Calvinism.

2. The Presbyterian Calvinism is best represented by the theological systems of Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd, and Henry B. Smith. The first is the mildest, the second the severest, the third the broadest, champion of modern American Calvinism; they alike illustrate the compatibility of logical Calvinism with a sweet and lovely Christian temper, but they dissent from Calvin’s views by their infralapsarianism, their belief in the salvation of all infants dying in infancy, and of the large number of the saved.

Henry B. Smith, under the influence of modern German theology, took a step in advance, and marks the transition from old Calvinism to Christological divinity, but died before he could elaborate it. "The central idea," he says, in his posthumous System of Christian Theology (New York, p. 341, 4th ed., 1890), "to which all the parts of theology are to be referred, and by which the system is to be made a system, or to be constructed, is what we have termed the Christological or Mediatorial idea, viz., that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. This idea is central, not in the sense that all the other parts of theology are logically deduced from it, but rather that they centre in it. The idea is that of an Incarnation in order to Redemption. This is the central idea of Christianity, as distinguished, or distinguishable, from all other religions, and from all forms of philosophy; and by this, and this alone, are we able to construct the whole system of the Christian faith on its proper grounds. This idea is the proper centre of unity to the whole Christian system, as the soul is the centre of unity to the body, as the North Pole is to all the magnetic needles. It is so really the centre of unity that when we analyze and grasp and apply it, we find that the whole of Christian theology is in it." To this remarkable passage should be added a note which Dr. George L. Prentiss, his most intimate friend, found among the last papers of Dr. Smith, which may be called his theological will and testament. "What Reformed theology has got to do is to christologize predestination and decrees, regeneration and sanctification, the doctrine of the Church, and the whole of eschatology."

3. The movement for the revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith has seized, by an irresistible force within the last few years, the Presbyterian Churches of England, Scotland, and North America, and is inspired by the cardinal truth of God’s love to all mankind (John 3:16), and the consequent duty of the Church to preach the gospel to every creature, in obedience to Christ’s command (Mark 16:15; Matt. 28:19, 20). The United Presbyterian Church (1879) and the Free Church (1891) of Scotland express their dissent from the Westminster Standards in an explanatory statement, setting forth their belief in the general love of God, in the moral responsibility of man, and in religious liberty,—all of which are irreconcilable with a strict construction of those standards. The English Presbyterian Church has adopted a new creed, together with a declaratory statement (1890). The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States ordered, in 1889, a revision of the Westminster Confession, which is now going on; and, at the same time, the preparation of a new, short, and popular creed that will give expression to the living faith of the present Church, and serve, not as a sign of division and promoter of sectarian strife, but as a bond of harmony with other evangelical churches, and help rather than hinder the ultimate reunion of Christendom. See Schaff, Creed Revision in the Presbyterian Churches, 1890.



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