Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Characteristics of Reformed Theology

John H. Leith was one of the most influential teachers of Reformed theology in the twentieth century. A new book containing selections of his writings was published a few weeks ago under the title, An Introduction to Reformed Theology. It contains the following essay, which is a bold attempt to do what few theologians have dared to do, namely, to identify and to summarize the most basic features of Reformed theology. It is not the first attempt to do so. It may not be the last. But it opens up a conversation that Theology Matters thinks we need to have.

Richard Burnett, Managing Editor

1. A Theology of the Holy Catholic Church

Reformed theologians have built upon the work of the ancient church. It is worth noting that the formulation of Christian theology in the comprehensive way that one finds in the Reformation confessions or in Calvin’s Institutes would not have been possible in the early church. Theology always builds upon the work of the past, and comprehensive statements of the faith are achieved only with the passing of time. The Protestant Reformation accepted with little modification the great formulations of the ancient catholic church,  namely,  the  Apostles’ Creed,  the  Nicene  Creed, and the Caledonian Definition of the person of Jesus Christ. The Nicene Creed defines the decisive and final character of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. All who affirm it are united in the basic Christian affirmation that God is defined by Jesus Christ. On this point the Protestant Reformation and the Reformed tradition had no doubts.

Protestantism and the Reformed tradition in particular had grave misgivings about many of the doctrinal developments of the medieval church. The doctrines of the church and sacraments were greatly elaborated in the period between the fall of Rome (410) and the Protestant Reformation (1517). During that time, the church had to deal with barbarians of northern Europe who could neither read nor write and who had no traditions of either

Christian or classical ethics. It is understandable that the church placed increasing emphasis on sacraments, on representation of Christian truth and data in pictures and statutes, and on church discipline. The doctrine of transubstantiation received official formulation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and yearly confession was made obligatory at the same time. The doctrine of the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, penance, the mass, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction) was made official at the Council of Florence (1439). All of these doctrines of the church and sacraments were radically revised by the Reformers. The Apocrypha, gradually accepted into the Old Testament canon by inclusion in the Vulgate, was rejected. Even the doctrine of man as formulated at the Council of Orange (529) was revised to place more emphasis on the invincibility of divine grace and the bondage of human sin. In particular, the Protestant Reformation concentrated upon God’s way of salvation and insisted that salvation is wholly by the grace of God and not by any merit of man.

2. A Theocentric Theology

The central theme of theology, as Reformed theology has understood it, is not man and his plight or his possibilities, nor even Jesus Christ, but God, who is the Creator and who is uniquely present in Jesus Christ. To put it more exactly, Christian theology has to do with the triune God, who is the unfathomable Creator of all things, who has made himself known in Jesus Christ, and who, as the Holy Spirit, is the Lord and Life-Giver and speaks by the prophets.[i]

Unitarianism of the Father, of the Creator, leaves out of account the Redeemer and Sanctifier. The unitarianism of the Son forgets the Creator and the Sanctifier. Finally, the unitarianism of the Spirit becomes absorbed in the work of God in the inner life of the believer to the exclusion of his other works. Each unitarianism distorts the understanding not only of God but also of the Christian life, which is a response to God’s claim. Christian theology has to do with the one God who is personally and always related to his creation in three ways.

Writing some sixty years ago, a great Calvin scholar, Émile Doumergue, insisted that Calvin was theocentric, not Christocentric, in his theological work.[ii] The significance of Jesus Christ is so great for Christian theology that Christian piety has always been tempted to believe that no theology can be too Christocentric. For the Christian, God is defined by Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ is centrally important for all Christian theology. The Nicene Creed, which affirms that in Jesus Christ the believer confronts God himself, is the basic Christian confession. Jesus Christ is the decisive clue to the nature of the Creator and the Spirit. Our knowledge of the Father and the Spirit would be most diffused and thus not Christian without the Son who was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Yet it is equally true that in his works God is indivisible and his works cannot be separated from his unity. It is a fundamental Christian affirmation that the God who redeems is also the God who creates and who gives life and speaks by the prophets.

The insistence that the object of faith is the triune God has been a characteristic of Reformed theology. This theology has had little patience with any Jesusology type of piety, as is seen in sentimental, self-oriented hymnology. It has likewise had little sympathy with so-called charismatic movements that become absorbed in the introspective analysis of one’s own psyche.[iii] The God whom Christians worship is the Lord God who created the heavens and the earth and the Holy Spirit who gives comfort, as well as the God who encounters his people and redeems them in Jesus Christ. A unitarianism of the Father leads to an austere, creativistic faith. A unitarianism of the Son leads to the sentimentalism of Jesusology. A unitarianism of the Spirit leads to emotional irresponsibility. Reformed theology acknowledges the triune God.

The triune God is the Lord of heaven and earth. On this point Reformed theology has never been in doubt, and this conviction has given a distinctive character to the faith of the Reformed community. H. Richard Niebuhr has, as well as any contemporary theologian, analyzed faith in a way that is compatible with Reformed theology.[iv] On the one hand, faith is trust in God. It is more than mental assent. It is the confidence that is born of the personal assurance that God is sovereign. Calvin loved the Psalms because of the assurance that they give that God is the Ruler of nature and history and the Protector of his people. Significantly, the Psalms that first attracted the attention of Calvinist worship were those that affirmed trust in God amid the turbulence of life. Faith is also, H. Richard Niebuhr insisted, loyalty to God and his cause in the world. Here too Niebuhr has given contemporary expression to a fundamental theme of Reformed faith. The Christian life for Calvin was in no small measure loyalty to God and his cause.

The theocentric character of Reformed faith sets it over against every ethic of self-realization, against inordinate concern with the salvation of one’s own soul, against excessive preoccupation with questions of personal identity. The great fact is God, and the true vocation of every human being is trust in him and loyalty to his cause. Again, H. Richard Niebuhr has expressed with great insight this Calvinist conviction that the final fact with which any person has to do is God.

We may call it the nature of things, we may call it fate, we may call it reality. But by whatever name we call it, this law of things, this reality, this way things are, is something with which we all must reckon. We may not be able to give a name to it, calling it only the ‘void’ out of which everything comes and to which everything returns, though that is also a name. But it is there—the last shadowy and vague reality, the secret of existence by virtue of which things come into being, are what they are, and pass away. Against it there is no defense.[v]

God, I believe, is always in history; he is the structure in things, the source of all meaning, the ‘I am that I am,’ that which is that it is. He is the rock against which we beat in vain, that which bruises and overwhelms us when we seek to impose our wishes, contrary to his, upon him. That structure of the universe, that creative will, can no more be said to interfere brutally in history than the violated laws of my organism can be said to interfere brutally with my life if they make me pay the cost of my violation. [vi]

There is no Reformed theology that does not articulate the majesty and the glory of God. Likewise, there is no Reformed piety that does not experience the otherness of God. The God of Reformed faith cannot be domesticated or commanded by any human being. He is the living God.

3. A Theology of the Bible

Reformed theology has always been intensely biblical. The first theses that Reformed theologians presented for debate with medieval Catholicism declared without equivocation that in theology the Bible is the decisive authority. The first two theses of Berne (1528) declare:

a) The holy Christian Church, whose only head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, and abides in the same, and listens not to the voice of a stranger.

b) The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God; hence all human traditions are not binding upon us except so far as they are grounded upon or prescribed in the Word of God.

Zwingli, whose work began the Reformation in Zurich, deliberately set out, as has been noted, to preach through books of the Bible so as to present the Christian gospel in its fullness. He brought all of his skills as a humanist scholar to the explication of the biblical text in its literary or natural meaning.

There can be no question that John Calvin intended to be a biblical theologian.[vii] In his will, he identified himself as “I, John Calvin, Minister of the Word of God in the church of Geneva.”[viii] One of the most striking characteristics of Calvin’s work as theologian is his synthesis of the work of the exegete, the systematic theologian, and the preacher. This synthesis was rooted in Calvin’s conviction that all theology stands under the Word of God and also in his insistence that theology is a practical science. In a perceptive article, “The Modernity of Calvin’s Theological Method,” Gilbert Rist has written that Calvinist theology is located between the biblical text and preaching.

It is necessary to recognize that with Calvin theological effort is not the final consideration; it gives way to what precedes it and what follows it; it is only the discourse that permits preaching to take root in Holy Scripture; it is only a key, an opening, an entrance to the profitable reading of both the Old and New Testaments. Theology is a service for all men and not a purpose in itself, intelligible only to clerics. Doctrine is contained in Holy Scripture, not in dogmatics, and this is why theology is only able to echo the biblical text, to reflect it constantly without being able to add anything to it.[ix]

The interaction of theology, sermon, and commentary was carefully thought out by Calvin and programmatically developed. In the preface to the 1539 edition of the Institutes, Calvin stated that his object was to prepare students for the sacred volume. The Institutes had the modest purpose of being a manual for the reading of Scripture in contrast to the grandiose design of summas. As such, the Institutes were intentionally related to the reading and study of the Scriptures and the commentaries. This purpose persisted even with greater emphasis through all the editions of the Institutes. The 1559 preface declares again, “it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word . . .” In the preface to the French edition of 1560, which was meant for a more popular audience, Calvin expressed the hope that the Institutes would be a “key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture. . . . Although Holy Scripture contains a perfect doctrine, to which one can add nothing.”[x] Most readers, Calvin knew, would need some guidance. Calvin’s Institutes were not designed for the theologically elite but for the Christian as a reader of Scripture.

It is significant that the development of the Institutes paralleled the writing of the commentaries. In the years between the Romans commentary in 1539 and his death in 1564, Calvin commented on every book in the New Testament except Second and Third John and Revelation. He also published commentaries on the book of Genesis and a harmony of the rest of the Pentateuch, Joshua, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel 1–20, Daniel, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and all the Minor Prophets. In addition, Calvin preached frequently. This enabled him to comment on many books on which he did not produce commentaries, including Job, Judges, First Kings, and Second Samuel. The only books not commented on in the Institutes are Esther, Nahum, Second John, and Third John. It is wrong therefore to think that the Institutes developed simply as a result of theological controversies or demands for theological coherence and completeness. The section on predestination, for example, was enlarged as a result of Calvin’s study of the Gospel of John, not simply because of his controversies on the subject.

Theology has the task of clarifying the biblical message. Theology is more than the repetition of biblical words. In justifying the terminology of Trinitarian theology, Calvin wrote:

If they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture … we ought to seek from Scripture a sure rule for both thinking and speaking, to which both the thoughts of our minds and the words of our mouths should be conformed. But what prevents us from explaining in clearer words those matters in Scripture which perplex and hinder our understanding, yet which conscientiously and faithfully serve the truth of Scripture itself, and are made use of sparingly and modestly and on due occasion?[xi]

Calvin’s theology can properly be described primarily as commentary upon Scripture as a whole and secondarily as commentary upon the way the church had read Scripture in its theology and creeds. Theology clarifies and focuses the message of Scripture in the idiom of a particular situation. Explaining Scripture in “clearer words” meant, in practice, explaining it in conversation with humanist culture and in controversy with scholastic theology. Calvin was a participant in the humanist culture of his day, and every paragraph of theology that he wrote reflects this fact. His theology was worked out in dialogue with the thought forms of his age, even though he wrote no programmatic essays proposing to do this. The theological basis for a theology alive to its culture is found in the universal activity of the Logos. Those who have “even tasted the liberal arts penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom.”[xii]

Wencelius in L’esthétique de Calvin has demonstrated how Calvin used poetry in his theological task.[xiii] Calvin as a theologian was very much in conversation with humanist culture, and he posed the question of faith sharply for his humanist friends, who refused his Protestant and Christian commitments.

Theology, however, has the task not simply of clarifying Scripture but also of ordering the message of Scripture. This problem, apparently, was a major concern for Calvin. In the preface to the 1559 edition of the Institutes, he declared that he had never been satisfied until then with the arrangement of his theology. He takes satisfaction in the conviction that “I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents.”[xiv] In this sense, Calvin was a systematic theologian, providing in the Institutes the “system,” the coherent statement of Christian faith, that was mirrored in his commentaries.

Another characteristic of Calvin’s use of Scripture is the emphasis upon the whole canon of Scripture. Calvin had his favorite books: Romans, Psalms, Matthew, John, First Corinthians, and Genesis, for example; but as much as any major theologian ever has, he attempted to establish his theology upon the whole of Scripture. Critics have contended that one of his faults as a theologian was the failure to distinguish adequately between the lights and shadows of Scripture, and the tendency to treat all Scripture as on the same level.[xv]

From the beginning in the sixteenth century to Karl Barth in the twentieth century, Reformed theologians have been in intention and in fact theologians of the Bible. Reformed theology has always been more biblical than philosophical, just as it has been more practical than speculative. This has been its strength and its weakness. While Reformed scholars have not always been the most venturesome biblical scholars, they have been unexcelled in steadfastness and solid work. They have been in the forefront in the work of the Bible translation societies, in the study of the original texts of Scripture, and in commentaries upon them.

4. Predestination

Reformed Christians are universally associated with predestination. This association is well grounded in the theologies, confessions, and the controversies of the tradition. Hence, predestination can be taken as a special mark of Reformed theology. All Christians have some doctrine of predestination, but Reformed Christians have been unique in their emphasis on it and in the rigor with which they have developed it. Predestination brings the Reformed understanding of God to focus upon the believer and the church. God, as has been indicated, has been understood by Reformed theologians in a very dynamic way, as activity, force, will, intentionality. God is the Lord, the all-governing Creator. The origin of the faith of the believer and of the church must be found first in the action of God, not in any human effort. Reformed theologians have always known that psychologically and historically the life of faith and the life of the church were the work of the people of God. Yet, they also insisted that the root of this life was not first the decision of individuals or of the community but the election of God.

Predestination means that human life is rooted in the will and the intention of God. Reformed theologians used to speak of the decrees of God. In more modern language, they were speaking of the purpose of God and declaring that behind everything that exists is the will and purpose of God. No human life is ever the simple result of the forces of biology and history. Every human life has its first source in God’s intention. God thought of each person before he was and called him into being, giving him his name, his individuality, his identity as a child of God, and his dignity that no man should dare abuse. In view of the historical, biological, and psychological factors involved in the birth of babies, this is a tremendous affirmation of faith. Yet, the Reformed were so overwhelmed by the power and activity of God that they dared to make this affirmation.

Reformed theologians went further and declared that God not only called all people into being, but he had also elected them, or at least some, to a high and holy destiny. The human predicament, as Reformed theology has understood it, is that every person, as the result of sin, is self-centered when he ought to be God-centered. There is no way for a self-centered person to become unself-centered by trying hard any more than he can forget himself by trying hard. Many of the deepest experiences in life are beyond the power of the human will. We cannot by trying hard feel grateful or even love someone else. Gratitude, love, and self-forgetfulness are always elicited by something that happens to us. So it is with faith. Human beings do not believe in God by their own efforts but as a result of the outreaching grace of God, perhaps in the maturation during childhood, perhaps in a crisis experience, that elicits trust and confidence.

Reformed theologians have known that faith, as well as gratitude, love, and self-forgetfulness, are psychologically and historically completely human acts, but they have also insisted that faith is first of all the act of God that elicits the human response. Predestination was Calvin’s most emphatic way of saying that salvation is the work of God’s grace, just as justification by grace through faith was Luther’s most emphatic way of saying the same thing.

Calvin was confronted by the fact that some persons apparently did not respond to the claim of God on their lives.[xvi] With his powerful sense of God’s activity and governance of the world, Calvin could not leave this fact in mystery. He had to root unbelief in the will of God, and he believed that he had biblical justification for this. Hence, he said that God in his sovereignty and for the glory of his justice passed over some people and in condemnation of their sin ordained them to eternal death. This was hard doctrine, though logically satisfying; and Reformed theologians, including Calvin himself, have had difficulty living with it.

Several special emphases in Calvin’s theology help to relieve but do not solve the difficulties of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. First of all, Calvin insisted that the God who elects is the God whom we know in Jesus Christ.[xvii] Secondly, Calvin insisted that God does not deal with human beings as though they were sticks and stones but as persons.[xviii] Therefore, predestination must be understood in personal rather than mechanical metaphors. Love, the most unique human act, is the best human clue to what happens in predestination. No person ever falls deeply in love through his own efforts. The primary fact in love is the impact of another life that elicits love. “We are elected into love.” Yet love is also wholly one’s own act. Furthermore, when a person loves another person, he is never so free as when he does the will of the person he loves. Thirdly, Calvin insisted that Christian people are elected not to privilege but to the service of God.[xix]Finally, Calvin preached the doctrine of predestination as a source of comfort. Salvation does not depend upon faltering human efforts but upon the mercy and power of God.[xx]

Calvin located the doctrine of predestination in the ordering of his theology after his discussion of the Christian life. This suggests that predestination can best be understood not at the beginning but at the conclusion of the life of faith. It is the testimony of the believer that what has happened in the life of faith has not been the result of one’s own efforts about which one can boast but of the grace of God.

Predestination is never a source of arrogance or of presumption. It may be, as Calvin believed it was, a source of comfort in the dark night of the soul. The same can be said of the related doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. This doctrine cannot, when rightly understood, be a source of arrogance or presumption, but it too can be for the believer in the dark night of soul or for the parent whose baptized child rebels a source of comfort and hope. Predestination and the perseverance of the saints are most likely to be helpful to believers when they are appropriated as prayers, as hope based on faith in God; and this is the way Calvin at least intended for them to be appropriated.

Calvin’s formulation of the doctrine was never fully satisfactory. In later centuries Arminius (1560–1609) in Holland, Amyraut (1596–1664) in France, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in America, and Karl Barth (1886–1968) in Switzerland would all seek a more satisfactory statement of the Reformed doctrine; and none would wholly succeed. The paradox, which is grounded in Christian experience as well as Scripture, remains. From the perspective of human history and psychology, salvation and the life of faith is wholly a human act and achievement. Yet it is also a fact of experience that faith is a response to a power that has grasped a person and elicited the response. The Reformed never tire of insisting that God’s act is prior to man’s act, that God first loved us and that his grace is “prevenient”; that is, it goes before. And more than this, they dare to trust that God’s grace is invincible.

Calvin once said that predestination is nothing less than the knowledge of the adoption of God, a love that persistently and invincibly pursues the distraught and the alienated.[xxi] This was and is the saving meaning and power of the doctrine. Francis Thompson, a Roman Catholic poet, has given the essence of it powerful expression in his poem.

“The Hound of Heaven.”[xxii]

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up vistaed hopes I sped;

And shot, precipitated

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after. But with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,                                                                               

They beat—and a Voice beat

More instant than the Feet—

“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

. . . . .

Ah! must—

Designer Infinite!—

Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?

My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;

And now my heart is as a broken fount,

Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever From the dank thoughts that shiver

Upon the sighful branches of my mind.

Such is; what is to be?

The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?

I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds

Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds.

From the hid battlements of Eternity;

Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then

Round the half glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again; But not ere him who summoneth

I first have seen, enwound

With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned; His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.

Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields

Be dunged with rotten death?

Now of that long pursuit

Comes on at hand the bruit;

That Voice is round me like a bursting sea;

“And is thy earth so marred

Shattered in shard on shard?

Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!

Strange, piteous, futile thing!

Wherefore should any set thee love apart?

Seeing none but I make much of naught” (He said), “And human love needs human meriting:

How hast thou merited—

Of all man’s dotted clay the dingiest clot?

Alack, thou knowest not

How little worthy of any love thou art!

Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee

Save Me, save only Me?

All which I took from thee I did but take,

Not for thy harms,

But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.

All which thy child’s mistake

Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:

Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”

Halts by me that footfall:

Is my gloom, after all,

Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?

“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,

I am He Whom thou seekest!

Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

5. The Distinction Between Creator & Creature (finitum non est capax infiniti)

Calvin’s theology and Reformed theology in general are significantly shaped by a radical distinction between the Creator and the creature, between the self-existent being of God and the dependent being of the creature. This distinction is another way of stating the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and it also helped to shape Calvin’s entire theology. It accounts for a strong emphasis upon history and ethics in his doctrine of salvation, upon the humanity of Jesus Christ in his doctrine of the person of Jesus, upon liturgy as a human work, and upon the rejection of any confusion of the bread and the wine in the sacrament with divine reality. It results in the capacity to accept things as things and to rejoice in the “thingness” of existence, without divinizing or unduly exalting any created object. It frees the individual and the church from claiming either too much or too little for human achievements.

This emphasis on the distinction between Creator and creature was at the center of the Reformed-Lutheran debates of the seventeenth century concerning the nature of the presence of Christ in the sacrament and the problem of the relation of the divine and the human in the person of Jesus Christ.[xxiii] In this debate the Reformed distinction between the Creator and the creature was refined as the theological principle Finitum non est capax infiniti, “The finite cannot contain the infinite.” This formulation of the principle does not seem to be found in Calvin’s writings, but it has its basis in the distinction that he did make between Creator and creature. His own vivid apprehension of the presence of God as the almighty Father, Creator of heaven and earth, no doubt guided his reading of Scripture; but this is something less than a principle to which every theological statement is referred for development. Nevertheless, the distinction between Creator and creature is one of the most pervasive motifs of his theology, polity, and worship.

Calvin’s emphasis on the distinction between Creator and creature is balanced by his emphasis on the immanence of God. God is purposefully at work in his whole creation. The divine reality and the human reality do unite in one acting subject in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit does dwell in the church and in the person of the Christian. The infinite and indeterminate God does work in his finite and determinate creation. God “accommodates” himself, Calvin continually emphasized, to the human condition.

6. Theology as a Practical Science

At the beginning of his great Summa Theologica (ca. 1265–ca. 1274), one of the theological masterpieces of Christian history, Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, asks whether sacred doctrine is a practical science. He concludes that it is both speculative and practical, but his emphasis lies on the side of the speculative.[xxiv] The vision of God rather than the kingdom of God is the controlling motif. The emphasis in Reformed theology is precisely the reverse. Calvin tried as best he could to limit speculation, and he made the capacity to edify a basic test of sound theology.

Theology is not an end in itself. The Institutes of the Christian Religion had practical purposes. First of all, it was a guide for readers of the Bible, so that they would be able to see individual texts in the light of the whole of Scripture and so that the words of Scripture would be explained in language readers would better understand. Secondly, Calvin’s theological work was closely related to preaching and pastoral care. Calvin was a theologian in order to preach and to do the work of a pastor. Thirdly, theology had as its purpose the formation of human life and society in conformity to the will of God. Calvin had no use for theology that answers idle questions. He put his position with biting clarity in the question he posed to Sadolet:

Do you remember what kind of time it was when the Reformers appeared, and what kind of doctrine candidates for the ministry learned in the schools? You yourself know that it was mere sophistry, and so twisted, involved, tortuous, and puzzling, that scholastic theology might well be described as a species of secret magic. The denser the darkness in which any one shrouded a subject, and the more he puzzled himself and others with nagging riddles, the greater his fame for acumen and learning. [xxv]

Calvin was aware that Augustine had been faced with the question about what God was doing before he created the world. Augustine thought such a question deserved a serious answer, not the flippant popular response, “Mak-ing hell for those who ask such questions.” Calvin had sympathy with this latter response.[xxvi]Again when faced with the questions about the incarnation, Calvin replied:

My answer is brief: Since the Spirit declares that these two were joined together by God’s eternal decree, it is not lawful to inquire further how Christ became our Redeemer and partaker of our nature. For he who is tickled with desire to know something more, not content with God’s unchangeable ordinance, also shows that he is not even content with this very Christ who was given to us as the price of our redemption.[xxvii]

This practical outlook and theological method may in part have been due to the fact that Calvin was a busy man with much to do. Life was too real, too demanding for the luxury of speculation. It is difficult, however, to account for so pervasive an outlook in terms of the pressures of the moment. The practical bent is rooted in Calvin’s personality and in his understanding of the nature of theology. He was himself a humanist scholar before he was a reformer.[xxviii] His interests were historical and literary. He was a graduate in law. The experience of the authority of God speaking through the Bible had been an important element in his conversion to Protestantism. Finally, God’s will as the law of human life was basic to his whole understanding of the Christian life. Hence the metaphysical concerns and cosmic dimensions of Christian faith received very little attention from Calvin. In this Calvin set the pattern for later Reformed theology.

Calvin placed great emphasis upon the test of fruits. By its fruits a theology reveals its fundamental character. Theology that is written in textbooks must be written in lives. Calvin insisted that the truest test of a person’s faith is love for the neighbor. The emphasis on theology as a practical science robbed the theological tradition of its full measure of intellectual creativity and richness, but it did give theology a focus in the everyday life of people and nations that has distinguished it from other theological traditions.

7. Theology as Wisdom

Word and Spirit are the basic and essential factors in Calvin’s interpretation of Scripture and in his theology.

For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely in the Word.[xxix]

The study of the natural meaning of the words of Scripture, which Calvin advocated, leads by itself to an objective knowledge of Scripture and religion, as does the scientific study of any object. Dependence on the Spirit alone leads to irrational aberrations ranging from snake-handling to sacred sex. The combination of word, the objective study of Scripture and of the faith, with Spirit, and the personal assimilation of the data by the self under the illumination of the Spirit, leads, as Lucien Joseph Richard has pointed out, to wisdom.[xxx] Theology, to a far greater degree than any other area of scientific knowledge, grows out of the interaction of the critical reflection of the mind with the profound experience of the presence of God in personal life and with a life of obedience. A person who has lived deeply and experienced the presence of God is a better judge of the reality of God than a person who has studied about God, even in the Bible, but who has not experienced God’s presence. John Calvin, who lacked the critical tools of modern biblical scholars, is still one of the masters of Biblical interpretation.

The separation of theology as objective knowledge from the life of devotion and obedience may result either from the intention of the theologian who wishes to divorce technical skill from commitment and obedience or from the desire of the believer who wishes to adore God without bothering to understand.[xxxi] Theology without commitment and devotion without intellectual understanding are alike ruled out by Calvin’s insistence on the indissoluble unity of word and Spirit in the study of the Bible and of theology. In the twentieth century Karl Barth has declared that theology without prayer is inconceivable.[xxxii] Theology is, therefore, neither technical knowledge nor emotion, but wisdom; for it is the judgment of the whole self, uniting the critical reflection of the mind with the experience of the presence of God and with the life of obedience. As there is a wisdom of human maturity, reason, experience, and perception, so there is a theological wisdom of Christian maturity, experience, reason, and revelation. The words and propositions of systematic theology cannot be separated from their embodiment in individual lives and in community life. For this reason, parable and biography are proper forms of theology, and for this reason systematic theology, with its concerns for greater precision and clarity, still uses the concrete, parabolic language of human and Christian experience.

This essay, “Characteristics of Reformed Theology,” has been reprinted in An Introduction to Reformed Theology, edited by William P. Wood (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2023), 39–55. It originally appeared in John H. Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 96–112. The endnotes have been taken from the latter. This essay is published with permission from Westminster/John Knox Press.

[i] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Unity of the Church,” Theology Today, 3 (October 1946), 371–384.

[ii] Émile Doumergue, Jean Calvin, Les hommes et let choses de son temps, Vol. IV: La pensée religieuse de Calvin (Lausanne: Georges Bridel & Cie Éditeurs, 1910), 428.

[iii] I. John Hesselink, “The Charismatic Movement and the Reformed Tradition,” Reformed Review, 28, no. 3, (Spring 1975), 147–156, clearly presents the emphasis on the Holy Spirit in Reformed theology.

[iv] H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper, 1960), 16 ff.

[v] H. Richard Niebuhr, “Faith in Gods and in God,” ibid., 122.

[vi] Copyright 1932 Christian Century Foundation. Reprinted by permission from the April 6, 1932 issue of The Christian Century, 447.

[vii] In this section the author has made use of material that he published in an article entitled “John Calvin––Theologian of the Bible” in Interpretation, vol. 25, no. 3 (July 1971). See also the author’s article “Theology and the Bible” in Interpretation, vol. 30, no. 3 (July 1976), 227–241.

[viii] CR [Corpus Reformatorum] 20:299.

[ix] GilbertRist, “Modernité de la méthode théologique de Calvin,”   Revue de théologie et de philosophie, 18 (1968) ; 1, 20.

[x] The prefaces are printed in the English translation of the Institutes.

[xi] LCC [Library of Christian Classics], XX: 124 (I, xiii, 3).

[xii] LCC, XX: 53 (I, v, 2).

[xiii] Léon Wencelius, L’esthétique de Calvin (Paris : Société d’Édition  “Les Belles Lettres, ” n.d.).

[xiv] “Preface to the Institutes,” 1559 ed., XX:4.

[xv] E.g., James Mackinnon, Calvin and the Reformation (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1936) and E. Choisy, La théocratie à Genève au temps de Calvin (Geneva: J.G. Fliek, 1897).

[xvi] LCC, XX: 719–720 (III, xxi, 1).

[xvii] [xvii] See the author’s dissertation, “John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life” (Yale University, 1949), 171 ff.

[xviii] Ibid., pp.190 ff.

[xix] LCC, XXI: 960–961 (III, xxiii, 12).

[xx] “The Eternal Predestination of God,” CR 8:260.

[xxi] “Antidote to the Council of Trent,” CR 7:479.

[xxii] Francis Thompson, The Poems of Francis Thompson (London: Hollis and Carter, Ltd., 1947), pp. 101, 104-106.

[xxiii] See E. David Willis, Calvin’s Catholic Christology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966), for a discussion of the so-called extra calvinisticum.

[xxiv] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washborne Ltd, 1920) pt.1, q.1, art. 4, 6.

[xxv] “Reply to Sadolet,” CR 5:396–397; LCC 22:233.

[xxvi] LCC, XX: 160 (I, xiv, 1).

[xxvii] LCC, XX: 469 (II, xii, 5).

[xxviii] Bohatec, Budé und Calvin. Quirinus Breen, John Calvin, a Study in French Humanism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931) Humanistic sources of Calvin’s thought ought not to be emphasized at the expense of other sources, such as the theologians of the Ancient Church and his dialogue with the scholastic theologians.

[xxix] LCC, XX: 95 (I, ix, 3). Cf. Bohatec, Budé und Calvin, pp. 119ff.

[xxx] Lucien Joseph Richard, The Spirituality of John Calvin (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1974), 91ff.

[xxxi] Cf. Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ, trans. Ronald Knox and Michael Oakley (London: Burns & Oate, 1959).

[xxxii] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958),IV/3.2:882.

John Leith
John Leith
John H. Leith (1919–2002) served as the Pemberton Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, from 1959 to 1990.


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