Calvinist History Proper
  • Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review by Leander S. Harding

Historian D.G. Hart teaches at Hillsdale College and was formerly the director of the Institute for the Study of Evangelicals at Wheaton College. He is a well-known speaker and writer in the world of Reformed theology. In this volume he gives us a one-volume history of Calvinism. He actually prefers the terms Reformed Theology or the Reformed Church to Calvinism.

He points out that non-Lutheran Reformed theology was a movement with an ecclesial expression before Calvin became a Protestant and that Calvin’s Institutes were written as a brief to win support from princes and magistrates for the faith of Protestants. This is not a book of intellectual history or of historical theology. Readers looking for a comprehensive summary of Calvinist thought and an exposition of points of convergence and divergence with other traditions will be disappointed.

Calvinism: A History
By D.G. Hart. Yale.
Pp. x + 352. $35

This is history proper and the volume of the history surveyed means that any analysis must be in very broad strokes. Calvin and the Reformed tradition are recommended for a desire to be more thorough in carrying through the biblical reform of medieval Roman Catholicism and for stressing the sovereignty of God in bringing the believer to faith, the necessary pursuit of holy living, and the presbyterian form of church government that stresses the parity of ministers and gives an appropriate place to the laity in the polity of the Church. The superiority of Calvinism to other traditions of Christian theology and practice is largely taken for granted by the author.

There are moments of theological analysis that emerge in the story, and these come in the context of the numerous attempts to reform the Reform movement. Each of these movements of renewal produces a confessional document that is then the occasion for the creation of new church

bodies. If you want to know the story of how the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church separated, this is the book to tell you.

Hart has a theory of what drives these divisions. Calvin’s reforms were made possible by the sponsorship of the city government in Geneva. From the first, the Reformed movement saw itself as actively engaged with civil society and committed to the reform of public morality and civic life. This leads to an inevitable tendency toward a lowest common denominator theology in order to encompass the largest possible coalition of Christians for the purpose of reforming public life.

In response comes a protest by those who perceive the loss of classical Reformed doctrine as a slide toward works righteousness and therefore issue a call to return to Reformed confessions such as the Synod of Dort. Conscience divides around the confessional document and a new round of church division ensues. Hart is encyclopedic in his documentation of these controversies both in the old Christian homelands and in the mission fields. The accumulation of large numbers of these stories in so few pages becomes overwhelmingly sad and a cautionary tale.

This will be a useful handbook for clergy and leaders in the Reformed world. Anglicans will find it a helpful guide to the ways in which Calvinism has influenced the English Reformation, the classic prayer books, and the split with Puritans.

The Rev. Leander S. Harding is rector of St. Luke’s Church, Catskill, New York.


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