The division of history into various periods serves as a helpful pedagogical tool. I walked out of my courses in ancient, medieval, Reformation, and modern history with a sense of accomplishment in having somewhat mastered important events, individuals, and trends of thought that make each period distinct from one another. Such divisions offer convenient and accessible methods of studying history. At the same time, these divisions come with serious side-effects. They lead to an oversimplification of history by dealing with highlights that fail to portray the diversity and complexities of each period. More importantly, such divisions overlook the necessity of identifying the continuities and discontinuities of each period with the period that precedes and succeeds it. Such oversight often results in oversimplification and erroneous historical conclusions.

The study of the Reformation has not been immune from such isolation and over-simplification. Recent studies into the medieval background of the Reformation have challenged the once popularly accepted belief in the complete discontinuity of the Reformation from its medieval predecessors. Moreover, the apparent continuities have shown the complexities and diversities found in both the medieval scholasticism and the Reformation(1) However, such advances have not significantly affected the study of the relationship between the Reformation and the Protestant theology of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or, specifically, Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy. The notion of a strict separation between the Reformation and its Protestant successors remains popular.

At the center of this discussion are the doctrines of the decree and predestination. Simply stated, the degree is God’s eternal ordering of all things according to his pleasure, while predestination is the eternal decree of God that deals specifically with what God willed for each person. The issue is not whether Calvin or his successors taught and valued the doctrine of predestination; rather, the question surrounds the function and the nature of predestination in theological systems.

According to one school of thought, Calvin’s understanding of predestination is foremost biblical and historical(2) This concrete formulation of predestination produced a doctrine that is soteriological (salvational) in its usage and Christocentric in its focus. But, these scholars continue, Calvin’s “balanced” approach was abandoned by his successors, who removed the doctrine from its soteriological location and placed it in the doctrine of God and the decree.(3) As a result of this relocation, the doctrine of predestination became “speculative.”  No longer a soteriological doctrine, predestination is discussed primarily within the eternal decree of God in himself rather than in its execution in history. Furthermore, the advocates of this “decretal theology” abandoned the Christocentric focus of Calvin’s formulation and made predestination the central principle from which all other doctrines were derived. Thus, some complain, Calvin’s theological successors coiled back to a “speculative determinism which Calvin had attempted to close.”(4) This line of argument is commonly referred to as the “Calvin against the Calvinists”  position.

But is this assessment of Calvin and his successors—and the relationship between them—accurate?(5)

Soteriological Understanding of Predestination

In Christ and the Decree, Calvin Seminary professor Richard A. Muller examines the merit of “the Calvin against the Calvinists”  position by analyzing the formulations of various writers from the Reformation and the Reformed orthodoxy. In his judgment, a significant continuity exists between the theologians of the two periods.

His investigation begins with Calvin for whom the decree of predestination and Christology are intimately related. On the one hand, the sinfulness of man and the resulting separation from God is resolved in the work of salvation by Christ, the mediator. Redemption accomplished by Christ and applied through calling, justification, and sanctification is historical and temporal in its execution. Salvation, then, is a historical act accomplished in Christ. At the same time, Scripture equally confirms that the author of this salvation is God. The human predicament could not be overcome without God decreeing salvation in eternity. From this perspective, salvation is an eternal act accomplished by God. These seemingly opposite conclusions are reconciled in Christ. Since Christ is both human and divine, salvation is actualized in Christ and by Christ. In other words, Christ as the mediator reconciles man to God by the execution of salvation in history, and Christ as God decreed the very salvation that he himself reveals and accomplishes in history.

A result of interrelating predestination and soteriology (i.e., the doctrine of salvation) is locating the cause of salvation in the grace of God which is consistent with the Reformed emphasis of the sovereignty of God even in salvation. Moreover, the relationship of predestination and soteriology makes the discussion of the eternal decree possible. Professor Muller states,

Indeed, the concept of predestination or of divine decrees can only be properly understood as it is seen to represent one aspect, the causal aspect, of an eternal solution to the temporal predicament: it is the vertical line of the saving will that intersects, at a particular temporal moment, the history of salvation and the life of the individual in that history.(6)

No longer is the decree a speculation into the mind of God since the decree must be examined to establish the causal aspect of salvation. Thus, the order of salvation in Christ provides a glimpse into the mind of God in the history of salvation. One conclusion from this examination of the decree is Calvin’s doctrine of reprobation.

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition, rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or death.(7)

Since Calvin formulated such an explicit statement on reprobation, the conclusion (of the Calvin versus the Calvinists advocates) that God’s decree of reprobation is a later deduction from a predestinarian theology seems unfounded.(8) A fuller picture of salvation is possible by relating the decree of predestination with soteriology.

As the sixteenth century neared its end, the Reformed concern for the sovereignty of God, especially in the work of salvation, continued. The causal priorities established by the earlier reformers became more defined and the ordo salutis (the temporal order of causes and effects through which the salvation of the sinner is accomplished) was examined in the ordo rerum decretarum, a statement of the logical priorities within the eternal purpose of God.(9) While this investigation into the order of the decree is a movement beyond Calvin’s teaching, Professor Muller’s contention is that this theological step is an attempt to affirm once again the place of divine grace in salvation while remaining firmly rooted in the temporal ordo salutis for its formulation. Amandus Planus von Polansdorf (1561-1610), an early orthodox theologian who contributed to the establishment of Reformed orthodoxy in Basel, falls within this trajectory of thought. In his much-developed discussion of the mediatorial role of the God-man, the two natures in Christ appear not merely as a doctrinal formulation of the Christ in his essence, but as an explanation for the two states of Christ in his work of salvation: humiliation and exaltation. Within this elaboration of Christology, the essential divinity of the Son and the relationship of the Trinity becomes even more explicit. Since the work of salvation in Christ is essentially a divine act that is not possible apart from the unity of the persons in the Godhead, the decree of predestination must belong to the divine essence.

To place predestination under the topic of God and providence is not to render it abstract or speculative, but to make explicit what is implied in soteriology; the ultimate cause of salvation accomplished in history is a direct result of the decree of God in eternity. This is far from an attempt to build a system based upon the decree of predestination. Instead, it was an effort by Reformed orthodox scholars to produce more precise statements on the relationship between God and his temporal work of salvation, between God’s essence and his saving action. Professor Muller concludes,

Thus, in Polanus’ Syntagma, and even in a high orthodox system like Turretin’s Institutio theologicae elencticae, where a fully developed doctrine of God and his attributes with all the scholastic and philosophical language of essence and being appears prior to treatment of predestination, the determining factor in the system is not a speculative interest in the metaphysics of causal determinism but a soteriological interest in the manner in which God relates to his world in Christ.(10)

Calvin’s discussion of the decree establishes the basic foundation upon which his successors built. Noting that the Reformed orthodox theologians worked within the basic boundaries established by Calvin, Muller comments, “What is more, the development of the doctrine of predestination in the era of Reformed orthodoxy, despite the increased recourse to scholastic argumentation and the relatively greater interest in Aristotelian discussion of causality, did not yield definitions that were more strict than Calvin’s own…”.(11) The doctrine of predestination thus serves to undergird the argument for continuity rather than discontinuity between the reformers and their followers.

Central Dogma

One of the underlying problems of those who posit a separation between Calvin and his successors is the impulse to make historical judgments based upon an oversimplification of the various theological systems. To simply designate Calvin as “Christocentric” and his successors as “predestinarian” does not do justice to the multi-faceted nature of their doctrinal systems. While “soteriological emphasis” and “Christological motif” is clear in Calvin’s writings, these particular doctrinal points did not become the starting point for deducing other doctrinal formulations. This is not to deny the usefulness of the term “Christocentrism.” The term is helpful inasmuch as the reformers “consistently place Christ at the historical and at the soteriological center of the work of redemption”.(12) However, the Christocentrism of Calvin remains an aspect of his system, not the central principle.

In the same way, no determinism or “central principle” of predestination or the decree dominates the writings of Reformed orthodox theologians. The systems of the Reformed orthodox invariably look to Scripture for their doctrinal formulation and view God as the essential foundation of their endeavors. A statement by Francis Turretin (1623-1687), a Reformed orthodox theologian, is typical: “That God is the object of theology is evident both from the very name, and from Scripture which recognizes no other principal object.”(13) In fact, the very theological system they used dictates against viewing any doctrine as central. The theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth century fully embraced the locus method in which topics of theological discussions were drawn from their exegetical endeavors. These texts were arranged according to their theological topic and published as a system of theology. Doctrines, then, are derived from Scripture, not from a central doctrine. In fact, the thought of a “central principle” is a modern theological innovation that was unknown to the theologians of the Reformation and the Reformed orthodoxy.(14)

The Diversity of Formulation

To conclude that the Reformed orthodox theologians abandoned the Reformation by examining their relationship to Calvin is built upon another false assumption; namely, that a period can be represented by a particular figure or writing.(15) Calvin is not the only theologian of the Reformation. Therefore, it is wrong to identify the Reformed theologians of the succeeding generations simply as “Calvinists.” While Calvin’s influence is substantial and cannot be minimized, the significant influence of Calvin’s contemporaries should not be overlooked.

In the discussion of the decree, an analysis of his contemporaries underscores the continuity of the Reformation and the Reformed orthodox period. At the same time, the variations found in the writings of the Reformed orthodox are not necessarily deviations from Calvin; often, they show the acceptance of alternate Reformation formulations. Professor Muller examines the writings of Heinrich Bullinger, Wolfgang Musculus, and Peter Martyr Vermigli, Calvin’s contemporaries, to provide a broader picture of the Reformation scene. Along with Calvin, each scholar exhibits an “overarching concern to delineate the pattern of divine working in the economy of salvation.”(16) Yet, their differences are just as significant for the development of doctrine. Calvin dislikes the use of the permissive decree, for example, but Vermigli uses this doctrine to explain the Fall.(17) So, while Calvin’s formulation of Christology and the double decree of election and reprobation had a tremendous influence in the Reformed orthodox theologies, Vermigli’s infralapsarian conception of the election and his use of the permissive decree also received wide acceptance by the Reformed orthodox. Thus, by moving beyond Calvin as the only representative figure in the Reformation, the perceived differences between the Reformation and the Reformed orthodoxy may need other explanations than theological innovation.

Scholastic Method

Advocating a general continuity in doctrinal formulation does not mean that Reformed orthodox theologians merely duplicated the previous generations of scholars. One significant change is the method of theological discussion. It does not take long to notice that Francis Turretin’s Institutes is considerably different in style from Calvin’s Institutes. The scholastic method that Turretin employed “elaborates, distinguishes, clarifies and finds technical formulae” for a particular topic in question.(18) Usually the word “scholasticism” has a pejorative connotation because of its association with various medieval theologians. But the scholastic method itself does not imply certain conclusions. Instead, the method provides a tool for an “academic argument … leading to the resolution of objections, the identification and use of distinctions, and the establishment of right conclusions.”(19) In fact, the drastic theological differences seen in the so-called “scholastic” theologians, such as Duns Scotus, Gabriel Biel, Jacob Arminius, and others, proves that the method itself does not determine set conclusions.

The assumption that the use of the scholastic method by the Reformed orthodox theologians made predestination determinative and central stems from a faulty conception of scholasticism.(20) Whether for polemical or pedagogical reasons, the Reformation’s successors developed clearer definitions by implementing the scholastic method. Francis Turretin’s statement sums up the opinion of the Reformed orthodox: “Theology rules over philosophy, and this latter acts as a handmaid to and subserves the former.”(21)

This historical debate over the decree and predestination presents us with two challenges. First, it urges us to examine anew the doctrine of predestination to gain greater clarity about this profound yet enriching doctrine. Second, the debate leads us to readdress the history of the Reformed tradition with which many of us identify. Even this particular debate over predestination and the decree challenges us to see beyond our narrow understanding of the Reformation and to fully embrace the rich heritage of our faith.