An interesting theme that has peeked its head out several times in both Oliver O’Donovan and Joan O’Donovan’s classes this past term has been the gap between Calvin and Calvinism, and I thought it would be worthwhile sharing some of their remarks here. To point out that later Calvinists were not necessarily the most faithful followers of Calvin’s own thought, is, of course, nothing new; however, it cannot be overemphasized, in light of how blithely and readily followers of the English Puritan or Scotch Presbyterian traditions identify themselves as Calvinists.
According to Oliver O’Donovan (henceforth O O’D), the Presbyterian/Puritan movement followed Calvin in about the same way that the early Anglican movement adopted Luther--he provided a convenient figurehead under which to align themselves, and his ideas were invoked when useful, but much of the impetus was quite different. Indeed, O O’D went so far as to state his conviction that the English Puritan movement was in fact more of a Lollard movement, rooted in the paradigms established by Wycliffe two centuries before, than it was ever a Calvinist movement; it had (shocking as it may be to today’s Presbyterians) too much Catholicism about it to be genuinely Calvinist, more Catholicism than any other major Protestant group. This last statement turns standard Presbyterian paradigms--by which the 17th-century Puritans and their evangelical descendants finished purging the relics of Catholicism out of the excellent, but incomplete, reforms of Calvin and the English Reformation--on their heads. What can O O’D mean?
Some discussions in his wife Joan (henceforth J O’D)’s class shed some light. The differences on issues relating to political theology and church polity are particularly significant. For Calvin, although discipline is an important responsibility of the Church, it is never elevated to the point of an essential mark. For followers like John Knox (of whom Calvin was always suspicious, and who was more of a co-belligerent of convenience than a genuine follower, according to the O’Ds) and the English Presbyterians, church discipline, understood in an increasingly juridical fashion, was an essential mark of the Church, and it was not long before discipline, as practiced in Presbyterian circles, regained much of the character of the Catholic penitential system, so that their Anglican adversaries derisively called the Presbyterians “Jesuit Puritans.” Connected to this was an increasing focus on works-righteousness, deriving in part, O O’D suggests, from a new use of the doctrine of predestination. Whereas Calvin had emphasized the mystery and inscrutability of predestination, the Puritans came more and more to insist on its perspicacity, as if we could not only know that God was in control, but read his will through outward signs. If you prospered, God was blessing you; if you suffered, you were under judgment. If you were elect, it must be visible in certain characteristic fruits. Increasingly, the marks by which one could make sure of one’s election were precisely delineated, which led to an increasingly Catholic piety focused on externals.
There was also a strong tendency, mentioned by both O’Ds, for subsequent Presbyterianism/Puritanism to do away with the large range of adiaphora established by Calvin. For Calvin, church polity was essentially indifferent--different forms could be appropriate in different times and places. The Presbyterians made presbyterianism essential. For Calvin, civil polity was also variable, but Presbyterians (particularly following John Knox) made republicanism the absolute ideal. Various aspects of church order that Calvin recommended patience and flexibility became matters over which subseqent “Calvinists” would (literally) fight to the death. Whereas Calvin had firmly insisted that Old Testament civil law was not binding on Christian polities, Knox and his followers were thoroughly theonomist, insisting on a Christian state that rigidly conformed to the specifics of OT Israel. This perfectionist goal of an authentically Christian civil order results, according to J O’D, in a slide from Calvin’s covenant of grace into a new social covenant of works, in which the salvation of society depends on a civilly enforced resolution to resist idolatry. This becomes quite explicit in the Scotch Covenanter movement.
Since John Calvin makes a rather more impressive and respectable theological ancestor than John Knox, there has been a tendency on the part of later Presbyterianism to identify itself completely with Calvin, and to read back all of its idiosyncratic Puritanism into Calvin. Reformation scholarship has now increasingly demonstrated the untenability of this reading, and it is about time for Presbyterian churches to catch up, and face up to this deeply-embedded schizophrenia.