Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.


Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”

Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.


Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.

On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.

Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.

An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”

Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.

The Christian Doctrine of GodThe Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.


The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.

Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.

Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.

Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.

Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.


Notable Mentions

Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.

The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.

Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!


Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Priest, Prophet, King

December 8, 2014

For the past several weeks, I taught through the book of Hebrews at church. In the first lesson, I introduced the three offices of Christ (often associated with John Calvin) and referred to them throughout the course. Priest. Prophet. King. For Hebrews, as most of you know, the primary office is priest, but king is prominent as well.

For one of the lessons, I used the following video from Fr. Robert Barron, and the class really enjoyed it. It is part of a video curriculum created by Fr. Barron (see on the offices of Christ. The production quality is excellent.

As far as I can tell, he has his whole presentation memorized — no manuscript and no notes!

Bad Calvin

September 29, 2014


I don’t think Calvin could get a job at Westminster Philly:

Hebrews 2:7. Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels. A new difficulty now emerges in the exposition of these words. I have already shown that the passage is properly to be expounded as referring to the Son of God, but the apostle now seems to use the words in a different sense from that in which David understood them. The phrase ‘a little’ (βραχύ τι) seems to refer to time, as meaning for a little while, and denotes the humiliation when Christ emptied Himself, and restricts His glory to the day of resurrection, whereas David extends it in general to the whole life of man. I answer that it was not the purpose of the apostle to give an accurate exposition of the words. There is nothing improper if he looks for allusions in the words to embellish the case he is presenting, as Paul does in Rom. 10.6 when he cites evidence from Moses — ‘Who shall ascend into heaven’, etc. — adding the words about heaven and hell not as an explanation but as an embellishment. David’s meaning is this: Lord Thou hast raised man to such dignity that he is very little distant from divine or angelic honour, since he is given authority over the whole world. The apostle has no intention of overthrowing this meaning or of giving it a different turn; but he only bids us consider the humiliation of Christ, which was shown forth for a short time, and then the glory with which He is crowned for ever, and he does this more by alluding to the words than by expounding what David meant.

[John Calvin, Hebrews and I & II Peter, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, p. 22-23]

According to Westminster Theological Seminary, if the NT author is not “expounding what David meant,” then you can find yourself a new job. Sorry, Calvin. You’ll have to go to Fuller. By the way, Herman Bavinck could not get a job at Westminster either, as Wyatt Houtz has provided for us. If Calvin and Bavinck are too loosey-goosey for your Reformed seminary, then you might want to reevaluate your doctrine of Scripture.

I am referring to the fiasco surrounding the forced retirement of Professor Douglas Green from WTS. Professor Bill Evans (Erskine College) has given the most thoughtful responses. I mentioned the controversy briefly back in June:

Professor Green teaches that the “authorial intent” of the OT writers need not include an explicit christology. The divine intent, partially veiled in earlier redemptive history, was discerned by the NT writers in their (inspired) appropriation of the OT. Call me naive, but I thought this is what everyone believed.

[“Chicago’s Muddy Waters”]

It seems to me that the administration is benefiting, for their purposes, from the example of Peter Enns, who was similarly dismissed a few years ago. With Enns proving to be far more controversial, culminating in the rejection of Israel’s portrait of God in the conquest narratives, WTS can feel rather vindicated in dismissing him. Now with Green, they can likewise weather the criticism and point to the example of Enns. The problem, however, is that Green has not ventured along Enn’s path, not to any significant extent that I have seen. And if Bill Evans’ theological evaluation is sound, as I believe it is, then WTS is tragically isolating themselves — not in some brave contra mundum stance, but against the best of their own tradition.

The friendly Calvin

May 27, 2014


Today is the 450th anniversary of John Calvin’s transfer into glory, more commonly known as death. You can read Fred Sander’s fine reflections, as well as The Calvinist International

For my part, I would like to offer an excerpt from Williston Walker’s John Calvin: The Organizer of Reformed Protestantism (also available from the current publisher). Walker’s biography of Calvin was the most thorough and most acclaimed in the first half of the twentieth century, among English-language biographies of Calvin. Walker, who was an esteemed professor of church history at Yale, benefited from the massive resurgence of Calvin scholarship in the late 19th / early 20th century, paralleled by a resurgence of studies on Luther. Since then, we have benefited from the more recent biographies from T. H. L. Parker (1975), Bernard Cottret (1995), and Bruce Gordon (2009), among others. They each have their invaluable contributions toward understanding Calvin’s life, but I have especially enjoyed Walker’s biography.

Walker is not afraid to offer analysis and conjecture, with appropriate evidence of course. Calvin’s life is notoriously obscured by the minimal amount of self-reflection on Calvin’s part and even a minimal amount of contemporaneous reflections from friends. But here is a nice example of where Walker ventures to exhibit Calvin’s “winsome” character as a student in Paris:

Besides the more intimate friends already mentioned, it is probable that Calvin’s membership in that portion of the student body known as the “nation” of Picardy would bring him into close touch with all students or instructors of prominence who regarded his native region as their home. But, as these relations are inferential rather than a matter of proof, it is easy to insist upon them too much. It is evident, however, from such friendships as have been described, most, if not all, of which were now formed, that the young student at Paris must have been of more than ordinary attractiveness and charm. To win the regard of such a man as Cordier, to hold the affections of young noblemen like those of the house of Montmor-Hangest, who assuredly were under no obligation to continue a friendship had it proved irksome, above all to gain the goodwill of a family of distinguished station and scholarly eminence like that of Cop, bespeak unusual winsomeness in a student of relatively humble birth, with little save himself to offer. Nor is the quality of his friendships less illuminative as to his personal character. To attract a Cordier or the household of a Cop certainly indicates a nature attuned to the better and finer side of life. No student of low impulses, or unrefined tastes, or of a misanthropic, uncompanionable disposition, could have won the permanent regard or made the lasting impression that Calvin did upon those whose friendship it was an honour to possess.

Yet legend, reflecting it may be the severer traits of his later life, has ascribed to the student Calvin a censoriousness of judgment in his relations to his companions, and an unsociability of temper, that, if true, would paint for us a very different portrait of the young scholar whose experiences at the University of Paris have just been reviewed. A story, credited by Le Vasseur to Calvin’s brilliant renegade one-time friend and disciple, but afterward enemy and calumnist, Francois Baudoin (1520-1573), relates that his fellow students called him “the accusative case,” because of his denunciatory spirit. It is unnecessary, however, to weigh the question of Baudoin’s degree of truthfulness, as the statement is not to be found in his own published controversy with Calvin, and has no real foundation. A degree of plausibility is given to it, it is true, by Beza’s declaration regarding the friend whose biography he was writing that, as a student at Paris, Calvin was not merely very religious, but a strict censor of all vices among his associates (severus omnium in suis sodalibus vitiorum censor). Student life, as is abundantly witnessed not merely by the satires of Rabelais, but by the sober letters of Erasmus and of many less distinguished scholars, was apt in that day to be lawless and vicious enough; and an earnest, religious, and scholarly youth, of refined tastes, such as Calvin was, could have had little sympathy with its cruder excesses. But that he was misanthropic, of unfriendly spirit, or was regarded by his associates with aversion, there is no adequate evidence. The facts point to an opposite conclusion; and he appears at the completion of his course under the Faculty of Arts, in his nineteenth year, a student of high personal character, great linguistic and dialectic promise, able to make and keep friends whose interest in him must have been primarily due to the attractive qualities of head and heart which he revealed to them. The report of his successes at the University must have pleased his old patrons, the canons of the cathedral at Noyon, for in September, 1527, they added to his ecclesiastical holding the curacy of Saint-Martin de Martheville. The increase in his income was considerable, and the purpose which impelled the gift can have been naught else than a desire to aid a brilliant young fellow-townsman in his studies, for the relations of Gerard Cauvin to the chapter were already such that the benefice cannot have been given for the father’s sake. Certainly the young student from Noyon was well treated by the friends who had known him in his boyhood town and, in turn, must have possessed qualities which commanded their regard.

[John Calvin: The Organizer of Reformed Protestantism, pp. 41-43]

Once again, I highly recommend Walker’s biography, alongside the others mentioned above. I would start with Walker.

1909 Genevan plaquette

Published in 1537 and while in his late twenties, John Calvin’s Instruction in Faith is a concise presentation of Calvin’s system of theology. It dispenses with the technical debates of the day and simply presents the positive tenets of the Reformed faith. It was written in French for “the common man.” According to the translator’s foreword, “His intention was not to gain the admiration of scholars, but to inspire a simple faith in the people of Geneva. This treatise presented to the common people the essence of his Institutes of 1536″ (8).

I was reading Instruction in Faith over the weekend and came across Calvin’s statement on sanctification, which is the topic du jour in Reformed circles recently. As with each doctrine in this little book, Calvin carefully communicates the substance of the doctrine:

Just as Christ by means of his righteousness intercedes for us with the Father in order that (he being as our guarantor) we may be considered as righteous, so by making us participants in his spirit, he sanctifies us unto all purity and innocence. For the spirit of the Lord has reposed on Christ without measure — the spirit (I say) of wisdom, of intelligence, of counsel, of strength, of knowledge and reverential fear of the Lord — in order that we all may draw from his fullness and receive grace through the grace that has been given to Christ. As a result, those who boast of having the faith of Christ and are completely destitute of sanctification by his spirit deceive themselves. For the Scripture teaches that Christ has been made for us not only righteousness but also sanctification. Hence, we cannot receive through faith his righteousness without embracing at the same time that sanctification, because the Lord in one same alliance, which he has made with us in Christ, promises that he will be propitious toward our iniquities and will write his Law in our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16).

Observance of the Law, therefore, is not a work that our power can accomplish, but it is a work of a spiritual power. Through this spiritual power it is brought about that our hearts are cleansed from their corruption and that are softened to obey unto righteousness. Now the function of the Law is for Christians quite different from what it may be without faith; for, when and where the Lord has engraved in our hearts the love for his righteousness, the external teaching of the Law (which before was only charging us with weakness and transgression) is now a lamp to guide our feet, to the end that we may not deviate from the right path. It is now our wisdom through which we are formed, instructed, and encouraged to all integrity; it is our discipline which does not suffer us to be dissolute through evil licentiousness.

[Instruction in Faith, trans. Paul T. Fuhrmann, Westminster Press, 1949, pp. 41-42. The newer edition from WJK Press, 1992, has different pagination. There is also another edition from Banner of Truth with a different translator and title, Truth For All Time.]

The Christian is one who “draws from the fullness” of Christ who is our righteousness before the Father. We have union with Christ through his spirit. Since we share in the same spirit of Christ, we receive both his righteousness and sanctification. This is our “alliance” with Christ.

It is not in our power to obey the law. It is only through our union with Christ and in the power of his spirit that this possibility is open to us. Indeed, the possibility is actual through the softening of our hearts toward obedience. Calvin is clear that this sanctification, realized here and now, is a necessity. But Calvin does not place this demand upon the believer. It is freely given through the same union with Christ that justifies. In a prior chapter, Calvin defines faith as a firm confidence, “the means of which we rest surely in the mercy of God….For thus the definition of faith must be taken from the substance of the promise” (38). Faith is not confidence in one’s sanctification, for that would make oneself the object of faith. It would also make justification contingent upon sanctification, instead of upon the finished work of Christ. As a result, there would be no rest.

But in the repose provided solely by the gospel, we can rejoice in the law. This obedience is a freely given “love for his righteousness” engraved on our hearts. The consummation of this “engraving” is the glorification of our bodies in the new creation, perfecting our desires. Yet, the Christian enjoys intimations of this future glorification here and now, through this love for the righteousness of God. Calvin recognizes that “this regeneration is never accomplished as long as we are in the prison of this mortal body.” Yet, he continues, “it is necessary that the cure of repentance continues until we die” (43).

The “cure of repentance” is a good way to talk about our sanctification. It is never a sanctification that proceeds from a faultless will or disposition. Our actions always require repentance, which is to say that we always require the gospel of justification by faith alone.


Image: 1909 Genevan plaquette commemorating the 350th anniversary of Calvin’s Academy. (source)


Calvin window at Rundle United Church, Canada

Barth generally likes to treat the “subjective side” at the end of his volumes in the Church Dogmatics, after rightly hammering us over the head, for hundreds of pages, with the objective side: Jesus Christ. These evaluations of the subjective “correspondence” to God are some of my favorite parts. For example, in IV.2 he closes his doctrine of sanctification, which is definitive in Christ, by (finally!) looking at “The Act of Love” (783-824), which is a beautiful and devotional study of our graced capacity to love.

In IV.1, which I have been reading through, he treats justification by faith alone toward the end of his multi-layered account of “the Lord as servant,” which includes such marvelous moments as “The Judge Judged in Our Place” (§59.2) much earlier in the volume. He begins his treatment of faith as the “human work” acceptable to God, not because of any “intrinsic value” to our act of faith but only because God has chosen to accept it as the “counterpart and analogy to God’s own action” (615-616). Man’s faith as such does not justify him: “He needs justification just as much in faith as anywhere else, as in the totality of his being. In relation to it, considering himself as a believer, he cannot see himself as justified….” (616). He follows this paragraph with a short excursus on John Calvin’s own clarification that faith is not a virtue, as in his exegesis of Abraham’s faith. I thought it was worth posting as a whole. I have provided the translations from the study edition of the CD (in italics below), assuming that most of my readers do not read Latin and French:

Of the Reformers Calvin made this distinction with particular sharpness. Faith as such cannot contribute anything to our justification: bringing nothing of our own to procure the grace of God (Inst. III, 13, 5). It is not a habitus [disposition]. It is not a quality of grace which is infused into man (on Gal. 3.6; C.R. 50, 205). Faith does not justify by virtue of being a work which we do. If we believe, we come to God quite empty, not bringing to God any dignity or merit. God has to close his eyes to the feebleness of our faith, as indeed He does. He does not justify us on account of some excellence which it has in itself; only in virtue of what it lacks as a human work does He justify man (Serm. on Gen. 15; C.R. 23, 722 f.). For that reason there is no point in inquiring as to the completeness of our faith. Exegetes who understand the reckoned of Gen 15.6 as follows: Abraham has been reckoned righteous, and that belief in God was a virtue which he possessed are condemned by Calvin quite freely and frankly: those dogs must be an absolute abomination to us, for these are the most enormous blasphemies which Satan could vomit forth (ib. 688). As if there were nothing worse than this confusion! And, indeed, according to the fresh Reformation understanding of the Pauline justification by faith there could not be anything worse than this confusion. It is clear that if faith was to be a virtue, a power and an achievement of man, and if as such it was to be called a way of salvation, then the way was opened up for the antinomian and libertarian misunderstanding, the belief that a dispensation from all other works was both permitted and commanded. And the objection of Roman critics was only too easy, that in the Reformation sola fide this one human virtue, power and achievement was wildly over-estimated at the expense of all others. Even at the present day there is still cause most definitely to repudiate this misinterpretation, for which the Pauline text is not in any sense responsible. [CD IV.1, 617]

The “most enormous blasphemies which Satan could vomit forth” are the attempts to qualify faith as a virtue or disposition acceptable to God. Nothing worse than this confusion! And the upshot, of not making this confusion, has significant practical consequence: “There is no point in inquiring as to the completeness of our faith.” Amen. The “experimental” Puritans, and their heirs today, could benefit from that. Edwards could have kept his job at Northampton!


Image: Calvin window at Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff, Alberta

Calvin on the sacraments

August 13, 2013

Profile Portrait of John Calvin

The Reformed and the Lutherans parted company over the sacraments. Reformed leaders, like Martin Bucer and then John Calvin, genuinely strove to achieve full doctrinal unity with the Lutherans. In the following excerpt from Calvin, you can see his frustration at being lumped together with “memorialists” and other radical views:

They [the Lutherans] pretend indeed to make it their ground of quarrel, that we do not give the sacraments their due virtue. But when we come to the point, some produce nothing but bad names and blind tumult, while others, with a toss of disdain, condemn, in a word, what they never read. That they quarrel without consideration, the case itself shows.

And now for Calvin’s response, which makes for a perfectly concise statement of the Reformed position:

Without making further mention of a man [Luther] whose memory I revere, and whose honour I am desirous to consult, let me declare my opinion simply. …the sacraments are neither empty figures nor mere external badges of piety, but seals of the divine promises, testimonies of spiritual grace to cherish and confirm faith, and, on the other, that they are instruments by which God acts effectually in his elect; that, therefore, although they are signs distinct from the things signified, they are neither disjoined nor separated from them; that they are given to ratify and confirm what God has promised by his word, and especially to seal the secret communion which we have with Christ; — there certainly remains no reason why they should rank us in their list of enemies.

(John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises on the Doctrine and Worship of the Church, volume 2 of Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, pp. 223-224)

This was written following a joint statement from the pastors of Zurich (heirs to Zwingli) and Geneva, yielding a united front from the Reformed on the sacraments. If you would like to dig further into these issues, I was helped by Herman Bavinck’s discussion in volume four of his Reformed Dogmatics, especially pertaining to “sign and seal” terminology.


As is often noted, Calvin rarely gave autobiographical reflections. He was busy thinking about God. But, one such autobiographical moment appears in his letter to Jacopo Sadoleto, a bishop in France who had sent a letter to Geneva, appealing for their return to the Roman fold.

Calvin’s response to Sadoleto’s letter is wide-ranging. Much of it deals with Sadoleto’s — obviously hypocritical — charge that the reformers were in it for self-aggrandizement (honor, prestige, wealth)…you know, the sort of thing that Rome had fully institutionalized! For all of his rhetorical finesse, Calvin is livid at this calumny. Elsewhere, Calvin deals with the doctrinal issues that Sadoleto had touched upon, in his touting of the holiness and purity in the way of salvation which Rome had shepherded souls for centuries. Toward the end of the letter, Calvin gives a brief statement of his own Catholic upbringing and what chiefly brought about his evangelical conversion.

I call this his “Luther moment” for the similarity to Luther’s own crisis of conscience in regards to works-righteousness. Often Luther is accused of being overly preoccupied with such matters (doctrine of justification), which may be true, but I am inclined to think that Calvin and Luther are far more similar than not in their view of justification (against N. T. Wright et al.). Here is an excerpt from the letter:

I, O Lord, as I had been educated from a boy, always professed the Christian faith. But at first I had no other reason for my faith than that which then everywhere prevailed. Your Word, which ought to have shone on all your people like a lamp, was taken away, or at least suppressed as to us. …

I believed, as I had been taught, that I was redeemed by the death of your Son from liability to eternal death, but the redemption I thought of was one whose virtue could never reach me. I anticipated a future resurrection, but hated to think of it, as being an event most dreadful. And this feeling not only had dominion over me in private, but was derived from the doctrine which was then uniformly delivered to the people by their Christian teachers. They, indeed, preached of your clemency towards men, but confined it to those who should show themselves deserving of it. They, moreover, placed this desert in the righteousness of works, so that he only was received into your favor who reconciled himself to You by works. Nor, meanwhile, did they disguise the fact, that we are miserable sinners, that we often fall through infirmity of the flesh, and that to all, therefore, your mercy behooved to be the common haven of salvation; but the method of obtaining it, which they pointed out, was by making satisfaction to You for offenses. Then, the satisfaction enjoined was, first, after confessing all our sins to a priest, suppliantly to ask pardon and absolution; and, secondly, by good to efface from your remembrance our bad actions. Lastly, in order to supply what was still wanting, we were to add sacrifices and solemn expiations. Then, because You were a stern judge and strict avenger of iniquity, they showed how dreadful your presence must be. Hence they bade us flee first to the saints, that by their intercession You might be rendered exorable and propitious to us.

When, however, I had performed all these things, though I had some intervals of quiet, I was still far-off from true peace of conscience; for, whenever I descended into myself, or raised my mind to You, extreme terror seized me — terror which no expiations nor satisfactions could cure. And the more closely I examined myself, the sharper the stings with which my conscience was pricked, so that the only solace which remained to me was to delude myself by obliviousness.

(John Calvin, “Reply to Sadoleto,” in A Reformation Debate, pp. 87-88)

Calvin continues to recount his hesitation at such “novelty” as was the evangelical doctrine of Christ’s complete satisfaction. But,

I at length perceived, as if light had broken in upon me, in what a style of error I had wallowed….Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in the view of eternal death, I, as in duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your ways, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears. And now, O Lord, what remains to a wretch like me, but instead of defense, earnestly to supplicate You not to judge according to its deserts that fearful abandonment of your Word, from which, in your wondrous goodness, You have at last delivered me.

(p. 90)

There you have it: Calvin’s terrors of conscience, profound self-examination, the fearful judgment of a holy God — all the makings of a Luther crisis! This is rudimentary for understanding the Reformation and the confessional theology that arose from it. Moreover, the sacramental process — by which the devout are transferred back into a state of grace after mortal sin — is still unequivocally taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, under the auspices of Pope John Paul II.



Just to be clear, I have no problem with designating the Roman Catholic Church as “Christian,” and I certainly do not question the salvation of Catholics…who will, statistically speaking, far outnumber Protestants in the hereafter. One of the silliest developments in Presbyterian history is when Southern Presbyterians in the 19th century rejected Catholic baptisms!

Randall C. Zachman (Professor of Reformation Studies, Notre Dame) is one of the finest historians of the Reformation today. Professor Zachman specializes in the theology of the key figures of the Reformation, beginning with his brilliant study of Luther and Calvin published in 1993. There is a serious concentration on doctrinal nuances in his work, which makes his historical monographs especially useful for the student of dogmatics.

For your reading pleasure, I point you toward this essay I recently discovered at the Institute for Reformed Theology:

“The Generosity of God: The Witness of the Reformed Tradition” by Randall Zachman

I especially appreciated his use of Zwingli, along with Calvin, in bringing-out the themes of goodness and beauty in Reformed theology.

I’ve been working my way through the Institutes. It just so happens that I recently finished reading Douglas Wilson’s To a Thousand Generations, a defense of paedobaptism according to the unity of the covenant made with Abraham and the covenant with Christ. So, I’ve been pondering the relation of the old and new testaments: law and gospel, circumcision and baptism, promise and fulfillment, etc. In my reading of the Institutes, I’ve come up to Book II, chapter XI, where Calvin gives a brilliant exposition of the unity of faith under the law of Moses and the Church of Christ. However, he then gives an equally brilliant exposition of the differences. I was surprised by how strongly expressed are the differences. After quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, Calvin explains:

The Old Testament is of the letter, for it was published without the working of the Spirit. The New is spiritual because the Lord has engraved it spiritually upon men’s hearts. The second antithesis is by way of clarification of the first. The Old brings death, for it can but envelop the whole human race in a curse. The New is the instrument of life, for it frees men from the curse and restores them to God’s favor. The Old is the ministry of condemnation, for it accuses all the sons of Adam of unrighteousness. The New is the ministry of righteousness because it reveals God’s mercy, through which we are justified.

…Scripture calls the Old Testament one of “bondage” because it produces fear in men’s minds; but the New Testament, one of “freedom” because it lifts them to trust and assurance. [Calvin goes on to explain this using Romans 8:15, Hebrews 12:18-22, and Galatians 4:22-31.] …To sum up: the Old Testament struck the consciences with fear and trembling, but by the benefit of the New they are released into joy. The Old held consciences bound by the yoke of bondage; the New by its spirit of liberality emancipates them into freedom.

But suppose that our opponents object that, among the Israelites , the holy patriarchs were an exception: since they were obviously endowed with the same Spirit of faith as we, it follows that they shared the same freedom and joy. To this we reply: neither of these arose from the law. But when through the law the patriarchs felt themselves both oppressed by their enslaved condition, and wearied by anxiety of conscience, they fled for refuge to the gospel. It was therefore a particular fruit of the New Testament that, apart from the common law of the Old Testament, they were exempted from those evils. Further, we shall deny that they were so endowed with the spirit of freedom and assurance as not in some degree to experience the fear and bondage arising from the law. For, however much the privilege that they had received through the grace of the gospel, they were still subject to the same bonds and burdens of ceremonial observances as the common people. They were compelled to observe those ceremonies punctiliously, symbols of a tutelage resembling bondage; and the written bonds, whereby they confessed themselves guilty of sin, did not free them from obligation. Hence, they are rightly said, in contrast to us, to have been under the testament of bondage and fear, when we consider that common dispensation by which the Lord at that time dealt with the Israelites.

(pp. 457-459, McNeill edition)

Calvin’s point about the OT patriarchs and prophets is highly interesting. They were given a measure of freedom, but not complete freedom. They lack the freedom of a pure conscience, which is only given with the complete abolition of law-sin-death by Christ. How does this relate to baptism? If baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21), then baptism is a mark of an accomplished regeneration for the individual. Thus, the credobaptists are seemingly correct for their emphasis on Jeremiah 31, and the “now” (not just “not yet”) of a redeemed people as an essential mark of the new covenant, as distinct from the old covenant. Of course, if circumcision is understood as an appeal to God for a good conscience (i.e., forgiveness), then the symmetry between circumcision and baptism can be upheld, allowing the baptism of infants.

I’m still working through this issue, but those are some of my thoughts for now. Doug Wilson’s book, by the way, is very well done.