Anyone who seriously projects to study Calvin’s theology needs to read Richard Muller’s book, The Unaccomodated Calvin. In this book Muller discusses several approaches to Calvin’s theology, which have been en vogue over the years. He is crystal-clear in his verdict about liberal, neo-orthodox and/or barthian approaches to Calvin. How well-written these studies may be and how informative to a certain level they may prove, in the end they fall short because they aren’t genuine historical.
Much of the scholarship in this century has tended to view Calvin’s theology as (miraculously!) providing its own context, and either a rather generalized view of the thought and culture of the sixteenth century or the dogmatic assumptions of a particular twentieth-century school of thought (like neo-orthodoxy) as providing a suitable backdrop or foil for the interpretation of Calvin. And, although this scholarship has produced many notable works and has, in many ways, advanced our understanding of Calvin’s thought, it has also frequently obscured the detail, direction, and immediate context of Calvin’s work for the sake of offering a normative dogmatic portrait of the Reformer. (p.78)
Unmistakably, Muller has a genuine point here. But I’m not sure he doesn’t conflate two distinct points here into one. Let me explain.
Muller is certainly right in his analysis of past approaches to Calvin in so far as they quite often appear to be a-historical. Of course, studies like these deal with the past, with Calvin’s texts, and so forth. But the way they do this is not historical. That is, there is no real search for the meaning of these texts, events, etc. in the context then and there. Calvin is treated as a contemporary. Thomas Torrance has been criticized for his a-historical approach of the church-fathers and the Reformation. As far as I can see, these criticisms are justified. This certainly was a weak spot in Torrance’s approach. So, according to me, Muller is right in this regard.
However, Muller’s target seems to be not only the lack of historicity in several twentieth century approaches to Calvin’s theology. He also seems to appeal against ‘normative’ or ‘dogmatic’ accounts of Calvin’s theology in general. Don’t get me wrong: Muller doesn’t play down the systematic impulses in Calvin’s works.In fact, his treatment of the structure of Calvin’s Institutes as ‘ordo recte docendi’ is very instructive. My point is that Muller seems to dismiss all approaches with a normative or dogmatic concern. They are doomed to fail as a viable entry into Calvin’s theology. But is that true?
Take, as an example, once again the figure of Thomas Torrance. Last holiday I read his Kingdom and Church. A Study in the Theology of the Reformation (1956). Does it meet the methodological test of a historical study? No, it doesn’t. Is he correct in all the details. No, he isn’t. Doesn’t he try sometimes to write to his conclusions? Yes, he does. But does all this mean it is a poor study? No, not at all. In fact, I found the reading of Kingdom and Church really instructive and inspiring.
It might, after all, be a case of what Muller calls a ‘notable’ work, that ‘advances our understanding of Calvin’s thought’, while at the same time ‘obscuring the detail, direction, and immediate context of his work’. But here’s my question: could it be that the many historically respectable studies of our time, throw light on the detail, direction and context of Calvin’s works, but fail to offer deeper theological perceptions and systematic connections? If I had to choose, between a mere historic, unaccomodated Calvin and a systematic, accomodated Calvin on the other hand, I’m not sure I would opt for the unaccomodated Calvin. But, fortunately, I think there is no need for choosing. We may have it both…