Blaming Beza


For much of the 20th century—especially its second half—it has been fashionable in theological circles to assume that the school of thought commonly known as Calvinism has represented, to one extent or another, in one way or another, a departure from the thinking of its namesake, John Calvin (1509-1564), rather than a faithful transmission of it. The basic argument has assumed many forms, but they all essentially amount to attempts to disassociate the great Reformer from one or more undesired theological conclusions.

For the most part, this has been a topic for specialists: historical theologians, for the most part. But over the decades this novel assumption has trickled down through the drainpipes of academia and into the fertile imaginations of a wide variety of untrained theological ax grinders who have used it as a perennial chopping block. Take for example the gleeful comment of Luis Palau featured on the back of the 1997 Paternoster reprint of R.T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649: “It opened my eyes to who Calvin really was. I learnt Calvin was not a Calvinist!”

But for the truly banal who prefer to get all their information third-hand, there is the following sophomoric reconstruction:

Calvinism as practiced today has less to do with John Calvin (1509-1564), the great Swiss Reformer, than it has to do with some of Calvin’s successors a hundred years later. …

…after Calvin’s death, I think a terrible convergence occurred, something like the Perfect Storm, when the massive low-pressure system of theistic determinism (Calvin-the-next-generation via Beza & Co.) synergized with the strengthening hurricane of mechanical determinism (Sir Isaac Newton) and then drew strength from the high-pressure system of rationalistic philosophy (Descartes and others). The perfect storm produced a whole new landscape where mechanisms were seen as the ultimate reality, and where God was promoted to chief engineer, controlling the whole machine.

[Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan, 2004), 186, 187.]

McLaren’s reference to Theodore Beza (1519-1605) traces back to Karl Barth’s 1923 allegation that “…Calvinist Christianity under [Beza’s] hands has become something different…” (The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, Darrell L. Guder and Judith J. Guder, translators, [Louisville, KY, USA: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002], 121; italics in the original text). While Barth’s conclusions have since been discredited, his analysis was at least disciplined by actual research in the primary sources. Such cannot be said for McLaren’s ahistorical riffs. Aside from the obvious anachronism of placing Newton prior to Descartes, if you do not know enough to be embarrassed by his pretentious exercise in connecting such unrelated dots, then you seriously need to snag a copy Richard A. Muller’s Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Academic, 2012) and digest it thoroughly.

Calvin Against The Calvinists?


The phrase “Calvin against the Calvinist” appears to have been coined in the 1960s by Basil Hall, who used it as the title of his contribution to John Calvin: A Collection of Distinguished Essays, Gervase E. Duffield, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), 19-37, in which Hall took Barth’s “Blaming Beza” football and attempted to move it down field. But what if there was never anything to actually blame Beza for? What if, in fact, Beza did not significantly depart from Calvin’s thinking or do anything to reshape Reformed theology in his own image? After all, no one in the 16th century seemed to notice that he did, and it’s not as though the theologians in those days were intellectual slouches. If it took nearly 400 years for anyone to even allege that Beza had performed such an amazing bait-and-switch, doesn’t that place the burden of proof on those making the allegations?

Alas, much of the history of 20th century theology revolves around its cultivated ineptitude for handling primary sources! But it is here where Muller’s immense contribution to  setting the record straight on the relationship between Calvin and those who followed him in the Reformed tradition has already established a legacy that will keep future generations of scholars forever in his debt. The first of his four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, ca. 1520 to 1725, 2nd edition, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Academic, 2003) came out in 1987 and wasted no time in subjecting the “Blaming Beza” thesis to withering scrutiny (e.g., Volume 1, page 128). Carl Trueman summarizes the fruits of Muller’s leadership:

The last three decades has seen a major reassessment of the relationship between the theology of the first- and second-generation Reformed theologians, such as Zwingli and, more particularly, Calvin, and that of their successors. Prior to this, the scholarly consensus had generally regarded later Reformed theology, starting with that of Theodore Beza, as deviating in significant ways from that of Calvin. Until recently, the most influential thesis with regards to this relationship has been the so-called Calvin against the Calvinists approach of scholars such as Ernst Bizer and Basil Hall. The basic thesis of this approach was that Beza and his successors were more rigidly logical, less Christocentric, more predestinarian, and less exegetical than Calvin. Thus Calvin’s allegedly pristine Reformed theology was fundamentally perverted by his successors.

The “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis of Bizer and Hall has proved influential, but is fatally flawed at a number of points. In addition to the obvious problem of ascribing major paradigm shifts in theology to one individual, this interpretation of the relationship between Calvin’s theology and that of Beza is problematic for other reasons. First, Beza’s Tabula [Praedestinationis] was published in 1555, during Calvin’s lifetime, and appears to have met with his approval. Second, the kind of diagram that is included in the work was, in the sixteenth century, to be read from the bottom up, not the top down, and thus cannot be taken as evidence of theology becoming an exercise in logical deduction from a single axiom. In addition to this, the work of Richard A. Muller on the development of theological prolegomena in the generations after Calvin has demonstrated that neither God’s sovereignty nor predestination more narrowly considered functioned as the kind of theological principle the Centraldogma [sic] thesis requires.

[Carl R. Trueman, “Calvin and Reformed Orthodoxy,” in Herman J. Selderhuis, ed., The Calvin Handbook, Henry J. Baron, Judith J. Guder, Randi H. Lundell, and Gerrit W. Sheeres, translators. (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 472, 473.]

Unfortunately, even many whose theological training leaves them far less excusable than Brian McLaren have demonstrated their ignorance (intentional or otherwise) of Muller’s deconstruction by continuing to perpetuate the Blaming Beza thesis. Witness the second appendix to Norman Geisler’s bombastic Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election (really, now?! Minneapolis, MN, USA: Bethany House Publishers, 1999), 155-160, which he titled, “Was Calvin a Calvinist?” and promoted a negative answer to that question fully 12 years after Muller’s corrective. Geisler’s bibliography demonstrates an awareness of such Calvin-Against-the-Calvinist proponents as Brian Armstrong and R.T. Kendall, but makes no mention of Muller. (Meanwhile, for a thorough rebuttal of Geisler’s thesis, see Gary L.W. Johnson, “A Review Article: Who Is A Calvinist?” Reformation and Revival 8:4 [Fall 1999], 175-187.)

Beyond Blaming Beza

Richard A. Muller

Richard A. Muller

All of the above has been merely preambulatory to my primary reason for purchasing and reading Calvin and the Reformed Tradition. My interest here lies in noting the fact that even traditional Calvinists have engaged in the methodology which assumes that somewhere along the way the Reformed tradition deviated from its original “pristine” roots, and that what is being passed off as Calvinism today is, at some level, but a cheap imitation of the genuine article. (See pages 38-39 for a summary of this methodology.) Some of these traditional Calvinists have even occupied prominent positions in Reformed academia. Admittedly, their conclusions have not always been as radical as those who have tried to deny authentic Calvinist status to, say, the doctrine of particular redemption. Nor do the relatively minor controversies that these scholars have provoked detract from the value that their bodies of work have contributed to recent Reformed scholarship. Nevertheless, they have generated enough heat and even occasionally rancorous partisanship between their followers and the unconvinced that it has often made me wonder: “What Would Muller Say?” Not that he’s inerrant, but in the current historical theological landscape, when Muller sets foot into a debate of this kind it makes a sound akin to King Kong stepping into downtown Manhattan.

My particular concern here is the positions taken by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. and William B. Evans which seek to remove the traditional Reformed ordo salutis (order of salvation) from its lofty place in Reformed theology. Was Calvin’s theology so centered on the doctrine of union with Christ that any specific ordo salutis was absent from his thought? Does one distort Calvin’s theology by “associating it with the order of salvation or with the categories of federal theology” (39)? Muller takes Gaffin and Evans to task for positing such notions: “But that is not historiography at all—and its Calvin has little to do with the Reformation or the Reformed tradition” (ibid.). He finds them both guilty of anachronism and of failing to account for key features of Calvin’s work (240), and rejects their view of a radical shift from “a union with Christ model to an ordo salutis model of the economy of salvation” between Calvin and later Reformed theologians (281).

Despite Muller’s near-legendary status, I doubt that Calvin and the Reformed Tradition will end these particular debates. But in the meantime, the book is rewarding for other important reasons, especially its treatments of Calvin vis-à-vis the extent of the atonement, Moïse Amyraut, and hypothetical universalism. Muller provides three highly-nuanced chapters (3, 4 and 5) on these topics. The book meets a need not met by Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, and I am very grateful for it.


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