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Calvinism and Bungee Jumping: A Review Article

Category Book Reviews
Date January 6, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Calvinism: A History by D. G. Hart [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013], 339pp, $40.00/£25.00, ISBN 978 0 30014 879 4.

Professor Darryl Hart has taken the plunge. A specialist in the history of twentieth-century American evangelicalism, especially Presby­terianism, he has a string of impressive publications to his credit such as Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (2003). He is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, founded by Machen, and has written their denominational history. Now in this new book the good professor leaves his specialist subject behind and sets out to narrate the history of Calvinism, not just in America but across the continents, from its sixteenth-century origins to the present day. It is nothing less, as Hart himself tells us, than ‘an audacious undertaking’ (p. viii). Similar surveys are usually multi-authored, like Calvin and his Influence 1509-2009, edited by Irena Backus and Philip Benedict (OUP, 2011). Benedict’s massive and ground-breaking monograph, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (Yale, 2002), stops at the end of the seventeenth century. But Hart bravely tackles half a millennium single-handedly. He freely acknowledges that as a result he is forced to make pronouncements on subjects and eras in which he has ‘no professional competency’, and diving into this terra incognita is ‘almost as scary as bungee jumping’ (p. viii). It is an apt image. As we rush through numerous scenes from Calvinism’s history, hurtling down the centuries on the end of a metaphorical bungee rope, it is easy to lose perspective. Important distinctions are blurred, details are mistaken, and major features are missed altogether.

Beginning with a basic introduction to the European Reformation, we travel at speed across Switzerland, Germany, France, England, Poland, Hungary, Scotland, the Netherlands, South Africa, and New England. There is plenty of good informative material. The best chapter, inevitably, is on American fundamentalism which Hart knows best. Another highlight is the sketch of Calvinist missions in India, Ghana, Korea, Brazil, and elsewhere. The introductions to the Disruption of the Scottish Kirk and the launch of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN) are sure-footed. Hart shows how Reformed Protestantism became a global faith and how the centre of gravity gradually shifted from Europe’s national churches to ‘Calvinism’s colonial outposts’ (p. 105). He demonstrates convincingly that Calvinism has an ‘uncanny record of adapting to new environments’ (p. 139), and argues that the flexibility of Presbyterian forms of government which Calvin pioneered in the 1540s deserves much of the credit for its adaptability. Many fascinating facts are packed into a limited space, sometimes with a journalistic turn of phrase. We learn that after Zwingli’s death Reformed Protestantism was ‘on the ropes’, and that John Calvin ‘came with baggage’ (pp. 13, 18). Calvinism was ‘the faith of the underdog’ in the Holy Roman Empire; its global expansion always had ‘Swiss fingerprints’ (pp. 64, 71).

Hart’s analysis is quietly sympathetic, but not uncritical, and there is no hint of triumphalism. He resists the interpretations of older authors that Calvinism was responsible for the blessings of democracy and prosperity in the Western world. On the contrary, he asserts that it was ‘as much an agent of authoritarianism and intolerance as it was of liberty and popular sovereignty’ (p. 304). He criticises the Puritans in particular because their expectations of holiness were too high and they failed to forge a godly society (p. 115). Indeed Hart has deliberately set out to write a story devoid of ‘power, heroism, and genius’. Calvinism spread globally, he suggests, not because of thrilling theology or visionary leadership, but by ‘the ordinary — and often accidental — efforts of average pastors and lay people’ who migrated to new lands (p. xii). It is certainly a remarkable tale, though we missed the passionate vivacity and colourful dynamism of the major Reformed personalities.

Inevitably there are some factual slips, perhaps a result of Hart’s desire to narrate the ‘big picture’ whilst skipping the finer details. Let us sample a few pages on Reformation England. We are told that Henry VIII wanted his scholars to argue that he was ‘the most superior ruler on the planet’ (p. 26), a remarkable assertion. The king may indeed have been a megalomaniac but even this was beyond Archbishop Cranmer’s brief. We read that Cardinal Wolsey enjoyed the support of Anne Boleyn (p. 35), whereas in fact they were implacable enemies and she helped to engineer his downfall — presumably Thomas Cromwell is meant. Hart repeats the gossip that Anne of Cleves was no match for Henry’s sexual appetite (p. 36), a story which the king liked to tell — in fact he was probably impotent and his last three marriages were unconsummated. John Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women was not directed at the Protestant Queen Elizabeth (p. 52). The tract was published in March 1558, in Geneva not in Edinburgh, before Elizabeth’s accession to the throne and with three Roman Catholic queens in view, Mary Stuart of Scotland, Mary of Guise (regent of Scotland) and Mary Tudor of England. In the next century, we hear that the Savoy Assembly of 1658 took place at ‘Savoy in England’ (p. 113), as if Savoy were a place rather than the former royal palace on the Strand. These are minor slips, but they undermine readers’ confidence. More problematic is Hart’s misplaced theological assertion that Queen Elizabeth’s ecclesiastical policies were a via media between the extremes of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (p. 39). This is a highly tendentious claim, a myth which the Tractarians invented in the 1830s and loved to peddle. Certainly she frustrated her Calvinist bishops by restricting the prophesyings and conciliating the Lutherans, but it is wrong to suggest with John Keble and John Henry Newman that she was not truly Protestant.

Every historical survey is necessarily selective, not least one which sweeps so quickly around the globe and down the centuries. Nevertheless, some of the gaps in Hart’s story are unexpected, to say the least. It might cheekily be re-titled A Narrative of Surprising Omissions. Large swathes of the Calvinist fraternity seem to have been airbrushed from history. Let us take England again as an example. Elizabethan Puritanism is given only one page. The greatest Calvinist theologian of that generation, William Perkins, is granted half a sentence and all we learn is that he pursued ‘introspective piety’ by seeking evidence of predestination in the Christian life (p. 84). Concerning the prince of Puritans, John Owen, Hart acknowledges his extensive influence in one line and then casts him aside (p. 113). There is one sentence only on the Great Ejection, portrayed as a straight choice between the Solemn League and Covenant or submission to bishops. In the eighteenth century, George Whitefield languishes in the wings, mentioned en passant, though Lady Huntingdon and Calvinistic Methodism are passed over in silence. Most startling of all, Charles Spurgeon is not once named. If ever there was a Calvinistic leader of global stature, on either side of the Atlantic, Spurgeon is the man, and yet in Hart’s account it is as if he had never been born. The same appears to be the case for other heavyweights like J. C. Ryle and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. And yet, still the surprises continue when we see who is included. Friedrich Schleiermacher is named as one of the greatest Reformed theologians of the nineteenth century and Karl Barth is lauded for his ‘almost mystical’ Calvinism (pp. 274-5). Indeed Barth receives a whole chapter while Spurgeon not a single word! Hart praises Barth’s ‘breathtaking recovery of church dogma’ (p. 286) and proclaims that his use of Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism surpassed the best theological efforts of Scotland, the Netherlands, and the United States. In the book’s climax Barth is presented as the best answer for pastors and scholars today who want ‘serious engagement with Reformed doctrine without the stigma of separatism that haunted the followers of Chalmers, Kuyper, and Machen’ (p. 294).

The volume’s greatest drawback is that throughout the text we are never told what Calvinism actually is, theologically. It is not clear how Reformed Protestantism is to be differentiated from generic Protestantism, or how Calvinism and evangelicalism are related. Indeed there is very little theology in the book and scant consideration of the major Calvinist writings. Confessional statements like the Heidelberg Catechism and the Synod of Dort are touched upon, but there is little analysis of wider Calvinist teaching about key gospel themes. Even the Institutes are skated over quickly. We are teasingly told that the Puritans had a ‘vision of personal, social, and ecclesiastical reform’ (p. 115), but not what that vision entailed or why they thought it important. By the end of the book we are left wondering, why would anyone want to be a Calvinist? The movement’s real heartbeat is missing. Hart avoids the Himalayas of Reformed theology, for the more prosaic foothills of church and state.

Hart’s central thesis is that Calvinism flourished when it broke free from the civil authorities. There are strong echoes here of his recent polemical writings, which seek to persuade conservative Christians to keep out of politics, such as A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (2006), and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (2011). He speaks repeatedly of ‘the curse of magisterial reform’ (pp. 139, 143-4). Expansion into the New World led to the blossoming of Reformed Protestantism’s ‘sweetest fruit’ because the colonists were forced to adopt a voluntary church pattern, sustained by personal choice and private finance, no longer propped up by the king or the city council (p. 115). This explains, in Hart’s schema, the emergence of American Presbyterianism as the powerhouse of international Calvinism, a point he drives home with his chapter headings, ‘The Land of the Free’ and ‘An Exhausted Europe’. In the nineteenth century the Old World at last began to catch up with America’s discovery of spiritual liberty. Both Thomas Chalmers in Scotland and Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands came to realize that ‘the path to rejuvenating Calvinism lay in leaving behind the ecclesiastical establishment’ (p. 247). By extricating the mission of the church from state patronage they departed from the original polity of Calvin’s Geneva but, paradoxically, thereby recovered the reformer’s true insights about religious freedom. This thesis is interesting and Hart’s arguments are well made. But still we are left wondering, is this really Calvinism’s major contribution to world Christianity or the professor’s personal hobbyhorse? When Reformed Protestantism is weighed in the scales after half a millennium, is its teaching on civil authority really its greatest legacy? Surely there must be more to Calvinism than this!

This is not the history of Calvinism we expected. The balance is all wrong. After his global tour, Hart cautions: ‘Identifying what was distinct about Calvinism in all of these settings became increasingly difficult, beyond formal membership in an international association of churches that called itself Reformed’ (p. 204). But here is the nub of the issue. The book is marketed as a history of Calvinism, not a history of ‘the Reformed churches’, nor a denominational survey of global Presbyterianism. Calvinism and Presbyterianism are not the same. Perhaps the paucity of treatment, or entire absence, of Perkins, Owen, Whitefield, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones is explained by their lack of Presbyterian credentials? Though then we are still left wondering how Thomas Cartwright and the early English Presbyterians can have been missed. We warmly applaud and commend Darryl Hart for taking the plunge and having the courage to attempt this grand project. He has discovered that doing historical writing on the end of a bungee rope can be a risky business.

Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford. This review first appeared in The Banner of Truth, No. 602 (November 2013).

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