I’ve been heavily involved on a sub-thread over at Uncommon Descent, basically denying the assertion that Calvin’s view of human will is deterministic. The actual point made was that this determinism renders Darwinian evolution particularly congenial to Calvinists, but I’ve steered clear of that as its logic completely escapes me. Nevertheless I’ve stuck on the thread not because I expect to persuade my interlocutor (how could I? He has written a book spelling out his own, unique, view of the Scriptures) but because other readers may find the questions raised of value, given the superficial Arminianism prevalent in Evangelicalism both in the US and here in the UK.

In that thread, Gregory has been cheering me on very encouragingly from the sidelines (while urging both of us, in vain, to get back to the main subject of the thread!). Thanks Gregory! But I want to take slight issue with him on one point he made there. If I were to raise it there it would disrupt the thread even further, but it still seems worth discussing, so here seems to be the right forum.

The point was raised when I suggested that my views were better described as “Reformed” than “Calvinist” as I prefer to avoid the suggestion of unthinking devotion to some founding guru. Gregory replies:

‘Reformed’ – the past tense signifier – implies looking backwards to what has already happened. It implies (sometimes stubborn) completion, rather than a forward-looking contemporary real human journey. It is not a progressive signifier, it is regressive (out of date). That’s why ‘Reformed’ is a declining branch. Because of this, it is considered as hyper-conservative (cf. anti-free will) and entirely anti-liberal, sometimes unreasonably, stuck in the 16th century, not ready for the 21st.

Factually, he may well be right about how Reformed Christianity is viewed by others, and even many of its own shortcomings. But here I want to argue about the word “Reformed”, because it seems to me that Gregory’s critique is an example of how arguments are often (nowadays) more reliant on how words make one feel than on thorough reasoning. I pointed out another example here, which interestingly (to me) overlaps with Gregory’s drawing a parallel between bakward-looking “Reformed” and backward-looking “design” in the ID movement. However, I’ll leave the latter and concentrate on “reformed”.

At the heart of the word is the idea that something of value happened once-for-all, which has progressively been lost by accretion and loss in the time since. In case of the Reformation, that something was the undeniably unique event of the Incarnation and Glorification of the Son of God, and the process thereafter the morass of superstition and politics that had overtaken the Mediaeval Church. Leapfrogging over that to look at the original “formation” appears, under those circumstances, to be very reasonable. It is not a conservative movement, but a renewing one.

Indeed, it would have been equally valid to call it the “Rebirth” movement, but that term had already been recently used, as “Renaissance”, for the Humanist movement from which, partly, the Reformation sprang. The Renaissance, primarily, was the rediscovery of what was deemed to be a purer ancient classical wisdom, supposedly buried by the Dark Ages of Europe. That this is not an entirely accurate assessment isn’t the issue here, but the use of the word. For all that the Renaissance looked back to a Greek Golden Age, it was utterly progressive in its agenda.

And so was the Reformation, both in concept and in effect. In concept the aim was a Church newly equipped to serve God by being purged of the accumulated dross of a millennium and stripped to the God-given core of Christ’s teaching – of course, seen as preserved in the Apostolic writings. It was always expected that this purging of rubbish must lead to further doctrinal development and practical application into the future.

In effect, significant new strands of Christian teaching developed, for the first time consciously dependent only on the original divine deposit – though the tradition was still valued where it cast light on this. But also the Reformation’s agenda led to huge and progressive changes across the Protestant societies it influenced, and also necessarily in the rest of the world. It is a commonplace that the development of western liberal ideals like democracy, freedom of speech, religious tolerance and so on grew directly or indirectly out of the programme of the Reformers. Equally uncontroversial are the emphases on popular literacy, family godliness, the spiritual vocation of secular occupations and other socially transforming developments. The seriously-made claim that John Calvin was the father of the Enlightenment may be more controversial (and not altogether flattering to Calvin), but the logical rigor of Reformation theology was a great influence on early science, arguably influencing not only the Protestants like Newton and Kepler, but Catholics like Galileo.

Whether or not this last is the case, science must still be seen also as a reformation movement, as opposed to a revolutionary or conservative one. Conservatism looks to the past, essentially, in the belief that the traditions of the past are likely to be more reliable than the innovations of the present. In this it speaks some truth, but unlike reformation(ism), which leapfrogs the past to get back to some original root, conservatism tends to value the past for its own sake. Revolution, in contrast, is the opposite: it dismisses the value of what is past altogether, valuing the new because it is axiomatically better, or sometimes just because it is new and more exciting, for better or worse.

Science is said to have its Copernican Revolution. But was it actually a revolution? I argue that it was instead, consciously, a reformational change. Copernicus said:

To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.

This “revolution”, in Copernicus’ eyes, was to leapfrog the errors of the philosophers going back to Aristotle and beyond, and view again the Universe as God actually “formed” it, just as the Reformation sought Christianity as originally “formed” by Christ. Copernicus is not alone in such a “backward looking” view. Kepler:

The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.

Tycho Brahe:

Those who study the stars have God for a teacher.

Francis Bacon, who interestingly was an anti-Calvinist and built his theology conservatively on the Patristic literature, was even so a product of the British Reformation, and provides a justly celebrated quote directly linking the scientific “revolution” with the Protestant one:

God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.

It appears to me that many of the early scientists held this “reforming” view because their theology was also influenced by reformation. The Council of Trent was the Roman Church’s acknowledgement of accumulated error and the need to recover something lost, though of course that something, rightly or wrongly, included tradition and Papal supremacy. Catholics like Galileo worked in this environment, quite apart from the direct influence of their Protestant peers.

Polemically, a revolutionary view of science (excluding “coercive” and “rigid” design) and religion (excluding “backward-looking” reformation) can be made to look attractive. But like early science, such a view is built on theological suppositions, only in this case revolutionary ones without the foundation of Scripture. Both religion and science are a work in progress because God and his creation are a work in progress. Space doesn’t allow that to be spelled out, but a little thought will lead to many modern concepts like Open Theism, Process Theology, Emergence, a self-creating creation, Scripture as a human exploration rather than a divine deposit and so on.

But revolutionary schemes can be shown to have shortcomings, too. Perhaps the easiest way is to invite the reader to look back on the century of political and ideological revolutions in Russia, China or North Korea; in Iran or Pakistan; in South America or Africa. If one had to choose, would one prefer Mao’s Perpetual Revolution, or Calvin’s Semper Reformans?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to Reformed/Reformational/Reforming

  1. Cal says:

    I have to make a comment that the trap is to stick ourselves in 16th century conflicts and not be ‘semper reformanda’. I like a lot of what Calvin had to say (despite his students errors) but like you said, I’m not attached to any man but Lord Jesus and Calvin has errors of his own (as we all do).

    Also, I’d recommend finding and reading Leonard Verduin’s “The Reformers and their Stepchildren”. The Anabaptists and the so-called ‘proto-protestants’ were (as Verduin and I both think) the full-expression of what Reformation means, going back to the words of Christ. Verduin is Reformed (and I lean that way!). The ideas of separation of Church from State, a church made up of confessing believers and discipleship (including education and living a life in the footsteps of Jesus) were all from the Radicals which all have their root in the first disciples.


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    Your first point is true – witness things like Northern Irish Presbyterians still seeing the Pope as the Antichrist whiilst blind to Satan’s more recent manifestations. Yet the flip side is “Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of history end up repeating them.”

    The 16th century arguments about freewill, for example, were the result of the Church’s forgetting the issues in the 5th century that Augustine and the ensuing church councils had had to sort. The current attempts to rehabilitate Pelagius smack of the same. The predominant mood in Evangelicalism today, it seems to me, is that we are the only insightful people who have ever lived: how could everyone have got it so wrong for 2000 years?

    There’s endless debate about how beneficial the radical reformers were compared to the magisterial reformers. But as a member of a quite conventional Baptist Church that start as 17th century Anabaptists (we still have the building to prove it!) it’s clear that they too sought a reforming agenda, as you say: recovering the original gospel. It’s also clear that any excesses and errors were corrected once people saw where they’d departed from the original deposit of truth.

    One later example of that might be Wesley’s doctrine of Perfection, which he pushed very strongly at the time, but which was quietly dropped as it proved to have a poor foundation in Scripture (as well as in fact!).

    Those that went badly off the rails were the ones who most favoured new revelation from God, a total disdain for God’s previous work in the Church and so on.

  3. Cal says:


    Good follow up points!

    My only quarrel is the discussion of freewill in the 16th century. Are we talking about Dordt and Jacobus Arminius? Or Luther’s followers and Calvin? If the former, Arminius is one of the most misunderstood writers. What we see today as ‘Arminianism’ is nothing more but quasi-Pelagianism (just as a lot of what passes as Reformed is quasi-Fatalism). Arminius valued the writings of Calvin and the Remonstrances posted by his students are rather reformed (a name they sought to keep!). I think there is a huge misunderstanding on this debate and that Calvin, Amyraut and Arminius were much closer to each other than it would seem.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    No, that was all in the following century. I had in mind Calvin’s dialogue with the Catholic Pighius.

    Of course you’re right about the current misinformed views, including not knowing in which order things came. But there was much nuancing of opinion then – the “Calvinist” Richard Baxter was probably closer to Amyraut in some ways.

  5. Cal says:

    My apologies, I should’ve made sure of my dates!

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    That’s OK – rule of thumb is Calvin first, Arminius last, and Pighi in the middle.

  7. Cal says:

    I knew that, I just thought the Remonstrances happened at the close of the 16th. I didn’t know anything about Pighi though. I’ll have to read up on him some more (besides a cursory wiki search)

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