David A. Booth
Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism, by Philip Benedict. Wheaton, New Haven, and London: Yale University Press, 2002, xxvi + 670 pages, $40.00.
Historical theology is frequently the most helpful form of practical theology. Reformed Christians in North America are currently wrestling with many challenging questions. How orthodox does a local church or a denomination need to be in order for someone to commit his family, time, and treasure there? Should we work for reform within larger denominations with important institutions or depart into the wilderness with a tiny band of like-minded believers? How much diversity is good or acceptable in faith and practice? And, what should the relationship be among Christianity, church, and the civil magistrate? Because Reformed Christians have been grappling with such questions for five centuries, reflecting on our past is an essential aspect of pursuing faithfulness to Christ in the present. Philip Benedict’s Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed is a brilliant and delightful aid to doing just that.
Benedict masterfully conveys the broad social, political, and economic upheavals that were sweeping through Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries without swallowing up the distinctive contributions of individual leaders or theologians. As he repeatedly demonstrates, individuals are not only shaped by history, they also shape it in unexpected ways. He writes:
Clearly, the small corners of the European continent that had embraced Reformed worship by 1555 would not have assumed the importance they did had they not become home to several talented and deeply committed theologians, men who were capable of writing a body of treatises that won them admirers and disciples across national and linguistic boundaries. (115)
In a similar vein, while many historians have assumed that the acceptance or rejection of Calvinism by European princes can largely be explained in terms of political expediency, Benedict plausibly argues that:
Rather than attempting to link the enactment of second reformations to calculations of functional utility, a more illuminating approach might recognize that many rulers tried to act as conscientious Christian princes and then undertake to identify the conditions under which some found the arguments for such changes convincing. (227)
A second distinctive contribution of Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed is that it pays far more attention to the development of Reformed ecclesiology than is common among histories of the Reformation era. Particularly striking are the glimpses into how the experience of exile and marginalization profoundly shaped the development of Reformed Christianity. For example, while serving as a pastor to the immigrant community in Strasbourg, Calvin was able to gain experience in exercising church discipline. Neither the civil magistrates in Geneva nor in Strasbourg were willing to allow their established city churches to engage in such discipline (95). Benedict also traces the development of Presbyterianism in France and regularly reminds the reader that:
Although the Presbyterian-synod system ultimately came to be justified in biblical terms, it began as an improvised solution to the problem of maintaining unity among scattered congregations established without government support, and it operated somewhat differently in each country. (283)
These are helpful reminders that Christ’s work of building and refining the church is not hindered by the apparent marginalization of his servants.
This volume is also a wonderful reminder of both the diversity and essential unity of the early Reformed churches. Benedict rightly points out that the Reformed churches never became entirely uniform in their approach to worship:
The English knelt to receive communion from a surplice-wearing minister; the French filed by their minister, who was dressed in a simple gown; the Dutch and Scots sat at a table as the elders passed around the bread and wine. While the Scots uncompromisingly eliminated all holy days, they continued to abstain from meat on Fridays and marrying during Lent. (282)
Yet, such diversity rarely prevented Reformed Christians from recognizing each other, and political as well as theological concerns drove them to express their fundamental concord. This unity was underlined in 1581 through the publication of the Harmony of Confessions in Geneva. Rather than crafting a new confession that all the churches could agree to, this project sought to highlight all the areas of agreement which were already exhibited in eleven existing confessions of faith. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Lutheran confessions in this Harmony reminds us that “the boundaries of the Reformed community were fuzzy around the edge” (290).
There are surprisingly few lapses for a work of this scope. Benedict does refer to Abraham Kuyper as “neo-orthodox” where he should have indicated that he was an advocate of “neo-Calvinism” (298). A more significant misunderstanding involves Benedict’s presentation of Scripture as understood by Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. He writes: “Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin had not argued that every word of the Bible was divinely inspired; they simply believed that the essential salvific message and key historical details of the Bible were unarguable and assured” (301). Those familiar with the primary sources, such as Calvin’s treatment of 2 Timothy 3:16 or how he spoke of the Holy Spirit “dictating” Scripture, will find it more difficult to drive a wedge between the early Reformers and post-Reformation formulations of the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration. That such lapses are so rare in a work of such extraordinary breadth is a testament to Benedict’s meticulous scholarship.
Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed will rightly replace John T. McNeill’s History and Character of Calvinism as the standard introduction to the origin and development of the Reformed tradition. Not to be overlooked is how this fine work of scholarship is simply a delight to read. Give your friends a copy for Christmas and remember to treat yourself to a copy as well. Highly recommended.
David A. Booth is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church in North Andover, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, October 2013.