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Union with Christ and Reformed Orthodoxy: Calvin vs. the Calvinists?

John V. Fesko

Introduction

In the twentieth century, some historians claimed that Calvinists distorted the theology of their founder, John Calvin (1509–64), but they have been ably refuted through primary-source evidence. Reformed Orthodoxy, the label applied to post-Reformation Reformed theology, stands in doctrinal continuity with the theology of the Reformation.[1] But despite this trenchant critique of the Calvin versus the Calvinists thesis, the claim persists. In earlier versions of the Calvin versus the Calvinists argument, scholars pitted Calvin’s supposedly Christ-centered theology against the supposed central dogma of predestination (the principle from which the Reformed deduced their entire system of theology). Calvin had no such central dogma because he did not treat predestination under the doctrine of God, as the Reformed Orthodox did, but in book three of his Institutes, under the doctrine of soteriology. In these versions of the argument Calvin looks a lot like Karl Barth (1886–1968) rather than an Early Modern Reformed theologian. Nevertheless, Charles Partee suggested that union with Christ, not predestination, was Calvin’s “central affirmation.”[2] Partee presses this point in his later book on Calvin’s theology with a twofold claim. First, though many Reformed theologians contributed to the complex development of the tradition, Partee believes “we can still affirm John Calvin as the greatest systematic thinker among them.”[3] Second, in line with his earlier claim, Partee claims that union with Christ is Calvin’s central teaching.[4] Partee argues that Reformed Orthodoxy departed from Calvin’s teaching: “To put the point briefly and sharply, Calvin is not a Calvinist because union with Christ is at the heart of his theology—and not theirs.”[5]

In this essay, I argue the antithesis of Partee’s twofold claim: (1) that Calvin is neither the normative nor the greatest theologian of the Reformed tradition; and (2) that union with Christ lies at the heart of the soteriology of Reformed Orthodoxy as much or even more than Calvin. To prove this twofold thesis I briefly survey the views of three Reformed theologians: Girolamo Zanchi (1516–90), William Perkins (1558–1602), and Edward Leigh (1602–71). Each of these theologians places great emphasis upon the doctrine of union with Christ, revealing that it lies at the heart of his soteriology. But we will see that when they expound their doctrine, the overly simplistic rubric of Calvin versus the Calvinists inadequately explains the relationship between them and Calvin. Contrary to the claims of Partee, the Reformed tradition never made Calvin normative in any sense. Rather, Scripture and the confessions have always been normative. No one theologian ever gained ascendancy within early modernity, unlike the Lutheran tradition in which Martin Luther (1486–1546) serves as a fountainhead figure. The essay concludes with summary observations about the nature of the Reformed tradition and the doctrine of union with Christ.

Zanchi, Perkins, and Leigh

Girolamo Zanchi

Zanchi presents an excellent test case to demonstrate the inaccuracy of Partee’s claims regarding Calvin and the Reformed tradition because of his reputation as a theologian as well as his direct interaction with Calvin. Zanchi was initially converted under the ministry of Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562) and was trained by him, but he also studied with Calvin at Geneva for ten months.[6] In fact, Zanchi prepared a compendium of Calvin’s 1543–45 Institutes for his personal use, which means he was intimately familiar with Calvin’s theology.[7] In Zanchi we have a theologian known for his Thomistic Scholastic precision but who also studied with Calvin at Geneva. Granted, Zanchi was a transitional figure as an Early Orthodox (1565–1630/40) theologian, but at the same time exhibits the characteristics that Partee finds incompatible with Calvin’s theology. Zanchi employed the Scholastic method characteristic of High Orthodoxy (1630/40–1700).

Because of Zanchi’s Scholastic tendencies, one might expect the doctrine of union with Christ to suffer atrophy in his theology given Partee’s claims, but in fact the opposite is true. Calvin never gave the doctrine of union with Christ explicit structural significance in his theology. There is no locus, for example, dedicated to the doctrine in any of the editions of his Institutes. Theologians have constructed synthetic treatments of his doctrine of union based upon the various things that Calvin says about it as they lie scattered throughout his writings.[8] Now while Zanchi never produced his own systematic treatment of doctrine like Calvin’s Institutes, he nevertheless wrote a confession of faith that was supposed to supersede the widely accepted Second Helvetic Confession (1566), written by Zurich’s Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75).

In one sense Zanchi’s confession looks very similar to other comparable confessions of the period, such as the Gallican (1559), Belgic (1563), or the Second Helvetic. But on the other hand, Zanchi’s confession stands out because he devotes a specific article exclusively to the doctrine of union with Christ. In chapter XII of his confession Zanchi provides the following title: “Of the true dispensation of the redemption, the salvation, and life, which is laid up in Christ alone, and therefore of the necessarie uniting and participation with Christ.”[9] Zanchi then elaborates the doctrine in nineteen paragraphs. This chapter on union with Christ acts as the gateway to his soteriology from which he discusses the gospel, sacraments, faith, repentance, justification, free will, and good works, among other topics.[10] So Zanchi’s emphasis upon union with Christ is arguably greater in comparison with Calvin’s own confession-writing efforts. Calvin contributed to the authorship of the Gallican Confession, but union with Christ does not feature as one of the structurally significant doctrines.[11]

In addition to Zanchi’s confession, he devoted significant time to exegesis. Among his exegetical labors his commentary on Ephesians stands out because he wrote a number of doctrinal excurses throughout the work, including an excursus on union with Christ.[12] A translator deemed Zanchi’s excursus worthy for publication as a stand-alone work and published it in 1599 as An Excellent and Learned Treatise of the Spiritual Marriage Between Christ and the Church.[13] Once again, Zanchi stands out in comparison to Calvin. The second-generation Genevan reformer never produced a treatise or wrote a dedicated doctrinal locus or excursus on union with Christ. This is not to say that Calvin was therefore deficient, but rather raises the question of whether Partee’s analysis of Calvin’s devotion to the doctrine is accurate, especially when we see the amount of attention Zanchi gives it. Moreover, it also dispels Partee’s characterization of Reformed Orthodoxy, or in Partee’s term, Calvinism. According to Partee, Reformed Orthodoxy manifested the inappropriately confident spirit of Scholasticism, which produced enhanced logical rigor at the expense of theological insight.[14] In other words, the Reformed Orthodox paid greater attention to system and less to exegesis and christology. But Zanchi’s excursus arose during his exegetical labors, which presents prima facie evidence that Zanchi’s Scholastic precision did not diminish his exegetical fidelity or his theological insight. In fact, the opposite is true—his Scholasticism drove him to expound the doctrine with greater historical depth, theological clarity, and exegetical precision.

What is interesting about Zanchi’s excursus on union with Christ are the sources that he quotes. The impression one gets from some historians such as Partee is that Calvin forged the doctrine of union with Christ on the anvil of his own biblical exegesis and doctrinal insight and subsequent generations cast aside his work.[15] To be sure, traces of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ appear in Zanchi. In his confession, Zanchi explains: “That we cannot be united unto Christ, unlesse he first unite himself to us.”[16] This sounds like Calvin’s famous statement from book III: “So long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us.”[17] But at the same time, Zanchi looked beyond Calvin to construct his own doctrine of union with Christ. He cites many patristic theologians, including Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 378–444) and Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 300–ca. 368).[18] Zanchi’s citations demonstrate that union with Christ was not a doctrine unique to Calvin but was rather part of their common catholic heritage. Moreover, Zanchi refined his doctrine of union with Christ in the fiery disputes over the Lord’s Supper between the Reformed and the Lutherans during his time in Strasbourg.[19] Zanchi appealed to multiple sources to prove that the Reformed understanding of the supper and its broader doctrinal context of union with Christ was catholic rather than unique to Calvin and did so by supporting his doctrine both from Scripture and ancient sources.

William Perkins

Similar patterns unfold in other Reformed theologians, such as William Perkins. Perkins was a leading theologian in the late sixteenth century and wielded significant influence among the students he instructed while at the University of Cambridge and through the publication of his works.[20] In our own day Perkins is probably better known for his famous ocular catechism, or his chart that illustrated the causes of salvation and damnation. Some have characterized this chart as a graphic to explain the doctrine of the decree while others have more accurately described it as a schematized order of salvation.[21] Even then, if it is a schematized order of salvation, in a similar fashion to Partee, some have claimed that the introduction of the ordo salutis represents a significant Scholastic deviation from and vitiation of Calvin’s theology of union with Christ.[22] Reformed Orthodoxy traded the gold of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ for the fool’s gold of the ordo salutis. But I personally wonder how many critics have carefully examined Perkins’s infamous chart.

Perkins’s chart is admittedly visually cluttered but the one thing that confronts the reader is the importance of union with Christ. Perkins lists the golden chain: the decree of election, the love of God to the elect in Christ, effectual calling, justification, sanctification, glorification, and eternal life. In a second column, he connects effectual calling to faith, justification to the remission of sin and imputation of righteousness, and sanctification to mortification and vivification. But in the third and central column he lists the person and work of Christ: Christ the mediator of the elect, the holiness of his manhood, the fulfilling of the law, his accursed death, burial, bondage under the grave, resurrection, ascension, session at the right hand of God, and ongoing intercession. Perkins connects faith to every element of the central Christ-column and then other benefits to select elements of Christ’s work. He connects the remission of sins, for example, to Christ’s death, burial, bondage under the grave, and resurrection, whereas he links the imputation of righteousness to the holiness of his manhood and his fulfillment of the law.[23] Regardless of the visual complexity of Perkins’s chart, we should not lose sight of the fact that every benefit of redemption comes from the believer’s union with Christ. This fact has not been lost on older scholarship, as Heinrich Heppe (1820–79) in his History of Pietism claimed that for Perkins, the Christian life had to be directly connected to the crucified Christ and possession of him through fellowship and mystical union.[24] Similarly, R. Tudur Jones (1921–98) describes union with Christ as the “existential nerve of Puritan piety,” and he too draws attention to the patristic and medieval origins of the doctrine.[25] Once again, though derided as a distorter of Calvin’s theology, Perkins does not fit Partee’s description as one who abandoned the doctrine of union with Christ. Moreover, union and the order of salvation are not competing alternatives but rather different sides of the same coin.

Edward Leigh

A third noteworthy example appears in the theology of Edward Leigh, a polymath educated at Oxford University under William Pemble (1591–1623). Leigh published on numerous subjects including theology, and he served as a Member of Parliament during the Westminster Assembly.[26] In similar fashion to Zanchi, Leigh treats applied soteriology under the rubric of union with Christ: “Of Our Union and Communion with Christ, And our Spiritual Benefits by him, and some special Graces.”[27] In his opening comments Leigh rejects two different versions of the doctrine: “Some make our Union with Christ to be only a relative Union, others an essential personall Union, as if we were Godded with God, and Christed with Christ.” Leigh rejects these erroneous views, which characterized union with Christ as merely associative or the opposite extreme that he absorbed sinners into his divine essence.[28] Instead, Leigh argues the union is: real, mutual, spiritual, operative, intimate, and inseparable.[29]

In the chapters that follow Leigh treats common elements of applied soteriology: effectual calling, which is the inception of our union with Christ, faith, communion with Christ, justification, and sanctification.[30] Leigh treats each of these categories, and many others, as different aspects of our union with Christ. Leigh’s exposition bears similarities to Perkins’s ocular catechism as he relates the aspects of our salvation to the various facets of Christ’s person and work. Justification, for example, “is a Judicial Act of God the Father upon a beleeving sinner, whereby his sins being imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness to him, he is acquitted from sin and death, and accepted righteous to eternal life.”[31] Sanctification, according to Leigh, “is a continued work of the Spirit flowing from Christ as the Head, purging a man from the image of Adam, and by degrees conforming us to the image of Christ.”[32] Both benefits flow from union with Christ but in a different manner—in justification we receive Christ’s imputed righteousness whereas in sanctification we receive the Spirit, which flows from Christ as our head. Christ never recedes from the picture but is the source from which all the blessings of redemption stream.

But equally notable in Leigh’s treatment of union with Christ are the numerous sources he cites: William Pemble, his tutor at Oxford, the Acts of the Synod of Dordt, André Rivet (1572–1651), John Cameron (ca. 1579–1625), George Carleton (ca. 1557–1628), William Twisse (ca. 1577–1646), John Davenant (1572–1641), Augustine (354–430), George Gillespie (1613–48), Pierre Du Moulin (1568–1658), Jacob Alting (1618–79), Franciscus Gomarus (1563–1641), Martin Luther, Anthony Burgess (d. 1664), Thomas Gataker (1574–1654), Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), Daniel Featly (1582–1645), Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), Jacob Arminius (1560–1609), John Cotton (1585–1652), Thomas Cartwright (1534–1603), Thomas Manton (1620–77), George Downame (ca. 1563–1634), Dudley Fenner (ca. 1558–87), and Andrew Willett (ca. 1561–1621). There are too many to list, but this sample sufficiently illustrates the point that there were numerous theologians contributing to the discussion, on-going development, reception, and refinement of the doctrine. Calvin, therefore, was not normative for the tradition. In fact, Calvin’s name appears only once in Leigh’s treatment of union with Christ.[33]

Calvin as Normative?

Partee might respond that this proves his contention, namely, “The problem, as it seems to me, is that ‘later Reformed theologians’ imitate each other, not Calvin.”[34] On the contrary, Leigh’s citation patterns reveal several things. First, why would Leigh and other Reformed theologians assume that Calvin was normative for the tradition apart from any type of ecclesiastical sanction? The Lutheran tradition, for example, holds Luther as normative not because the tradition bears his name but because the Lutheran church enshrined some of Luther’s writings in the Book of Concord (including the Smalcald Articles (1537) and his Small and Large Catechisms (1529)) commended his commentary on Galatians, and regularly invokes his name as an authority.[35] No major Reformed confession ever does this with Calvin’s name or works.[36] One may certainly esteem Calvin as a great theologian and even believe that he is the brightest luminary of the tradition, but one’s subjective opinion is different from the objective facts of history. To prove Calvin’s greatness or influence, one must provide objective data such as the number of copies of Calvin’s works that were sold in the Early Modern period, as well as quotations, allusions, or echoes of Calvin’s ideas in the works of other theologians.

If the tradition formally established Calvin as the norm, then Leigh’s citations to other writers might indeed prove the devolution of the Reformed tradition—its break with its founder. But on the other hand, has doctrinal development and dialogue ever stood still? Leigh’s citations and references point to the fact that the High Orthodox Reformed theologians continued to debate, discuss, and explain the doctrines of the Reformation. As others contributed to the on-going dialogue, subsequent theologians interacted with the growing body of literature. True, Leigh’s citations may not always indicate which works represent the cream of the crop, but they do reveal which works were likely most important at the time, at least in Leigh’s mind. But the citation patterns in Leigh’s work were not an anomaly.

The same pattern appears in one of the seventeenth century’s greatest debates over union with Christ, namely, the communion controversy between John Owen (1616–83) and William Sherlock (ca. 1641–1707). In short, Sherlock, a leading figure in the Church of England, had great contempt for non-conformist theologians and churchmen, like Owen. He lobbed a theological grenade against Owen’s doctrine of mystical union with Christ and derided it as novel and heretical. If Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ was as great and normative as Partee claims, then one might expect that Owen and other non-conformists would appeal to him to vindicate their doctrine from the charges of novelty and heresy. During the controversy between 1674–75 Sherlock and non-conformist theologians spilled an ocean of ink and published some four thousand pages in various books defending their respective positions. To my count, Calvin’s name appears four times among a total of twenty-five other theologians from the patristic, medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods. In fact, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), a medieval theologian noted for his doctrine of union with Christ, is cited three times.[37] His sermons on the Song of Songs feature as one of many key texts in the debate. Calvin never published anything on this book of Scripture, a book commonly cited in support of the doctrine of union with Christ.[38] These citation patterns reveal that Reformed theologians never saw themselves as disciples of any one man but as Reformed catholics, and as such, regularly drew upon a wide body of knowledge from every major period of church history in the construction and articulation of their doctrines of union with Christ.

Conclusion

In summary, we must set aside the claim that Calvin was no Calvinist because Calvinists rejected his doctrine of union with Christ. The claim fails on two counts. First, the Reformed tradition never established Calvin as a norm. Rather, Scripture and confession always served as the norms for the tradition. No one man was ever granted fountainhead status. Second, the surveyed evidence clearly demonstrates that Reformed Orthodox theologians never abandoned the doctrine of union with Christ. Rather, it was an integral part of their soteriology. Scholasticism, exegesis, union with Christ, and the order of salvation all happily coexist in Reformed Orthodox theology. Hence, Calvin is but one bright light in a sky littered with many other great stars.[39]

Endnotes

[1] See, e.g., Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008); Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); R. Scott Clark and Carl R. Trueman, eds., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006); Willem J. Van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2011); Willem Van Asselt and Eef Dekker, Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).

[2] Charles Partee, “Calvin’s Central Dogma Again,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 18, no. 2 (1987): 191–99, esp. 194.

[3] Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 3.

[4] Partee, Theology of John Calvin, 16, 27.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Philip McNair, Peter Martyr in Italy: An Anatomy of Apostasy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 229; John Patrick Donnelly, “Italian Influences on the Development of Calvinist Scholasticism,” Sixteenth Century Journal 7, no. 1 (1976): 88.

[7] Girolamo Zanchi, Compendium Praecipuorum Captirum Doctrinae Christianae, in Opera Theologica, vol. 8 (Geneva: 1605), 621–828.

[8] So, e.g., Partee, Theology of John Calvin, 40–43.

[9] Girolamo Zanchi, De Religione Christiana Fides—Confession of Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. Luca Baschera and Christian Moser (Leiden: Brill, 2007), XII (vol. I, p. 231). Note, this is a Latin-English edition that provides the 1588 and 1601 Latin editions and the 1599 English translation. I cite the 1599 English translation in this and subsequent quotations.

[10] Zanchi, De Religione, XIII-XXI (vol. I, pp. 253–370).

[11] See French Confession (1559–71), in Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, vol. 2, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 372–86.

[12] Girolamo Zanchi, De Conjubio Spirituali Inter Christum & Ecclesiam, in Commentarius in Epistolam Sancti Paul Ad Ephesos, 2 vols., ed. A. H. Hartog, Bibliotheca Reformata, vols. 5–6 (Amsterdam: Joannes Adam Wormser, 1888), I:332–82.

[13] Girolamo Zanchi, An Excellent and Learned Treatise of the Spiritual Marriage Between Christ and the Church (Cambridge: 1592).

[14] Partee, Theology of John Calvin, 14.

[15] Partee, Theology of John Calvin, 19 n65.

[16] Zanchi, De Religione, XII.iv (vol. I, 233).

[17] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 3.1.1.

[18] Zanchi, Spiritual Marriage, 78–82.

[19] Charles P. Arand, James A. Nestingen, and Robert Kolb, eds., The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 212–14.

[20] W. B. Patterson, William Perkins and the Making of a Protestant England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[21] So, rightly, Richard A. Muller, “Perkins’ A Golden Chaine: Predestinarian System or Schematized Ordo Salutis?Sixteenth Century Journal 9, no. 1 (1978): 69–81.

[22] William B. Evans, Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Eugene, OR: Paternoster, 2008), 43–83, 264–66; Julie Canlis, “Calvin, Osiander and Participation in God,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6, no. 2 (2004): 169–84, esp. 174–82, 183 n55.

[23] William Perkins, A Golden Chaine, or The Description of Theologie (London: John Legate, 1597).

[24] Heinrich Heppe, Geschichte des Pietismus und der Mystik in der Reformirten Kirche (Leiden: Brill, 1879), 224–26; Muller, Christ and the Decree, 131–32.

[25] R. Tudur Jones, “Union with Christ: The Existential Nerve of Puritan Piety,” Tyndale Bulletin 41, no. 2 (1990): 186-208, esp. 187, 191.

[26] “Edward Leigh,” in Dictionary of National Biography, vol. XXXII, ed. Sidney Lee (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1892), 432–33.

[27] Edward Leigh, A Systeme or Body of Divinity (London: William Lee, 1654), VII, 485.

[28] Ibid., VII.i, 487.

[29] Ibid., VII.i, 487–88.

[30] Ibid., VII.ii, 489ff.; iv, 499ff; v, 510ff; vi, 512ff.; xi, 530ff.

[31] Ibid., VII.vi, 512.

[32] Ibid., VII.xi (p. 531).

[33] Ibid., VII.iii (p. 495).

[34] Partee, Theology of John Calvin, 14 n46.

[35] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 297–328, 345–480, 573.

[36] Carl R. Trueman, “Calvin and Calvinism,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed., Donald K. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 225.

[37] For the list and tabulation of sources, see J. V. Fesko, “The Communion Controversy: Owen and Sherlock on ‘Union with Christ,’” in In Christ Alone: Perspectives on Union with Christ, ed. Stephen Clark and Matthew Evans (Fearn: Mentor, 2016), 138–39. 

[38] Cf., e.g., John Owen, Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 2 (1850–53; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), 125; Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, 4 vols. (Trappist, KY: Cistercian, 1971–80); Theodore Beza, Master Bezaes Sermons Upon the Three First Chapters of the Canticle of Canticles (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1587); the “argument” of the book in the 1560 Geneva Bible (The Bible and Holy Scriptures Conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament [Geneva: Rouland Hali, 1560], 280). 

[39] Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 161–243; J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517–1700) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).

John V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of systematic and historical theology and academic dean at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, January 2017.

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