An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Calvinism: A History by D. G. Hart - an Anglocentric (re)view

Calvinism: A History
D. G. Hart
Yale: Yale University Press, 2013
xii + 339 pp, hbk, £25
ISBN 9780300148794

Publisher's website.

It was Bishop John Aylmer in his 1559 book An Harborowe for Faithfull and Trewe Subjects who identified the English roots of the Reformation he wrote: “Wycliffe begat Hus, who begat Luther”. Sadly, this Englishness of the Reformation is neglected in Hart.

Hart looks at how Calvinism has become a global faith (xii). He identifies three phases:

1. Calvinism took root in settings where church reform was tethered to efforts to establish political autonomy.
2. Calvinists adopted new models for extending their beliefs; and
3. Adjusted to the rise of secular political orders prompted by the 18th century.

Calvinism was most dominant in Switzerland, the German-speaking Palatinate, the Dutch Republic and Scotland. So, inevitably these geographical areas then have the most words. However, only a few pages are devoted to the English scene (primarily pp 35-41, 83-90). At least McNeill in his History and Character of Calvinism had a chapter on England and Ireland. David Creamans’s Reception of Calvinism in England - surprisingly absent from Hart’s bibliography - would fill in some of the gaps. Sadly, though, we still wait for the definitive history of Calvinism in England.

Hart’s take on the English Puritans is interesting and worth further investigation. Their emphasis on personal holiness and pursuit of a “vein of introspective piety” replaced the “zeal for a thoroughly reformed church” (p 84). He claims that it was then responsible for the “unintended consequence” of a “high-church sacramental Anglican reaction” (p 85). This may well explain why Jim Packer wasn't asked to write a Foreword! Here perhaps in Puritainism are the roots of a privatisation of the gospel.

Despite the title this book is more a history of Presbyterianism than Calvinism. Perhaps Hart thinks that Presbyterianism is Calvinism? Which would explain the lack of Anglican or Baptist emphases in the book. The gaps are easy to identify - Carl Trueman has already mentioned the lack of Baptists and Steven Wedgworth has highlighted the injustice done to Anglicans. There is no mention of Henry Atherton and the Sovereign Grace Union or D. Martyn Lloyd Jones his Calvinistic Methodist roots. Despite concentrating on Presbyterianism there is no mention of the formation of the URC in 1972 from the Presbyterian Church of England and the Congregational Church in England and Wales or even Thomas Cartwright, one of the first English Presbyterians. Or if we go more up to date there is no mention of the  aberration of Calvinism that is New Calvinism (perhaps justly so). Of course, to include all of these (and more) would probably mean that a separate volume would be needed for each country and that is not Hart’s aim. This is intended to be global and an overview - and as such it works.

Rather that the Diet of Worms it seems the Reformation started with another diet: sausage eating (in 1522)! And this is where Hart begins his narrative. He is correct that “Reformed Christianity existed before Calvin became a Protestant, and so calling the churches to which he belonged Calvinistic is anachronistic” (p 20). The story then finishes with a look at the geography of global Calvinism in the 21st century.

Sadly, there is a lack of footnotes - and the notes are few (8 pages) - so we are left to guess where some of the information has come from. There is however, a useful “Further reading” section.

Hart concludes with: “If it is not responsible for the blessings of democracy, liberty, and prosperity, in its own way Calvinism’s history qualifies as remarkable” (p 304). This book too qualifies as being remarkable in that Hart has been able to survey the complicated global history of Calvinism in less than 350 pages.

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