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Advanced Historical Theology - Reformed Theology after Calvin - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 24 – Advanced Historical Theology – Reformed Theology after Calvin

The Reformed movement in history is quite specific. It held to the teachings of the Reformation under the auspice of the works of John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, Theodore Beza, and Zacharias Ursinus.

Peter Martyr Vermigli (c. 1499-1562) was a native of Florence who came under the influence of Juan de Valdes at Naples and attempted reformation in Italy a number of times. Being unsuccessful he fled to Zurich under duress and became a professor of theology. He then left per request by Archbishop Cranmer and went to England to teach at Oxford. In 1553 he returned to Strasbourg and three years later became professor of Hebrew at Zurich. There he stayed until his death. His importance revolves around methodology rather than Reformed content. He introduced Reformed Theology as a methodological approach that would have a profound influence on that theology later.

Jerome Zanchi (c. 1516-1590) was also an Italian and a disciple of Vermigli. His system of thought is most widely known in his Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted. God is the basis for predestination, specifically his foreknowledge. Everything is predestined: the fate of men and angels both to heaven and hell. His keen perception of the biblical doctrine and the logic that goes along with it is poignant. Given this doctrine, it heralds the way for limited atonement, or what he referred to as restricted atonement, and the salvation of the elect alone through the cross of Christ.

Theodore Beza (c. 1519-1605) was called by Calvin to teach at Geneva and became his successor there. He was an able New Testament scholar and wrote an edition of the New Testament in Greek for scholarship and textural criticism. His main works were Confession of the Christian Faith and Theological Treatises. He was a clear and consistent exponent of Calvin’s theology and carried Calvin’s view to their logical conclusions – superlapsarianism, limited atonement, and the like.

Zacharias Ursinus (c. 1543-1583) spent most of his youth at Wittenberg and personally knew Philip Melancthon who was his mentor. He composed, along with Caspar Olevianus the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) that became the confession of faith for the German Reformed Church.

Henry Bullinger wrote the Second Helvetic Confession that is a strongly reformed document with Calvinistic influences. He agrees with the Zurich Consensus, though, on the Lord’s Supper and upholds the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures to a great length. Holy Scripture is the Word of God, wholly inspired by God, and is set out as an important facet of continuity over the whole confession. This is, in some ways, the forerunner of the Westminster Confession of Faith later on.

After the death of Theodore Beza the most notable Calvinist leaders were Benedict Turretini and Francis Turretini (c. 1588-1631). Benedict was a strict predestinarian Calvinists, and his son, after him, was the most important systematic theologian of Calvinist orthodoxy on the Continent. Francis Turretin received his educational training in philosophy at the Academy in Gerrit Keizer. Advancing to the study of theology, he sat under John Diodati, Frederic Spanheim, Alexander Morus, and Theodore Trunchin. He completed his studies at Geneva in 1644 and prepared to go abroad. Turretin would then expose himself to the principle luminaries of Reformed Theology in Leiden, Utrecht, Paris and Saumur.

After nine months of study in Paris with the Church Historian David Blondel, Turretin was immersed into the conflict of reformed theology and the theology of Moise Amyraut (1596-1664). Amyraut was to give rise to Amyraldianism, a highly deviant aspect trying to stem out of Reformed theology which attempted to take the doctrine of Limited Atonement and replace it with a kind of Universalism. Amyraut taught the doctrine of hypothetical Universalism: that Jesus died for all men to make a way into heaven for each and everyone so long as they were willing to initiate the conversion. In reading Turretin’s “Institutes” you can see vividly his refutation of the Amyraldian doctrines, and how they are truly deviant from the biblical record.

Turretin, in 1650, was called to the chair of philosophy at the Geneva Academy. Pleading his commitment to the Italian congregation, he declined, even as he declined a call from the church in Lyons the year before. In 1652, Lyons renewed its call following the untimely death of their pastor. Turretin filled the pulpit there for a time.

On his return to Geneva, Turretin was appointed successor of his mentor Theodore Tronchin in the chair of theology. Together with his duties as pastor in the Italian church, he would hold this position until his death in 1687. He died at la maison Turrettini on Wednesday, September 28, 1687. His last years were spent summing up his remarkable career by preparing what he taught and defended for years-Genevan orthodoxy. The Institutio was published seriatim: volume one in 1679; volume two in 1682; and volume 3 in 1685. Turretin was planning a major revision of the work when he died.

Francis Turretin’s magnum opus is his Institutio Thelogiae Electicae (Institutes of Elenctic Theology). This massive work of Reformed scholasticism extends to nearly 1800 pages in the Latin edition of 1847. Written in bulky Latin with sentences frequently lasting nearly a half a page, Turretin’s Institutes are at once familiar, profound, erudite, thorough and precise.

Turretin was a Calvinistic Scholastic theologian in an age of Protestant, Catholic, Lutheran and Socinian Scholastics. Like his great predecessor, John Calvin, Turretin entitled his scholastic work Institutio. This word suggests foundational or basic instruction. Yet, if a typical layman were to read this book today, he would undoubtedly become overwhelmed by its depth and preciseness, its theological and philosophical treatises, and its thoroughly biblical expositions. Yet, in Turretin’s day, this was seen as a foundational work. It was used as a catechism. It is ironic that after Turretin’s death, his son, Jean-Alphonse, apostatized and lead Geneva into a host of liberal and unorthodox theological positions.

Thomas Erastus (c. 1524-1583) was a Swiss-born professor of medicine at the University of Heidelberg. He was Zwinglian in theology but was excommunicated from the church in 1570 for Socinianism. He enacted the view that the State was sovereign over the church, which later became known as “Erastianism” and had an affect on England and a presence at the Westminster Assembly.

In Holland Calvinism was challenged by Jacobus Harmenzoon (c. 1560-1609) or James Arminius. While a young teen, as a servant in a public inn, a patron noticed his wit and keen intellect for someone at such a young age, and as a result this patron decided to offer him the chance at schooling in the University of Utrecht. He financially supported Arminius until his death, and then another patron continued to pay for his education. Arminius was then able to attend the University of Marburg, in Hess, and then finally the University in Leyden. He was even sent to Geneva while Theodore Beza presided there, but indulged in insubordination and a spirit of self-sufficiency. He spoke privately to the other students against the teachers there and was ultimately expelled from the University. After leaving Geneva, he toured Italy and then came back to Geneva, and had a wide following of people at this time. Upon his return, as a result of his following, the people decided to make him a minister of Amsterdam.

After serving as minister for some time, he was then called to the University of Amsterdam to teach on the condition that he would adhere to the Belgic Confession. Arminius pledged loyalty to the confession when entering the professorship. One of the Belgic articles asserts the following: “Article 16 – We believe that, all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest Himself such as He is; that is to say, merciful and just: merciful, since He delivers and preserves from this perdition all whom He in His eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness has elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works; just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.” It was this kind of teaching, solid reformed teaching after the manner of Calvin, and Turretin to come, that Arminius gave allegiance to, even though he really did not believe it. He was a scandalous, double-minded shadowy individual.

After a year or two he was found to be a scandalous man. It was his practice to teach the doctrines of grace in alignment with the Confession in class, but then distributed private confidential manuscripts among his pupils.[1] By this “double-mindedness” he was able to continue in his popularity, while at the same time he was infecting the students under him of the same errors of “Arminianism” which he really believed.

The States General of the Netherlands sent deputies of the Churches to question him on this, and to discover whether the rumors were true. This would involve an open debate and discussion, and then the consequences of the discussion would be taken back to the National Synod to be discussed further as to what ecclesiastical action should take place. Arminius denied the “rumors” about this (in reality this was simply a lie to cover up his scandal) and he agreed to meet with the council on one condition: if they found anything wrong, they would not report him to the Synod. What ploy was this? The deputies, in view of his subtle refusal, refused, themselves, to pursue this discussion believing that Arminius was not being honest and forthright with them, or agreeing to this under a guise of integrity. Instead, sometime later, they summoned him to council with Classis, a reformed theologian. He declined and would not subject himself to an open synod. This was his continued position from that time forward. His strategy was to win over the secular men of the state and university to gain enough backing before going “public” on his “new and radical” views. This is important to note since Arminianism, like its father Pelagianism, is the secular man’s salvation. When heresy arises it is never frank and open while it is growing. Such heretical groups are almost never honest and candid as a party until they gain strength enough to be sure of some degree of popularity: as With Pelagius, so with Arminius.[2]

Arminius’ goal was to unite all Christians, except the papists, under one common form of doctrinal brotherhood. If this was truly the case, why was it so difficult for him to be “tried” theologically in an open forum? His agenda and motives prove that his goal is true, but not for the good of the church. In his views (which are unorthodox and heretical) he agreed substantially in the five doctrines set forth by his predecessors in a more refined manner. He died in 1609 before he could ever be brought openly before a public Synod. Most hoped that with the death of Arminius that Arminianism would die quickly. Unfortunately, his infectious doctrine had overwhelmed too many younger students and a group called the Remonstrants arose soon after.

In 1610 the Remonstrants organized into a body and set forth a “Remonstrance” to the States General of Holland, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. The word “Remonstrance” means “vigorously objecting or opposing.” These men were persuaded that they ought to continue Arminius’ teaching in a precise and ordered form. Their goal was to solicit the favor of the government, and to secure protection against the ecclesiastical censures to which they felt themselves exposed. They vehemently tried to raise up a man named Vorstius, a hero to their newfound party, to be given the chair of theology at Leyden. When King James I found this out (the same King James of England) he exhorted the States General by letter not to admit such a man to the chair holding such errors and being an enemy of the Gospel. Vorstius was prevented, barely, but another, Episcopius, rose up soon after. Arminianism was spreading at this time quite rapidly.

As much as it may be deplorable to some that the State involves itself in the affairs of the church today, in days of old the practice was quite different. Prince Maurice of Orange, the prince of the day for the region, was opposed to the work of the Remonstrants and desired a National Synod against them. As a result of Prince Maurice’s determination to rid the Netherlands of Arminianism, on November 13, 1618 a national council commenced in the city of Dordtrecht (also abbreviated as “Dort” or “Dordt”.) The synod consisted of 39 pastors and 18 ruling elders from Belgic churches, and 5 professors of the University of Holland. There were also delegates from Reformed churches throughout the region. At least 4 ministers and 2 elders from each province attended the Synod: men from France, Switzerland, the Republic of Geneva, Bremen and Embden, as well as varied deputies of the Belgic church, some English Puritans such as Joseph Hall and John Davenant, and delegates from Scotland. With such a sublime gathering, Joseph Hall was compelled to say that, “There was no place upon earth so like heaven as the Synod of Dordt, and where he should be more willing to dwell.”

The Synod of Dordt convened to examine the Arminian’s Remonstrance as well as their Christian walk. Both their doctrine and life were “on trial.” (Both were exceedingly important since such scandal had already befallen Arminius and these men were propagating the same teachings.) It is regrettable, but the Remonstrants thought themselves ill-treated as a result of this, and did not attend the meetings except to submit their propositions in the form of 5 articles at the beginning. The council was held for over a year.

After the Synod convened in 1619, they gave the following censure by unanimous decision – for they seriously and responsibly examined the Arminian tenants, “condemned them as unscriptural, pestilential errors,” and pronounced those who held and published them to be “enemies of the faith of the Belgic churches, and corrupters of the true religion.” They also deposed the Arminian ministers, excluded them and their followers from the communion of the church, suppressed their religious assemblies, and by the aid of the civil government, which confirmed all their acts, sent a number of the clergy of that party, and those who adhered to them, into banishment.[3] They did not treat them as reprobate, but as those under ecclesiastical discipline.

Johannes Cocceius (c. 1603-1669) developed in his Summa doctrinae de foedere et testamento dei the classical statement on covenant theology or federal theology. He demonstrated that God established his relationship with men through the Covenant of Redemption, Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace. Herman Witsius later developed this in the Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man and it has become the center for Calvinistic orthodoxy concerning Covenant Theology.

In France Calvinism took a turn for the worse under the teachings of Moise Amyraut (c. 1596-1664). Amyraut attempted to wed Arminianism and Calvinism together. This is impossible biblically, theologically and logically. In attempting to do so, his presuppositions about systematic theology overrode his understanding of the biblical text and biblical theology. He filtered the text of the Bible through his newly created Amyraldian grid. This presupposition appeared full blown and was epitomized in his understanding of the order of decrees. In his Traite de la Predestination (published in 1634, only 15 years after the Synod of Dordt) he claimed that God, moved by his love for mankind, had appointed all human beings to salvation provided they repent and believe. (The orthodox theologian should immediately see this as an inconsistency both biblically and logically.) Amyraut believed that the Father sent the Lord Jesus Christ to die for the sins of all men in order to implement this purpose. However, since human beings would not on their own initiative repent and believe, God then chose to bestow a special measure of his Spirit to some only, who are the elect. Electing Grace is seen as universal in the provision of salvation, though this is seen abstractly in Amyraut’s eyes, yet, it is particular in the application of it. In his presupposed system of thought, Amyraut thought that he could continue to adhere to the Canons of Dordt and at the same time provide a picture of God’s love to all mankind that would be more faithful to Scripture, and indeed to Calvin, than the thoroughly particularistic approach in the second quarter of the 17th century by the orthodox Puritan Divines.

In Scotland Calvinism was formed by John Knox (c. 1513-1572). Knox is usually presented as Calvin’s interpreter to Scotland, and really to a large part of the English speaking world. He is one of the most important and most vehement of the Scottish Reformers. He is considered a great religious reformer and founder of Scottish Presbyterianism. While living in exile (1553-1559) during the reign of Queen Mary of Scots, Knox came under the influence of John Calvin. Some believe that he leaned more upon Zwingli and George Wishart for his theological training in Zurich than on Calvin. In his opposition to queen Mary of Scotland he borrowed many pages of theological ideas from Zwingli’s theological works in “instructing her.” Returning to Scotland he lead the struggle for religious reform. While drafting a Confession of Faith, Protestantism became the established religion in Scotland. By his preaching, Knox molded both nobility and ordinary people into a formidable fighting force and thus left his stamp on Protestantism for years to come.

In England the Elizabethan settlement did not “settle” the pious ministers of the day at all. In fact her dominion over the church enraged them and they desired to purify the church and reform it. Precursors to the Puritan movement were men like Robert Browne (c. 1550-1633) who has been disenfranchised by the Anglican Church because of his “puritan ideas,” and William Perkins (c. 1558-1602). Browne started the independent Brownist movement where he set up his own congregation and ordained himself through that congregation as a reaction to the Church of England. Later, his influences would give birth to the English Baptists and the independent movement. William Perkins, around 1585, was chosen as rector of St. Andrews, Cambridge, and continued there until his death in 1602. His individual writings consisted mainly of treatises of the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and expositions of Galatians 1-5, Matthew 5-7, and Hebrews 11. He wrote the practical Cases of Conscience. His writings were popularly received and were later translated into Latin, French, Dutch, and Spanish. They were collected in the three volumes The Works of William Perkins.

King James died in 1625 and Charles I took the throne, though the kingdom was in a deplorable condition. Charles made this even more deplorable when he dissolved parliament, threw the leaders into prison, desired to raise money for a foreign army, and resolved to fight against the Scots who were waiting along England’s borders because of political and ecclesiastical pressures. After Charles raised enough money and began to march on Scotland, he found it necessary to call Parliament together again in order for negotiations to take place between England and Scotland. This Parliament had been deemed Long Parliament because of its long tenure. Parliament was to rectify the long standing problems of Popery and Religion in England, Scotland and Ireland. The Catholic canons of the late convocation under James was deemed illegal, and a new standard was to be set in place over the island. In 1643 it was decided that an assembly of divines should meet in order to complete the necessary reformation between England, Ireland and Scotland for matters of civil and religious good. England wished for a civil league with Scotland to rectify the grievances brought between the two countries, but Scotland wanted a religious covenant bringing them together instead.

The doctrine of the Church of England was recognized as soundly Reformed, except in matters of worship and church government (two immensely important ecclesiastical doctrines), and needed to be revisited and codified officially for the countries. Scotland, though, had already signed a National Covenant where they had bound themselves together, even upon the pain of war, to submit a right and true government for the church and uphold the true matters of worship before God. In pursuit of this important task, the English Parliament was called together to form committees to decide the fate of the country in this regard, and settle the peace. The Houses (the commons and the lords) then called together the need for an assembly to convene in order to advance further than simply revising the Articles already in print, but to remedy the need for additional reformation of this kind. Long Parliament called the Assembly together to meet for the first time on July 1, 1643. The Scots were invited by way of ecclesiastical need, for they were already a “covenanted nation” based on that National Covenant. Upon arrival, eight weeks into the convocation of the Assembly, the matter turned to setting down the Solemn League and Covenant in which England, Scotland and Ireland would band together, ecclesiastically, in order to remain of one mind on the matters of doctrine and worship. This caused all men (the House of Parliament, the House of Lords, and the Westminster Assembly), to the Presbyterian scheme of government since Scotland had already adopted this as a foundational aspect of the National Covenant. It pledged the nations to uniformity in their religious establishment and assured them toward a uniformity mimicking the model of the establishment already exiting in the Church of Scotland. This was “no loose agreement” but a solemnly ratified treaty between the nations.

There were four parts of uniformity in which the Westminster Assembly came together to ratify. These four parts comprised of church government, a reformed liturgy, a confession, and new catechisms. The most difficult of these was the first: of church government. The Independent controversy was the largest and most exhaustive of the Assembly in its tenure. The reason this was so difficult was the Independent’s desire to adopt an obstructive policy (a filibuster) and set themselves to receive every concession they could from the majority vote to delay the adoption of Presbyterian Church Government, and if possible, to overthrow the entire establishment of such a government altogether. The first part of this form of government was the Directory for Ordination. The Assembly did not have a problem defining the practical role of the pastor, but in terms of governmental structure men held opposite views. The arguments of the dissenting brothers (the Independents and Erastians) were published in a folio version called The Grand Debate Concerning Presbytery and Independency by the Assembly of Divines convened at Westminster by Authority of Parliament. It was published in 1648 after the Westminster Assembly adopted the Form of Presbyterian Church Government.

The most pressing task that the Westminster Assembly engaged in was the preparation of a new form of worship to take the place of The Book of Common Prayer. The document explaining the reformation of this worship was the Directory for Public Worship that was finished in 1644 and, by ordinance of Parliament, established on January 4, 1645 for the island. This included notations on elements of worship, as well as a revision to the psalm book that was officially adopted by the Scottish churches in 1650.

The third part of the uniformity of religion was to prepare a confession of faith. The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion were already affixed, and so there was no immediate need to create a new confession. This task was not pressed upon the Westminster Assembly as was the other formularies. The duty of them having to prepare an entirely new confession was later due to the pressure placed on the Assembly as a whole by the Solemn League and Covenant. The Scots could not use their confession of 1560, being as outdated as it was in terms of an occasional document, and so urged the Assembly to form a whole new document that would satisfy the covenant for all three nations. Though this would be a long, drawn out work for them, they were by no means unqualified for the task, having the best and most able ministers and theologians of the church of the day (or possibly any day other than that of the Apostles and our Lord).

The Westminster Confession of Faith went through a single draft and then was sent to Parliament for approval of the entire Standards. In 1647 it was published and six hundred copies were first given to Parliament, and then subsequent copies made for the public and for the surrounding countries. It has been the most widely used catechism and Confession of Faith in the Christian church besides the Apostle’s Creed.


[1] This is attested by Samuel Miller, Thomas Scott, and by many Dutch writers on the subject of the time.

[2] See also the historical evidence behind Arius, Amyraut, Socinians, and the Unitarians.

[3] See Thomas Scott where he points out in his introductory essay to Dort’s articles this fact, The Articles of the Synod of Dordt, (Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg: 1993) Pages 2ff.

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