The Breadth Of The Reformed Orthodox Phenomenon

The Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm has recently published a brief review or commentary on Oliver Crisp’s “Deviant Calvinism” on the discussion between “freedom of the will” and “state of grace”. He states the issue: “An attempt will be made to show not that there are two rival metaphysical views of human freedom side by side in the confession, but that language about freedom and about liberty is in fact doing two distinct jobs. First let us look at ‘liberty’ then at ‘freedom’.”

My intention is not to dive into the specifics of the issue here, but to show that Helm’s conclusion is more than plausible, given the state of the discussions (analyzed by Richard Muller) of “the breadth of Reformed Orthodoxy”, and the precision and (pardon the word) “inclusiveness” of the use of the language.

Helm concludes:

that the choice of words in the Confession follows a deliberate policy and that that policy is consistent and intelligible. If this suggestion is plausible, there is no need to resort to the debate between libertarians and compatibilists

Note where Muller takes the 17th century discussion:

In the high orthodox era, orthodoxy continued to be defined in terms of the major confessional trajectories of the Reformation as a churchly theology in academic and popular forms, whether positive or polemical, exegetical, catechetical, or dogmatic, conceived in the context and within the doctrinal boundaries set by the Reformed confessions.

This understanding of orthodoxy (which, arguably, belongs to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) has not been consistently obliged by modern discussions of post-Reformation Reformed thought.

Thus, if one anachronistically draws a rather strict and narrow line of development from Calvin to Turretin and denominates only what fits in this particular Genevan trajectory as “orthodoxy,” then various Reformed views, developed entirely within the confessional understanding of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Reformed, can be cordoned off and identified as opponents of the Reformed orthodox.

Bullinger’s covenantal thought can be segmented off from “Calvinism,” and Cocceius’ form of covenant theology can then be set against the strictly “orthodox,” as if they (or, indeed, Calvin!) objected to an emphasis on covenant. Infralapsarian and supralapsarian forms of the doctrine of predestination can become identifiers of alternative orthodoxies—which, however bitter the debate, they clearly were not.

Indeed, any variation of doctrine incapable of being accommodated to Calvin’s 1559 Institutes can come to be viewed by the older scholarship as a deviation from the norm of Reformed theology—without any recognition of the fact that doctrinal variations and even highly polemical debates over doctrinal formulae that took place within the confessional boundaries all belonged to the broad stream of Reformed orthodoxy.

This approach, albeit characteristic of much twentieth-century historiography, does not accurately represent the seventeenth-century orthodox understanding (or, indeed, understandings) of “orthodoxy.”

To define orthodoxy in terms of the more traditionalist line of Geneva, culminating in Turretin, or in terms of the Voetian theology at Utrecht prejudices the case from the start by creating subconfessional lines of demarcation for orthodoxy and by offering an anachronistic picture of a “rigid orthodoxy” operating within the narrow limits of a single school.

The historical materials do not support the picture. Just as Calvin did not speak for the entire early Reformed tradition, so was Geneva less than the arbitrator of the Reformed tradition in the seventeenth century.

Whereas, therefore, some distinction can be made between various lines of development within Reformed orthodoxy, such as between the Swiss orthodoxy of the line of Turretin and Heidegger and the Academy of Saumur [A Huguenot university and the home of Amyraldism], between the northern German Reformed of Bremen or the Herborn Academy and the rather different approach of Franecker theologians in the tradition of Ames, between the Cocceian or federalist line and the Voetian approach, between the British Reformed theology of Owen and that of Baxter, or between the British variety of Reformed theology in general and the several types of Reformed teaching found on the continent, there is no justification for identifying any one of these strains of Reformed thought as outside of the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy or as not evidencing the characteristics of Reformed scholasticism.

Voetius and Cocceius obliged the same confessions—and Voetius could identify several lines of Reformed thought on, for example, the work of Christ, including that of Crocius and the Saumur theologians.

He disagreed with these thinkers but did not set them outside of the Reformed confessions.

Turretin, similarly, indicates his disagreement with the Saumur theologians on various issues, but consistently identifies them as Reformed and as “our ministers.”

Owen and Baxter acknowledged each other’s theologies as belonging to the same confessional tradition. Owen, moreover, thought highly of Cameron and Amyraut on such issues as the divine justice and the doctrine of the Trinity—at the same time that he abhorred elements of the teaching of Twisse and Rutherford, both of whom stood closer to him than to the Salmurians on the issues addressed in the Formula consensus Helvetica.

All of these branches of the Reformed tradition stood within the boundaries established by the major national confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 78–80). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Both Helm and Muller are identifying a trait that’s not easily yielded among “Reformed” writers in our day: that there was room for a broad and diverse within the understanding of the Reformed confessions.

Now, isn’t to say that any one “Reformed” viewpoint is more correct than any other – it’s merely to demonstrate that the writers of the confessions allowed for it.

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3 Responses to The Breadth Of The Reformed Orthodox Phenomenon

  1. YnottonY says:

    Glad to see that others are catching up to things some of us have been saying about Richard Muller and the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy since 2007 (see here and here). I was using this material by Muller to point out the historical incompetence and bigotry of one anonymous “discernment blogger” on these points in a post way back in 2008. The issue was just as Muller said: “various Reformed views, developed entirely within the confessional understanding of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Reformed, can be [or are] cordoned off and identified as opponents of the Reformed orthodox.” Now, people like Lee Gatiss are asking, “whether the Reformed are as willing now as they were at Dort to tolerate a certain amount of diversity within their robust internal debates” (From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, p. 163.). Quite frankly, I think the answer is no, they are not. As you say, the issue of the broadness of Reformed orthodoxy is “not easily yielded among ‘Reformed’ writers in our day.”


    • John Bugay says:

      Hi Tony, thanks for your comment here. I have long known about Muller, but only recently have I had the $$ to acquire this particular work. I appreciate not only the level and depth of research that he has done (how much of the work he is citing is not available in English anywhere else?) — but also the breadth of it. One can scarcely imagine that a single human being has read all of the works that have gone into this massive set of volumes, much of which hasn’t seen the light of day for centuries.

      My intention in posting this is not to “point out historical incompetence or bigotry”. I happen to have a great deal of respect for Turretinfan, and if he happens to disagree with your take on things, my thought is that it’s rather up to you to persuade, not to cry “bigotry”.

      My purpose is rather to make these materials available to a much broader Protestant audience — to show the ways in which the church — as big as it is — has the ability to think through and adapt to new historical situations. I think that the continuities from the middle ages into the post-Reformation period are simply striking.

      Within certain limits, I’m not going to try to say who’s right and who’s wrong (except, Rome is almost always so wrong that I find it a good practice to distrust everything that Roman Catholicism says immediately, and only then work to sift out any truth that may be latent within its statements).

      The fact that not all of the writers of this period (or any period) are saying the same thing is a tribute to the richness of the Revelation that God has given us about his world and his salvation. There is a reason why there are 7 billion human beings in the world, all of them different.


      • YnottonY says:

        I am also very impressed by Muller’s work. I wish in a situation where I could study under him at Calvin Seminary. In one of his lectures at Mid-America many years ago, he distinguishes between historians who are “splitters” and those who are “lumpers.” “Splitters” tend to see the diversity and differences among groups and individuals. “Lumpers” tend to look at broad areas of agreement, and so “lump” people together, usually without due recognition for the diversity that exists within a group. There are far too many “lumpers” among Reformed historians, so it would be a pleasure to study under a “splitter” like Muller. I would eventually like to learn Latin so that I could probe into some of the obscure theological works that Muller has read. Since we’re in a kind of digital renaissance with all of the book scanning going on, it is much easier to investigate these works. But, alas, I am stuck with looking into works done in English.

        Anyway, I know your intention was not to point out 1) historical incompetence and 2) bigotry, but these issues do arise from the things quoted above.

        For example, Muller criticizes “modern discussions” of “orthodoxy” due to its “anachronisms” and “drawing [of] strict and narrow lines,” with the result that some orthodox trajectories are “cordoned off and identified as opponents of Reformed orthodoxy.” According to him, there are some who “prejudice the case from the start by creating subconfessional lines of demarcation for orthodoxy by offering an anachronistic picture of a ‘rigid orthodoxy’ operating within the narrow limits of a single school.” He sees this as being “characteristic of much twentieth-century historiography,” which is not an “accurate representation of seventeenth-century understanding or understandings of ‘orthodoxy’.” He identifies such areas as varieties of covenantalism, lapsarian speculations, and the disputes among the Genevans and Saumurian theologians (Cameron, Amyraut, Testard, etc.).

        You then note the fact that this seventeenth-century broader understanding of Reformed orthodoxy is “not easily yielded among ‘Reformed’ writers in our day.” Now, if bigotry is simply defined as “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself,” then what Muller is talking about is a degree of religious intolerance or bigotry, which is why some legitimately orthodox trajectories within Reformed thought are set off as being “sub-orthodox” at best. Moreover, even though Muller is not necessarily implying that the historical misrepresentations are deliberate, it still follows that he is addressing a degree of historical incompetence among twentieth-century historiography, which persists even to our day.

        In the third link I provided, I was just giving an example of the kind of 1) historical incompetence and 2) religious bigotry I have experienced on the subject of diversity within Reformed orthodoxy. The so called “Amyraldian” school of thought (which at the time was not even recognized as being distinct from early Reformational and English varieties of “Hypothetical Universalism”) was said to be outside the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy. I am not merely “crying bigotry.” I posted the facts and sought to persuade, to no avail. As you say, the point of the broadness of orthodoxy is “not easily yielded among ‘Reformed’ writers in our day.”

        I hope that, as you continue to post these helpful sources, things will change.

        Grace to you,


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