We continue with our response to Nelson Price's article on John Calvin. In an aside we should like to say that we have obtained the first volume of the English translation of the Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids, 2000). Covering the period from 1542 to 1544, they bear out everything that we have said about that court. It dealt with ecclesiastical offences and imposed ecclesiastical penalties, most often simply admonishing those accused before it to go to church and listen to the sermons, a most unlikely penalty to be imposed by an inquisition! Like all ecclesiastical courts, the Genevan Consistory sought rather the reformation of those cited before it than their destruction.
These registers were not intended for publication, in fact they are the very minutes of its sessions; So we have from them a true picture of the consistory, which did indeed deal mostly with mundane things like people not going to church, adultery, slander and fornication.
Now back to Dr. Price.
"The five points of doctrine identified by the acrostic TULIP that bear his name did not originate with Calvin. They were a product of the Synod of Dort, sessions of which were held in 1618 and 1619. They were issued in response to five special objections that arose after Calvin’s time (1509-1564). They were based on his teachings.
The Synod so strongly reacted to those opposing their positions as to have beheaded four days after the Synod one of the most respected statesmen of the time Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Additionally the outstanding jurist of the era, Hugo Grotius, was imprisoned for life."
The Synod of Dort is more or less outside the remit of this response, which is concentrating on John Calvin himself. Nevertheless we ought to say a few words on the matter. Suffice to say that the Synod judged the writings of the Remonstrants from the Bible, not from the writings of any mere man. Richard Baxter, by no means an orthodox Calvinist himself, said of the Synod and the Westminster Assembly:
"The Christian world, since the days of the Apostles, had never such a Synod of more excellent divines (taking one thing with another) than this synod [i.e. the Westminster Assembly] and the Synod of Dort." (Quoted in John Macpherson, The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh, T. and T. Clark, 1881) P. 15)
We have read the Canons and Decrees of this famous council, and they are careful, balanced and Biblical (take a look!). The fact is that the Arminians failed to prove their point. Actually their tactics were such as to put them at a disadvantage, since, as the Lutheran historian Mosheim notes: "The Arminians wished to commence the defence of their cause by attacking the Calvinists." (Century XVII., sect. ii, Part 2.). Obviously one does not gain toleration in a time when toleration was a strange thing, by attacking your judges and the doctrine of the Belgic Confession!
Holland in 1619 was an embattled nation that had just won its freedom after a bloody war with Roman Catholic Spain. The Reformation was bound up with the Dutch nationhood, and there were suspicions that the Arminian doctrine would lead in the long run to Unitarianism. The idea of a universal atonement was seen as part of a system that undermined the doctrine of original sin, the Christian scheme of Salvation, and ultimately the person of Christ. The whole Reformation had centered on the subject of Salvation, there was no way that the extent (or rather intent) of the atonement could be regarded as an adiaphora, a thing indifferent.
Further, we note that the Arminian party produced the Rectoral or Moral Government view of the atonement, teaching that Christ did not die for any in particular, but rather as a display of God's judgement against sin. This is quite unsatisfactory, as the hymns of Charles Wesley illustrate - even as an Arminian, he rejected the Rectoral theory in favour of the Evangelical and Biblical teaching of penal substitution.
The execution of Oldenbarnevelt and the imprisonment of Grotius were undoubtedly wrong, but they are not to be charged against Calvinism but against the pernicious mingling of church and state introduced through the emperor Constantine. It is therefore
Constantinianismthat is proved false, not Calvinism. Mosheim notes "The suspicion of the Calvinists that the Arminians aimed at the overthrow of all religion." (ibid). It is surely of note that, whilst Remonstrant (Arminian) ministers were indeed deposed, none were executed or condemned to perpetual imprisonment. The Wikipedia(!) article on Grotius confirms what Mosheim says, that the execution of Oldenbarnevelt was primarily politically motivated. Prince Maurice of Nassau, Stadtholder of the Netherlands, perceived Oldenbarnevelt as a threat to his own power and ambitions, and used the Synod's condemnation of the Remonstrants for his own ends. Thus we may put the blame first on Maurice, and second on Constantine. Thankfully Maurice's death in 1625 introduced a more tolerant regime, and many exiled Remonstrants were allowed to return to Holland. They established their own seminary in Amersterdam and enjoyed freedom of worship. Unfortunately Grotius, who had escaped from prison, was not allowed to return, and it was only after his death following shipwreck in 1645 that his body was returned to his own country. All modern Calvinists condemn this sort of political persecution.
God willing, we shall continue this series next time.