Wednesday, June 18, 2008

John Calvin an Evangelical?

For sundry and various reasons, I was rummaging through Theopedia and read an article on John Calvin. It seemed alright until I read this part: "Calvin converted from Roman Catholicism to evangelicalism, and subsequently became an informal leader to other Paris evangelicals."

Theologians debate what evangelicalism is. Sociologists debate who is an evangelical. Church Historians debate when evangelicalism formally began. I know some scholars see evangelicalism as an upshot of the union of revivalism and pietism in the aftermath of the Great Awakening in the USA. Although I must point out that a recent volume has argued that nearly all of the evangelical distinctives go back to the Reformation (i.e. the elements of Bebbington's quadrilateral). That said, I cannot bring myself to call Calvin an "evangelical" since it sounds so blatantly anachronistic. I think Calvin's style of worship would be very "high church" and I doubt that Calvin held to a Warfieldian definition of inerrancy (from memory, Richard Muller argues quite cogently that Calvin's doctrine of Scripture is straight out of medieval catholicism, differing in many places of course, but mainly over the role of the magisterium and tradition). To talk about evangelicals in Paris in the 1530s is kinda like talking about the emergent church in New York the 1830s. Surely it is better to say that Calvin joined the Protestant cause or became a religious Reformer at this moment.

10 comments:

Luther's Stein said...
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Luther's Stein said...

Hey Mike. If I am not mistaken, "Evangelical" is a technical term in Calvin studies for those Frenchman who wanted reform in the church. For instance, Mark Greengrass in his book, The French Reformation, says, ". . . they tended to stress their devotion to the gospel [l'evangile] of the true message of Jesus Christ . . . evangelism represented all who wanted a reform along protestant lines but without wishing to establish a separate church in order to achieve it (p.12-13)."

J. B. Hood said...

Mike,

Many scholars favor the terms 'evangelical' and evangelicalism. According to Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, in the preface to The Reformation: A History (Penguin 2003--a sweet deal at 5 dollars at SBL in DC!), xx: "It is therefore problematic to use the word Protestant . . . often in this book I use a different word, 'evangelical'. That word has the advantage that it was widely used and recognized at the time, and it also encapsulates what was most important to this collection of activists: the good news of the Gospel, in Latinized Greek, the evangelium."

I seem to remember this word, "evangelical" having wider currency as well, though it's been a while since I dipped into serious church history.

jordan said...
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jordan said...

Greetings, I'm an editor over at Theopedia and have worked on the Calvin article. Thanks for making me (and others) aware of the potentially problematic wording. While I agree in part with the comments (even Tim Larsen included Calvin in the "Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals" [IVP, 2003] that he edited with Bebbington and Noll), I will admit that the wording causes more problems (or head-scratching) than is helpful. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Jim said...

It is not anachronistic to refer to Calvin as an evangelical, or to say he converted to evangelicalism. Martin Luther adapted the Greek term, dubbing his breakaway movement the evangelische kirke, or "evangelical church," a name still generally applied to the Lutheran Church in Germany. It was a name often attributed to the early reformers. Even the Roman Catholic Church called them the “gospelers.”

Eric Rowe said...
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Ben said...

So it sounds like the Theopedia editor meant evangelical in the modern sense of the word (which seems anachronistic); yet calling Calvin an evangelical is entirely appropriate given that it was the initial self-designation of many in the early Reformation.

jordan said...

Ben, you misread my post. I haven't gone back and looked at who made that edit and so I haven't asked the original editor his/her intentions. At any rate, I changed the article to avoid future confusion and not because the original editor meant "evangelical" in an anachronistic, modern sense.

Ben said...

Ah, sorry about that.