August 1: Was Calvin a Presbyterian?

W. Stanford Reid was a professor of history at McGill University and the University of Guelph; in retirement, he taught briefly at Westminster Theological Seminary. Both he and his father were ministers in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The following is from W. Stanford Reid’s little magazine, REFORMATION TODAY, a Canadian Presbyterian magazine which was published in the early 1950’s. Back before “Calvin against the Calvinists,” I guess people were asking this question:

Was Calvin a Presbyterian?
by William Stanford Reid
[Reformation Today (Montreal, Canada), 1.10 (July-August 1952): 11-12.]

Calvin a Presbyterian? Why of course, many will say, he was the founder of the Presbyterian Church. Therefore, when you quote Calvin, you are quoting, not a Protestant theologian, you are quoting a denominational apologist. We have even had this said to us concerning quotations in articles in this magazine. Consequently we feel that it is time that Calvin was somewhat better understood.

In order that we do this properly, it must be remembered that Calvin was, first and foremost, a Biblical expositor. His chief interest was in bringing men back to a proper understanding and application of the Word of God. He wrote commentaries on all but two of the books of the Bible. At the same time, he realized that only as men understood the teachings of the Word of God as a whole, could they be thoroughly furnished. He therefore, was the first of the Christian writers to set forth systematically what the Word of God had to say concerning God and man’s relation to Him. He did this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Since Calvin’s day, his views have been accepted most completely by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches throughout the world. But they have done this, not because Calvin was Frenchman, nor because he wrote well, nor because he built up a strong church in Geneva. They have done this because they believed that his views were the most thoroughly Biblical of any so far set forth. Calvin was not a Presbyterian, but real Presbyterians are fundamentally Calvinists.

In the same way Evangelical Anglicans, if they adhere to their Thirty-Nine Articles, are also basically Calvinists. A study of the history of the formulation of the Articles will show quite clearly that Calvin’s was the dominant influence in the statement of doctrine prepared for the Elizabethan church. One man has made the comment that Calvin’s Institutes was the best known theological work in England during the last half of the sixteenth century. What is more, if one follows the history of Evangelical Anglicanism down through the succeeding years, he will find that Calvinism was its very motive power: George Whitefield, Hannah More, the Earl of Shaftesbury and many others were all strong Calvinists. It would seem that real Anglicans are also fundamentally Calvinists.

The same might be said of the Baptists. Some ten years after the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the present confession of the Presbyterian Church, the Baptists in the Savoy articles accepted the Calvinistic position, by adopting the Confession, although rejecting the doctrine of infant baptism and Presbyterian government. So down through the years Calvinistic Baptists have been numerous and a power for God in their communion: John Bunyan and Charles Haddon Spurgeon are but two who might be mentioned.

The same could be said of the Congregationalists, who were at variance with Calvin only on the point of church organization. But what about people like Methodists who hated a great number of his teachings? Even they, whether they realized it or not, were heavily indebted to Calvin. The stress upon the doctrine of Justification by Faith, upon the sovereign righteousness of God and upon similar doctrines was largely owing to the work and teaching of Calvin. Even their individualism, high-lightng the doctrine of man’s individual relationship to God could really be based only upon Calvin’s doctrine of covenant-election. Their one difficulty was that they allowed their reason at times to sit in judgment on God’s Word.

Now, we would not have it thought that Calvin was always right, but we do believe that basically he was closest to the Word of God, of any thinker who has written since the days of the Apostle Paul. He had his failings, he made his mistakes as any other man, net blessed with prophetic or apostolic power, might do. Yet he stands so far above all others who have written since the days of the inspired writers that we feel no shame in quoting and referring to him. For we believe that God raised him up at a special time, endowing him as he has few other men since apostolic days, with insight into the meaning of His Divine Revelation. Let none of us, therefore, forget the rock from which we were hewn.

—W.S.R.

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