Early Reformed Thought

This episode looks at the thought of John Calvin and his heir Theodore Beza and the two most important Reformed documents of the 16th century: the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession.

Episode 6

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode, Early Reformed Thought.

If you have had any experience in college campus ministry over the last two decades, you will have noticed a resurgence of avowedly Reformed Christians, proudly espousing the doctrines of the Synod of Dort in 1619, shortened to TULIP. Tulip stands for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Many if not most of the early opponents of Methodism held Reformed beliefs about free will and predestination. Though as we will see and as should be understood from all that we have discussed, doctrine is never developed in a vacuum. The ideas espoused by Reformed theologians and preachers in the mid 18th century were not the same as the ideas of the mid 16th century, though there are many commonalities.

And so we must return to John Calvin, the French lawyer turned theologian mentioned in Episode 2. As mentioned then, Calvin himself was not particularly significant to the history of Methodism, but his heirs most assuredly were. To understand the development of the Reformed dogmatics that Wesley wrote against, we must start with their founding in Calvin.

John Calvin was born in Noyon, an old city in northern France, where Charlemagne has been crowned king of the Franks in 768. Calvin was able to study in Paris and at the University in Bourges where he learned Greek and studied with humanist scholars of the day. In 1533, Calvin experienced a religious conversion: He wrote about the event in his preface to a commentary on the Psalms:

And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.

After his conversion, Calvin soon had to go into hiding and made his way to Basel in Switzerland by 1535, the home city of the Reformer with the best name: Johannes Oecolampadius. Ulrich Zwingli, another early reformer, had been killed in 1531 after Zurich was invaded by Catholic armies and so Basel was a safer location to find respite.

In 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of Christian Religion, a work he would edit and amend for the rest of his life. Calvin soon found himself in Geneva and was called upon to write a confession for the city and to help reorganize the city and the churches. This did not go well and soon Calvin was exiled, so he took up a position in Strasbourg. Three years later, in 1541, Calvin was asked to return to Geneva and where he continued his reforms unimpeded. He soon rewrote the liturgy and hymnbook and published a catechism for the city.

Over the years, Calvin continued to edit and expand his institutes while also serving as a figurehead for Reform across Europe. Calvinism was first used by opponents of Calvin from Bern as a term of derision, but it was with Calvin’s heirs that his discourses on doctrine and his many generous commentaries on Scripture were intensified and systematized. More than anyone else, this was confirmed by Calvin’s heir in authority over Geneva, Theodore Beza.

Beza was born in Burgundy, France, in 1519, to a wealthy family of some repute. Like Calvin, he studied at the University of Bourges. Much of his youth was spent without distinction until he published a book of Latin poetry called Juvenilia in 1549. He had recently fled France for Geneva in order to avoid persecution. He met John Calvin and was able to use those connections in order to secure himself a post in Lausanne. In 1558, he was asked by Calvin to come to Geneva to teach at the recently founded Academy, what would later become the University of Geneva. When Calvin died, Beza became his successor as leader of the consistory and of the Academy.

From 1564 until his death in 1605, Beza was a supreme influence over Geneva and Reformed churches in Europe, especially in France. Geneva maintained its position as a safe-haven for Protestants, even after the suppression of the French Huguenots which culminated in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The event coincided with the marriage of Margaret, the sister of the King, to Henri III of Navarre who was Protestant. Thus, the city of Paris was filled with Protestants ecstatic with their new position of authority as heir to the throne due to the King, Charles IX, being childless, but it was not to last. On the night of August 23, 1572, between 5,000 and 15,000 French Protestants were killed across the country, principally in Paris.

It is important to remember with the violence of the 16th century, to understand that the disputes between Protestants and Catholics cannot be reduced to doctrinal disagreements but more than anything have to do with the birth of the modern nation state, as William Cavanaugh pointed out in his work The Myth of Religious Violence.

Part of this can be seen in the creation of one of the principal documents of the Early Reformed Period: the Palatinate Catechism, or what would become known as the Heidelberg Catechism. The document was first commissioned by Frederick III, the Elector of Palatine. Electors were significant rulers in Europe who had a say in choosing the next Holy Roman Empire. The 7 electors consisted of 3 Archbishops (of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne) as well as the King of Bohemia, Elector of Palatine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg. Saxony was the birthplace of protestantism being the home of Luther, and Brandenberg followed the Lutheran order under Joachim. Bohemia had been an early site of pre-Lutheran protestantism, being home of Jan Has, but it was currently led by Ferdinand I, the younger brother of the Emperor Charles V, who was stridently Catholic. Ferdinand would succeed his brother as Holy Roman Emperor in 1558 at his brother’s death.

With this situation, Frederick III of the Palatinate wanted to develop a catechism for his lands that would rival the Lutheran Catechisms in Saxony and Brandenburg. Thus, he commissioned the University of Heidelberg to produce such a document. Led by Zacharius Ursinus, the faculty of Heidelberg developed a catechism divided into 52 sections for the 52 weeks of the year. Topics covered include original sin, God, humanity, etc.., answers with direct biblical citations. The first topic is probably the most famous:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death? A. That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church points to the Heidelberg Catechism as a resource from the Evangelical Brethren tradition. Though it was promoted by the Synod of Dort which rejected Arminian thought, there is little theologically problematic for a Methodist within the catechism. The same cannot be said of the Belgic Confession.

Written by the pastor Guido de Bres from the southern portion of the Netherlands (Belgic was the latin term for all of the low country that would become modern Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Consisting of 37 articles, topics covered are comparable to the 39 articles and the Heidelberg Catechism. Both The Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession also reject out of hand Christian perfection, a position which guided many of the thinkers who attacked Wesley's A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Because of the positions in these confessions, many Reformed in the 18th century were unable to fully grapple with the scriptural claims of graced perfection that formed the basis of Wesleyan thought.

One article of the Belgic Confession, though, stands out, number 16.

Article 16: The Doctrine of Election We believe that—all Adam’s descendants having thus fallen into perdition and ruinby the sin of Adam—God showed himself to be as he is: merciful and just. God is merciful in withdrawing and saving from this perdition those who, in the eternal and unchangeable divine counsel, have been elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works. God is just in leaving the others in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves.

In this article we have the doctrine of double predestination laid out. The thought that not only does God predestine the elect but God predestines the damned. One of the principal debates around predestination consisted not on whether it was true but whether it was supralapserian or infralapsarian. That is, whether people were predestined before the fall or after. Theodore Beza was a strict supralapserian who taught and promoted that position. Yet at the end of the 16th century, Reformed views around predestination were very much in flux with deep consequences. There was space for infralapsarians and those with contingent views of predestination to rise in importance. Most prominent of all for Methodists and for the Reformed across Europe were the views of Jacob Arminius, a student of Beza’s who became a strident dissenter to double predestination and gave intellectual coherence to a rival position to the rigid Calvinism that was forming. Next time on the History of Methodism.


John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms

Heidelberg Catechism

Belgic Confession

William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009).