Exact Walking

Christopher Hill

  • Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 by R.T. Kendall
    Oxford, 252 pp, £12.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 19 826716 9

In 16th-century England Protestant theology was overwhelmingly predestinarian. ‘Calvinist’ is the word normally used, but Dr Kendall, as we shall see, is unhappy about it. Bishops like Jewell, Grindal and Whitgift, Puritans like Cartwright and Perkins (though Dr Kendall would not call him a Puritan), later King James I, all agreed on the essentials of theology. This orthodoxy was challenged by Laudians in the 1630s, by sectaries in the Forties and Fifties. By the end of the century, Calvinism was no longer the intellectual force it had been. It was not stressed by the official Church of England, though the ‘Latitudinarians’ who came to dominate the Church had more in common with the earlier ‘Puritans’ than with Laudians. In the 18th century the ‘old dissent’, Presbyterians and Independents, was still mainly Calvinist, though Arminianism and Unitarianism were making inroads into their ranks. Calvinism survived among Particular Baptists and Muggletonians. It had ceased to be in the forefront of intellectual history. What had happened?

Dr Kendall is a theologian, and he suggests some of the internal reasons for the disintegration of the Calvinist theology. He rewrites the history of the theology in rather an alarming manner. I am not competent to assess the value of all his judgments, but they seem to me highly discussable, and very relevant to the problem of the eclipse of Calvinism.

He sees Beza as a major revisionist of Calvinism – Stalin, as it were, to Calvin’s Lenin. Whereas Calvin believed that Christ died for all men, the belief that Christ died for the elect only is fundamental to Beza’s thought. Beza’s doctrine ‘1. inhibits the believer from looking directly to Christ’s death for assurance; 2. precipitates an implicit distinction between faith and assurance; 3. tends to put repentance before faith in the ordo salutis; and 4. plants the seeds of voluntarism in the doctrine of faith’. In England, the great theologian William Perkins followed Beza (Chapter Four, passim).

All predestinarian theologians have to face the problem of how one can be assured of salvation. For Calvin, faith comes only from without, as a divine gift; assurance and faith are in effect the same thing. Repentance follows faith. There are problems about how exactly you know that your faith, your assurance, are genuine and permanent; Calvin acknowledges that men may have temporary faith. But since the gift of faith comes before repentance it is no good looking inside yourself for signs that will justify assurance, or trying to verify your faith by good works. For Beza and Perkins, the problem is how a man can know that he is one of the elect for whom Christ died. This was a very real pastoral problem, since the belief that one was irredeemably damned could lead to despair. Beza’s and Perkins’s theology ‘puts the knowledge of faith within the reach of anyone who wills to be godly’. One may have temporary faith, but the elect are those who persevere in holiness. Perkins goes so far as to say that ‘the will to believe is faith’; ‘and the desire to repent, repentance itself ... God accepting the will for the deed.’ This opened a very wide gateway to voluntarism. As Dr Kendall puts it, ‘believing in Christ to Perkins means sooner or later to descend inside ourselves; the eventual result is not merely introspection, but a doctrine of faith that could easily breed legalism.’ Our calling and election are made sure by the evidence of good works.

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[*] Academic Press, 1979.

[†] Cape, February 1980.