03 October, 2016

The Doctrine of Predestination in Calvin and Beza: Chapter One: Introduction

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 1988]

For many years after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century scholars generally assumed that theology as it developed on the continent of Europe and in England was wholly in the tradition of the great reformer of Geneva, John Calvin. The church was confident that one straight line could he drawn from the theology of Calvin through Beza, Zanchius, Maccovius, the theologians of Dordt, Turretin, Witsius, and subsequent continental theologians to the church today which remained faithful to the heritage of Calvin. The same could be said of Puritan theology. Perkins, the Westminster Assembly, other notable Puritan divines, and Presbyterianism in general could trace their heritage back, without deviation, to the genius of Geneva.

This is not to say, of course, that variations did not exist. It is not a difficult task to point out differences between continental theology and Puritan thought. Nor would anyone with even a passing acquaintance with theology in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries ever be so bold and foolish as to deny differences between the theologians who engaged in a theological enterprise. But the differences were minor and relatively insignificant, due to development within differing ecclesiastical and cultural situations, mainly variations of emphasis, and could be expected to appear as the rich heritage of Calvin was explored and the truth developed further. All could claim, without fear of contradiction, the name “Calvinist”; and all could insist that their theological position differed in no significant respect from the lines drawn with such brilliance in the Institutes of the Christian Religion and the other voluminous writings of their spiritual and theological mentor.

Within the last forty or fifty years all this has changed. While distant echoes of opposing voices could be heard faintly from earlier years, only recently has Calvin scholarship undergone considerable change. Now, increasingly, voices are heard that one can find very few men who were truly faithful to Calvin. Already during Calvin’s own lifetime, under the influence of Calvin’s personal friend and successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, significant and important changes were made in Calvin’s theology. Not Calvin himself was the guiding light in subsequent development of doctrine, but Beza, Calvin’s heir; and the changes made were significant and important. In a recently published book, Paul Helm,1 e.g., writing particularly of English Puritanism, says:

However, in recent years several attempts have been made to discredit this doctrinal and spiritual continuity reaching from John Calvin and other early Reformers to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Various arguments have been used by different writers, but what they all come down to is something like the following. Whereas Calvin’s presentation of the Christian gospel was warm, exuberant and thoroughly evangelical, his so-called Calvinistic followers presented what was in effect another gospel, a gospel that was formal, introspective and legalistic. Sometimes it is held that the later Calvinists distorted the teaching of Calvin by, for example, giving a greater prominence to predestination than he did. At other times the much stronger and more serious claim is made, that the Puritans, supposedly followers of Calvin were actually opposed to the teaching of Calvin in its central emphases. On this view, after Calvin’s death the tradition is broken, and is replaced by another, nominally Calvinistic, but which was in fact a repudiation of much that Calvin stood for.

R.T. Kendall’s monograph, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, defends the more extreme view. He claims that the central figures of Puritanism such as William Perkins and William Ames derived their theology not from Calvin but from Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva. He holds that there is a fundamental shift in outlook between Calvin and Beza, and consequently that the whole of the Puritan tradition, from Perkins to the Westminster C0nfessi0n of Faith, was set on the wrong, anti-Calvinistic track. According to Kendall, the Westminster divines, without realizing it, became virtually Arminian in many respects. “The architectural mind of Westminster theology, is Beza” (Kendall, p. 210). Ames’ theology is Arminian “in every way but in the theoretical explanation that lies behind the actual practice of the believer (or unbeliever)” (Kendall, p. 157). A “crypto-Arminian doctrine of faith ... pervades Westminster theology” (Kendall, p. 209). “Calvin’s thought, save for the decrees of predestination, is hardly to be found in Westminster Theology” (Kendall, p. 208). “For Calvin faith as an instrument is God’s act, opening blind eyes; for the Westminster divines, even though in the context of God’s prevenient grace, faith is man’s act” (Kendall, p. 201).

Not everyone who believes that Beza altered significantly Calvin’s views would, of course, agree with Kendall’s position on the nature of these changes. But many are convinced that what Kendall maintains is indeed true, not only in Puritan theology, but also in continental thought. And in almost every case, Beza is the culprit.

The changes which Beza was supposed to have brought about are of different sorts. Helm, writing further concerning Kendall’s view, says:2

What, in more detail, is Kendall’s case? Although in the monograph he develops his views historically, by considering the sequence of theological development from Calvin to the Westminster Assembly, and not systematically, the following over-all picture emerges. A vital place is occupied by two supposed doctrinal changes. From these changes many other important consequences are alleged to follow.

In the first place, Kendall holds, the “followers of Calvin from Beza onwards developed the doctrine of limited atonement, the idea that Christ did not die for all, but only for the elect. Kendall claims that Calvin did not teach limited atonement. He taught what is clearly incompatible with it, namely, general or universal atonement.

In the second place Kendall believes that Calvin’s doctrine of faith came to be modified beyond recognition. His view that faith is a passive persuasion of the mind is replaced, gradually but unmistakably, by the view that faith is an act of the will. On Kendall’s view, whereas for Calvin faith is something that is given, for his “Calvinistic” followers, from Perkins onwards, faith is something that is solely a matter of the will.

While other differences have been suggested by other scholars of Calvin, most who want to set Beza over against Calvin do not so much speak of what Kendall concentrates on, but point the finger at the doctrine of predestination. It is here, in the opinion of many, that Beza did the most harm to Calvin’s view. And because this is a doctrine of utmost importance, because it formed a significant (if not central) position in the theology of Calvin and Beza, and because it continued to be a fundamental truth of the theology of subsequent theologians both on the continent and in England, it is on this doctrine that we intend to concentrate our attention in this paper. It is, in fact, our conviction that if it can be shown, as we believe it can, that charges of fundamental alteration in the doctrine of predestination are false and unjust, other charges concerning other doctrines will, of themselves, fall by the way.

As we hope to show in the paper, by no means all students of Calvin agree with these charges, not even students of more recent times. And, among those who do aim such charges against Beza, no agreement can be found concerning the precise way in which Beza made these alterations. Some say the changes were minor and insignificant; others insist they were fundamental and basic. Some say changes of significance were made in one area; others point to different areas. A consensus is impossible to find. And this in itself ought to be a caution sign that these theories are by no means to be accepted at face value.

Further, it becomes increasingly clear that among some who insist on the position that Beza really did untold harm to Calvin’s views, the reason for such a position is a dislike for the truth of sovereign reprobation. In an effort to maintain what is essentially an Arminian conception of reprobation while at the same time seeking the support of Calvin, Beza is made an antagonist of Calvin on this doctrine. And, because Beza had more influence on subsequent theology than Calvin himself, Reformed and Puritan theologians who made sovereign and double predestination an integral part of their theology are charged with being unfaithful to Calvin, while, either consciously or unconsciously, adopting the position of Calvin’s successor. This too will have to be examined.

We propose, therefore, in Chapter II to examine this position and these charges as they concentrate on Calvin’s own views, learn what they entail, and come to some clarification on their meaning. In Chapter III we shall examine the alleged differences between Calvin and Beza. In Chapter IV we shall attempt to define the issues involved and evaluate these issues. In Chapter V we shall examine the views of Calvin and Beza and come to some judgments whether these views are in any significant respect different. And in Chapter VI we shall formulate conclusions which can properly be drawn from our study.


1. Paul Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), pp. 5, 6.

2. Ibid., pp. 6, 7.

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