The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition

By Richard A. Muller | Go to book overview

SIX
To Elaborate on the Topics
The Context and Method
of Calvin's
Institutes

Calvin's Institutes as a Theological System: The Present Question

Calvin's Institutes is a theological system—to the extent the term can be applied to the forms used to frame and present Christian doctrine between the twelfth and the seventeenth centuries. 1 The Institutes is certainly an example of the sixteenth-century antecedent of what came to be called a “system of theology” in the seventeenth century. This point must be made, given the apparent vogue of statements to the effect that Calvin was not a “professional theologian” and wrote no “formal theology, ” 2 or that he was “a biblical theologian” who “despised what passed for systematic theology in his own time” and who was interested primarily in “the right order of teaching, ” 3 that he was “not a systematic thinker” and “did not even aspire to the construction of a system. ” 4 Calvin's Institutes is said to lack a “unified theological methodology” and to function as an “ad hoc collection of many methods and systems. ” 5 It is a “pastoral” rather than a dogmatic theology. 6 Bouwsma comments that “a systematic Calvin would be an anachronism; there were no 'systematic' thinkers of any significance in the sixteenth century, ” 7 and he points his readers toward the earlier comments of Dillenberger that Calvin was “the least systematic of systematic theologians, ” but rather a “biblical theologian” whose “Institutes are like a wheel without a rim, a hub full of spokes” with “some spokes longer than others, ” certainly “no system in the sense in which we use it. ” 8

These statements are, of course, quite contrary to the view of earlier scholarship: Wendel, for example, referred to the Institutes as a “manual of dogmatics… complementary to [Calvin's] courses in exegesis…in which he… developed his dogmatic

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