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Calvinism and Catholicity

Calvinism and Catholicity May 27, 2011

Todd Billings has a cool piece on The Promise of Catholic Calvinism. I can relate to this. I remember one time saying something in class about the Trinity and afterwards a student came up to me rather concerned and asked: “I didn’t think we believed all that Catholic stuff like the Trinity?” I was aghast and retorted, “Oh yes we do!”. I also remember a couple of people in a former church I attended being rather agitated by the fact that I put up a picture of  Jesus from the Hagia Sophia in a power point presentation for my sermon, and they objected on the grounds that the picture was too “catholic”! The assumptions here is that old stuff is catholic and everything catholic is heterodox. The problem is that I’m pretty sure that a renunciation of all Christians who lived before 1517 was not the goal of the Reformation.

So I agree with Todd Billings when he writes:

In our day, the Reformed tradition is in dire need of recovering the Catholic dimension of our heritage. Calvin and other Reformers did not, in fact, seek radical revision of a Nicene doctrine of the Trinity and a Chalcedonian Christology; moreover, the sacramental theology of Luther, Calvin, and even Zwingli was much closer to the patristic theology of Augustine, for example, than the highly cognitive memorialism that takes place in many of today’s Reformed churches.

In conclusion, why speak of a “Catholic Calvinism”? I choose to speak this way because it highlights what is missing in many understandings of Reformed Christianity: the Trinitarian, Christological and sacramental theology about which classical Reformed theology owes great debts to patristic reflection. The term “Catholic” captures some of what has been lost by Reformed churches on the “left” and “right” that have fallen into a “mere Christianity” that is a reduced Christianity. If Reformed Christianity in America is to recover from the paralyzing reductionisms of the Enlightenment, it must retrieve riches from the premodern Reformed tradition– from the patristic theological tradition that Calvin and many later Reformed theologians so admired.

Infusing some catholicity of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan kind can only strengthen the Reformed churches and remind us that the Reformation was not the attempt to renounce the past but to recapture it!


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