Bruce McCormack on Double Predestination is not the Central Doctrine of John Calvin and classical Reformed theology
Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, by Bruce L. McCormack

Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, by Bruce L. McCormack

Friedrich Schleiermacher was a Calvinist, and although he is known as the father of Liberal Protestantism for his definition of god as "a feeling of absolute dependence", he was nevertheless a Calvinist and John Calvin was his Church Father. Schleiermacher reconstructed Calvinism in his understanding of Pietism, especially in the infamous beginning of Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith where Piety is defined as Feeling, and Feeling is where Knowing and Doing meet. Schleiermacher also made great use of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion throughout the The Christian Faith, especially Calvin's doctrine of Predestination, and although the Doctrine of Faith was a completely reworked dogmatic, it used Calvin at its starting point, and has influenced all of the world. Alexander Schweizer is considered Schleiermacher's greatest student and successor, and rival of Karl Barth.

In Bruce McCormack's book, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, there is an excellent essay, "The Sum of the Gospel" that discusses the changing consensus regarding the doctrine of Double Predestination in relationship to the Reformed Tradition due to work of Schleiermacher's followers and then Barth's followers. In the following quotation from this essay, McCormack sums up the amazing sequence of events that challenges the mistaken view the Calvinism is merely about Double Predestination. It was Schleiermacher's pupil, Alexander Schweizer, who worked laboriously to maintain the thesis that Predestination was the central doctrine of Calvin and his Reformed successors. It wasn't until Karl Barth's student, Wilhelm Niesel, wrote his excellent book on The Theology of Calvin that overturned this consensus, and pushed Predestination aside as the reigning doctrine of the Institutes. McCormack also notes François Wendel's book, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, as firmly establishing Niesel's thesis. I've read both of these books by Niesel and Wendel and highly recommend them for anyone who wishes to understand Calvin.

"Historians today are by and large united in rejecting the validity of Schweizer's assessment of the importance of the doctrine of predestination for classical Reformed theology--especially as it touches upon Calvin. There are many today who would argue that Calvin's theology had no center at all. Among those who think that there was at least some kind of existential center, the leading candidate is his eucharistic theology and the Christology which underlay it, not his double predestination. It was Wilhelm Niesel, a student of Barth's during his Göttingen period, who first succeeded in marginalizing Calvin's doctrine of predestination vis-a-vis his theology as a whole. In his great work on Calvin's theology in 1938, Niesel noted the then still widespread view that predestination was Calvin's central dogma and observed, "If this be the case, then all that we have so far said is false. Then Calvin's doctrines are not like so many signposts pointing through the far-ranging and complex fields of the Bible to the one incarnate God. It would rather be true to say that Calvin's theology is a system of thoughts about God and human kind preceding from the one thought of the utter dependence of humanity upon God."(23) Niesel's tendency to minimize the importance of Calvin's doctrine of election was given added impetus by François Wendel in 1952. Wendel's argument was based mainly on external considerations of arrangement (the doctrine of predestination only appears at the end of book III of the 1559 Institutes and receives scant mention elsewhere.) (24) Although there is, no doubt, a great measure of truth in the current consensus on Calvin (it being readily granted that there is no systematic center to Calvin's theology), it is a truth whose significance is easily overstated. There is grave danger today that the oft-repeated judgment that predestination was of marginal importance for Calvin might easily lead to the conclusion that it ought to be of marginal importance for Reformed Christians in the present as well. And this would be a great pity, for not only would the errant notion of a double predestination be affected but, along with it, the utterly central truth of the unconditionality of divine grace."

Notes:
#23. Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, trans. Harold Knight (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1980), p159-160.
#24. François Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (Durham, NC: Labyrinth, 1987), p263-84. Wendel singles out Schweizer as the source of the--in his view--mistaken notion that predestination was the central doctrine in Calvin's theology. But as Brian Gerrish rightly points out, Wendel never bothered to ask what Schweizer meant by a "central doctrine." See Gerrish, Tradition in the Modern World, 147.

Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008), p48-49

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  1. I am not sure about the connection between Election and Predestination in Calvin, but in Barth, they seem united. It would seem to me that while Barth re-thought the notion of Election, he certainly made it pivotal in his theology. Of course, I could be wrong, and this book may well be worth exploring.


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