Reformed Virtue After Calvin

In a review of Reformed Virtue After Barth: Developing Moral Virtue Ethics in the Reformed Tradition by Kirk J. Nolan, I criticize Nolan’s choice to examine John Calvin, the Westminster Confession, and Jonathan Edwards as antecedents to his real interest in discussing the ethics of Karl Barth.

In a study devoted to Reformed virtue ethics, I wondered “why it is worthwhile to spend so much time on Calvin when there were others—his contemporaries and succeeding generations—who did take up the question of virtue more extensively and systematically.” While I still believe this latter claim is true, recent work by my colleague David Sytsma has convinced me that there is much more material in Calvin’s work that is amenable to and indeed best understood within a virtue-ethical framework than I had previously thought (or, for that matter, than Nolan demonstrated in his study).

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In “John Calvin and Virtue Ethics: Augustinian and Aristotelian Themes,” available via open access from the Journal of Religious Ethics, Sytsma observes:

As a theologian, Calvin himself did not write a treatise on ethics such as Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others did. But his theology integrates traditional concepts of virtue and he assumes the usefulness of philosophical ethics for civil society. There is no support in Calvin’s writings to support the supposed “repudiation of teleological virtue ethics” by the magisterial reformers for which Gregory argues (2012, 265). Instead, Calvin’s theological works provide ample justification for the subsequent development of Reformed virtue ethics, whether in the form of ethical treatises on the virtues or commentaries on the Decalogue, which correlate the commandments with virtues.

So even if we perhaps shouldn’t start with Calvin or look solely to his work in our efforts to understand the relationship between the Reformed tradition and virtue ethics, Calvin certainly should be part of the conversation.

Sytsma’s article is wide-ranging and worthy of close study. Hopefully its appearance in the Journal of Religious Ethics will help to temper some of the mainstream caricatures and misunderstandings of Calvin in particular and the Reformed tradition more generally.

Sytsma’s piece joins a growing body of important revisionist literature that corrects older and even some contemporary scholarship about the relationship of the Reformed tradition to the broader Augustinian and Thomistic traditions. This literature is such that the researcher today can be said to be left without excuse for repeating and rehearsing erroneous tropes about the scope and substance of discontinuity between someone like Calvin or Vermigli or Zanchi and the patristics and medieval scholastics, to say nothing of their Roman Catholic and Lutheran contemporaries.

For some examples of this kind of work with relevance for the development of Reformed virtue ethics after (and in addition to) Calvin, I recommend:

Colloquium: Pierre de la Place and Early Reformed Ethics

Place Droict UsageDr. Andrew M. McGinnis, a Junius Institute research fellow, will be presenting in an upcoming colloquium hosted by Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.

The title of Dr. McGinnis’ talk is, “The Christian Use of Moral Philosophy in Pierre de la Place and Early Reformed Ethics,” and the event will be held at the Boardroom at PRTS on March 17, 2020, from 3:30-4:30pm.

The presentation is related to Dr. McGinnis’ work on Reformed ethics in the post-Reformation period, including his work as a general editor of the Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law (Second Series). A translation of de la Place’s Du droict usage de la philosophie morale (Paris: Frederic Morel, 1562), or On the Proper Use of Moral Philosophy with Christian Teaching, is forthcoming in that series, which also includes volumes on Niels Hemmingsen on natural law and Martin Becanus on fiduciary contractual and promissory duties in the context of confessional conflict.

Pierre de la Place (ca. 1520–1572) was a Huguenot noble and martyr of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

Special Issue: Reformation & Renaissance Review

untitledJI research fellow Andrew M. McGinnis recently co-edited a special issue of Reformation & Renaissance Review: “Interconfessional Dialogues in Early-Modern Ethics and Economics.”

The issue features a contribution from McGinnis, “Charity and Commerce: Joseph Hall’s Reception of Catholic Casuistry and Economic Thought.” As McGinnis observes, Hall makes significant use of Roman Catholic casuistry in the development of his own treatise on conscience, Resolutions and Decisions of Divers Practicall Cases of Conscience. This shows that, in contrast to the claims of some of the scholarly literature on this question, “some English Protestants were not only reading Jesuit moral texts, but were willing to adapt and adopt ideas from their arch theological opponents.”

I have also co-authored a piece with Cornelis van der Kooi for this issue, “The Moral Status of Wealth Creation in Early-Modern Reformed Confessions.” In this piece we survey the exposition of the 8th commandment against theft, particularly as it is expounded positively, in a variety of Reformed confessional documents. We find that there is a generally positive evaluation of wealth creation in these texts, which although they are not absolutely uniform in their treatments, do present a broadly unified perspective. This piece is available via open access, and all of the contents of the issue are available digitally to subscribers.

Colloquium: “The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Preservation of Reformed Orthodoxy in the Post-Restoration Church of England”

Our colloquium series has been on hiatus recently, and will no doubt be more occasional in the future. But even so, we’re happy to announce an upcoming colloquium here in Grand Rapids at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Jake Griesel, a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Peterhouse, Cambridge, will be joining us to discuss, “The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Preservation of Reformed Orthodoxy in the Post-Restoration Church of England”

Here’s a description of the talk:

The theological landscape of the post-Restoration Church of England has long been depicted in the conventional historiography as having been marked by a near total collapse of Reformed orthodoxy and the steady dominance of ‘Arminianism’. In his Anti-Arminians (2008), Stephen Hampton strongly challenged this narrative by demonstrating that Reformed orthodoxy retained a strong mainstream presence within the Church of England between the Restoration (1660) and the Hanoverian Succession (1714). Building on Hampton’s work, this paper will consider how the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles, along with her Homilies and the broader witness of the English Reformation, functioned polemically as post-Restoration Reformed conformists endeavoured to preserve Reformed orthodoxy as the official orthodoxy of the established Church.

The colloquium will take place at Calvin Theological Seminary, Room 141, from 3:30pm to 5:00pm on Friday, June 14. Join us!

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Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis

st-augustine-reading-rhetoric-and-philosophy-at-the-school-of-rome-1465This is a project that has been in the works a long time, and so I’m very happy to announce that Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis: The Dynamics of Protestant and Catholic Soteriology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries will be appearing in the Studies in the History of Christian Traditions series, published by Brill.

I had the distinct honor of co-editing this volume along with David S. Sytsma, research curator at the Junius Institute, as well Matthew T. Gaetano, associate professor of history at Hillsdale College. The origin of the project was conversations some years ago concerning intriguing cross-confessional dialogue among and between the Reformed, Dominicans, Arminians, and Jesuits in the early modern era, particularly over issues related to predestination and free choice.

Here’s more detail about this volume:

Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis explores post-Reformation inter-confessional theological exchange on soteriological topics including predestination, grace, and free choice. These doctrines remained controversial within confessional traditions after the Reformation, as Dominicans and Jesuits and later Calvinists and Arminians argued about these critical issues in the Augustinian theological heritage. Some of those involved in condemning Arminianism at the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) were inspired by Dominican followers of Thomas Aquinas in Spain who had recently opposed the vigorous defense of free choice by Jesuit Molinists in the Congregatio de auxiliis (1598-1607). This volume, appearing on the 400th anniversary of the closing of the Synod of Dordt, brings together a group of scholars working in fields that only rarely speak to one another to address these theological debates that cross geographical and confessional boundaries.

More details will be forthcoming as the volume progresses through the publishing process. But in the meantime, I have posted a document including the table of contents, list of contributors (including JI senior fellow Richard A. Muller), and a draft of the substantive introduction to the volume.