Review: Calvinism: A History

Hart-Calvinism-A-History-1017x1476To write a history on what D.G. Hart notes as an, accidental movement, would need to include the study of a broad swath of theologians from an array of countries. Hart has done a great service to the church by providing a synthesis of Reformed history and thought into a manageable number of pages for the common reader with Calvinism: A History. Hart goes beyond merely recounting a history of religion but relies on the context of political and religious circumstances which helped to open up doors for the spread of the Reformed faith across the globe.

Hart begins by introducing the reader to the theological epicenters of the Reformed faith, namely Geneva, Basel, and Zurich. He highlights moments in history which have moved lay people and clergy away from a Roman Catholic worldview into that of specifically Reformed thought As the shape of the Lutheran and Reformed church began to emerge, Huldrych Zwingli contrasted a true religion as over against the false doctrine of Rome by saying, “Faithfulness demands, first, that we learn from God in what way we can please Him, in what manner serve Him. Next, it demands that we should add nothing to what we have learned from Him, and take away nothing..The things…on which faith hinges should be brought out without delay, but the things that militate against it need to be demolished with skill, least they do harm in their downfall and bury the little that has already been built (24). 

From the epicenter we see the shock waves reach westward as the Reformation came to places like France and England. In these places, Hart notes, that the spread of Calvinism under the monarchy infrastructure which these countries produced was heavily dampened by Calvinism’s impact on the magistrate. He also points out an intense time of persecution of these Reformed folk under the rule of these monarchs who were largely under the influence of Rome or, at a later time, under the hand of the Church of England.

Hart moves us in the direction of Northern Europe by tracing the spread of this accidental movement through the Palatinate and into Scotland. He makes the shift into theses areas by observing the confessions and creeds which flowed from the localized Reformed Church. He takes into account the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Scottish Book of Common Order. While taking these documents into account over against the local religion, Hart also brings the men who helped shape these countries into focus. He takes figures like John Knox and others and contributes their success in ministry largely to the, “spadework of Zwingli or Calvin” (71).

As Hart begins to trace the missionaries who were pushed to leave the continent, he begins by showing us how the Dutch used the call of God on their lives to plant churches across the globe. One way he charts the spread is to focus on a colony of the Dutch in North America named New Netherland. Among it’s low morality was it’s low focus on evangelizing a new world for Christ. As the East India Trading Company began to venture out into the new world for commercial gain, one pastor noted how difficult it was in ministering to those on the frontier. “There are may hearers, but not much saving fruit…The people are rather reckless..[and] the taverns and villainous houses have many visitors…The Company says that the congregation must pay the preacher. But they prefer to gamble away, or lose in best, a ton of beer at twenty-three or twenty-four guilder, or some other liquor. I will say nothing against the better class; but of these there are too few to make up the salary (101).

After documenting well the rise and fall and rise again, Hart does an excellent job of bringing the reader up to speed on the current situation Calvinist’s find themselves in. Part of a confessional movement, the Calvinist today has a rich heritage which is often misunderstood at least and accidental at best. Drawing this volume to a close, Hart recounts the history of Calvinism as “remarkable and diverse” (304).

Included at the end of this book is a very helpful timeline of Calvinism beginning in 1525 and bringing us up to speed all the way to 2010. While not comprehensive in it’s history of each and every stream of Calvinism, Hart does a great job of documenting where this movement began and how far it’s come since the great sausage debacle in Zurich. I appreciated this overview of my heritage as a Calvinist and am glad that I come from such a diverse group of people who often made the same mistakes I make today.

Hart, D. (2013). Calvinism: A History (p. 352). New Haven: Yale University Press.

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