After Merit: John Calvin’s Theology of Works and Rewards

9783525552483New from V&R and in the Refo500 Academic Series.  The TOC and introduction can be read here.

The focus of this study is John Calvin’s theology of works and reward, and the approach is to contextualize his thought in light of both medieval theological developments surrounding the doctrine of “merit” and his polemics against the doctrine as he understood it in his day. But this study also strives for something much more. The book, by analyzing this particular part of Calvin’s thought—his doctrine of works and reward—illuminates the whole in fresh ways. It provides a framework for reading and interpreting Calvin’s theology that strives to do justice to the reformational context in which it developed. It is able to do so because Calvin’s polemic against the merit-based soteriology of his “opponents” drives the vast majority of Calvin’s positive theological constructions (as we shall see). So while the book is not a full-on reinterpretation of Calvin, by emphasizing the centrality of this doctrine in Calvin’s historical and polemical context, it does reorganize the constellation of the rest of his teaching somewhat, allowing the various elements of his theology to fall more naturally into place and thus highlighting the function other various doctrines do—and don’t—fulfill.

I appreciate the review volume sent by the publisher.  Raith describes his purpose in a series of useful sentences in the introduction, noting first of all –

In light of recent Calvin scholarship, two particular points require exposition and defense: (1) the uniqueness of Calvin’s position on merit, works, and reward when compared to his predecessors and contemporaries, and (2) the centrality of his polemic against merit in shaping his soteriology (p. 16).

Then to bolster his supposition he cites Calvin himself, who wrote

“He, whoever he was, that first applied [the term merit] to human works when viewed in reference to the divine tribunal consulted very ill for the purity of the faith.” (p. 20).

As Raith continues to describe his project he remarks

The conviction of the present work is that Calvin’s theology is best read as a soteriologically driven enterprise, with his view of salvation being shaped by his polemics against his “opponents’” merit-based view of salvation (p. 22).  … by focusing on Calvin’s overall polemic against merit, we are able to draw together a number of theological loci into a coherent whole (rather than a “system”) that enables the reader to see the inner ratio for much of Calvin’s theology (p. 24)

Then when he launches into the presentation proper he can suggest

My analysis in this book presupposes that Calvin’s soteriology is best understood within a polemical context that consists both of Calvin’s refutation of the scholastic meritorious system as espoused by his contemporary “papists” and “schoolmen,” and of his pursuit of an alternative framework that also includes a positive soteriological role for works and reward (p. 67).

And so along he moves, step by step (take note of the table of contents in the link above) in an effort which is by no means a failed one to show how Calvin’s notions of merit were both influenced by those who came before and influenced those who have come after.  In terms, then, of achievement, it’s hard to argue against the suggestion that Raith has achieved his aim (as stated in the introduction) and that quite marvelously.  This is a brilliant study.  But it has a problem (which though minor is still important to note).  To wit, in a footnote, he writes

For more on Calvin’s teaching on “certainty” in light of Luther’s and Zwingli’s teaching, see Susan Schreiner, “‘The Spiritual Man Judges All Things’: Calvin and the Exegetical Debates about Certainty in the Reformation,” in Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation: Essays Presented to David C. Steinmetz in Honor of His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Richard A. Muller and John L. Thompson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 189–215.(p. 83, note).

This is, intriguingly, the only reference to Zwingli in the entire volume and this in spite of the fact that Zwingli had a good deal to say about the topic of Merit and was Calvin’s predecessor in the development of Reformed theology. To leave out of consideration Zwingli’s contributions on the subject is akin to talking about motoring shows on TV without making reference to the BBC’s Top Gear.  Indeed, it seems that Raith’s familiarity with Zwingli’s work is at second hand, from a single essay (if his citation of the same is to be taken seriously).  This is a lacuna which needs to be filled in Raith’s future work.

Not only did I learn a great deal about Calvin’s thought on Merit from Raith (and his lack of interest in Zwingli), I also learned two words which I’m sure I will have plenty of reason to use in the future:  “Damnworthiness” (p. 125) and  “Damnworthy” (p. 141).

I also learned that

Calvin never tires of reminding his reader that when God rewards a believer’s work, he is in fact rewarding himself. Calvin’s participatory understanding of divine-human activity enables him to affirma believer’s particular good work as a work that God produces without negating one of the two actors (p. 144).

Truth be told, I learned a good deal about Calvin from this book and I’m very grateful for its author’s devotion to historical and theological investigation and the thoroughness with which he approached his work.  This volume is a pleasure to read, a pleasure to absorb, and a pleasure to recommend.  And so I do.  But rather than allowing myself the last word I’ll let Raith have it in hopes that his scintillating remark will encourage you to read this book yourself.  You’ll be as happy that you did afterward as a teen girl who has just been asked to prom by the good looking quarterback of their high school championship team and far happier than you have ever been reading the Wrong book.

Whatever we may say about God’s will, it seems true to this author that systematizing
the various pieces of Calvin’s theology on merit, works, and reward remains outside
the grasp of reason as well (p. 180).