Some time ago I heard a pastor express the following complaint: “Some Calvinists are more Calvinistic than Calvin.” What he meant was that, while Calvin sought to develop a biblical theology, and largely succeeded, some Calvinists develop their theology beginning with Calvinistic presuppositions rather than Scripture.* Calvin would not have been pleased. Burk Parsons writes:
Christopher Catherwood, in his book Five Leading Reformers, offers a word of warning to all Calvinists:We must be “Bible Calvinists” not “system Calvinists.” We can all too easily get sucked into what we feel is a neat system of thought, and forget that we ought to make everything that we believe compatible with Scripture, even if that means jettisoning ideas that flow well in a purely logical sense but are nonetheless incompatible with what the Bible teaches. Although Calvin did not make that mistake himself, it is arguable that many of his followers have done so over the ensuing centuries—and I include myself, as a Calvinist, in that caution!Although I would argue that “Bible Calvinism” necessarily, and rightly, engenders “system Calvinism,” Catherwood’s admonition is one we all should heed with care. Calvin was a Christian who fitst and foremost lived and breathed the living and active Word of God, and all true Calvinists must follow his example. Calvin labored over his Institutes of the Christian Religion—which is unquestionably the most majestic volume in all of human history next to sacred Scripture—in ordered to help those preparing for the pastoral ministry to study the Word of God and have “easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling.”
According to Calvin, we are to be “daily taught in the school of Jesus Christ.” Thus, we must be students of Scripture if we are to possess right and sound doctrine: “Now in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can even get the slightest taste of right doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture.” Elsewhere Calvin writes, “Let us not take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything of him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word.” This, writes T. H. L. Parker, “is Calvin’s theological programme—to build on the Scripture alone.”
The entirety of Calvin’s ministry was established fundamentally on the Word of God. In accordance with the Reformation credo ad fontes, “to the sources” (particularly to the only infallible source), Calvin’s Institutes was a summary of the Christian religion according to Scripture. This was Calvin’s theological modus operandi, as Calvin scholar Ronald S. Wallace maintains: “We could, of course, argue cogently that the whole of his later teaching and outlook developed from the Bible. He insisted always that tradition must be constantly corrected by, and subordinated to, the teaching of Holy Scripture.”
—Burk Parsons, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Reformation Trust, 2008), 4–5.
*A note to Arminian readers who are now nodding gleefully at an apparent admission that Calvinism is certainly not biblically derived: This is no such confession, only an acknowledgement that some Calvinists are more systematic than biblical. Now consider whether or not you approach Scripture without presupposing Arminian free will.