After Four Hundred Years

Dusting off one of the periodical collections at the PCA Historical Center, I noticed this brief article in the inaugural issue of the Canadian Presbyterian journal, PRESBYTERIAN COMMENT, edited by the Rev. Dr. William Stanford Reid. After a brief introductory comment in that first issue, the following was Dr. Reid’s first editorial in the new publication:

After Four Hundred Years
by William Stanford Reid

In the year 1536, from the press of Thomas Platter and Balthasar Lasium, Basle publishers, appeared a thin volume of some seven chapters bearing the title of Christianae Religionis Institutio (The Institutes of the Christian Religion) written by a young French Protestant refugee, John Calvin. Although presented to the world as a defence of French Protestants, it was in fact a short statement of the new religious thought which came to be known as “Reformed Theology.” For the next twenty-three years Calvin repeatedly revised his work until in 1559 it appeared in its final form, now very much larger, and one of the most important books ever to come from a European press.

The reason for our valuing the Institutes so highly is that this work became the foundation of much subsequent Protestant thought. It did so for one thing because the author’s concise thinking and expression made it easy to understand. When Calvin wrote, he desired above everything else, to convince his readers of the truth of his message, not to impress them with his great knowledge, nor to confuse them with his swelling words.

The chief cause of the book’s influence was, therefore, the fact that men were able to see Calvin’s teaching so clearly. Since its first appearance it has been a classic, if not the classic, statement of the biblical doctrine of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. By it many people have found salvation in Christ, while others have been strengthened and built up in their faith.

Thus Calvin’s Institutes has been a truly formative work. Indeed in the case of some whole nations such as Holland or Scotland it has become part of the national heritage, helping to mold the people’s character.

But what is of more importance, today the thinking of Calvin, particularly as it is expressed in his Institutes, is experiencing a present revival throughout the Christian world. New translations and new editions of old translations are appearing in many different tongues: English, French, Japanese, Indonesian, etc. Thus Calvin’s influence, which some fifty years ago seemed about to die, is once again making itself felt.

The reason for this is that our own day is very similar to that of Calvin. Sixteenth century Europe faced the threat of a Moslem invasion from the east. At the same time new worlds and new peoples were coming into Europe’s orbit with Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion. But what was even more important, Europe was passing through a veritable economic, social and intellectual revolution as the old order disintegrated before men’s eyes. Thus Calvin, writing for the sixteenth century, speaks to us today in our own terms concerning our own problems and needs.

Because of this, we who are Presbyterians and who owe much to Calvin and his Institutes which form the foundation of our Confession and catechisms, should desire to attain a greater understanding and knowledge of this man’s great work. “He being dead yet speaketh,” and if we listen we shall find that his words are indeed a guide for us in both faith and action.

It might be well, therefore, if our ministers began instructing our people once again in Calvin’s doctrines, and if our people began reading his works in order that they might be built up in their faith in these trying days.

[excerpted from Presbyterian Comment [Montreal, Canada], vol. 1, no. 1 (January 1960), p. 2.]

The Sovereign Lord of History

So frequently throughout Scripture that we tend to overlook it by its very frequency, our Lord God does time and time again instruct us–charge us–command us–to remember His works. It is one of His appointed means by which we can keep our hearts tender and fresh in the love of our Lord and Savior. John Flavel’s excellent treatise, THE MYSTERY OF PROVIDENCE is a wonderful exposition of this same truth. Here in the article below, William Stanford Reid adds his own insight on the importance of history for the Christian.


by William Stanford Reid
Reformation Today (Montreal, Canada), 2.4 (February 1953): 11, 17.]

History is God’s possession. This is the repeated assertion of the Scriptures. Whether dealing with individuals such as Pharaoh, Cyrus and Judas, or with nations such as the Jews or with kingdoms such as Babylon, Egypt or Rome, this is always the point of view. Every item, every event of history is worked out according to the purpose and plan of God, “who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” Moreover, this plan and purpose finds its culmination in redemption, accomplished by Christ and to be made complete at history’s final day.

The implications of this point of view for the history of the Church since apostolic days are numerous. The most important is, however, that Christ, who is “head over all things to the Church” is guiding and ruling His people. He is bringing His elect into the Church and punishing those professing Christians who prove unfaithful. In this way the history of the Church has for the Church a twofold objective. It is a warning of what befalls those who are not obedient. This is mentioned repeatedly in the New Testament. (2 Tim. 3:8; Heb. 3:17-19; Rev. 2,3). At the same time the history of the Church is a means of instruction, whereby it is warned, encouraged and strengthened. (Rom. 4, 9-11; Heb. 11; 1 Cor. 10:11).

For this reason the Christian has a very real obligation to the Church’s history. He, and the Church as a whole, must take it seriously, regarding it as part of God’s means of guiding and directing the Church by the Spirit into all truth. (John 14:26; 16:13). For this reason history is not to be discarded, nor disregarded. It is the revelation of how God deals with His people, which is also the fundamental message of the Bible. The only difference is that the Church does not have since Apostolic days, an inspired record, nor an inspired interpretation. Therefore, it is the Church’s obligation, not only to understand its own history, but also to evaluate and interpret it in the light of God’s Word.

There are, however, dangers at this point. If one adopts a proper point of view, they may not be great, but there is always a tendency towards traditionalism and conservativism. Because this, that or the other doctrine has been believed, or because this, that or the other practice has been followed, such must still be the case. This can only lead to aridity and pharasaism which will bring the Church to the grave.

The greatest danger, however, amongst present day Christians, is in the other direction. They tend to disregard the Church’s history. They adopt the attitude that it is unimportant “Let’s not have Calvin or Wesley or Machen,” they say, “But let us get back to the Scriptures. Only then shall we know the truth.” In this way they are adopting the position, that before this age no one has ever really wrestled with problems of the faith, and what is even more important, no one has ever found a solution. They imply that their problems, their needs and their ideas are absolutely new. Therefore history cannot help. Continue reading “The Sovereign Lord of History”

Was Calvin a Presbyterian?

Having mentioned William Stanford Reid in the previous post, it seemed appropriate to post an article by him. This too is from Reid’s little magazine, REFORMATION TODAYBack before “Calvin against the Calvinists,” I guess people were asking this question:

Was Calvin a Presbyterian?
by William Stanford Reid
Reformation Today (Montreal, Canada), 1.10 (July-August 1952): 11-12.]

Calvin a Presbyterian? Why of course, many will say, he was the founder of the Presbyterian Church. Therefore, when you quote Calvin, you are quoting, not a Protestant theologian, you are quoting a denominational apologist. We have even had this said to us concerning quotations in articles in this magazine. Consequently we feel that it is time that Calvin was somewhat better understood.

In order that we do this properly, it must be remembered that Calvin was, first and foremost, a Biblical expositor. His chief interest was in bringing men back to a proper understanding and application of the Word of God. He wrote commentaries on all but two of the books of the Bible. At the same time, he realized that only as men understood the teachings of the Word of God as a whole, could they be thoroughly furnished. He therefore, was the first of the Christian writers to set forth systematically what the Word of God had to say concerning God and man’s relation to Him. He did this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Since Calvin’s day, his views have been accepted most completely by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches throughout the world. But they have done this, not because Calvin was Frenchman, nor because he wrote well, nor because he built up a strong church in Geneva. They have done this because they believed that his views were the most thoroughly Biblical of any so far set forth. Calvin was not a Presbyterian, but real Presbyterians are fundamentally Calvinists.

In the same way Evangelical Anglicans, if they adhere to their Thirty-Nine Articles, are also basically Calvinists. A study of the history of the formulation of the Articles will show quite clearly that Calvin’s was the dominant influence in the statement of doctrine prepared for the Elizabethan church. One man has made the comment that Calvin’s Institutes was the best known theological work in England during the last half of the sixteenth century. What is more, if one follows the history of Evangelical Anglicanism down through the succeeding years, he will find that Calvinism was its very motive power: George Whitefield, Hannah More, the Earl of Shaftesbury and many others were all strong Calvinists. It would seem that real Anglicans are also fundamentally Calvinists.

The same might be said of the Baptists. Some ten years after the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the present confession of the Presbyterian Church, the Baptists in the Savoy articles accepted the Calvinistic position, by adopting the Confession, although rejecting the doctrine of infant baptism and Presbyterian government. So down through the years Calvinistic Baptists have been numerous and a power for God in their communion: John Bunyan and Charles Haddon Spurgeon are but two who might be mentioned.

The same could be said of the Congregationalists, who were at variance with Calvin only on the point of church organization. But what about people like Methodists who hated a great number of his teachings? Even they, whether they realized it or not, were heavily indebted to Calvin. The stress upon the doctrine of Justification by Faith, upon the sovereign righteousness of God and upon similar doctrines was largely owing to the work and teaching of Calvin. Even their individualism, high-lightng the doctrine of man’s individual relationship to God could really be based only upon Calvin’s doctrine of covenant-election. Their one difficulty was that they allowed their reason at times to sit in judgment on God’s Word.

Now, we would not have it thought that Calvin was always right, but we do believe that basically he was closest to the Word of God, of any thinker who has written since the days of the Apostle Paul. He had his failings, he made his mistakes as any other man, net blessed with prophetic or apostolic power, might do. Yet he stands so far above all others who have written since the days of the inspired writers that we feel no shame in quoting and referring to him. For we believe that God raised him up at a special time, endowing him as he has few other men since apostolic days, with insight into the meaning of His Divine Revelation. Let none of us, therefore, forget the rock from which we were hewn.


Woolley on Ministerial Training

I’m starting to read CONFIDENT OF BETTER THINGS, and the opening chapter concerns Paul Woolley, professor of church history at Westminster Seminary for some forty years. John Muether spends several pages in that article discussing Woolley as an author. In all his years at the institution, Woolley never wrote a full-length article for the WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL, thought he did author some ninety-five book reviews for the JOURNAL, and over fifty articles for the PRESBYTERIAN GUARDIAN. A few of his articles landed in unusual places. An overview of American Presbyterian history was serialized in the REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN ADVOCATE. And I’ve just come across another article, this one on ministerial training, that appeared in a small publication edited by William Stanford Reid in the early 1950’s. The PCA Historical Center was blessed a few years ago to receive the donation of a nearly complete run of Reid’s magazine REFORMATION TODAY, and this article by Woolley is drawn from that publication.
[If you don’t know of Stanford Reid, I strongly encourage you to locate and read a copy of A. Donald MacLeod’s biography, W. STANFORD REID: AN EVANGELICAL CALVINIST IN THE ACADEMY.


by Paul Woolley
[Reformation Today (Montreal, Quebec) 1.10 (July-August 1952): 3-5]

When Bill Smith first goes to kindergarten, his father and mother take the existing school as they find it. But it interests them, and they think about what is happening to Bill there. As a result, education becomes a very lively topic. Both in Canada and the United States the relation of state support of schools to religious instruction is constantly being discussed. If it is not the policy of the government of Ontario, it is the speech on the subject of President Conant of Harvard that is the subject for comment.

The principles which should guide education at the university level, undergraduate and graduate, have not been as widely considered as those concerned with Bill Smith’s kindergarten. But these principles, too, especially as they affect theological education, are of particular importance to Christians and the Church.

His Arts course
The theological student studies the liberal arts before he turns his attention specifically to theology. This is to acquaint him with the world in which he lives so that he may learn how to think and have materials, facts, with which to think. There is no use in trying to apply theology to an unknown world and to unintelligible people.

In order to be effective the arts course must consider the world and the points of view in it as broadly and as understanding^ as possible. One can never learn anything about communism and how to oppose it, for example, if one never sees the positive things which it has accomplished and by means of which it attracts people to support it. At the same time, there has to be a standard of judgment. For the Christian that basic standard ought to be the Bible.

Question of right and wrong
The greater knowledge of the Bible the arts student has, the greater wisdom he will show in thinking about the world in general. He needs to know as much about the Bible as possible when he enters the university and he ought to be constantly using the Bible as a touchstone. In the liberal arts course, however, the student will find that many of his studies concern subjects about which there is not an absolute right or wrong for all times and all places. To talk technically for a moment, they belong to the realm of the adiaphora. For example, no one form of government is always best everywhere on earth.

In Canada and the United States democracy is best, but it would be foolish to introduce full democracy overnight into Afghanistan. It requires preparation. So if the Canadian student became Emir of Afghanistan next Monday, he would not be sinning if he failed to introduce full democracy on Tuesday morning. If, however, he became Premier of the government of Canada on Monday and tried to introduce the governmental methods of Afghanistan on Tuesday, he would be sinning for the short period that the attempt would last.

Bible and theological training
As soon as the liberal arts student has finished that course and begins to study theology, he faces quite a different situation. Now he is studying the Bible itself or, at least, he should be. For the study of protestant theology should always be basically the study of the Bible. When one studies the Bible, one is always studying something about which there is a basic right and a basic wrong. The Bible is God’s Word and one understands it aright or else fails to understand it. Continue reading “Woolley on Ministerial Training”

“Needed: Historical Perspective,” by Wm. Stanford Reid (1953)

A substantial blessing last year at the PCA Historical Center was the donation of a complete set of a small periodical issued by Dr. William Stanford Reid. Reformation Today only ran for about three years, but it contains a wealth of articles, and I would hope to post some of them here in the months to come.  This article is permanently available at

“Needed: Historical Perspective”
by William Stanford Reid
[excerpted from Reformation Today —Volume 2, Number 4 (February, 1953), pp. 11, 17.]

History is God’s possession. This is the repeated assertion of the Scriptures. Whether dealing with individuals such as Pharaoh, Cyrus and Judas, or with nations such as the Jews or with kingdoms such as Babylon, Egypt or Rome, this is always the point of view. Every item, every event of history is worked out according to the purpose and plan of God, “who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” Moreover, this plan and purpose finds its culmination in redemption, accomplished by Christ and to be made complete at history’s final day. Continue reading ““Needed: Historical Perspective,” by Wm. Stanford Reid (1953)”