Holtrop’s Hypothesis (I) – Or Some Questions About: Philip C. Holtrop’s The Bolsec Controversy on Predestination, From 1551 to 1555

(Edwin Mellen Press, 1993, Vol. 1 in 2 Parts, 1033 pp.)

In this issue of The Outlook we are featuring three opinion pieces which are based on recently published books (and one videotape). Because they are serious reflections on issues raised in the books, we are treating them as articles rather than book reviews, with the prayer that they may help us all to grow in discernment. The Editors

It must be said that the document before us is quite innocent of the elementary literary principles of unity, coherence and emphasis. It clearly went too soon to the printer.

In a commendatory “Foreword,” Holtrop’s one-time mentor, Professor Heiko Oberman, alludes to the author’s innumerable repetitions thus: “Under normal circumstances, one would conclude that it would have profited from a severe ‘doctor-father’ or energetic editorial hand, equipped with pen and scissors. But in my view, extensive documentation such as Holtrop advances is necessary when one offers such a challenging thesis as ‘Calvin was out to kill’” (p. xix).

“Challenging thesis” it maybe. But the “documentation” for that thesis is neither “extensive” nor conclusive. What, in fact, the reader commonly gets for “documentation” is Holtrop’s endlessly reiterated assertions, supplemented by extensive quotation of assertions by others. And the author himself concedes that “my work shows some repetition and a ‘laminated’ style (especially in Parts II and III). May the reader forgive any itchiness that he may experience in the process of reading” (p. 10). “Laminated” is an unusual rhetorical category. Does it imply, assertion is evidence; reiteration is proof? Part II begins on page 167. With Part III it extends through page 920! Some 80% of the whole in the “laminated” mode! There grows, as one plods along, an irresistible “itchiness” for the drastic measures hinted at by Oberman.

Lacking rhetorical structure to guide a review, we try to impose some order by way of unlaminated questions, beginning with:

1. Was John Calvin a “saint”?

We begin thus because Holtrop means to come out swinging, as it were, with a “conclusion” that even precedes any record of research: “I repeat [mind you, lamination on page 3] Calvin was not the saint that many of his followers have made him out to be” (p. 3).

A “saint” indeed? Holtrop’s bibliography gives no evidence that he has at all researched what a Calvinist “saint” might be. He has no inkling of the bond between his subject, predestination and Calvinist “sainthood.” His bibliography lacks, for example, the fascinating study by one, Michael Walzer of Princeton, entitled The Revolution Of The Saints. Walzer’s “saints” are Calvinists! They who under Cromwell brought about the English revolution of the 1640s, including beheading Charles I. Yes, Calvinists were the kind of “saints” who “killed” a king! And in like manner brought liberty out of tyranny across Europe and into the American colonies. The source of their strength? A profound conviction, enunciated by Calvin, that God marched behind and before, victory inevitable! Walzer obviously sees what Holtrop is blind to, though it is presumably the subject of Holtrop’s thesis! And Holtrop declaims Calvin no saint. Does he mean a Mr. Nice Guy?

“The Calvinist saint,” writes Walzer, “is, above all, an extraordinarily bold, inventive, and ruthless politician, as a man should be who has ‘great works’ to perform, as a man, perhaps, must be for ‘great works have great enemies’” (Pref., p. vii; he is quoting Puritan pastor Stephen Marshall, preaching to the House of Commons, 1641). Calvinist “saints” learned from Calvin to hitch the wagons of political necessity to the star of divine sovereignty. As did, say, William the Silent, and the “saints” featured in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, practitioners of predestination, but unnoticed by Holtrop.

Even Marxists understood Calvinist “sainthood.” Leon Trotsky viewed Calvin as the only revolutionary in Western history comparable in effect to Marx. In an appreciative biography of Lenin, Marxist-leaning British professor Christopher Hill writes that to find anyone comparable to Lenin in intellectual power and revolutionary consequence, “we must go all the way back to John Calvin.” Walzer notes, as did Trotsky and in fact many others, that the impetus for the powerful impact of Calvinist “saints” upon the Western world lay in their sober conviction that God had set “the stars in their courses” on the side of His “saints.” Therefore, Calvinist “saints” wore no haloes; they had beaten them into swords so that their children might ply plough shares in liberty so, they knew, God ordained from before the foundations of the world! Was Calvin a “saint”? How might Holtrop know?

The fact that Bolsecs are no longer expelled, neither from a Geneva nor a Berne, nor a Grand Rapids, for holding unorthodox views is just because there was a Geneva which shook off the likes of Holtrop’s Bolsec as one might a buzzing mosquito. Modem toleration is the fruit in liberty of a Calvinist “sainthood” which Bolsec would gladly have robbed of its predestinarian dynamic—with Holtrop’s benediction!

Just to prove that he does not understand his own heritage, Holtrop trumpets, as from Sinai, “Calvin hardened his view into a militantism that could even kill his opponents. All of that is not pleasant—but Calvin scholars will have to take it into account if their work is to be authentic” (p. 6). Come now, “will have to…?” Does he mean “since Holtrop”? What authentic Calvin “scholarship” has not long ago taken Calvinist “militantism,” with its revolutionary consequences, “into account”?



2. What was “Le affaire Bolsec”?

We need not give much time to it. Calvin didn’t.

Holtrop tries to elevate the Bolsec episode into a cause celebre to justify what we will dub the Holtrop Hypothesis. Which we judge to be: the 1551 Bolsec controversy in Geneva obliged Calvin to formulate the doctrine of predestination in a way calculated to make Bolsec out a damnable heretic, susceptible to capital punishment, and thus rid the city of potential civic disorder. Such became, according to Holtrop, the perverted doctrine canonized by Dort. Oberman lauds this as a “significant advance in Calvin scholarship” (p. xix). Is he serious?

Environing this whole thesis is the irony that Calvin did not have to restructure the doctrine of predestination to show Bolsec at odds with its truth. Bolsec persistently showed that himself. He denounced a formulation already clearly enunciated before he got to Geneva, the same doctrine canonized by Dort. Which means that Holtrop’s notion of a doctrine “emerging” from the Bolsec episode is tilting with windmills of his own manufacture.

In brief: there dwelt in Calvin’s Geneva of the late 1540s, one, Jerome Bolsec, ex-monk then practicing medicine. Unknown except that he had from time to time given public expression to a distaste for Calvin’s understanding of the Bible as teaching God’s sovereignty in predestination election and reprobation, as in the Canons of Dort. To support Bolsec is, quietly, to critique Dort.

And so it came to pass that on October 16, 1551, at one of the weekly Bible study sessions in Calvin’s St. Peter’s, referred to as “congregations,” Bolsec chose to make something of a spectacle of himself, believing Calvin absent. Calvin’s “God,” he asseverated, was nothing other than a pagan tyrant, a veritable “Jupiter;” the doctrine of predestination was derived from one, Lorenzo Valla, and was “contrary to Holy Scripture and most offensive and pernicious to the gospel.” So much for Dort! These views he tried to support with quotations from various of the Church fathers.

During the harangue, unbeknown to Bolsec, Calvin had slipped in. And to Bolsec’s chagrin, Calvin heard him out and then rose to quote from memory elaborate refutation of Bolsec’s abuse of his patristic “authorities.” It was, objective Calvin historians agree, an astonishing feat. one that became legendary. A giant exposed a pygmy as a blustering, ignorant rabble-rouser, spouting off once too often. So it appeared to an “Auditeur de Justice” who was present. He remanded Bolsec to police custody for examination of his motivations. Why arousing anti-clerical sentiment at a time when no city enjoyed social tranquility, and religion was at the heart of most tensions?

So began a trial of sorts. “The nerve center of the entire controversy,” as Holtrop sees it, was Bolsec’s conviction “that God would be unjust—and that man would not be responsible if we abstracted the decree of predestination (or reprobation) from history and actual belief (or unbelief)” (p. 448). Not much above sophomoric level. The trial process consisted in an the exchange of written questions and answers, then counter questions, between “the ministers” and Bolsec, all presented to the ruling “Seigneury” for judgment as to Bolsec’s expulsion.

No doubt it takes more time to read the Holtrop volumes than Calvin himself gave to the whole matter. Bolsec was but one of many such nuisances in a volatile time, of whom Calvin once exclaimed, “Am I responsible for every ass that brays in Geneva?” The Bolsec matter occasioned but a tiny blip on the Richter scale of the great Calvinist earthquake which transfigured Europe as modernity dawned for the Western world. Jerome who?

German biographer, Dr. Paul Henry, gives the controversy only forty pages of his substantial (970 pages) Life And Times of Calvin (1851–52, Eng. trans. in two volumes from the German, 1835–44, 3 vols.). The reader of the Holtrop thesis would do well to peruse Henry’s account, along with making careful study of the translation into English of the Bolsec documents, pages 137–186 in Philip Hughes’ Register Of The Company Of Pastors Of Geneva In The Time of Calvin (1966). There is in French an equally brief summary of the incident by the dean of Calvin biographers, Emile Doumergue, in volume six (pp. 131161) of his magisterial seven volume Jean Calvin, les hommes et les choses de son temps, 1899–1927. Bolsec came; Bolsec went; Calvinism flourished. What’s new?

Well, the episode provides occasion for Holtrop’s reiterated expression of unflagging empathy with Bolsec, man and “theologian,” played off against an unrelenting and vituperative antipathy for Calvin. And one is reminded of biographer Henry’s comment on a certain J.A. Galiffe’s Maleriaux pour l’histoire de Geneve (1829–30). Henry writes: “He loses all claim to respect or credit when we find him undertaking the defense of Bolsec” (Vol. II, p. 107). An instructive judgment from a knowledgeable source.

On December 11, 1551, the magistrates decreed Bolsec’s expulsion from Geneva. At the December 18 “congregation,” Calvin explains the brief history, once again expositing the Scriptural basis for the doctrine at issue. We will make use of it.

On the 23rd, according to the Register, “Maitre Jerome was banished to the sound of the trumpet from the territory of Geneva.”

Writing to Zurich friend and colleague, Henry Bullinger, in January, 1552, Calvin says, “Jerome has been publicly sentenced to perpetual exile. Certain slanderers have been falsely circulating that we desired a more cruel punishment, and some have been foolish enough to believe it” (Bonnet, Letters, II, p. 334). Some “foolish” enough, that is, to believe the “slander” of a “Calvin out to kill.” Was this the “documentation” Oberman had in mind?

Bolsec went to live in the canton of Berne which had supported him in the controversy. To certify, as it were, Calvin’s estimate of him, Bolsec soon earned expulsion from Berne as threat to public tranquility. He eventually returned to the Catholic Church in France. There he sought to avenge what Holtrop chooses to call the “injustice” done him by Geneva through publishing in 1577, thirteen years after Calvin’s death, a “Life Of Calvin” designed to degrade in every respect the person and work of the Reformer. Holtrop finds it hard to speak ill of it. The book was frequently republished (Doumergue, VI, 158–159) to keep alive, among those who treasure it, the image of an “ugly” Calvin.

3. What was Calvin’s statement of the doctrine of predestination before the Bolsec incident?

This is obviously essential to an orderly development of the Holtrop Hypothesis which is that Calvin refashioned the doctrine to “get” Bolsec (though he occasionally writes as if Calvin discovered the doctrine during the controversy). How show a restructuring until you specify the original? How had Calvin phrased the doctrine of predestination which brought Bolsec out braying?

Holtrop shows no interest in providing such essential information. One can guess why. He is never going to be able to show just how the controversy changed the original statement. He is just going to assert, over and over, that so it did.

In fact, Bolsec, and those who listened to him, and the Swiss churches to which later appeal was made, and the magistrates who heard the matter, all knew what was Calvin’s statement of the doctrine of predestination. It was, to turn a phrase, already well set in cement! Calvin had enlarged upon it in continuing editions of his Institutes, of which he was, in 1551, bringing out another; Calvin had exposited his view in his De aeterna Deipredestinatione (1543/1552) against a certain Pighius and Georgius-Henry Cole has those treatises in English in his Calvin’s Calvinism.

And we can find Calvin’s statement of the doctrine for ourselves in the “congregation” which Calvin addressed after Bolsec’s expulsion, translated by Holtrop without comment (pp. 695–720). From it, then, we take this: “We now see that what I said is confirmed sufficiently by Holy Scripture: God has elected us not only before we knew him but before we were born, and before the world was created. He has elected us by his free goodness-and he did not look for any other cause. He has deliberated this purpose in himself-and we must know this in order to glorify him, as is proper for us to do” (p. 707)—the root, we may say, of Calvinist “sainthood.” As to the “reprobate,” Calvin says, “God reprobates them inasmuch as they are not chosen and elect. Nevertheless, we must recognize that God is just, even though we cannot comprehend the cause” (p. 714). Calvin has in the same lecture supported the doctrine by a brief exegesis of the following texts (page numbers refer to the Holtrop volume): Eph. 1:3–6 (pp. 699–700); Rom. 8:28–30 (p. 701); Gal. 4:9 (p. 702); John 6:44 & 10:28 (p. 704); Rom. 9:6–20 (pp. 704–707).

4.Did Calvin change the statement of the doctrine in the Bolsec affair?

Holtrop provides no evidence, beyond repeated assertion, for that. But it is the heart of the Holtrop Hypothesis. So, we read this: “The theological responses to Bolsec at Geneva can only be understood within the political, social, and psychological milieu in that city in the first half of the 1550s. The emerging view of predestination cannot be fathomed apart from the pressures and history in which it was formulated” (p. 47).

Notice carefully: “…the emerging view….” So Holtrop says. The reader asks: Was there no “view” before Bolsec? There obviously was. What else was Bolsec fussing over? But then, if there was an “emerging view,” show us! What was it? And why not lay it alongside the original view, and expose the difference! Crucial “documentation” not supplied!

5. Just to flesh out what could have been an orderly thesis development, one asks: If there was a “new” form of the predestination doctrine after Bolsec was gone, what was that? How different from the original?

In short, this “documentation should be supplied”; 1) statement of the doctrine before Bolsec; 2) the changes made to “get” him; 3) the final product sent on to Dort. None supplied. Fatal to the Hypothesis.

6. Lest we do him an injustice, let us ask: What does Holtrop say that Holtrop is up to?

Well, claim is made to things like these (unburdened, one will notice, by undue modesty):

“In any case, the main tensions in the later Reformed doctrine of predestination were all present in nuce with the Bolsec controversy. The Canons of Dort and the development of pre- and post-lapsarianism can only be seen against that background…But strange to say, this controversy has never been analyzed thoroughly until my present study” (p. 4).

“Very little has been done in examining the literature of this period. No previous study has explored it painstakingly…The sources, however, are available” (pp. 6–7).

“No single monograph has analyzed the motifs in Bolsec’s doctrine of predestination and the responses within the controversy, as I have tried to do. None has set forth as fully the political, psychological, and social factors—as well as the opposition to Calvin by the majority of Reformed theologians in the early 1550s” (p. 9).

“To the best of my knowledge, no one else has suggested that the earliest formulation of the Genevan view of predestination was motivated by largely political exigencies—with significant implications for the later development of Reformed theology. No one else has studied most of the texts in the controversy, in an effort to draw out the relevant conclusions. No one else has read and commented on all the main documents of the trial itself” (p. 9).

His was, he adds, a “sort of virginal work…the threat and the joy of working independently in materials that were virtually unexplored” (p. 10).

Yes, these are very generous claims, BUT where is the foundation contrasting the presumably several statements of the doctrine under research? No grains of wheat in all that chaff?

7. But what of that “documentation” Oberman lauds so highly?

Holtrop lays it down that, “Once more, we should let the materials speak for themselves without affixing a priori interpretations. I shall therefore present these copiously—especially in Part Three” (p. 11). Ah, the documents!

Part Three, tided “The Trial Itself,” takes up 254 pages all told (413–657). But note that essentially these “materials” in Hughes’ translation of the Register occupy only 49 pages (137–186). Why such a discrepancy—over 200 pages? Holtrop explains mat “The Registres frequently confuses the order of events and omits important documents; it is therefore an unreliable guide” (p. 464, fn 2). How does that comport with Hughes’ own Introduction to his translation of the Register: “The theological dispute with him [Bolsec] is fully recorded in the pages of the Register of the Company of Pastors” (p. 21). Holtrop or Hughes?

What is in those 200 extra pages of Holtrop’s? The reader soon discovers that the bulk of that excess space is not occupied by documents “speaking for themselves.” Instead there is Holtrop’s paraphrase of the documents, masquerading as an “analysis,” grimly designed to insure that the reader gets no favorable impression of Calvin, and no unfavorable impression of Bolsec. One might endlessly illustrate. Moral: better use Hughes!

We will turn, next time, to this question:

8. What does Oberman say Holtrop is up to?

Dr. Lester De Koster, now retired, served as Director of the Library, Calvin College, and also as Editor in Chief of The Banner, the denominational publication of the Christian Reformed Church.

Dr. Philip Holtrop, author of the book in question, is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and Professor of Religion and Theology at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI.