Our 21st century historical, philosophical, and theological context is very different from that of the 16th and 17th centuries. If we are not aware that there are differences, it can be very easy to read our contemporary context back into the writings of those centuries.
Most Christians understand the importance of context for properly interpreting Scripture. We realize that the books of Scripture were written thousands of years ago in cultures very different from ours and in languages we do not grow up speaking. Those things that were simply given everyday realities for the original human authors and their audiences are things we have to study and learn about. We know that if we are studying the Old Testament, we have to learn Hebrew and Aramaic (or trust the translators who learned those languages). We have to learn about Ancient Near Eastern history, geography, culture and practices in order to understand what the biblical authors are talking about. If we are studying the New Testament, we have to learn Greek. We have to learn about the first century world under the Roman Empire. All of this is simply part of the nature of grammatical-historical interpretation.
Context is also important if we are to properly understand Reformed theology. Reformed theology was a fruit of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, and that Reformation took place in a particular historical and cultural context. The authors writing at the time wrote within a particular philosophical and theological context. Having a grasp of these various contexts is important for understanding Reformed theology. I want to briefly mention three such contexts: the historical, philosophical, and theological contexts.
The Protestant Reformation did not occur one afternoon because a bunch of Roman Catholic monks got bored and decided to throw a party that got out of hand. The Protestant Reformation was the culmination of numerous historical events that reached back over the course of many centuries. Conflicts between the church and various political entities (imperial as well as more local) in addition to various conflicts among the political entities themselves played a role. Conflicts within the church itself resulting from corruption and numerous reforming attempts played a role. Cultural changes, including economic changes and technological changes, played a role. We can see the direct relevance of the historical context when, for example, we read Martin Luther’s To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation or his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, two of the most important Protestant writings of the early Reformation. We can see the relevance when we read John Calvin’s “Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France” at the beginning of his Institutes. That preface is important context for understanding the content of the Institutes.
In addition, many of the Reformed confessions address issues that assume specific historical conditions or that are responding to specific historical conditions. The clearest example of the impact of historical context on the content of Reformed theology can be seen in the difference between the original Westminster Confession of Faith and the American revision of the same Confession on the subject of the civil magistrate and the relation between church and state. We have to understand that historical context is important for understanding Reformed theology. If a believer desires to have a better grasp of Reformed theology, he or she should take some time to study the history of the 14th and 15th centuries—the two hundred years immediately preceding the Reformation and then study the history of the 16th and 17th centuries themselves. Theology does not exist in a historical vacuum.
In order to understand the importance of the philosophical context of Reformed theology, it is necessary to remember the historical time-frame of the Reformation. The Protestant Reformation began in the early 16th-century with the work of Martin Luther. The first Latin edition of John Calvin’s Institutes was published in 1536. The final Latin edition in 1559. The major writings of Reformed theologians such as Zwingli, Musculus, Vermigli, Bullinger, Beza, Zanchius, and Ursinus were published in the 16th century. All of the works of the Reformed scholastic theologians in the period of Early Orthodoxy and the majority of the works published in the period of High Orthodoxy were published before the end of the 17th century. This includes the works of Reformed theologians such as Polanus, Ames, Wollebius, Maccovius, Witsius, Turretin, and Mastricht. All of the major Reformed confessions and catechisms were also published in these two centuries. For example, the Tetrapolitan Confession (1530), the First Helvetic Confession (1536), the French Confession (1559), the Scots Confession (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Canons of Dordt (1618-19), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), the Westminster Larger Catechism (1647), and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) are written in the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century.