John Calvin – A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine and Doxology

12 01 2009

Have you ever wanted to read those authors of old? The ones who wrote with incredibly good grammar, a few words you’d never heard before? Well I have and I’ve put it off for a long time. That is until I picked up a few  cheap re-prints on  a recent trip to Wellington . Its funny how cheap they are. I bet it cost more to print them than they made selling them. The old writers had a way to engage their readers, drawing them into a world of three dimensional characters. They were master wordsmiths. But times change and so do peoples tastes. Thats why we always need a new generation of writers to make sense of the past and contextualise it for today.

This is critical for those who want to read Calvin. He is often depicted as a cold, stoic and heartless man. That’s partly due to the system of theology that bears his name , and more correctly by those who follow his system of theology. But after this book,  hopefully your opinions will change. If you’ve read my new years resolutions you’ll know I’m tired of defending the five points of Calvinism, and that is exactly why I enjoyed this book. The preface by Iain Murray blew me away. He’s worth quoting at length:

We believe that divine revelation has come to us in words and in propositions, and for these we must contend. But truth is only rightly believed to the extent that it is embodied in life. (page xiv)

Too often, in our time, beliefs associated with the name Calvin, have been identified with the lecture hall and the academy. We have found it easier to be “teachers” and “defenders” of the truth than to be evangelists who are willing to die that men might be converted. We regard “Calvinism” as co-terminus with Christianity and think that all gospel preaching can be fitted into the five points. (page xv)

His preface is a sharp critique at the way Reformed theology has gone in current times and it hit me like a tonne of bricks. To paraphrase Ghandi (and perhaps a lot of people out there) I like your Calvin, but I do not like your Calvinists.  Murrays preface alone is worth the price of the book.  Burk echoes Murray saying that we need to “Bible Calvinists” and not just “System Calvinists”.

The book consists of 19 short chapters written by some of the great names in reformed theology today. They give a short history of Calvin’s life, Pastoral heart and Theology. Each chapter reads like a self contained unit. You could start anywhere in the book, but its probably best to read it right the way through.

What becomes abundantly clear, as you read through the book,  is that John Calvin is nothing like the caricatures. He may have been a quiet and reserved man, but never a cold hard stoic. For him the starting point of his theology was not justification by faith, but rather Union with Christ. How different our theological arguments would be if we all started from this point and worked outwards? What has always impressed me with John Calvin was not just his academic abilities, but his pastoral heart. For Calvin, nothing gave him more comfort than to meditate on the providence of God. “The Bitterest afflications in life are sweet when Christians know they come from God, serve his purposes and ultimately contribute to their good” He lived out what he taught.  Lawson handles the question of Calvin’s style of preaching and rightly so since he did a great job in “The expository genius of John Calvin“.

Of course the question of Calvinism and Arminianism has to come up in a book like this. If you’ve read my previous post “The Road Ahead” you’ll know my stance on this. John MacArthur handled the “Radical Depravity” Chapter. I’m not a fan of MacArthur, I’ve always found him a little too dogmatic. This chapter was no exception. Lets be clear here, Arminianism and Pelagianism are quite different things. Calvinism believes that God irresistably draws the elect, while Arminianism says that God draws people to a point where they can say “yes or no”.  The problem with MacArthurs approach in the chapter is that is what Murray wrote to counter in his preface. For all MacArthurs talk about Grace, he seems to conduct himself without a lot of it.

I enjoyed the treatment of Calvins more controversial doctrine of election and reprobation which followed MacArthurs chapter. Many who learn about election and reprobation for the first time decry the doctrines as unjust and incompatible with a loving God. Justice is not the category we should invoke in these discussions, as Phillips points out Justice would result in condemnation as all have sinned and falled short of the Glory of God. Calvin was humbled by this doctrine. The fact that the creator of the universe chose him to be a part of his family, for no other reason than his love for him, would prove very humbling for Calvin.

Books like this are difficult to sum up. Thats the problem with reviewing a series of essays. While they have a common subject they are as diverse as the authors themselves. I enjoyed the content, but am repeatedly annoyed by some of the sideswipes taken against those who disagree with Calvinism. I’ve come to see disagreement as a healthy expression of an honest struggle with a doctrine. Any disagreements should, as the reformers said, take us back to the sources. Of course we need debate, and discussion. If we all agreed on everything life would be pretty boring.

This book would serve as a good introduction to Calvins works. I would reccomend a brief study of the issues leading up to and surrounding the reformation. You’d be a lot better equipped to understand Calvin. This year if Calvin were still alive, he would be 500 years old (a youngster compared to Metheusala). What better time to get aquainted with a theological giant than now?

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One response

13 01 2009
Mason

Grant,
I reviewed this one as well a couple weeks ago (probably you saw that) and I felt very similarly to you on this study of Calvin.
It was quite a good read, and I really enjoyed how it focused on Calvin in a so much deeper and broader sense than just his soteriology (or, more appropriately, his soteriology as interpreted by later theologians, ironically Wright just pointed out in an interview with Trevin Wax that actually Calvin always linked justification to being ‘in Christ’, which Wright advocates and Piper leaves out) or the sovereignty of God.

Those issues had to be addressed of course, and while some of those essays were simply brilliant, I agree that MacArthurs’ was frustrating (as I too find most his works) and that there were a few to many random swipes at Arminians/liberals/the new perspective etc.
The two essays I think I liked most were the more biographical essay on Calvin’s early life and the events of his ministry, and the exploration of his writings, ranging from letters to the Institutes to his commentaries.

Though I don’t always see eye to eye with today’s self appointed defenders of Calvin/Calvinism, after reading this one I definitely think I need to spend more time reading Calvin himself.

By the way ” I like your Calvin, but I do not like your Calvinists” is a great line

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