There are few figures in church history that experience as wide a range of opinions about them than John Calvin. When I was an undergraduate at Biola University a classmate told me that she transferred to Biola from another Christian college where Calvin/Calvinist/Calvinism was comparable to a curse word. Similarly, during a philosophy of religion class, which covered the atonement, a professor quipped that penal-substitutionary atonement (a view deeply associated with Calvin’s work) was divine child abuse. On the other side, I have sat in two different classes on Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and listen to students switch views on a topic instantaneously because Calvin held the other view. My point in beginning this book review here is to say that we are either deeply divided on the issues presented in Calvin’s theology or we are completely misunderstanding his views. My guess is that it is a little bit of both, which is why when people ask me about Calvinism or reformed theology (often used interchangeably, which is awkwardly anachronistic) I have usually pointed them to Greg Foster’s book The Joy of Calvinism. It is a great read for anyone interested in Calvinism, but now Foster has a competitor. Last month I read Michael Horton’s addition to the Theologians on the Christian Life series, which is on John Calvin. Horton does a phenomenal job articulating Calvin’s theology with a particular eye for its impact and importance to the Christian life. There is a full review of this book on the Gospel Coalition’s site, so I am going to primarily focus on what I believe to be the highlights of the text.
- Total Pages – 272, 251 of content
- Topic – John Calvin on the Christian Life
- From the Theologians on the Christian Life Series
- Crossway, 2014, originally $19.99
As I consider what was important to talk about in this review, the first thing was obvious: Calvin’s piety, that is Calvin’s view of piety. To those unfamiliar with Calvin’s theology, or maybe to those who think something along the lines of “Calvinism = T.U.L.I.P.”, to draw our attention to a P word that isn’t predestination may seem odd, but piety is the central concern of the reformers. In many ways the protestant reformation was not fundamentally about theological reformation, but an overhaul of the Christian life, a call to return to piety. This, the reformers rightly believed, required a change in theology, thus they sought significant theological change as well. I guess what I am trying to say is that the reformers were concerned with orthopraxy as much as they were with orthodoxy.
The heart of piety of Calvin stemmed, according to Horton, from what theologians refer to as double-knoweldge, that is knowledge of God and knowledge of self. This is how Calvin opens his Institutes he explains that true piety begins with the pursuit of knowledge of God (for those who don’t like theology, read “true piety begins with pursuit of relationship with God”). However pursuit of God must be driven by knowledge of self. We must see what need we have of God in order to be drawn into such pursuit. The rest of the Christian life in many ways is described by the continual growth in these areas. That is, as we grow in knowledge of God we see ourselves through the lens of his holiness and realize how deeply we need his grace, comfort and forgiveness then come through the pursuit of knowledge/relationship of/with God.
This is another area of misconception about Calvin, yet it is also a place where we can learn much from him. The usual view of Calvin is that he was some amalgam of a church and state official. This is overly simplistic and it carries with it the notion that Calvin had the run of the town (that town being Geneva, Switzerland) and sought to reform its manner of life through legislation and moralistic preaching. The truth is Calvin was not very involved in politics and really only began to get his way after the city counsel exiled him and then asked him to return. Calvin’s method of transformation, Horton says, was not ecclesial-political rulership, but rather more akin to what James Davidson Hunter, in his amazing book To Change the World, calls “faithful presence”.
This idea of faithful presence is key to Calvin’s impact in the daily life of Geneva (which was an outworking of his theology) and is an increasingly popular idea in the minds of those who study history and theology, and particularly those who study Calvinists—George Marsden’s recent work, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, concludes with an exhortation to faithful presence in a pluralist society, and who does he look to as an example but Abraham Kuyper the dutch Calvinist from the turn of the century. What interests me about the increasing popularity of “faithful presence” is that it run contrary to much of the Christian rhetoric I hear today. From megachurches to Christian universities and scattered throughout Christian music and publishing, all I hear is “GO CHANGE THE WORLD FOR JESUS”. The heart is good, but the idea I think is off. The way Christians will truly make the most impact is by living like Jesus (this includes holiness and evangelism) in regular, everyday life circumstances in the midst of a community. Let people see and hear the gospel in how you live.
There is much more that could be said about Calvin on the Christian Life, but honestly I leave a bunch out because I want you to read the book, so I am hoping just to wet your appetite. I point out these issues because they are regularly misunderstood positions and I have seen great growth and insight in my own life as I have corrected false assumptions in my pursuit of God.
Thanks for reading,