Review: John Calvin: A heart for devotion, doctrine & doxology

John Calvin: A heart for devotion, doctrine & doxology
Edited by Burk Parsons
Reformed Trust Publishing, Lake Mary, 2008. 257pp.

Calvin book

2009 marks John Calvin’s 500th birthday. 500 years on, he is still a figure of controversy. Sure, his Institutes of the Christian Religion still stands as arguably the guide to the biblical Christian faith. But wasn’t Calvin the “unopposed dictator of Geneva” of questionable temperament?1 Wasn’t he the pointy-headed champion of predestination that led to the movement that stopped doing evangelism?

Given the excitement about his 500th, I made it my project to meet the man behind the stigma. On the basis of endorsements from Carson, Piper and David F Wells, I bought John Calvin: A heart for devotion, doctrine & doxology—a collection of short essays by 19 mainly North American scholars and pastors. Unlike some other books on Calvin, which can be quite specialized, John Calvin is pitched at ordinary readers, and presents a neat overview of his life, work and teaching. Far from being dry, the book sets out to capture the heart of Calvin.

It consists of two parts. The first half is about Calvin’s life and work, portraying a man who was a reformer, churchman, preacher, counsellor and writer. While it can be argued that Calvin played a pivotal role in shaping secular society, Calvin’s imperative was for believers to be transformed by the knowledge of Christ. For this, Calvin worked at a self-destructive rate. Stories of him toiling through various ailments and lecturing students from his sickbed are legendary. When urged to rest, he replied, “Would you that the Lord, when He comes, find me idle?” (p. 40).

Calvin is also portrayed as a man with a pastoral heart. Reading excerpts from two of his letters—consoling a grieving father and comforting a persecuted colleague—was particularly moving.

In addition, rather than stifling evangelism, Calvin inspired generations of evangelists and apologists. He set up schools in Geneva that trained up pastors and evangelists—many of whom returned to France only to be persecuted and martyred. Many of the great evangelists in the centuries to follow were avowed Calvinists—for example, Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards.

The second half of the book grapples with Calvin’s key teachings. Six of these chapters are on the offices of Christ, the work of the Spirit, our union with Christ, justification, Christian life and prayer. The other five chapters correspond with the five points of Calvinism often represented by TULIP. Let me make two observations.

Firstly, John Calvin presents Calvin’s teaching as being far richer than the five points. The five points were not a doctrine summary championed by Calvin in his own lifetime. So to focus solely on the five points oversimplifies Calvin. As Buck Parsons puts it,

[T]here are many self-proclaimed Calvinists whose Calvinism runs only as deep as the five points… They have perhaps found themselves prancing gleefully amid a valley of bright red tulips, but have not lifted their heads to behold the lush green forests and glorious mountains all around them. (p. 4)

Secondly, two chapters of John Calvin give the impression that Calvin’s work and outlook were purely constrained by the Bible (pp. 4-5, 72-73). Such a representation of Calvin is disputable—especially in light of recent scholarship that points to the influence of medieval philosophy and theology in his work.2 Notwithstanding, the fact remains that Calvin believed that doctrine needed to be derived, approved and corrected by Scripture:

[L]et us not take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word.3

John Calvin left me with a greater appreciation of Calvin’s legacy. His legacy did not arise from a pining for relevance—that risky business of playing chameleon with the depraved culture of the day. Furthermore, unlike many today, Calvin did not see his ministry as a platform to unload a captivating story, a personal inspiration or his most recent ‘liver shiver’. Nor did he inflate himself to be the figurehead of a Christianized cult of personality. Instead, humility was his precept: he was a man who wanted no stone to mark his grave.

Calvin’s legacy to us is a self-effacing Christ-centred pattern of thinking, shaped by the countercultural truth of Scripture and clothed in the humbling power of the gospel. It is such a mindset that compels us to declare fearlessly the mercies of God in this generation.

  1. From ‘John Calvin’ in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by FL Cross and EA Livingstone, OUP, New York, 1974, 2nd ed., p. 223.
  2. P Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas, OUP, New York, 2004, pp. 4, 389.
  3. J Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by FL Battles, edited by John T McNeill, Westminster Press and SCM Press, Philadelphia and London, 1960 (1536), I.xiii.21.

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