Posts Tagged ‘John Calvin’
More Calvin, writing in the preface to Pierre-Robert Olivétan’s 1535 translation of the New Testament:
He [Christ] is Isaac, the beloved Son of the Father who was offered as a sacrifice, but nevertheless did not succumb to the power of death. He is Jacob the watchful shepherd, who has such great care for the sheep which he guards. He is the good and compassionate brother Joseph, who in his glory was not ashamed to acknowledge his brothers, however lowly and abject their condition. He is the great sacrificer and bishop Melchizedek, who has offered an eternal sacrifice once for all. He is the sovereign lawgiver Moses, writing his law on the tables of our hearts by his Spirit. He is the faithful captain and guide Joshua, to lead us to the Promised Land. He is the victorious and noble king David, bringing by his hand all rebellious power to subjection. He is the magnificent and triumphant king Solomon, governing his kingdom in peace and prosperity. He is the strong and powerful Samson, who by his death has overwhelmed all his enemies. This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. . . . Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
via Justin Taylor.
I mentioned this principle on Sunday, but nothing like as beautifully as Calvin does here:
The Holy Spirit so inheres in his truth, which he expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth his power…. For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word. So indeed it is. God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display, intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it. Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word.
Calvin, Institutes, 1.9.3
via The Old Guys.
An interesting interview with Kenneth Stewart on the relationship (and alleged lack of one) between Calvinism and missions here.
Steven Lawson contributed a chapter to the book John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology (AmazonUK) on John Calvin as “The Preacher of God’s Word.” Nathan Bingham provides a summary of that chapter, outlining what Steven Lawson suggests are the ten distinguishing marks of Calvin’s preaching.
- John Calvin’s preaching was biblical in its substance.
- John Calvin’s preaching was sequential in its pattern.
- John Calvin’s preaching was direct in its message.
- John Calvin’s preaching was extemporaneous in its delivery.
- John Calvin’s preaching was exegetical in its approach.
- John Calvin’s preaching was accessible in its simplicity.
- John Calvin’s preaching was pastoral in its tone.
- John Calvin’s preaching was polemic in its defense of the truth.
- John Calvin’s preaching was passionate in its outreach.
- John Calvin’s preaching was doxological in its conclusion.
An apposite quote to demonstrate each is here.
A few days ago a friend at the church slipped me some words of encouragement, a condensed version of Calvin’s comments on Zechariah 13.2 that she had found in a book of daily devotions and prayers. It has to do with purity of worship and the Word of God, and the pastor’s duty to guard the flock against all error and superstition. The last paragraph is the clincher, but I give the whole section for the sake of context:
“And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the LORD of hosts, that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they shall no more be remembered: and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.”
Here the Prophet mentions another effect, which would follow the repentance of the people, and which the Lord also would thereby produce. There was to be a cleansing from all the defilements of superstitions; for the pure and lawful worship of God cannot be set up without these filthy things being wiped away; inasmuch as to blend sacred with profane things, is the same thing as though one sought to take away the difference between heaven and earth. No religion then can be approved by God, except what is pure and free from all such pollution. We hence see why the Prophet adds, that there would be an end to falsehoods and all errors, and to the delusions of Satan, when God restored his Church; for the simplicity of true doctrine would prevail, and thus abolished would be whatever Satan had previously invented to corrupt religion.
We hence learn what I have just stated — that God cannot be rightly worshipped, except all corruptions, inconsistent with his sincere and pure worship, be taken away. But we must at the same time observe, that this effect is ascribed to God’s word; for it is that which can drive away and banish all the abominations of falsehood, and whatever is uncongenial to true religion. As then by the rising of the sun darkness is put to flight, and all things appear distinctly to the view, so also when God comes forth with the teaching of his word, all the deceptions of Satan must necessarily be dissipated.
Now these two things ought especially to be known; for we see that many, who are not indeed ungodly, but foolish and inconsiderate, think that they give to God his due honor, while they are entangled in many errors, and refrain not from superstitions. Others, more politic, devise this way of peace — that they who think rightly are to concede something to tyrants and false Prophets; and thus they seek to form at this day a new religion for us, made up of Popery and of the simple doctrine of the gospel, and in this manner as it were to transform God. As then we see that men are so disposed to mix all sorts of things together, that the pure simplicity of the gospel may be contaminated by various inventions, we ought to bear in mind this truth, — that the Church cannot be rightly formed, until all superstitions be rejected and banished. This is one thing.
We may also deduce hence another principle — that the word of God not only shows the way to us, but also discovers all the delusions of Satan; for hardly one in a hundred follows what is right, except he is reminded of what he ought to avoid. It is then not enough to declare that there is but one true God, and that we ought to put our trust in Christ, except another thing be added, that is, except we warn men of those intrigues by which Satan has from the beginning deceived miserable mortals: even at this day with what various artifices has he withdrawn the simple and unwary from the true God, and entangled them in a labyrinth of superstitions. Except therefore men be thus warned, the word of God is made known to them only in part. Whosoever then desires to perform all the duties of a good and faithful pastor, ought firmly to resolve, not only to abstain from all impure doctrines, and simply to assert what is true, but also to detect all corruptions which are injurious to religion, to recover men from the deceptions of Satan, and in short, avowedly to carry on war with all superstitions.
Guy Davies shows us Calvin the worshipping poet:
When we see that the whole sum of our salvation,
and every single part of it, are comprehended in Christ,
we must beware of deriving even the minutes portion
of it from any other quarter.
If we seek salvation,
we are taught by the very name of Jesus that he possesses it;
if we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, we shall find them in his unction;
strength in his government;
purity in his conception;
indulgence in his nativity,
in which he was made like us in all respects,
in order that he might learn to sympathise with us.
If we seek redemption,
we shall find it in his passion;
acquittal in his condemnation;
remission of the curse in his cross;
satisfaction in his sacrifice;
purification in his blood;
reconciliation in his descent to hell;
mortification of the flesh in his sepulchre.
Newness of life in his resurrection;
immortality also in his resurrection;
the inheritance of a celestial kingdom
in his entrance into heaven;
protection, security, and the abundant supply
of all blessings, in his kingdom;
secure anticipation of judgement
in the power of judging committed to him.
In fine, since in him all kinds of blessings are treasured up,
let us draw a full supply from him, and none from any other quarter.
(From Institutes Book II:16:19. Versified by Guy Davies)
Justin Taylor offers this section from Institutes 3.16.19, where Calvin explains that “We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else,” as an example of appropriately beautiful language for Christ and his salvation:
If we seek salvation
we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him.”
If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit,
they will be found in his anointing.
If we seek strength,
it lies in his dominion;
in his conception;
it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain.
If we seek redemption,
it lies in his passion;
in his condemnation;
if remission of the curse,
in his cross;
in his sacrifice;
in his blood;
in his descent into hell;
if mortification of the flesh,
in his tomb;
in newness of life,
in his resurrection;
in the same;
if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom,
in his entrance into heaven;
if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings,
in his Kingdom;
if untroubled expectation of judgment,
in the power given to him to judge.
In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.
Kevin DeYoung has been reading Bruce Gordon’s Calvin and learning some lessons. There are seventeen in total:
1. If you want to make an impact beyond your little lifespan, teach people the Bible. “What made Calvin Calvin, and not another sixteenth-century writer was his brilliance as a thinker and writer, and, above all, his ability to interpret the Bible” (viii).
2. The big public personalities are often privately awkward. “In the public arena Calvin walked and spoke with stunning confidence. In private he was, by his own admission, shy and awkward” (x).
3. We read too much causality into our childhoods. “With his contemporaries, and much in contrast to our age, Calvin did not consider his childhood as psychologically formative: it was a brief and brutal preparation for adulthood associated primarily with ignorance, volatility and waywardness” (2).
Under the pseudonym John Ploughman, Charles Spurgeon published earthy articles in his magazine, The Sword & Trowel, which were later collected into two volumes, John Ploughman’s Talk and John Ploughman’s Pictures. These two volumes are themselves now collected to form Spurgeon’s Practical Wisdom: Or, Plain Advice for Plain People (Banner of Truth, 2009). They were intended to be humorous (but not light), simple, colourful and blunt. Read today, the stance may seem a little condescending and the humour lacking subtlety, but the points are still made very effectively. Spurgeon takes broad swipes at all manner of vice, and stands up without apology for virtue. It is practical religion, with the emphasis on practical, although the Christian underpinnings of the proposed morality float readily and naturally to the surface. There seems to be something distinctively Victorian about the relentless nature of his genius, and it can be a little overwhelming at times (paragraph after paragraph of the same point made using waves of different illustrations and analogies) but it is also the reason for its effectiveness. As a study in how to communicate truth to a chosen audience, it is brilliant. Spurgeon seeks to enter the world of those to whom he is writing – adopting the appropriate frame of reference, vocabulary, tone, humour – and use it as a means to do good men’s souls and bodies. It should be read, then, in two minds: with one, we ought to take the plain advice; with the other, we should learn how to give it. In both regards, Spurgeon serves us well.
Not a new book, this, but a reset volume: John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Banner of Truth, 2009). This work has been available for a long time, but the previous edition had somewhat poor paper quality and binding which was quite quickly chewed up (I replaced mine at least once). For those who do not know it, it is divided into two parts. For some, the second part is the easier introduction, being a little more popular in style, and consisting of ten short chapters taking readers through the ordo salutis (order of salvation, the sequence of events in God’s saving sinners). The first part – on the necessity, nature, perfection and extent of the atonement – is not more or less profound but is denser and perhaps a little less accessible to those not accustomed to Murray’s style. The author never wastes a word: there is no flab in his writing, which makes it brief and clear and crisp (a tonic for the mind) but also means that concentration and acuity are required for reading. Some will appreciate this, others will find it more difficult. For all willing and able to penetrate to the substance, this volume will prove a rich treat, a draught of pure, cold water when there is so much brackish fluid swilling around. Murray reaches the heart by way of the mind: here we see that the truth makes us free indeed, free not least to honour and adore the God of our so great salvation. This ought to be required reading for all who desire to know the how and why of God’s gracious dealings with sinners, and this newly reset edition will make it all the more accessible and attractive. If you already have it, consider investing afresh in this clear and readable edition. If you do not have it, you have no choice: go and get one.
Fire from Heaven: Times of Extraordinary Revival (Evangelical Press, 2009) by Paul E. G. Cook is a curious combination of topical and historical material, in which instruction and application is interwoven with and arises from historical detail. Mr Cook focuses on the period 1791-1840 and the unusual works of God that occurred in England during this time. Assuming much of the vocabulary of revival, he contends that revival does not differ from the essence of normal religious experience, but in its degree, both intensively and extensively (he insists that revival is a Christian experience, but does tend to focus on its impact outside the church). Mr Cook rightly emphasises a ‘supernaturalistic’ view of salvation, bemoaning the impact of Finneyism, and calling saints not to seek revivals, but to seek God himself. The historical material is enlightening and moving, carefully researched and clearly laid out. The didactic material is earnest, even passionate, but some readers would doubtless wish to nuance or disagree with Mr Cook. What none will deny is the vibrant and vigorous godliness, tinged with a sense of eternity, which clearly characterises the subjects of this stimulating book, and which ought to stir up a sense of holy desire for more of the same in every true saint.
Kevin DeYoung gives us a title that I suspect no one else ever will: Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will (Or, How to Make A Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. (Moody Publishers, 2009). This is a straightforward, popular treatment concerning the knowledge of God’s will for our lives. DeYoung attempts to make plain what we can know and how we can know it, and what we can’t know and how to get on with life anyway. He exposes some of the nonsense (however well-meaning) identified in his elaborate sub-sub-title, and urges God’s children to get on with doing the known will of their heavenly Father, not looking for guidance where God has never given it, but using sanctified common-sense to work hard and plan well and trust fully. Some will feel that he is not quite ‘spiritual’ or mystical enough, while others will fear that he has left open a door for continuing revelation (he has, incidentally, after a fashion). Probably a book to read yourself before you put it into the hands of others, to ensure that it meets the particular needs in question, but a helpful, short, straightforward, straight-talking volume.
James Fraser of Brea was born in the north of Scotland in 1639 and converted shortly before his twentieth birthday, though not without much agony of soul. From his longer autobiographical memoir is extracted this Pocket Puritan volume, Am I A Christian? (Banner of Truth, 2009). Here he identifies twenty “objective grounds” for doubting whether he is genuinely converted, with his Scripture-soaked answers to each. Those who suffer similar trials and wrestle with similar doubts and fears may find here either specific answers to their own particular questions, or at least a sound method to follow in examining their own standing. There is some sweet balm here for wounded souls, for Fraser pulls no punches in dealing with the stark realities both of sin and of grace. (Fraser’s use of the word ‘conversion’ is interesting, and also treated here, and there is a brief biographical note.)
I recommend unstintingly Psalm 119 For Life: Living Today in the Light of the Word by Hywel R. Jones (Evangelical Press, 2010). Having its genesis in a series of expository studies in the Chapel of Westminster Seminary (California), our author walks us through each stanza of Psalm 119. Each chapter is brief, with a veiled but evident deep understanding of the text supporting the clear and pointed explanation and application. Dr Jones brings out the full-orbed relationship of a saved man and his saving Lord, not least in the matter of faith and obedience. Excellent as a daily devotional, a pattern for Bible study, or just as a refresher for the soul, this is a volume of rich poetry and rich piety. Take it up and read it.
The One True God (3rd edition, revised and expanded, Granted Ministries Press, 2009) is a spiral-bound but solid workbook by Paul David Washer intended to bring readers face-to-face with the God of the Bible: the student effectively undertakes his own exegesis. The questions demand Scriptural answers, the concern being to hear what God says about himself. At the same time – and it is plain from the very structure of this work – there is an evident appreciation of the stream of historic Biblical Christianity, within which this volume stands. Fourteen lessons deal with specific attributes of the Godhead, asking questions, giving space for answers, and providing a brief summary. More technical vocabulary is explained where necessary. The section on the names of God is a little gem. Perhaps best for group study under a competent guide, this also function well as an individual workbook, and well serves the intended aim of promoting an encounter with God through his Word.
One of many Calvin biographies that was produced in the quincentennial year, Bruce Gordon’s Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009) is an outstanding contribution to the field. Thoroughly-researched and broad of scope, situating Calvin in the theological, cultural and political currents of his time, this stands very well alongside older and other more current biographies. It is a modern treatment in the sense that hero-worship is very far from the agenda. Indeed, one sometimes gets the sense that – so keen is our author to avoid hagiography – there is something that borders on relish when the feet of clay are uncovered. Determined to be fair and frank, Dr Gordon provides a corrective to more defensive biographies but sometimes falls short in the empathy/sympathy department. There is more evident interest in the man than in his God. Again, this may be because, to write what certainly deserves to be one of the academic standards, one is obliged to bow to the standards of the academy. Still, Calvin the man and the minister are here before us, warts and all. We see Calvin as he saw himself and as others saw him, and should be left delighted in and grateful for the enduring kingdom which Christ himself rules.
Note: for those interested in a more developed treatment of this same issue, you can find it beginning here.
A year or two ago it seemed that ‘the new Calvinism’ was all the rage. Perhaps it has already reached and passed its peak. Maybe the mission has already become a movement and will shortly become a museum. Only time will tell. Certainly the wild rush of the past few years has slowed a little; the river seems broader and flows more gently. Consolidation has occurred around such organisations as the Gospel Coalition and there are nexuses (nexi?) like Together for the Gospel (T4G) and Acts 29 that also function as anchor points. Not so long ago you could not read a book, website or news article in some Christian circles without coming up against one of a range of personalities. The new orthodoxy needed one of a string of names to back it up: “Piper/Grudem/Carson says . . .” almost became the equivalent in some circles of, “The Holy Spirit told me . . .” It seemed as if the new Calvinism was sweeping the board. More conservative evangelicals felt the pressure, often ‘losing’ their young people to the heady atmosphere of the new movement. There was a certain triumphalism in some quarters, a sense of having seen the working future. In others, there was a sometimes uninhibited aggression. However, there seemed to be little middle ground: you were either for or against, a committed friend or a committed foe.
I tried to understand what was taking place by immersing myself in the stream for a while: I read the books and the blogs and listened to the sermons and addresses. I hoped that I got a fair and accurate understanding of this movement. I found things that were attractive and stimulating and provocative and controversial and worrying.
At a little distance from the swirling storm of popularity and controversy, I recently saw a very brief list of those things which characterise the new Calvinism, written very much from within the movement. Looking at that list, I thought, “Yes, but . . .” and began to sketch out some other qualities that, it seems to me, are embedded in the mass of new Calvinistic identity. The list got reasonably long in the end, but I thought that I would work it up and put it out. It may prove useful, or interesting, or controversial, or pointless. I think that some new Calvinists would acknowledge and admit much of what follows, sometimes quite cheerfully, but not always. They might not agree with all the labels I use, or with my own stance on them, but I have set out to be fair and accurate.
Some caveats: I have attempted not to identify and discuss individuals (except where obvious and necessary, and for occasional examples) because this is not about supporting or attacking any one individual. I also recognise that there are exceptions to most if not all of these rules, hence the introductory wording to each suggestion: I am not trying to make out that the movement is more monolithic than is in fact the case. Furthermore, I have not attempted to distinguish between the positive and the negative (which will differ depending on where you stand anyway!) but have rather lumped them all in together. I have not attempted to list these characteristics in order of priority or significance.
That will probably do by way of introduction. So, then . . .
1. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a desire for the glory of God. In this sense, I do not think one can legitimately deny that this is a Reformed resurgence. There is an evident, open, sincere aim at the glory of God in all things, and I think that God is much glorified in many ways by the words and works of many of my new Calvinist brothers and sisters, and I rejoice at it.
2. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by deep-rooted spiritual joy. This may be one of the reasons why it is so attractive to so many, perhaps especially to those from more conservative Reformed circles who feel that this is one of the things that has been lacking in their spiritual experience. It flows, no doubt, in large part from the emphasis on the grace of God (see below) and it may flow into some of its more exuberant expressions of worship. Again, the public face of the new Calvinism is one in which men and women with their hearts made clean through the blood of the Lamb rejoice in their so-great salvation.
3. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by missonal zeal. As with any vibrant gospel movement, the desire to take the good news into all the world is central. Evangelising. Witnessing to Christ. Church strengthening. Church planting. Church rejuvenation. Training pastors and preachers. There is a Scriptural readiness to overcome or ignore the boundaries too readily established in the mind and the heart and to preach the gospel to every creature, and to use as many means as possible (although the Biblical legitimacy of some might be questioned) to promote the truth, propagate the gospel, and advance the kingdom of Christ Jesus. As the movement has advanced, neither the local nor the international elements of this have been left behind.
4. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an emphasis on the gospel of grace and the grace of the gospel. Everything is ‘gospel’: New Calvinists do ‘gospel-this’ and ‘gospel-centred that’ and ‘gospel-cored the other’, sometimes to the point of inanity. By that, I do not mean that the gospel ought not to be at the heart of things, but if we are genuinely evangelical then by definition the gospel should be at the heart of things, and the tendency to badge everything with the word ‘gospel’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it is gospel-soaked and gospel-centred, nor does it guarantee that it will be. That aside, this is a movement that desires to preach the good news as good news, to proclaim the free and undeserved favour of God to sinners in a way that is engaging, fresh, real and powerful. One of the great anathemas of new Calvinism is legalism. Whether or not this is rightly or fully understood I will not argue here, but these friends are desperate to highlight and declare the primacy of grace. Of course, this is intimately related to the joy they feel and the glory of God they pursue.
5. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by complementarianism. We are told by these friends to distinguish between the theological equivalents of national boundaries and state boundaries, to appreciate the different between distinction and division. At the same time, it appears that complementarianism is one of the new Calvinist shibboleths. That does not mean it is wrong, of course, but it is interesting that of all the things that we are told do not matter in the consideration of unity and separation, complementarianism has become something of a sine qua non.
6. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a return to a more Biblical masculinity. One could argue that at times this has almost become a caricature (and I would agree, and it has indeed been parodied and caricatured), but it is a welcome if sometimes extreme reaction to the anaemic and limp manhood too often displayed elsewhere in the nominally or actually Christian world. Alongside and arising from the complementarianism, dignified and vigorous male leadership has received a welcome fillip from the new Calvinism. Like many gospel movements of the past, this one has been characterised in many respects by the salvation of men (often young men), the calling of men to preach, and a readiness by men to take the brunt and lead from the front. This is not to say that women are excluded from the movement, but the Scriptural emphasis on male leadership has seen a welcome return.
7. Again related to complementarianism, it seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the promotion of the family as a basic unit of church and social life. Once again, such an emphasis can easily become an over-emphasis, but the evident loving affection for wives and sons and daughters that is characteristic of many of the leaders of the movement is an excellent testimony. The re-establishment of the God-ordained family unit, the outworking of masculinity and femininity in the family sphere, an encouragement to family worship, a readiness to discuss and instruct concerning relationships between men and women, single and married, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers and children, and the like, is often part and parcel of new Calvinism.
8. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by charismatic convictions with regard to spiritual gifts. It seems as if the nature, extent and degree of the Spirit’s work in what some would say we cannot call post-apostolic times has become almost a moot point in new Calvinism. What was for so long a genuine line of divide between Christians has seemed to be smoothed over with the rise of the so-called ‘Reformed Charismatic’, a label willingly embraced by many if not all of the leaders of new Calvinism, most of whom would be happy – to various degrees and in different ways – to acknowledge themselves to be continuationists, as the lingo has it. Interestingly, this is one of the fault lines that seems likely to become apparent again, not least because of its significance.
9. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Calvinist soteriology, with some departures and aberrations. Again, here is one of the areas where the claim to the name ‘Reformed’ is at stake and much debated. Generally speaking, in line with the emphasis on the gospel of grace and the glory of God in salvation there has been a distinctively Calvinist take on this issue, and it is here – probably more than anywhere else – that the movement derives the ‘Calvinist’ part of its name. At the same time, there is – in many of those who are at the forefront of this group – more than a hint of Amyraldism, so I am not sure to what extent this is going to hold water for long. You will also note that I identify Calvinist soteriology as apart from other elements of historic Calvinism, many of which I think one could argue have been neglected, ignored, or abandoned by new Calvinists.
10. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a generally thoughtful ecumenism. You only need to look at or think about the names that are at or clustering about the centre to see how broad a movement this is. It has genuinely united Christians from a variety of backgrounds, and garnered sympathy from many who would nevertheless be unable to share all the distinctives of the movement as a whole. Issues such as baptism, ecclesiology, the spiritual gifts, and worship have – to some extent – not been allowed to prevent the coming together of believers to serve God either in community or at the very least in co-operation. Interestingly, though, this ecumenism seems to reach over the middle ground. By this I mean that there is a readiness to receive and relate to (and receive critique and input from) those close to the inner core of the movement, and then a readiness to reach quite far out from that core for critique and input and relationship, leaving those in the middle ground somewhat isolated. So, for example, consider the speaking list at some of the last few Desiring God conferences: where else would you find Piper, Dever, Driscoll, Warren, Wilson, Keller, Baucham, MacArthur, Sproul, Storms and Ferguson. At points on that list you are moved to cheer. At others, a very Scooby-Dooish cry of “Yoicks!” – mingled alarm and distress – rises from the lips.
11. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an often pragmatic ecclesiology. I am glad that it is characterised by ecclesiology at all, that the church of Jesus Christ is in many respects given its rightful place in his plans and purposes for the kingdom. At the same time, there is often more of the light of nature than the light of Scripture in some of the decisions that seem to be made. This, then, is a movement in which statistics matter. This is a movement in which, if you cannot keep up, you have to drop off. Are you in the way of progress? Then you are fired. We are moving onward and upward, so we will hire a worship pastor used to larger crowds or able to generate them; we will hire a technology deacon to take our presentations within and without the services to a new level. Are you not willing or able to move this fast? Then goodbye, because you are holding up the advance. Multi-campus doctrine is one of the examples of this pragmatism; branding and advertising are given a prominence beyond anything the Scripture provides for. Everything is made to serve the growth of the church numerically and the advance of the mission as stated by the church. At times the church seems less and less like an organic whole in which every member has her or his part and more like a business in which the chief executive and his team get to hire and fire at will, moulding the structure and its activity according to human will and purpose. If the church were a business, would I fire some of her workers? Sure. But it is not, and I am not at liberty to decide who I want or do not want in or working for the advance of a kingdom that belongs to and is ruled by a sovereign King. I should, however, add – in fairness – that perhaps at times others outside the movement have not been pragmatic enough, or dynamic enough, in seizing opportunities for gospel advance and employing means about which the Scriptures are silent (this comment is not about the regulative principle, by the way). By the way, you have to love the names of the churches: all portentous, bastardised Greek or catchy, thrusting urban vim? Fantastic!
12. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a neo-Kuyperian view of culture. Here the mantra is that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” There is much to be said for such a declaration, but it also needs to be read in terms of the already/not yet dichotomy. In new Calvinist orthodoxy, it seems to be very much ‘already’ and this often means that culture is considered neutral, and all to be claimed for Jesus. By extension, nothing seems to be out of bounds, and much that the world says and does can be tidied up, baptised, and brought into the service of Christ’s church. Of course, it tends to be the culture from which the converts are drawn (see below) that comes into the church, and so we get our reference points and illustrations from all the hip and cool sources, or those made trendy by the movers and shakers. Star Wars? Check. Lord of the Rings? Check. The Matrix? Check. So we get to be all funky and populist. Then we get to name check Lewis and Chesterton and Dostoevsky and O’Connor and come over all literary and high-brow. By and large, the new Calvinism seems ready to co-opt, co-operate with, and/or capture this culture now, without always making assessments about the origin, tendency and direction of particular elements. Under this heading I am willing to place the whole issue of contextualization, although it might be considered worthy of its own heading.
13. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by doctrinal if not practical antinomianism. Most of the movers and shakers appear ready to align themselves with New Covenant Theology in some form or other. As so often, the Lord’s day Sabbath is the first point of contact and conflict on this issue. However, the default position here, as – I believe – across broad evangelicalism as a whole – is that the moral law has no abiding relevance in the life of the new covenant believer. That assumption is woven throughout many of the key texts and declarations of the new Calvinism, from the ESV Study Bible downwards (for example, consider these comments in the ESVSB on Romans 14.5: “The weak thought some days were more important than others. Given the Jewish background here (see v. 14), the day that is supremely in view is certainly the Sabbath. The strong think every day is the same. Both views are permissible. Each person must follow his own conscience. What is remarkable is that the Sabbath is no longer a binding commitment for Paul but a matter of one’s personal conviction. Unlike the other nine commandments in Ex. 20:1–17, the Sabbath commandment seems to have been part of the “ceremonial laws” of the Mosaic covenant, like the dietary laws and the laws about sacrifices, all of which are no longer binding on new covenant believers (see also Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16–17). However, it is still wise to take regular times of rest from work, and regular times of worship are commanded for Christians (Heb. 10:24–25; cf. Acts 20:7)”). This is having and will continue to have implications perhaps not so much in the sphere of justification (though that will follow) as in the sphere of sanctification. It is going to mean much for the development of true holiness, and it is only in the next two or three generations of the new Calvinists that these chickens will come home to roost. Key names among the new Calvinists have laid the foundation for this widespread antinomianism, and it is for me one of the most concerning aspects of the whole movement.
14. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by contemporary worship. By definition, all of the service ought to be worship, and by definition, anything done today is contemporary, however old-fashioned or new-fangled it may be considered, but you know what I mean. I personally have no difficulty with songs and music written in the present day, but that is not the same as a willingness simply to co-opt the forms and patterns of the entertainment of the world for the worship of the church. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sung worship of the church. Into the mix here also come the charismatic and cultural convictions of many of the key figures.
15. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the driving force of several key personalities. You know them: there is a centre circle reasonably well-defined, and then the concentric circles around them together and individually. Piper. Carson. Mahaney. Dever. Mohler. Driscoll. Keller. Grudem. Chandler. Anyabwile. Harris. DeYoung. Chan. Perhaps a little further out are Duncan and MacArthur and Sproul and Trueman. Among the bloggers, Challies and Taylor and others. Read long enough and widely enough and the same names will crop up time and time again. You might place them more or less close to the centre, but they will be there or thereabouts. My apologies to those who ought to be on the list and are not, and to the groupies who are now offended because I did not put their idol on the list. Here you see more than a little of that ecumenism mentioned before. No new Calvinist conference is complete without at least one and ideally more of these men on the platform. Each is a little chief in the centre of his fiefdom, many of which overlap. Of course, it can all seem a little nepotistic, even incestuous at times, as these figures read, invite, commend, and endorse one another in ever-decreasing circles. Again, God usually works by men in the world, and those men naturally attain to a right and reasonable prominence, but the concentration on a few key personalities, especially in the early days of the movement, was distinctive. Of course, some of those names are already second-generation names, and it will be interesting to see where things go from here.
16. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the ready embrace and employment of new technologies and media and the platforms that they provide. The new Calvinism is, to a large degree, an internet phenomenon. Sermons, videos, blogs, other social media, swirl around ceaselessly in this milieu. The exchange and discussion of ideas takes place largely online. Conferences are broadcast and live-blogged, and the lines and colours are laid down by a thousand artists simultaneously, often painting on the same canvas. Cross-reference and self-reference generate a stupendous amount of traffic. Look at some of the key blogs, for example, and you will find that they all tend to highlight the same books, events, people and things at almost precisely the same time. All these platforms nevertheless provide a potent thrust for new Calvinist dogma and praxis, and where others are left behind, the new Calvinism is often at the cutting edge, adopting and co-opting the latest technology (hardware and software) in order to promote either Christ or his servants, depending on your take on particular individuals and circles. Of course, we must state here that no self-respecting new Calvinist would be found dead using a PC. The Apple Macintosh and its related accessories are the technological sine qua non of the true new Calvinist. (I deleted the next bit because it counted as mockery, but let’s just say that it went in the direction of cool glasses and coffee shops, tattoos and T-shirts.)
17. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a concentration on a younger, more urban demographic. I recall one new Calvinist church-planting leader voicing his concern at how many church-planter/ing applications he saw targeted precisely the same group as all the others: the young, trendy, hip (when did this admittedly serviceable but not especially remarkable joint become so popular?), urban crowd. Although some of its leaders are getting old enough to be in them, you will not find much of the new Calvinism catering to the full range of society. It tends to be quite selective. I know of a number of churches that – when they began going in this direction – did begin to attract far larger numbers of a certain type and age, but they also began to lose many others. Again, you can only ride the crest of the wave for so long: what happens to the water ahead, and the waves coming in behind? This is one area where the willingness to preach the gospel to every creature perhaps needs to take account of the fact that every creature doesn’t like the same fashion, music, art, style, clothes, and approach as those who have made new Calvinism what it is.
18. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the desire to be big and to have a seat at culture’s table. Bigness does seem to be a great concern for many. Bigness – size and numbers – as a by-product of the pursuit of right things in a right way and for the glory of God is perfectly acceptable, but bigness as an end in itself is not something that the Bible promotes in isolation. Alongside of this goes what sometimes looks like an obsession with being accepted and heard in wider society. Consider the orgiastic and ecstatic applause and self-congratulation when the big names get on national television, or when the movement gets name-checked by Time magazine. Is there a danger here that the movement is too concerned with the applause and adulation and recognition of the world? Does this tie in with the attitude to culture, and what may be a failure to recognise that in this present evil age we are strangers in a strange land?
19. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an ambivalent relationship to church history. I know we all tend to pick and choose the bits that appear or tend to support what we now believe, but it is right there on the surface of the new Calvinist vehicle. Sometimes there is what I can only call a chronological snobbery. This is not meant to sound as pejorative as it does. It is part of the laudable enthusiasm of the movement. What I mean is that there is a freshness of discovery that excites us: we feel, if I may work through Wodehouse back to Keats,
. . . like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
However, just because I have recently discovered some theological gem does not mean that it has never been discovered before, or that I therefore become the sole guardian and interpreter of the tradition. There may be a whole bunch of trekker’s rubbish upon that peak in Darien from those who have been and camped before. Neither does the popularity or promotion of our discovery entitle us to be the arbiters of the canon. Anyway, there is a tendency among new Calvinists either to claim that ground long-broken has been only recently broken by them, or that it has never been broken before and now needs to be broken by them, or because they have broken it no one else is allowed to set foot on it, or that there is no other way of it being broken. In this way, the great and the good of the past all become proto-new Calvinists. Take a bow, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Bunyan, Cowper, Calvin, Lewis, Owen, Augustine, etc. etc. Of course, all this demands quite a bit of historical revision, of which there is perhaps no finer example than C. S. Lewis, one of the new Calvinism’s patron saints. I am not suggesting that these intelligent and well-read men are not aware of it, but at least let us not pretend nor give the impression that Lewis fits seamlessly into the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy!
20. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by sensitivity to the judicial and social aspects of the gospel at work in society. Perhaps in part because there is a left-wing as well as right-wing political input to new Calvinism, it is nevertheless a recovery of emphasis on the God who defends and protects the widow and the fatherless and the stranger, who is concerned for righteousness and justice in heaven and on earth, who takes note of the presence or absence of ethical integrity in the thoughts, words and deeds of men. Of course, this is very easily dismissed as politically correct or touchy-feely nonsense, but there is, perhaps, more of it in the Scriptures than others have always been ready to admit. So, on such matters as abortion, adoption, euthanasia, care for the poor and hungry, help for the homeless, and so on, there is a welcome re-engagement and re-appraisal. Confusion still exists (as, no doubt, it always will) about the relative roles of the church and the individual Christian citizen or subject (two kingdoms theology, anyone?), but there is an awareness of and sensitivity to these issues that is welcome.
21. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Americocentrism. Here let me bother with another caveat: this is not an instance of cultural jealousy or bitterness, nor is it in and of itself intended as a condemnation. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and of course the movement spills over, especially into the UK and Australia, where the linguistic heritage is shared (so perhaps I should speak more of ‘the West’ that I do of ‘the States’, although I think it is fair to say that America is probably the dominant Western culture, having more influence on others in the West than they have on it). However, while there are adherents, some of them prominent, outside the USA, the movement has its spiritual and cultural home in the States. Could this be where some of its cultural distinctive and pragmatic attitudes derive? Is this part of the reason for its determination and enthusiasm and can-do mentality? Is this driving the concentration on technology and the referents and foci of the movement? Time after time we hear men and women happily cradled in the bosom of American/Western culture assure us that the future of the church is in the so-called Third or Developing World. Is new Calvinism in danger of exporting more of America/the West than it is of Jesus? By definition, we are to some extent products of our culture, and that is part of God’s sovereign design for our sphere of influence and usefulness. But could it be that there is sometimes a lack of cultural awareness and a degree of cultural supremacism that penetrates new Calvinism further than we are aware? This, I acknowledge, is nebulous, easy both to defend and attack precisely because it is so hard to quantify, but it seems to me that this is an inherently Western movement, if not an inherently American one, a movement very much of a certain time and place. That does not make it inherently bad, but it certainly does call into the question the degree to which it can both last and spread beyond its immediate environs.
At this point, I see no reason to change the assessment I made several months ago, after reading Collin Hansen’s survey of the movement, although I hope I have a better grasp on the whole: “There is much that is splendid about the movement . . . but it contains within it some fascinating and fearful tensions, as well as some wonderful prospects. Much depends on the legacy of the present leaders, and the readiness of those who follow to pursue a comprehensive Scripturalism that will govern head and heart and hands. . . . observers and participants [need] to gauge both the trajectory and the likely terminus of this curious company, but [they] should also challenge us about the extent to which our faith and our life are keeping pace.”
So there you have it. Do you agree or disagree? Is there anything to add or remove? I should be interested to know what you have to say.
The Westminster Conference for 2009 – “Calvin, Geneva and Revival” – will take place later this year on Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th December at the Whitefield Memorial Church in Tottenham Court Road, London. The brochure will be mailed out shortly, but you can download a pdf copy here (or click the picture on the right) which can be printed out.
The schedule for the conference is as follows, God willing:
- John Calvin’s agenda: issues in the separation with Rome (Garry Williams)
- Calvin as commentator and theologian (Don Carson)
- 1859 – a year of grace (Stephen Clark)
- Elizabeth and Calvin (Robert Oliver)
- Darwin before and after (Ken Brownell)
- The Moravians and missionary passion (Bruce Jenkins)
I spotted this a few weeks ago, and have had it brewing in the basket ever since, waiting hopefully for it to come down in price. It isn’t dropping, which is more than a little grievous.
It is especially disappointing given that Sean Lucas has just given Calvin a glowing review.
I hope that this book receives wide notice, not only among Reformation specialists and theological students, but especially among educated laypeople. Many of our people in Reformed and Presbyterian churches are woefully ignorant of Calvin’s contribution; the few that know something about him are as likely to idolize him as to understand him. Bruce Gordon’s Calvin is a marvelous corrective to both faults: informative, accessible, and realistic, it is the book to give to interested church members. And read with the eyes of faith, Gordon helps us move from seeing Calvin as a hero to seeing the True Hero, Jesus himself, whom Calvin loved and served.
If you have been reading up on this man of God, it sounds like you have another volume to add to your wish/reading list (that’s the list of books you wish you had, the list of books you will read, or the list of books you wish you will get round to reading).
Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 1-7) by John Calvin, trans. Rob Roy McGregor
Banner of Truth, 2008 (688pp, hbk)
In the midst of the proliferation of material related to Calvin being published around the quincentenary you will find scattered a few gems of original Calvin. One such is this collection of John Calvin’s sermons on the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. It is sadly incomplete, not only in the sense that we can proceed no further than chapter 7, but also insofar as one or two of the sermons in the series are also missing. This does not impede the reader so much as it disappoints him.
The translation – at least from the perspective of a reader only in the English – seems rich, even ripe. The bite and drive of Calvin’s simple vocabulary, plain delivery, and sometimes sarcastic humour are all well communicated. No hearer of these sermons – and no reader either – is left in any doubt as to what the Word of God says and more, what it means, and further, what it means to and for me right here, right now. Faithfulness to the text marks each sermon. Some verses lend themselves to object lessons in particular doctrines or issues, but without disrupting the even flow of regular exposition. While at points Calvin shows himself a man of his times, one rarely gets the sense that he is forcing anything upon the text. The reader is stunned (or, at least, this reader was) by the occasional insight into a particular verse that stops him in his tracks and makes him ponder the truth, and where it takes him.
The organisation of the material is also fascinating. Calvin is not without order and system in his individual sermons, but they are not usually structured in the obvious way we often see in, say, Spurgeon. There is rather a natural progression in line with the text, with series of points attaching to a particular issue raised rather than framing the whole.
While there are some typical emphases – the accurately low view of man’s heart, the importance of the church, the demand for consistent holiness of life, the demand for faith, the role of the Spirit, the centrality of Christ – the ignorant or prejudiced reader may be surprised at the breadth of Calvin’s reach. This is the advantage of being governed by the text. The preacher does not generally come across as riding particular hobby-horses, although – as one would expect – the Roman Catholic communion presents a ready and often-struck target (interestingly, yoked more often that you might anticipate with Islam, as representative of gross spiritual dangers). Reading Calvin’s pulpit addresses gives one a sense of what Calvin’s ‘Calvinism’ really sounded and looked like, what it looked for and demanded, what it pointed to and exalted. That is not to deny that a coherent, Scriptural system lies behind the whole, but rather to highlight the range and tone of this attempt to bring into being a full-orbed Biblical Christianity.
There are lessons here for Christians as Christians, in what it means to live in a fallen world. There are lessons for preachers as preachers: lessons in a natural and easy style, in a close and pointed application of the truth, in the manifestation of one’s own humanity in preaching, and in how to close a sermon with a prayer that captures the nuggets of gold panned in the course of one’s exposition.
In short, this collection will leave you ready for more. It will leave you regretting the sermons that are missing, and the fact that we have nothing beyond chapter seven. It might, and should, whet the readers appetite for more of Calvin, and those who – like him – are governed by their Bibles in both the arc and the detail of exposition, seeking after Christ and seeking to make him known in the minds, hearts and lives of those whom they serve.
John Calvin on Luke 1.78-80:
Consider, in addition, how suspicious we are by nature, how lazy and indifferent, and what little real taste we have for the grace which God offers us. It only takes a fly to pass before our eyes for us to panic, and to make us feel there is no God in heaven to help us. We tremble like leaves on the bough, or like reeds swaying in the wind. The slightest incident so fills us with despair that we lose heart, unsure which way to turn. Where would we be if we thought God’s grace too weak to withstand the trials that we face? The Holy Spirit, then, has something valuable to teach us here.
. . . This is a verse to be applied every time Satan attacks us and fills us with dread and alarm. Do we feel, for example, that God has left and forsaken us? Then we must hide ourselves in God’s ‘bowels’, so to speak, in his innermost self. For God does not confirm with his lips alone the love he has for us; he opens his very heart to us where we may hide, safely guarded against all Satan’s assaults. With such a shield to defend us we can suffer no harm. In God we have a sure refuge which is always available to us in time of doubt, distress and trial, as our text shows.
Songs of the Nativity: Select Sermons on Luke 1 & 2, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008) 124-125.
Calvin teaches us what it means to be not so much a Calvinist as a Christian in the ebb and flow of life in a fallen world. When we read Calvin himself we find that a Calvinist is not a follower of any man, but a true disciple of Jesus the Christ and a preacher of the gospel of God’s sovereign grace.
Such a man, like Calvin, is committed to the glory of the triune Jehovah. B. B. Warfield put it in this way: Calvinism “lies in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature.” This is the starting point of Calvin’s Institutes: Calvin is a man captured and captivated by the triune God, and who therefore sees himself also in proper and humble perspective. Until we perceive God accurately as revealed in Christ, our eyes opened by the Spirit, we can neither be saved nor can we serve. When God opens our eyes, then we begin to begin to know and adore him as he is. That believing view should once and for all bind us with humble joy to the God of our salvation, recognising that what he does, he does for his glory, and that we should live to the same end. This understanding sets our compass for time and for eternity; it will keep us faithful.
Furthermore, such a man, like Calvin, is committed to the truth of God in the Scriptures. Calvin recognised that God was known pre-eminently through his inscripturated revelation. He therefore set himself to know God and to obey him as he has revealed himself and his will. We should be instructed by Calvin’s honesty in handling the Word of God, by his readiness to submit to all its nuances, and not to impose his system on Scripture, but to have Scripture fashion his system. Calvin is always a man under authority: where he reaches the limits of his Spirit-enlightened understanding of God’s revelation, he will not press further and trespass on what God has left unrevealed. Rather, he will pause and worship where he cannot penetrate. There is a wonderful integrity to his teaching on this account. When dying, Calvin could say, “I have taught faithfully, and God has given me grace to write, which I have done faithfully as I could; and I have not corrupted [mutilated] one single passage of Scripture nor twisted it as far as I know; and when in a position to arrive at an artificial meaning through subtlety, I have put all that under my feet, and have always aimed at being simple.” If this was the sincere testimony of more preachers, Christ’s church would be substantially healthier than it is. This disposition is the fountainhead of his public ministry: he sought not only to understand and follow God’s Word for himself, but to communicate its truth with simplicity and clarity to those whom he served, and to apply the Word of God to the hearts of his hearers in all the challenges that they faced in life.
Finally, such a man, like Calvin, will be committed to the service of God. This attitude is really the outworking of the former two. Because God is who he is, and because we know him as revealed in Scripture for our salvation, how can we but consecrate ourselves and our all to his glory? When we learn of Calvin’s life and labours, of his Christlike willingness to serve, and to suffer in serving, we are humbled not so much by our lack of gifts as by our failure to use what we have been given. Calvin, having been purchased entirely by Christ, offered himself entirely to God. Again, hear Warfield: “He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing – in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations – is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.”
The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, situated the heart of Calvinism in the declaration, “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jon 2.9):
That is just an epitome of Calvinism; it is the sum and substance of it. If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, “He is one who says, Salvation is of the Lord.” I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this. It is the essence of the Bible. “He only is my rock and my salvation.” . . . . I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.
What is Calvinism, then, but a nickname for the biblical gospel and its right outworking in a man’s heart and life? This being so, it should be no surprise that Calvinism is so often presented in an unbalanced caricature: Christ crucified remains a stumbling block to the self-righteous and foolishness to the would-be wise of the world (1Cor 1.21-23). The truth of God’s word is not palatable to the unconverted man, and does not become so until God the Spirit gives him an appetite for it. At that point the gospel is seen and known to be both the wisdom and the power of God to salvation (Rom 1.16; 1Cor 1.24): it captures the whole man, and draws him willingly to serve the God of his salvation. This is the gospel that Calvin preached:
Let us examine ourselves closely, and inasmuch as he has come near to us out of his infinite goodness and given us the teaching about our Lord Jesus Christ his Son, who is our true light, let us make our effort to walk in the way while it is still day (Rom. 13:12-14) for fear that the night will take us by surprise and plunge us into darkness more terrible than the Papacy’s. . . . And because there is no constancy within us and we cannot continue on our own, let us learn to walk in fear and humility in obedience to our God, and let us pray that he will always guide us and strengthen us by his Holy Spirit so that we will not fail.
If we would honour Calvin, then, we will not do so by parading our Calvinist credentials, parroting his name, or promoting a mere caricature of his system in our thinking and feeling and doing. The man who insisted on being buried in an unmarked grave would not be impressed by the weak-minded adulation of a man-centred fan-base.
If we would respectfully remember Calvin, we shall do it best by praying for and seeking that same all-consuming conception of the living God of heaven and earth which always issues in the pursuit of his glory. We shall do it by embracing the Scriptures as the infallible and inerrant rule of faith and life and living and worshipping and teaching accordingly. We shall do it by loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, and offering ourselves as living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service. We shall do it not by honouring a man and simply being swallowed up in his memory, but – profiting from his teaching and example – we shall do it by honouring his God and ours, and by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its full-orbed and biblical splendour.
 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvinism” in Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 5:354.
 Quoted by Robert Reymond, John Calvin: His Life and Influence (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2004), 129.
 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvinism” in Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 5:354-5.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, “A Defence of Calvinism” in Autobiography (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 1:172.
 John Calvin, “38: The Penalty for Idolatry” in Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters1-7), trans. Rob Roy McGregor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 541, 549.
John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey
Crossway, 2009 (208pp, pbk)
John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life by Herman Selderhuis
InterVarsity Press, 2009 (287pp, pbk)
One cannot help but feel a little sorry for the genuine Calvin scholar as one reviews the glut of Calviniana being ushered in by the quincentenary. The most assiduous reader would – however much he felt obliged to do so – struggle to wade through seemingly endless biographies, topical studies, translations of original material, re-issues of older works, and so on.
For those not so thoroughly enmeshed in academia, yet seeking insightful treatments of the life of Calvin, there is still a sometimes bewildering range of options. Herman Selderhuis (PL) and Robert Godfrey (PP) provide two of them.
The books share certain similarities, and not just in the title. The particular strength of both is reliance on primary sources. Both authors, rather than relying on scholarly surmise or the opinion of others, lean heavily on Calvin’s own words (in Selderhuis’ instance, particularly his correspondence) to press out insights into Calvin’s mind and heart. This gives both volumes a welcome liveliness and freshness.
Another similarity lies in the fact that both books attempt to be both biographical and topical, albeit by different routes. In the Godfrey volume, this takes the form of a two-fold division: Calvin as pilgrim (here a more thoroughly biographical section, plunging into the Strasbourg sojourn before skimming through his early life and student days and his first Genevan period) and Calvin as pastor (the second Genevan period, where Calvin’s convictions concerning various issues, and the practical outworking of those issues in Geneva, are addressed more topically). Selderhuis takes a different approach: ten chapters are chronologically arranged, each with a pithy title, such as ‘Orphan’ for 1509-1533, ‘Victim’ for 1546-1549, ‘Sailor’ for 1555-1559, and ‘Soldier’ for 1559-1564. These slightly enigmatic headings are further subdivided in the chapters themselves, with sections of one-half page to two pages under their own very brief (usually one word) caption. The combined effect is of being carried forward by pigeon steps – progress of a slightly fragmented kind.
A further shared quality is the readability of the volumes. Godfrey has a relaxed and accessible style, almost disappointing in its unobtrusiveness, but pleasantly simple and straightforward. Selderhuis must thank his translator for doing an excellent job in producing a terse, compact, lively English idiom: it is a pleasure to read. Neither book is excessively scholarly in style: perhaps the reputation of both men as scholars has rid them of any felt need to impress with their erudition. The weight of learning lies behind the text, evidently present without being paraded on the surface. Godfrey opts for very brief footnotes, quotes themselves often being linguistically updated. Selderhuis has a more novel approach: page after unfootnoted page, all awash with apparently unproven assertions. Turn to the back of the book, however, and you will find twenty sides of page-referenced notes, sometimes with snippets of text or brief pointers, all sending the reader back to the original sources. Depending on one’s intention in reading, this is either wonderfully refreshing or painfully frustrating (especially if one does not have ready access, physically or linguistically, to the two main editions of the Calvini Opera, the Supplementa Calviniana, and the correspondence of the Reformers). Selderhuis includes an index of names, while Godfrey supplies a broader general index.
Furthermore, neither author seeks to define Calvin in terms of any particular event: both are interested in the broad sweep and tenor of his life. There is a subtle resistance in both cases to highlighting or dramatizing specific episodes or crises. There are narrative peaks and troughs to be sure – the confrontation by Farel; exile from Geneva; the death of Idelette; the trial of Servetus – but both Godfrey and Selderhuis are too wise to make any one episode defining (except insofar as, for example, Calvin’s conversion set the course for his life). They are more interested in character demonstrated across the contours of this pilgrim life. Nevertheless, certain themes do develop, especially in Selderhuis: Calvin’s attitude to authority (especially paternal authority, whether human or divine), and his linked disposition toward God’s providential government of all things; the twin motifs of abyss and labyrinth that impact the pilgrim’s progress. In Godfrey, it is perhaps more classic Calvin emphases – submission to God’s word, reverence for God manifest in worship, awareness of God’s utter sovereignty.
Perhaps the key difference lies in the approach of the two men to their subject. Hints of this become readily apparent in the respective introductions. For Godfrey,
Some have loved [Calvin], and some have hated him. All would agree that he was a man with a brilliant mind and a powerful will who had a profound impact on the development of western civilization. But was that impact positive or negative? (PP, 7).
So far, so relatively neutral. A slightly clearer hint at the tone of the volume comes in the language of Calvin’s inspirational example to thousands of pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars; the language becomes increasingly warm, building to the assertion that
This book . . . aims at communicating Calvin’s passion and faith through extensive quotations from his works so that something of the force and eloquence of his language can be experienced by the reader. He moved millions not through the power of his personality but through the power of his biblical ideas and words. This book focuses on the essential Calvin, a man who lived out his Christian faith as a pilgrim and a pastor (PP, 9).
It would be wrong to conclude that what follows is mere hagiography. At the same time, Godfrey appears as a fair-minded and insightful appreciator and defender of Calvin, standing in the same tradition and – without merely applauding him at every turn – clearly sympathetic to him as a man and as a Christian, while aware of his frailty and shortcomings. When considering Calvin as pastor, he penetrates and summarizes Calvin’s thought, and then transcends it in ways that almost become preaching. For example:
For Calvin, worship was not a means to an end. Worship was not a means to evangelize or entertain or even educate. Worship was an end in itself. Worship was not to be arranged by pragmatic considerations but was rather to be determined by theological principles derived from the Scriptures. The most basic realities of the Christian life were involved. In worship, God meets with his people to bless (PP, 80).
This is the language of conviction and comradeship.
Selderhuis, by contrast, tells us that
In this book, Calvin is approached as neither friend nor enemy; I just do not categorize him in that sense. I feel nothing for Calvin either way, but I am fascinated by him as a person. Without intending to, he created a world-wide community of believers, arousing as much scorn as admiration and accomplishing so much in spite of his many limitations. I have tried to tell the story of his life to discover what he was like as a person. . . . It is well worth trying to get under his skin, and – if you get that far – I will let you out again at the end, I promise (PL, 8).
This authorial stance, so bluntly introduced, leads to a curious and sometimes uncomfortable tone at points in the book. Perhaps the terseness and wit of the prose, so commendable at points, contributes to this sense. Selderhuis claims a lack of bias, rather a fascination: however, this doubtless well-intended distancing of himself from his subject can occasionally come across as a little glib, even snide, occasionally bordering on the callous. So, for example, on courtship, we are informed that “The background of his prohibitions against [sexual] intercourse for those who were courting or engaged was Calvin’s view of all sexual activity outside marriage as adultery. In short, there was little for couples to do except read the Institutes together” (PL, 181). So far, so potentially tongue-in-cheek. But when we are reading of the death of his wife, for example, Selderhuis displays a kind of empirical empathy without demonstrating much human sympathy:
Calvin claimed that he had lost his best friend, adding that she had been extremely faithful in helping him in his ministry. These are nice testimonies, but Calvin felt the need to add also that she never hindered him in his work. For one as truly afraid as Calvin was of the possibility that marriage could do this, this is, of course, a positive observation. Still, although it is to be hoped that everyone might claim his or her partner was no hindrance, we might also wish that Calvin had simply dropped this remark. Here, however, he was as open as he was everywhere else, as is also true of his remark that he tried to deal with his grief in such a way “that I continue my ministry without a break.” His work had been given him before the woman, and his work also continued without her, and working hard did indeed help him overcome his grief (PL, 171-172).
The portrait that comes to the fore is of a workaholic (another theme of Selderhuis’) simply getting on with the job, and less a deeply sensitive man burying his grief in the only way he knew. Admittedly, Godfrey focuses more on Calvin’s public than his private life. At the same time, Selderhuis demonstrates a more ready humanity in his style, but less in his substance. This strange ambivalence toward both Calvin and Calvinists (the author’s tone constantly suggests that he is distancing himself from such a designation) – not so much a balance between regarding as friend or enemy, as a seeming readiness to snipe when the mood takes him – continues all the way through to the abrupt and curious ending:
In contrast to many later Calvinists, at any rate, Calvin himself had no doubt as to whether or not we would recognize one another in heaven. This would indeed be nice. If I am to end up there myself, there are some things that I would really like to talk to him about (PL, 259).
One cannot help but wonder what he wants to say, and in what tone!
So, what is the prospective reader of a Calvin biography to do? Which way should he turn? It is fascinating that Calvin, to some extent, seems to defeat the biographer: trying to let the light glimmer fairly off his multi-faceted life and ministry leads to so many varied approaches and perspectives. Selderhuis offers greater insight into Calvin the person, but Godfrey is more successful in highlighting the governing principles of the man in his public role. Selderhuis gives us a more rounded character portrait, a “warts and all” depiction; Godfrey gives us rich insight into his abiding concerns and theological convictions. Selderhuis provides an honest depiction, Godfrey an honest appreciation. Selderhuis does not shy away from the flaws of the pilgrim, while Godfrey is more interested in his progress. Selderhuis is profoundly aware of Calvin’s God; Godfrey seems often on the verge of preaching him. Selderhuis leaves you saying, “What a man! – but a man nonetheless”; Godfrey leaves you saying, “Only a man, but – under God – what a man!” Selderhuis evidently knows Calvin’s heartbeat intimately, and strikes out all its rhythms on the page; one feels that Godfrey’s heart is often beating in time with his subject’s.
One could argue that it is a matter of emphasis and intent. In that respect, I would be loath to recommend one or the other, as different readers with different desires or expectations will doubtless prefer one to the other. I am glad to have read them both. Selderhuis keeps us from veneration while still communicating the great gifts that God gave to the man; Godfrey directs us in appreciation, revealing the underpinning convictions of Calvin so as to instruct, challenge, rebuke and encourage. The pastor-theologian in me would recommend Godfrey, while enjoying Selderhuis; the pastor-historian would tend toward Selderhuis, but be very unwilling to relinquish Godfrey. Those whose affection for Calvin is already secure might be well-served by reading Selderhuis in addition to Godfrey; those who know little about Calvin should head for Godfrey first, as I am not persuaded that they will know what to make of Selderhuis’ Calvin if he is their first exposure.
In many ways, then, read either. By all means, read both. Probably read Godfrey before Selderhuis. But, certainly, read more. I think both Godfrey and Selderhuis would concur here: read Calvin himself. The present publishing glut is making Calvin the preacher more accessible in modern English, and it is here you will find Calvin’s heartbeat for yourself. In addition, Calvin the man can be better understood, Calvin the polemicist heeded, Calvin the correspondent read, Calvin the pastor appreciated, Calvin the theologian entertained, Calvin the friend enjoyed, and Calvin the Reformer heard. Both of these studies, to varying degrees and with different emphases, show us a man who lived before God. Both should send us back with renewed appetite to read Calvin in his own words. There we will find that profound God-awareness, that unshakeable reverence, that determined obedience, that makes Calvin worthy of the attention of both these authors, and which shines out in both their books.
The Exiled Preacher reports Robert Oliver’s observations on John Calvin’s influence on English Protestantism.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Bob Gonzales has begun a series over at RBS Tabletalk concerning the responsibility of the whole body of Christ to be winners of souls. I posted a chapter from Charles Spurgeon’s The Soul Winner on inducing the people of God to be soul-winners themselves. Then, a couple of days later, I was reading a challenging sermon by John Calvin. Remembering that Bob had made reference to several Reformed contributors who seemed to be restricting the work of evangelism to either the ordained minister of the gospel or to preaching in the church building on the Lord’s day, this comment by Calvin struck me forcibly:
Therefore, in keeping with the teaching Luke gives here, let us learn that we constitute a true church of God when we try our best to increase the number of believers. And then each one of us, where we are, will apply all our effort to instructing our neighbours and leading them to the knowledge of God, as much by our words as by our showing them good examples and good behaviour. That is also why holy Scripture exhorts us so often to win to God those who remain alienated from his church, for we see unbelievers as poor lost sheep. Our Lord has not given us insight into his truth for our advantage alone, but for sharing it with others. Because we see them as madmen casting themselves into hell, we must, to the extent we can, prevent them from doing so and procure their salvation. That, I tell you, is the zeal all Christians must have if they are not to limit themselves just to the public worship of God. They are to seek to encourage everyone to come willingly and affiliate with our Lord Jesus Christ so that there will be only one God, one doctrine and one gospel. Let us be so closely conjoined that we will all be able to speak with one voice as we call upon God our Father. Unless we do that, we give a clear indication that we have scarcely learned anything in the school of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Each of us must extend our hand to our neighbour and encourage one another to grow more and more in the knowledge of God’s truth, which he has been pleased to reveal to us. And when we see someone fall short, let us correct him with gentle admonitions and point how we must serve God and forsake our iniquity.
That is not said only to preachers and those who expound the word of God. It is the charge of all Christians in general, as Paul says. He does not tell Titus and Timothy to preach, exhort, rebuke, censure and admonish. But he does say to them, ‘Be diligent in fulfilling your office and carrying out the charge which is entrusted to you. Rebuke, exhort, and censure each person when you know their manner of life so as to turn them from their wicked ways and lead them to salvation’ (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13; 5:1-2; 2 Tim. 2:15; 4:2; Titus 2:1-10). That is Paul’s instruction to all whose charge is to bear the word of God. He exhorts everybody in general to admonish one another.
Now, as I have already said, we must make every possible effort to lead those who have not been instructed in the knowledge of God so that they and we may serve and honour Jesus Christ, and in so doing increase the numbers of believers. But is that all? We are far from doing all we should. Surprisingly, we have, it seems, conspired against God by obscuring the truth of his gospel by no longer talking about it. What, then, should be our approach?
He goes on to provide practical counsel and rebuke to those inclined to avoid this duty. What he says concerning Timothy and Titus is a little confusing – I am not sure precisely what point he is trying to make – but the thrust is clear: all faithful Christians seek to grow the church through speaking and living to unbelievers in such a way as to call them to faith in Jesus (and this at a time when church attendance of the whole population was considered a duty, even if not observed).
 John Calvin, “Learning, Teaching, and Living the Gospel Message” (sermon on Acts 6.7-9) in Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 1-7) (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 335-36.
It is a little known fact that Calvin had a great deal to say about blogging. Not directly, of course, but the attitude and speech and behaviour that is often in evidence today in the blogosphere is no new thing, it has simply found a new platform. Calvin has little time for it:
Now if the devil caused grumbling during the apostles’ time, what about today, when we have so many troubles and quarrels and offences among us? We are still far from achieving the kind of perfection they had, for they had such order and such regulations among them that they are like angels. And yet when we hear that there arose grumbling among the apostles, let us not be surprised if we encounter many stumbling blocks within God’s church today. There is a lot of wickedness and there are many who are inclined to rebellion and who want everything to be governed according to their insights. The very ones who have less understanding, less judgment and experience, and who are the most presumptuous are the ones who want to rule and direct everybody as they see fit. And yet they go around creating conflicts! They will certainly say, ‘Why is such and such not done this way? Why can we not do it thus and so?’ To make a long story short, God would have to make them a world of their own! If you put a dozen such clever people together, they will claw one another’s eyes out and still presume to govern everybody. Now I would really like for such ‘governors’ to know what true Christianity is, namely that we interact with our neighbours in such a way that we show we honour other people, as Paul instructs us (Phil. 2:3). That means we think more highly of others than of ourselves. But some of them, indeed the majority, think they have the skill to manage something, such that, to hear them tell it, they seem to be angels whom God has sent to restore everything that is badly built. And when it turns out for the worst, they stand there all confused. That is what we need to glean from the firt point that Luke deals with in this account.
 John Calvin, “True Discipleship” (sermon on Acts 6.1-6) in Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 1-7) (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 321-22.
I was struck by the force of Calvin’s earthy rhetoric when reading his sermon on Acts 5:13-16:
The Lord shows his majesty for two reasons. . . .
The second reason is that there are others who are in awe of that assembly and dare not affiliate with the faithful. That is because they are not all worthy. For how many of us enter the church of God as we should, and with the kind of reverence I spoke of earlier? It is true the gospel is preached. So what? To what extent do our lives conform to it? It seems we have conspired to spite God in all we do. We do not hesitate to use the word ‘reformation’, but to what purpose? We have no difficulty, no scruples, in saying we are reformed according to the gospel. But what authority does the gospel have for us? Does it not influence us to flout God and his word? What is worse, that is the very reason God’s name is blasphemed, and people call the gospel a teaching for complete disintegration. But are they right? ‘Those people say they are reformed, but they are more inclined to do evil than before.’ That is how we will give the papists and other unbelievers an opportunity to speak badly of God’s teaching and blaspheme it. It is true that one day they will give an account of their blasphemies, but we will not be excused before God, for we will have given them occasion to speak ill of it. Whereas they should be convinced by our good lives and conduct, we are the reason that God’s teaching, which is the teaching of life and salvation, is called ‘the teaching of devils’, and labelled as false and misleading. Let us keep in mind the punishment we deserve for such sacrilege. Let us be aware that the gospel is not preached to us for that reason, but so that our lives will be completely changed by it and our sins rooted out so that God may be seen to be ruling in our midst. Otherwise, we will boast in vain of possessing the gospel and living according to the reformation it brings.
This is not abstract theological reasoning, but concrete Christian living grounded in the truth. We like the name, but do we have the nature. This works itself out in the daily grind of our life as believers, before the eyes of family members, colleagues, friends and neighbours. I could not help but be reminded of this clever little fiction from Ben Witherington:
A man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy street. Suddenly, just in front of him, the light turned yellow. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.
The tailgating woman was furious and repeatedly honked her horn, screaming in frustration, as she missed her chance to get through the intersection, while also, dropping her cell phone and makeup.
As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very stern looking police officer. The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up.
He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects. He said, ‘I’m very sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do’ window sticker, the ‘Choose Life’ license plate holder, the ‘Follow Me to Sunday-School’ bumper sticker and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk; naturally… I assumed you had stolen the car.’