Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A splendid guide

Next year marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth. To celebrate the occasion and his most famous work, P&R Publishing has just come out with A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes edited by David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback. My copy arrived from Amazon last week. It appears to be the kind of book that will lend itself to careful, intermittent reading and I look forward to digesting it over the next few months. Appearance-wise it's handsomely bound, well organized and very readable. It features an eloquent (of course!) foreword by J.I. Packer and essays by 21 Calvin scholars. According to the editors, contributors were chosen with three criteria in mind: "(1) their sympathetic readings of Calvin's work, although not uncritically so; (2) their teaching of this material for a considerable span of time, normally in seminaries or universities; and (3) their willingness to meet a rigid publication schedule."

Calvin is often singled out at the expense of the other Reformers, both by his detractors and disciples, but it's difficult to overestimate the impact of his ideas on theology, culture and politics. And it's his Institutes of the Christian Religion (expanded to four densely packed volumes by the final 1559 edition) that cement his place as both "the Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas of the Reformed Church" (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church). Each essay of this collection focuses on a different section of the Institutes and covers topics as wide-ranging as the work itself...everything from Calvin's doctrine of the trinity to his views on church and human government. But before that, historian William S. Barker contributes an interesting piece on the historical and theological context of Calvin's magnum opus.

The first edition (1536) of the Institutes contained a preface addressed to King Francis I of France from his exiled 26-year old subject John Calvin. Francis was a Catholic monarch, but he wasn't above making common cause with Protestants when it suited his geopolitical interests. Most likely, he never read Calvin's appeal before his death in 1547. Barker explains the dual purpose of Calvin's address. On the one hand, he sought to disprove the "charge of newness" leveled at the Reformers by the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, distance the nascent Protestant movement from the radical sedition of the Anabaptists. He achieved the first by showing that the Reformers were closer to the early church fathers than the medieval Roman Church (Barker points out that 60 percent of Calvin's citations come from church fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries), and the second by disclaiming "any effort to overthrow kingdoms...even though we are now fugitives from home." Barker writes:

Having refuted the Roman Catholic charge of newness by showing the consistency of the Protestant Reformers with the orthodox ancient church, Calvin next answers the charge of seditious tumults resulting from the Reformation...Calvin ascribes such tumults to the work of Satan, who always through history seeks to oppose the true faith with false religion. As was the case in the day of the apostles, so now in the Reformation there are movements that Satan has inspired in order to discredit the genuine Reformers.

After placing the Institutes in its historical context, Barker then draws from a variety of sources to place it rightfully at the pinnacle of Christian thought. Barker cites historian Philip Schaff who describes some of the telling reaction from its opponents. "Roman Catholics called it 'the Koran and Talmud of heresy' and had it burned by order of the Sorbonne at Paris and other places." But a contemporary Roman Catholic scholar compares Calvin to "a composer who borrows several themes and then orchestrates them according to his personal inspiration" (Alexandre Ganoczy, The Young Calvin). Nearly 500 years after Calvin's birth, his Institutes continue to (paraphrasing Packer) search, humble and challenge its readers. Barker traces Calvin's influence on the English-speaking world and church up to today.

By the time of the publication of the 1559 edition of the Institutes Calvin was recognized as the chief theologian of the Protestant Reformation. That reputation would continue in Reformed circles because of the distinctive relation between theology and the exegesis of Scripture as propounded and lived out in the context of the church. Particularly in the English-speaking world this would be apparent in such subsequent theologians as John Owen in the seventeenth century, Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century, Charles Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield in the nineteenth century, and J. Gresham Machen, J. Oliver Buswell Jr., and John Murray in the twentieth century. Like Calvin, these theologians were expositors of Scripture and also preachers of the Word in the context of the church.

This Theological Guide is a gift to the church and a treat for anyone with an interest in John Calvin, his life, and his thought.

Read an interview with one of the editors here.

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