Monday, August 1, 2011

A Book Review. John Calvin: His Life & Influence

How did Calvin’s Institutes shape the theology of Christians in subsequent centuries? How did Calvin’s early education prepare him to become a Reformer? What was Calvin’s role in the burning of Servetus? These questions and more are answered in Robert Reymond’s monograph, John Calvin:  His Life & Influence.

Keep in mind the material contained in this book was originally presented in four one-hour lectures at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. Reymond selected Calvin as his topic because “of his immeasurable (and continuing) historical and theological influence on the world and because the average twenty-first-century Christian knows very little about him and all too often what they do know or have heard about him has been badly distorted.” (pg. 9) He does not presume to present new material, but has culled from numerous biographers and documents.   He does attempt to be somewhat balanced in his summation of Calvin as he includes one appendix presenting opposing Calvin biographers and another appendix noting recommended Calvin biographers. 

Unfortunately, it took a several attempts for me to get interested in the first of the four chapters. Reymond’s work is scholarly in tone and utilizes ample quotes and selections his sources. One of the quotes taken from Corpus Reformation: Johannis Clavini Opera quae supersunt omnia, xxix, xxi include this remark: “. . .the alternating gay and biting saltiness of his polemics, the felicitous perspicuity, sobriety and sagacity of his exegetics, the nervous eloquence and freedom of his paraenetics...” (pg 19). I realize I’m taking this quote out of context, but I as a reader of the King James Bible found it a bit pedantic. I warmed up to the book by page 21 when Reymond introduces us Calvin as a young man.

Reymond traces Calvin’s education from his church benefice at age 12 to grammar school in Paris, to his switch to legal studies to please his father. Reymond provides helpful background information regarding those who most likely influenced Calvin’s theological perspective in later life. I enjoyed reading Calvin’s presumed description of his salvation experience in a passage taken from Calvin’s “Reply to Sodaleto.” The impact of Calvin’s Institutes is the focal point of the second chapter. In Calvin’s bold preface dedicated to the King he answered the question: “ Who can rightly claim to represent the one true, holy, catholic, and apostolic church? Rome or the Evangelical Protestants?" (pg 48) He used the powerful two-edged Sword of God’s Word to argue it would be the Protestants. 

Reymond uses Calvin’s own words taken from his Institutes to dispute the idea that Calvin was an ill-humored unemotional man: “Nor is it forbidden to laugh, or to enjoy food, or to add new possessions to old and ancestral property, or to be delighted with musical harmonies, or to drink wine.” (pg 55) In reading about Calvin I do find his dogmatic ways a bit refreshing in a day and age when spiritual correctness is the order of the day. “Men of honor in that age, as well as the apostles in the New Testament age, believed there was virtue in speaking their minds very bluntly to one another.” (pg. 100) If God is dogmatic about certain sins and absolutes, shouldn’t we follow His example? Assuming we speak the truth in love not out of arrogance. See I Corinthians 13.

Accomplishments noted in this book:

  • Calvin helped to produce the French “Geneva Bible,” that “dominated the French-speaking Protestantism for two centuries.” (pg. 77)  
  • With the Geneva Academy he founded the first Protestant “university” in the world and the central educational institution of the Reformed church. (pg. 79) 
  • Calvin’s teachings quickly spread across the ocean and influenced what would become the United States through the Geneva Bible and the “Great Awakening” (pg. 81) 
  • He essentially became the creator of the Protestant church through his insistence on emancipating “the church from the state and the state from the church.” (105)
It was refreshing to read how Calvin revered God’s Word and “self-consciously strove to be biblical in everything he wrote. He was a ‘wholesale plagiarist’ of Scripture.” (pg. 92) Regarding the unifying theme of the Institutes Reymond comments: “He was concerned to let the God who had revealed himself in the Second Person of the Godhead be for mankind the all-glorious God that he is.” (pg. 95) What we know today as sixteenth-century “Calvinism” was essentially and simply a purer restatement of fifth-century Augustinianism eleven centuries later.” (pg. 104)

Something I learned:
I did not know that Calvin “insisted that believers really partake of Jesus’ human life (his flesh and his blood) in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Disagreeing with his Roman Catholic and Lutheran contemporaries only in the mode of that partaking, Calvin believed that the Holy Spirit communicates Christ’s flesh and blood to faithful partakers without Christ’s needing to leave heaven by lifting them up by faith to Christ in heaven whereby they feed upon his flesh and blood in some ineffable though necessary way. (Footnote on pg. 72) I completely disagree with this belief, as did most of his contemporaries. I also do not hold to Calvin’s view of infant baptism. 

Calvin's Blot:
The final lecture and chapter address the issue of the burning of Servetus. I enjoyed this chapter most as I found the arguments and background fascinating. Reymond notes that “Conventional church wisdom endorse the executions of those whose doctrine could mislead the masses and put them on the broad road that leads to destruction.” (pg. 113). It’s sad to see how difficult it is Calvin and those who were brought up in the Roman Catholic to cast off its influence, not only in this area, but also infant baptism and the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. It's just as difficult for some of us to give up our tendency to rely on a performance-based sanctification.  Reymond documents the events that led to Servetus entering Beneva and being burned at the stake on October 27, 1553. While Servetus was most definitely a heretic and the death was a common sentence those who were, there is no justification for a Christian leader to condone the death of the religious evil ones. Reymond does note that Calvin did try to prevent “Servetus from being executed by burning, urging that he be executed by some less cruel means such as decapitation by the sword.” (pg.114) After listing numerous instances of mass executions of those who held anti-Catholic or “heretical” views, Reymond comments: “It is this one stake, taken over from Rome by a Protestant secular counsel, a stake by the way that the Reformed world deplores, that has become the primary cause of the vilification of Calvin’s memory and of all his labor.” (pg. 117) I would certainly agree that the good Calvin did outweighs this misstep, but that does not justify what he did.

In conclusion regarding this matter, Reymond notes that our perspective regarding punishment of heretics by death has shifted in this “enlightened secularistic age”. It seems he spends an inordinate amount of time providing arguments bolstering Calvin’s actions (or inaction, whatever the case may be). He notes that “clearly in the sixteenth century the sense of order for both Catholics and Protestants was horrified by something else-something quite sobering and something to which few in our day give heed anymore at all-namely, the thought of immortal souls being destroyed by false doctrine, of churches being rent asunder by heretical parties, and of God’s vengeance being poured out upon cities and nations that tolerate and endorse immorality by means of war, pestilence, and famine (see Psalm 2). Which age is the more biblical, the more theologically sensitive, the more enlightened?” (pg. 124) He goes on to mention two errors of our age that the church has failed to address: legalization of homosexuality and the abortion industry. But what will eradicate these sins? The Gospel! Preach the gospel. Preach the truths found in God’s Word! Don’t neglect the truth. Don’t bow to the political correctness of our age. My personal belief is that the church hasn’t addressed these issues because individual church bodies are teaming with unconverted unregenerate members.

Reymond concludes the fourth chapter with an overview of Calvin’s final illnesses and his death on May 27, 1564. It’s refreshing to note that Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave that cannot become an "idol." I enjoyed reading the composition attributed to Calvin that includes this verse (pg 130):

Thou art the Life, by which alone we live,

And all our substance and our strength receive;

O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,

Strong hearted then to face it by thy pow’r.

In Conclusion:

After reading this book I do have an interest in reading a few of the biographies suggested and Calvin's Institutes.  I would recommend this book to someone who enjoys a scholarly read and has an interest in Calvin's doctrines and influence.  I would probably not re-read it.  It seems this book could have easily been adapted to a more reader-friendly format. I would rather not be reminded that this was a lecture as I'm perusing the pages.  This book is understandably not an unbiased work.  While Calvin can be commended for his godly acts, a considerable amount of justification seems to be offered when it came to the issue of the burning of Servetus.   The author is obviously a Protestant who believes in infant baptism, a doctrine I do not believe is a Bible doctrine.  

Disclaimer: Christian Focus Publications provided a complimentary copy of this book to me.  I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions expressed are my own.   I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255:“Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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