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Calvin, Theologian and Reformer – A Review by Angus Stewart

Category Book Reviews
Date May 14, 2013

Calvin, Theologian and Reformer
Edited by Joel R. Beeke and Garry J.Williams
Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010
170 pages
ISBN: 978 1 60178 091 1 (paperback)
List price $16.00

In 2009, the John Owen Centre in London held a conference to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, with the speeches being published a year later in this helpful little paperback. The seven papers are grouped under three main heads: ‘Life and Work,’ ‘Doctrine and Experience,’ and ‘Christian Living and Ministry.’

Sinclair B. Ferguson’s brief biography of Calvin tells the familiar story of the great Reformer with style and insight (ch. 1). Ian Hamilton’s thematic analysis of the motivations that drove Calvin neatly supplements Ferguson’s more chronological approach (ch. 2).

For me, the most helpful chapter was Sinclair B. Ferguson’s other chapter, that on ‘Calvin and Christian Experience: The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Christian’ (ch. 5). Sub-sections of this masterful article cover ‘Illumination,’ ‘Regeneration,’ ‘Adoption,’ and ‘Communion.’

I especially profited from Ferguson’s explanation of Calvin’s statement in Institutes 3.1.3 that ‘the first title’ of the Holy Spirit is the ‘Spirit of adoption,’ even though the phrase itself is found only once in the Bible (Rom. 8:15):

This is the single most important description of the Spirit because, in Calvin’s view, sonship is the most basic and comprehensive rubric for understanding the nature of the Christian life. This is all of a piece with the fact that Calvin places strong emphasis on the gospel as the means by which we come to know the fatherhood of God, in which He brings us into His family and makes us His children (102).

From this, Ferguson addresses Calvin’s teaching on assurance:

It is therefore something of a paradox that in some strands of the Reformed tradition beievers have been discouraged from enjoying any assurance of their sonship. What good father in this world would want to bring his children up without the assurance that they are his children? Would the Father of lights (James 1:17) do that? The model for all true fatherhood is rooted in the fatherhood of God. Calvin considers this truth to be a glorious liberation, in some senses his own parallel to Luther’s appreciation of justification. The God of all glory not only becomes our Father, but wishes to assure His children that this is so. That is why Calvin says in Institutes 3.2.7 that we possess a right definition of faith only when we think of it as ‘a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us’ (102-103).

In fact, the vital theme of assurance recurs at several parts in Calvin, Theologian and Reformer. Paul Wells, in his chapter on Calvin’s teaching on union with Christ (ch. 4), not only sets forth ‘the double grace of justification and sanctification’ in Christ by the Spirit (65), but he also stresses the ‘assurance of faith’ in Calvin’s teaching, quoting his commentary on Romans 8:15: ‘Our confidence in this respect is made certain by the Spirit of adoption who could not inspire us with trust in prayer without sealing in us the gratuitous forgiveness God has granted us’ (84).

Anthony Lane’s chapter helpfully discusses some of the distinctive doctrines in the Institutes: ‘Predestination,’ ‘The Internal Witness of the Spirit,’ ‘The Christian Life,’ ‘Justification by Faith,’ and ‘The Lord’s Supper,’ as well as ‘Faith and Assurance’ (ch. 3). The last listed section’s opening lines are worth quoting at length:

There are strands of the Reformed, Calvinist tradition for which assurance has become a problem. This is especially acute among some circles that claim assurance of salvation is almost seen as presumptuous. An illustration is used that a sheep has a mark of ownership on its ear that can be seen by all — except by the sheep itself. The message is clear. If you are a Christian, it should be plain to everyone — except yourself. In those circles, there is a tradition of people noted for their great sanctity refraining from actually claiming to be converted. Indeed reluctance to claim this is itself at times seen as evidence of sanctification. Allied to this is the myth that Calvin denied that we can know whether we are elect and that he himself died in despair. Both of these are totally untrue. There is no shortage of evidence about his last days, and he clearly died confident of salvation. Again, so far was he from teaching that it is impossible to have assurance of salvation that he actually held that assurance of salvation is itself part of saving faith. (In doing so, he was following in the steps of Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and other mainstream Reformers.) This followed from his definition of faith, already quoted: ‘a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (50-5l; cf. 46-47).

In his biographical sketch, Ferguson opines, ‘Judging by the emphasis Calvin would after place (in various contexts) on certainty in the Christian life, it seems likely that coming to an assured knowledge of God and the forgiveness of sins in Christ was a major element in his conversion’ (13). He also points out the ecclesiastical origin of doubt: Romanist theology. ‘Cardinal Robert Bellarmine [1542-1621], perhaps the most formidable Roman Catholic theologian of the sixteenth century, gave striking expression to this when he claimed that assurance is the greatest of all Protestant heresies’ (12).

The penultimate chapter, that on Calvin’s worldview and piety, is by Joel Beeke and Ray Pennings (ch. 6). It contains the following sound instruction:

Ecclesiastically, Calvin understood spiritual growth to occur within the context of the church. The church is mother, educator, and nourisher of every believer, Calvin said, for the Holy Spirit acts in her. Believers cultivate piety by the Spirit through the church’s teaching, progressing from spiritual infancy to adolescence to full manhood in Christ. They do not graduate from the church until they die . . . The notion of an individual existing on his own, free to exercise voluntarism by joining and then leaving the church as desired, would have seemed nonsensical. Union with Christ meant union with the body of Christ (125-126).

In the final chapter, Joel Beeke presents nine reasons from Calvin’s writings why faithful preaching is powerful (ch. 7). However, these nine points (summarized as seven reasons on pages 165-166) do not evidently flow from Calvin himself and could probably be made about many preachers.

All in all, this is a useful introductory work on Calvin’s life and work, and aspects of his theology. The two chapters by Sinclair B. Ferguson were especially good, but the last two chapters were somewhat different from the rest, and one was not always sure one was getting Calvin himself.


Taken with permission from the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, April 2013.

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