Calvin (Abingdon Pillars of Theology)

Abingdon Pillars of Theology

Author: George W. Stroup
Publisher: Abingdon Press (August 2009)
ISBN: 9780687659135

Here’s another book written in honor of Calvin’s 500th anniversary.  The focus of this book is the theology of John Calvin.  Author, George Stroup, covers how Calvin views the knowledge of God, scripture, God’s good and sovereign will, justification and sanctification, freedom and law, election, Christ as mediator and the offices of Christ, the sacraments and the marks of the church.  It covers Calvin’s main points of theology in just seventy pages.  It’s not an in-depth discussion but it does briefly introduce the main issues of his theology.

Personally, my favourite chapters were four and six on: “God’s Good Will” and “The Efficacious Spirit.”   Stroup says that many of Calvin’s readers inaccurately understand his view of God as “an arbitrary tyrant who rules the world sternly, coldly, and capriciously—a God of sovereign will but not a God of sovereign love.”  Stroup expresses it well stating:

“Christian faith, he writes, begins with God’s good will, rests in it, and ends in it, but some readers have interpreted him as affirming not God’s good will but God’s sovereign will, neglecting the critical point that God’s sovereignty is an expression of God’s goodness and love.  When read in this manner—that God’s sovereign will is harsh and capricious—Calvin’s interpretation of God’s providence becomes fatalism and God’s election becomes divine determinism.” (p. 29).

It is good he addresses this aspect of Calvin’s thought on God’s sovereign will because the common academic thought on God’s sovereignty tends to be cold and objective.  This is why Calvinism is sometimes viewed as being austere, and even, arrogant. Understanding Calvin’s theology on the sovereignty of God can almost be seen as a “perfect theology”.  However, this “perfect theology” has an inherent weakness.  Calvinist theology is built upon logically ordered theological propositions; and when one comes to an understanding of this so-called perfectly ordered theology, it can cause one to take pride in one’s theology.  This is a common temptation in theologians.

I also like Stroup’s understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification.  He states:

“If Calvin’s description of sanctification is separated from what he says about Christ’s justifying grace, sanctification might seem to be a duty, an obligation, something that must be done in order to receive God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness.  The two—justification and sanctification—are distinct, but they also must not be separated, neither conceptually nor in daily Christian life.  Separated from justification, sanctification may become a form of legalism or “works righteousness,” and justification, separated from sanctification, may risk becoming a form of “cheap grace.”” (p. 48).

Christians of all denominations and churches have their own emphasis on either justification or sanctification.  They bring on their own stereotypes when they overemphasize either justification or sanctification.  Some Lutherans may emphasize justification and get labelled as taking advantage of God’s “cheap grace.”  Some e evangelicals who may tend to emphasize sanctification may be accused of displays of legalism.  I have seen both.

Stroup boldly addresses the Calvin’s three uses of the law, which are similar to that of Luther’s.  One, the law exposes human sinfulness; two, restrains evil in civil order; and three, shows forgiven sinners how they should live before God and with one another.  Some Lutherans neglect the third use of the law, and some boldly emphasize the lack of emphasis in the third use of the law.  We can learn from Calvin’s unashamed teaching of the third use of the law.  If we, in our Christian freedom, are free from the law and also free for the law, as Stroup describes, then there should be no fear of the third use of the law because it is a good guide on how forgiven sinners ought to live.  Personally, I’m not afraid to admit that, from time to time, I need to be reminded how I should live my life. Many people, especially those who are fully cognizant of their tendency to break the law, know they need a law to guide them.

I also find Stroup’s discussion on church discipline enlightening. Most Lutherans and many of today’s evangelicals do not know anything of the reasons for church discipline.  There is much ignorance when it comes to a fuller understanding of what the church is.  I admire the respect and honor that most Catholics give to the Church.  Calvin’s respect and honor for the church is high, but his view of the nature of the church differs significantly from that of the Roman Catholic institutionally-centered understanding.  Calvin’s view of the church is much more fluid and leans toward one that is invisible than visible.  I like Stroup’s description of what the church is when juxtaposed with what it isn’t:

“The church is not an end in itself, but an instrument, a means, for the glorification of God….The church is not an end in itself, but an instrument, a means, for the glorification of God…The church is not itself a sacrament.  It does not dispense, confer, or mediate grace…The church does not confer forgiveness and is not the object of faith.  It is Christ alone who forgives sins and Christ alone in whom Christians should trust….It is more appropriate, therefore, not to say “I believe in the church,” but to say “in the church I believe.” (p.56).”

This is the basis upon which Christians are called to be in the church.  This gives followers of Christ reasons why we should be the church.  God has chosen to use the church for the nurturing of our faith in Christ.  This function of the church gives us enough reason why we should not turn away from the church, but it should motivate us to be attracted to live in community, as a church, so that all of God’s children may develop faith and live in Christian community. This is true communion of saints.  Stroup says: “Therefore, when Calvin writes, ‘it is always disastrous to leave the church,’ he does so not because life in the church is a good luck charm or an insurance policy against personal tragedy, but because the church is where Christians are in the process of being united to Christ, where faith is being born and nurtured.” (p. 57).  This blows away the false concept that one can have a “private Christian faith” or a “private spirituality”.  When there is no Christian community, there is no accountability and authority to bring discipline, one’s faith will easily become corrupted, wither and die.

George W. Stroup has written a good overview of the important points in Calvin’s theology that are most popularly discussed.  It’s a good book that is brief and yet very informative.  I recommend this to any students and willing learners of Calvin’s theology. This can be purchased from Amazon.

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