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.

Review: “Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel”

The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel
Authors: James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken
Publisher: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002.
ISBN: 9781581342994

I would like to thank the fine people at Crossway for sending me this review copy of the book.

It was the 500th anniversary of Calvin that gave me the honored occasion to review this book.  The book was the vision of Rev. James M. Boice, minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia.  Boice started writing the book but was not able to finish it due to sickness, and later, his death.  Dr. Ryken was assigned to complete the writing of the book.  So it’s one of those books that gives you reason to wonder if the finished product is what the original author originally intended for the book.  The title might suggest that this book is about grace or the evangelical teaching of the gospel.  However, the title does not suggest what the book is really about.  The main idea in the book is meant to persuade his audience of the power in the five points of Calvinism (TULIP).

On the downfall of the evangelical church

The authors, Boice and Ryken believe that the evangelical church has become humanistic, and even, materialistic.  Boice foresaw that this would be the downfall of the evangelical church.  If the church does not return to the five vital points of Calvinism, it would eventually see a collapse. So the idea of a coming evangelical collapse is nothing new.    I am once again put on guard with a prophetic voice warning of a collapse of the evangelical church.

Boice boldly tells us what he believes is wrong with the evangelical churches.  He identifies six major trends the church has fallen into: secularism, humanism, relativism, materialism, pragmatism, and anti-intellectualism or “mindlessness”. He states:

Perhaps the simplest way to say this is that evangelicalism has become worldly.  This can be demonstrated by comparing it with yesterday’s liberalism.  What was once said about of liberal churches must now be said of evangelical churches: they seek the world’s wisdom, believe the world’s theology, follow the world’s agenda, and adopt the world’s methods….By itself, God’s word is insufficient to win people to Christ, promote spiritual growth, provide practical guidance, or transform society. (p. 20-21).

What gets me is that the more liberal mainline churches are also saying the following about the evangelical churches but are also deeply involved in the same sort of pragmatism:

“So churches supplement the plain teaching of Scripture with entertainment, group therapy, political activism, signs and wonders—anything that promises to appeal to religious consumers. According to the world’s theology, sin is merely a dysfunction and salvation means having better self-esteem.  When this theology comes to church, it replaces difficult but essential doctrines like the propitiation of God’s wrath with practical techniques for self-improvement.  The world’s agenda is personal happiness, so the gospel is presented as a plan for individual fulfillment rather than as a pathway of costly discipleship.”

Is Boice a little hard on today’s evangelical church?  I think so.  He seems to be painting his picture of his description with a broad brush.  The last words in this quote: “costly discipleship” rings a similar tune to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship.”  What if evangelical and mainline churches actually practiced the much forgotten concept of “costly discipleship”?  We might begin to realize where we, as a church, have gone awry.

On the five-points of Calvinism

This book comes with a slight spin, that is, the only solution to avoid such a collapse of the evangelical church is to restore the doctrines of 5-point Calvinism in the church.  After reading this book, I wasn’t convinced of this point but it did strengthen my understanding of the 5-points of Calvinism.  In fact, Boice laid out the five points systematically.  It was covered in enough detail with scriptural passages to back up the arguments. An Arminian would have to come up with good counter-arguments because the authors deal with the problem texts very well.  Some people may shy away from dealing with the counter-arguments against Calvinism but this book counters them boldly.  Boice/Ryken state:

“The most difficult of all the passages mentioned is the one cited last—1 John 2:2, which says that Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” It is difficult because, alone of all these passages, it seems to make a distinction between a merely limited atonement and a universal one, affirming the latter” (p.130).

Each of these five points has its own chapter and is dealt with in a convincing way.  Rather than using the famous five-points of TULIP, Boice prefers to call them something else:

  1. Total Depravity is Radical Depravity or Pervasiveness of Sin
  2. Unconditional Election (same)
  3. Limited Atonement is Particular Redemption or Definite Atonement
  4. Irresistible Grace is Efficacious Grace
  5. Perseverance of the Saints is Persevering Grace

What helps a person understand these five points is an acceptance of two presuppositions: 1/ the complete impotence of humanity; and 2/ God’s absolute sovereignty in grace.  If these presuppositions are accepted, then the five points come easily.  That’s the open doorway when one converts to Calvinism.

The like the author’s discussion on the ordo salutis (order of salvation): foreknowledge, predestination, effectual calling, regeneration, repentance and faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. I particularly like their mention in sanctification that this synergistic.  We often have a negative reaction when we talk about synergism in salvation because we are so well trained into believing that everything is monergistic.  Boice states:

“But sanctification is a process in which, having been given a new nature by God, the redeemed sinner now can and must cooperate.  To put it in other language, justification is monergistic; it is the work of God.  By contrast, sanctification is synergistic; it is a joint work of both God and man” (p. 145).

In the second last chapter on “The True Calvinist”, the author, which if I may assume is Philip G. Ryken, discusses the attributes of Calvinism.  This chapter doesn’t necessarily discuss Calvinism but what are the fruits of Calvinism.  An Arminian who reads this chapter could also lay claim to some of the same fruits that were written about. Anyway, that’s my opinion.

All in all, this is a fine book.  I am glad to have read this because I appreciate the teachings of the five points of Calvinism, which is really the heart of the book.

Am I a closet Calvinist?

Am I a closet Calvinist? I did not think I would start reading Calvins Institutes. I was only kidding when I said ìn a previous post 500th Anniversary of Calvin:

Perhaps I’ll celebrate by reading a chapter from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion? No, that’s been done before.

First indication: To my surprise I actually started reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I like it but I do not think I will stop reading since I am on a roll. Yeah!

Second indication: What sort of confirmed my liking for Calvin, in a funny sort of way, was the result on a quiz Which Modern Evangelist/Theologian are You? My results are: here (John Piper). Does this mean I am a closet Calvinist? If so, do I need to come out of the closet?

Third indication: To strengthen this hunch that I might be a closet Calvinist, I also took this odd-ball of a quiz to see what my C-Factor was and I scored 83%. (HatTip: Nick Norelli)I do not give much validity to this stupid quiz. I cannot believe I scored so high…83%! This means I am too uptight. What does this mean for me? I really have to be less of a Calvinist because true Calvinist do not know how to take it easy in life. Here is the result to this test:

You are a genuine Calvinist. You have been tried and tested in Calvinism. Your attitude in live is straight and strict. You are a hard working person, who pays attention to others. However, you never show off these qualities. After all, in the eyes of God, everyone is a sinner. You know how to control your emotions, and no one can say you have an easy and luxurious way of life.

Work = 100%
Strictness: 80%
Sobriety: 60%
Relationships: 100%
Beliefs: 100%

Now you tell me if I am a closet Calvinist. If so, I might have to go and find a Calvin picture to hang in my office 😉

John Calvin’s 500th birthday

What did I do to celebrate John Calvin’s birthday yesterday? Nothing except post this picture of him on the blog today. But I should do something original, shouldn’t I?

Perhaps I’ll celebrate by reading a chapter from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion? No, that’s been done before.

Perhaps I’ll celebrate by hanging a picture of him in my church office? No, some even have his picture hanging in their washrooms already.

Perhaps I’ll celebrate by praying for him? No, some have prayed for his life and even his death centuries earlier.

Perhaps I’ll celebrate by naming my next child after him? Calvin Sam? No, it doesn’t have a good ring to it.

I think I’ll just admire this picture for a second and that’ll be it.

Calvin by Willem Van’t Spijker

Calvin: A Brief Guide to His Life and Thought
Author: Spijker, Willem Van’t
Translated by: Lyle D. Bierma.
Publisher: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780664232252

I would like to begin by thanking Presbyterian Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review.

I have to admit that I am not a history buff and when given a choice, I would naturally prefer reading theology over history. When I started reading this book, I was expecting to read more about the theology of John Calvin but I realized that this was more of a historical biography than an explanation of John Calvin’s theology. Ten of the eleven chapters deal with the historical biography of John Calvin, which left only one chapter dealing solely with the theology of John Calvin. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading chapter 10 “Contours of Calvin’s Theology”. (In fact, I jotted many notes as I was reading this chapter because I felt that Spijker made many fine points on Calvin’s theology).

As I kept reading, I also began to realize the magnitude of Calvin’s struggles and challenges. Of the Reformers, I had only had prior knowledge of Martin Luther and a very basic introduction to the man of John Calvin through my studies in seminary about the history of the Protestant Reformation. However, after finishing his book today, I realized that I had only begun to scrape the surface of what lies beneath a great man of deep conviction and faith. I would opine that the accomplishments and influence of John Calvin is equal to that of the other great Reformer, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther.

The author, Willem Van’t Spijker, is one of the leading scholars on John Calvin. As I said, this book is not so much a book on the theology of Calvin as it is on the history of the person of John Calvin. The events and accomplishments of Calvin are presented in chronological fashion. Throughout the book, Spijker mainly talks about the events and actions of Calvin during his lifetime that created the Reformation in the early to mid 16th century.

Spijker takes his readers through the history of Calvin, from the beginning of the 16th century to Calvin’s early life and development, to his Institutes and the origins and formation of the church in Geneva, as well as, Strasbourg; then into his formation of the four offices, the independent authority of the church, and the completion of the Institutes in 1559.

A common theme that seems to occur throughout the pages of this book is the idea or practice of church discipline. For those who come without any prior knowledge of Calvinism and what it is, one might carry the image of strict ladies with hair rolled up in a bun, up tightness, and of law and obedience. That’s the negative stereotypical image of people who practice church discipline. After reading about Calvin’s theological reasoning behind church discipline, I realized that it is not such a far out, wild and crazy idea for a church to have. I understand that church discipline is required in any church and congregation and it must be carried out in order for the church to maintain some ecclesiastical and spiritual order within the body of Christ.

Yes, Calvin did support punishment of heretics by banishing them from the city of Geneva, or levying the heavy punishment of death upon those who disagreed with him. By today’s standards, this would obviously be considered extreme religious persecution and a strict violation of human rights. However, in his days, this was the normal practice of church discipline. It was also the experience of the other contemporary Reformers like Martin Luther.

For our many friends who are of the Presbyterian or Reformed persuasion, you would cringe at the thought of such practices and would even condemn those who do the same. Well, Calvin was not a tolerant figure and this shameful image is not what any of us would like to read about in our books on church history. However, it is good to know how our early predecessors from the Reformation past conducted themselves in the post-Roman age and learn from that era what we must not do in the future.

With this said as a prelude, I must admit that some measure of church discipline is necessary because of the chaos the Reformation created. The Roman Catholic Church was also fully immersed into the practice of church discipline and was the epitome of such practices. Spijker says:

With respect to church discipline, [Calvin] emphasized the principle that actions by the consistory out not to interfere with procedures in the civil courts. It was also his wish that people not be dealt with too harshly in church discipline and that there be no difference between the discipline of laypersons and office-bearers. The latter should be subject to the same punishments as the former” (p. 164).

I am not sure I would agree with Spijker’s statement here. Calvin’s practice of church discipline was guided by a distinction between the spiritual discipline of the church and the punishment of the civil government. He claims Calvin did not want to mix the two realms of civil jurisdiction and the authority of the church. However, both seemed to be heavy-handed at times.

Spijker does not hide Calvin’s leaning toward church discipline. He writes:

On the matter of church discipline as an effective means of combating sins and shortcomings, however, tension between the magistracy and the consistory continued to exist. On more than one occasion, Calvin was called upon to be more moderate in his preaching, as a means that he was using to propagate his belief about church discipline” (p. 99).

This book covers a lot more than church discipline. It also talks about how Calvin wanted to transform the City of Geneva under Calvin’s vision as a model of what a Christian society should look like. It is interesting that Spijker says Calvin felt that he failed in his plan to transform this city. Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms did not function in the same way as the Geneva model. Calvin saw both kingdoms under one Lord. Calvin thought his model was the only way and perhaps that is why he felt he failed in achieving a model Christian society?