Calvin on the Christian Life (Theologians on the Christian Life) Paperback – 31 Mar 2014
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About the Author
Michael Horton (PhD, University of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. In addition to being the author of many popular and academic books, he is also the editor in chief of Modern Reformation magazine, a host of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, and a minister in the United Reformed Churches.
Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. Previously, he served as research professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College. He is an editor (with Justin Taylor) of the Theologians on the Christian Life series and is the author of several books, including The Reformation, For Us and for Our Salvation, The Church History ABCs, and Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life.
Justin Taylor (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher at Crossway. He has edited and contributed to several books including A God-Entranced Vision of All Things and Reclaiming the Center, and he blogs at Between Two Worlds--hosted by the Gospel Coalition.
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Now, all this may sound like Calvin-worship, but it is not. I love Calvin's God, for He is the God of the Bible in every aspect of the great Reformer's theology. I find Calvin even-handed in dealing with biblical matters. For my money, the man just has good horse sense in the way he deals with thorny issues, for Calvin approaches everything from a theocentric perspective and always keeps God's honor and glory at the forefront of his reader's mind. So, a book that really tries to get at the heart of Calvin's thought regarding the Christian life holds great interest for this Christian. I immediately snatched up the Kindle version when I first saw it. I have not been disappointed.
Michael Horton is to be highly commended for his efforts in unfolding Calvin's thought. Horton's earlier books were practical critiques of bad contemporary theology and Christian practice. In later years Dr. Horton has been turning out scholarly works that are much meatier than his earlier efforts and, in my mind, much more enriching. What he has done in revealing Calvin's thought on the Christian life is nothing short of wonderful! Rather than jumping in with both feet to show how Calvin said Christians ought to live, Horton approaches his subject with Calvin's theology first. This is the correct approach, for one's theology shapes one's life (or ought to!). I also like that, while Horton has consulted many secondary sources, this book is based on his own reading of Calvin's Institutes, writings and commentaries.
I think the greatest commendation I can give Horton's book is that it has inspired me to go another lap through the Institutes. I do hope that this book receives the large readership it deserves, for that will likely encourage Michael Horton to write other such books.
IN RETROSPECT: I think I should add that, while I greatly benefitted from Horton's study of Calvin, at times it was hard to know when Horton was putting forth his own views through Calvin or truly representing Calvin's thought and emphasis on a particular subject. I do realize that no one writes out of a historical or cultural vacuum, for we all are people of our own times. So, I can appreciate Horton's applying Calvin's views to the 21st century western world. That said, Horton's polemical nature and a number of conclusions in the book led me to question whether he was making the particular points Calvin would have chosen to represent himself. In other words, it left me wondering at times whether I was reading Calvin, or Horton, on the Christian life. I still give the book high marks, however, for the author did a lot of spade work in both secondary and primary Calvin studies. He also sought to help the reader understand Calvin against the backdrop of his own 16th century.
Both books are apologies, defending their respective theologian and his theology. Since Calvin and Wesley were fallible men, both authors have the task of explaining shortcomings in the lives of their mentors. Calvin seems to be more reclusive -- even to the point of insisting that he be buried in a common, unmarked grave -- while Wesley must have been purely choleric. Both men took seriously the authority of Scripture and both men knew the patristics.
However, a major influence on the theology of Wesley was his conversion at Altersgate. He testified, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
Horton never really discusses the conversion of Calvin. The God of Calvin seems to be transcendent, while the God of Wesley seems to be more immanent. Calvin's religion seems to be more of a religion of the head than of the heart.
What I appreciate most about Horton's introduction to Calvin is the Protestant emphasis. While Horton does not engage in unnecessary inflammatory remarks about the Pope (unlike Luther), neither does he adopt a mealy-mouth ecumenical position. Calvin is portrayed as holding the orthodox position between the lawlessness of the Anabaptists and the legalism of Rome. Horton does portray Calvin as ecumenical to the degree that he made overtures to other Protestants. I am not sure Calvin's theological descendants would extend their Protestant ecumenicism to orthodox Arminians, however. But to give credit where credit is due, I am happily surprised that a Calvinistic publisher even recognized Wesley in this series.
Horton consistently explains Calvin's theology with the phrase "distinction without separation." Calvin held distinct theological concepts in tension. Thus, Horton labors to portray Calvin as a moderate -- even an unlikely reformer -- not the tyrant his opponents frequently paint him as being. For example, Calvin preferred a presbyterian government with its plurality of elders, but made overtures to the Anglican bishop. With this agenda, it comes as no surprise that early in the book Horton offers his interpretation of Calvin's conflict with Michael Servetus.
In his presentation of Calvin, Horton follows the outline of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. However, he only devotes four pages to Calvin's theology of predestination and election. There Horton declares that "predestination is not the center of Calvin's `system.'" Horton never explains the ramifications of an election which is both individual and unconditional. Horton declared that Calvin never used the phrase "irresistible grace," but "effectual grace," the preferred term, is a phrase never used in Scripture.
Horton never addresses Calvin's reaction to his own doctrine of double predestination as a "horrible decree." Thus, the portrait which Horton paints of Calvin is generally appealing, but Calvin's own theology is not as attractive.
Without rehearsing all of my objections to Calvinism, my question is how would a Christian attending Calvin's congregation in Geneva differ from a Christian attending Wesley's chapel in London? Both men were on a circuit. Calvin was part of rotation of preaching elders in Geneva. Wesley's circuit took him on horseback across England and beyond. Both services would be liturgical and would give preeminence to the expositional preaching of Scripture. In Geneva the singing would be a capella and would be largely restricted to the psalms. The hymns of Charles Wesley would have been accompanied by an organ -- even though Adam Clarke did not like organs!
Calvin believed that the elect and the nonelect would both be present indiscriminately within his congregation and only God could separate them. He held that the church was a body of sinful humanity which was marked by the pure preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. At a personal level, the believer would confess his sins and would hear the words of absolution. In distinction to both Rome and the Anabaptists, Horton portrays Calvin as lenient toward those who confess their sins.
The Anglican service which early Methodists were required to attend would not be all that different. Perhaps the greatest difference would be in the music. But the same believer in Wesley's society would be required to meet with a small group in which they would confess their sins and hold each other accountable. They would be urged on toward victory over sin. This victory over sin was possible only with a constant reliance upon the indwelling Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit also bears witness with our own spirits regarding our present relationship with God. Neither this relationship nor this assurance is unconditional, but it is a conscience assurance to the believer. In contrast, Horton taught that the righteousness of Christ is imputed for the believer's justification and sanctification. Thus, the believer struggles against sin all his life because he has not actually become righteous. Horton also distinguishes between an objective faith that the elect will persevere and the subjective experience of the believer which includes fear and trembling, anxiety, and a faith that wavers.
While Warfield described Calvinism as "miserable-sinner" Christianity, Wesley taught an optimism of divine grace based on the possibilities of grace. In contrast to Wesley's optimism, Calvin exhibited a resignation. He died at 55 after confessing that he had "failed innumerable times to execute my office properly," acknowledging himself "to be a miserable sinner." Calvin declared that were it not for God's goodness he would be found guilty of the judgment of sin and sloth. No wonder Horton says Calvin's theology "makes room for the blues, as the heart cries out for a deliverance that seems at least to our experience beyond reach."
Horton starts in the proper place with explaining the historical context of Calvin’s life. This is important because understand the time of the life of a theologian under consideration is crucial in order to understand why he said what he did during his ministry. Part one looks at what it means to live before God and part two considers what it means to live in God. Here Horton helps us understand Calvin on Christ the mediator and the gift of union with Christ. Part three considers what it means to live in the context of the local church, knowing and serving Him through the means of grace, in public, prayer and more. In the final section of the book Horton considers Calvin’s view on the government, vocation and the second coming of Christ.
Two of my favorite chapters in this book are chapter six and chapter thirteen. Christians today need to understand union with Christ and the doctrine of vocation. Understanding union with Christ is essential to understanding the gospel and what the Lord is doing in one’s life in growing them into the likeness of Jesus. The doctrine of vocation is one of the most neglected aspects of practical theology today. Calvin, the Reformers and the Puritans rightly emphasized the doctrine of vocation in their own day. Understanding the doctrine of vocation leads to understanding how you should live as a scattered members of the Body of Christ. Christians gather together on Sundays to worship the Lord and then scatter to their various vocations and jobs. These are some reasons why I enjoyed these two chapters.
Whether you are a new or seasoned Christian, I recommend reading Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever. Reading this book will help you gain insight into what the Reformers sought to do in the Reformation. In a day when the Reformers and Puritans are gaining in popularity, I encourage you to learn what the Reformation was all about by reading Calvin on the Christian Life by Dr. Michael Horton. This would be a good book for Bible College and seminary students to read along with serious-minded lay people interested in Reformational theology. I highly recommend this book and believe it is a needed resource for every student of church history.
In other words, the special authors in history were people with something important to say and who could say it well.
Such was John Calvin. Yes, he was one of the great Reformers of religion in 16th century Europe. Yes, he wrote some weighty and important books that impacted and altered Western Civilization. But Calvin gave his name to a school of thought called "Calvinism" (not by him but his admirers). And we all know that Calvinism is cold, logical, and mean! And he wrote a lot of stuff, big stuff, heady stuff! Sure, you are thinking, this Blog Guy is not going to ask us to read John Calvin himself is he?????????
Yes, I want to commend to your reading the latest edition of John Calvin's INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION; Banner of Truth. As the cover of the book says, this was Calvin's own "essentials" edition of his magnum opus. The 1641 edition of this classic was pared down so that more people would read it. Now "pared down" might sound like a relative term given that the book is still 825+ pages! But that is not really bad considering two things: (1) the other editions are usually two volumes of over 1000 pages; and (2) think of it as if you were reading 5 books of 175 pages each.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said the he encouraged the reading of big books rather than small ones because the effort and time taken reading the big books will impact your life more than reading the little ones! It will take your time to read through this wonderful edition of CALVIN'S INSTITUTES but you will be richer for it and more changed by it.
What's more, this is not a theological textbook, it is a theological book to be read devotionally! Calvin meant for you to read it for your life's blessing and change! He meant for it to be used like we might use something like J. I. Packer's KNOWING GOD today. It is a meaty, full and profound treatment of God and the Christian life. It is meant to change your life, not just fill your head!
Here are the chapter headings:
1--THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD (knowing God)
2--THE KNOWLEDGE OF MAN AND FREE WILL (knowing ourselves, what happened to mankind and how we were left)
3--THE LAW (the standard by which we are judged by God)
4--FAITH (with an explanation of the Apostles' Creed)
5--REPENTANCE (what it and is not)
6--JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH AND THE MERITS OF WORKS (we are saved by Christ's works and merits, not our own)
7--THE SIMILARITY AND DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS
8--THE PREDESTINATION AND PROVIDENCE OF GOD
9--PRAYER, WITH AN EXPLANATION OF OUR LORD'S PRAYER
10--THE SACRAMENTS (2, not 7)
12--THE LORD'S SUPPER
13--THE FIVE CEREMONIES FALSELY CALLED SACRAMENTS
14--CHRISTIAN FREEDOM (to follow Christ and His Word, not
the pronouncements of the Catholic Church)
15--THE POWER OF THE CHURCH
17--THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
For broad evangelicals growing up on sermonettes who find themselves becoming "Christionettes", this book has too much meat. But for those who are training themselves upon the meat of the Word, both by where they are church members and hear solid biblical sermons and what they choose to read, this book will be like a 5 pound filet mignon! Don't think you can eat it all at once or digest it in one sitting. Take your time and take all year and thoroughly enjoy it!
If one is to read one book ABOUT John Calvin rather than by him I recommend Michael Horton's CALVIN ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE; Crossway. It has received rave reviews by knowledgeable Calvin
scholars and it clearly shows the great man's understanding of how Christians are to live the Christian life. One scholar has even said that this is the clearest and most representative of Calvin of any book written about him! High praise!!
Remember, this is not a book about Calvin's life or thought on various points of interest to Christians--it will not speak directly to your concerns about home schooling, national politics, child-rearing, how to succeed in business as a Christian, how to manage your money, how to ease stress, etc, etc, etc. But it is gold when it comes to showing you how John Calvin understood that believers live the Christian life.
THE SECTIONS AND CHAPTERS ARE AS FOLLOWS:
1. Calvin on the Christian Life: An Introduction
2. Calvin on the Christian Life: In Context
PART 1--LIVING BEFORE GOD
3. Knowing God and Ourselves
4. Actors and Plot
PART 2--LIVING IN GOD
5. Christ the Mediator
6. Gifts of Union with Christ
PART 3--LIVING IN THE BODY
7. How God Delivers His Grace
8. The Public Service of Worship as a "Celestial Theater" of
9. Bold Access: Prayers as "the Chief Exercise of Faith"
10. Law and Liberty in the Christian Life
11. God's New Society
PART 4--LIVING IN THE WORLD
12. Christ and Caesar
13. Vocation: Where Good Works Go
14. Living Today From the Future: The Hope of Glory
If you took the rest of 2015 to read these two books prayerfully and humbly, I expect you would become a more godly and useful Christian.
Your Book Servant,
Pastor Steve Martin
WWW.THELOGCOLLEGE.WORDPRESS.COM for more reviews and tasty things for the Christian's growth in grace!
Anyone who has read the works of Michael Horton knows how knowledgeable he is when it comes to the 16th century reformers and their works, not least John Calvin’s. Horton’s knowledge of Calvin is masterful and this work demonstrates such. In this work, Horton interacts with several sources: (1) Calvin’s own writings–Institutes of the Christian Religion, treatises and other writings, letters, commentaries on various books of the Bible. (2) A biography by Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, and what other reformers had to say about Calvin, for example, the older Martin Luther, who knew about Calvin, read his works, admired them, but never met him in person. (3) then other works outside of Calvin’s contemporaries, most notably Herman J. Selderhuis’s Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms.
The first two chapters are introductory chapters (chapter one, “Calvin on the Christian Life: An Introduction” and “Calvin on the Christian Life: In Context”), with the rest of the book being divided into four parts: Part One: Living Before God. Part Two: Living in God. Part Three: Living in the Body. Part Four: Living in the World. Horton ends the book with something of Calvin’s own eschatology, which is summed up in the chapter’s title “Living Today From the Future: The Hope of Glory.”
While it’s titled Calvin on the Christian Life, what the reader find is something of Calvin’s theology and how his theology really undergirds his life. In other words, Calvin really attempted to live and model his theology (perhaps a subtitle like “How His Theology Shaped His Life” would have prepared the reader better). Next, while I appreciate Horton’s working knowledge of Calvin on various subjects and the many primary quotes provided (which I truly delighted in), there were times I couldn’t tell if it was Calvin’s thought or Horton’s (perhaps this is a shortcoming on my part).
On the burning of Michael Servetus. I have read a number of works on Calvin (some I’ve reviewed here) where the writers were either dubious or excusing of Calvin’s part in the burning of Servetus. In clear terms, Horton does not try to mitigate or make excuses for Calvin. I found this both welcoming and refreshing. “It is unworthy of the truth he proclaimed to exonerate Calvin in this affair simply as a man of his time, especially when others were appealing to the Reformer’s own writings to defend religious toleration.”
In the chapters “Christ and Caesar” (12) and “Vocation: Where Good Works Go” (13), Horton navigates that social aspect of Calvin’s thought and how such has gone on to influence much of the Western world, in matter’s of politics, the arts, etc. Along the way, Horton is careful to correct much of the caricatures of social Calvinism. I find this a welcoming portion of the book. For most of us, when we think Calvin, we think his soteriology. But there is so much more to Calvin and his works. The last chapter is a fitting end to a work whose focus is on how Calvin’s theology undergirded his very life. Calvin was quite at home with the “Already and Not Yet” of eschatology.” Horton certainly brings this out quite well.
It’s time to put an end to the caricatures of John Calvin. He is certainly not the theologian of double destination and killjoy. Neither was he a theological tyrant. Rather, Calvin was bent on a unity of the Body of Christ more than we would ever know or come to appreciate, unless we care to. And while he was complicit in the burning of Michael Servetus, there is so much more to Calvin the theologian and church reformer than that. For those interested in the life of Calvin, Horton’s work is a must read and a welcome addition.