Calvin I would guess that 9 in 10 people I meet have no real idea what the term "Calvinism" actually means. Most have never read John Calvin. Most have only met a few very conservative Calvinists who promote things like TULIP and various scholastic readings of the great reformer. (And quite a few of these are mean, separatistic and critical of almost every other expression of the Christian faith) While the TULIP does have clear historical connection with the post-Calvin developments at the Synod of Dort in Holland (and thus the conclusions of the Synod are preserved in Reformed churches down to the present time as one of the three forms of confessional unity) Dort is clearly not the whole story. When TULIP becomes the strong focus then Calvinism becomes a lot like looking at a lovely person by staring at one, not so complete and not so clear, "photo-shopped" picture. And this picture is neither accurate nor helpful.

The real Calvin is flawed. But he is also an intriguing and very important figure in church history. No one can rightly defend Calvin's actions with regard to the killing of Michael Servetus. (Yet, just last week I had someone ask me if Calvin approved the martyrdom of many that he disagreed with. This is preposterous if you know the facts at all.)

I do not defend some of Calvin's ideas about predestination, such as the idea of "double predestination." I also disagree with some of the way he expresses other biblical truths. But I remind friends and foes alike that John Calvin wrote for reasons that were not rooted primarily in the doctrine of predestination. In fact, his views on this subject should never be divorced from the whole of his purpose or you will get a distorted view of the man and of his influence upon Protestantism, especially the Reformed Church.

Image.asp How should the ordinary person read John Calvin? The answer is rather simple. Read The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is certainly one of the ten most important books of theology in church history. Get the Library of Christian Classics (Westminster/John Knox) edition, edited and translated by McNeill and Battles. Their notes and comments are worth the price of the two cloth bound books and the translation is simply superb. I have been amazed over the years by what happens when ordinary people get these two volumes and begin to read them. They are devotional in style and biblical in content. This surprises many who do not know the man or his theology.

Now we have been given a wonderful guide to Calvin's Institutes. Anthony N. S. Lane, professor of historical theology and director of research at the London School of Theology, has written A Reader's Guide to Calvin's Institutes (Baker, 2008). Lane, a world-class Calvin scholar, gives the reader a streamlined introduction to Calvin. He divides the Institutes into thirty-two portions. The whole is covered in simple, clear language. Lane is a wonderful guide and understands both the subject (Calvin) and the subject matter (his theology). People on several sides of the debates about John Calvin all agree that this book is clearly the best such primer we have in print. It sells for $16.99 and is 176 pages in length. This book can be used personally or in the class room. I encourage you to get it.

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  1. Chris Criminger May 20, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Hi John,
    I have never seen a theologian so revered and so hated as John Calvin. I have met people who thought he sits at the right hand of God and have met others who have thought he sits at the right hand of the Devil.
    I am an unashamed Arminian who respects and appreciates men like John Calvin or a Jonathan Edwards. I will say one will get a very different feel and even sense of the issues by reading Calvin’s Institutes from reading his commentaries.
    Theology done today does appear to be more modest and self-reflective rather than denouncing and anathematizing those we disagree with in Calvin’s day. I can’t even remember how many times Calvin got excommunicated from his own Geneva?
    I am reading an interesting book by Soong-Chan Rah called “The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP, 2009). It does seem that Evangelicals instead of creating a Christian America, have more Americanized Christianity.
    The immigrant churches are the fasting growing churches in America yet who listens to their voices or really looks at how they are doing theology?
    Maybe the best minds of the church will be people who are multi-ethnic? I certainly see greater depth and balanced insights from people like a Simon Chan or Amos Yong or a Soong-Chan Rah. One of the most influential writers during my college days was Richard Middleton. Imagine my surpise when I met this Jamaican American.

  2. Ben Currin May 20, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    What a timely post…I just dealt with the very subject this week as well:

  3. Tom Quick July 30, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    I’ve been reading a lot of Karl Barth lectures lately in order to develop an understanding of the Reformed confessions and their Calvinist roots. While I quibble with Barth being a Calvinist-in-theory more than in practice, I’m reading him for the history.
    What I am finding is that Calvin was a middle class lawyer/scholar who converted to Protestantism. His theology is held together by a rationalist structure which forges a unity between all OT and NT scripture. His concept of an eternal covenant of double predestination dating from before the beginning of time is essential for his structure to hold together. The whole structure is presented most clearly in the response to the Remonstrants at the Synod of Dort ca 1619, 60 years after the death of Calvin.
    As you say John, the big problem is the double predestination. But with Barth I tend to think that this is the core, not the periphery, of Calvin’s structure. Predestination is the outcome of God being sovereign king. By placing emphasis on this, there is a Calvinist tendency to create highly organized hierarchal/legal structures, seen both in church and state, and in some ways Geneva becomes a model for modern government. But there is also a negative side, which deemphasizes God acting in love toward mankind. During the English wars with Scotland, Richard Baxter observed that English Puritans and Scotch Presbyterians killed each other in the morning so as to meet in Heaven in the afternoon. The intractability of the Calvinists was met by the Counter Reformation, as well as by internal division, and the movement ceased to be of importance in Europe by the mid 1600’s.

  4. Tom Quick August 18, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    For the present I’ve left off reading Barth’s lectures on Calvin and the Reformed creeds, but I would recommend them as good general introductions to those subjects.
    In view of the above discussion, two of Barth’s thoughts come to mind:
    -The only solid thing left today of those multifarious and forgotten creeds is the Word. I see the great Catholic legacy to the world in hospitals, and the great Reformed legacy in schools.
    -Barth speculates on what would have happened if Calvin had died in the 1530’s and left things to Farel. He observes that the negative things associated with Calvin – the burning of Servetus, the growing emphasis on double predestination, etc. – would not have occurred.

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