Calvin, Theologian and
Rev. Angus Stewart
(Slightly modified from a review first published in
the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal)
Edited by Joel R. Beeke
and Garry J. Williams
Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010,
paperback, 170 pp.
In 2009, the
John Own 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."
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 which
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). Subsections of
this masterful article cover "Illumination," "Regeneration,"
"Adoption" and "Communion."
liked 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 only found 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 (p.
From this, Sinclair B. addresses Calvin's teaching on
It is therefore something
of a paradox that in some strands of the Reformed tradition
believers 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
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" (pp. 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
(p. 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" (p. 84).
Anthony Lane's chapter
helpfully discusses some of the distinctive doctrines in the
"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" (pp. 50-51; cf. pp. 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" (p. 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" (p. 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 (pp. 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.