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A Review of The Reformed Faith of John Calvin

Felipe Sabino, Brazil
(Review published in the English Churchman)


The Reformed Faith of John Calvin: The Institutes in Summary
David J. Engelsma
Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2009
Hardback, 472 pp.
ISBN 978-1-936054-00-8

The author explains the goal of his book in his Preface:

The Reformed Faith of John Calvin is, as the subtitle expresses, a summary of Calvin’s own teaching in his Institutes of all the doctrines of the Christian faith. The reader of this book will know the Institutes and the faith – the Reformed faith – that Calvin taught and defended in this classic work (p. xiii).

I have known of the writings of Prof. Engelsma for a long time. But I came to appreciate more and more his books, and have become much more familiar with his good theology, only a few years ago. This was thanks to my dear friend, Rev. Angus Stewart, who gave me some books from the excellent Reformed Free Publishing Association. This was like piles of gold arriving here in Brazil, a land still in need of sound Reformed doctrine. This new book is a masterpiece and very helpful, both to people new in the Reformed faith as well to experienced theologians.

Although the author says that "it is not my intention to give a full description of the life of John Calvin. My purpose with this book is not the life of Calvin, but the doctrine of Calvin" (p. 1), Chapter 1, "The Man and His Life: A Sketch," contains great material about the man John Calvin. I had already read many books and articles about the life of John Calvin, but I still found this chapter very instructive and very well written. After all, David Engelsma is a gifted writer, a quality that is not an exception among the ministers of Protestant Reformed Churches (Herman Hoeksema, Homer Hoeksema, Herman Hanko, Ronald Hanko, Robert Decker, Barry Gritters, Steve Houck, Angus Stewart and many others).

Before entering into the Institutes itself, Prof. Engelsma deals with "The Nature of the Institutes" (Chapter 2), "The History of the Publishing of the Institutes" (Chapter 3) and "The Style and Structure of the Institutes" (Chapter 4). These are helpful chapters too, with plenty of good information that may not be widely known. Highly recommended! Chapter 5 deals with "The Prefatory Address" of the Institutes. Writes Engelsma, "The prefatory address is unanimously and widely regarded as a masterpiece of such literature" (p. 46).

1) Book One of the Institutes ("The Knowledge of God the Creator") is the subject of Chapters 6 to 8.

2) Book Two of the Institutes ("The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, First Disclosed to the Fathers under the Law, and Then to Us in the Gospel") is the subject of the Chapters 9 and 10.

3) Book Three of the Institutes ("The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow") is the subject of the Chapters 11 to 16. The best, and possibly the most important, chapter in this section is Chapter 15, "Predestination." Prof. Engelsma is very accurate in the first lines of this chapter:

Although not the central dogma in Calvin’s theology (the one dogma out of which all of Calvin’s teachings flow, and around which all of his teachings circle, and upon which all of his teachings depend), as has been proposed, predestination is fundamental in the theology of John Calvin. Calvin states this importance of election when he calls it "the foundation of our salvation" (p. 266).

What makes this chapter so important is that it is a good antidote to the modern moderate Calvinism, so prevalent today, even here in Brazil.

Chapter 16, "The Final Resurrection: Calvin’s Eschatology," although brief (pp. 290-297), is very good and contains a helpful explanation of the resurrection of Christ and our resurrection.

Even though Calvin did not write a commentary on Revelation, his thorough treatment of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body with the accompanying refutation of related errors gives us a complete overview of Calvin’s eschatology. His doctrine of the last things includes the intermediate state of elect and reprobate; the rejection of millennialism, which always plays with the thousand years of Revelation 20 as a description of a carnal kingdom of Christ in the world; the resurrection of both believers and unbelievers in one general resurrection; and an eternal destiny both of the righteous and of the wicked. The foundation of Calvin’s eschatology is the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (p. 294).

4) Book Four of the Institutes ("The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein") is the subject of the Chapters 17 and 18.

I found only one problem in the whole book: its endnotes. Footnotes are (presumably) written to be read and I do read almost all of them. I should say that I highly prefer footnotes to endnotes, unless the chapter or book is very short. Notes should be on the bottom of the page and not punted into the last few pages of the book.

I would say without hesitation that The Reformed Faith of John Calvin is the best book ever written about Calvin’s Institutes. Read it. Devour it.