Calvin, Geneva, and Revival

Calvin, Geneva, and Revival: Papers read at the 2009 Westminster Conference

This printed version of the papers read at the 2009 Westminster Conference is an interesting collection of the sublime and the ridiculous.

It begins with a tour-de-force by Garry Williams from the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary on John Calvin’s Agenda, especially in separation from Rome. With some fascinating material on Calvin’s view of infant baptism and his deep disagreements with Zwingli’s view of sacraments, he concludes, ‘To be an authentic Reformation Christian is thus to be concerned with the saving doctrine of the Gospel and the public worship of God… if we are casual and indifferent in our public worship, then we are not Reformation Christians.’ He looks at this in Calvin’s writings and actions, and (rightly) assesses it biblically.

He also examines Calvin’s relationship to other Reformers, contrasting him with the more fiery Luther, who had declared Zwingli persona non grata. ‘Too often we go in guns blazing like Luther against Zwingli,’ warns Williams, perhaps from sad experience, ‘sometimes falling short even of Luther’s willingness to go to a Marburg to meet face-to-face, preferring instead to judge from far afield having read a few pages of someone’s web log.’

He then speaks, as a nonconformist himself, about how close supportive friendship between nonconformists and Reformed Evangelical Anglicans is surely appropriate today. Calvin himself, even though he was not episcopalian and had doubts about aspects of the Anglican settlement, was warm towards the godly, Bible-believing leaders trying to reform Church, society, and nation. He gives us a powerful challenge for today when there is a danger perhaps of distance and ignorance in this relationship, point-scoring instead of supportive encouragement of fellow Reformed men and women labouring for the Lord. This is followed by some perceptive comments about metaphors, drawing on the work of J.M. Soskice, and interaction with the seminal work of Matthew Sleeman on salvation-geography, before some final applications to ‘today’s feminised church.’

D.A. Carson, in his characteristically erudite yet engaging style, then examines Calvin’s commentaries in the context of ‘his immortal Institutes’ comparing them favourably to those of Melanchthon and Bucer. Stephen Clark then looks at the 1859 Revival in America. Robert Oliver, the master storyteller, weaves together the story of the Elizabethan Reformation with Calvin’s influence upon it, which was officially negligible as far as the Queen was concerned but absolutely vast on the ground. Ken Brownell bravely tackles an overview of Old Princetonians on Darwinism, during which he declares himself to be a member of ‘the Charles Hodge fan club’, and encourages courtesy and respect in our debates on this subject.

Finally, are you wondering about the ridiculous element I mentioned at the start?  That comes in a fascinating chapter by Bruce Jenkins on the missionary passion of the Moravians, which so inspired William Carey of Kettering and his Baptist Missionary Society. The Moravians were clearly devoted to God, and an inspiration, yet under the leadership of Lutheran pietist Count Zinzendorf they indulged in some utterly bizarre practices and behaviour, speaking of the Holy Spirit as Mother and Christ as ‘Lambkin’, eroticising the relationship between Christ and the Church in their hymns, and employing all kinds of elaborate
ritual enthusiasms. Jenkins concludes that a Reformed evangelical today would not be able to work in partnership with such missionaries. So as the book moves from sublime to ridiculous in the objects of its contemplation, it begins and ends with a thoughtful call to consider who our true friends are in gospel partnership today.

This review was first published in Evangelicals Now (April 2011).

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