Tributes to Calvin

Tributes to Calvin

A review of David Hall (ed), Tributes to Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary.

This is another volume of the “Calvin 500”series of books inspired by the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth in 1509. Now that the hype (and in some quarters, excitement) of the anniversary itself has calmed down, there is still value in reflecting on the Genevan Reformer’s life and ministry, so this volume is by no means out of date. Indeed, with some of the best names in Calvin and Calvinist scholarship represented here, this is a very useful introduction to the literature on the man and his legacy which should stand the test of time and be a standard reference point on the aspects of his influence it covers for many years to come.

The book originates in papers given at the Calvin500 conference in Geneva in 2009 and includes material from e.g. Henri Blocher, Hughes Oliphant Old, Daryl Hart, R. Scott Clark, Anthony Lane, Mike Horton, Bruce McCormack, and Herman Selderhuis. There are 23 chapters broadly divided into three, looking at ‘Calvin’s Times,’ ‘Calvin’s Topics,’ and ‘Calvin Today and Tomorrow.’ The first section covers Calvin’s contribution as, for example, a lawyer, a Frenchman, a preacher, a commentator, and a liturgist. The second examines things like his teaching on worship, assurance, soteriology, and the Lord’s Supper. The final section looks at his ongoing impact in areas such as the arts.

It is worth picking out a few highlights. George Knight III’s study of Calvin as a commentator is very useful indeed, as it reminds us that Calvin is more than the theologian of the Institutes and was in fact a skilled and diligent commentator on scripture who sought primarily to understand God as he has revealed himself there and anchored all his theologizing in the word. It is always worth remembering his stated principle in commentating of ‘lucid brevity,’ which was unusual in his day (and something many modern commentators have long forgotten!). Here is a preacher who writes commentaries for preachers.  A.T.B. McGowan on Calvin’s doctrine of scripture is an examination of the issue of inerrancy from one who himself has caused ripples recently through his own published views on the subject. McGowan concludes that Calvin is neither an inerrantist nor an errantist but an infallibilist, who bases the authority of scripture on the connection between word and Spirit. He dismisses the syllogism, ‘God is perfect. Scripture is God’s word. Therefore the original autographs of scripture were perfect’ as Baconian rationalism, which I think is an inadequate response, and so this chapter is less edifying, for all its stimulating argument.

Finally, Jae Sung Kim gives us a fascinating snapshot of Calvin’s ongoing impact in Asia, particularly in the Presbyterian churches there. His bold conclusion is that ‘Embracing the Reformed faith and Calvinism as the best form of biblical Christianity is the only answer for Asians, as well as everybody else in the world.’ Now there is a courageous and passionate conviction to stir up some discussion amongst those in the wider Reformed world who have also been influenced both recently and in the dim and distant past, by the cultured Frenchman who offered his heart ‘promptly and sincerely to the Lord’ and continues to have a powerful ongoing ministry amongst us through his writings. Will his impact on the English-speaking church of the twenty-first century be as great as it was in the sixteenth?

This review was first published in Churchman 127/1 (2013).

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