Book Review: A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, edited by David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback
The tenth of July, on this year of our Lord, 2009, will be a highly significant date for the reformed community, marking as it does the five hundredth birthday of John Calvin, the acclaimed Reformer of Geneva and author of one of the most enduring works ever penned, Institutes of the Christian Religion. As a sort of birthday present, editors David Hall and Peter Lillback have gathered together the insights of many competent scholars and teachers in the reformed tradition, to celebrate the occasion with A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, a volume marked by a variety of characteristics ranging from warm appreciation for Calvin the man to insightful and up-to-date contributions to the ongoing discussion of the Genevan Reformer in the plethora of secondary literature that has grown up around his legacy. If you desire to delve a little deeper into Calvin and his stunning contribution to Christianity and culture (and who should not so desire!), then what better occasion than his five-hundredth birthday, and what better way to make good upon your desire than a foray into this riveting volume? I found myself much benefitted by my own excursion into its pages, and I'm certain you will echo my own sentiments if you take the same journey.
A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes is rather simply structured â€“ after an introductory chapter on the historical context of the Institutes, nineteen other scholars each take a segment of the final revision of Calvin's masterpiece and submit it to a rigorous analysis, usually beginning with a survey of secondary literature on the topic and proceeding with an exposition and critique of its main theological themes, often supplemented by other appropriate primary source material, such as Calvin's sermons, letters, and commentaries. The final product varies in style and approach, as is to be expected in a work by multiple authors, but each chapter has some element making it profitable and enjoyable. Some are notable for their scholarly acumen and thorough grasp of the related secondary literature, others are more notable for the depth of passion for the theological topic under consideration, and the pastoral concern to see it understood and embraced â€“ traits which were no small part of Calvin's own make-up. Some take advantage of the opportunity to introduce the reader to the historical Calvin, others deal almost exclusively with the text of his Institutes. But all of them are enjoyable and enlightening.
A few personal favorites are Douglas F. Kelly's discussion of Calvin's important contributions to the orthodox understanding of the trinitarian nature of God; Peter A. Lillback's chapter on the foundational role Calvin had in the development of Covenant Theology; Richard B. Gaffin Jr.'s analysis of Calvin's teaching on justification and union with Christ; and Joel R. Beeke's eminently applicational treatment of the Spirit, faith and assurance, and repentance. That chapter alone, for its faith-bolstering encouragement and instruction in running the Christian race, would have been well worth reading the entire book, even if there were nothing else useful in it at all. But in reality, there was much more that was beyond just useful â€“ the whole volume is full of little treasure troves, some of them in unexpected places.
Not only did I come away from the book better acquainted with Calvin's theology; I also felt a little better acquainted with the man himself, and his astonishing passion for Christ's glory, mingled with unparalleled humility. What stands out in Calvin's life, above that of many other first rate theologians, is his contempt for unnecessary speculation and displays of intellectual prowess not solidly grounded in the scripture. Calvin's mantra was that, if the scriptures did not teach or emphasize something, it was simply not helpful to try to pry into it or spend one's labors upon it. Calvin truly was a theologian of the Spirit and the scriptures â€“ and in this inexhaustible field of the bible, as illuminated by the Spirit, he found more than adequate material to pour his considerable intellect into, without being distracted by useless and dangerous speculation. This refusal to speculate was born of Calvin's immense respect for God, who amazingly condescends to â€œlispâ€ to us in terms adapted to our poor estate, with everything necessary for life and godliness â€“ so who are we to suppose we need to know something that God did not think necessary to reveal to us?
I conclude with this observation: not only was Calvin one of the most influential theologians in the history of the church, he was also one of the most influential world thinkers in culture and political theory. Few people have had as great an impact on both Christian and secular thought as Calvin (Augustine and Aquinas are the only two that even come to mind); but at the same time, few people are as consistently misunderstood. If you desire to understand the actual theology of the enigmatic Reformer, if you would know what he really taught and what was of utmost importance to him â€“ whether you've studied him for years or are relatively unacquainted with him â€“ then this volume will be a very beneficial step in the right direction.
A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes: available at Monergism Books.