John Calvin is one of the most fascinating and yet most widely misunderstood figures in Christian history. The most common image of Calvin is that of a fire breathing tyrant whose mission in life was to suck the most pleasure and joy out of people that he possibly could. He is commonly associated with the doctrine of predestination, but what he actually believed, taught, and wrote on predestination is not what most of his detractors attribute to him.
Dr. Michael Horton, Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, has written the latest book of several over the last few years that corrects our understanding of what John Calvin was all about. Several recent predecessors that I have read are John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey; The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steven J. Lawson; John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, edited by Burk Parsons; and Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper by Keith A. Mathison.
Horton’s contribution focuses on Calvin’s personal piety and practical theology. ‘Personal piety’ these days is frequently interpreted to mean ‘holier than thou’, but this is not the case with Calvin. For Calvin, this simply meant the way a person lives out the Christian life. From Horton’s introduction:
“Piety” (pietas), not spirituality, is the Reformer’s all-encompassing term for Christian faith and practice. Even this term has lost its value in modernity. We’ve learned to draw a line between doctrine and life, with “piety” (like “spirituality”) falling on the “life” side of the ledger. The ancient church saw it differently: eusebia encompassed doctrine and life. It could be translated “piety” or “orthodoxy” without any confusion. Calvin assumed this overarching horizon. Doctrine, worship, and life are all of one piece. The doctrine is always practically oriented, and practice is always to be grounded in true doctrine. In fact, “justification by faith…is the sum of all piety.” The root of piety is faith in the gospel. Love is the yardstick for all duties, and God’s moral law in both testaments stipulates the character of this love on the ground, comprehending “piety toward God” and “charity toward men.” Calvin even defended his Institutes as “a sum of Christian piety.” (p. 17)
Horton quotes extensively from Calvin’s own works. Predominant among these is Calvin’s monumental work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin intended his Institutes to be used to train pastors in sound doctrine, and it is there that I find Calvin’s thoughts most clearly explained in the most detail. Calvin’s Catechism, his sermons on the Scriptures, and his correspondence round out the source material from which Horton mines Calvin’s views of how a Christian ought to live, guided by the Scriptures and a proper understanding of the gospel.
Far from being a tyrant, Calvin was one of the church’s strongest defenders of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is the idea that anything not specifically prohibited in the Scriptures is lawful for a Christian to do. For instance, dancing, smoking, and going to movies activities frequently forbidden in Western churches, but these are not activities specifically prohibited in the scriptures. Therefore, despite what many evangelical churches have tried to teach over the centuries, Calvin teaches that Christians have the freedom to pursue these activities if they wish. Calvin once got into trouble with the city of Geneva’s leaders for bowling on the Sabbath. That doesn’t sound like a kill-joy tyrant to me. Horton sums up Calvin’s point on Christian liberty by saying “Of what use is a doctrine of justification if we do not actually experience God’s liberality toward us in our daily lives?” (p. 181)
Calvin explicitly defends Christian liberty against the Pharisees of legalism, and he defends it often and loudly. Calvin takes special aim at the legalists among us who try to hide their legalism behind the argument of ‘not stumbling the weaker brother’. Horton says, “Restricting the church’s authority in doctrine, worship, and life to that which God has clearly commanded in his word, Calvin is the enemy of legalism.” (p. 182)
Calvin speaks to many issues confronting us in today’s world, as well. The compassionate way Calvin provided for refugees in the city of Geneva lead me to believe he would not be on the Republican side of our own immigration issue.
Horton takes us through Calvin’s thoughts on grace, worship service, and prayer. He explains Calvin’s views on a Christian’s relation to the government, a Christian’s vocation, and a Christian’s future hope. Horton does much of this with Calvin’s own words. Horton’s book could almost be read as a thinking Christian’s devotional. I highly recommend it!