Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review of "John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology"


John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology
This is an exciting review for me for a few reasons. First, this is the first full length text I have read on John Calvin and was really looking forward to learning quite a bit. Secondly, this was the first full book I read on my Kindle(and I enjoyed that experience greatly). Finally, I was very excited about this book because the contributors are a virtual all-star team of current reformed thought. Burk Parsons, Derek Thomas, Sinclair Ferguson, Steve Lawson, Bob Godfrey, Thabiti Anyabwile, Macarthur, Ascol, Beeke, Ryken, Jerry Bridges, Michael Horton—this book was contributed to by a vast array of reformed thought.
The table of contents gives a good view of what is in store when you read this book:
1. The Humility of Calvin’s Calvinism Burk Parsons
2. Who was John Calvin? Derek W. H. Thomas
3. Calvin’s Heart for God Sinclair B. Ferguson
4. The Reformer of Faith and Life D. G. Hart
5. The Churchman of the Reformation Harry L. Reeder
6. The Preacher of God’s Word Steven J. Lawson
7. The Counselor to the Afflicted W. Robert Godfrey
8. The Writer for the People of God Phillip R. Johnson
9. The Supremacy of Jesus Christ Eric J. Alexander
10. The Transforming Work of the Spirit Thabiti Anyabwile
11. Man’s Radical Corruption John MacArthur
12. Election and Reprobation Richard D. Phillips
13. Redemption Defined Thomas K. Ascol
14. Transforming Grace Keith A. Mathison
15. A Certain Inheritance Jay E. Adams
16. The Believer’s Union with Christ Philip Graham Ryken
17. The Principal Article of Salvation Michael Horton
18. The True Christian Life Jerry Bridges
19. The Communion of Men with God Joel R. Beeke
When I began reading this book, I had one major reservation. I was concerned about how I was going to be presented with a fair and balanced view of Calvin historically from a group of men who have been so immensely blessed by his teaching and ministry. I was unsure of their ability or desire to be critical of this oft-maligned man of the faith. To this end, I would have to say that the text is definitely, and unabashedly, pro-Calvin. I feel that it is a fair text but it should be noted that this is a celebration of the life and ministry of John Calvin, not a critique.
Burk Parson’s take on the humility of Calvin in the first chapter was a good place to start, especially with the arrogance that is often associated with those who claim to be adherents to Calvin’s theology. Chapter 2 is a brilliant and brief history of John Calvin. Derek Thomas masterfully takes us through the major points of the historical Calvin in just 12 rich pages.
Harry Reeder in Chapter 5 takes us through the role Calvin filled as Pastor. The roles that he outlines Calvin filling made me all the more grateful for the work God did through Calvin, but more so it reminded me of the work that is done week in and week out by my pastors, and many like them. I praise God for the men God uses to care for me and others as my Pastor, leader, preacher, teacher, writer, shepherd, evangelist and pastor to pastors. Steve Lawson’s chapter on Calvin as preacher is an excellent summary of the topic and a great jumping off point to his wonderful book on Calvin the preacher.
Godfrey’s chapter on Calvin the counselor was the most eye-opening for me on Calvin the man. I was completely unaware of the pastoral care that Calvin showed his flock, not just from the pulpit but in their everyday life. It is completely against the caricature of Calvin that is so pervasive in popular thought. Erick Alexander summarizes the teaching of Calvin that Christ is revealed in Scripture as Prophet, Priest and King.
John Macarthur begins a five chapter section on the TULIP of Calvinistic theology. Macarthur takes us through the understanding Calvin had of the extent of human depravity and why this is as critical a doctrine as any to properly understand not only Calvin’s thought but Scripture as a whole. Richard Phillips tackles election and reprobation in a God-honoring yet gentle manner reflecting the humility that Calvin himself showed on the subject. Tom Ascol deals with the extent of the atonement in Calvin’s theology by first showing the need for the atonement. He then shows the nature of the atoning work of Christ, a work that saves those for whom it was intended.
Keith Mathison and Jay Adams present cases for irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints that was new for me. I believe these chapters are true to Calvin’s theology, but more importantly they seem Scripturally sound. To see these doctrines developed in a manner that was new to me, made my belief in them even more firm. Ryken’s chapter on the believer’s unity with Christ is key in truly understanding Calvin’s theology.
The book closes with chapters from Horton, Beeke, and Bridges that are understandably brilliant. Horton deals with Calvin’s view of justification and in many ways echoes Ryken’s chapter on unity. Horton hits on the biblical view of justification being forensic and the agreement between Calvin and Luther on this key issue.(Side-note: I am constantly encouraged by our leaders who join hands with brothers who hold to different views on secondary issues-Horton and the White Horse Inn guys, Together for the Gospel, Desiring God and their conferences—we are too quick to divide over non-essentials or inconsequentials).
Horton’s examination of justification is almost as appropriate as Jerry Bridges contributing on holy living. The book closes with a chapter from Joel Beeke on prayer in the life of John Calvin. One line that sums up the difference between the real John Calvin and the caricature that is often set forth is found in this chapter. “Calvin focused more on the practice of prayer than on its doctrine, which shows how practical his theology was. For Calvin, prayer is the essence of the Christian life; it is a precious gift, not an academic problem.” Calvin is often presented as this stoic, heartless academic who rarely engaged in anything with emotion or practicality. This view is completely fallacious. Knowing God was not an academic quest for Calvin, it was everything to him.
I do not have much negative to say about this book. At times it did seem redundant, but I did not find that negative as it allowed me two major benefits: memorization by repetition and seeing the same thought/event from multiple perspectives. For someone who, like me, is a relative newcomer to Calvin (and reformed theology as a whole) I would greatly recommend this book. If you are inclined to read and write a review, Reformation Trust Publishing will provide you with a copy of the book-like they graciously did for me. You can learn more about that on their website.