Category Archives: Book notes

Calvin’s Magnum Opus: A Critical Essay

A “magnum opus” is an author’s greatest work.  When it comes to John Calvin that should obviously be a reference to his Institutes of the Christian Religion.  This work is one of the classics of Protestant theology.  It is often referenced but seldom read as a complete work from front to back.  I first purchased my copy of the McNeill/Battles edition before starting pre-seminary studies in university.  Over the years I have read bits and pieces and there, often as a need or interest required.  But until this past year I have never read the Institutes through from beginning to end.

In this essay, I will share some of the highlights of my complete tour through this theological masterpiece.  I have points both of appreciation and critique.  I doubt anything I say here will be new – the volume of literature on the Institutes is vast and surely someone, somewhere has made similar observations.

I read the two-volume McNeill/Battles edition published in the Library of Christian Classics.  This edition is based on the final version Calvin published in 1559.  I also occasionally referred to the older editions of Beveridge and Allen, and even sometimes checked the original French and Latin.

Calvin originally wrote the Institutes in 1536 as a sort of catechetical handbook.  It was never designed to be a systematic theology – such a creature did not yet exist.  It was also not designed to be a book of extensive commentary on Scripture.  No, its original purpose was catechetical – to summarize the teaching of Scripture on essential matters of faith and life.  As the work progressed to its final form in 1559, it did however take on a more systematic form (the technical term is loci communes).  In some places there is limited commentary on Scripture – for example, when dealing with the Ten Commandments (2.9) or the Lord’s Prayer (3.20.34-49) – and there are extensive references to Scripture, but generally Calvin leaves biblical exposition to his commentaries.

His approach is typically theological with the Scriptures explicitly as a foundation.  However, by way of exception, there are parts that are more philosophical.  For example, in 1.15.6-8, Calvin discusses the soul.  There is almost nothing directly from Scripture in this discussion.  Instead, Calvin works more with philosophical ideas from the likes of Plato.  For a modern reader unfamiliar with Greek philosophy, this discussion is difficult to follow.

Related to that, there are places where Calvin follows Platonic notions instead of biblical ones.  One of the most well-known examples is how Calvin speaks of the body as the prison house of the soul.  He does this in at least four places (1.15.2, 2.7.13, 3.7.5, 3.9.4).  This devaluing of the body does not accord with the biblical worldview.  In Scripture, the body is redeemed by Christ just as well as the soul (1 Cor. 6:19-20), and will be raised at the last day (1 Cor. 15).

Some have claimed Calvin as the high point of the Reformation.  This has been often asserted especially in relation to “scholasticism.”  The old narrative was that the medieval church was plagued with scholasticism.  The Reformers came and brought the church back to the Bible.  Then, sadly, a following generation reversed many of the gains and scholasticism again crippled the church.  In this old narrative, scholasticism is usually not carefully defined.  If we define it as a method of teaching theology which includes clear definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques, the narrative shifts rather dramatically.  In fact, if we define scholasticism in this way, Calvin himself has plenty of scholastic method in the Institutes (this was originally something I learned from Richard Muller in his The Unaccommodated Calvin).  I have outlined here the many different distinctions Calvin used and discussed.  Throughout the Institutes he pays careful attention to definitions.  There are numerous places where he employs syllogisms and other forms of logic/reasoning (e.g. 2.5.1).  It would not be fair to say that Calvin is scholastic, but it is completely justified to argue there are scholastic elements in the Institutes.

The attentive reader will pick up on Calvin’s copiousness.  He had read widely.  Throughout the Institutes, Calvin refers to numerous authors going all the way back to the early church.  Two stand out in particular.  The most quoted and referred to author is Augustine.  This is not surprising since Augustine is the most influential of the church fathers on the Protestant Reformers in general.  Most of the time Calvin quotes Augustine approvingly, but there are also occasions where he dissents.  The other author is Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk who lived from 1090 to 1153.  While Bernard lived before the worst developments in Catholic theology, he was still not exactly a medieval quasi-Protestant.  Nevertheless, Calvin made use of Bernard’s best insights.  In 2.16.1, Calvin gives this beautiful quote from Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs:

The name of Jesus is not only light, but also food; it is also oil, without which all food of the soul is dry; it is salt, without whose seasoning whatever is set before us is insipid; finally, it is honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, rejoicing in the heart, and at the same time medicine.  Every discourse in which his name is not spoken is without savor.

Calvin appreciated Bernard’s fervour for Christ and his felicitous turn of phrase.

Calvin likewise employed language with a skilled eye to felicity.  Trained as a humanist (in the classical sense of the word), Calvin valued beautiful rhetoric.  Throughout the Institutes there are words so well-crafted you may occasionally feel some salty moisture rolling down your cheek.   If you compare these Institutes with those of a later Genevan theologian named Francis Turretin, the contrast could scarcely be starker.  The language of Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology is technical and pays little attention to aesthetics.  It is often like reading a car manual for theology.  However, Calvin’s Institutes feature numerous sections like this in 3.2.42:

Accordingly, in brief, hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God.  Thus, faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when his truth shall be manifested; faith believes that he is our Father, hope anticipates that he will ever show himself to be a Father toward us; faith believes that eternal life has been given to us, hope anticipates that it will some time be revealed; faith is the foundation upon which hope rests, hope nourishes and sustains faith.

Calvin was indubitably a master of using language to powerful effect.

Regrettably, I have to say I also encountered instances where Calvin uses strong, questionable, or even offensive language.  He uses strong language when it comes to unbiblical and dangerous ideas.  But he also uses strong words for the person of his theological opponents:  “blockheads” (3.20.25), “stupid men” (3.21.7), “swine” (3.23.12), and many other such insults.  I have read enough Reformation literature to know Calvin was not unusual in using this kind of language – and our day tends to be far more sensitive about throwing invectives around in our theological polemics.

I am far less inclined to give Calvin a pass on some other language he uses.  In three places, Calvin uses the exclamation “Good God!”  (3.4.29, 3.4.39, 4.16.27).  In each context, it is clearly an exclamation and not a sincerely-meant prayer to God.  The expression was used in Calvin’s original Latin of the 1559 edition (“Bone Deus!”), but for some reason he dropped it in the French.  In each instance, the older translations of Beveridge and Allen omit these exclamations.  I have encountered the same expression in the writings of Guido de Brès.  I find it troubling and I cannot find a way to excuse it.  I would suppose that, being former Roman Catholics, they became accustomed to using this exclamation to express great horror — a blind spot.

For readers today there are some challenges in reading and benefiting from Calvin’s Institutes.  Some of the discussion has less relevance to us.  For example, I found the discussion about the sacramental theology of the Roman Catholic Church to be one of the most tedious parts of the work.  It may be interesting from a historical standpoint, and it might still be valuable to someone actively engaged in apologetics with Roman Catholics, but for the rest of us, the temptation to skip through this section is difficult to resist.

Persevering readers will encounter some of Calvin’s best and most well-known theological insights.  Among them:

  • The Scriptures serve as spectacles to help us see God clearly (1.6.1, 1.14.1)
  • “…man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” (1.11.8)
  • Calvin believes the world to be less than 6000 years old (1.14.1, 3.21.4)
  • Justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns.” (3.11.1)
  • Fasting “is an excellent aid for believers today (as it always was)…” (4.12.18)
  • If baptism is to be denied to the infant children of believers because Scripture is silent on the explicit practice, then women should also be denied access to the Lord’s Supper (4.16.8)
  • The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently, preferably every week (4.17.43)
  • Aristocracy, or perhaps a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy “far excels” all other systems of government (4.20.8)
  • Revolts are possible when led by lower magistrates (4.20.30)

Reading Calvin’s Institutes will remind Reformed believers today that Calvin is not the gold standard for what it means to be Reformed.  After all, there are several points at which much contemporary Reformed faith and practice departs from Calvin.  For example, in 4.3.16, he discusses the laying on of hands in connection with office bearers.  This laying on of hands ought to be practiced not only with the ordination of “pastors and teachers,” but also deacons.  Interestingly, the original Belgic Confession also said that all office bearers should be ordained with the laying on of hands.

Let me conclude with noting that the McNeill/Battles edition is generally well-done.  There are comprehensive indices.  There are immense numbers of helpful explanatory footnotes. It must be said, however, that some of these footnotes reflect the editor’s liberal theological bias.  For example, in a footnote in 1.8.8, the editor informs us that Calvin did not hold to the modern view of a late date for Isaiah 45 and its mention of Cyrus.  Well, I guess not, seeing as how Calvin believed the Bible to be the Word of God!   As another example, in a footnote in 4.8.9, the editor claims Calvin does not explicitly support biblical inerrancy anywhere.  While it would obviously be anachronistic to expect Calvin to affirm every jot and tittle of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, there is plenty of evidence to affirm Calvin has far more in common with biblical inerrantists today than their opponents.

For most Reformed people today, Calvin’s Institutes will remain a reference.  No one should expect regular church members to pick it up and read it straight through with profit.  Those who try will almost certainly get frustrated and give up.  We must be realistic.  It is a work from an era in which theologians could expect far more from their readers.  I wonder whether even many of today’s pastors would be able to digest everything Calvin serves up.  Some of his discussions and references certainly went beyond my ken.  We live in a strange time where we have more access to information than anyone else in the history of world, and yet, compared to Calvin from 500 years ago, we are dullards.  Reading through the Institutes certainly drove that point home to me.


Attending a Babine Funeral

I often still think about my few years as a missionary in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  It was an incredible experience, one that has left a mark on me.  To give you an idea of some of what we saw and heard, the following is an excerpt from my 2011 book, The Gospel Under the Northern Lights: A Missionary Memoir.  The events described here took place just a couple of months after we arrived in Fort Babine in October 2000.

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Attending a Funeral

Another interesting person we came to know and love was William Duncan.  He was an older single man who lived by himself in an immaculate house.  He had been a fishing guide and still had a passion for fishing, although his health didn’t always allow him to indulge.  When I first met him, he was 67.  He was comfortable talking about the fact that he was a hereditary chief from the Caribou clan.  His hereditary name was We Heh.  He had a lot of insight to give into the culture and history of the area.  He told me Fort Babine used to have one feast hall for each of the four clans, but they slowly deteriorated and disappeared.  Eventually, all the potlatch feasts would be held only in Burns Lake.  As a hereditary chief, Willie tried to attend all the feasts he could and he invited me to join him sometime.  One day I did.

Ted Lowley was a resident of the Lake Babine Nation reserve in Burns Lake and had recently passed away.  His funeral and the associated potlatch were held on December 9, 2000.  Willie was ready when I stopped by at his place at 8:00 in the morning and, together with Fred William, we set off for Burns Lake, via Smithers.  Along the way, we chatted and I discovered from Fred that the current population of Fort Babine was about ninety people living in twenty-six houses.  I also learned there was a lot of animosity between the people of Fort Babine and those of Burns Lake.  There was a strong feeling of alienation and that had to do with the history and the amalgamation process back in 1957.

We arrived in Smithers in good time, filled up with gas, and then headed over to the “Babine Bus Depot.”  That was what a lot of people called the Super Valu grocery store and its tiny mall.  There we had some breakfast together and met up with Adam George, who decided to come with us to Burns Lake.  We were in Burns by noon and went straight to the Roman Catholic Church there for the funeral service.  Approximately five or six hundred people were there for that, mostly native.

After the funeral mass, the coffin was taken to the cemetery.  After a few words from the priest and some sprinkling of “holy” water, the body was lowered into the grave.  As was typical for First Nations funerals, the family was expressive in their grief.  It’s certainly not what someone growing up in a Dutch immigrant community is used to.  It’s not bad; it’s just different and that’s fine.  Later on, all the immediate family members took a turn shovelling dirt onto the coffin.

From the cemetery we went over to the Woyenne feast hall.  Willie had been told that the funeral feast would start right away.  However, there was no one there.  By this time we were getting hungry, so Willie took us out for lunch to a local Chinese restaurant.  Afterwards, we headed back to the feast hall, but there was still hardly anybody there.  We took a tour around the Woyenne Lake Babine Nation reserve, including a look at the local Taj Mahal – the LBN band office.  There were a lot of new houses on the reserve, paved roads, good water and sewer, and a nearby hospital.

Finally, at around 4:00 we went back to the hall and more people were beginning to arrive.  There was lots of standing and sitting around and socializing.  The feast itself didn’t get started until around 7:00.  It began with prayer and then food was served.  We had bannock, soup, and platefuls of all kinds of other good stuff.   While we ate, people were busy making contributions to pay for the cost of the funeral.  There is some reciprocity involved with this aspect of the potlatch – in other words, a person would make a contribution knowing that eventually it would somehow get paid back.  But there were also many instances where people would make contributions with “no-return,” meaning they didn’t want to get paid back.  That was motivated more by generosity than by reciprocity.  The giving of gifts would go on for several hours, but we had to leave early because I wanted to be home by midnight.  The next day was Sunday and we would be up early to make the trip back into Smithers to attend church.  So that was the second time I attended a potlatch.  It helped me to understand more about First Nations culture in this part of BC.

A few days later, we traded in the big blue Suburban for a smaller vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe.  Our days of providing bus service between Smithers and Fort Babine were over.  With our family of four in the vehicle, there was only room for one more person.  The Tahoe was great to drive, although like with every vehicle we had up there, we ended up stuck in the snow and ice more times than I care to remember.  I also became an expert in changing flat tires – in short order I was able to do it in well under 15 minutes.

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Interested in reading more?  The Gospel Under the Northern Lights is available here.


An Index of Calvin’s Distinctions in the Institutes

I recently finished reading straight through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  I plan to write an essay on that experience in the near future.  For now, one of the things that struck me was how Calvin worked with various theological and philosophical distinctions.  I catalogued as many as I could discern and you can find them in this document.  There are many of them!  Many Calvin works with in a positive way, but there are also a few he rejects as “wily,” “loathsome,” or “worthless.”  It’s said that distinguishing well is a hallmark of a good theologian — Calvin certainly ranks up there with the best.


Klaas Schilder’s Christ and Culture — Some Notes

Way back in the day (I mean way back — even before university), I got it into my head to take a Dutch course.  The greatest part of my motivation was the desire to read famous Dutch theologians like Klaas Schilder in the original.  So off I went, me and a good buddy, to study Dutch at an evening course offered by the adult education department of Edmonton Public Schools.  After finishing the course, I got my hands on some books by old KS.  One of them was a slim little volume entitled Christus en cultuur.  Unfortunately, my Dutch skills were not up to snuff.  I could make little sense of it.  I gave up soon after beginning.

A few years later, I managed to get my own copy of an English translation of this book.  Translated by Rev. G. VanRongen and Dr. W. Helder, it was published by Premier in 1976.  I got more out of the English translation than I did from the Dutch, but there were large swathes that remained impenetrable.  After reading some other stuff from Schilder, I reached the conclusion that either he was the most brilliantly flawed communicator in the world or I was one of the densest readers.  He could have moments of profound insight, but it was like wading through thick brambles to access that beautiful little trout stream.

I recently discovered a new edition of Christ and Culture.  It was published in 2016 by Lucerna, the publishing arm of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  It is a new and much-improved translation by William Helder (who was involved with the first English translation) and Albert H. Oosterhoff.  It also includes helpful explanatory notes, both from the translators and from a recent Dutch edition by Jochem Douma.  As a result, many of the literary brambles have been cleared away and the insights of Schilder are more accessible.

Having read through this new edition, let me make a few notes, both of appreciation and criticism.

It is well-known that Schilder was an outspoken critic of Abraham Kuyper.  Christ and Culture allows English readers access to some of his criticisms and their rationale.  For example, in chapter 4, he critiques Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty:

…Kuyper himself was not able to explain clearly what exactly those “sovereigns” in all those “spheres” might be.  One single Sovereign — that is something we can accept and understand.  But as soon as one begins to speak about “sovereigns” in the plural, each of them in his own sphere, things become vague.  (16)

Chapters 18 and 26 feature Schilder’s critique of Kuyper’s teaching on common grace.  When “the gifts of creation blossom and expand,” Schilder argues that it is not a matter of grace, but of nature.  Cultural activity in itself does not involve grace, but godly cultural activity does.  He agrees that there is a restraining of sin, but there is also a restraining of grace.  Schilder’s critique is worth considering.

In the last number of years, Schilder’s name has been bandied about in connection with the Federal Vision controversy.  In relation to that, it’s worth noting that chapter 14 finds Schilder affirming the active obedience of Christ.  In chapter 16, some might be surprised to find KS appear to be speaking of a pre-fall covenant as something distinct from the covenant of grace.  He even uses the common expression “covenant of works,” but places quotation marks around it — a device which indicates his discomfort with the “works” part of that expression.  Unfortunately, the annotation of Douma gives the impression here that Schilder regarded the “covenant of works” as something essentially distinct from the later covenant of grace.  In reality, Schilder elsewhere clearly regarded the covenant of grace as a continuation of the “covenant of works,” or another phase in the history of the one covenant (see here, for example).  While I wish Douma’s note was the whole story, we do have to honestly acknowledge the facts.

While generally appreciative, there are a number of places where I’ve placed question marks in this book.  In chapter 26, against Kuyper, KS argues that Calvinism should develop its own unique artistic style.  That we don’t do this is a sign of weakness, he insists.  What he means is that Dutch Calvinists should develop their own artistic style.  He has no conception of what it might look like for an African-American Calvinist to develop his own artistic style, or an Australian aboriginal, or a Calvinist from whatever other culture in the world.  This entire book, in fact, is quite insular — it was written for Dutch Reformed readers living in the 1950s who had no to little multicultural exposure.   The book is a product of its time and thus the author can’t be held too culpable for this.  When we think about Christ and culture today, however, we do need to reckon with a multicultural world.

Schilder appears to believe that the only worthwhile cultural endeavours result in educational outcomes.  So, for example, he is rather critical of movies (he’s writing in the 1950s!) because though they exhibit technical excellence, they do not educate people.  Hence, they are breaking down, rather than building up (page 119).  But why is a pedagogical purpose the defining feature of what builds up?  Why can’t a cleverly told story (whether on the screen or in a book) that’s written to delight not also be a worthwhile cultural endeavour?  Is there no place for simple delight and enjoyment in a Christian conception of culture, or must everything have an educational purpose? I’m not convinced by Schilder here.

Though easier than before, this book is still not accessible reading for average church-goers.  Sometimes I write about books and I get people asking me, “Should we buy this for our church library?”  Umm….no, sorry.  Even with all the helpful annotations, this remains rather thick theology.  As such it’s best-suited for pastors, theologians, and academics.  They’ll be challenged and enriched by its contents.  I’m glad that we have this new improved edition and I commend CRTS for getting behind it.


Calvin: Ministers Ought Not to Steal

I’m reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  For the first time.  Yes, shamefacedly, I have to admit that I have never read the work from cover to cover.  I’ve grazed here and there.  I’ve used the handy index to look up what Calvin said on particular topics.  But never, since buying it in 1992, have I had the discipline or desire to digest the whole enchilada.  I’m glad that I’ve finally begun to do so.  Calvin has some remarkable insights, many of which have been noted by others (the law as a mirror, the Word of God as spectacles, etc.).  But frequently you stumble across something which, it seems to me, others may have overlooked.

In Book 2, Calvin works his way through the Ten Commandments.  He approaches them as the guide for the life of a Christian redeemed by God’s grace in Christ.  As part of his explanation of the Eighth Commandment (“You shall not steal”), he points out that this commandment also means that Christians are bound to fulfill whatever duties they have been given, “to pay their debts faithfully” so to speak (Institutes 2.8.46).  He applies this to various callings in society:  rulers, parents, children, and servants.

Interestingly, he also applies the Eighth Commandment to pastors:

Let the ministers of churches faithfully attend to the ministry of the Word, not adulterating the teaching of salvation, but delivering it pure and undefiled to God’s people.  And let them instruct the people not only through teaching, but also through example of life.  In short, let them exercise authority as good shepherds over their sheep.

In other words, pastors obey the Eighth Commandment when they fully discharge their calling.  Particularly, we’re to proclaim the gospel with fidelity.  Anything less is to be considered as theft.  We are robbing God of what he is owed and we are robbing the people of God what they are owed from us.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that application before!

But, according to Calvin, sermon imbibers can also be thieves:

Let the people in their turn receive them as messengers and apostles of God, render to them that honor of which the highest Master has deemed them worthy, and give them those things necessary for their livelihood.

When parishioners fail to honor their pastors by listening to them and providing for them, Calvin points out that this is actually robbery.  But by attentive listening and loving support for their under-shepherds, Christians are following the Eighth Commandment.  Have you ever thought about this in those terms?  Didn’t think so.  But it makes sense, right?