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Archive for March 16th, 2013

Calvin For Armchair Theologian

Purchase: Amazon

This is the fourth book I read in the “Armchair Theologians” series, and one of the better ones I would say though my favorite was on Martin Luther. This work does a good job in explaining John Calvin’s biography–how he started out as a humanist and lawyer and eventually a pastor and theologian. Calvin’s story of how he got to Geneva is a testimony of God’s providence–for Calvin was originally taking a detour to another place and happened to visit the city only to be persuaded (well threatened with God’s Wrath) to stay–an important decision that made tremendous impact in history. I appreciated the author’s discussion about the Institutes of Christian religion, and the background for why Calvin wrote this book along with the author’s observation of how Calvin organized his theology. What I appreciate the most about this book is the fact that the author tackled some of the controversies surrounding Calvin with the consideration of Calvin in his historical situation. Evaluating Calvin in this light removes some of the objections people have stated against him or his theology. For instance, in the Predestination debate with Bolsec, the author revealed that Bolsec was the one who initiated attacking Calvin’s view first and also reminded the reader that Bolsec’s negative biography had an ax to grind. It seems that there cannot be any discussion about Calvin’s controversial life without the mention of Michael Servetus. Contrary to some myths, Michael Servetus was not killed by John Calvin since he was a pastor/theologian and not a member of the magistrate. In addition, the book pointed out that Calvin at that time didn’t enjoy a particularly good relationship with the rulers of Geneva so it’s doubtful how much pull Calvin had on the officials during that time. Calvin’s involvement at first was to correct Servetus and he was even originally not in favor of any punishment against Servetus. The book also considered the Servetus controversy in it’s historical setting, and while it does not necessarily excuse what happened it should slow down the modern critic from ignorantly assuming Geneva was a hotbed of Calvinistic tyranny. Geneva at that time had already a reputation for being too tolerant for sheltering what some perceived to be too many theological wild cats and when Servetus came along the officials in Geneva even consulted with other cities as to what to do with him.  Thus, Geneva was under mounting pressure to do something. Readers must remember that this was not a time period in which religious tolerance was at a premium; yet Geneva’s only religious execution was Servetus in contrasts to the multitudes the Roman Catholics managed to kill in religious wars or burn at the stakes those who were Protestants, etc. The most problematic part of the book was the last chapter on the heirs of Calvin, where the author’s careful and thoughtful reflection gets unhinged and his theologically more liberal perspective shows. Elwood thinks that theological Liberals, Barthians, Neo-Orthodox and Liberation Theologians are legitimate heirs to Calvin’s legacy while seeing Conservative Reformed Christians such as those of Old Princeton as the wacky right wing extremists of Calvin’s theological lineage. This would seems strange to most people and no doubt this reveals more of Elwood’s theological paradigm than it does about Calvin’s legacy. Elwood here assumes that Semper Reformanda gives license for him to assume that whatever have changed over time can be rightly called “Calvinistic.”  However I don’t think that’s true to the spirit of Semper Reformanda–Calvin’s principle of “always reforming” assumes a high view of Scripture and the Word of God as normative–something that some of Calvin’s alleged heirs that Elwood asserts in this book have failed to subscribe to.

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