[K:NWTS 24/1 (May 2009) 58-64]

Book Review

Willem van’t Spijker, Calvin: A Brief Guide to his Life and Thought. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 197pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-664-23225-2. $24.95.

Throughout this year of the Calvin Quincentenary (1509-2009), we will encounter a spate of conferences, studies, articles, books, DVDs, even bon-bon au chocolat Suisse Calviniste—the later with ‘soft’ centers, as opposed to ‘hard’ Calvinism! Spijker’s book is an early as well as worthy representative of this flurry. We are also anticipating the release of the new biography by Herman Selderhuis (John Calvin—a Pilgrim’s Life) by IVP. In the meantime, the reader seeking a competent, informed and balanced ‘brief guide’ to Calvin may confidently curl up with this very fine work. Spijker devotes the bulk of his pages to Calvin’s biography (1-126), which he follows with shorter chapters on his theology (127-47) and his impact (148-71). The bibliographies contain scholarly materials to about 2000 because our translator (Lyle Bierma) has used an unpublished ms. by Spijker and a 2001 German edition of this work. Hence, where the bibliography contains materials beyond 2001, they have been included by Paul Fields, formatter of the bibliographies (and compiler of the exhaustive annual Calvin bibliography which appears in the Calvin Theological Journal).

Spijker does not interact with the finest biography of Calvin to date—Bernard Cottret’s Calvin: A Biography. Published in France in 1998, the English translation was released by Wm. B. Eerdmans in 2000. While Cottret uses shocking, obscene (even lewd) language (caveat lector!)[1], his research is thorough and his writing style engaging. He far surpasses Parker, McGrath, Bousma and others in penetration (in this reviewer’s opinion). I must not fail to commend the superb biographical summary (not to mention the virtually unsurpassed survey of Calvin’s written corpus) in Wulfert de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide (1993/expanded edition 2008).

Spijker organizes Calvin’s thought around union with Christ. This will be of interest in the midst of the contentious spirit between Westminster East (Philadelphia) and Westminster West (Escondido). Leaving these institutions to their internal debate, we observe Spijker rightly drawing Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and election from union with Christ; rightly drawing Calvin’s doctrine of justification by faith alone from union with Christ; rightly drawing Calvin’s doctrine of the church (calling, regeneration, conversion, profession of faith, participation in the sacraments) from union with Christ. What is obvious to Spijker as he reads Calvin, as to anyone who can read the plain English of the 1559 edition of Calvin’s Institutes—that is, anyone who is not trying to force John Calvin to look like a 16th century pre-incarnate appearance of the late Meredith G. Kline and other Lutheran and Amyraldian pan-confessionalists, i.e., those who read Calvin with an agenda; a presuppositional agenda; an agenda which such persons bring to Calvin via Kline (e.g., Mark Karlberg, John Fesko), especially on the covenants; an agenda which thumbs its nose at the plain sense of the primary documents—what is obvious to numerous others who read Calvin as they read Biblical and New Testament doctrine (especially that of the apostle Paul) is the demonstrative and all pervasive evidence of union with Christ. Paul’s favorite expression is “in Christ”: sounds like “union with Christ” language is the inspired apostle’s inspired language (at least, to anyone who has passed the course in Theology for Beginners).

Spijker is even apparently convinced that Calvin believed in the inerrancy of the Bible (133). How this line got past the red pencil of Donald McKim, Executive Editor for Theology and Reference at Westminster John Knox Press (ix) remains a mystery. After all, golden boy McKim made his entry into the pantheon of 20th century theologians by denying that John Calvin ever believed in inerrancy. Along with his cohort, Jack Rogers (former Moderator of the mainline liberal PC[USA]), McKim burst upon the world like a veritable epiphany in 1979 (The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach). Having greased the skids of the media and religious press (Rogers had already played Benedict Arnold to his former mentor, John Gerstner), these two took the proverbial ride to fame and fortune. Rogers and McKim informed us that no one in the history of the church had believed in the inerrancy of the Bible until the benighted Francis Turretin (17th century) and his followers at old Princeton Theological Seminary (19th century) foisted the theory (“an approach almost the exact opposite of Calvin’s”[2]) upon an equally benighted American culture. If ever two opportunists caught the ‘times a changing’ ‘blowin’ in the wind’ of the heady leftwing evangelicalism of the 1970s, it was these two who cruised like they had Hollywood agents. And what a ride—all the way to the top of the ‘In Club’ of the trendy and affluent UPCUSA, aka PC(USA).

Spijker uses a pregnant expression to make an incisive point about Calvin: doctrina caelestis (“heavenly doctrine”, 133). Once again, the term occurs in Spijker’s discussion of Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture. The Scriptures convey/relay “heavenly doctrine”. That is, for Calvin the words of Scripture are the words of God from heaven. From his heavenly throne, God speaks his words (the revelation in the Bible) into history. Heaven’s truths (as God’s truths) come upon man’s consciousness, come into man’s hearing, enter into man’s heart as the Word of God in heaven. In other words, Calvin’s “heavenly doctrine” aspect of Scripture is equivalent to an eschatological orientation and organization of revelation. If Scripture is heavenly (eschatological) doctrine, it is because it comes down from and is reflected/oriented up to heaven’s own teaching source. Hence, an eschatological vector in Scriptural revelation is a given for Calvin. The eschatological orientation of all of Scripture (“every Scripture is God-breathed”—2 Tim. 3:16) is given with the nature of God giving revelation itself. To read the Scriptures as un-eschatological (un-heavenly) is as foreign to Calvin as it is to the recipients of revelation from Genesis to Revelation.

Here are a few sober reminders salient to the present theological debates which roil Reformed constituencies. Calvin teaches (as does Scripture) that the covenant is substantially one—a covenant of grace (134). Advocates who phantasize a Sinaitic works covenant will find no ally in Calvin or his primary documents.[3] The justification of sinners is via the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (138). Advocates of imputed righteousness as reduced to forgiveness of sins alone need to be reminded of Calvin’s comments.[4] As Spijker observes, Calvin is “salvation-historical” (134) vis-à-vis justification, i.e., life, death, and resurrection in history are required for iustificatio coram Deo. Spijker also argues that Calvin knows nothing of a Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms. Rather, for Calvin, we are part of a “twofold kingdom under one Lord” (81, 143).

I have a few quibbles. Spijker’s treatment of Calvin’s marriage to Idelette de Bure is a perfunctory single paragraph. Yes, this is a “brief” survey, but Calvin’s estimate of “his dearest life companion” needs some enriching from, e.g., his treatment of Ephesians 5:22-33 (cf. his Sermons on Ephesians).

Spijker uses quotations from CO (Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia; Corpus Reformatorum, vols. 29-87). Kudos! But these citations are not translated from the Latin or French. Boo! Yes, this is an ‘academic’ work, but for “beginning students” (blurb)—especially general lay readers—it would have been very helpful (and would not have expanded the book greatly!) if the publisher had included full English translations of the quotes. As it stands, these ‘foreign language’ remarks will “put off” the uninitiated reader. Sadly, this bias against the well-read lay audience will reduce the book’s otherwise broader appeal. To the lay readers of this journal, I plead: “Do not be intimidated by the footnotes!!” Read the text and benefit from Spijker’s work, in spite of the publisher’s thumbing his nose at your inexperience.

There is no treatment of Calvin’s doctrine of personal eschatology (cf. Institutes,  III.ix and xxv): separation of the soul from the body at death (in spite of Spijker’s mention of Calvin’s first theological work, Psychopannychia [1534, though not published until 1542]); intermediate state (i.e., between the death of the body and the resurrection of the body); resurrection of the dead; Heaven and Hell (i.e., eternal life and eternal torment). These important points are treated in all of Calvin’s catechisms (1537, 1538, 1541, 1545) as foundational to Christian hope.

There is very little treatment of Calvin’s sermons or his preaching. This oversight is glaring. Calvin preached more than 2040 sermons, of which about 680 survive (irresponsibly, in the early 19th century, hundreds were sold in order to gain shelf-space in la Bibliothéque de Genève). The remnant are the object of continuing editorial and scholarly attention (Supplementa Calviniana). Several good books have been written on the topic (T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching; E. A. de Boer, John Calvin on the Vision of Ezekiel; cf. de Boer’s superb introduction to his critical edition of Sermons sur le Livre des Revelations du prophete Ezechiel Chapitres 36-48, Supplementa Calviniana, vol. X/3). Spijker needs to tell us more about this major aspect of Calvin’s life and theology than the seven lines on pp. 148-49.

The date for William Farel’s Sommaire is given as 1515 (38); in fact, the alleged 1525 version is a misprint and appears never to have existed; cf. the discussion and English translation of Farel’s “Summary” in James T. Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 1: 1523-1552, 51-111).

The Latin phrase censura morum is translated (70, 108) “mutual censure”. The lexicons do not allow “mutual” for a definition of morum; “customs”, “manners”, “morals” or “behavior” would be more accurate. If “mutual” is intended, the preferred term would be mutuus or alternus.

Spijker states that Giorgio Biandrata “stirred up some unrest” (115). This is a vast understatement. Biandrata was a notorious Arian heretic who disrupted the Reformed churches of Poland, Hungary and Transylvania with his anti-Trinitarian fulminations after mid-century of the 1500s.

Quibbles aside, this is a successful overview of Calvin’s career and theology. In this “Calvin Year”, it should refresh and stimulate those interested in the remarkable Geneva Reformer.

[1]  Eerdmans may be properly scored for printing these offensive expressions. No Christian publisher should have allowed these without red-lining them. Cottret’s points are as easily made with less perverse expressions. The modern demand for the ‘realistic’ and ‘authentic’ is simply one more expression of depraved man’s unbridled lust for license. Publishers as well seem unable to resist the temptation to descend into the gutter. For shame!!

[2]The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, xvii. John Woodbridge provided the devastating response to this flawed and biased trumpery in Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (1982). Richard Muller, premier expert on 16th and 17th century primary documents, embarrasses Rogers and McKim with, among other trenchant observations, the following. “Luther, equally clearly [“like Calvin, Bullinger, and later orthodox thinkers, both Lutheran and Reformed”], can speak of the Scripture as free from error” (66); “To claim that Calvin did not hold ‘any doctrine of exact verbal inspiration’ is to ignore the plain sense of the words” (237)—Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Two, Holy Scripture, The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (2nd edition, 2003). Calvin frequently labels the Word of God, the doctrine of God, the Ten Commandments, our “infallible rule (reigle infallible)” (cf. The Sermons of John Calvin on Deuteronomy (1583/1987) 530, 680, 732, 816; also “Sermons on the Harmony of the Gospels” CO 24:374). An infallible Word of God is “incapable of erring” (OED); it cannot err. More than the fact that it truly “does not err” (OED sub inerrant), it is impossible that it can err. “God cannot lie;” the stronger term in this discussion is “infallible”.

[3]  “[I]t is written, he that does these things shall live in them (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5). Now then (says Saint Paul) let every man look into himself and examine his whole life: is there any man that is able to vaunt that he has fulfilled God’s law? No, we are all disobedient. Seeing the case stands so, there is no more life in the law: but we must rather flee to the free forgiveness of sins and especially beseech God to give us power to do that which we cannot. And so whereas the Papists do make themselves drunken with their devilish imaginations of meritorious works and such other like things: let us understand that after our Lord has allured us by gentleness, he adds a second grace: which is, that albeit we are not able to perform his commandments thoroughly in all respects, yet he bears with us  as a father bears with his children, and imputes not our sins unto us…,” John Calvin, “Sermon 19 (Dt. 4:1-2),” The Sermons of John Calvin on Deuteronomy (1583/1987) 112-13.

This is, of course, pure Augustinianism: sinful man has no more ability to perform the demands of the law than he does to “repent and believe the gospel”. Ability does not correspond with demand. All Pauline, Augustinian, Calvinistic anthropology and psychology has emphatically underscored the proposition that obligation (demand) does not imply ability, i.e., “ought does NOT imply can”. Though a sinner ought to repent and believe the gospel, he is unable to do so. That ability requires an act of God in his corrupt heart. Though a sinner ought to perform the law and thus live, he is unable to do so. That ability requires an act of God in his corrupt heart. God who makes the demand must perform the demand he makes. Hence any suggestion that Israel at Sinai is able to perform the law and live, as if they had plenary ability to do so and gain real, actual even typological merit thereby, is semi-Pelagian Roman Catholicism at best and crass Pelagianism at worst. It is not historic Pauline, Augustinian, Calvinistic orthodoxy. It is, in fact however unwittingly, a blatant rejection of the Protestant Reformation.

Notice how Calvin himself expresses just what I have said above. “True it is that here Moses exhorts the Jews to circumcise their hearts: but yet we shall see hereafter, how he will say, the Lord our God will circumcise your hearts (Dt. 30:6), it may well seem at the first sight that these two things stand not well together, but that there is some contrariety in them: and yet they agree both together very well. For (as I have touched before) it is our duty to be circumcised; that is to say, to cut off all that is of our own nature, and to rid it quite away that God may reign in us. But do we discharge ourselves thereof? No: but God must be fain to supply our want. And therefore it is he that circumcises us. Why then does he command us to do it, seeing we have neither power nor ability to do it? It is to the end that we should be sorry at the sight of our own wretchedness, and that seeing we fail and are so blameworthy, we should on the other side resort unto our God condemning ourselves, and on the other side be encouraged to desire him to do that which we ourselves cannot. . . But yet by the way we must understand that this serves not to magnify our own free will as the Papists have imagined. We have shown already that we are so little able by nature to come unto God that we draw clean back from him. Nevertheless to the intent to show us plainly what out duty is, he says unto us, do it: and although we are not able to set hand to the work, no, not to put forth a finger towards it; yet does he command us to do our duty, notwithstanding that we are utterly unable by any means to perform it. And that is to the end that we seeing our default, should be the more ashamed of it, and humble ourselves before God, and again that we should be provoked to pray him to work in us, seeing it is he that does all in us, notwithstanding that it is his will that we should be instruments of the power of his Holy Spirit. For as he is so gracious unto us as to impute his own doings unto us and to make us partakers of them: so also it is his will that we should acknowledge and take them for our own” (“Sermon 72 (Dt. 10:15-17),” The Sermons of John Calvin on Deuteronomy (1583/1987) 441-42.

Calvin comments on the one “inviolable”, “perpetual” covenant of grace, which is the same with Israel at Sinai as with Abraham at Hebron: “Now, as to the new covenant, it is not so called, because it is contrary to the first covenant; for God is never inconsistent with himself, nor is he unlike himself; he then who once made a covenant with his chosen people, had not changed his purpose, as though he had forgotten his faithfulness. It then follows, that the first covenant was inviolable; besides, he had already made his covenant with Abraham, and the Law was a confirmation of that covenant. As then the Law depended on that covenant which God made with his servant Abraham, it follows that God could never have made a new, that is, a contrary or a different covenant. For whence do we derive our hope of salvation, except from that blessed seed promised to Abraham? Further, why are we called the children of Abraham, except on account of the common bond of faith? Why are the faithful said to be gathered into the bosom of Abraham? Why does Christ say, that some will come from the east and the west, and sit down in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? (Luke 16:22; Matthew 8:11) These things no doubt sufficiently show that God has never made any other covenant than that which he made formerly with Abraham, and at length confirmed by the hand of Moses. This subject might be more fully handled; but it is enough briefly to show, that the covenant which God made at first is perpetual” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations (1950) 4:126-27 on Jer. 31:31-32. For more primary documents from the 16th and 17th centuries affirming that the Sinai covenant is a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works, see http://sites.google.com/site/themosaiccovenant.

[4]  “Now then, let us learn that whereas the keeping of the law might be imputed to us for righteousness, if it could be found in us: we are utterly deprived and bereft thereof. . . Therefore when we have acknowledged ourselves to be utterly forlorn and damned in our own nature, and thereupon repair to our Lord Jesus Christ, suing to be partakers of his righteousness, and to be justified by virtue of the obedience which he yields to God his Father: then God not only receives us to mercy, and covers us with the perfection that is in our Lord Jesus Christ, as with a cloak, to the intent that we should obtain salvation . . .,” “Sermon 50 (Dt. 6:20-25),” ibid., 301.

“Then are we all disappointed of righteousness, so as we cannot in any wise stand in God’s favor. But yet are we righteous in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. And why? For he being the sovereign king in whom there was no bondage nor subjection, did willingly submit himself to the law, and bear the yoke thereof for us: for we know that he performed the will of God his Father in all points to the full. And so by that means we are taken for righteous in Jesus Christ. Why so? Because he was obedient. Yea and that obedience of his was not for himself; there was no subjection in him, neither was he bound to anything: for he is altogether above the law: therefore it follows that he was obedient for us . . . and all is applied unto us by the virtue of faith,” “Sermon 124 (Dt. 21:22-23),” ibid., 763.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.