Thursday, February 24, 2011

With Calvin in the Theater of God

**Review by Jonathan**

John Calvin. Although I was raised in a Christian home, attending various churches growing up, I was almost completely unfamiliar with his work and role in the Protestant Reformation. I always perceived Luther as the figurehead of the Reformation, dueling heroically against the Roman Catholic traditions, and any other players fell by the wayside.

But, having recently been working my way through Reformed theology, my attention was caught by this book, and I bargained with Carrie to read it first. ("OK, fine, but you'll have to review it...") So, without further ado, I bring you "With Calvin in the Theater of God: The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life".

Calvinism these days comes up more often as a heady platform for theological debate, than as a nuts-and-bolts basis for the way we live our lives and handle our relationships. It's easy to be dismissive of theology and relegate it to the "ivory tower" of academic philosophy. As long as our pastor can boil it down into something relevant for us on Sunday morning, right?! Hm. If only it were that easy.

This book does an excellent job of combating this divorce of theology from lifestyle, by reviewing how significantly John Calvin's theology was interwoven with his daily life and circumstances. The book consists of six chapters, each authored by a contemporary Reformed theologian. Their writing of Calvin is only mildly biographical, and primarily focuses on exploring six different facets of his theology, illustrating them with his personal life for added context. (Some aspects of Calvinism, such a predestination, can be "hot topics" of debate between Christians, but the essays in this book don't engage in heavy argument along these lines.)
  1. At Work & Worship: Calvin the Man & Why I Care by Julius Kim. This reviews the early life and conversion of Calvin, followed by his seminal writing of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the earliest Reformed systematic theologies. His teaching on "Sola Scriptura" (scripture alone) and "Soli Deo Gloria" (the glory of God alone) emphasize how God is powerful, personal, and purposeful. Kim describes all this against the backdrop of Calvin's personal life, which was often plagued by ill health and difficult circumstances.

  2. Bad Actors on a Broken Stage: Sin & Suffering in Calvin's World and Ours by Mark Talbot. Throughout history, Christians have struggled with the natural tension of believing in an omnipotent, holy God, and at the same time observing the corruption of sin that has turned our world into such a train wreck. Talbot does a great job of assembling Calvin's writings on the sovereignty of God and summarizing them in a succinct way. One thought-provoking example from Calvin's Institutes:
    "Whence, I ask you, comes the stench of a corpse, which is both putrefied and laid open by the heat of the sun? All human beings see that it is stirred up by the sun’s rays, yet no one for this reason says that the rays stink. Thus, since the matter and guilt and evil repose in a wicked man, what reason is there to think that God contracts any defilement if He uses his service for His own purpose?"
  3. The Sacred Script in the Theater of God: Calvin, the Bible, & the Western World by Douglas Wilson. This chapter explores and dissects Calvin's extraordinarily high view of preaching, and the power expressed through declaring the Word of God. Wilson's writing style is quite readable (he can turn a phrase quite neatly), and he does a good job of contrasting Calvin's views with how the authority of scripture is often misrepresented by the navel-gazing of modern evangelicalism. Calvin writes,
    "Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God. . . . Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan's reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God."

  4. The Secular Script in the Theater of God: Calvin on the Christian Meaning of Public Life by Marvin Olasky. Calvin was vocal and influential in describing the way our Christianity should influence our conduct toward the secular world of business, finances, relationships, law, and politics. Calvin's thoughts on these topics are more relevant than you might expect, given that we're separated from him by five centuries of progress world development.

  5. Living With One Foot Raised: Calvin on the Glory of the Final Resurrection & Heaven by Sam Storms. As Christians living amongst the chaos of today's society, reflection on Heaven and the afterlife tend to be more of an afterthought. Calvin's treatment of this subject is that,
    The lusts of the flesh hold us entangled, when in our minds we dwell in the world, and think not that heaven is our country; but when we pass as strangers through this life, we are not in bondage to the flesh.

    If meditation on the heavenly life were the prevailing sentiment in our hearts, the world would have no influence in detaining us.
  6. Jesus Christ as Dénouement in the Theater of God: Calvin & the Supremacy of Christ in All Things by John Piper. Calvin's theology places Christ squarely at the climax of history, around which all created things, past, present, and future, revolve. Piper describes the significance of this to our faith and life.

In summary, this book is a very approachable "birds-eye view" (from six different birds) of Calvinism, presented in a more relational, biographical way than theology is typically rehearsed. I found it to make for a good read (and short, at less than 175 pages), although the informational writing style leaves the step of personal application to the reader.

Note: The first half of the book can be read online at Google Books.

Thanks to Crossway Books for sending a copy for us to read.


Barbara H. said...

Not counting myself as Reformed in theology and having witnessed many a caustic debate from avid chip-on-the-shoulder Calvinists (not that they're all like that, of course), I've not had the warmest of feelings toward Calvin, but I probably ought to read a biography of the man himself some time.

Alice@Supratentorial said...

This looks excellent, thanks for the review!

bekahcubed said...

This sounds like a definitely worthwhile read. Thanks for the review, Jonathon.

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