Calvin on the Christian Life

Article by   August 2014
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Michael Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 271 pp. $19.99/£12.99

Crossway Books are doing the church a great service with their wonderful series on theologians on the Christian life. The epigram--'gaining wisdom from the past for life in the present'--funds a treatment of each theologian that ensures more than merely academic or historical interest and which shows how previous generations conceived of following Christ in all of life. It is hard not to feel that our modern understanding of the Christian life is truncated and often impoverished by comparison.

The latest volume in the series, Calvin on the Christian Life, is not, however, a volume to induce guilt or despair but rather a sparkling presentation of the world as the theater of God's glory, gathered worship as a celestial theater of grace, and the shape our lives must take when performed on these stages (which overlap but are not identical). This is a book to inspire and encourage, and it is one of the finest introductions to Calvin I have read, one to recommend to those in the early stages of discovering the Genevan Reformer. Sinclair Ferguson says of it, 'This looks like a book on how Calvin thought about living the Christian life. But open it and you will discover that Mike Horton is driving you on a grand Calvin tour of the whole of theology.' Horton's greatest achievement is managing to show that Calvin is rich on the Christian life precisely because he is rich on the theological life, and that for this 'scholar-saint become a preacher' par excellence there can be no divorce between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. 

Horton makes this point simply with an elegant structure. He offers us Calvin on the Christian life in four parts: 1. Living before God (doctrine of God, creation, anthropology, Scripture). 2. Living in God (Christology and union with Christ). 3. Living in the Body (means of grace, public worship, prayer, law and liberty, ecclesiology). 4. Living in the world (Christ and Caesar, vocation, eschatology). Note how all four sections are riveted to the theme of the Christian life but simultaneously anchored in great theological depths. In essence, Horton is expounding the unfolding argument of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, following its contours and mapping its route, dipping in and out of the events of Calvin's life and context and with reference to his other works, to create the narrative world in which the Christian life is lived.

We are treated to so much of Calvin's theology because this is the key to Calvin's piety. In many ways Horton's book is an extended meditation on the meaning of the word 'piety' for Calvin. Whereas we today might bracket 'the Christian life' under an umbrella term like 'spirituality', something which refers to private and more subjective experience, for Calvin 'doctrine, worship and life are all of one piece' (p.17). Justification by faith is the sum of all piety, and love for God and others constitutes piety toward God. The Institutes is 'a sum of all piety'. So for Calvin the Christian life is simply a daily feeding on the doctrines of the gospel (justification and union with Christ). 'We never move on from the gospel but grow more deeply into its nourishing soil, thereby bearing the fruit of love and good works' (p.94).

Horton recognises that Calvin himself would have been embarrassed about being singled out for having a distinctive view of the Christian life, so profoundly catholic in spirit and theology was he. Nevertheless, he skilfully draws out how Calvin contributed 'a distinctively Reformed inflection of the catholic and evangelical faith' (p.41) and certainly by our standards today there is much that throws into sharp relief our prevalent practices and convictions about the Christian life. Horton shows how, because of his pioneering covenantal thinking, Calvin provides not only a hermeneutical lens for reading the Bible but also grounds a 'corporate and ecclesial understanding of piety' (p.42). To see the difference this makes, consider: we tend to think that public piety necessarily arises out of private piety, but for Calvin this is exactly back to front. 'The public ministry of the church is like a fountain from which God's good gifts flow out to families and individuals and then, through them, out into the world' (p.42). Horton quotes Elsie Ann-McKee: Calvin 'understood all personal or individual devotional acts as an extension of the corporate worship of the body of Christ' (pp.154-55). It is counter-intuitive insights like these which mean that a close reading of this book has potential to produce a host of new understandings of prayer, the church, corporate worship, and the sacraments. Fresh perceptions in these areas introduce different dimensions to daily discipleship.

Horton argues that the Christological formula 'distinction without separation' pervades Calvin's thinking and that his Christology establishes the co-ordinates for a host of other topics which Horton examines (p.89). This is deftly explained by in each case, as we might expect, although I am not convinced the maxim is always that close to the surface, for Horton often offers interpretation without quotation when arguing for its guiding presence. Calvin on the third use of the law is rather thinly drawn (pp.169-170). Statements like the following seem to require too much nuancing to be truly helpful: 'Calvin would sharply oppose any preaching that exhorts believers to greater faithfulness as if it were a condition of their assurance of God's good favor' (p.170). Of course, 'condition', 'assurance', and 'favor' carry heavy theological freight and exactly what we mean in each case is important. In speaking about the believer and the law, Calvin can happily use the illustration of a servant who, in all the right ways and for all the right reasons, desires to commend himself to his master by searching out and observing his master's ways so as to conform himself to them (Institutes 2.7.12). This is not seeking the favor of salvation or entrance to the family home; but what does the ingratitude of the servant within the home do to the kind and bountiful Master? What does it mean to commend ourselves as children to such a Father? These are simply questions in the light of current debates!

There are other riches to be enjoyed in this book. We should not be surprised to learn that Calvin closely weaves together banquet motifs with pilgrim images of the Christian life. He does not spend all his time in the courtroom but leads us to the family room, to a table spread in the wilderness for weary travelers (pp.108-110). Horton cites with approval Brian Gerrish's attractive suggestion that Calvin's entire theology may be summarised as a life of gratitude marked by feasting with the triune God and each other. Horton's treatment of Calvin on prayer reinforces my conviction that Calvin's exposition of the Lord's Prayer is one of the richest veins of pastoral theology the church possesses. Horton is right to compare Calvin to the mysticism of Bernard: prayer flows from the sweetness of love (p.159). Far from being a cold and detached theological logician, Calvin understood that emotion no less than reason was a gift of God and essential to our nature. For Horton, this means that Calvin would likely 'evaluate our worship today not as too emotional, but as too narrow in its emotional repertoire' (p.156). In the Psalms 'Calvin found his own heart' (p.157), and saw there a theology of the cross as well as the resurrection. Horton also sees in Calvin a pre-cursor to James D. Hunter's celebrated idea of 'faithful presence' as the best way for believers to engage the world in which God has placed them (p.235). 

Coming at the end of the book, this argument caps off a recurring theme: Calvin and the Reformed were constantly countering, on the one hand, the Anabaptist impulse which broke the bond between God and the world (encouraging refuge from the world) and, on the other hand, the medieval and Roman impulse which tended to conflate God and the world (not least in the sacraments). Rather, God was active in the world and found in his Word. 'Monastic piety encouraged the mind to ascend away from this world and its history in contemplative speculation, while Calvin's piety directed us to the reality of God's presence in his Word and in his world' (p.238). 

In short, then, Horton allows Calvin to say so much about what it is to be Christian that we can hear just how much he has to say about life. Readers of this book will find much to help them understand vocation and the calling of individual believers as they live and act in this world, all the while knowing how the story ends.



David Gibson is a Minister of Trinity Church, Aberdeen, Scotland. He is author of Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election, and Christology in Calvin and Barth (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2009), and co-editor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2013)



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