Review of The Legacy of John Calvin

Article by   July 2008
2009 ushers in the 500th anniversary of the birth of Genevan Protestant Reformer John Calvin.  A conference is scheduled to be held in Geneva next summer and several books are slated for release in commemoration of the grand occasion.   Two of these have already seen the light of day.  Both hail from Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing and are connected with "the Calvin 500 Series" edited by David Hall.  Hall, who currently serves as pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Powder Springs, GA and who used to host the Center for the Advancement of Paleo-Orthodoxy (CAPO) website, also happens to be the author of this volume, The Legacy of John Calvin:  His Influence on the Modern World.  The book is relatively brief.  But what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in interest.  In some ways this book is reminiscent of the earlier compilation John Calvin, His Influence in the Western World (Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives) edited by W. Stanford Reid back in 1982.  Legacy has the benefit of continuity of style which will make this a very useful volume for Sunday school classes and midweek church Bible study groups.

This book nicely divides itself into three sections.  The first section details ten aspects of contemporary Western culture that would have developed differently were it not for the influence of Calvin:  education, mercy ministry, the abiding authority of the Ten Commandments, the distinction of church and state, collegial governance, decentralized politics, the doctrine of vocation, economics, music in the vernacular, and the power of publishing.  Each of these topics is worth commenting on here, but I shall limit myself to two.  Calvin is known for his advocacy of the separate governance of the church.  While he did not advocate the separation of the church from the state as we understand that in the United States (I am aware that this is an area of dispute), he did argue for the right of the pastors and elders of the church to determine cases of discipline rather than this being a matter to be handled by the magistrate.  And he did not attempt to arrogate church power to himself but rather called for a consistory (the equivalent of the session) where authority was understood to be delegated from Christ to his under-shepherds.  The other topic I found of interest was the discussion of Calvin's harnessing of the power of the printing press.  The volume of books produced in Geneva during Calvin's tenure increased from "3 volumes in 1536 to 28 in 1554 and to 48 by 1561" (34).  Hall cites William Naphy  (Documents  on the Continental Reformation, 87) , "The printed works flooding into the country could not be stopped by legal prohibition.  The more edicts issued by the courts, the more booklets and papers increased."  All this makes me wonder how Calvin would greet the age of the internet?  I suspect Calvin would use it in the best way possible to promote the interests of our Lord and his gospel.

In the second section of the book, Hall provides a brief, 38 page biography of Calvin in which he presents the highlights of a life "worth knowing."  Two incidents from his life always fascinate me.  The first involves Calvin's flight from persecution in France.  Passing through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg with the desire to lead a life of relatively quiet scholarly solitude, Calvin is waylaid by the fiery red-headed Reformer Guillaume (William) Farel.  Farel was intent on encouraging Calvin, already the author of the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, to remain in Geneva and assist him in furthering the Reformation.  Not appearing to make headway, Farel finally resorted to threats of divine vengeance which frightened Calvin into settling in the city to expand the work of the gospel in Geneva.  That was beginning.  A few years later Calvin and Farel had irritated the wrong families in the city and were sent into exile.  Calvin then spent the next few years pasturing a French immigrant church in Strasbourg where Calvin had the privilege also of befriending and learning from fellow Reformed Martin Bucer.  Upon being wrought upon to return to Geneva, Calvin, who was reticent to leave his fruitful labors in Strasbourg, reentered the pulpit at Saint Peter's and picked up right where he had left off in his verse by verse exposition of the biblical text.  That was commitment to the lectio continua method!

The third and final section of the book provides the reader with proof positive that John Calvin led a life of positive influence for the gospel and for Jesus Christ and his church.  Hall provides lengthy citations from Baptists (Charles Spurgeon , John Broadus, and John Piper among others), Anglicans (J. C. Ryle, J. I. Packer, Independents (John MacArthur), Methodists (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, George Whitefield, and John Wesley), and Roman Catholics (Alexandre Ganoczy).  One certainly gains a sense of the vast importance of Calvin and realizes that even when they disagree with aspects of his theology, intelligent Christians still appreciate the writings and life of John Calvin.

I only have two minor criticisms for the book.  The first is about content.  Hall provides an enjoyable reading experience.  That is why I say this will be a good volume to give lay people.  However, there is not much indication, as far as I could tell, that some of the areas where Hall says Calvin has abiding influence are areas of scholarly dispute.  He did not have to take up a lot of space with this, but it would have given the book it bit more gravitas to have at least indicated an awareness of this fact.  For instance, what real role does Calvin play in the development of democracy?  Enough said.  The second complaint involves form.  There are no indices in this 112 page book.  It would have been helpful to include subject and name indices.  All in all this is a helpful little volume deserving a wide readership.

Jeffrey Waddington is Teacher of the Congregation at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Ringoes, NJ.
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