Author Archive

Review of Hoffmeier,
"The Archaeology of the Bible"

Review of Hoffmeier, <br/>"The Archaeology of the Bible"

By James K. Hoffmeier

The Archaeology of the Bible, by James K. Hoffmeier (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008). Pp. 191. Reviewed by John A. Battle.

If you’re looking for an attractive, well balanced survey of biblical archaeology by a recognized expert, this volume would serve your purpose well.  James Hoffmeier is an experienced archaeologist, specializing in the region of Egypt where the Israelites lived and through which they traversed to the Holy Land.  Hoffmeier, unlike many modern “minimalists,” takes historical texts seriously, whether from the Bible or from Egyptian or other sources.  While he teaches at a Christian institution and holds to an evangelical view of the Bible, he openly points out where the biblical record is strongly attested by archaeology and where that record has difficulties.  He makes it clear that we do not presently have all the data, and probably never will; therefore, he says, we need to suspend judgment in some cases.

The book is well organized with an introduction to archaeology and its practice in the biblical lands.  He then goes chronologically through the major periods of Israel’s history and the times of the early church, showing the important archaeological discoveries that help to explain or illuminate the biblical text.  Since his specialty is in the archaeology of the Egyptian settlement and exodus of Israel, his contributions in these chapters are especially interesting.  He supports the so-called late date for the exodus.  The materials he includes for the study of the united and divided monarchy of Israel are especially strong and well illustrated.  The chapters on the New Testament trace the major locations and artifacts for the life of Jesus, the early Judean church, and the cities of Paul.  Since the book is fairly recent, it includes major recent discoveries
that further illumine the biblical narrative, including continuing debate on the Shroud of Turin and an interesting discussion on the disputed ossuary of James the brother of Jesus.

The Archaeology of the Bible is printed on high quality glossy paper, and the photography and graphics are excellent, making this book a good choice for a class or Bible study.  Hoffmeier manages to cover a lot of material in fewer than 200 pages, and consequently many items are mentioned without much detail.  This is a necessary tradeoff, and can be overcome by looking online for more details on any particular item.  A helpful index makes looking up any particular city or event or artifact easy.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in biblical history or archaeology, especially to see the broad sweep of archaeology’s contribution to the study of the Bible.

Review of McGrath,
"Christianity’s Dangerous Idea"

Review of McGrath,<br/>"Christianity’s Dangerous Idea"

by Alister McGrath

by John A. Battle

What, exactly, is the essence of Protestantism?  Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at the University of Oxford, concludes this large work with his definition, Protestantism is more than a set of doctrines; it is a method of doing theology and the work of the church.  It is the dangerous idea that every individual Christian may go back to the original (Christ and the Bible) and reformulate, revise, and adapt the historic faith to fit his own culture and setting, to his own understanding.  Thus he titles his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First.

This pattern is observed in the original Protestant reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Rather than a single united Protestant movement, it was a conglomeration of several different “Protestantisms” growing in various places, adapting patterns and thinking from those places.

While some Protestant traditions currently have “frozen” the positions of former generations, others have kept the method more open, and have adapted quickly to their settings.  This second group more consistently reflects the genius of Protestantism, according to McGrath.

The book is divided into three major sections.  The first section, “Origination,” traces the history of the Protestant movement from the early German, Swiss, French, and English Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, through the challenges of European culture and history, to its expansion into America and the world up through the nineteenth century.  Necessarily, the survey is quick and often superficial.

The second section, “Manifestation,” surveys the primary beliefs and positions taken by Protestants.  Various chapters deal with theological views of the Bible, major teachings regarding man and salvation, the church and sacraments, the Christian’s relation to culture, politics, and society, and the way Protestantism has interacted with science and the arts.  Again, the book quickly summarizes these important and detailed points.  I think his discussion of Protestantism and science was especially helpful.  Since Protestants include such a wide variety views on these subjects, it is hard to determine a center for each.  McGrath sees unity more in the idea of the method of theology (individual judgment from Scripture) than in the results in each of these areas.

The final section, “Transformation,” emphasizes the more recent history of Protestantism in America and in the “Global South,” that is, the Southern Hemisphere.  Especially important is the development and tremendous growth of Pentecostalism, whose adherents now outnumber all other Protestants put together.  McGrath sees this development as a natural outcome of the genius of Protestantism—the reinterpretation of Scripture by each generation, adapted to its own time and place.  He sees a bright future for Protestantism, viewed as a method with a very narrow agreed-upon base of doctrine, even if the older denominations decrease and fade away.  Not only is Protestantism able to adapt doctrinally to new situations, but, perhaps even more helpfully, is able to adapt the structure and worship of the church to different times and cultures.  This capability, he believes, makes the future of Protestantism impossible to describe, but it makes its future existence and growth more probable.

McGrath writes well, and in spite of the book’s length and subject matter, it becomes a real page-turner.  The area he covers is vast, and even with his expertise as a historical theologian, he is not able to cover many details in a more than cursory fashion.  I believe his statements regarding the history of conservative Reformed theology (the area I work in) sometimes show a lack of deep understanding.  Some of his criticisms seem unjust.  Likewise, he often fails to distinguish what I would consider to be orthodox from heterodox ideas.  He includes all parts of the spectrum—liberal and conservative—as Protestantism, and treats all as equally authentic versions.  In my view this detracts from the usefulness of the book.  Of course, he views this historically, without making judgments on the rightness or wrongness of the various positions, only their pragmatic successes or failures.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is its wideness, and the abundance of references to more detailed works in the extensive endnotes.  Also important is his defense of the methodology of Protestantism, as an answer to the Catholic criticism that there is no central authoritative magisterium.

Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, by Alister E. McGrath (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007).  Pp. 552.

Review of David VanDrunen, "Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms"

by John A. Battle

            During the last few years a new controversy has come to conservative Reformed circles.  Historically Reformed and Presbyterian writers believed that secular nations should be ruled by natural law, which people can derive from nature, history, and conscience.  This law is basically the same as the “moral law,” the Ten Commandments, especially those commands regarding our duty to our fellow human beings.  According to these early writers, God rules over the nations of the world in his sovereignty, and holds them responsible to obey and uphold this natural law with the power of the sword.  Jesus, as the Son of God, is sovereign in this way, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

            On the other hand, earlier Reformed writers recognized Jesus Christ as sovereign over his special kingdom, the church.  The church is guided by the Bible as a whole, and enforces the will of Christ by its spiritual authority, not by physical force.  Jesus, as Messiah and Mediator of the new covenant, is sovereign over this second kingdom.

           According to this traditional understanding, the civil laws of the Old Testament were directed to national Israel under the theocracy.  They were not intended for the other nations, nor are they applicable today, except as they are tied to natural law.

            David VanDrunen believes that this traditional scheme is biblical and correct.  He further demonstrates in this book that this was the view of mainstream theology in the church, from the times of the church fathers, through the Middle Ages, through the Reformation times, and since then through the nineteenth century.

            However, in the last century many Reformed writers have attacked this position, and have taught in a single kingdom of Christ, denying the two kingdom and natural law teachings.  VanDrunen traces the main spokesmen and varying approaches of this movement, including Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, Herman Dooyeweerd, Cornelius Van Til, and other writers.  He sees two different lines of development from Van Til: Greg Bahnsen, who denies the two kingdoms and natural law, and Meredith G. Kline, who tends to support those teachings.

           VanDrunen’s book contains a wealth of footnotes to the scholarly literature, and represents a massive amount of study.  His collection and summation of the various writers’ positions seems accurate and well documented.  This book was not designed to support the doctrine biblically (another book of his that will attempt this task, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, is due out later this year), but the passages and arguments quoted from many Reformed theologians and from Reformed and Presbyterian creeds certainly make his position formidable at the outset.

           One criticism I have is the poor writing style of the book, including unnecessary repetition.  A careful perusal of the classic Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White would greatly aid the author in future works (of which I hope there will be many!).

Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, by David VanDrunen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010).  Pp. 466.

Review of Fazale Rana, "The Cell’s Design"

Review of Fazale Rana, "The Cell’s Design"

The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry, by Fazale Rana (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008).  Pp. 332.  Reviewed by John A. Battle.

During the last decades several books supporting Intelligent Design have appeared.  Their basic argument usually has been this—living components and structures are so complex and specified that they never could have appeared by mere chance.  Therefore, they must be the result of Intelligent Design.  This basically is a negative argument: there is no way to explain this apart from some divine intervention.

Critics call this the “God-of-the-gaps” argument.  If there is a gap in our knowledge, then God must account for what we see.  The obvious problem with the God-of-the-gaps argument is that similar gaps in the past often have shrunk and then disappeared as scientific knowledge has increased.  Now that natural causes are known, we no longer are required to use the “God” explanation.

Microbiologist Fazale Rana, an openly Christian scientific apologist, is keenly aware of this weakness in the traditional ID argument.  Yet, he also is aware of even greater positive evidence for design in living systems.  He seeks a positive argument from the data to design.

Recent science in cellular biology and chemistry has made astounding leaps and discoveries about the inner working of the basic building block of all life, the living cell.  All cells of plants and animals are basically the same in their components and method of operation.  Yet they are ideally suited in their differences for the different kinds of organisms and the different tasks the cells must perform within each organism.

Rather than starting from apparently inexplicable complexity, Rana starts from actual examples and types of human design.  Recently it has become apparent that the cell’s processes are largely mechanical and electrical, as the various proteins interact with each other within the cell.  This is biochemistry at its most basic level.  In the last few centuries humans have developed technology using these same forces on a larger scale.

Rana builds a positive argument, using “abductive reasoning.”  Wikipedia defines this type of reasoning as follows: “Abduction means determining the precondition.  It is using the conclusion and the rule to assume that the precondition could explain the conclusion.  Example: ‘When it rains, the grass gets wet.  The grass is wet, it must have rained.’  Diagnosticians and detectives are commonly associated with this style of reasoning.”  As the definition states, abduction is most useful when explaining why the present circumstance is the way it is.  This is the situation when we wonder about how living things got the way they are.

Rana’s argument is abductive rather than negative.  We see humans designing mechanical and electrical items all the time.  What thinking and processes do they go through when they design and manufacture these items?  The products they make are the actual fruits of design.  Rana describes many of these features of design in the main part of the book, taking one chapter for each main design feature.  He introduces the chapters with paintings by famous artists, each of which makes an interesting and pointed illustration of the design feature being discussed.  Along with mechanical and electrical design, Rana sees artistic expression as well in the cell’s workings (“the Creator’s artistry” is part of the subtitle of the book).

The heart of the book takes these various design features and shows how they are employed in the makeup and workings of every individual cell.  Cells show even more exquisite design and precision than the best human engineering and technology.  Rana writes for a mature reader who can take time and effort to learn some details of microbiology.  He explains these processes as clearly as possible for those of us not trained in biology.  There are many well drawn illustrations.  An introductory chapter helps a lot by explaining the basic parts and workings of the cell, and a glossary in the back is handy for checking the technical terms.  Many of the processes Rana describes are complicated, and sometimes are difficult to follow; but Rana’s explanations are as clear as can be expected in view of the complexity of the subject.  Sometimes I had to read a section several times before getting the main point, but the effort was worth it!

It will be interesting to see how The Cell’s Design will be received.  Will it simply be disregarded as a disguised ID or creationist work, or will evolutionary scholars interact with the actual positive examples of design?  Many think that the very idea of allowing the possibility of God’s design in creation denies the scientific method.  However, if God really exists, how can such a presupposed position lead to the truth about the cell’s design?  To follow the evidence, using sound logic, is the best way to reach the right conclusion.  Rana provides an excellent case for an intelligent, skilled, and artistic Creator.

Parkening and Hendrix – Teaching and Preaching

Many years ago Christopher Parkening, the famous classical guitarist, came to perform a concert here, at the newly renovated Pantages Theater in Tacoma.  My wife and I admire Parkening.  He not only is a great artist, but he is an openly evangelical Christian.  Prominent music critics have praised him as “the leading guitar virtuoso of our day, combining profound musical insight with complete technical mastery of his instrument” and “America’s reigning classical guitarist, carrying the torch of his mentor, the late Andrés Segovia” (the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times).

When we arrived at the theater, the line of people waiting to get in extended all through the lobby area and out onto the sidewalk, several blocks long.  I’d never seen anything like it here.  When the concert began, we saw him modestly walk on stage; there was a single chair on the stage, with a microphone on the floor in front of it.  Parkening sat down to play.  All the pieces were solo.  The music was subdued at first, a piece by Bach.  Gradually the program expanded as he played other works in various styles.  There were no stage gimmicks, yet he held us all enthralled for a lengthy concert, with several encores.  It truly was a memorable evening.  Parkening had a way of playing with perfect fidelity to the piece and a simplicity that made the hardest technical passages seem clear and easy.  The beauty of the music was, if anything, understated.  I was convinced that Parkening was the ultimate guitarist.

A few years later in a class here at seminary I mentioned my estimation of Parkening, and one of my students dared to contradict me!  He said the greatest guitarist was Jimi Hendrix!  I was, and still am, pretty unfamiliar with his music.  I’ve never liked rock music and have very little knowledge of it.  Besides, Hendrix played a different instrument, the electric guitar—so how could he be compared with Parkening?  I remembered what that student said, but thought little about it until a few months ago, when I came across Hendrix’s music itself.

Someone on Facebook sent out a link showing Jimi Hendrix playing at Woodstock in 1969—the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Curious, I clicked on the link and watched and listened to the clip on YouTube.  My first reaction was, “This is weird!”  I watched it twice.  I couldn’t process it; it was mesmerizing.  Hendrix used the guitar in ways that broke the mold of guitar literature.  The image and sounds of his version of the anthem have remained with me since.

Walking to seminary this morning, I thought about a famous line from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, when Catherine says, “I am Heathcliffe.”  While she loved Linton and planned to marry him, she confessed that her love for Heathcliffe was more basic to her.  Heathcliffe had grown into her heart, had become a part of her.  In the end, her love for Heathcliffe destroyed her and her husband.  Then it occurred to me that the relation of Hendrix to his guitar was like that.  You could say, Parkening mastered his guitar, but Hendrix was his guitar.

How can you compare them?  Each artist is superb, but in a different way.  Parkening shows us the composer’s work.  He is self-effacing; we see the beauty and design the composer intended.  Parkening’s life and career continue, his work continues to grow.  Parkening, as a Christian, lives first for God; his music is not his identity; he can live without it.

Hendrix gave a personal vision of his music.  When he played, people saw him and his vision; the composer was nearly lost in the originality and brilliance of the performance.  Hendrix died at the age of twenty-eight, only a year after his Woodstock performance.  His death under suspicious circumstances ended his brief, tempestuous life.  Hendrix lived for music, for his guitar; it consumed him.  The lives and lifestyles of these two men could hardly be more different.  

They provide an analogy.  Theology professors and preachers—they can be as different as Parkening and Hendrix.  The teacher, like Parkening, calm and disciplined, directs his students to the composer—to God as shown in his Word.  The classroom disappears.  The best teachers are clear, not showing themselves, allowing the students to see through the classroom to the truths of Scripture.  Thoroughness and balance are key.  On the other hand, the preacher, like Hendrix, consumed by God and personal in his faith, shows the work of God in him through his preaching and person.  People see how God changes and makes a man.  The best preachers are moved by God, and move others.  As Paul, they can say, “Be followers of me, as I am a follower of Christ.”

Is there an overlap?  Certainly—teachers preach and preachers teach.  Which is better?  God has made us all different, with different gifts.  We complement each other.  That one is better who uses those gifts best for the glory of God.  God will judge on that account.  May we learn from this analogy of both musicians—may we live for Christ, show him in all his glory, and be wholly consumed by him.

Review of Barry Horner’s "Future Israel"

Barry E. Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2007). Pp. 394. Reviewed by John A. Battle.

Barry Horner, pastor and author, believes that the conservative Christian church of our day—in particular, the Reformed branch of that church, to which he belongs and with which he is most familiar—has mistakenly absorbed the false notion that the Christian church has replaced the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people. Consequently, there is no longer a special place of blessing or privilege for the Jewish people or nation. This belief, “replacement theology,” as it is called, became predominant in the early church by the fifth century, and was accepted and passed on by the early Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well as most of their successors. Horner contends that this teaching is non-biblical, and that it has led to historical anti-Semitism and its horrific consequences.

Having come to an appreciation of the Reformed faith by his own study and reading, Horner is convinced that strong exegetical arguments support the doctrines of grace. On the other hand, he says, the arguments supporting amillennialism and replacement theology do not share that strength; nor is replacement theology required by the Reformed doctrines of salvation. That being the case, he has maintained his premillennial beliefs, along with the belief that national Israel is still the “beloved enemy” of God and his people. He states that his particular study of Ezekiel, Hosea, Zechariah, and Romans has confirmed him in this opinion. Scattered throughout the book are lengthy discussions of these passages, along with substantial quotations from earlier sympathetic writers, such as Jonathan Edwards, David Baron, Horatius Bonar, C. H. Spurgeon, J. A. Seiss, H. C. G. Moule, J. C. Ryle, and C. E. B. Cranfield. He also produces statements that favor portions of his argument from such authors as J. B. Lightfoot, G. C. Berkouwer, and W. D. Davies.

Future Israel is organized fairly well; however, there is much repetition, and a more succinct case would, I think, be more effective. After a personal testimonial, Horner begins by quickly surveying the history of replacement theology, starting particularly in the time of Augustine. Christian hostility to Judaism and the Jewish people, Horner consistently maintains, was largely due to the replacement theology enshrined by Augustine in his City of God. The Christian church is the kingdom of God promised in the covenants of the Old Testament; the unbelieving Jews have no part in the covenants now; nor does the future hold any promise of a national restoration.

Over a hundred pages follow in which Horner traces the history of anti-Semitism in Europe and the New World. He spends much time showing the connection between replacement theology and the anti-Jewish stance of European Catholics and Protestants, including the extreme statements of Martin Luther. These attitudes helped set the stage, not only in Germany, but throughout Europe for the general persecutions of the Jewish people for many centuries, and may have led to the complicity of many nominal Christians to their terrific sufferings in the Holocaust. He also traces the history of the Zionist movement, the establishment of Israel, its relations with various types of Christians, and its threats from fanatical Islamic states. He points out that evangelical Christians, especially premillennial ones, have been the best friends of Israel.

The central portion of the book deals with hermeneutics, the interpretation of Scripture, especially as it touches upon the relation of the Jewish people and nation to prophecy and the church in our dispensation. Horner particularly summarizes the anti-Jewish nature of much of this hermeneutics, as it spiritualizes and allegorizes promises to the nation, while it treats the judgments and condemnations literally. A more consistent hermeneutic will recognize both the material and the spiritual nature of the promises to Israel.

Horner then builds his positive case for a “pro-Jewish” theology. He discusses several passages of Scripture, especially Romans 9-11 and its Old Testament links, arguing that the land of Israel is still promised to the Jewish nation. As he examines these key passages, he interacts with representatives of replacement theology. I believe chapters 9-11 are the theological heart of Horner’s book. Although in their unbelief they have been scattered across the globe, God still recognizes them as his chosen people, and promises to restore them to faith and possession of their land. In the mean time, Christians should recognize them as “beloved enemies” (Rom 11:28). Just as we might regard unsaved members of our own families, so we should regard unsaved Jewish people. We have been grafted into the stock of Israel; all Israelites are our “brothers” in that sense; they belong to our adopted family; we need to witness to them in love, and pray for and work for their salvation.

The final chapter is an appeal to Christians to recognize our position as the “prodigal son” in Jesus’ parable, but that, when the Jewish nation returns to faith in the last days, the positions will be reversed. At that point, we should not be reluctant to receive the believing Jews back into their own family. As Paul says in Romans 11, we should not boast against the cut-off branches. He concludes with encouraging examples of effective Jewish evangelism.

Several appendices add valuable content to the book. Two of them deal with the theologies of Jonathan Edwards and J. C. Ryle as they relate to the Jewish nation. The third discusses grace and law, as related to the Abrahamic covenant. The fourth summarizes the writings of Melanie Phillips, a British journalist and author of Londonistan, who relates the growing anti-Semitism in the Church of England to replacement theology and the growing power of Islamic militancy. The final appendix is a lengthy annotated bibliography of books related to this topic—a very helpful list. The book also contains three indices, for authors, subjects, and Scriptural references.

Being a Reformed premillennialist myself, I find much in Horner’s book with which I agree. I think his discussion of Romans 11 is especially helpful. Also, I was not aware of the extent of anti-Semitism in the history of the Christian church, even in its Protestant branches. When learning in seminary of the work of Luther, for example, I heard no mention of his virulent attacks on Jewish people and their liberties.

I do have a couple criticisms. While not being too specific, it appears that Horner believes that the system of Jewish worship in the Old Testament will be reestablished in the future millennium. I believe that this idea is not necessary, that the promises of that restitution were conditional in that time. Since Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, there is no need to reestablish animal sacrifices and the related worship. Horner seems aware that his position could be classified as dispensational, but he does not clearly define what he means by that term, and whether he includes himself in that category. He does not discuss eschatological details that might clearly indicate dispensationalism, such as the timing of the rapture. It would have been helpful for him to show the relation of his opinions to these well established systems. This is especially true if he desires to harmonize Reformed theology with premillennialism and a positive attitude toward the Jewish nation.

Another criticism is that he seems to judge the truth of a doctrine on the basis of whether or not it is “pro-Jewish” or “anti-Jewish.” If the doctrine under investigation results in hostility to the Jewish nation, then it must be false. A stronger argument is whether or not the doctrine is based on solid exegesis. The results of a doctrine, especially if that doctrine can be abused, do not prove its truth or falsity. The Israelites were to exterminate the Canaanites; that does not mean the revelation given to them by God was false. Replacement theology, as such, does not require hostility to Jews or persecution of Jews; rather, it was abused to lead to those evils. In a similar way, the fact that a doctrine makes it harder to witness to Jews is not proof that the doctrine is wrong. Horner does make a good point, that Paul and other in the Bible are “pro-Jewish” in their sentiments and approach.

In spite of these criticisms, I believe the main purpose of the book is well achieved. The exegetical discussions of the biblical passages are helpful; the history of the relation of the church to the Jewish people is enlightening; and the exhortations to love and witness to our “older brothers” are inspiring.

Calvin’s Disciples, Then And Now

Jason Anspach[1]

John Calvin’s disciple-making through the centuries

            Jesus Christ commissioned his eleven disciples in to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a).  Followers of the Lord Jesus have sought to do so ever since, be it in the form of evangelism, apologetic writings, or personal discipleship. 

            Sermons are preached, books are read, personal exhortations are heard, but one can only guess at how many people are reached and turned into disciples of King Jesus through our personal labors.  Some Christians work the fields and see little in the way of visible fruit.  John Calvin was blessed not only in his seeing the fruits of his labors before his death, but by having been used by God in winning disciples for Christ long after the man had been called into the presence of the Lord.

Calvin the disciple

            Some might have the impression that John Calvin’s life didn’t truly begin until he wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  While the Institutes was published early in his life (he was twenty-six when the first edition appeared in 1536), God in his providence was placing men in Calvin’s life that would help guide and mold the man into the brilliant theologian we now know.

            Calvin was a brilliant student.  Initially, his father sent him to school with the desire to see his son a priest.  However a change of heart led his father to believe that practicing law would be more profitable.  Calvin studied law at the University of Orléans.  Robert Reymond notes that “within a year Calvin so distinguished himself in the knowledge of law that he was no longer looked upon as a student and was employed to teach classes in the absence of the professor for illness.”[2]

            Calvin studied Greek under Melchior Wolmar,[3] a man with Lutheran tendencies who supplied Calvin with several of Luther’s works, including The Liberty of a Christian Man, in which Luther laid out his case for justification to Pope Leo X.

            Calvin’s conversion likely took place in 1532.  He left little accounting of the people, events, and circumstances that led to his second birth.  In the preface of his Commentary on the Psalms Calvin states that he set his mind to law and that his course was altered by God’s providence despite an initial desire to adhere to “superstitions of Popery.”

            It has been suggested that more light on Calvin’s conversion is revealed in his Reply to Sadoleto, where he answers Jacopo Sadoleto’s letter to Geneva urging them to rejoin Roman Catholicism.  In that writing Calvin portrays a Catholic and Protestant layman standing before God as they are examined as to who practices the “right faith”:

When, however, I had performed all [the works of satisfaction I was told to perform],… I was still far-off from true peace of conscience; for, whenever I descended into myself, or raised my mind to you, extreme terror seized me—terror which no expiations or satisfactions could cure. . . .  Still, as nothing better offered, I continued the course which I had begun, when, lo, a very different form of doctrine started up, not one which led us away from the Christian profession, but one which brought it back to its fountainhead, and, as it were, clearing away the dross, restored it to its original purity.  Offended by novelty, I lent an unwilling ear, and at first, I confess, strenuously and passionately resisted; for . . . one thing in particular made me averse to those new teachers, viz., reverence for the Church.  But when I opened my ears, and allowed myself to be taught, I perceived that this fear of derogating the majesty of the Church was groundless.

            Aside from Wolmar, we have little in the way of identifying who those teachers were who guided a brilliant student into becoming a brilliant theologian and follower of Christ—but we can certainly be thankful that they did!

Calvin’s role in the lives of his contemporaries

            Ritschlian church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) described John Calvin as “the man who never smiled.”  A superficial look at Calvin seems to suggest a withdrawn scholastic, sitting in an ivory tower writing feverishly, pausing only to pass condemnation on those below him.  A recent article written in the New York Times by Molly Worthen gave the following one-sentence description of Calvin:

John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness.[4]

            Contrary to a popular opinion of Calvin as a sad, dour, man who executed discipline at the drop of a hat—the man was a joyful man.  Benjamin B. Warfield wrote of Calvin’s teachings:

[Calvin taught that] laughter is the gift of God; and he held it [to be] the right, or rather the duty of the Christian man to practice it in its due season.  He is constantly joking with friends in his letters, and he eagerly joins with them in all the joys of life.  “I wish I were with you for half a day,” he writes to one of them, “to laugh with you.” …  He enjoyed a joke hugely, with that open-mouthed laugh, which as one of his biographers phrases it, belonged to the men of the sixteenth century.[5]

Calvin’s jovial demeanor when combined with his gifted ability to clearly portray the doctrines of the Holy Bible resulted in his being influential to those who studied beneath him.

            In 1559 Calvin founded the Geneva Academy, which would become the first Protestant “university” in the world.  The Geneva Academy was an integral part of education within the Reformed church—a University of Wittenberg for the Reformed church.  Calvin was the Academy’s leading theology professor and, along with Theodore Beza, taught thousands of students from all over Europe.  The list of men who studied under Calvin in Geneva is notable for many contributions to the church.  Guido de Bres, who wrote the Belgic Confession, studied under Calvin at the Academy.  Caspar Olevianus also studied under Calvin; he, along with Zacharius Ursinus, wrote the Heidelberg Catechism.

            The persecution of Protestants in England during the reign of “Bloody” Mary Tudor (1553-1558) caused many to flee to Geneva and learn with and from Calvin.  Standouts in this group include Miles Coverdale, who carried on William Tyndale’s work by producing the first complete printed translation of the Holy Bible in the English language, John Foxe who authored Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and John Knox, who brought reform to the churches and culture in Scotland upon his return from Calvin’s Geneva.  The Geneva Bible,[6] translated from Greek and Hebrew, was completed in Geneva by Anthony Gilby and William Wittingham with Calvin’s support and encouragement.

            Regardless of where the students at the Geneva Academy came from, they returned to their homes carrying with them the impressions and lessons learned while studying under Calvin.  Robert Reynolds notes:

Calvin’s teachings on religious freedom, in particular, laid the foundation for Reformed Presbyterianism, and his views spread from the Geneva Academy throughout Europe, and from these European countries, especially from the British Isles, Presbyterianism spread to the New World where it became very influential in the original American colonies through the Geneva Bible and in both the “Great Awakening” through the efforts of such men as Gilbert Tennent in the North and Samuel Davies in the South and the American Revolution itself through the preaching of such men as John Witherspoon (the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence), George Duffield and James Caldwell.  Interestingly, when news of the American Revolution reached England, Horace Walpole rose from his seat in the British House of Commons and wryly commented: “There is no crying about the matter.  Cousin American has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”[7]

            In addition to his work with the Geneva Academy Calvin preached around 4,000 sermons and continually implored the people of Geneva to be followers of Christ and godly citizens.  As Calvin’s life slowly passed away he gave a plea to his fellow ministers to continue in glorifying God in all aspects of life:

Let each one consider the obligation he has, not only to the Church, but to the city, which he has promised to serve in adversity as well as prosperity, and likewise each one should continue in his vocation and not try to leave it or not practice it.  For when one hides to escape duty, he will say that he has neither thought about it nor sought this or that.  But one should consider the obligation he has here before God.[8]

The role of Calvin’s work after his death

            In the centuries following Calvin’s death in 1564 the teaching of John Calvin, as clearly put forth in the Institutes has remained at the forefront of Christian learning.  B. B. Warfield points to Calvin’s Institutes and its exposition of the Holy Scriptures as the very foundational theological treatise on which the Reformed faith rests:

            [The Institutes] was the first serious attempt to cast into systematic form that body of truth to which the Reformed churches adhered as taught in the Holy Scriptures; and as such it met a crisis and created an epoch in the history of the Churches.  In the immense upheaval of the Reformation movement, the foundations of the faith seemed to many to be broken up, and the most important questions to be set adrift; extravagances of all sorts sprang up on every side; and we can scarcely wonder that a feeling of uneasiness was abroad, and men were asking with concern for some firm standing-ground for their feet.  It was Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ which, with its calm, clear, positive expositions of the evangelical faith on the irrefragable authority of the Holy Scriptures, gave stability to wavering minds, and confidence to skunking hearts, and placed upon the lips of all a brilliant apology, in the face of the calumnies of the enemies of the Reformation.

            As the fundamental treatise in the development of a truly evangelical theology its mission has stretched, however, far beyond its own day.  All subsequent attempts to state and defend that theology necessarily go back to it as their starting point, and its impress upon the history of evangelical thinking is ineffaceable.  Even from the point of view of mere literature, it holds a position so supreme in its class that every one who would fain know the world’s best books, must make himself familiar with it.  What Thucydides is among Greeks, or Gibbon among eighteenth century English historians, what Plato is among philosophers, or the Iliad among epics, or Shakespeare among dramatists, that Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ is among theological treatises.[9]

The original editors of Calvin’s complete works said of Calvin:

Though Luther was supremely great as a man and Zwingli was second to none as a Christian citizen, and Melanchthon well deserves the appellation of the most learned of teachers, Calvin may justly be called the leader and standard-bearer of theologians.

            While Calvin’s work has been lauded and appreciated by those who have followed the orthodox Christian teaching of Reformed theology, Calvinism itself has been looked upon unfavorably as a whole.  During the Second Great Awakening, men such as Charles Grandison Finney openly rejected the doctrine of Calvinism, referring to it as “Old Divinity” and an unbiblical hindrance to evangelism.  In his systematic theology Finney remarked, “I have felt greater hesitancy in forming and expressing my views upon this Perseverance of the saints, than upon almost any other question in theology.”

            Finney and his revivalist repudiation of the five points of Calvinism eventually gave way to the error of theological liberalism.  Today Calvinism finds itself at odds with Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches that deny, among other things, God’s sovereign work in election, with mainline Protestant churches which have eliminated the biblical doctrines of those who founded and raised their (now crumbling) denominations, and with the churches descended from Finney who view Calvinism as something unbiblical. 

            In 1997 Southern Baptist historian William Estep wrote of Calvinism: “Calvinism’s God resembles Allah, the god of Islam, more than the God of grace and redeeming love revealed in Jesus Christ.”[10]  With such opposition surrounding Calvinism, combined with the constant trials brought against Christianity by the world, one might be led to think that this doctrine, which Jonathan Edwards called “horrible”[11] before submitting to it and finding joy in its truth, has run its course.  However, Calvin continues to speak to those living today, and his theology is being freely and widely embraced by the youth of America today.

            In 1929 J. Gresham Machen gave a Baccalaureate address at Hampden-Sydney College, where he asked:

How should it be if we should turn to the Bible for help?  We have turned to everything else, to things ancient and modern.  Why should we not turn at length to that?  I am indeed aware that the demand that I am making is very great….  I am asking you to follow him who came not to bring peace upon the earth but a sword; I am asking you to accept what the Bible itself presents as central.[12]

The evangelical church of today has been criticized for its preaching of therapeutic properties such as wealth, a positive self-image, or a better love-life–rather than the gospel of salvation.  Couple this with youth groups seeking to entertain as the world rather than teach Christ and a mass of young people are left with a spiritual thirst for Truth that is being slaked by the Reformed theology of Calvin.  Journalist Collin Hansen remarks:

Many churches geared toward so-called spiritual seekers focus on God’s immanence, his nearness. They talk about a personal relationship with Christ, emphasizing his friendship and reminding audiences that God made us in his image.  It all makes sense, because so many baby boomers left churches that felt personal and irrelevant.  But the culture has shifted.  Fewer Americans now claim any church background.  Evangelical mega churches, once the upstart challengers, have become the new mainstream.  Teenagers who grew up with buddy Jesus in youth group don’t know as much about Father God…. Calvinism puts much stock in transcendence, which draws out biblical themes such as God’s holiness, glory, and majesty.  Think of the prophet Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6:1: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.”…  Beholding God’s transcendence helps us experience his immanence or nearness.[13]

In a world dominated by post-modern thought that denies any absolute truth in favor of relativism, Calvin’s theology cuts through the dulled ears of those who have been told that nothing is absolutely important and shown a God who has created mankind to glorify him and enjoy him forever–because he alone is due eternal glory and he alone can provide eternal joy. 

            Just as John Knox carried the Reformation from Calvin in Geneva to Scotland and ultimately the New World, Calvin’s modern day disciples proclaim the reality of Ephesians 2,  that we were dead in sins and made alive through Christ by grace through faith, the gift of God.

            Just as men from all over Europe came to Geneva to study under Calvin and subsequently returned to their home countries to spread the Gospel through Calvinism, today’s disciples of Calvin are going to his writings and theology and returning to their cultural homeland proclaiming the gospel via Calvinism, whether it be from faithful pastors preaching God’s sovereignty in salvation from the pulpit or from Reformed musicians such as Curtis Allen, whose lyrics ask:

On his own, man would never choose holiness.  He’s incapable, so Christ chose holes in his wrist.  To demonstrate his grace to save any, though, some would argue that it’s faith that saves many, apart from him, like he’ll just sit back, watch, and hope some believe before their heart stops; does that sound consistent with the God of the Bible, all-powerful but in salvation he’s idle?  If God needs help and that’s really true, does that mean salvation is up to me and you?  If Christ can create the earth, moon, and stars, does his work not work unless it works for us?

Calvin has remarkably made an impact on the believers of his day, and the centuries following his death up to this very day.  Warfield said of Calvin and his publication of the Institutes,

The publication of [the Institutes] was like the setting up of the King’s Standard in Mediaeval Europe—that the lieges might gather to it.  It was raising the banner on high that all men might see it and rally around it.  It provided at last a platform for the hard beset Protestants, everywhere spoken against, and far too easily confounded with the radicals of the day—radicals who scouted the very foundations of the Christian faith, overturned the whole fabric of the social order, outraged the commonest dictates of ordinary decency.  Its publication met a crisis and created an epoch.  It gave a new stability to Protestantism, and set it before the world as a coherent system of reasoned truth by which men might live and for which they might gladly die.[14]

While Calvin’s Institutes did fill a need in the days it was written, it is John Calvin’s careful exposition of Scripture—his ability to leave us with a theology that is so intertwined and so reflective of the teachings found in Holy Scripture—that has taught and will continue to teach followers of Jesus Christ the doctrines of salvation as put forth in the entirety of the Bible.


[1] Jason Anspach is a student at Western Reformed Seminary and is serving as a ministerial intern in the Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church.

[2] Robert L. Reymond, John Calvin: His Life and Influence, 28.

[3] Calvin dedicated his commentary on 2 Corinthians to Wolmar.

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11punk-t.html?pagewanted=4&_r=2&sq=who%20would%20jesus%20smack%20down?&st=cse&scp=1

[5] B. B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Creation,” The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 5:297.

[6] The Geneva Bible was tremendously popular due to its marginal notes written by Calvin, Knox, Coverdale, and others.  On the advice of Calvin it adopted the style of chapters being divided into verses.  This was the Bible that was taken on the voyage of the Mayflower to America in 1620.

[7] Reynolds, John Calvin: His Life and Influence, 80-81.

[8] David Hall, The Legacy of John Calvin: His Influence on the Modern World, 75.

[9] B. B. Warfield, “On the Literary History of Calvin’s ‘Institutes,’” Works, 5:373-374.

[10] William R. Estep, “Doctrines Lead to ‘Dunghill,’ Prof Warns,” The Founders Journal (Summer 1997), http://www.founders.org/journal/fj29/article1.html.

[11] Quoted in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 41.

[12] Quoted in Stephen J. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen’s The Gospel in the Modern World and Other Short Writings, 23.

[13] Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, 21-22.

[14] Warfield, “Calvin and the Reformation” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, edited by John E. Meeter, I. p. 403-4