Calvin on the Christian Life:
Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever
272 pp., paperback
For its value in both historical theology and Christian living Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series was a terrific idea. Of course such a series cannot go long before it includes a volume on the great Reformer John Calvin. If our count is right, Michael Horton’s Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever is the fifth volume in this series, and an important contribution it is. Horton reflects a close acquaintance with the Reformer, his writings, and his times, and his portrait of Calvin that accents this more pastoral dimension is a landmark event. He is here today to talk about his work.
Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
John Calvin is often thought of as a theological giant, which he was. And he is sometimes considered for his model carefulness in biblical exegesis. But he is not very often thought of as a pastoral theologian, a theologian with deep concerns for the Christian life. Is this because so many have not read Calvin sufficiently? Or is it rather that they just have not read Calvin really at all? That is, how pervasive are these concerns in Calvin’s writings?
I think you’ve put your finger on a popular impression out there, even among many Christians. I have to say, though, that it’s astonishing, given the fact that not a single doctrine or passage is explained without some connection to Christian living. Doctrine and life are interwoven in a tapestry that he calls “piety.” In this, he simply follows the ancient church fathers and the better medieval writers. He says that there’s no point in knowledge that “merely flits about in the brain.” As rigorously thoughtful as Calvin is, it’s all in service to the formation of Christian disciples. In my view at least, Calvin is the most insightful non-inspired teacher on the Christian life of anyone I’ve ever read. His brilliance lies not in creative innovation, but in his remarkable grasp of Scripture and the whole history of Christian teaching and his ability to synthesize the best insights, distilling them for his own age. As he himself said, the goal of all instruction is edification.
Books At a Glance:
For Calvin, what considerations are most basic to right Christian living? And, more broadly, how would he characterize the role of Scripture and an understanding of doctrine in Christian living?
Calvin believed that it was not only wrong to contradict Scripture in doctrine and rules for worship and Christian living; he argued that the church has no authority to institute anything beyond Scripture in these areas. At the heart of Scripture is the gospel of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ, from Genesis to Revelation. Without coming to the end of our rope and casting ourselves entirely on God’s free mercy in Christ, “Christian living” will just be another form of idolatry and works-righteousness. Calvin is convinced that this heresy of self-chosen worship and self-salvation is what our fallen hearts gravitate toward naturally. Without understanding the gospel – Christ alone, Calvin emphasizes, we’ll never pray, worship, love, or bear the fruit of the Spirit. For Calvin, it’s not “the gospel vs. good works,” but “the gospel as the only basis for good works.”
He lays out his argument as if in concentric circles: living before God, it means that there is some semblance of respect or awe for a transcendent Creator – something of which we may glimpse even in some pagan writers. Yet this is not saving knowledge. Only as Christ becomes our mediator are we led to the Father rather than to a vague deity who is only our judge. We come to live not only before God, but in God – that is, in Christ, who is both God and man. We only know God savingly as he is revealed in Christ “clothed in his gospel.” Further, to be united to Christ is simultaneously to be united to his body. Calvin wouldn’t comprehend the contrast between “a personal relationship with Christ” and “joining a church.” So I pursue Calvin’s understanding of living in Christ’s body and the refreshingly communal orientation of his view of the Christian life. Finally, he is focused on living as believers in the world. If our good works cannot go up to God as payment, then where do they go? Out to our neighbors who need them, Calvin answers. It is in the world, in our callings as parents, children, neighbors, doctors, citizens, homemakers, and plumbers, where we are “salt” and “light.” We also share the gospel with others. Calvin was the most missionary-minded of all the reformers. So evangelism and the honor of daily vocations were dual concerns. The monastic life is essentially selfish. So look outside of yourself: up to Christ in faith and out to your neighbors in love and good works. There’s more to it, but that’s one way of summarizing his piety.
Books At a Glance:
Is it redundant, then, to ask you to characterize Calvin’s own piety for us? Can you give us a glimpse of, simply, Calvin the Christian – his heart and his life?
It’s in the details, especially examples I take from his personal correspondence, advice, and reminiscences of friends, where the summary I’ve just offered takes on life. Too often, Calvin is nearly worshipped or vilified. He was a fragile man who repeatedly acknowledged his weaknesses and even sins to others. He knew that he needed the gospel every day and also the whole body of Christ, not a catalogue of “personal steps to victory.” In this book I talk a lot about Calvin’s reliance on the Psalms, the important role of emotions in the Christian life, coming to experience God as our Father in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. One maxim you find strewn across Calvin’s writings is the phrase “distinction without separation.” You have to distinguish the persons of the Trinity without separating them from the one essence that they share. The same is true of Christ’s two natures in one person, Word and Spirit, the sacramental signs and their reality, justification and sanctification, our dual citizenship in the church and in the world, and so forth. I point out how this maxim is so crucial for understanding Calvin’s wise alternative to a host of alternative perspectives in his day.
Books At a Glance:
If a Christian today could ask Calvin how to progress in practical godliness, how would Calvin counsel him?
First, know who God is. It’s not our speculations, but the unfolding drama of creation, redemption, and consummation revealed in Scripture, that is determinative. But this knowledge arouses not only reverence, but a sense of dread as our self-exalting pretensions are measured by his glory, love, justice, and holiness. Second, therefore, we flee to Christ – daily, not just at the beginning of the Christian life. “We’re partly unbelievers throughout this life,” Calvin believes. So we never outgrow the gospel. Thirdly, we need God’s wisdom to direct us. When you really love someone, you don’t just bring them gifts that you like or think they might enjoy; you ask them what pleases them. And our loving Heavenly Father has revealed his will for worship and life in his Word. So it’s very important to embrace everything in his Word as important for our edification and to add nothing to it as necessary for faith and life.
Books At a Glance:
Having read your new book, where might someone turn in Calvin’s own writings to gain an appreciation of the pastoral flavor of his theology?
Obviously, the Institutes – and not just snippets, but his simple and persuasive argument throughout. But Calvin himself said that you have to read the Institutes alongside his commentaries, where he lays out the fuller biblical argument for his views there. His commentary on the Psalms, written late in life, represents his mature convictions. It’s second only to the Institutes, I think, in “getting” Calvin. Then there are his commentaries on Romans, Galatians, and John (in that order). There are also major treatises that had a profound impact on public opinion in his day. I especially dipped into his correspondence as well to get a sense of how he lived out his piety and commended it to others, particularly to those who were suffering from all sorts of physical and spiritual challenges. He was a remarkably humane and humble pastor, as we see in these letters.
Previous volumes in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series:
Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel, by Fred G. Zaspel
Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality, by William Edgar
Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, For the World, by Stephen Nichols
Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love, by Fred Sanders
Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God, by Dane Ortlund (coming soon)