Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: Calvin’s Theology and its Reception: Disputes, Developments and New Possibilities by J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink, eds.

The presence of John Calvin looms large over the Protestant Reformation.  This was true during the 16th century in which he lived, and it remains true today.  In Calvin’s Theology and its Reception: Disputes, Developments and New Possibilities editors J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink have gathered ten essays that consider ways in which aspects of Calvin’s theology were received and understood during both the early Reformation and more recently in history.  The essays are paired by topic, with an essay on the early influence of Calvin, in the 16th and 17th centuries, followed by as essay that considers his influence on the same topic in the 18th through 21st centuries.  The topics addressed are Scripture and Revelation; Union with Christ; Election; the Lord’s Supper; and Church and Society.

The authors are all scholars who teach, or have taught, on seminary faculties.  While they have written serious essays that draw from extensive references I felt that the work collected here does have relevant application for those serving in pastoral ministry.  I believe that the first four topics all touch on issues that powerfully shape faith and worship today.  God’s people who are gathered for worship need to understand scripture and revelation so that they allow the Bible to speak vibrantly and authoritatively into their lives.  They need to know how closely believers are joined by faith to Christ and how this is the result of God’s gracious mercy in choosing them.  They need to appreciate the distinctive way in which Calvin understood the Lord’s Supper so that they may be well-nourished when they come to feast at His table.

Here is one example, from Michael Horton’s essay on the modern reception of Calvin’s understanding of what it means to have union with Christ.  Summarizing Calvin, he writes, “Justified once for all through faith by a righteousness that is external (alien) to us, we are nevertheless united to Christ by an inseparable communion so that, in spite of our weaknesses, we will always seek our salvation in him.” (90)  The implication then, Horton says, is this: “So when we consider ourselves, there is nothing but despair; when we consider ourselves in Christ, there is faith, which brings hope and love in its train.  In the gospel, God calls forth a new world of which Christ is the sun and we are drawn into his orbit.” (90; italics Horton)  In our day, when it seems that we are constantly being pulled to worship other gods, I appreciate the clear way in which both Calvin and Horton articulate the bonds that hold believers to Christ.

In sum, Billings and Hesselink, who each authored one essay in this collection, and their collaborators, shine new light on issues that weren't simply resolved once-and-for-all because Calvin wrote about them nearly 500 years ago.  These essays help us to understand how Calvin’s work was perceived in its day, and how it can be reexamined to teach and strengthen the church today.

Disclaimer: I studied under two of the authors, J. Todd Billings and Sue A. Rozeboom, while I was at Western Theological Seminary.

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