Book Review: Calvin on the Christian Life by Michael Horton

  • Series: Theologians on the Christian Life9781433539565
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway; 1 edition (March 31, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 143353956X
  • Amazon.com
  • WTS
  • Crossway

Many thanks to Crossway for a review copy of Michael Horton’s Calvin on the Christian Life, part of their Theologians on the Christian Life series.

An Overview

Anyone who has read the works of Michael Horton knows how knowledgeable he is when it comes to the 16th century reformers and their works, not least John Calvin’s.  Horton’s knowledge of Calvin is masterful and this work demonstrates such.  In this work, Horton interacts with several sources: (1) Calvin’s own writings–Institutes of the Christian Religion, treatises and other writings, letters, commentaries on various books of the Bible.  (2) A biography by Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, and what other reformers had to say about Calvin, for example, the older Martin Luther, who knew about Calvin, read his works, admired them, but never met him in person.  (3) then other works outside of Calvin’s contemporaries, most notably Herman J. Selderhuis’s Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms.

The first two chapters are introductory chapters (chapter one, “Calvin on the Christian Life: An Introduction” and “Calvin on the Christian Life: In Context”), laying the theological foundation and context for the rest of the book, which is then divided into four parts: Part One: Living Before God.  Part Two: Living in God.  Part Three: Living in the Body.  Part Four: Living in the World.  Horton ends the book with something of Calvin’s own eschatology, which is summed up in the chapter’s title “Living Today From the Future: The Hope of Glory.”

A Critique

While it’s titled Calvin on the Christian Life, what the reader find is something of Calvin’s theology and how his theology really undergirds his life.  In other words, Calvin really attempted to live and model his theology (perhaps a subtitle like “How His Theology Shaped His Life” would have prepared the reader better).  Next, while I appreciate Horton’s working knowledge of Calvin on various subjects and the many primary quotes provided (which I truly delighted in), there were times I couldn’t tell if it was Calvin’s thought or Horton’s (perhaps this is a shortcoming on my part).

On the burning of Michael Servetus.  I have read a number of works on Calvin (some I’ve reviewed here) where the writers were either dubious or excusing of Calvin’s part in the burning of Servetus.  In clear terms, Horton does not try to mitigate or make excuses for Calvin.  I found this both welcoming and refreshing.  “It is unworthy of the truth he proclaimed to exonerate Calvin in this affair simply as a man of his time, especially when others were appealing to the Reformer’s own writings to defend religious toleration.”

The mission-mindedness of Calvin is noteworthy.  In the chapters “Christ and Caesar” (12) and “Vocation: Where Good Works Go” (13), Horton navigates that social aspect of Calvin’s thought and how such has gone on to influence much of the Western world, in matter’s of politics, the arts, etc.  Along the way, Horton is careful to correct much of the caricatures of social Calvinism.  I find this a welcoming portion of the book.  For most of us, when we think Calvin, we think his soteriology.  But there is so much more to Calvin and his works.  The last chapter is a fitting end to a work whose focus is on how Calvin’s theology undergirded his very life.  Calvin was quite at home with the “Already and Not Yet” of eschatology.”  Horton certainly brings this out quite well.

Conclusion

It’s time to put an end to the caricatures of John Calvin.  He is certainly not the theologian of double destination and killjoy.  Neither was he a theological tyrant.  Rather, Calvin was bent on a unity of the Body of Christ more than we would ever know or come to appreciate, unless we care to.  And while he was complicit in the burning of Michael Servetus, there is so much more to Calvin the theologian and church reformer than that.  For those interested in the life of Calvin, Horton’s work is a must read and a welcome addition.

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10 Responses to Book Review: Calvin on the Christian Life by Michael Horton

  1. Jon Hughes says:

    TC,

    I appreciate your comments on Calvin and Servetus, brother. We also need to remember that as much as anything else it was his conviction regarding believer’s baptism that got Servetus into so much trouble with Calvin. Michael Servetus accomplished much in his death, and we enjoy far more freedom today as a result. God bless.

    • TC Robinson says:

      Jon, I thought Horton’s approach to the matter is worth mentioning in a review like this. Interesting enough, in all my readings on Calvin, I’ve not encountered anyone who has made that Servetus-Calvin connection on believer’s baptism. Perhaps my next read on Calvin would make such a connnection.

      The 16th century reformation is begger than any one individual. History attests to this.

  2. Jon Hughes says:

    TC,

    I’ve got Roland Bainton’s biography of Servetus (“Hunted Heretic”, 2011, Blackstone Editions) and Professor Bruce Gordon’s biography of Calvin (“Calvin”, Yale University Press, 2009) on my Kindle. Here’s a sampling from both:

    1) In the chapter on the Geneva trial in Bainton’s book:

    “As for the Trinity, Servetus declared that he did believe in it, that is, in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons in God. He said, however,that he interpreted the word ‘person’ differently from the Moderni. Only those who placed a real distinction in the divine essence would he call Trinitarians and atheists. The charge that he denied immortality was stoutly repudiated. Servetus had never thought nor said nor written that that the soul is mortal, but only that it is clothed with corruptible elements. But he admitted without reservation his severest strictures on infant baptism. “It is an invention of the devil, and infernal falsity for the destruction of all Christianity.” This he would hold unless convinced to the contrary.”

    “The ministers asserted that “the man’s utter lack of the spirit of meekness and docility is nowhere more apparent than in his furious assault upon infant baptism as a detestable abomination.” ”

    “On only two counts, significantly, was Servetus condemned – namely, anti-Trinitarianism and anti-paedobaptism.”

    “…the law by which he was in the end condemned was that of the Codex of Justinian, which prescribes the penalty of death for two ecclesiastical offenses – the denial of the Trinity and the repetition of baptism.”

    2) In chapter 13 of Bruce Gordon’s book:

    “Calvin replied with his ‘Brief Refutation’, signed by the other ministers. At the heart of the clash was Servetus’ attack on Calvin’s doctrine of God and humanity, and in particular his teachings on predestination and infant baptism.”

    “The council’s decision was announced the following day: Servetus was unanimously condemned – he was to die. It was his teachings on the Trinity and infant baptism that were stated as his pernicious errors.”

    • TC Robinson says:

      Jon, thanks for these quotes. Yes, those were the days you were persecuted for opposing infant baptism, and by fellow reformers.

      • Jon Hughes says:

        Yep – I’m not convinced that the love affair between today’s Reformed Baptists and John Calvin would be reciprocal 😉

  3. TC Robinson says:

    Jon, I quite agree.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      TC,

      It’s ironic, but true, that the likes of Luther and Calvin became the very thing they were opposing in the first place. Calvin even co-operated with the Catholic authorities in Vienne, France, regarding Michael Servetus. (Reminds me of that place in the Gospels where Pilate and Herod become friends on account of Jesus.) To quote Roland Bainton again, Servetus had the “singular misfortune to be burned twice: in effigy by the Catholics, and by the Protestants in flesh and blood.” Now I’ve no doubt that Servetus, despite his brilliance, was something of a wind-up-merchant; yet he clearly must have been doing something right! Everyone likes to talk about Calvin’s legacy. Meanwhile Servetus’s books were burned – and yet, in his martyrdom, he won a tremendous freedom for those who came after. I for one will never forget his name.

      • TC Robinson says:

        Jon, you’ve piqued my interest in this book and Servetus in particular. Not to belittle the significance of a Servetus, but for example think of the Anabaptists and why they have been known to us as the “radical” reformers.

  4. Jon Hughes says:

    TC,

    His dying words were, “Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me.” Farel, who was present, said that if he’d changed the adjectives around he could have been saved. Personally, I prefer to see it as a heart-felt prayer that Christ in heaven heard.

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