As 2009 marked the 500th birthday of John Calvin, a great deal of treatment was given to this Protestant reformer. Desiring God participated in this treatment with their 2009 national conference, With Calvin in the Theater of God. John Piper was joined by Julius Kim, Mark Talbot, Douglas Wilson, Marvin Olasky, and Sam Storms as they each addressed an aspect of Calvin’s understanding in the “theater.” A year later, thanks to editing by Piper and Mathis, we have the series of lectures in book form. However, unlike many published lectures that were heard better than read, With Calvin in the Theater of God is different. The editing is superb and the footnoting equally helpful for those interested in future study.
Each contributor has something unique to say about Calvin, and I believe that part of the concern was to reflect upon Calvin’s life as honest and historically accurate as could be. Much has been said about Calvin that is both misleading and untrue and/or outright lies! Mathis, in the introduction, quotes Church historian Stephen Nichols to help introduce this issue of misunderstanding Calvin:
“Calvin is often understood out of context, as if he formed his ideas and established his particular take on doctrine, what we call Calvinism, in utter isolation from other people and cut off from the world around him. The picture most have of Calvin is a lone gun turning ideas over in his head in his ivory tower. This couldn’t be further from the truth.” (p. 19)
This, the common misunderstanding of Calvin by so many, leads me to believe that the recent resurgence of books, essays, and lectures on him are much needed. Make no mistake, I do not worship Calvin. Nor do I agree with everything that he taught. But the exegetical insight and theological perspective that Calvin contributed to the Reformation were incredible. His view of God and His glory thundered on every page of what he wrote and in every sermon that he preached! We have much to learn from him in 2010, both from his mistakes and his victories.
Julius Kim’s contribution (At Work and Worship in the Theater of God: Calvin the Man and Why I Care) was, by far, my favorite during the conference and in the book. His presentation is that good. In an effort not to ruin your enjoyment of it, I’ll refrain from going into detail as to why, because it’s somewhat of a surprise. Kim weaves a beautiful and touching story set many years after Calvin into his presentation of Calvin’s life, and then, in the closing sentences of his lecture, illustrates why he personally cares so much for Calvin, and even more for the God that Calvin served. Calvin was a man with a heart for God and a heart for God’s fellow people. This is teased out as Kim reminds us of Calvin’s pastoral ministry in Geneva. As French Protestant refugees flooded in Geneva, Calvin took it upon himself to reach out to them and provide pastoral care. Kim writes,
“These immigrants – like many immigrants of our day – were trying to restart their lives in the midst of many hardships and challenges. So Calvin, a faith-possessed pilgrim himself, became a shepherd to these fellow pilgrims.
So while he was a pilgrim with a passion fro the glory of God, it is important to remember that he used all his gifts, skills, and experiences as a shepherd and servant, ministering what he believed these fellow pilgrims needed. With a foundation in the Word of God, Calvin pastored his flock with great care and compassion through his theology and life, his sermons and letters.” (43)
Kim’s contribution highlights Calvin as a pilgrim. He writes that “Calvin emphatically did not aim to create “Calvinists”” (49), and reminds us that Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave because “he rejected the superstitious veneration of the dead and did not want Christians to make pilgrimages to his grave” (49).
Writing on Bad Actors on a Broken Stage: Sin and Suffering in Calvin’s Word and Ours, we’re reminded by Mark Talbot that Calvin viewed the universe as “this most glorious theater.” Talbot offers a great deal of insight into Calvin’s heart and mind, but what stood out to me was Talbot’s ideas regarding where “blame” should be placed for the sin that exists in the “theater.” He writes,
“This much is certain: in attributing everything that happens ultimately to God’s will, Calvin had no interest in shifting the blame. In His Institutes, Calvin is very careful to place the blame for human faults where it should be placed – on the propensities and choices of sinful human beings and not on the God who has providentially ordained all things.” (59)
He goes on to write, “Calvin never doubted that we – and not God – are the instigators of the evil in our acts and thus that we are its cause and we are to blame” (61).
Doug Wilson, Sam Storms, and John Piper all make excellent contributions as well. Wilson provides thought provoking comments regarding Calvin, the Bible, and the Western World. Storms’ offering ignites passion for the Christian future with Calvin on the Glory of the Final Resurrection and Heaven. Piper ended the conference by reminding us that Calvin was chiefly concerned with the Supremacy of Christ in All Things. These essays are all worth your attention as they help flesh out the many facets of Calvin’s life and ministry.
Yet perhaps the most interesting and under-appreciated aspect of Calvin’s life is addressed by Marvin Olasky. I say under-appreciated because this is an area that I have read little concerning Calvin and a subject that I often find myself thinking about by not having the framework to discuss. Olasky covers The Secular Script in the Theater of God: Calvin on the Christian Meaning of Public Life.
Did you know that Calvin was very forthright in his opinion regarding Christians and their involvement in government? Olasky quotes from Calvin’s Institutes (4.20) that “no one out to doubt that civil authority is a calling not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men.” Imagine the surprise of some of Calvin’s readers when they came across statements like this! In a world that was plagued with the Roman Catholic view regarding the priesthood, Calvin’s view that God “called” people to government was unique and brought balance to the prevalent view that only the Catholic priests were serving in “sacred” callings. The separation between “sacred” and “secular” had long become entrenched in the minds of the European world through the erroneous influence of Rome. Olasky provides a thorough introduction to Calvin’s views regarding government, the authority of monarchs, the necessity for democratic process, and issues related to economics and stewardship (e.g., Calvin addressed issues related to labor, the proper use of credit, etc.). Unknown to me was that Calvin,
“also argued, in his commentary on Micah, that it is “the best condition of the people, when they can choose, by common consent, their own shepherds. . . . [W]hen men become kings for hereditary right, it seems not consistent with liberty.” In commenting on Acts, Calvin wrote, “It is tyrannous if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure.” (101)
This, then, makes sense in how Calvin responded to the Genevan church when he was rejected during his first pastorate in 1538 and then invited to return in 1541. Unlike so many, Calvin practiced what he preached, or in this case, what he wrote.
Putting Calvin’s “Murder” of Servetus to Rest
As one who holds to the tenants of Calvin’s theology (Reformed Theology, i.e., “Calvinism” or the “Doctrines of Grace”), I have participated in a number of conversations where the chief charge against Calvin’s theology is not actually Calvin’s theology! For many, the chief reason to reject all that Calvin contributed to the Church is his role in the death of Servetus. We are often told that ‘Calvin had Servetus burned at the stake’ or that ‘Calvin killed everyone who disagreed with him.’ Unfortunately, the issues related to God’s sovereignty are battled not on the basis of exegesis but on the basis of history!
As an advocate of Sola Scriptura, this is ridiculous. Yet the charge continues to stand and is the reason that many people reject any hint of Calvin’s theology.
Thankfully, what separates this book from the conference audio is an appendix written by Mark Talbot – A Note on Calvin & Servetus. Talbot provides enough documented evidence to dispel of any notion that Calvin was an evil tyrant who had “innocent” Servetus burned at the stake, as is often the charge. Simply put, the execution of Servetus was more an indication of the “imperfection of Calvin’s century” (151) rather than an insight into Calvin’s “tyrannical” obsession with power and control. Quoting Alister McGrath, Talbot writes, “Perhaps historians, like everyone else, have their axes to grind” and that to accuse Calvin as the target and cause of Servetus’ execution raises “difficult questions concerning the precommitment of his critics” (152).
If Talbot’s small contribution on Calvin and Servetus doesn’t lay to rest all charges of Calvin’s “criminal” and “evil” mind, perhaps it will help you in your future discussions. This, in turn, may help these discussions head back to where they should be held – in the confines of rigorous and honest exegesis.
As you’ve noticed, it’s difficult to review this book without jumping into addressing the various things that Calvin wrote and contributed to the world. Yet in what may appear to be a review of Calvin’s life and ministry, this really is a review of With Calvin in the Theater of God, even if it doesn’t actually feel like it. And that’s the beauty of the book. It provides snapshots of Calvin that are both heavenly minded and grounded in realistic observation, both as deep as an ocean abyss and as new and refreshing as a mountain spring. The picture of Calvin’s life and ministry is here painted with a brush that is both as detailed as a pastel by Maurice Quentin de La Tour and as artistically creative and imagined as the impressionism of Claude Monet. Forgive the artistic intrusion. It’s just that as Piper chose the theater as an image to address Calvin, I choose to see the different contributions under the image of painting. The details and creativity that are provided by Kim, Piper, Storms, Wilson, Olasky, Talbot, and Mathis are as unique as the varieties of acrylic, watercolors, oil, or abstract painting. Each chapter is helpful in one’s quest to understand the mind, heart, life, and ministry of John Calvin and how God used him to magnify the supremacy and exaltation of Christ.
This, along with Parker’s Portrait of Calvin and Zachman’s John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian (review here), With Calvin in the Theater of God is a great introduction to Calvin and provides an honest and Christ-exalting summary of Calvin’s contribution to this world. It is neither enamored with Calvin as a form of “calvinidolatry” nor a knee-jerk response to the foolishness of Mr. Dave Hunt and his blatent misrepresentation of both Calvin and Reformed Theology. With Calvin does not present Calvin without his faults, nor does it present Calvin as the only Reformer who made significant contributions to the Protestant cause. What it does well is honor God’s servant, John Calvin.
I highly recommend this book and give it 5 stars out of 5.