Calvin on the Christian Life

Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever

Michael Horton. Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 272 pp. $19.99.

In the history of the church, particularly its Western Protestant wing, few theological lights shine brighter than John Calvin’s. The Reformer par excellence, he stands out for his theological acumen, systematic comprehensiveness, and care as a biblical exegete. Beyond Calvin the theologian and biblical scholar, though, there was Calvin the pastor—the man passionately concerned that all of human life be lived before God (coram Deo) and in light of the gospel. Though it’s often presented this way in history textbooks, the Reformation wasn’t simply an academic theological debate about justification and the thoughts we think on a Sunday morning, but rather a total restructuring of Christian life and practice. It was about, as James K.A. Smith puts it, the “sanctification of ordinary life.” For that reason Calvin was concerned not only with teaching doctrine, but also with the life of piety flowing from that doctrine.

This is the Calvin that theologian and Westminster Seminary (California) professor Michael Horton introduces us to in his new volume on Calvin and the Christian Life. With an engaging blend of biography, theology, and commentary, and with copious reference to Calvin’s Institutes, commentaries, tracts, and key secondary literature, Horton takes us on a whirlwind tour through the Reformer’s thought as a whole.

Portrait of the Piety Beyond the Caricatures

Given the grim pop notions of the Genevan Reformer, many might expect a book on his “spirituality” to be little more than variations on a theme: “Suck it up, sinner.” Of course, they’d be wrong. And this might be one of my favorite things about Horton’s offering. Using the best recent historical scholarship, Horton gives us a picture of Calvin beyond the caricatures of both foes and friends.

Thankfully, Horton doesn't practice hagiography. He gives us honest appraisals of Calvin’s early rashness, pastoral oversights, and the tragedy of the Servetus affair. Still, instead of Calvin the Tyrant of Geneva, we learn of Calvin the pastor among a company of pastors who submitted himself to the judgment of the Consistory at various points, the reluctant Reformer brought to Geneva under duress only because he acknowledged “my life is not my own.” Instead of Calvin the cultural Philistine, we learn of Calvin the Humanist with a good wine cellar and an appreciation for the arts (25, 236–237). Instead of Calvin the innovative theological virtuoso, we learn of Calvin the Catholic theologian whose great genius was synthesizing the best of the tradition (17, 35), reformed under the Word of God. Instead of Calvin the heartless, we learn of Calvin the comforter of the broken, who oversaw the diaconate and distributed funding to children of refugees.

Learning of Calvin the Christian, we begin hearing Calvin on the Christian life.

Calvin’s Theological Piety

Obviously, it’s unlikely anyone expects a chapter on “Calvin’s 10 tips to a better marriage.” Still, some might be surprised to find how this book explores the overall shape of Calvin’s theology. After a couple of chapters of initial biography and contextual stage-setting, following the order of the Institutes Horton gives us 12 chapters on the knowledge of God, revelation, creation, anthropology, providence, predestination, Christology, salvation via union with Christ (including justification and sanctification), the sacraments, prayer, law and liberty, the church, political theology, vocation, and eschatology. I can’t think of any major theological loci left untouched.

Some might wonder, “Why the involved discussions about the debates between Calvin and the Anabaptists on revelation, or Calvin and the Roman Catholics on sanctification? I thought this was about his spirituality?” As Horton notes, however, for Calvin, Christian theology cannot be separated from Christian living. The overarching category is piety:

“Piety” (pietas), not spirituality, is the Reformer’s all-encompassing term for Christian faith and practice. . . . We’ve learned to draw a line between doctrine and life, with “piety” (like “spirituality”) falling on the “life” side of the ledger. (17)

With the ancient church, Calvin didn’t make that mistake. For him, doctrine, worship, and life are “all of one piece.” You can’t separate theology from life because “the root of piety is faith in the gospel.” In fact, Calvin’s own name for what we think of as his systematic theology is “a sum of piety.” In this, his whole corpus challenges modern approaches that would starkly divide between dogmatics, practical theology, and devotional literature.

And so, Horton shows us that for Calvin the knowledge of God is less about the “what” as the triune “who” at work in the gospel (47, 62). Providence does not merely speculate as to a distant deity’s working. Rather, this doctrine inspires confidence in the “divine activism” involved in the care of our fatherly God amid a troubled and troubling world (72, 76–77). Disputes about the doctrine of Christ are concerned with our assurance in his divinely human work on our behalf as the Mediator who secures our salvation, through our union with his person and work (89, 91, 99). This doctrine invites us to take our anxious eyes off our own good works and trust in him alone. Sacramental meditations aren’t exercises in dry logic-chopping, but beautiful defenses of our true communion with our saving Lord (137).

I could go on at length, but you get the picture: for Calvin, the theology was for living. Which brings us to today.

16th-Century Wisdom for a 21st-Century Church

What could a 16th-century Reformer speak into the contemporary church? A surprising amount, actually. Aside from the perennial issues in theology, Horton’s presentation highlights Calvin’s wisdom for an evangelical culture obsessed with celebrity pastors, a tendency toward disembodied spirituality divorced from the church, and myriad other hot topics.

As a college director, I can’t help but think of Rod Dreher’s recent comment that “dumbed-down emotivism is the way many, many churches—not just evangelical churches—present the faith to its young people,” and the way it sets them up to walk away from the faith once the emotions shift. Though Calvin spoke richly of the comfort of the gospel, treating the vast range of our emotions especially in his commentaries on the Psalms, he did not cultivate the navel-gazing, “Jesus makes me feel the pretty feelings,” rooted-in-the-self spirituality we see today. The biblical gospel calls us to respond to a concrete Word addressed to us from without. Calvin’s thickly theological piety anchored in the great acts of creation, redemption, and consummation is exactly the sort of antidote needed to combat that sort of amorphous “faith” we’ve passed on to our younger generations.

Calvin Via Escondido?

For the Reformed insiders who may be wondering, yes, Horton’s Reformed Two Kingdoms approach to culture (to be distinguished from, say, the guys over at The Calvinist International) makes an appearance here. There was a surprising amount of references to Luther in his section on Calvin’s view of vocation. In an evangelical world concerned with radical faith, Horton invokes James Davison Hunter’s notion of “faithful presence” as a helpful grid for understanding a Calvin who wasn’t so much interesting in “transforming culture” as encouraging men and women set free by the gospel to be faithful in their ordinary, everyday vocations for the glory of God and the benefit of their neighbors (229–230). It just so happened that as they did so, in the sciences, civic life, business, education, and all the areas of God’s call, culture was indeed renewed for the social good (236–239). In the end, we arrive at a Calvin who transcends some of the “transformationalist” and “Two Kingdoms” dichotomies, reflecting more of the coming together” on Reformed social thought that Tim Keller hinted at recently.

All in all, if I had one book to put in the hands of students, pastors, or interested disciples looking to be encouraged in their faith, Horton has given us an excellent choice in this introduction to Calvin and the deep piety he rooted firmly in the gospel.

Derek Rishmawy is the director of college and young adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, California, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. He got his BA in philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, and his MA in theological studies at Azusa Pacific University. Derek blogs at Reformedish. You can follow him on Twitter.