An Explorer’s Guide to John Calvin

Written by Yudha Thianto Reviewed By Forrest H. Buckner

In An Explorer’s Guide to John Calvin, Yudha Thianto, professor of History of Christianity and Reformed Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, sets out to introduce readers, with little or no prior knowledge, to Calvin as “a person, a pastor, and a Reformer,” helping the reader understand his main theological teachings as explicated in the 1559 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (p. 5). Thianto explicitly focuses on the Institutes because it provides a manageable scope for a primer.

The book is divided into two main parts, Part 1 focuses on Calvin, the person, and Part 2 provides an overview of Calvin’s teaching in the Institutes. Thianto begins with a chapter explaining why Calvin and his teaching are worthy of contemporary study, namely because of his work as a biblical theologian and his impact on the global church through the past 500 years.

In chapter 2, Thianto provides a brief but helpful overview of Calvin’s life. He primarily follows Theodore Beza’s biographical sketch, but he also adds many insights not included in Beza’s account. In the process, Thianto highlights Calvin as a normal human being who was shaped by a variety of mentors and who experienced real challenges and sorrows, including the death of his only son at one month old and the death of his wife a few years later. Thianto also provides a helpful introduction to the political and civic setting of Geneva, repeatedly reminding the reader that Calvin was not an autocrat but was fulfilling his invited role in Geneva. Thianto also introduces a variety of controversies that Calvin faced in Geneva, especially detailing Michael Servetus’s controversial execution and pointing out that the city council in Geneva, not Calvin, was responsible for the execution.

In chapter 3, Thianto briefly addresses several of the common questions that arise regarding Calvin and his legacy. These include queries about predestination, the origins of TULIP, the perception of Calvin as a dour autocrat, Calvinism’s link to colonialism, and Calvin’s teaching on human nature, economic exchange, the relationship of church and state, and other religions.

In chapter 4, Thianto reminds the reader that “Calvin was a pastor first and a theologian second.” Accordingly, his greatest hope was to provide God’s people with “spiritual nourishment and guidance” (p. 82). Calvin also valued the preaching of the word of God, the right administration of the sacraments, pastoral care, catechesis, congregational singing (in one’s mother tongue), and preparing ministers to be good pastors. In one of the most insightful sections of the book, Thianto provides a brief glimpse into the ways that Calvin corresponded as a pastor through letters, demonstrating a deep love for people, empathy, and a desire to edify the church.

In chapter 5, as he transitions to Part 2 of the book, “A Guide to the Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Thianto provides a brief overview of the various editions of the Institutes from 1536 to1560, illuminating the fact that the core of the mature 1559 version was included from the 1536 edition onward and pointing out that much of the added material was included as a result of Calvin’s debates with critics.

In chapters 6–9, Thianto surveys each of the four books of the Institutes. His stated goal is to help the reader “follow [Calvin’s] logic and increase [the reader’s] understanding of the Christian faith broadly as well as the Reformed tradition more specifically” (p. 120). Diverging from his approach in Part 1, Thianto here provides little personal commentary on Calvin’s teaching, instead simply seeking to condense Calvin’s 2,000 compact pages of teaching into 100 pages. These chapters draw attention to various themes of Calvin’s teaching, including God’s unmerited grace, all theology as Trinitarian, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Inevitably, Thianto has been forced to leave out a number of valuable insights or nuances that one reading the Institutes would find for themselves, but in my opinion, Thianto highlights Calvin’s central themes in an effective manner. In short, he summarizes the Institutes in alignment with his understanding of Calvin’s intent in writing them, to help “his readers to know and understand the truth of the gospel and what it means for their lives” (p. 111).

Throughout the book, Thianto proves himself a good reader of Calvin, who knows Calvin’s theology well and summarizes it succinctly and effectively. Although his open admiration of Calvin might at times inhibit harsh critique, it also helps the reader approach Calvin charitably and with an openness that foregoes quick judgments or off-hand dismissal of Calvin’s teaching as irrelevant.

As one might expect in an overview, one weakness of the book is that Thianto’s descriptions lack precision at times. For example, in discussing Calvin’s teaching on sin in Book 2, Thianto states that “all human nature is empty of all the goodness that God has created in us.” A few sentences later, he says more carefully that “sin affects all aspects of our nature and being” (p. 147). The second is a more accurate depiction of Calvin’s teaching on the nefarious effects of sin that extend to shatter and corrupt every bit of human existence without removing the goodness of God’s image that humanity bears. Similar comments could be made regarding Thianto’s description of Calvin’s teaching on creation in six days, the emphasis on the individual (instead of communal) nature of the sacraments, and Christ’s descent into hell. An interested reader of Calvin will find clarification and correction in Calvin’s writings themselves.

In sum, Thianto’s volume is a well-written, pastoral, accessible, and fair introduction to the teaching of John Calvin, particularly in the Institutes. Although nothing compares to the feast of reading Calvin’s teaching itself, this book can serve as a great preparation for the meal!

Forrest H. Buckner

Forrest H. Buckner
Whitworth University
Spokane, WA

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