The Oxford Handbook to Calvin and Calvinism

Written by Bruce Gordon and Carl Trueman, eds Reviewed By Kenneth J. Stewart

In 1948, the distinguished Calvin scholar, John T. McNeill, composed a survey of recent Calvin research. Entitled “Thirty Years of Calvin Study” (Church History 17.3: 207–40), it was massive in its scale, filling more than thirty pages. McNeill was attempting to locate what significant study of Calvin and Calvinism had been carried out in both the confusing inter-war years (when many came to question the adequacy of the liberal-modernist Christianity, which had been dominant) and the subsequent years of global war. There was a lot to tabulate! As one looks at McNeill’s survey today, one is struck by its theological inclusivity. Numerous orthodox writers whose names still carry weight are there: Emil Doumergue, August Lange, Adam Hunter, T. H. L. Parker, and the young T. F. Torrance were all there alongside the names of others whom we might consider less trustworthy.

For reasons too complex to be explored in this review, this kind of theological inclusivity became harder to find after 1950. It is not that those of a conservative theological persuasion stopped studying Calvin and Calvinism. Rather, they seemed to operate in a separate theological world. An example of this, still illustrating a high standard of scholarship, was the volume edited by Jacob Hoogstra, John Calvin: Contemporary Prophet (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1959). The same compartmentalizing trend was demonstrated even more clearly in connection with the Calvin 500 celebrations in 2009. On the whole, conservative Protestants did their celebrating separately. Had they been frozen out, or had they preferred to stay away? Reviewing Bruce Gordon’s fascinating John Calvin’s Institutes: A Biography in this journal in 2017 (Themelios 47.1,, I noted that in his treatment of the reception history of the Institutes in subsequent centuries, Gordon did not show an adequate awareness of the significant role conservative Protestants had played in fostering this theological tradition. This suggested that needed conversations were not happening. But as we will see, this was not the whole story.

In reality, there have been encouraging signs of late. That same Calvin centennial of 2009 demonstrated, in a number of theologically-inclusive collections, that conservative Protestants such as David Bebbington, Paul Helm, A. N. S. Lane, Richard Mueller, Jennifer McNutt, Herman Selderhuis, and Carl Trueman (to name but a few) have all claimed places at the larger Calvin table. Theological conservatives have never been utterly absent from these discussions; what was needed was their fuller representation.

All of which brings us to the Oxford Handbook. This hefty volume does just what it says on its cover: It “provides scholars and graduate students with compelling new perspectives upon a wide range of subjects.” The inclusivity is there from the start, with Bruce Gordon and Carl Trueman themselves representing the perspectives of the research university and the confessional Protestant world, respectively. They have evidently each used their wide circle of academic contacts to draw in what is extensively a new generation of scholars on Calvin and Calvinism. Since theological conservatives are well represented, it is noteworthy that the older generation of conservative scholars of Calvin and Calvinism referred to above is not generally relied upon in this collection. Trueman, and no doubt also Gordon, have found many scholars younger than themselves to provide the essays that make up this wide-ranging volume. In addition to their being, on the whole, youthful (there are notable exceptions), we find contributors who are widely international, drawn from a world of global Calvin scholarship which now reaches well beyond the West. We find actual diversity in the constituencies represented by the contributors—women and men, mainline and conservative Protestants, the research university and the confessional theological school. Southeast Asia, Latin America, and West Africa all find representation, as well as the to-be-expected Western Europe and North America.

Of particular significance for this reviewer was the jointly-authored introduction to this volume, in which the editors indicate that it was their desire to draw together a “mildly unusual collection [meant] to broaden the scope of … thinking on Calvin” (p. 3). They wisely caution against a perspective that “reverence[s] Calvin as the Father of the Reformed faith … in isolation from his contemporaries and historical circumstances” (p. 4). They wish us to see him as the one “who brought stability and order to the next generation (after Zwingli and Luther) of the Reformation that followed … the break with Rome” (p. 6). These are words that set out a mildly revisionist agenda. Has the volume succeeded in fulfilling such corrective aims?

This reviewer would answer with a resounding “yes.” It is impossible, in the confines of this review, to say something about each of the thirty-eight topics that follow the thoughtful introduction. The aim here will be to draw attention to genuinely innovative material since many of the chapters represent distillations of research already in print elsewhere. Chapter 2, “Calvin, Calvinism, and Medieval Thought,” provides a thoughtful re-assessment of where the discussion of the Reformation’s relation to scholasticism stands. Author Ueli Zahnd shows that the discussion has moved beyond the critique made by Richard Mueller and others of the older scholarship (represented by neo-orthodox theologians of a half-century ago), which claimed that the Reformation was thwarted by a relapse into medieval scholasticism. A similar re-assessment was provided in chapter 8, “Calvin’s Geneva: An Imperfect School of Christ.” Karen Spierling shows that, despite stereotypes that keep alive the notion that Geneva was monochrome and uniform under Calvin’s leadership, the city—surrounded by Roman Catholic territories—had gates that opened both ways, admitting non-Genevan Roman Catholics on business and allowing Protestant citizens to maintain their commercial interests beyond Protestant territory. Eight chapters in all (9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22) explore the common relations of England and Scotland (jointly ruled after 1603) with Calvin and Geneva.

Especially timely for the conservative Protestant world is Aza Goudriaan’s chapter 23, which explores the theme of “Seventeenth-Century Calvinism and Early Enlightenment Thought.” Is this reviewer the only person who suspects that our current conservative obsession with Puritans and Reformers from pre-Enlightenment Europe too often entails a dodging of important questions? Goudriaan shows that Calvin was diversely appealed to as the Enlightenment advanced. Since this same constituency has an almost-equal fascination with reprints from early Victorian Britain, Carl Trueman’s “Classical Calvinism and the Problem of Development” (ch. 23) makes for vital reading, as it demonstrates the defined theological “ceilings” under which writers like William Cunningham thought and wrote. Having reached the nineteenth century, it is worth pointing out that the volume offers helpful entries on the relation of Schleiermacher (ch. 27) and Kuyper (ch. 31) to Calvin and his teaching. Karl Barth’s growth of familiarity with Calvin and his writings is insightfully explored in Ryan Glomsrud’s chapter 32.

Not to be ignored are insightful chapters investigating the past and present influence of Calvin’s teaching in Korea, post-1949 China, Brazil, and Ghana (chs. 33–36). In these, one is struck by the penchant Korean Calvinists have had for division (a tendency that surely did not begin in Korea) and how—in both China and Brazil—Calvinist teaching has served to steady the ship of pre-existing pietistic and Pentecostal movements.

One cannot leave consideration of this Handbook without drawing attention to the fine concluding chapter on the current high-visibility Calvinist resurgence within North America. Flynn Cratty’s “The New Calvinism” is a model of vigorous research; it shows both a personal familiarity with his subject as well as a utilization of an impressive range of sources.

Are there weaknesses in the Handbook? Assuredly. But let us dwell on the positive. Having also read and reviewed the rather comparable and similarly-priced Calvin in Context, edited by Ward Holder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), this Handbook has the edge because of (1) the range of topics explored, (2) the quality of chapter-end bibliographies provided, and (3) its eagerness to extend its thematic explorations into our own day and time.

Kenneth J. Stewart

Ken Stewart is emeritus professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

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