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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review: "Calvin's Theology and its Reception" - 5 Stars

J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink, editors
Westminster John Knox Press
100 Witherspoon Street
Louisville, KY 40202-1396
Copyright 2012
ISBN: 978-0-664-23423-3; $30.00
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber, Assistant Pastor, Heritage Presbyterian Church (PCA), Edmond OK
5 Stars

The ripple-effect of Calvin’s thinking has sent it’s subtle, and not so subtle, waves into many corners of the Christian lake. An excellent example of the various ways this has happened are elucidated in “Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception: Disputes,Developments and New Possibilities”, edited by J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink. This manageable, 250 page paperback, is written for seminarians, pastors, thinkers and theologians, while being accessible enough for the thoughtful lay reader.

The editors, who also authored two of the chapters, have set up five sections that cover Calvin’s ideas on: Scripture and revelation, union with Christ, election, the Lord’s Supper, and the Church and society. Each section of “Calvin’s Theology and its Reception” has only two chapters. The first is a fairly thorough unpacking of Calvin’s thinking on the stated subject, with an examination of ways the idea was received by immediately following generations. The second chapter moves the reader to see how Calvin’s point was taken up and, sometimes, modified by later thinkers; and then gives ideas for “promise and challenge” (xiv) in developing the specific thrust into the present and future.

In the first section of “Calvin’s Theology and its Reception”, I. John Hesselink and Mark Husbands take up “Calvin’s Theology of Scripture and Revelation, and its Reception.” Hesselink explains Calvin’s thinking on both natural and special revelation, reminding the reader how, for Calvin, both support each the other. Ultimately, Scripture is God’s accommodation of himself to his image-bearers, and is authenticated by the inward persuasion of the Spirit of God.  He then helps the reader to see the ways Calvin’s points were received, or ignored, in various Reformed Confessions, as well as by select theologians and Puritans. Next, Mark Husbands takes up the baton and runs toward the goal, worming his way through Schleiermacher, Bavinck and Barth, with some enlightening observations about each. He concludes that the present retrieval of Calvin’s theology on Scripture and revelation would help us to pull back together “the objective and subjective dimensions of faith” (43), and help Christians and the Church move away from capitalizing on “pathos and loss”, and to regain the major emphasis of praising God “in response to divine self-disclosure” (44-5).

The book then takes up “Calvin’s Theology of Union with Christ and its reception.”  In the first chapter, J. Todd Billings takes up one of his favorite subjects in Calvin, the double grace of justification and sanctification, which are received by our gracious union with Christ. If you have ever read Billings’ works before, you will be pleased to find a substantive synopsis of his previous works. And if you have never read him, this will wet your appetite. In either case, the reader will find this chapter tremendously constructive and thought provoking, especially as Billings works out the difference between Calvin and Osiander; points up the way this issue functions in three Reformed confessional statements; and the ways it was expounded in Olevian and Owen. Next, Michael Horton moves into the ring where he artfully grapples with the diverse ways Calvin and Justification have been properly used and misused from the 19th Century into present discussions.  Progressing on, Horton then builds the case for the necessity of distinguishing justification and sanctification, but never separating them, because both come from our union in Christ, and by the Holy Spirit; “So when we consider ourselves, there is nothing but despair; when we consider ourselves in Christ, there is faith, which brings hope and love in its train” (91). This all brings Horton to conclude, “Therefore, Calvin’s concept of union with Christ has enormous ecumenical significance. Unlike its synergistic rivals, this account provides ample space for an exclusive forensic justification and transformative renewal—even a form of deification” (93). Billings and Horton gave me a deep pleasure, both in style and subject matter. This was my favorite section in the book.

“Calvin’s Theology and its Reception” turns to the third segment, “Calvin’s Theology of Election and its Reception.”  Initiating the discussion, Carl R. Trueman hammers out, with ringing clarity, the place of election and double predestination in Calvin’s schema. Trueman shows why this was an important aspect of Calvin’s idea and how it undergirded his anti-Pelagian position. He then lays out the ways several reformed confessions and catechisms made double predestination and election clear, or where they allowed them to slip into single predestination. This part of the venture delightfully hikes through many of the historical discussions behind the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England, and the nine Lambeth articles; along with the Irish Articles and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The topic is then turned over to Suzanne McDonald. She informatively guides the reader on into Schleiermacher’s similarities and dissimilarities with Calvin, as well as Barth’s. Both of these discussions were quite discerning and discriminating. As McDonald wraps up her task, she draws the reader to her conclusion, that Calvin’s discussion, revisited and filtered, renews a proper stress “on the corporate as well as individual aspects of election and a focus of election as God’s chosen means to further his wider purpose of blessing in the face of human sin” (138).

The book rightly turns into a new division of topic; “Calvin’s Theology of the Lord’s Supper and its Reception.” Sue A. Rozeboom masterfully brings out the derivative nature of Calvin’s theology on the Eucharist, and how he developed it in the face of controversy, conflict and conciliation. Rozeboom makes crystal clear that Calvin’s Eucharistic idea was a symbolic instrumentalism, and how this was unmistakably distinct from Zwingli and Bullinger on the one hand, and Luther and Rome on the other. For Calvin the signs of bread and wine are neither empty nor naked, but are genuinely means of grace by which God stoops to convey grace—there is a distinction but not a division. She further relates how, in Calvin’s argument, this is affected by the Holy Spirit in those who are united to Christ, and receive Christ’s body and blood by faith. Her article then takes the reader on a stroll through several Reformed confessions and theologians, pointing out where they draw close to Calvin, and where they moved further away. I found this piece extremely satisfying and quite uplifting. The second chapter of this issue is handed over to Timothy Hessel-Robinson, who guides the tour through Jonathan Edwards, Alexander Campbell and the Disciples of Christ, and then John Williamson Nevins. Hessel-Robinson’s plan is quite illumining, both from an historical as well as theological perspective, and was helpful. He turns to the concluding portion of his chapter and works through the sacramental character of creation, of the Church, and the sacrificial nature of the sacrament. The author ends his ideological excursion with the role of the Holy Spirit; “The role of the Spirit is key to understanding Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, for it is the Spirit who is the vivifying power of the sacraments” (188).

The final portion of “Calvin’s Theology and its Reception” enters into: “Calvin’s Theology of Church and Society, and its Reception.” Jeannine E. Olson launches into this subject, but spends most of her time on the “society” portion of the equation. This is mainly due to the heavily historical nature of her paper, where she lays out the “what happened and why” behind Calvin’s thinking. David Little, in the final chapter of the book, jumps into the discussion wrapped up mostly in Max Webber’s appropriation of Calvin. This chapter is also heavily historical, propelling the reader from Calvin the “political theologian” (218) into the Puritans, and the political formation of America. Though much of his chapter also focuses on the “Society” part, he brings one to conclude that the problem “is that Calvin, and the tradition he helped to inspire, is profoundly conflicted on the subject” of Church and Society (240).

The readings in “Calvin’s Theology and its Reception” are pleasantly diversified, and able to keep the reader’s attention in almost every segment. The historical rehearsals are rich and informative, and their connection to the theological is fitting and normally quite proportional. This could be a great book to spark healthy discussions with a church elder board, a ministerial alliance, or at a seminary. I highly recommend the book.

[Book provided free for review from Westminster John Knox Press]

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