Sorting by

Skip to main content

Calvin at 500–The Literary Beginning of a Quincentennial Celebration

Listen to article
Voiced by Amazon Polly

July 10, 2009, marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth in
Noyon, France. Special conferences
and celebrations to commemorate the
event are taking place throughout the
world, ranging from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to
Seoul, Korea. The Dutch couldn’t wait
and already had a Calvin conference at
a modern castle near Putten, the Netherlands,
in late October 2008. The lecturers
included some of the leading Calvin
scholars from Western Europe and the
United States. Participants came from
places as distant as Sri Lanka and South

On that occasion two publications
were presented: historical study by the
veteran Geneva scholar, Irena Backus,
Life Writing in Reformation Europe: Lives
of Reformers by Friends and Foes
Ashgate) and a Calvijn Handboek
edited by Herman Selderhuis, professor
of church history and director of
the Institute for Reformation research
at Apeldoorn University in the Netherlands.
Published by Kok, this ‘handbook’
consists of 653 pages in which
fifty-two contributors from around
the world have articles which fall under
four major categories: orientation;
Calvin’s life, including his historical
and theological relationships; Calvin’s
works; and miscellaneous topics such
as art and literature, pedagogy, politics,
social life, and the reception of
Calvin’s theology, both historically and
geographically (e.g., in Africa, Asia,
and America).

This work does not supersede the
earlier Cambridge Companion to Calvin
(Cambridge U. Press, 2004) edited by
Donald McKim but surpasses it in scope.
The next month (December 2008) a German
edition–Calvin Handbuch–was
published by Mohr Siebeck. An English
edition is scheduled to be published by
Eerdmans later this year.

The following month (November,
2008) the Dutch publisher Kok came
out with a coffee table size illustrated
volume, Johannes Calvijn, Zijn Leven,
Zijn Werk
, edited by Willem Balke,
Jan C. Kolk, and William van’t Spijker.
This work differs in several ways
from the Calvin Handbook. Although it
treats both Calvin’s life and theology,
the running narrative is by van’t Spijker,
the eminent emeritus professor of
church history at Apledoorn University.
Balke, also a well-known Reformation
scholar, who has taught at both the
University of Amsterdam and the Free
University of Amsterdam, contributes
significant portions of this volume, and
thirty other Calvin scholars (European
and American) contribute shorter articles that are inserted here and there.
These range from Calvin’s wife and dialogue
with Cardinal Sadolet to Calvin’s
catechisms and his vision concerning
the church and Israel.

What makes this huge volume so
special is that it is lavishly illustrated
with photos, paintings, maps, and
documents, most of them in color on
art quality paper. Some of these documents
have never been reproduced in
book form before. Most of the credit for
the format goes to the third of the editors
of this volume, Jan Klok, a young
Ph.D. candidate who went to libraries
and archives in Europe to ferret out
treasures hitherto unpublished.

It would be wonderful if an English
edition of this impressive work could be
produced, but the cost might be prohibitive.
One need not to be able to read
Dutch, however, to appreciate this magnificent

Earlier in the fall of 2008 several
other significant Calvin studies had appeared
in the United States. I shall limit
myself to this brief period, recognizing
that in 2009 a host of other Calvin studies
will have appeared, including Elsie
Mc Kee’s translation of the popular 1541
(French) edition of the Institutes.

No one has attempted to give an analysis
of the Institutes since T.H.L. Parker’s
slim study, Calvin: An Introduction to His
(WKJ, 1995). There are also the
older, but still useful, studies of Calvin’s
theology by Wilhelm Niesel and Francis
Wendel and my more recent introduction
to Calvin’s theology, Calvin’s First
Catechism: A Commentary
(WKJ, 1997).
But none of these works discusses Calvin
with the thoroughness of a book that
appeared last fall: A Theological Guide
to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis
edited by David W. Hall and Peter A.
Lillback. This is one of the “Calvin 500
Series” published by the P & R (Presbyterian
and Reformed) publishers.

As I checked out the contributors–twenty-one in all–it soon became apparent
that the majority had Westminster
Seminary connections. Moreover, few of
them are recognized Calvin scholars, although
the majority are seminary professors.
Hence I had two concerns: first,
would these essays be of a scholarly level;
second, and given the conservative Presbyterian-Reformed nature of these contributors,
would they be reading Calvin
though the lens of the Westminster confessions?
I am happy to report that having
read almost all of the contributions,
my fears were unfounded.

There are a few places where the
theological presuppositions of the authors
were apparent (but who of us reads
Calvin or anyone else without presuppositions?).
For example, in an otherwise
excellent treatment of “The Christian
Life and Good Works according to Calvin”
(Institutes 3:6-10, 17-19), William
Edgar assumes that Calvin taught a
covenant of works (337). Also Richard
Gaffin, in his discussion of “Justification
and Union with Christ” (Institutes 3:11-18), is so concerned to defend the “purely
forensic” view of justification that he underestimates
the significance of the duplex
(twofold grace) stemming from
our union with Christ and resulting in a
dynamic view of justification that transcends
the typical forensic notion of
justification. However, immediately after
stating that justification is “purely
forensic,” he adds that “stemming from
union with Christ, it [justification] is
also participationist” (262).

One could also wish that some of
the contributors took criticisms of Calvin’s
views more seriously. A case in
point is the treatment of election and
predestination by R. Scott Clark (Institutes
3:21-24). This is scholarly enough
(many Latin quotations) and includes
passages from Calvin’s commentaries
and treatises, but Clark nowhere concedes
that many Reformed theologians
have raised questions about Calvin’s
view of double predestination. In regard
to the interpretation of Romans
9-11, Clark confidently asserts that “It
is a remarkable feature of Calvin’s exegetical
work that it still stands up to
critical scrutiny after 450 years” (121).
Has Clark read no recent commentaries
on Romans or the critique of G.C. Berkouwer
in his book Divine Election, not
to mention that of Karl Barth? Calvin
may be right and Barth and Berkouwer
wrong, but an honest discussion of this issue requires that one takes criticisms

Robert Reymond’s discussion of
Calvin’s view of Scripture is interesting
for two reasons. One, he dares to be
critical of B.B. Warfield, who is usually
the touchstone of Westminster orthodoxy. Reymond concludes: “In short,
Calvin’s view relates the Spirit’s testimonial
work directly to the authority of
the Word of God and not to its proofs,
a view that I personally think is truer
to Scripture than is Warfield’s” (53). He
goes on to say, “On the other hand, the
various discrepancies in Scripture Calvin
finds in his commentaries are dismissed
as “Homer nodding” (J. I. Packer), since
it is apparent that over his long career,
Calvin uncompromisingly and everywhere
argued to the contrary for biblical
inerrancy” (61).

But these are minor problems. The
merits of those essays far outweigh any
difficulties. As noted above, most of the
contributors are not well-known in Calvin
studies circles, but they have done
their homework and have made solid
contributions to our understanding of
the Institutes and Calvin’s theology in
general. The chapters by the various
authors are not mere summaries of the
original portion of the Institutes but also
include quotations from other writings
of Calvin. Moreover, many of the writers
are also conversant with the latest Calvin
research with which they interact in
a fruitful way.

It is dangerous to single out specific
contributions, but I found particularly
illuminating the following: Douglas F.
Kelly on the Trinity (Institutes I, p. 11-13), Peter Lillbeck on the continuity
and discontinuity of the covenant (Institutes
2:10-11); Dereck W.H. Thomas
on the mediator of the covenant (Institutes
2:12-15); Robert A. Peterson on
Christ’s saving work (Institutes 2:16-
17); Joel R. Beeke on the appropriation
of salvation (Institutes 3:1-3, 6-10 ); William
Edgar on ethics and the Christian
life (Institutes 3:6-10, 17-19); and Cornelius
P. Venema on Calvin’s doctrine
of last things (Institutes 3:25 et al.).

What is extremely disappointing
is the final chapter: “Essential Calvin
Bibliography” by Richard C. Gamble
and Zachary John Kail. It is generally
limited to literature published within
the last ten years, which means some
recent major works are inevitably omitted.
Even so, there is no excuse for
listing articles rather than major works
by the same author. For example, there
are references to essays written by Randall
Zachman but no mention of his major
work, Image and Word in the Theology
of John Calvin
(Notre Dame, 2007). The
same is true of Paul Helm whose major
work John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford, 2004),
is not cited. In my case, the authors refer
to an essay of mine but not to Calvin’s
First Catechism
(WJK, 1997) nor my chapter
on Calvin’s theology in the Cambridge
Companion to John Calvin
. Similarly, an
article of Richard Muller’s is listed but
not his major work, The Unaccommodated
(Oxford, 2000). These works all
fall within the time frame established by
Gamble and Kail, (1999 to the present).
The most egregious omission is the outstanding
biography–Calvin: A Biography
(Eerdmans, 2000) by the distinguished
French historian Bernard Cottret.

Despite the unfortunate ending
to an other wise solid contribution to
Calvin’s studies, I would highly recommend
A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes
to anyone seriously interested
in Calvin’s theology. The same goes for
the monumental The Theology of John
by Charles Partee (WJK, 2008),
emeritus professor of church history
at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. It
is “monumental” both for its size (the
original manuscript was almost 700
pages long) and for its comprehensiveness.
Partee not only interacts with
almost all of the available Calvin literature
but also with a wide variety
of literary and philosophical sources
ranging from Milton, Shakespeare, and
Jane Austen to William James and David
Hume. Some will find these asides
helpful and illuminating, but I suspect
others will find them distracting, if not

Partee, along with most Calvin
scholars today, rejects the idea that
there is a central dogma in Calvin’s
theology, but at the same time he finds several leading motifs in Calvin’s theology.
One is the conviction that “the
Lordship of Christ and the resulting
life in him is the fundamental confession
of the Christian faith and as such
illuminates every corner of Calvin’s
theology” (1). More specifically, “This
study seeks to demonstrate that the doctrine
of union with Christ is close to the
center stage in Calvin’s theology” (274).
However, as Partee notes in several places,
union with Christ is not only a state
but a process (41, 209). This is not a new
notion, for it is coming to be recognized
as central to Calvin’s theology in recent
Calvin scholarship. Moreover, as Partee
points out, John Nevin proposed this in
the 1840s. But Partee sees the broader
ramifications, for he finds in Calvin’s
doctrine of the church “an extension of
his communal and individual confession
of union with Christ” (269). Partee concludes
his fine discussion of predestination
on a similar note, “Human explanation
follows after the divine mystery of
predestination seen as part of the confession
of the gift of faith, which is the
principal work of the Holy Spirit uniting
the believer to Christ” (252).

Partee’s knowledge of Calvin, and
especially the secondary literature, is
impressive. Given his sympathy for his
subject, he frequently faults interpreters
for what he deems erroneous judgments.
He is especially critical of those who “are
comfortable appealing to logic and reason,
syllogisms, principles and proofs,
propositions and adequate evidence”
they believe have, or would receive, Calvin’s
approbation. Here he is critical of
Charles Hodge, Lewis Berkhof, Richard
Muller “and their likeminded friends”
(26). At the same time, he has little use
for those who would make Schleiermacher
a worthy heir of Calvin (Brian Gerrish
and his friends) (317-322).

The author does not pretend to be objective.
He is passionate about his subject
and frequently refers to his personal
experience. This is not only “a magisterial
survey of Calvin’s theology” (William
Stacy Johnson), it is also a powerful personal

At least three other books on Calvin
were published in the last quarter of
2008 (a host of others have already appeared
in early 2009), but they must be
treated more briefly. One is John Calvin:
A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine and Doxology
edited by Buck Parsons (Reformation
Trust, 2008). The nineteen contributors
dedicate this book to R.C. Sproul, so this
gives some indication of the theological
orientation of the authors. The essays
are brief and of a more popular nature,
intended more for lay readers than scholars,
although all of the essays are unstintingly
laudatory of Calvin’s life and
ministry. The editor indicates in his preface
that the purpose of this volume is
“that the people of God might more fully
trust, invoke, praise, and love the Lord”
(xix). The subjects are both theological–“Election and Reprobation,” “Redemption
Defined,” and ” The Principal
Article of Salvation” (justification–and
more practical and pastoral, often concluding
with a homiletical exhortation
such as ” The Humility of Calvin’s Calvinism,”
“Calvin’s Heart for God,” and
“The Counselor to the Afflicted.”

A book of quite a different sort and
very nicely done is a slim volume, The
Legacy of John Calvin: His Influence
on the Modern World
, by David W. Hall
(P&R, 2008). Hall is a pastor but he
is also the general editor of the Calvin
500 series published by P&R. After
a brief chronology of Calvin’s life, the
book discusses three main subjects:
“The Way Modern Culture Is Different
because of John Calvin,” “John Calvin:
A Life Worth Knowing, “and “Tributes
Measuring a Man after Many Generations.”
The tributes in the last section
come both from an older generation represented
by Charles Spurgeon, George
Whitefield, and J.C. Ryle and also contemporary authors such as J.I. Packer,
John Piper, and the Hungarian-German
Roman Catholic scholar Alexandre
Ganoczy. Impressively researched
and clearly written, this little book (112
pages) is a gem and would be ideal for
discussion classes.

Finally, the indefatigable administrator,
theologian, and pastor Joel
Beeke, in the midst of all his other publications,
managed to put together a devotional
book titled 365 Days with Calvin (Day One Publications, 2008). The
selections are from Old and New Testament
commentaries and sermons on
2 Samuel and various Pauline epistles.
A book of a similar nature appeared in
1999 from P&R (and still in print) is John
Calvin: Heart Aflame: Daily Readings from
Calvin on the Psalms
(compiler’s name
not given). Given the thin gruel provided
by so many devotional books, these volumes
provide solid nourishment for the
soul. One might well follow the example
of the Puritan John Cotton, who is reported
to have stayed up late “because I
love to sweeten my mouth with a piece of
Calvin before I go to sleep.”

For those readers who want to celebrate
Calvin’s 500th birthday in a less
cerebral and more visible way there is
a delightful option: a seven inch Calvin
bobblehead available from the Calvin
College bookstore


The above books, with one exception,
all appeared in the last quarter of
the year 2008. In the first half of 2009
at least nine more books on some aspect
of Calvin’s life and work will have appeared:
a biography of Calvin by Herman
Selderhuis (IVP); a large, comprehensive
study by Bruce Gordon (Yale); a Guide to
Calvin’s Life and Thought
by Willem van’t
Spijker (WJK); a biography by Robert
Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor
(Crossway); A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s
by Anthony Lane (Baker); a
brief introduction to Calvin’s theology by
John Piper (Crossway); John Calvin’s Impact
on Church and Society (1509-2009)
edited by Martin Ernst Hirzel and Martin
Sallman (Eerdmans); The Soul of Life: The
Piety of John Calvin
, edited by Joel Beeke
(Reformation Heritage Books); and best
of all, an English translation of Calvin’s
1541 French Institutes by Elsie McKee

There may be other Calvin studies
of which I am unaware; moreover, the
quincentennial year is not yet over. Also,
who knows how many books of a similar
nature are being published in other languages
in other parts of the world? In
any case, Calvin is being duly honored
on his 500th birthday.

I. John Hesselink is emertitus
Albertus C. Van Raalte
Professor of Systematic
Theology at Western Theological
Seminary in Holland,