The 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth makes this year a good opportunity to celebrate the life and ministry of the great Reformer. In this book, nineteen evangelical writers attempt to do just that, each contributing a brief essay on some aspect of Calvin’s career, theology or discipleship.
The result is a wide-ranging, fast-moving compilation, in which the reader never gets too bogged-down but is given a flavour of what this man stood for and why he is so significant. As one would expect, some of the essays stand out more than others. For me, a particular gem is Robert Godfrey’s piece on Calvin, the ‘counsellor to the afflicted’. He paints a picture of a tender and sympathetic pastor, a perspective always absent in the popular caricatures of John Calvin. Other notable contributions are Phillip Johnson’s evaluation of Calvin the writer, and Philip Ryken’s helpful thoughts on ‘union with Christ’ as the central concept in Calvin’s doctrine of salvation.
In some ways, however, this book has a significance beyond its actual content. Many of its contributors are eminent pastors and scholars. In one of the commendations that come with the book, John Piper writes: ‘To my knowledge there has never been a collection of authors of any edited volume under whose ministry I would rather sit than these’. Calvin, of course, has always polarised evangelical opinion, and it is surely very encouraging that in the Christian world of 2009 such a world-class selection of leaders can be found to write a book in appreciation of him.
The book is not without faults. Because of its multiple authors there is a degree of repetition. Also, in some of the doctrinal chapters (John MacArthur’s on human depravity is a prime example) one seems to be reading the author’s own treatment of the doctrine, interspersed with a few Calvin quotes, rather than an evaluation of Calvin’s treatment of the doctrine! And then there is the absence of a chapter on Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity. I suppose any book engaging with Calvin’s theology inevitably feels the gravitational pull toward a ‘five points’ approach, and perhaps that accounts for the disappointing neglect here of arguably his most significant contribution.
Undoubtedly, however, the book effectively celebrates this remarkable man. If, in this anniversary year, you find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about, and you cannot quite pluck up the courage to delve into Calvin’s Institutes, this book might well be the one for you.