Book Review

"Calvin's Theology and Its Reception: Disputes, Developments, and New Possibilities" edited by J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink

Michael Allen
J. Todd Billings
Friday, June 28th 2013
Jul/Aug 2013
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way’ in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In the beginning of The Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens might have been describing Calvin studies in the last thirty years. Following a long winter wherein Calvin was pressed into service on behalf of various agendas (most of which would have been completely foreign to him), historical study of John Calvin's theology and practice has now developed by leaps and bounds. The work of historians such as David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, Elsie McKee, and others has recently brought about a complete revision of the study of Calvin. This historical reading strives to understand the Reformer in the context of the catholic movement of which he was a part. And yet, spring has not fully come yet: much work remains.

In a recent book, Todd Billings and John Hesselink’theologians at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan’have gathered a thoughtful group of contributors to help us learn anew how to retrieve Calvin from the past for the purposes of our own day and for the church of our age. Calvin's Theology and Its Reception offers close readings of Calvin's life, thought, and ministry, while also focusing upon the reception of his legacy over the last several centuries. Billings and Hesselink are testaments to the importance, methodologically, of arriving at theological conclusions for our own day by way of genuine historical engagement with the Genevan pastor (xi-xii). As theologians in a mainline seminary setting, the editors are cognizant of efforts to jettison the Christian tradition as much as efforts to simply revert to the sacred way things used to be. This volume moves thoughtfully between these two unhelpful paths and considers a thoughtful, faithful way forward that involves critical appropriation of the catholic and reformational tradition without lapsing into the temptations of revisionism or repristination (that is, the uncomprehending regurgitation of old formulas).

The volume focuses upon five clusters: Scripture and revelation; union with Christ; election; the Lord's Supper; and church and society. In each section, two chapters are included: an essay on Calvin's theology and its early reception (by his immediate peers and successors), and an essay on modern reception and contemporary possibilities. The contributors are notable, by and large, in the world of Calvin studies and in the study of the Reformed tradition more broadly. Some are senior figures (Hesselink), while others are recent doctoral graduates of great promise (Sue Rozeboom). All are worth reading.

Of particular interest to readers of Modern Reformation may be the section on union with Christ. Todd Billings summarizes much of his trailblazing research on this theme in Calvin (argued more fully in his monograph, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift). Then Michael Horton reflects on the modern reception of Calvin's doctrine of union with Christ. Horton notes that many have contrasted emphasis upon union with Christ with a focus upon forensic justification (the legal framework for salvation imagery), that they have argued that Calvin helpfully accents the former rather than the latter (which was supposedly championed by later Protestant scholastics, the sort who penned documents such as the Westminster Standards or the many tomes of Reformed Orthodoxy). Horton and Billings both show that this picture is skewed. Calvin did not pit union with Christ (the filial metaphor) over against forensic justification (the legal framework); he viewed them together as each addressing a crucial facet of the gospel mystery.

Perhaps nothing is as needful as developing skills for drawing well upon the catholic and reformational tradition for the sake of faith and practice today. We have access to a wider literature from the church's past today and to more detailed understandings of its complexity and continuity than in recent centuries. It is a good time to be involved in the theological task. But it is a time that calls for wisdom and discernment regarding what faithful inhabitation of the Christian tradition’or, specifically, the Reformed tradition’looks like in this particular century. In his last lectures, Karl Barth reflected on the idea of reformation: "Reformation is not the restoration and conservation of the old and sacrosanct. Nor is it revolution. Fundamental crises are the last thing that the church needs. Reformation is provisional renewal, a modest transforming of the church in the light of its origin." Barth's description is similar to the sixteenth-century Reformers, whether Vermigli or Bucer, Beza, or’yes’even Calvin. We are called neither to restoration nor to revolution, but to provisional renewal in light of our origin. Billings and Hesselink have provided wonderful resources to help us renew contemporary theology in light of a key point in our reformational origin: the theology of John Calvin. As with Dickens, the times are serious, so this book should be read.

Friday, June 28th 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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