Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
The bulk of the work sets out to explain the four books of Calvin’s Institutes. Step-by-step, Elwood provides insight into Calvin’s thinking regarding all the familiar themes: the authority of Scripture and God’s providence, the nature of human sin and the work of Jesus, the need for order in the church and the right administration of the sacraments. He doesn’t articulate those insights in dry, scholarly ways, however, but instead offers a conversational approach.
In the discussion of predestination, for instance, he notes that oftentimes persons believe that doctrine was the defining theme for Calvin. While highlighting that such a conclusion is unwarranted given its relatively obscure placement in the Institutes, Elwood nonetheless give the doctrine its due. “The church always tended to tone down the more explicit versions of predestination thinking,” he writes “mainly because they didn’t seem to do much for God’s image. The predestinating God looked rather more like a thuggish concentration camp commandant toying with helpless lives than anything worthy of devotion and love. Why in the world then would Calvin insist on a picture of God whose work among creatures is based on an irrevocable ‘double decree.’?” (p. 91). Elwood sets out to explain.
In the chapters which precede and follow his overview of the Institutes, the author offers a brief biography of Calvin and the impactboth actual and theorizedwhich arose from the Reformer’s efforts. At several points along the way, Professor Elwood seeks to correct other mis-understandings about Calvinthat he was a Geneva despot, for instance, or that the Calvin’s teaching paved the way for capitalism. While identifying the reasons persons have drawn such conclusions, the author clarifies and corrects such mis-perceptions.
Elwood writes in a style that helps the 21st century reader make ready associations with a man who lived five hundred years ago. This is likely the only book in print which suggests Calvin could have benefitted from Dale Carnegie’s insights into human nature and the sole resource which describes the necessity of Jesus as mediator by quoting Dr. Seuss. To highlight Calvin’s view of God’s involvement in human affairs, Elwood offers as analogy the governing styles of recent U.S. Presidents, and addresses original sin by quoting a Bruce Springsteen song. While I might have preferred he cited Garth Brooks instead, he makes a good point even so!
The author never trivializes his subject, but instead uses fresh analogies to help a new generation understand the Reformer’s teaching and impact. Ron Hill’s illustrations support that effort in a creative way, offering visuals which underscore the text in a style that is often humorous. Together, they simplify the Reformer’s teachings without dumbing them down.
This book is ideal for church study groups or individuals who want a working knowledge of John Calvin without going to a college or seminary bookstore. It does not diminish the theologian for those who want to dig deeper, but instead invites the reader to learn more, whether from the vantage point of their pew or study carrel or armchair.
John M. Willingham
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, WINTER 2003, VOL. 3, #1.
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