Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Calvin for Armchair Theologians

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Calvin for Armchair Theologians

Article excerpt

Calvin for Armchair Theologians. By Christopher Elwood. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. 182 pp. $16.95 (paper).

Calvin for Armchair Theologians is a delightful introduction to John Calvin. With a firm command of his material, Elwood presents Calvin's biography, the history of Geneva, an overview of Calvin's theology, and an assessment of Calvin's influence on later Western history. The illustrations by Ron Hill, in editorial-cartoon style, provide a lighthearted and sometimes very helpful touch.

Elwood begins with a biography of Calvin and steers us away from common caricatures of Calvin and misunderstandings of his conversion. He takes us through Calvin's youth, education, associations with reform-minded circles in Paris, the Affair of the Placards, and the circumstances surrounding Calvin's writing of the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Elwood's chronicle of Calvin's life and times in Geneva likewise works against stereotypes of Calvin as a tyrannical despot. He does not romanticize Calvin either; in fact he jokingly announces how poorly Calvin would match contemporary standards of "how to win friends and influence people" (p. 26).

Chapter 3, the best in the book, gives a remarkably concise and comprehensive overview of the 1559 version of Calvin's Institutes. The guiding concept is Calvin's rhetorically charged enthusiasm for the living God who is beyond every image and every idol, the God who would be visible in all creation if not for our blindness. Especially strong are the sections on the nature of Scripture, providence, the role of Christ as mediator, justification and sanctification, and the Lord's Supper. The section on predestination is longer than the rest, presented as an elegant apology for this doctrine in a day and age when it is often maligned and misunderstood.

The remainder of the book deals evenhandedly with the controversies in Geneva regarding Jerome Bolsee and Michael Servetus as well as the influence Calvin has had on successive generations, from Weber's treatment of capitalism and the "Reformed scholastics" to the Puritans, the Princeton theologians, Karl Barth, and even Latin American liberation theologians. …

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