Book Reviews

Life in God

John Calvin, Practical Formation and the Future of Protestant Theology

Matthew Myer Boulton Grand Rapids 2011-10-25

This volume defends Calvin’s understanding of the function of Christian verities reflected through his Institutes of the Christian Religion, with Boulton arguing that this masterpiece is an advocate for spiritual formation rather that a statement of Protestant orthodoxy in the sixteenth-century. Calvin’s primary purpose was to create a “school of piety” by explicating the faith. The means was declaration, but the end was godliness. Calvin’s work also can be read, and commonly is so in reformed and non-reformed circles, as a doctrinal treatise, an explanation and defense of the Protestant faith. Besides these two favorable approaches some see Calvin’s theology as heartless and barbaric, and ultimately, destructive of sanity, and therefore unappreciated by sensitive moderns (p. 192).

Boulton, however, maintains that Calvin is wrongly interpreted if his work is seen only or primarily as an academic achievement, whose goal is the explanation of truth. He argues that Calvin’s Institutes is for spiritual vitality.

Life in God has three major sections. In the initial section, the author compares medieval monastic, pietistic formulation with Calvin’s. He discovers that Calvin’s emphasis on the spiritual disciplines differs little in content from the monastics (i.e., Scripture reading, prayer, singing, accountability, and mystical union with Christ through the Eucharist [p. 28]). However, Calvin understood that true piety is not for the elite or the reclusive; it is to be lived out in public. The church replaced the monastery as the educational center, and all Christians were to imbibe and be regulated by the disciples of spiritual formation (pp. 26–27). For Calvin the Institutes was a tool designed for this end (p. 52). In fact the subtitle of the first edition of the work in 1536 was “a summary of piety.”

The second and largest section is the author’s attempt to demonstrate that Institutes must be read as promoting piety. Boulton argues, for example, that Calvin begins in Book I, the knowledge of God, with a discussion of the human state with the purpose of seeing human knowledge in comparison with the divine as the place to begin a consideration of true worship (p. 67). Disciplines such as Scripture reading (pp. 97, 109), prayer (p. 168), ecclesial affiliation and oversight, and the Table of the Lord (pp. 180–81) are the means of bringing truth into one’s experience. His point is that doctrine is fundamental, but its end is an accurate evaluation of duties (p. 141). Even Calvin’s “harsher” doctrines such as particular election and double predestination, are motived by the quest for a biblical piety, being ground in his understanding Orthodoxy (147, 148).

The third section of the book draws various threads together to provide a balanced view of Calvin and his work. It replies to the common charges against Calvin and Calvinists that his views promote spiritual negligence (social and cultural passivity [p. 194], a negative view of the Christian life [p. 199], and a denigration of the wonder of humanity [p. 205]). Boulton argues that Calvin does not separate academic knowledge from practical knowledge; in fact, the former is the foundation while the latter is the outcome (p. 215).

This book places Calvin and the enterprise that he so zealously promoted in Geneva in an appropriate light and provides a proper lens for reading the Institutes. As with all writers, readers can find points of disagreement, uncertainty, or comfortableness. The use of feminine pronouns seemed imbalanced, as well as “a mother’s strength and a father’s tender care” (pp. 117, 176). Certan other phrases were puzzling. For example, Boulton says that Calvin was agnostic about the certainty of salvation (p. 149). With this said, the book makes a wonderful contribution to a proper reading the great reformer.

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John D. Hannah
Dr. John D. Hannah is a frequent and popular speaker at home and abroad. His teaching interests include the general history of the Christian church, with particular interest in the works of  Jonathan Edwards and John Owen. Among his published works are a history of DTS and a general history of the Christian church.
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