Review of “The Theology of John Calvin”

Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), 345 pages

theology of john calvinThe Theology of John Calvin is a fitting magnus opus for Charles Partee, who devoted a lifetime to studying and understanding the work of the Reformer. This book is a great addition to the literature on Calvin’s theology as well as the debates that have surrounded the 16th Century Reformer since his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion was published in 1536. Partee’s knowledge of Calvin’s writings as well as the writings of Calvin’s proponents and opponents provides the strength to this work. This vast knowledge is also the book weakness. To get to Partee’s understanding of John Calvin, one has to wade through page after page of debate around various interpretations of the Reformer. Although this is an important work, this is not a book that I would recommend for one unfamiliar with the issues surrounding Calvin. To fully appreciate this book, one needs to have some understanding of the major issues of the Reformation as well as many of the theological debates of the past five centuries.

 

Partee begins his study with “three introductory conclusions” in which he identifies the opponents of Calvin (who often argue with a caricature of the reformer), the proponents of Calvin and, as he labels them, the misponents (those who think they are arguing for Calvin but have made wrong assumptions about the Reformer). As Partee points out neither Calvin nor Luther were philosophical theologians, but many of their followers were. (14) The theologians who followed both Reformers, with their philosophical insight, often create a haze over the original Reformers’ work. Partee finds agreement with Holmes Ralston (John Calvin Verses the Westminster Confession), who credits Calvin with rescuing him from the Calvinists. (17) For this to happen, one has to read and understand John Calvin and not just look at what the Reformers who followed Calvin had to say about him.

 

After his introductory chapter, Partee follows the outline that John Calvin used in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Here, as he does throughout the book, Partee notes the disagreements over various interpretations of Calvin on this point. Many have followed the idea put forth by Benjamin Warfield that the Institutes are based on the four articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Others, such as Edward Dowey suggest the structure to be based on a two-fold knowledge of God (God the Creator and Redeemer). More recently, Philip Butin has suggested the Institutes follow a Trinitarian structure. The fourth interpretation of the structure, one that Partee uses throughout this study, emphasizes “union with Christ,” and sees the structure being divided into two parts: God for Us (Books 1 & 2, God the Creator and God the Redeemer) and God with Us (Books 3 & 4, The Faithful Person(s) and The Faithful Community). (40)

 

Going into a review of the various sections of Calvin’s study as outlined by Partee is beyond the scope of this review. But a few general comments are necessary here. Throughout the book, Partee argues that the writings of John Calvin are more Biblical than theological and that the Reformer is more confessional than logical or argumentative. Partee also argues that “union with Christ” is the center of Calvin’s theology. He deals with issues like election and predestination, but reminds his readers that although Calvin’s opponents (and some of his proponents) try to make this the core of his theology, it’s not. Surely, Calvin believed and wrote about predestination, but it was not the center of his theology. The topic isn’t even broached until well into the Institutes. This changed in later Reformed doctrines such as the Westminster Confession which moved the doctrine of election to the 3rd article and placed Jesus Christ as the 8th article. (243) Predestination, for Calvin, was taught because it’s Biblical. Furthermore, Calvin sees the doctrine as a comfort to the elect, who know that they can’t screw up their election if it is in God’s hands. Furthermore, the doctrine should create humility in the believer (you can’t brag about your salvation if it is God’s doing).

 

Not only does Partee have a wealth of information about theological debates, he is also well versed in the classics and sprinkles this work with quotes by the likes of John Bunyan, John Milton, William Shakespeare and Herman Melville.

 

For those with knowledge of Calvin and the theological issues of the 16th Century, I recommend this book. For others, I would recommend starting with Francois Wendel’sCalvin: The Origin and Development of His Religious Thought. As a disclaimer, I should note that a quarter of a century or so ago, I studied under Charles Partee and found him to be a wonderful and fascinating professor.


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