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What’s So Special About John Calvin?

This is a guest post by Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. His newest book is Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever.

Calvin’s Neglected Spirituality

“The spirituality of John Calvin is seldom examined.” Although there are notable exceptions to this verdict by Howard Hageman, it seems generally true that even those who consult Calvin on theological or exegetical questions may be inclined to look elsewhere for spiritual direction. I suspect that a principal reason for this oversight has to do with what we mean by “spirituality.”

Once upon a time, daily rhythms were ordered by the tolling of the church bell and the annual cycle punctuated by the church calendar. People passed into the church to mark life’s milestones through rows of headstones. From baptisms to funerals, God’s presence was at least tacitly felt across the whole of life. Faith was a shared public frame of reference, not a private hobby of those who, in the words of modern theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, “have a talent for religion” or “a taste for the Infinite.” God’s hand was discerned in floods, fires, and plagues as well as in fruitful harvests.

Of course, there were plenty of people for whom this was pious rhetoric more than genuine belief. Nevertheless, even a cynical interpretation has to reckon with the fact that everybody felt obliged at least to speak this way in public. To be sure, boundaries were policed, and there were always some bold spirits who tested them, but no one assumed a world in which religion or spirituality was a corner of private life.

Calvin Out of Context

Although I’ve been a “Calvin fan” since I was a teenager, I feel more of a personal kinship after writing Calvin on the Christian Life. Calvin is often lifted out of his context.  Consequently, both his views and his impact are often exaggerated by friend and foe alike.

For example, he is celebrated or vilified for his doctrine of predestination, despite the fact that he didn’t have such a “doctrine”—at least in terms of a unique view or emphasis. There’s nothing in Calvin’s teaching on predestination that isn’t also found in the great stream of Augustinian teaching. Thomas Aquinas taught double-predestination: that is, both unconditional election and reprobation. Luther imbibed this teaching from his abbot and mentor, who wrote a treatise defending “predestinating grace.” In fact, Calvin cautioned that, in his Bondage of the Will, Luther over-stated things in some places.

Predestination is not a central dogma in Calvin’s thinking.  In fact, it is not discussed in his Geneva catechism, where he summarizes the Christian faith. Rather, he underscores the crucial role that unconditional election plays in comforting believers that their whole salvation is in Christ. Like Luther and other reformers, Calvin believes that this doctrine is, first and foremost, biblical, and also an important buttress of salvation by grace alone. He cautions against saying more or less than God has revealed, resisting the tendency to speculate about such matters.

Calvin was not a phoenix, rising from the ashes of a fallen church. Conservative by temperament, he did not seek to found a new church. In fact, drawing on a host of specific examples—with primary-source quotations, he frequently pointed out to Roman Catholic leaders that Reformed churches were the genuine heirs of the catholic heritage that the pope and his followers had recently corrupted.

Why Calvin Is Special

Then what’s so special about the Genevan reformer?

First, Calvin was a first-rate exegete. Already a distinguished figure in the French Renaissance, the young humanist wrote a commentary on Seneca’s political work, “On Clemency,” that became a textbook in universities. After embracing the evangelical cause, he turned his attention to mastering Greek and Hebrew. Reading the Scriptures and the church fathers in the original languages, Calvin’s gifted memory enabled him to interpret a particular passage in the light of a host of other passages, both biblical and patristic. In short, he knew how to read and interpret texts.

Second, Calvin became a first-rate pastor. By his own admission shy and reserved (even “cowardly,” he divulges), Calvin did not come to Geneva to become a pastor. In fact, he was hoping to spend the night, meet some of the city’s reformers, and move on. Yet others, especially William Farel, saw his gifts and convinced him to stay. He became a pastor. Even when he was sent away from Geneva, he eventually returned after steady pleas only because he believed that God had called him there through the voice of the church. There are many places in the Institutes where you see the pastor’s heart. After all, the book was written to prepare men for the ministry. But you really see it in his commentaries and especially in his correspondence.

Third, and related to that last point, Calvin is worth rediscovering because, for him, piety was broader and deeper than what we usually mean by piety or spirituality today. Like the ancient fathers, his view of piety encompassed doctrine and life. John Calvin knew no division of mind and heart or creeds and deeds.

A spate of books in recent years perpetuates the older Roman polemic that the Reformation set into motion the process leading to the Enlightenment and our secular age. However, drawing on contemporary historians, I would point out that the Reformation was a secondary—and in some places, primary—evangelization of “Christendom.” At a time when faith was publicly important but often personally irrelevant, at least for the average layperson, the Reformation brought God’s Word to the people; steeped them in its truths, and filled them with a sense that their everyday callings to their neighbors are part of their devotion to God. Princes and paupers alike sang the Psalms not only in church, but as they worked and played. And many of them sang them on their way to the stakes and gallows as martyrs.

Life as Piety

My goal in Calvin on the Christian Life is to display this unified vision of life as piety: as Calvin puts it, “faith toward God and charity toward our neighbors.” It is divided into four sections: Living before God, Living in God, Living in the Body, and Living in the World. Following Calvin’s unfolding argument in the Institutes, I nevertheless reach for other writings to catch a glimpse of how the doctrine that he taught actually shaped his personal and pastoral life. Rulers and peasants alike sought the reformer’s preaching and counsel, so his letters are an especially rich resource.

How did Calvin’s profound understanding of union with Christ play out in his view of ministry, prayer, and church unity? How could someone who is known for a stark view of human depravity also have a remarkably high view of human beings, including non-Christians? How could someone who taught the doctrine of election become the most missionary-minded of all the reformers, even sending the first Protestant missionaries to the New World? What did Calvin think about the relationship of the church and the state, the Spirit and the Word, the Word and the sacraments? Why is he still helpful to us for reintegrating doctrine and life as well as the public and private, corporate and personal, external and internal, formal and informal aspects of Christian formation and discipleship? How does he encourage us in our suffering?

If readers look to Calvin they will find a godly pastor who, with all of his flaws, evades the caricatures and exhibits the sort of piety that we need desperately today.

Michael Horton (PhD, University of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. He serves as the editor in chief of Modern Reformation magazine, a host of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, and a minister in the United Reformed Churches. He is the author of numerous books, including Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever.

March 21, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Author,Books,Church History,Life & Doctrine,The Reformation | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | (6) Comments »

The Solution to Our Beauty Crisis

This is a guest post by Nicole Whitacre. Her latest book, coauthored with her mom, Carolyn Mahaney, is True Beauty. Read her related post, “What Women Wish Men Knew About Beauty.”

Something Needs to Change

Having tried unsuccessfully to squash the excessive drinking of sweet sodas, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a new campaign last fall before leaving office. His goal was to promote self-esteem in young girls through billboards, ads, and after-school programs. The message: “You are beautiful just the way you are.”

A few months ago, the Dove skincare company celebrated the tenth anniversary of their “Real Beauty” campaign with a short movie in which mothers and daughters take selfies for display at an art show in order to “change the way people think about beauty.”

As the self-esteem crisis among young women intensifies, so do the efforts to find a cure. And while there are good reasons for a healthy skepticism of advertising campaigns or legitimate questions about the merits of publicly funded programs, we all agree: there is problem.

The Nature of the Crisis

I can trot out facts and figures, but I don’t need to, do I? We all know young girls who are struggling as they grow up in a world with an impossible standard of beauty. And what makes us even more desperate is that we still haven’t dealt with our own beauty struggles. As one mother wrote to us: “When I try to talk with [my daughter] about true beauty, I stumble over my words because I have a hard time with the subject myself.”

At one level, Christians resonate with the messages of well meaning campaigns from Dove, Bloomberg, and others, for we believe in the dignity and the beauty of every human being as created in the image of God. We abhor the shame, discrimination, and poor self-image that are a consequence of our culture’s obsession with beauty.

But we have to ask, why do these campaigns fail to change the status quo? As Dove celebrates its tenth anniversary, is the situation for women really much better? Has the objectification of women been eradicated in NYC? More to the point: can a billboard or a commercial, however well intentioned, really solve our struggles with beauty?

More significantly, why aren’t Christians better off? Why are our struggles with beauty as deep and intractable as the next woman’s? Why doesn’t the church seem to have a clear and compelling answer for the world’s beauty crisis?

The Only Solution

For far too long, the church has been content with partial truths and platitudes about beauty.  We’ve tried to tack “Christ” on the end of worldly solutions and called them “Christian.” Or we think we have tried Scripture’s answers and found them wanting. As one woman wrote to us, “Please don’t base your book on 1 Peter 3:4” about a gentle and quiet spirit. “This verse, misapplied in my life, left me very confused, hurt, and hidden for almost fifteen years.”

But Scripture has spoken the truth about beauty all along. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only message that gets to the heart of our problems with beauty and addresses all our body image issues, big and small.

As we write in our book, True Beauty:

Only God’s Word can promise a beauty as supernatural as it is satisfying, as attainable as it is lasting; a beauty that blesses and does not cures; a beauty that is precious, not worthless, that leads to happiness instead of heartache; a beauty that grows more becoming even as you become more beautify. Scripture is true and tells the truth. It alone reveals true beauty.

Selfie’s and mayoral ad campaigns won’t be able to throw off a tyrannical standard of beauty, but God’s Word shows us the path to freedom and joy. The truth of the gospel is the only answer to our beauty crisis.

Nicole Whitacre is a wife and mother of four. She is the coauthor of Girl TalkShopping for Time, and True Beauty (excerpt). Nicole blogs with her mom and sisters at girltalkhome.com, a blog about biblical womanhood.

March 19, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Author,Books,Life & Doctrine,Marriage & Family,Women | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

What Women Wish Men Knew About Beauty

This is a guest post by Nicole Whitacre. Her latest book, coauthored with her mom, Carolyn Mahaney, is True Beauty. Read her related post, “The Solution to Our Beauty Crisis.”

Men, This Is For You

Recently I was talking with a group of people about our book, True Beauty, when a husband and father of daughters asked me: “How can I convince my wife that she is beautiful?”

“She stands in front of the mirror and points out her flaws” he explained, “and no matter what I say she still doesn’t seem to believe that I think she is beautiful. And then she gets a haircut! Talk about a lose-lose for me! No matter what I say it is the wrong thing. You need to help husbands know what to say when their wives get haircuts,” he laughingly concluded.

I laughed too. Men probably do need a few pointers on what to say when their wives get haircuts. But as a loving husband, his concern ran deeper than that. He wanted his wife to live in the good of God’s truth about beauty and of his husbandly love and admiration, but he didn’t know how to help her believe she was truly beautiful.

As we were writing, Mom and I often said to each other: “If only men got it! If only men understood a woman’s struggles with beauty. If only men had biblical convictions about beauty.”

Of course we want women to read our book, but we almost want men to read it more. We bandied about ideas for a new cover with sports motif or neon “Men, Read This!” stickers. In the end we settled for this blog post.

What Men Need to Know About Beauty

For one, we wish men understood the pressure women face to conform to a cultural ideal of beauty.  Our worldly culture is obsessed by an illicit and elusive ideal of beauty and daily bombards us with images and messages telling us what that beauty should look like—or else. It promises happiness to the few who attain this impossible standard and shame and rejection to those who fall short of its ideal. The pressure on women to attain and maintain an impossible standard of beauty is, as one author put it, “more tyrannical than ever before.”

We also wish men understood just how susceptible they are to the lies about beauty. The world doesn’t just tell women what they ought to look like, it tells men what to look for. After speaking about beauty, my mom had a woman approach her: “God’s perspective on beauty is all fine and good,” she said, “and I believe it is true. But the reality is, that’s not the message my husband receives from our culture about beauty.”

She’s right. Every day, men are blasted with messages about what kind of beauty they should desire, and all too often Christian men are unaware of how much this shapes their opinions and desires about beauty. Can we appeal to you? Don’t look at, long for, or buy into those messages. And be quick to tell your wife and daughters why you don’t.

Finally, we wish men understood what God’s Word says about beauty. If you really want to help your wife or daughter or the women in your church to overcome their struggles with beauty, you will study God’s Word. So often Christians have accepted partial truths and platitudes in place of a robust biblical vision about beauty. But these “solutions” don’t satisfy, which is why your wife returns to the mirror and ask you the same questions again.

Gaining a biblically informed understanding of beauty will help you the next time your wife gets a haircut or asks if she looks fat—not because you have a carefully crafted comeback, but because you understand what she is going through and have truth that will help.

3 Practical Ways to Encourage Your Wife

So what can you do?

First, start by asking your wife or daughter about the beauty pressures they face. Granted, some women may be more affected than others, but beauty issues touch us all.

Second, study Scripture. Labor to read good resources on this topic so that you can encourage, cherish, and lead your wife and daughter.

Third, encourage true beauty. Lavish your wife with affection and adoration. Be your daughter’s biggest fan.

Men who take the time to understand—or at least try to understand—the pressures women face will be able to help them resist the lies from our culture and pursue a biblical vision of beauty. Even if you don’t feel like you get it, I guarantee the effort will be greatly appreciated.

We know you may not want to be caught dead reading a book with a girly cover called True Beauty, and we respect you for that, but learning about true beauty in order to serve your woman is one of the most masculine things you can do.

Nicole Whitacre is a wife and mother of four. She is the coauthor of Girl TalkShopping for Time, and True Beauty (excerpt). Nicole blogs with her mom and sisters at girltalkhome.com, a blog about biblical womanhood.

March 18, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Author,Books,Life & Doctrine,Marriage & Family,Men,Women | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | (2) Comments »

Misunderstood Christian Classics

This is the final post in a 4-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3) from Dr. Leland Ryken, former professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series, which explores great works of Western literature.

Reclaiming the Christian Classics

We live in a day when revisionism is the rave in the academy and in our culture generally.  The way to get attention and be mainstream in the secular establishment is to debunk what has been accepted as true for centuries.  Being of conservative Christian conviction, I am always on the periphery in this world of revisionism.  Sometimes I am left wondering, When will I get to have some fun debunking established positions?

The debunking niche that I have carved out for myself is small, but I have claimed it with zest.  I have a flourishing side-career as a defender of Christian classics that the world at large claims to be non-Christian or secular.  I can accurately speak of these as misunderstood Christian classics—Christian classics that are denied their identity as Christian works. To make my rehabilitation projects even more invigorating, I often end up combating Christian colleagues and students who naively accept the mainstream view of a secular culture.

In the Christian guides to the classics that I am publishing with Crossway, three of the first wave of books fall into this venture in reclaiming Christian classics.  First, in the latter stages of my academic career it became increasingly clear to me that the intellectual allegiance and worldview of Shakespeare’s major plays is Christian.   I have not highlighted this in my guides to Macbeth and Hamlet, but it is a template on which I constructed my commentary and that a reader of those guides can detect.  I could even see myself writing a book on “Christian Shakespeare.”

A Case Study

The classic whose denial of Christian standing vexes me most is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  It became obvious to me right at the start of my teaching career that The Scarlet Letter is a Christian classic.  In fact, at the end of Hawthorne’s story, in the celebrated confession scene set on the town scaffold in the next-to-last chapter, Hawthorne springs a surprise ending on us as the book becomes as explicitly Christian as a story can possibly be.  Why do Christian readers not see this?  Because they accept the entrenched secular view that loves to discredit Christianity wherever it can.

Instead of recreating the specifics of my handling of The Scarlet Letter in my guide (though I strongly recommend the purchase and reading of it!), I will use my experience with that book as a case study in how I have gone about reclaiming lost Christian classics for the category to which they belong.  As I reconstruct the history of my involvement with Hawthorne’s classic story, I will be identifying stages through which I pass with my other reclamation projects.

Often the genesis for my eventual reclamation began in a graduate school classroom, where I endured what seemed to me a deliberate attempt to suppress the Christian element in a work of literature.  Often this was part of a larger disparagement of the Christian faith.  Of course I encountered the anti-Christian interpretation of the work in published literary scholarship as well.

Obviously I would not have chafed under the way in which the work was being handled in the classroom if I had not reached a preliminary conviction that the work was Christian in orientation.  Whenever I keep reading scholarship in quest for Christian readings of the misunderstood work, I always encounter an eventual cloud of witnesses who are excellent guides to the Christian element in the work.  I have never been a lone voice in reclaiming Christian classics.  I will also note that when I publish my interpretations of misunderstood Christian classics, I regularly receive correspondence from likeminded scholars.  With my own intuitions reinforced by published scholarship, I typically go back to the text with renewed vigor and find more and more Christian elements in the work.

4 Principles

I will end with four principles based on my own experience that might lift some drooping hands among my readers.  (1) Do not be intimidated by the pronouncements of a non-Christian or secular culture or viewpoint (even if that viewpoint is urged upon you by a fellow Christian).  (2) Operate on the premise that if you search thoroughly enough, you will find published scholarship to confirm you in your interpretation.  (3) If you are sure that your Christian interpretation is supported by the text, keep digging for more and more data to confirm your interpretation.  (4) Share the good news.  Start a debate.  Tell someone off.  Start a book discussion group.

Or, you could write a reader’s guide to the book.

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer’s The OdysseyMilton’s Paradise LostShakespeare’s MacbethShakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet LetterDickens’s Great ExpectationsBunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.


March 14, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Author,Books,Culture,Life & Doctrine,The Arts,The Christian Life | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

10 Reasons Joy Brings Christ to Our Culture

This is a guest post by Greg Forster, a program director at the Kern Family Foundation and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. His newest book is Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It.

The Importance of Joy

How can Christians help their neighbors live more like God wants and resist the decay of our culture? One of the most important ways is by helping them encounter the joy of God.

Joy, biblically, is not just a pleasant feeling – not just “good vibrations.” Rather, joy is the explosive change the Holy Spirit works in our hearts, minds, and lives  that transforms who we are and every aspect of how we live. Helping people encounter that would make a huge difference to the role of Christianity in our culture.

Here are ten reasons why:

10. It gets people with their guard down. People are naturally wary of canned gospel presentations, political agendas or “Christian cultural impact” campaigns. They’re not wary of joyful people.

9. It offers an alternative to lust, sloth and gluttony. The joy of God rips people out of their selfish fantasy worlds, and gets them off the couch and doing something meaningful with their lives.

8. It offers an alternative to pride, greed and wrath. The joy of God casts out the fear and guilt that drive people to build fortresses of misery around themselves.

7. It liberates people from worldly enslavement. People who have the joy of God can’t be controlled and manipulated by systems of sex, money, and power.

6. It reveals new possibilities for our lives. The renewing of our minds by the Word and Spirit reveal how the world really works, showing us things we would never have dreamed of on our own.

5. It changes our priorities. You can’t address cultural problems like financial chaos, family breakdown and cutthroat politics unless you have people who care more about doing what’s right than about doing what’s easy or makes us feel good.

4. It makes us responsible. People with the joy of God want to be good stewards of all that comes under their care, and pass on a flourishing world to the next generation.

3. It reconciles Christian cultural influence with religious freedom. You can’t Christianize people with the power of the state ; the only way to genuinely influence culture for Christ is to get people to want what we have.

2. It’s good training for the New Jerusalem. Sharing the joy of God will be the whole basis of our cultural life.

1. It’s the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in us. Why show our own cultural efforts to our neighbors when we can show them God’s?

Greg Forster (PhD, Yale University) is a program director at the Kern Family Foundation and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He also the editor of the group blog Hang Together and a regular contributor to the Gospel Coalition, First Thoughts, and other online resources. Forster is the author of numerous articles and six books, including The Joy of Calvinism and Joy for the World (excerpt).