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Two Intro Books On Calvin

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This is a review of two books on the theology of John Calvin: Calvin's Ideas by Paul Helm and Theology of John Calvin by Charles Partee.


Both are very good, academic texts about Calvin. Both can be a tiny bit dense, but they never insult their reader's intelligence, and one can make sense of their stuff. Also, both books are well cited with good bibliographies. This is a good thing, and if I ever review a book here that does not do that, I will express my displeasure loudly.


Reviewing books on Calvin... in this forum?!?

Many of you may ask why on Earth I am posting this review, seeing how nobody in their right mind would call Calvin a progressive Christian. So, before I start, here are my reasons:


  1. Know thy Enemy. Even if you don't agree, especially if you don't agree, it's useful to understand. Preparing one's arguments against strawmen and caricatures is never a good idea. His influence is immense in American religious discourse, thanks to the Puritans (and the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians, Baptists, Dutch Reformed... well, you get the idea).
  2. Calvin and the Reformed Tradition is not the enemy. IMO, most religious traditions have a 'progressive' element that can be found if you know where to look. I've traded PMs on the subject of being both Progressive and Reformed. Maybe I'll start a thread about that sometime, but that's not this thread, which leads to...
  3. I'm reviewing books. I have some sympathies to Reformed theology, and have stated as much here in the past (I also am a cultural sociology with an appreciation of postmodernism, and I'm a progressive Christian, so I'm not exactly RC Sproul). However, in writing these reviews, I am not trying to convince people Calvin was 'right,' as I don't believe he was, and even if I did, that would be a rather silly thing to do via book review. The purpose here is to offer up summaries of two useful books if people want to know more about Calvin. That's it. Calvin really was grim, and he had another theologian burned at the stake for teaching dangerous things, something that would have happened to Calvin himself if he stayed in France. I have no interest in making a thread entitled, "Calvin, What a Guy."


I could elaborate more on the second one, but really, that's the essence of it. Anyhow, the review:


The Common Ground

Calvin's main work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, is often described as one of the great works of systematic theology, presenting a closed system that endeavors to explain life, the universe, and everything, only replacing the number 42 with the holy trinity. Both books reject this passionately. Calvin was not a cold rationalist, nor was he an anti-intellectual. Whatever he may have been, both authors make sure to beat this dead horse.


There is no over-arching system to Calvin. Calvin's theology is a group of loosely associated topics with no central dogma. According to both these authors, everything you've heard about Calvin being all about predestination is wrong. Partee is especially vocal about this. Yes, Calvin argues for predestination, but it isn't his 'foundational principle', nor is he particularly unique for doing so (Aquinas, Luther, and Augustine all argued for a form of predestination as well).


Additionally, Calvin does not begin with logic (syllogisms, axioms, etc). Rather, he begins with religious belief in a God that is permanently beyond his complete understanding, and that God is partially revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Bible. Logic is then deployed as a weapon of defense to deal with questions of consistency, theodicy (not that he used that term), etc. Whether or not this is a good thing is up to debate. As a matter of historical record, Calvin's students and followers tried very hard to be more systematic and rationalistic in their argumentation. There is a debate among Reformed theologians about how much changed in terms of the 'true content' of Calvin's theology, and if any potential change was for the worse. But that's another thread.


Neither author thinks Calvin is 100% right. Helm points out places where Calvin's logic is muddled, and Partee turns pale at Calvin's description of government, for example


Different Goals

The two books are about introducing people to the work of Calvin, but within that, they have very different goals. Paul Helm's book is about demonstrating Calvin's link to the medieval scholastics such as St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus. Helm constantly shows how Calvin selectively uses other people's ideas to further his arguments, but his appropriation often involves a great deal of re-definition and qualification. Helm is a relatively conservative Calvinist, and as such he accepts things like the Westminister Confession, the Synod of Dort, and the attempt to rationalize Calvin. Showing Calvin didn't completely break from medieval scholasticism, with its heavy use of Aristotle, helps him defend this agenda.


Partee, on the other hand, doesn't subscribe to Helm's view. Partee's Calvin relies on experience (intuition, feeling, piety, etc.) more than Beza (Calvin's successor in Geneva) or the English Divines, who rely much more heavily on a “propositional” form of theology that begins with principles and attempts to demonstrate their logical consistency. I'm summarizing and bastardizing, but this is the basic point. Partee also plays a little game where he agrees that Calvin had no central dogma.... but if he did, it would be union in Christ. A borderline mystical category (Partee insists Calvin isn't mystical, but that depends on how one defines mysticism, doesn't it?), the 'point' of Christian life is this unity, this connection. Everything else, including salvation, is a mere by-product of this experience of being within Christ.


Also, their relative anchors into Calvin differ. Helm quite intentionally uses everything Calvin ever wrote, be it the Institutes, his sermons, his biblical commentaries, or anything else. For Helm, you can't understand Calvin unless you do this. Partee, conversely, is writing a guide for the Institutes, the most systematic thing Calvin ever wrote. He uses Calvin's letters, commentaries, and sermons to argue for a certain overall logic to the Institutes' 4 books.


The books, in other words, are from opposing camps, but they don't directly attack one another. Both are trying to establish points that help them defend their relative positions. As such, it's interesting to see how they overlap in some ways, but cannot in others.


Stylistic Differences

Helm's book is written with really only 2 people in mind: Helm and Calvin. He;m starts every chapter with a controversy over what Calvin really meant, and then goes into Calvin's works to show the reader exactly what he meant, and that's that. This makes for a very authoritative, direct, and easier reading experience.


Partee's book, on the other hand, is an academic lit review. He isn't a bad writer, but he wants the reader to know a decent amount of detail about any given debate. He presents the debate, identifies the disagreeing sides, outlines their positions, and then brings in his understanding of Calvin, usually partially siding with some and rejecting the other positions. While you get a more comprehensive feel of what debates have occurred among theologians, it makes the reading a bit less fun to read. Partee qualifies where Helm declares.



Tradition is a living breathing thing, and belief lives within tradition(s). The more we understand this, the better things are. This is my starting point with my study of Christianity right now, and that is why I wanted to understand Calvin more. And now I do. If there is a place to bring Calvin into a progressive Christian discourse, it is through grace. Calvin's theology runs off hope and grace in a dramatic way. Precisely because of this, however, he is easily read as (and often is) grim and uncaring, because humanity simply isn't good enough by itself in his eyes. If one remembers love and humanity, one moves in the direction of hope and grace. If one falls into sectarianism and moralism, one becomes the caricature of Calvin.

Edited by Nick the Nevermet
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You really grabbed my attention with your post.


The Evangelical and Reformed Church


A blend of autonomy and authority, the Evangelical and Reformed Church retained a Calvinist doctrine of the church as "the reality of a kingdom of grace," and the importance of order and discipline in its witness to the reign of God in the world. The Heidelberg Catechism still at its heart, the new church would embody -a synthesis of Calvin's inward sense of God's "calling" and Luther's experiential approach to faith. George W. Richards, ecumenist first president, had expressed the insights of all Reformation streams by saying, "Without the Christlike spirit, no constitution will ever be effective; with the spirit, one will need only a minimum of law for the administration of the affairs of the fellowship of men and women." In such a spirit the union proceeded without a constitution until one was adopted in 1938, implemented in 1940.




My heritage is through the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a part of the United Chruch of Christ.


Thank You!



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Thanks Myron,


I tried to review the books, rather than summarize Calvin. The entire point of telling people about good books is that so I don't have to try the fool's errand about summarizing Calvin in a post or two. The Calvin these guys describe is a different fellow than the creator of existential crisis that Weber describes, or the hyper-Puritan nut that resides in the public consciousness. The Calvin I found within these books was both much more attractive (very intelligent, a lover of knowledge, someone who is actively worried about the consequences of belief) and someone who is more frightening (a master of the "elegant abuse of language" to borrow from Hobbes, and a man who could be ruthless when he felt the need).


And the UCC is a cool denomination :) IIRC, their apology about missionary work in Hawaii and its relationship to American imperialism is, to me, very impressive.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I found your posts very interesting, Nick. I think I mentioned, somewhere on this board, that I am attending a Reformed Church (Dutch Reformed, but they have changed the name to simply Christian Reformed). The religion is based on the teachings of Calvin (well, they would say, based on the teachings of the Bible, as interpreted by Calvin). T.U.L.I.P. is the foundation. This church is not as strictly conservative, as some others I have seen. Some of their sister churches do not allow just anyone to partake of the Lord's Supper with them. You have to go through a screening process with the Elders. The Pastor of my church is very welcoming of anyone to the Lord's Table. He leaves the decision up to the individual and God.


I had a deep interest in Calvinism, for quite a long time. I have read two of the four books of Calvin's Institutes. They are most interesting, because there is a lot of history in them, plus you get a glimpse of Calvin's nature and personality. He was very emotional and yet very staunch in his beliefs...and clearly brilliant. But, I started moving away from that, last year, mostly because of the teaching on limited atonement and the elect. That is a hard thing to believe..and I just do not believe in a God who is that...small.


Anyway, thank you for the book reviews. Very interesting man, indeed, and I agree with you that it's good to know his history, because, as you mentioned, so many of our Protestant religions are based on his teachings, to some degree or another.

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Thanks for your post. I sort of remembered you mentioning that (I thought you went to a Reformed Church and then moved on).


I also agree with you about limited atonement being hard to swallow. And I much prefer Barth's version of election, which removes the determinism by making God bigger, rather than smaller. But I've babbled about that as best as I can over in the election thread.



(Disclaimer: I'm about to use generalizations about a group called "Progressive Christians." I realize these are generalizations, but I think my point has some merit nevertheless.)


It isn't one the of the 8 points, but I think one of the truly central things to progressive Christianity is it takes history seriously. Progressive Christians are very interested in the history/archaeology of the Bible and higher criticism, for example (I realize I'm making generalizations, but I think they are more true than false). Progressive Christians are willing to see human history unfolding through accident and the operation of human power, and take those as seriously as we can rather than hand-waving and muttering something bland and vague about God's will. It is important to understand how Christianity is the Church of Esau, not just the Church of Jacob (to use Barth's distinction). We may or may not be Christian, but we're always human. I think this is an important thing that progressive Christianity can offer.


My interest in Calvin is an extension of this into denominational history. Reformed Christianity is a particular Christian tradition with (about) 5 centuries of history built up. Within there, we can find countless moments of liberation, oppression, hope, despair, truth, deception, and any other cool binary I could think of ( ;) ). Any faith tradition, Christian or otherwise, will likely have all this glorious complexity and mess, and the more I understand that mess, the more nimble I hope to be in understanding what I want from it. Humanity cannot escape history, but it can be more or less aware of how it engages history and tradition.


Anyhow, I think I'll stop here, as I'm beginning to ramble, but I wanted to explain myself. Calvin isn't a progressive, nor is he of no value to a progressive. His utility can only be found, however, when he is understood in context before one tries to take his ideas out of context. Hence these book reviews.

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