I would like to begin by thanking Presbyterian Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review.
I have to admit that I am not a history buff and when given a choice, I would naturally prefer reading theology over history. When I started reading this book, I was expecting to read more about the theology of John Calvin but I realized that this was more of a historical biography than an explanation of John Calvin’s theology. Ten of the eleven chapters deal with the historical biography of John Calvin, which left only one chapter dealing solely with the theology of John Calvin. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading chapter 10 “Contours of Calvin’s Theology”. (In fact, I jotted many notes as I was reading this chapter because I felt that Spijker made many fine points on Calvin’s theology).
As I kept reading, I also began to realize the magnitude of Calvin’s struggles and challenges. Of the Reformers, I had only had prior knowledge of Martin Luther and a very basic introduction to the man of John Calvin through my studies in seminary about the history of the Protestant Reformation. However, after finishing his book today, I realized that I had only begun to scrape the surface of what lies beneath a great man of deep conviction and faith. I would opine that the accomplishments and influence of John Calvin is equal to that of the other great Reformer, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther.
The author, Willem Van’t Spijker, is one of the leading scholars on John Calvin. As I said, this book is not so much a book on the theology of Calvin as it is on the history of the person of John Calvin. The events and accomplishments of Calvin are presented in chronological fashion. Throughout the book, Spijker mainly talks about the events and actions of Calvin during his lifetime that created the Reformation in the early to mid 16th century.
Spijker takes his readers through the history of Calvin, from the beginning of the 16th century to Calvin’s early life and development, to his Institutes and the origins and formation of the church in Geneva, as well as, Strasbourg; then into his formation of the four offices, the independent authority of the church, and the completion of the Institutes in 1559.
A common theme that seems to occur throughout the pages of this book is the idea or practice of church discipline. For those who come without any prior knowledge of Calvinism and what it is, one might carry the image of strict ladies with hair rolled up in a bun, up tightness, and of law and obedience. That’s the negative stereotypical image of people who practice church discipline. After reading about Calvin’s theological reasoning behind church discipline, I realized that it is not such a far out, wild and crazy idea for a church to have. I understand that church discipline is required in any church and congregation and it must be carried out in order for the church to maintain some ecclesiastical and spiritual order within the body of Christ.
Yes, Calvin did support punishment of heretics by banishing them from the city of Geneva, or levying the heavy punishment of death upon those who disagreed with him. By today’s standards, this would obviously be considered extreme religious persecution and a strict violation of human rights. However, in his days, this was the normal practice of church discipline. It was also the experience of the other contemporary Reformers like Martin Luther.
For our many friends who are of the Presbyterian or Reformed persuasion, you would cringe at the thought of such practices and would even condemn those who do the same. Well, Calvin was not a tolerant figure and this shameful image is not what any of us would like to read about in our books on church history. However, it is good to know how our early predecessors from the Reformation past conducted themselves in the post-Roman age and learn from that era what we must not do in the future.
With this said as a prelude, I must admit that some measure of church discipline is necessary because of the chaos the Reformation created. The Roman Catholic Church was also fully immersed into the practice of church discipline and was the epitome of such practices. Spijker says:
“With respect to church discipline, [Calvin] emphasized the principle that actions by the consistory out not to interfere with procedures in the civil courts. It was also his wish that people not be dealt with too harshly in church discipline and that there be no difference between the discipline of laypersons and office-bearers. The latter should be subject to the same punishments as the former” (p. 164).
I am not sure I would agree with Spijker’s statement here. Calvin’s practice of church discipline was guided by a distinction between the spiritual discipline of the church and the punishment of the civil government. He claims Calvin did not want to mix the two realms of civil jurisdiction and the authority of the church. However, both seemed to be heavy-handed at times.
Spijker does not hide Calvin’s leaning toward church discipline. He writes:
“On the matter of church discipline as an effective means of combating sins and shortcomings, however, tension between the magistracy and the consistory continued to exist. On more than one occasion, Calvin was called upon to be more moderate in his preaching, as a means that he was using to propagate his belief about church discipline” (p. 99).
This book covers a lot more than church discipline. It also talks about how Calvin wanted to transform the City of Geneva under Calvin’s vision as a model of what a Christian society should look like. It is interesting that Spijker says Calvin felt that he failed in his plan to transform this city. Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms did not function in the same way as the Geneva model. Calvin saw both kingdoms under one Lord. Calvin thought his model was the only way and perhaps that is why he felt he failed in achieving a model Christian society?