‘Calvin for Armchair Theologians’ by Christopher Elwood

Christopher Elwood, Calvin for Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).

This book pleasantly surprised me. I did not expect to find within it such a well-balanced and thorough introduction to Calvin. But, I now believe that there is no better book to recommend to the non-academic as an introduction to Calvin’s life and work.

Elwood divides this volume into five chapters: chapter 1 deals with Calvin’s early biography, chapter 2 treats Calvin’s first stint in Geneva and the subsequent sojourn in Strasburg, chapter 3 is a thorough introduction to Calvin’s Institutes (indeed, this chapter is as long as the other four put together, if not longer!), chapter 4 charts some of Calvin’s difficulties in Geneva before he emerged triumphant in 1555 (Bolsec and Servetus are especially considered, and Elwood does a fairly good job with them although there are times when he spins things in ways that I can’t agree with), chapter 5 explores the impact of all things Calvin after the man himself had passed from the scene (including a discussion of Barth and Princeton theology)

Because I talk about Calvin quite a bit here at DET, I’m not going to do anything like a standard summary and critique review of this volume. Instead, I’m going to highlight certain points that I thought were well done and helpful, as well as offer ‘modification’ here and there.

“A Toolbox for Reformation”

This is a very nice section (pp. 30-35) where Elwood discusses the ‘tools’ that Calvin developed and employed to consolidate the work of Reformation in Geneva and beyond. The first of these tools is catechesis, which I like to take every opportunity to promote in the church today. Just as a primary task of the Reformation was to re-educate the laity in Christianity, so a fundamental aspect of the church’s task today (in my view) is to educate the laity in Christian identity. This becomes increasingly important as the cultural identity in the Western world departs from various ways in which it mirrored Christianity. In any case, there are a number of tools that Calvin used for this. The first was the Geneva Catechism, which he wrote in 1542. But, the liturgies that Calvin developed were important as well, as was the Genevan Psalter. The impact that liturgy and a canon of worship music (quality worship lyrics – the Psalms, not just any old words set to music) had upon the Genevan laity should be taken as an example to the church today.

The second tool were the pastors. Calvin firmly believed in an educated ministry and established the Genevan Academy in part to meet this need both within and without the walls of Geneva. The third tool was aid in the interpretation of Scripture. Calvin knew that it is often hard to read and understand the Bible. Much of his time was spent lecturing on the biblical text, and he took into account not only the original language and context but also the contemporary implications of the text. Furthermore, he generally did these lectures without notes and working directly from the original languages – pick up some of his commentaries some time and remember that he produced these things in this manner! The fourth tool was the Institutes of the Christian Religion, to which we briefly turn next…

Order of the Institutes

As I mentioned above, Elwood is not brief in his treatment of the Institutes, but we will be. I want to say something about the order of the four books in the final edition. Elwood does a good job with this, offering a mix of two accounts of the logic of this order: it has to do with knowledge and telling the story of God’s relation to humanity and humanity’s relation to God (38). Both of these things are true, but I think that we can be more specific about this story, and thereby place the question of knowledge in better context. Stephen Edmondson (start with his article in Modern Theology 2005 and then check out his book Calvin’s Christology) suggests that Calvin’s order is based upon the biblical order, and I find this fairly convincing.

Just a quick note: when speaking of Calvin’s anti-speculative impulse, Elwood writes that Calvin “cites approvingly the answer to the old question about what God was doing before the creation of the world: God was building hell for curious persons” (39)!

Scripture and Accommodation

I very much liked how Elwood handled Calvin’s view on Scripture (48-54; if you want to check it out for yourselves in Calvin, cf. Institutes 1.6-10). Some people read Calvin on this point and forget about the flow of his argument. They go straight for Institutes 1.8, wherein Calvin offers a list of evidences that support the authority of Scripture. But, one needs to read 1.8 in light of 1.7, wherein Calvin argues that Scripture’s authority is dependent upon the witness of the Spirit (the relation of Word and Spirit comes up again in 1.9, thus surrounding the bit about external evidences). Calvin is playing a rhetorical game with his readers here: “Scripture does not need to be proved by any external argument because the Spirit confirms its authority in the hearts and minds of believers. Of course, if I were going to try to prove it, I would mention these things…but that is beside the point.” You can almost see a twinkle in his eye! In any case, Elwood gets this fairly well, so I will quote him: “To try to establish the authority of the Bible by adducing proofs or by appealing to some other criteria outside of God’s word…would be to create another authority higher than Scripture, an authority on which we would then have to depend for trusting that we hear God when we read the Bible. But Scripture doesn’t need any external proof” (49).

Closely related to Calvin’s understanding of Scripture is his somewhat trademarked notion of accommodation. Basically, Calvin recognizes that humans and God are on completely different levels. Humans are not capable of understanding or knowledge of God if God were to try to communicate with them as God communicates with God’s self (Trinity). So, God has to ‘talk down’ to humans and ‘accommodate’ them. Calvin likes, as Elowood notes, the image of adults speaking in ‘baby talk’ as an illustration of something like this. In God’s accommodation, true communication exists but God’s communication comes to us in human form. This is important to note with reference to Scripture because, as Elwood writes, “it makes it possible for the reader of Scripture to attend to the very human aspect of the text…even as she takes the Bible seriously as God’s word. The Bible is not some sort of unmediated divine discourse” (53).

Atonement and Sacrifice

Elwood’s discussion of Jesus Christ as Mediator in Calvin’s theology (72-79) is pretty good for this kind of introduction. He hits on Chalcedon and its logic as well as the munus triplex before coming to the atonement. Calvin understands the atonement in terms of sacrificial imagery, and developed conceptions of “vicarious atonement or substitutionary punishment” (77) to explain Christ’s saving work. Elwood notes some of the criticism that Calvin and others have come in for because of this understanding, but he also does a nice job of noting the caveats in Calvin’s treatment that undermine much of this criticism. Calvin works within sacrificial symbolism in his account of the atonement, but he does not take this symbolism too literally:
“First, we need to recognize that, although God’s wrath is something sinful human beings do experience, God’s love is the constant motive that lies behind all God’s dealing with us. Second, God is not an angry judge, passively awaiting a victim before responding with pleasure at the violent outcome. God, we have to remember, is present in Jesus Christ. And so God is both the agent of redemption and a participant in the suffering that overcomes our alienation. Finally, God is not captive to a system of justice (e.g., sin requires death) that God must serve. God could have chosen another means of healing the breach. But God chose this means: to demonstrate the cost of sin, to show the immensity of God’s love for us in God’s willingness to enter into the pain that unfaithfulness and alienation beget, and to overcome our sense of horror before a righteous God.” (78)


Sounds like a solid piece of work. I'll have to pick this up! Thanks for the synopsis.

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