Book Review: Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception Edited by J. Todd Billings and John Hesselink

4.5 out of 5 Stars
Editors: J. Todd Billings and John Hesselink
Publisher: Westminster/John Knox Press
Buy Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception
Reading Level: Moderate

For those interested in historical theology, Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception is a gold mine. The individual authors examine not only what Calvin’s theology was but how it was received and how it has developed. Billings and Hesselink succinctly proclaim, “The meaning of Calvin’s writings are tied to the history of the effects that they have helped to produce” (p. xii). They note for instance that Calvin had very little to say about definite atonement as it’s formulated today because the debate wasn’t centered around that doctrine like it is now but we can look at Calvin’s theology and see how what he taught was developed into definite atonement (p. xiii).

The book is highly organized. Each chapter can be read on its own or you could read the book through. Each section includes two chapters on the same doctrinal topic. The first chapter reconstructs Calvin’s theology and examines its development through Protestant Orthodoxy. The second chapter examines the development of that doctrine through our modern period and also unpacks the challenge for that doctrine moving forward.

The two sections I enjoyed the most were “Section 2: Calvin’s Theology of Union with Christ and Its Reception” and “Section 3: Calvin’s Theology of Election and Its Reception.” Billings and Michael Horton tag team section two and Carl Trueman and Suzanne McDonald handle the third.

Union with Christ is paramount for a proper understanding of justification and sanctification. That’s why I love what Together for Adoption is doing. They’re unearthing this important doctrinal truth framed in the beauty of our adoption in Christ. It’s wonderful because adoption and our union with Christ contain both the declarative (justification) and the transformative (sanctification) thrust. Calvin spoke of these two as “‘the sum of the gospel’” (p. 49). It’s also imperative to note that these are gifts given by God the Father through the Spirit. Calvin stresses that justification was by the free grace of God but that it was also inseparable from sanctification. Root always bears fruit (pp. 55, 82, 86-87, 91)--such a wonderful tension. Calvin calls this duplex gratia:

“By partaking of him [Christ], we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life” (p. 56)

Horton sums it up all so wonderfully when he says,

In Calvin’s approach, God’s unilateral gift of grace in election, redemption, effectual calling, and justification is the source of a living, active, and transformative relationship of covenant reciprocity (p. 92 see also p. 94).

Calvin provides a much needed tension and balance for our current discussion.

Finally, in Trueman’s chapter on election he mines out the real beauty of the doctrine. Election has fell on hard times. People view it as a harsh and unsettling doctrine. But for the Reformers coming out of the Roman Catholic church where there was no assurance of salvation, election was a balm for the weary soul. Election was primarily viewed as a doctrine which Christians rested on for their assurance (pp. 103-04).

For those seeking to understand Calvin’s theology and the impact that it has had on the development of modern reformed theology you won’t find a more approachable and balanced book. Outside of the doctrines already mentioned, the book also hits on the nature of revelation, the Lord’s Supper, and ecclesiology. I found the discussion of Calvin’s view of ecclesiology and the way that worked out in Geneva instructive. It’s a frequent hot topic for those wishing to discredit reformed theology. I always find it amazing how much relevance past theologians have. We live in a generation that doesn’t trust authority and doesn’t learn from the past. That ideology has crept its way into the church and many of our debates and errors would be corrected with a fuller understanding of historical theology and the Scriptures. This book will help in that regard so don’t miss out.

A free copy of this book was provided by Westminster/John Knox Press. If you plan on purchasing Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.