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Great Historians and Great Theologians

January 15, 2010

A pet peeve of mine is when church historians make blundered theological conclusions from their historical findings.  They allow the historical setting and cultural context to dominate their interpretation of theologians and their works, rather just part of the equation.  [Note: I’ve mentioned this before, but two great church historians who are equally equipped theologians are Michael Haykin and Robert Letham.]

That brings me to Bruce Gordon’s new biography Calvin. Let me give a few caveats before I make any small critiques.  (1) This is the best biography on Calvin I have read and the best church history biography I have read since Here I Stand (one my all time favorite books!).  His explanation of how lutheran and evangelical ideas spread through France (distinct from Germany) is really insightful and his command of primary sources is impressive.  (2)  I think Gordon is, more often than not, sympathetic and fair to Calvin and his ideas.  I completely agree with Sean Lucas’ positive assessment of the book.

But Gordon, in my opinion, allows Calvin’s historical context and education to be the dominant interpretive grid in which he approaches Calvin and his theology.  Statements like this:

Calvin’s rigorous legal training left its imprint on every aspect of his life.  It sharpened his mind to interpret texts and form precise arguments based on humanist methods…  He was taught to frame legislation, write constitutions and offer legal opinions, all of which would loom large in his Genevan career.  But the legacy was also intellectual.  It was from the law that he would draw some of his most fundamental theological concepts, such as the Holy Spirit as ‘witness’, the nature of ‘justification’, God as ‘legislator’ and ‘judge’, and Christ as the ‘perpetual advocate’.

I don’t suggest we take Calvin completely out of his context.  He was a man of his times.  Yet, for how much Gordon exalts Calvin’s intellectual genius, paragraphs like the above make his theology seem myopic and short sited.  While Gordon is not necessarily being critical of Calvin’s ‘fundamental concepts’, he seems to overly credit his education, rather than Calvin being a faithful, biblical theologian.  As if Calvin could not make profound biblical and theological observations beyond concepts from his legal training.  As if the Reformed tradition is held captive to Calvin’s lawyerisms!

Let me come back around and emphasize how much I love this biography.

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