Everyone knows John Calvin is a great theologian but did you know he was more than a theologian? Did you know how he has influenced our schools, governments and our very way of life? Today you find out how and let’s see whether you are convinced.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “The Legacy of John Calvin” by David Hall. 112 pages. Published by P&R Publishing in June 2008. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD7.99 and available in Logos for free! Free for January.
Who is David Hall? This is what Amazon says:
Dr. David W. Hall has served as the Senior Pastor of the historic Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Powder Springs, Georgia since 2003.
Is he qualified to write on John Calvin? Amazon continues to say:
In addition to his work as Executive Director of Calvin500, his Calvin500 series contains the following works: The Legacy of John Calvin, Calvin in the Public Square, Calvin and Commerce, Preaching Like Calvin, Calvin and Culture, Tributes to John Calvin, and Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes.
Having written so many books on Calvin, we are confident that if anyone could write an authoritative book on John Calvin, David Hall would be the guy. Or he could have written so many books on Calvin that everywhere he goes he sees John Calvin.
The book is divided into three parts.
Part 1: Ten Ways Modern Culture is Different because of John Calvin
Part 2: John Calvin: A Life Worth Knowing
Part 3: Tributes: Measuring a Man after Many Generations
Let me start with Part 1.
Listeners to this podcast, should be somewhat familiar with John Calvin. You know him as the theologian. The guy who wrote The Institutes, the bedrock of the Systematic Theology. Other than a theologian, what else did he do? Got nothing? Here are some of the ways your life is all the better because of John Calvin.
Did you go to school? That’s thanks to Calvin. In Geneva, Calvin set up the free public school and seminary and, according to a historian quoted in this book, these became “the forerunners of modern public education.”
Do you know volunteer societies? They might have helped you or someone you know. That’s thanks to Calvin and his deacons who cared for orphans, the elderly and the sick. I quote:
This ecclesiastical institution was a precursor to the voluntary societies of the 19th and 20th centuries in the West.
Do you know what is a Senate? Senators are in the Senate. They have a seat in government. Calvin and other commentators studied the Bible. They studied how Jethro advised Moses on how to govern a nation. Calvin concluded that what worked for Moses and Israel would work for John Calvin and Geneva. Thus, the Senate was established in Geneva. This idea then reached America. As Hall says, “With this idea [of limited government], Calvin altered the trajectory of governance.”
In the chapter titled, “Decentralised Politics: The Republic”, we have a lot more to thank John Calvin. I quote:
Many ideas that began with Calvin’s reformation in Geneva and later became part of the fabric of America were cultivated and crossbred in the seventeenth-century. Customs now taken for granted, like freedom of speech, assembly, and dissent, were extended as Calvin’s Dutch, British, and Scottish disciples refined these ideas.
With this illustrious list of contributions to modern culture, I was surprised that we don’t have John Calvin to thank for slice bread.
In Part 2, we have a short biography of Calvin divided into four sections: Calvin’s Life, Calvin’s Friendships, Calvin’s Death and Epilogue.
If you are yet to be persuaded on the giant who is John Calvin, David Hall quotes 19th century Harvard historian George Bancroft who:
traced the living legacy of Calvin among the Plymouth pilgrims, the Huguenot settlers of South Carolina, and the Dutch colonists in Manhattan, concluding: “He that will not honour the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”
Later we read that the world-renowned German historian Leopold von Ranke reached the conclusion that, “John Calvin was virtually the founder of America.”
A French man founded America? How did he do that? Well, we hope to find out in this biography.
Hall gives a standard portrait of Calvin. His early life, how his father sent him to study law because that’s where the money was, then a thunderclap. The Reformation happened. Calvin left France and eventually arrived in Geneva. He didn’t want to stay in Geneva but he was spiritually bullied by William Karel to stay. So he stayed.
Then he refused to offer communion to some people (he had good reasons not to) and the City Council exiled Calvin. But three years later, those who opposed Calvin fell away, and Geneva insisted Calvin return to continue the good work he did there. So he did. He famously preached exactly where he left off three years ago.
We read how he helped to build up the church, the city, the public school and seminary, the printers, the economy and more. We read about his friends, a Who’s Who of the Reformation. John Calvin was not a loner, he probably has more friends than you and I!
In his later years, Calvin was badly sick but that did not stop him from working. They had no painkillers. But he manages to produce great works of literature while most of us spend our time figuring a comeback in Twitter.
Then John Calvin’s life ends.
We turn to the epilogue. What I expected to see is how Calvin’s disciples went on to continue the good work. I expected to read how they shaped the religious, political, social and economic landscape. I expected a brief sketch of how John Calvin raised up disciples who raised up other disciples who then somehow contributed to the founding of America.
That is what I expected but what I got was a character study. It’s an eulogy. It extols what Hall considers Calvin’s chief virtue, namely humility. It’s a good eulogy. Humble Calvin would protest for thinking so much of him but I still think an epilogue that briefly trace through the lives of Calvin’s disciples would fit better with the theme of the book.
In Part 3, we have tributes. The purpose of this section is, “to illustrate that Calvin is esteemed by many evangelicals from differing traditions”, and that “The passage of time and breadth of acclaim is another measure of Calvin’s contribution.”
To make that point we have tributes from Baptists (Spurgeon, John Piper, Steven Lawson), Anglicans (J.I. Packer and J.C. Ryle), Independents (John MacArthur), Methodists (John Wesley) and a surprising note from a Roman Catholic (Alexandre Ganoczy).
Part 3 is the weakest part of the book.
The portions are uneven. The tributes from Spurgeon go on and on. While Steven Lawson does not need his name as a sub-heading when all the section says is Lawson wrote a book as a tribute on Calvin’s preaching.
And that’s the weird thing. The people here pay tribute to Calvin the Theologian, not Calvin the School Builder, or Calvin the Senate Starter, or Calvin the Republican. If Charles Spurgeon had said, “Look at America, they have no king, thanks to John Calvin.” That would be something.
The tribute from the Roman Catholic just says John Calvin is superior to Martin Luther and he had his own mind, he was not blindly copying everybody else. That’s a lame compliment. You know what would be a good Roman Catholic tribute?
A harsh condemnation.
Pope Leo X once described Martin Luther as a wild boar in God’s garden. A condemnation from a pope or a million dollar bounty on Calvin’s head would be a public relations win for Calvin. Just for singling him out as public enemy number one, in today’s world, would get John Calvin a million followers, a million likes, within hours.
Claims Not Well Supported
Let’s now look at the book as a whole.
This book is part of the Calvin500 series. So perhaps my criticisms are unfair because they are addressed in the other books. But as it is, this is the only book I read and it is a mess.
It’s a good book for people who love Calvin and want to know another side of his life and work.
It’s not so good for people who have no overly fond feelings for Calvin and are not wrong to be sceptical of the grand claims made in the book.
John Calvin as the founder of America? There are many others that would claim some intellectual and even spiritual credit for founding America, but I don’t think John Calvin comes up in the list of claimants.
And perhaps that is what today’s book is for: to right a wrong. But the book doesn’t make the case. Sure, they are historians who say so. There are other experts who say so. But how did they reach their conclusions? I want more than someone saying: America’s Founders were influenced by Puritans, the Puritans were influenced by Calvin, ergo the Founders were influenced by Calvin.
What About Schools?
For example, schools. Calvin did not invent schools. Hall never makes such a preposterous claim. But it says here that these schools are forerunners of modern public schools.
But in what way? What was Calvin’s contribution? Did he design the syllabus? Did he teach? Did he cast the vision, raise the funds, laid the first brick?
Did someone visit the school and say, “I would like one back home,” and built whole nation full of Calvin schools? Unless it’s clear what are the unique aspects of Calvin’s school and academy, I would argue that schools, even tuition-free schools, existed before Geneva, in other countries.
Hall gives Calvin some credit for republicanism, a system of government where the leader is not a hereditary king but an elected representative from the people. The thing is I am not sure Calvin would claim credit for republicanism.
John Calvin was trained as a lawyer, so let’s take a courtroom scenario. Imagine that it was a criminal offence to have significantly contributed to the Founding of America. Now imagine that John Calvin was resurrected from the dead to answer for his crime. The question is would there be enough evidence for the jury to convict him?
Based on this book, no. It would be easy to show that John Calvin was too far away from the events to have any meaningful influence on them. Calvin did establish a limited government in Geneva but Geneva is not America, in size or scope. Therefore, unless the prosecutor has something more substantial than hearsay, any jury would easily acquit Calvin of the charge.
Just for comparison, if it was a criminal offence to have significantly contributed to Reformed Theology. Then there is no escape for John Calvin. His words, his actions, his disciples are all evidence against him.
Give Me the Full Version of the Book
This is why the book is flawed in concept. It makes assertions but does not go far enough to support them. Part 2 and Part 3 of the book should be scrapped. If you want to know about the life of John Calvin, write another book. If you want to know the tributes or opinions of others, across different denominations, fields, countries over the centuries, write another book.
But for this book, 112 pages of it, write as if you are John Calvin. He was an irresistible force because his top legal mind made theological arguments indisputably built on the Bible. Be like Calvin, make the case.
And if the book was re-worked, it needs a good editor. Let me give one example.
When I read Part 2, the life of John Calvin, I thought the tone was too positive. We need to find fault with the man but there are known issues with Calvin. Servetus, anyone? I have heard a good defence for Calvin with regards to Servetus, but in this book, it’s as if nothing ever happened. And that’s okay, it is the writer’s prerogative to leave some things out and in the case of Servetus, if you can’t explain the whole story, it might be best to not mention him at all.
The irritation is the book does mention him but never bothers to explain who he is. In Part 3, we have a John Wesley giving a tribute to Calvin. I quote:
I believe Calvin was a great instrument of God; and that he was a wise and pious man; But I cannot but advise those who love his memory to let Servetus alone. Yet if any one resolves to understand the whole affair,” he may consult a learned account by a Dr. Chandler of London.
Isn’t that a teaser? Wesley asks us to leave Servetus alone, but we can’t leave it alone now because our curiosity is now aroused, who is Servetus? If you are going to mention him, then tell us who he is, if not, then don’t cause Wesley’s quote doesn’t even need to be there.
I have been highly critical of the book. Is there anything good about it. Well, it’s short and it’s free. Or it was free in January. If it’s no longer free by the time you are hearing this, then you have one less reason to get it.
I do not recommend this book. I recommend you get another book. Maybe another one by David Hall? I do not dismiss his passion and knowledge of John Calvin. Maybe his other books in the Calvin500 series are better than today’s one. Maybe today’s book was simply an ill-advised idea that came out half-baked. All I know is, this is not the book to inform or excite anyone on John Calvin’s legacy in the modern world.
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “The Legacy of John Calvin” by David Hall. 112 pages. Published by P&R Publishing in June 2008. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD7.99 and available in Logos for free! Free for January.
Thank you for listening. Bye bye.