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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Kroon, Marijn de


The Honour of God and Human Salvation. A contribution to an understanding of Calvin's theology according to his Institutes. Transl. by J. Vriend and L. D. Bierma.


Edinburgh-New York: T & T Clark 2001. XX, 230 S. 8. Lw. £ 25,00. ISBN 0-567-08779-4.


William G. Naphy

This is an extremely welcome and deeply scholarly work. K.'s study examines Calvin's theology in an effort to identify the key ideas and the underlying structural cohesion of one of Christianity's most complex and controversial theologians. It is not attempting to return scholarly views to the earlier reading of Calvin as a systematician. Nevertheless, it does argue that certain themes underlie and bind together Calvin's overall thinking. The two themes that K. identifies and discusses are the honour of God as well as the question of human salvation.

The volume begins with a comprehensive and masterful introduction focusing on the topic's historiography. From this springboard, K. moves to his first (of five) section on the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. The word ourselves highlights the fact that this is a work which speaks directly to the reader. Though one could not for a moment doubt the scholarship that informs every page of this book, one must also be aware that there is a clear devotional, pastoral and, even, confessional aspect. In addition to this personal tone, although this is overwhelmingly a fluent and lucid translation, some literalisms survive (e. g., in the same connection occurs also this striking text, 26) though these in no way detract from its readability. K. clearly sees a correct understanding of Calvin's theological presuppositions as being topical and relevant to modern readers/believers. This pastoral interest makes the entire discussion lively and vibrant. In the first section the author examines Calvin's understanding of God as an awesome majesty and humanity as weakness and sin. Having started with this terrifying duality, K. quickly highlights Calvin's twin views of God as a majesty of love and humanity as a creation in His image. The result, K. postulates, is that humans must honour God. He closes the section with a welcome and intriguing discussion of the tensions within Calvin's theology. One finds this welcome as this is a work very positive on Calvin's thoughts as one might expect from a work with a strong devotional and pastoral element.

The second section of the book examines God's honour and salvation in Christ. K. begins by considering the thorny question of free will as a complex aspect of Calvin's thought. The author stresses Calvin's view that free will is no more than a human idol created to allow man to place himself on God's throne. There follows an analysis of the place of the Decalogue in Calvin's theology as well as the role of the mediator in God's majesty and the satisfaction of that majesty. Christ as the image of God and His meritorious act of redemption (especially as more than simply judicial satisfaction) is examined. This treatment of the person and work of Christ leads naturally to the third section on God's honour and way to salvation. Here are some of the most interesting discussions of this volume. Justification by faith (as opposed to works) is examined especially questioning the extent to which Calvin's views actually differed from Catholicism. The rather positive result of the similarities of their views may be useful in modern theological discussions and ecumenism but it does tend to obscure the assured belief by early modern thinkers that there was an enormous chasm between Catholics and Protestants on this point. The life of the new man comes next and is followed closely by an evaluation of Calvin's view on predestination. Again, K. stresses the pastoral importance of this idea and, perhaps, slightly undervalues the strong objections to any explicit discussion of this doctrine (let along its exposition from the pulpit) amongst even Reformed ministers in the sixteenth century.

The fourth section (on God's honour and the external means of salvation) takes the discussion of Calvin from the theoretical to the practical. K. discusses the Church, the sacraments and civil authority. However, one key aspect of Calvin's views fails to be examined. While stressing that Calvin valued and exalted the role of the magistrate, K. notes his problems with libertines in the Genevan government. One must pause for a moment, though, to ask the important question of who actually decided what was a thing indifferent. As K. notes, Calvin rejected any civil interference in a religious matter. If the ministers were the only ones able to decide what was a religious matter then one can see that this established the basis for disagreements with both civil leaders and the general populace. For example, many Genevans argued quite openly that things like dancing at weddings were matters of culture, tradition, and hospitality and were more of a grey (adiaphora) matter than Calvin (and his fellow foreign ministers) accepted. Reducing this to a clash between the moral and the libertine oversimplifies the debate. As long as the ministers (and Calvin's theology) retained for themselves the role of final arbiters of what was a religious matter and, thus, outwith the scope of civil and magisterial control, they supported a situation that, in practice, made them - potentially - absolute rulers in a theocratic structure.

The final section examines the current state of thinking on Calvin by discussing (even dissecting) the views of Dowey and Bouwsma. Moreover, K. seems to take the view that little can be done to develop this view (fresh sources which picture Calvin the man in a new light are not being tapped, 191). However, this overlooks the increasing use (and availability) of sources such as the Registers of the Consistory which allow one to see Calvin put into practice his ideas on how man can honour God. This view has highlighted the complexity of Calvin as theoretician (theologian) and practitioner (pastor). For example, one is often told of Calvin's modern and humanitarian request that Servetus be executed quickly by decapitation. This view overlooks Calvin's equal enthusiasm for the burning alive of witches and sodomites. K.'s use of Calvin's sermons, commentaries and letters is a welcome attempt to integrate Calvin's practice with his high theology. To suggest that there is more that can be done in this direction is not to criticise this excellent and comprehensive work. Rather, it is to suggest merely that there is more that remains to be done and our picture of Calvin, the man, or his theology (as thought as well as motive for action) is open to greater development.