Publisher: IVP Academic
There is no shortage of introductions to the life and work of John Calvin. To draw on the language of Ecclesiastes, sometimes it seems as though there will be no end to the writing of books about John Calvin. However, An Explorer’s Guide to John Calvin is a rare gem within the body of introductory books on Calvin. Written by Yudha Thianto, who has taught Calvin for decades, the book has a remarkably personal tone. Thianto opens the book by identifying Calvin as ‘a dear friend’ who has shaped his own life and theological vision.1 For Thianto, Calvin is a person as much as he is a theologian, worth getting to know in a full-orbed way. Thus, Thianto’s book is a warm and accessible introduction to Calvin as a person, pastor, and theologian that is historically rich and theologically informed.
The book itself is divided into two distinct sections. The first part introduces the reader to ‘Calvin the Man,’ and the second part guides readers through The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin’s major theological work. The benefit of this structure is that the Institutes are situated within the context of Calvin’s life and work as a pastor and biblical exegete, allowing them to be seen as a significant—but not complete part—of Calvin’s work of serving God and the church.
“Thianto undoes caricatures of Calvin as a ‘dour, stern, and cold theologian who thought only about doctrines’…”Gayle Doornbos and Yudha Thainto
Throughout his first section on ‘Calvin the Man,’ Thianto adeptly covers the contours of Calvin’s life and dispels many common myths and misunderstandings. Of particular note is the way Thianto undoes caricatures of Calvin as “a dour, stern, and cold theologian who thought only about doctrines” by presenting Calvin as a man who “loved God deeply and did all that he could to ensure that people would get to know God intimately, worship him with all their hearts, and live as Christians who glorify God all the days of their lives”.2 Framing Calvin’s reformation of life in Geneva within his pastoral desire to see the integration of faith and life, the controversies that arose as a result of Calvin’s reforms are placed within a broader context. In this section Thianto also addresses critics who blame Calvin for the execution of Michael Servetus. While not condoning the execution, Thianto also outlines the broader historical context to show that is unfair to place the “blame for Servetus’s death at Calvin’s feet”.3
Thianto also identifies two other common but important misunderstandings. First, in his chapter on frequently asked questions about Calvin, Thianto confronts the charge that Calvin was solely concerned about predestination and invented the acronym TULIP. While Calvin did affirm the doctrine of predestination, the Canons of Dort (from which the acronym is derived) were written decades after Calvin died. Furthermore, as Thianto explains, the acronym TULIP is only about a century old. Thus, while the Canons “are based on what Calvin taught, they are not the same as what Calvin wrote”,4 and Calvin wrote on much more than the doctrine of predestination. Rather, Calvin explored various theological topics and pastoral issues across in his letters, sermons, biblical commentaries, and the Institutes. To reduce Calvin and Calvinism to the doctrine of predestination is to reduce Calvin’s full-orbed theological vision to a particular doctrine. This is clear throughout Thianto’s work but especially in his second section, in which he guides readers through an outline of Calvin’s Institutes and confronts a second common misunderstanding: that Calvin ignored the Holy Spirit in his theology. Contrary to these claims, Thianto shows how Calvin places “the Holy Spirit at the center of our redemption” in his theology of Union with Christ.5
“To reduce Calvin and Calvinism to the doctrine of predestination is to reduce Calvin’s full-orbed theological vision to a particular doctrine.”
As Thianto’s dispels myths, he also presents Calvin to readers as a theological friend whose work has had global influence. Outlining his life and theology clearly and accessibly, Thianto invites his readers to consider how a friendship with Calvin might form their own life with God. As such, it serves as a wonderful introduction to Calvin, worthwhile for those who are just getting to know him, but also enriching for those who have journeyed with Calvin for a long time. While a wonderful contribution, the one drawback of the book is that it does not contain many quotes or direct writings from Calvin. Thianto is an able guide, but one sometimes wishes that he would have brought more of Calvin’s writings into this volume so that readers could hear Calvin in his own words.
Recognizing theologians as people who existed in time and space is always a helpful endeavor— recognizing a person’s social and communal location influences a scholar’s work. Thianto has provided this for readers to further their understanding and appreciation for John Calvin. May we continue to be encouraged by the ‘perseverance of the saints’ as we are challenged by their work whether from decades or centuries ago.