Michael Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever. Crossway, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-4335-3956-5 271 pages.
Dr. Vic Reasoner
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Volume 32.Fall 2014.
I am intrigued with the series, Theologians on the Christian Life. My interest is how different strains of theology would produce a different emphasis in spiritual formation. Having read and reviewed Fred Sanders' introduction to John Wesley, I was interest to see how Michael Horton presented Calvin. Now that I have finished Horton's work, I want to compare and contrast the two introductions.
Both books are apologies, defending their respective theologian and his theology. Since Calvin and Wesley were fallible men, both authors have the task of explaining shortcomings in the lives of their mentors. Calvin seems to be more reclusive - even to the point of insisting that he be buried in a common, unmarked grave - while Wesley must have been purely choleric. Both men took seriously the authority of Scripture and both men knew the patristics.
However, a major influence on the theology of Wesley was his conversion at Altersgate. He testified, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
Horton never really discusses the conversion of Calvin. The God of Calvin seems to be transcendent, while the God of Wesley seems to be more immanent. Calvin's religion seems to be more of a religion of the head than of the heart.
What I appreciate most about Horton's introduction to Calvin is the Protestant emphasis. While Horton does not engage in unnecessary inflammatory remarks about the Pope (unlike Luther), neither does he adopt a mealy-mouth ecumenical position. Calvin is portrayed as holding the orthodox position between the lawlessness of the Anabaptists and the legalism of Rome. Horton does portray Calvin as ecumenical to the degree that he made overtures to other Protestants. I am not sure Calvin's theological descendants would extend their Protestant ecumenicism to orthodox Arminians, however. But to give credit where credit is due, I am happily surprised that a Calvinistic publisher even recognized Wesley in this series.
Horton consistently explains Calvin's theology with the phrase "distinction without separation." Calvin held distinct theological concepts in tension. Thus, Horton labors to portray Calvin as a moderate - even an unlikely reformer - not the tyrant his opponents frequently paint him as being. For example, Calvin preferred a presbyterian government with its plurality of elders, but made overtures to the Anglican bishop. With this agenda, it comes as no surprise that early in the book Horton offers his interpretation of Calvin's conflict with Michael Servetus.
In his presentation of Calvin, Horton follows the outline of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. However, he only devotes four pages to Calvin's theology of predestination and election. There Horton declares that "predestination is not the center of Calvin's 'system.'" Horton never explains the ramifications of an election which is both individual and unconditional. Horton declared that Calvin never used the phrase "irresistible grace," but "effectual grace," the preferred term, is a phrase never used in Scripture.
Horton never addresses Calvin's reaction to his own doctrine of double predestination as a "horrible decree." Thus, the portrait which Horton paints of Calvin is generally appealing, but Calvin's own theology is not as attractive.
Without rehearsing all of my objections to Calvinism, my question is how would a Christian attending Calvin's congregation in Geneva differ from a Christian attending Wesley's chapel in London? Both men were on a circuit. Calvin was part of rotation of preaching elders in Geneva. Wesley's circuit took him on horseback across England and beyond. Both services would be liturgical and would give preeminence to the expositional preaching of Scripture. In Geneva the singing would be a capella and would be largely restricted to the psalms. The hymns of Charles Wesley would have been accompanied by an organ - even though Adam Clarke did not like organs!
Calvin believed that the elect and the nonelect would both be present indiscriminately within his congregation and only God could separate them. He held that the church was a body of sinful humanity which was marked by the pure preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. At a personal level, the believer would confess his sins and would hear the words of absolution. In distinction to both Rome and the Anabaptists, Horton portrays Calvin as lenient toward those who confess their sins.
The Anglican service which early Methodists were required to attend would not be all that different. Perhaps the greatest difference would be in the music. But the same believer in Wesley's society would be required to meet with a small group in which they would confess their sins and hold each other accountable. They would be urged on toward victory over sin. This victory over sin was possible only with a constant reliance upon the indwelling Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit also bears witness with our own spirits regarding our present relationship with God. Neither this relationship nor this assurance is unconditional, but it is a conscience assurance to the believer. In contrast, Horton taught that the righteousness of Christ is imputed for the believer's justification and sanctification. Thus, the believer struggles against sin all his life because he has not actually become righteous. Horton also distinguishes between an objective faith that the elect will persevere and the subjective experience of the believer which includes fear and trembling, anxiety, and a faith that wavers.
While Warfield described Calvinism as "miserable-sinner" Christianity, Wesley taught an optimism of divine grace based on the possibilities of grace. In contrast to Wesley's optimism, Calvin exhibited a resignation. He died at 55 after confessing that he had "failed innumerable times to execute my office properly," acknowledging himself "to be a miserable sinner." Calvin declared that were it not for God's goodness he would be found guilty of the judgment of sin and sloth. No wonder Horton says Calvin's theology "makes room for the blues, as the heart cries out for a deliverance that seems at least to our experience beyond reach."