Friday, August 28, 2009

Bruce Gordon's Calvin

In this five hundredth anniversary of Calvin’s birth, booksellers have flooded the marketplace with all things John Calvin. Of all the books published in this anniversary year, the one that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest is Bruce Gordon’s Calvin. In fact, it is not too much to claim that what George Marsden did for Jonathan Edwards, Gordon did for Calvin: produce a well-written biography, rich in primary and secondary source material, which actually penetrates to the man himself. This is a high achievement.

Gordon’s achievement is manifold. First, as a scholar of Reformation-era Europe, he successfully situates Calvin in the web of relationships that dominated the sixteenth century. For example, we learn that not only that William Farel and Calvin’s relationship was important in 1536, but how that relationship developed over time, how it created difficulties for both men, and how loyalties to other players (Bucer, Viret, Bullinger) complicated their long-standing friendship. Likewise, we come to understand how Calvin’s developing relationships with Bullinger and Melanchthon, driven by his own sense of a trans-European Reformation, impacted his public theology and pastoral sensibilities.

Next, not only does Gordon describe the relational Reformation, but he also shows how the political developments in France created complexities for Calvin. Like the Apostle Paul with his fellow Jews, Calvin longs for the conversion of his fellow Frenchmen. However, the progress of the Gospel, reformed according to God’s Word, was tied to the messy political situation within France. Though he attempted to woo French nobility to the Reformed faith, he also was increasingly frustrated with the leadership’s willingness to dally with Roman Catholicism and unwillingness to separate and establish a fully Reformed church. What Calvin did not reckon with, and what Gordon wonderfully pictures, were the political complexities within France itself.

Moreover, Gordon probes Calvin’s mindset in ways that are both fair to Calvin himself and realistic. When Calvin becomes angry or displays arrogance, Gordon never rationalizes it away. For example, in an exchange with Bullinger, Calvin penned “an angry reply” in which he told Bullinger that to defend Jerome Bolsec “is the extreme of absurdity” (p. 207). While most of us would skip over that comment, Gordon explores how Calvin’s passion and anger often would drive him to rhetorical excesses. The rest is a critically sympathetic portrait that is more real to life than any other Calvin biography in print.

Finally, Gordon helpfully summarizes vast tracts of Calvin’s theology. For example, Gordon devotes an entire chapter to a summary of Calvin’s commentary on Romans, which provides a pathway for probing his theological development (chapter seven, pp. 103-120). He explores the sacramental controversies with Wittenburg and Zurich as well as the compromises that led to the 1549 Consensus Tigirinus (pp. 161-180). His chapter dealing with Calvin’s controversy with Servetus was masterfully done (pp. 217-32), not only for exploring the theological dimensions, but also for outlining the political realities. And throughout, Gordon demonstrates what historian Philip Benedict also observed: namely, that the key dividing line in the Protestant Reformation was between the Swiss Reformed and the German Lutherans and centered on the Lord’s Supper. Calvin heroically tried to straddle that dividing line theologically and politically, ultimately with little success.

I hope that this book receives wide notice, not only among Reformation specialists and theological students, but especially among educated laypeople. Many of our people in Reformed and Presbyterian churches are woefully ignorant of Calvin’s contribution; the few that know something about him are as likely to idolize him as to understand him. Bruce Gordon’s Calvin is a marvelous corrective to both faults: informative, accessible, and realistic, it is the book to give to interested church members. And read with the eyes of faith, Gordon helps us move from seeing Calvin as a hero to seeing the True Hero, Jesus himself, whom Calvin loved and served.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Matt Holliday's blog

The passionate Cardinals fan in me has been very careful during this recent spate of good play; I've been known to jinx my teams (are Calvinists allowed to believe in jinxes?) and very much want my Cards to get to the playoffs. Of course, if they play the Phillies with their four lefties, against whom the Cards bat .223, they won't be in the playoffs long. But as the 2006 team demonstrates, the key is getting there: from there, anything can happen.

I ran across Matt Holliday's blog--Matt is a pretty strong Christian, although he doesn't talk about his faith here. Anyway, thought I would link it for the Cardinals fans out there who didn't know about it. I think one of the great things is how many professing believers there are on the Cards; of course, it starts with El Hombre, but there are several others. It's a lot different from the teams from late 1970s with their rampant drug abuse.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lucas sermons at FPC Hattiesburg

Again, for those who'd be interested, my sermons are current being posted at Sermon Audio. You can find them here.

Back on Calvin Blog Again

For those who'd be interested, this is another week of Lucas on Calvin on Ref21 Calvin Blog. You can see the first two posts here and here.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Praying Life

One of the best books that I've read recently is Paul Miller's A Praying Life. I had quoted from it a few days ago, but that does not sum up the impact the book made on me. I've read a lot of books on prayer, but I've not read one as practical and thought-provoking, realistic and hopeful.

In 32 short chapters, Miller draws the reader into his praying life, which means drawing us into his life. In so many books on prayer, I feel like the prayer expected is formal, orderly, technique-driven (i.e. the acronym ACTS). I can pray like that--in fact, I often do each morning as part of my morning worship. But at least for me, such prayer often feels divorced from my life once I leave my study. Miller freely describes the messiness of his life, especially connected with his physically challenged daughter Kim, and helps the reader envision how praying happens in the midst of a real, messy life.

But even more, Miller shows us that praying means come to a Father who loves us, his own blood-bought children. And since we are children, we are helpless--which is why we come to our Father: we recognize that we can do nothing without him. But since we are children, we should be unrestrained--like my children, who constantly burst into my conversations with my wife expecting me to care for their immediate needs. My kids don't wait for an appointment; rather, they rush into my presence with their needs and requests. Why don't I live that way with God my Father?

There is a great deal else I took from this book--most notably, because I can't change my kids but because God can change my kids, rather than trying to change my kids through the force of my words, I'm taking my concerns to God and asking him to change my kids through the power of his Spirit. Specifically, I've begun praying Scripture for my children in the areas in which I perceive their greatest needs--"Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil 2:4)"; "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil 4:13)"; "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Prov 15:1)." It is part of praying through my life and hopefully by God's grace develop a praying life.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. There are few books that are life-changing; this is one of them.

Monday, August 03, 2009

SEC Football...the lack of prestige

I know that I'm not suppose to tackle sensitive topics now that I'm in the Deep South...but I find it striking that ESPN research has developed a "prestige rating" for every major college football teams. According to the websiteESPN's Prestige Rankings are a numerical method of ranking the best FBS college football programs since the 1936 season. Point values were assigned for certain successes (win a national title, earn 25 points) and failures (get your program banned from the postseason, lose two points).

And according to the rankings based on this system, the SEC only has ONE team in the top ten (Alabama at no. 6). Now, granted, they have a stranglehold on positions 12-16 (Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, Florida). So, you could say, five teams in the top 16 positions. But the Big Ten has THREE teams in the top 11 (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State). And the Big 12 has THREE teams in the top 7 (Oklahoma [no. 1], Nebraska, Texas). So, in terms of the best college football teams in history, those teams are not in the SEC, but in the Big Ten and Big 12.

Notice that this has nothing to say about the current best teams or best leagues (although everyone would agree, I'd think, that the SEC was down last year and that the Big 12 was the dominate league). But it does speak to the quality and prestige of certain leagues and how valuable those teams are in the areas that count the most: national championships and clean programs. And those programs historically have not been in the SEC....

Hope those ain't fightin words!