Oct 20

Calvin-A Guide for the Perplexed, by Paul Helm ????

This book is written by one of the up-coming stars in the world of Christian philosophy, being both reformed in his thinking, and a philosopher by trade. He currently teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. This book is rather short for the task that Paul Helm attempts, in that he tries to show who the “real” Calvin really is. No attempts at historical revisionism is made. Most the time, Helm discusses Calvin’s thought regarding God, the trinity, the person and nature of Christ, delving only shortly into those items most commonly associated with Calvin, i.e, predestination and particular redemption. All in all, Helm points out the Calvin tends to not be as harsh around the edges as many in Reformed thinking make him out to be. It is amazing how many sects of Reformed thought readily quote Calvin, without trying to understand the nature and character of Calvin. It is true that Calvin’s theology underwent further development following his death, as would be expected. The question of whether the typical characature of Calvin described by TULIP would hold. It is Helm’s thinking that such theology does follow from Calvin, though Calvin never fully developed the theology named after him. Interesting discussion about Covenant theology was also engaged, again without absolute certainty that Calvin’s approval would be forthcoming. A final conclusion of the most important characteristic of Calvin’s thought, that of the majesty and sovereignty of God, were emphasized. Although the book ready in a somewhat thick and stodgy fashion, it reflected excellent thought of the writer, and helped me see Calvin in a moderately “mellower” light.

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One Response to “Calvin-A Guide for the Perplexed”

  1. Uncle Dennis says:

    It is good to point out that Calvinism and Calvin’s thinking are not synonymous.

    Calvin had a good background in that he was the student in Paris of John Major (the earlier one, not the former P.M. of Britain) who was a “nominalist”. Nominalism would appeal to magic-wand Christians who see no particular need for a Logos to underlay physical reality. Nominalists considered rational theory to be merely a convenient way of cataloging the observations about nature, a way of “saving the appearances” in much the same way that the telephone book saves everyone’s phone number. The problem with nominalism is that it is a manifestation of empiricism, the outlook on the world that eschews rational theory. Without a rational theory, one is left with a bunch of dots and nothing connecting them into a deeper picture of reality. Why would nominalism have been popular in the late Middle Age? Because it was a reaction to the rationalism of the scholastics, tracing back to Aristotlean armchair physics.

    Many of the people in the Middle Age who were called nominalists were not actually; they were realists, and I think Major probably would have better fit that category. Science in our time is based on a realist outlook on the universe. Instead of rejecting reason it finds a need for both observation and reason in the effort to discover the truth about the creation. A realist view, in contrast to a rationalist view, of creation would theologically view it as a contingency of God. Robert Boyle, the early scientist, reflects this view in his voluntaristic theology. The creation need not by logical necessity be the way it is; God could have created it differently. Consequently, it is not possible to deduce what the physical world is from a set of axioms using logic. One must observe the world to see what it actually is and build one’s theories about the world in conformity with observation. While there is a tug and pull between reason and observation (theory and experimental data), those who recognized that both were essential were the realists, and they later came to be known as scientists. John Major and hence John Calvin stood in that tradition, though a more nuanced review of Calvin would show that he was also influenced by nominalist thinking to some extent. How this plays out in his major theological themes goes beyond the scope of these comments!

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