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Calvin’s Manual on Wrestling

During the summer the Institute is posting in this space each month a review of a recent book that we commend as a good resource for reading about the Reformations of the 16th century. This third review is by James Cubie, a member of the Company of Teachers and Associate Pastor for Christian Formation at Leesburg Presbyterian Church. The first review by Eric O. Springstead can be found here and the second review by Ann White can be found here.

A review of Bruce Gordon’s John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2016)

Jacob – the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham – is alone, and about to enter the Promised Land. That night he wrestles with God until daybreak.  Jacob will not let go of this “stranger” until he receives a blessing.  A blessing is given; Jacob receives a new name – “Israel”; and the story of God’s covenant with his people, goes forward.

Bruce Gordon’s John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography, is a story not only of Calvin’s wrestling with God in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, it also is a story of how generations after Calvin studied this manual on wrestling, and made it part of their story of God’s covenant with his people.  It is a far bigger story than I imagined, and Gordon’s biography of Calvin’s book has given me a deeper appreciation of just what it means to wrestle faithfully.

Gordon does not presume a specialist’s knowledge on the part of the reader, though you will come away with all the benefits of his knowledge of Calvin, the Institutes, and those who followed, without feeling that you have to read beyond what he’s put together.

After a concise, but thorough, introduction of Calvin, the man, and how the Institutes developed over several years, we hear the stories of:  How American pastors and theologians read Calvin; how the great Dutch theologians – Kuyper and Bavinck – read him; why Karl Barth and Emil Brunner warred over their interpretation of Calvin; and then these two, utterly fascinating chapters:  How Calvin was read in the context of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, and how he is now being read in China.

There is much to be won from Gordon’s book, but I took away the following:  To use some football terminology, we cannot do an “end run” around Calvin, and we should not be ‘Calvinists’ so much as we should be inspired by Calvin’s wrestling in the Institutes.

It is hard to think of a theologian who wrestled more faithfully with Scripture than Calvin.  We may disagree with some of the “moves” he made, but in order to do so, we have to entitle ourselves to that disagreement through careful study that is just as passionate, thorough, and faithful.

Calvin would never have wanted us to be ‘Calvinists’:  He did ask, after all, to be buried in an unmarked grave, and certainly didn’t want his Institutes to become the replacement tombstone, or burial site, that we visit.  Calvin would want us to wrestle with God in prayer as we read his Word, and in that way to receive the blessing God has for us, as we seek to move forward in our place and time.

Gordon’s magnificent book will give you a taste for that work, and we will have more than enough and much to be thankful for, if we take these lessons into our hearts and minds.

Rev. James F. Cubie

Member, Company of Teachers, Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington

Associate Pastor for Christian Formation, Leesburg Presbyterian Church

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