Category Archives: “Calvin & Coffee”

All of Christ for All of Us

Andy is across the pond, reading Calvin, drinking coffee and writing about it. I’ve enjoyed his posts immensely because I really like hearing Calvin from Calvin (which is often different than a macho, hearsay kind of Calvinism that floats around American evangelicalism, by the way…).

I remember being told that Calvin’s Institutes can be some of the richest devotional reading available. That might be hard to believe until you come across a paragraph like what follows. I came across it in another book and was glad that I did (and I was drinking coffee too!).

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him.” If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.” II.16.19  [1]

I grew up in a Christian tradition that almost solely emphasized Christ’s death for me. I never would want to minimize anything about the cross of Christ. However, I’ve only recently come to understand the significance of all of Christ’s person and work for all of our need. Not just his cross, but his life, his humanity, his obedience, etc. is salvific for us. Our union with all of him is salvation for all of us.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 527.

Calvin & Coffee: Word — Spirit

[This is part of an ongoing series of posts I am calling “Calvin & Coffee”]


I just finished ch. IX in Book I of Calvin’s Institutes.  Here we see the insistence that Word and Spirit are conjoined in “an inviolable bond” [1].  Calvin has in his sights what we might would call “charismania,” an excessive emphasis on the Holy Spirit and supernatural phenomena to the neglect of orderliness, sound doctrine, and the honoring of Scripture (trends apparently associated with the Libertines in Calvin’s day):

For of late, certain giddy men have arisen who, with great haughtiness exalting the teaching office of the Spirit, despise all reading and laugh at the simplicity of those who, as they express it, still follow the dead and killing letter [2].

I have written about this sort of excessive emphases in Faith Without Illusions—the chapter on Experientialism required the greatest degree of sensitivity and precision in writing—spiritual gifts and the more mystical elements of Christian faith are such controversial topics.  I have friends who lean in opposite directions when it comes to experiential manifestations and emotional sensations in the life of the church… and Scripture itself demands a meticulous degree of balance.  Calvin’s own sensitivity and balance on the issue is impressive (and so also one of his successors in the reformed tradition, Jonathan Edwards).  His objective is not to demonize supernatural manifestations per se, but to address the alarming dissociation between the Word of God and the Spirit of God:

God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display , intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it.  Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word [3].

It is strange that Word and Spirit so often tend to become a dichotomy rather than a complementary and inseparable pair in the life and history of the church.

Here is a case in point.  A young pastor approaches the pulpit and then announces, “I was going to come with a detailed manuscript for this morning, but I think I just need to tear up my notes and go with the Spirit.”

Now, I acknowledge that sometimes God may indeed lead us modify our homiletical agenda in the moment of preaching.  But so often, so-called reliance on the Spirit can be justified to forgo the hard, meticulous work of exegesis, theological interpretation, and then the careful organization of the material and its crafting into a coherent message.  But when someone announces that they are scratching their notes or manuscript, it serves as an alert of sorts that now, now that the encumbrance of prepared material is out of the way, now the Holy Spirit is really about to speak.

But where was the Spirit in the preacher’s preparations?  Was He not guiding and stirring in those unseen hours, late and early?

Again, sometimes notes do need to be torn up.  Sometimes the manuscript is to be left in the pew.  But for the most part, this “inviolable bond” between Word and Spirit has to do, for the preacher, with hard, prayerful, cognitive labor; and it has to do, for the congregation, with the hard, challenging task of diligent listening.  Sometimes the most impressive feat accomplished by the Spirit in our midst may be the enabling of minds, hearts and ears to stay attentive to the presentation of the Word.  And every preacher surely knows the desperate need for the Spirit’s help while pouring over the Word in anticipation of Sunday.

So, Word — Spirit… any thoughts from you readers?  How do you see the union of the two in life and ministry?  What disciplines or practices might we employ in the cause of keeping them together?


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960),93.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid., 95.

When Theological Work is Dangerous

[from my new series of posts entitled, “Calvin & Coffee”…]

Hazardous occupations: firefighting, police work, soldiering, espionage, high-rise construction, mining…


When we think of dangerous job profiles, “theologian” usually does not come to mind.  The stereotypical theologian wears tweed, smokes an occasional pipe, avoids manual labor, and haunts locally-owned coffee shops when not holed up in some office off the university quad.

But in reading John Calvin, I am reminded that Christian theology has been an exceptionally dangerous profession throughout the history of the church.  Many of the great works we read so casually in locally-owned coffee shops or debate so flippantly in seminary classrooms or teach so dispassionately from the lectern were written by trembling hands, the threat of death and exile ever looming over the open page.

Calvin completed and published the Institutes as an exile.  France was terribly unsafe for a young man writing a book that premised the theological enterprise on the Word of God as revealed in Scripture.  His theology is penned in the hope of eternal life in the face of possible death.  As he wrote to King Francis,

For the sake of this hope some of us are shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed, some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee.  All of us are oppressed by poverty, cursed with dire execrations, wounded by slanders and treated in most shameful ways [1].

Calvin’s writing is the result of sustained theological thinking under the ominous vigilance of the ruling ecclesiastical and political authorities.  His work was in some ways squeezed out of him, perhaps, by such frightful pressures.

In addition to those external conflicts, Calvin did much of his writing while seriously ill.  Though first published in 1536, multiple editions of the Institutes appeared over the next two decades, the final version not leaving the printer’s office until 1559.  While completing his final revision, Calvin suffered dreadfully from a form of malaria.  He somehow muscled through the sickness in the hopes of bequeathing a worthy work to his readers:

Last winter when I thought the quartan fever was summoning me to my death, the more the disease pressed upon me the less I spared myself, until I could leave a book behind me that might, in some measure, repay the generous invitation of godly men [2].

Danger has attended Christian theology from its inception.  Calvin was not the first to write under the threat of death or to labor in the midst of personal sickness and pain.  Much of the theology of the New Testament was produced in such anxious and dreadful circumstances.  The Apostle Paul would surely have struggled to imagine his vocation as a theologian in a serene and gentle context!

So much of the entire Bible, in fact, was penned under great conflict.  The theology of Scripture is exile theology, the theology of those who cannot forget their near-death escape from Pharaoh (the Torah), the theology of those who anticipate not escaping from Assyria or Babylon (the Prophets), the theology of those who feel the breath of their enemies on their necks and hear the howling of dogs in the distant hills (the Psalms).  The theology of the Gospels is the theology of those who face the threat of synagogue expulsion, who have the claim “Caesar is Lord” ringing raucously in their ears when they know Another is Lord.

Theology is a hazardous vocation.

So how does this heritage of danger affect how we do theology today while the leaves gently fall on green university lawns or while we preach to respectable citizens in the pews amidst their yawns?

Even if the contemporary context in which we work provides safe haven for theological labor, we must refuse to forget the high price paid by the theologians and pastors who have written in darker times.  And we must remember that the times are still quite dark for so many even today.  Though I myself study theology in the shadow of a 1000-year old Norman cathedral in a charming English town, some men and women are doing theology in dirty, humid megacities, breathing in the dust and fumes from busy streets below and sweating on books written only in English which they struggle to understand.  What do these theologians have to teach us, many of whom work in settings much more similar to those of our theological forbears in both biblical and ecclesiastical history?

Theology is always a bit suspect (who among us can truly know the Triune God and write sufficiently about His beauty and power?).  And bad theology can certainly come out of bad circumstances.  But it is also quite possible that Christian theologians writing in favorable circumstances will misperceive or even distort the theological writings of the Scriptures, so many of which were penned in pain.

[1]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 14.

[2] Ibid., 3.

Calvin & Coffee… a New Daily Discipline

I am trying to get settled back into what I call my “daily disciplines.”  At this moment for me, these include prayer, the somewhat slow reading of a Psalm, Greek translation of one chapter in John’s Gospel, German translation of Bultmann’s commentary on John (at a very slow pace, I might add), an hour of Hebrew grammar and vocab, and some reading from J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines.  I am excited about adding a new one—working through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. This “discipline” will take place early in the mornings with coffee in the mug.  Yeah, the mug (I think God has given me the best coffee mug every crafted… I just can’t believe it).

image from Wikipedia

I have read chapters of the Institutes, but I’ve never started in the beginning.

What I missed was the editor’s account of Calvin’s historical background, as well as the narrative surrounding the text and its subsequent editions.  I also missed “John Calvin to the Reader,” a foreword of sorts the great Reformer penned for the 1559 version.  And I missed the “Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France.”

These are not to be missed.

The more I study Scripture, the more historical context registers in my mind as absolutely essential for understanding a text… any text.  The Institutes are no different, of course.  John T. McNeill (the editor of the copy I am reading) writes, “…at many points the work itself is alive with realization of the historic crisis amid which it was written” [1].

For most of us Protestants, what we know about Reformation history is a well-wrapped package of oversimplified notions.  Our impression of the Catholic leadership of the day is caricatured, and our impression of the noble Reformers is perhaps a bit too shiny and polished.  The religio-political scenes of Calvin’s day are largely unknown and therefore have no assistance in our reading.  For instance, who in the world is King Francis I?  Why was he persecuting the reform movement?  Who was whispering and shouting in his ear?  The Institutes so cherished by evangelical Protestants today did not arise out of a vacuum… and certainly not out of a sociocultural environment like the one in which unpersecuted, democratic Westerners work, pastor, and write theology today.  We will fail to hear Calvin’s words with their intended force and richness without growing in knowledge of the swirling flux of religious ideas and political stratagems of his times.  I have a lot of work to do….

On these series of posts on Calvin over my coffee (in the mug), I will be reporting some of the glorious (and perhaps disturbing) findings.  For this first post, I will just provide a few interesting facts about the Institutes and then offer comment on Calvin’s motivation for writing.

Curiosities from the Editor’s Introduction

Calvin wrote the Institutes in Latin.

Copies of the French edition were burned in front of Notre Dame on two occasions—1542 and 1544 (the Institutes were violently controversial from the get-go!).

Having fled the repressive regime in France (where many were burned to their death), Calvin finished the 1st edition in Basel, Switzerland.

In its final form, the Institutes is about the length of the Old Testament plus Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Why Calvin wrote Institutes

This is even more interesting to me.  His motivation for writing the work was to provide his readers a theological background suitable for understanding Scripture.  Calvin specifically tells us that he wrote these beloved chapters to enable us to better read our Bibles:

“…it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling.”

He has offered his Institutes as “a necessary tool” by which we may read Scripture.

So which comes first—the Bible which defines Theology, or Theology by which we understand the Bible?

A fitting question for the 100th blog post here at Hopeful Realism.

The answer?  I go with this one: neither.  It has to be circular.  And I will leave it at that…

…any thoughts?

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).