Reflections on History and Theology

Tag: Reformed

John Calvin on “True Happiness”

Doesn’t it seem like we are always chasing happiness? We desire fulfilling and lucrative work. We want not only comfortable but also pleasant accommodations. We expect to have discretionary income to enjoy Friday night pizza and trips to the beach and the symphony. We believe these things make us happy. 

John Calvin considers a similar mindset in his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where he discusses the Sermon on the Mount:

We know that not only the great body of the people, but even the learned themselves, hold this error, that he is the happy man who is free from annoyance, attains all his wishes, and leads a joyful and easy life. At least it is the general opinion, that happiness ought to be estimated from the present state.

HEL219079 Portrait of John Calvin (1509–64) (oil on panel) by Swiss School, (16th century) oil on panel 41.5×28 Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva, Switzerland © Held Collection Swiss, out of copyright

The American dream seems to promise such a way of life, and it is easy to buy into this thinking, being submerged so deeply in the culture we live in. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to confess that these are the very things that I believe I should enjoy and that the lack of them makes me feel as if I am missing something. 

Calvin points to Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as a foil to the perennial human desires to find happiness in this life, and there he addresses what Christ taught his disciples about “true happiness.” Far from leading “an easy and prosperous life according to the flesh” as the way to happiness, Christ offers the way of the cross. He wants “to accustom his own people to bear the cross.” As Calvin notes, 

It is impossible that men should mildly bend the neck to bear calamities and reproaches, so long as they think that patience is at variance with a happy life. The only consolation which mitigates and even sweetens the bitterness of the cross and of all afflictions, is the conviction, that we are happy in the midst of miseries: for our patience is blessed by the Lord, and will soon be followed by a happy result.

Happiness is found in patience. This is the counterintuitive message of Calvin—or, as he would say, of Christ. Patience tempers our hopes for what can be achieved or secured in this world and drives us to find God’s greater blessing in a world beyond our own. Such thinking goes against “the common opinion,” for “carnal reason will never admit what is here taught by Christ.” But those who would follow Christ, Calvin warns, “must learn the philosophy of placing their happiness beyond the world, and above the affections of the flesh.”

As Calvin puts it, what Christ teaches is not “imaginary”—though we are certainly tempted to think it is, since it is not tangible in our temporal experience. Rather, it is a “fact,” a fact “that those persons are truly happy whose condition is supposed to be miserable.” Thus, in the Beatitudes, the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, 

not only does Christ prove that they are in the wrong, who measure the happiness of man by the present state, because the distresses of the godly will soon be changed for the better; but he also exhorts his own people to patience, by holding out the hope of a reward.

As we feel pulled and pushed always to pursue greater happiness in this world, the Christian expectation is to be marked by patience. We are to expect disappointment and trouble and opposition. We are not to be surprised by bad news (cf. Ps. 112:7). But we are to patiently wait on the Lord and look ahead to the “true happiness” that Christ preached about and that Calvin here reminds us of. Though it goes against the grain of our culture—and of our own inner appetites—patience is the path to “true happiness.”

Jane Dawson’s John Knox

Jane Dawson, "John Knox"Of the sixteenth-century Reformers, John Knox (1514/1515–1572) is known as a fiery soul. Though he called John Calvin’s Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ,” he and Calvin were quite different in terms of dispositions, gifts, and callings. Despite a number of differences, they saw themselves as colaborers in the Reformation, and while Calvin is the better known Reformer, largely owing to his voluminous writings, Knox nonetheless made his own lasting impact on the Reformation as it developed in Scotland and England and beyond.

Jane Dawson offers a critical biography of Knox in her book simply titled John Knox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015). A professor of Reformation history at the University of Edinburgh, Dawson aims to dispel the notion of Knox as “the dour Scottish Reformer” and reveal, partly through the use of some more recently discovered sources, “the many different shades within Knox’s character that make this complex man such a fascinating subject” (4). Dawson also seeks not only to give a “fresh and more nuanced account of Knox’s life” but also to illuminate readers on the Reformation in Scotland, England, and parts of Europe as it intersected with his journeys. What follows are some key themes and insights from Dawson’s book about Knox.

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“Jonathan Edwards and Scripture” Book Notice

Jonathan Edwards and Scripture Book CoverOver the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Doug Sweeney in putting together a new multicontributor volume on Edwards and the Bible, and I’m pleased to say that the book is now available. The volume is titled Jonathan Edwards and Scripture: Biblical Exegesis in British North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), and it includes contributions from a number of Edwards scholars who have helped further the conversation on this important topic.

The book builds on the work that Sweeney, especially, has done over many years in the form of lectures, articles, and books, culminating in his Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015)—see my review of it here. It also furthers some of my research on Edwards, particularly in my book Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2014).

To give you a taste of this new volume, here’s an excerpt from my introduction to the book:

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J. H. Bavinck Unraveling “The Riddle of Life”: A Review

Why are we here? Where did we come from? Who are we? What is the meaning of life?

These questions are common enough in our twenty-first-century context. And yet, the latest bestseller is not always the best place to find helpful answers to these questions. One place to go to think through these and related questions about the problems of our world is J. H. Bavinck’s The Riddle of Life (trans. Bert Hielema; Eerdmans, 2016).

This thin volume (less than one hundred pages) was first published in 1940 and was written some time before that. The author, J. H. Bavinck, was a Dutch missionary and missiologist who served in Indonesia and taught in the Netherlands. He was also a nephew of the eminent theologian Herman Bavinck, author of Reformed Dogmatics. And his book offers winsome wisdom on common questions from a past period to ours.

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Recasting Sola Scriptura: Allen and Swain’s Reformed Catholicity

Allen and Swain - Reformed CatholicityIn my review of Mark Noll’s book, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, I described Noll’s discussion of how American colonists transformed the sola scriptura principle of “the Bible supreme” into “the Bible only.” That story recounts some negative consequences of such a shift and also raises certain theological questions beyond the purview of Noll’s book. In Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2015), Michael Allen and Scott Swain make a similar observation about Protestants, but they look at it from the viewpoint of theologians, pointing to dangers with sola scripture from a Reformed point of view and addressing some of the very theological issues raised in Noll’s book (though not interacting with his work directly).

What exactly do they mean by the term catholicity? They explain that they understand catholicity not in the narrower sense of Roman Catholic but in the early-church sense of the church catholic, or the church universal. As J. Todd Billings describes in his afterword to the book, this approach to theology is catholic in the sense that “it gives a Trinitarian (Nicene) account that holds to the cosmic centrality of Jesus Christ as the mediator between Creator and creation (Chalcedonian)” (152). Those who appreciate the discipline of church history can likewise appreciate their desire to root their modern theological program in the theology of the ancient church councils.

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John Owen: Why We Need a Robust Theology of the Holy Spirit

John Owen FrontispieceSome people refer to the Holy Spirit as the “neglected” member of the Trinity. Certainly, all three persons in the Godhead have been given short shrift at different times and among different groups in the church. But in their history, Protestants can find many who explored the nature and work of the Spirit, though perhaps none more thoroughly than the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian John Owen (1616–1683).

In his later years, Owen penned several treatises beginning in 1674 that were later drawn together in one volume under the title Pneumatologia, or Pneumatology. Some have called this book the best work on the Holy Spirit in the history of the church.

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Kyle Strobel’s Reimagining of Jonathan Edwards’ Theology

Kyle Strobel - JE's Theology - A ReinterpretationWhat model of the Trinity did Jonathan Edwards employ in his theology? How did Edwards’ Trinitarianism shape the rest of his theological program? How did Edwards’ emphases on the end for which God created the world, religious affections, and the remanation of God’s glory cohere in this New England divine’s creative mind?

Kyle Strobel, Assistant Professor at Biola University, explores these questions—and many related lines of inquiry—in his work Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation, vol. 19 in T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Ian A. McFarland, and Ivor Davidson (London: T&T Clark, 2013; source: publisher). In Strobel’s volume, readers will find an erudite treatment of Edwards’ theology that explores and reframes the details of his thought in the light of his Trinitarian and redemptive emphases.

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Anne Bradstreet on Pilgrimage

Anne BradstreetWe live in a world of suffering, though those in the twenty-first–century West admittedly enjoy many material, medical, and technological luxuries that make life easier than it is for many around the world today. Still, when we suffer, our gut reaction is often to complain and ask, “Why?”

Nearly four hundred years ago, a Puritan housewife faced severe trials and suffering in the wilderness of colonial America. Anne Bradstreet (1612/3–1672) too sought answers about illnesses, traveling dangers, and the deaths of young grandchildren. As she reflected on the difficulties in her world, she framed her thoughts using the metaphor of pilgrimage.

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Scott Manetsch on Pastoral Ministry in John Calvin’s Geneva

calvin-company-of-pastors-manetsch-789x444Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Scott Manetsch, Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (and one of my former profs), give a lecture on “Pastoral Collegiality and Accountability in Calvin’s Geneva.” This lecture is part of the “Scripture and Ministry” lecture series at the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding.

In the lecture, Manetsch made good on years of painstaking research on John Calvin and his associates and successors by discussing some of the takeaways for the church today. Avoiding both antiquarianism and presentism, he first gave listeners a rich description of pastoral ministry in Geneva as molded by Calvin and his fellow pastors and then discussed ways we can learn from them—positively and negatively—for today.

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