Book Review: On The Christian Life

On The Christian Life, by John Calvin

I find it somewhat surprising to say that I can unreservedly appreciate this book.  It must be admitted, of course, that this book is written from a different perspective and in a different way than I would do so [1].  That obvious comment aside, though, this book is remarkably warm and human, and not the sort of thing I would expect to read from someone with the fearsome reputation of John Calvin.  Indeed, one wonders where it is that Calvin’s followers got into the sort of harsh asceticism that they are now known for given Calvin’s rather harsh views towards that approach expressed here.  Calvin is, as always, deeply influenced by a knowledge of and interest in Greek philosophy, and his writing about Christian stoicism while adopting a view of moderation and self-restraint here is certainly contrary to the spirit of his own time as well as our own.  The fact that I can even somewhat endorse Calvin’s approach to moderation and an acceptance of trials without an ascetic confidence in our own righteousness is somewhat surprising.  I’m not sure if I want to get in the habit of endorsing the worldview of Calvin in any respect, but it certainly applies here.

This short book of about fifty pages is divided into five very well-organized chapters.  As a parenthetical aside, it is worthwhile to note that here, as in all of the writings by Calvin I have read, Calvin is nothing if not a very disciplined and well-organized writer, and even where I disagree with his perspective, he at least writes coherently.  The first chapter of the book provides a discussion of the life of a Christian man with a great deal of scriptural arguments exhorting the reader to follow it and a censure of those false Christians who refuse to imitate Christ.  After that the author summarizes Christian life in terms of self-denial, not least because we are not our own but belong to God and Christ (2).  After that Calvin discusses bearing our own cross as one aspect of self-denial, urging a reasonable degree of self-understanding of when our trials are the result of our own unrighteousness and when we suffer for the sake of godliness and can expect blessings in the world to come (3).  This naturally leads Calvin to muse on the future life and the purposes of the afflictions that we receive from God (4) as well as a discussion of the moderation with which we should enjoy the blessings we receive in this present life (5).

It must be freely admitted that this is a philosophical book that touches on the Bible (quite often) but which is more like a very well-spoken contemporary book on Christian living than it is like a sermon message with a great deal of scriptural citation and exegesis.  This, then, is largely the product of human reasoning, but as far as human reasoning goes, it is very reasonable and moderate human reasoning that seeks to counteract our own selfish tendencies while at the same time avoiding that false modesty and false abnegation that inflames our pride even as it mortifies our body.  Perhaps it was the closeness of Calvin to that sort of spirituality within Catholicism that led him to reject that sort of approach as well, which has unfortunately been associated with many contemporary Calvinists.  Calvin’s intent to honor God and to encourage that same honor and respect among his followers is something that ought to be appreciated, even if Calvin’s knowledge of and obedience to God’s laws were undoubtedly limited in scope, especially when it came to those laws that would have made him appear to be a Jewish Christian rather than the Hellenistic sort he so obviously was.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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11 Responses to Book Review: On The Christian Life

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Institutes Of The Christian Religion | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Belgic Confession Of Faith And The Canons Of Dordt | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: The Blood Of The Cross | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Pingback: Book Review: Just Do Something | Edge Induced Cohesion

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