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Monday, April 13, 2009


Calvin's Central Concern: The Majesty Of God

A Review of John Piper, John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2009)
ISBN: 978-1-4335-0182-1 59 pp. $7.99

Reviewer: Forrest W. Schultz

There have been many well-meaning Calvinists who have given an enormous emphasis to the sovereignty of God with apparently little thought to the question of "What kind of God is it Who is sovereign?". They very often propound the doctrine of election in such a way as to make it appear that God is foolish or malevolent or unrighteous or irrational (or some combination of these). They make it appear that they are only concerned with the sovereignty of God and have no concern for the character of God. Such a man may think that he is following Calvin in regarding the sovereignty of God as the central fact about God. Is such a man correct?
In a recently published book John Piper propounds the thesis that John Calvin's chief concern was the glory and majesty of God. His book is entitled John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God. Piper has also adopted this concern -- this passion -- of Calvin as his own concern, and it is the very reason he has written the book, namely to persuade others adopt it also.

He says right from the start (p. 13) that this passion of Calvin's -- this concern for the majesty of God -- is missing from today's Christians. He quotes this alarming observation made by David Wells: "It is this God, majestic and holy in his being...who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world". He follows this with a quote from Lesslie Newbigen: "I suddenly saw that someone could use all the language of evangelical Christianity, and yet the center was fundamentally the self, my need of salvation. And God is auxiliary to that...I also saw that quite a lot of evangelical Christianity can easily slip, and become centered in me and my need of salvation, and not in the glory of God." Piper concludes the first chapter with this wish: "May God restore a passion for his majesty in our day."

The first example Piper uses to support his thesis is Calvin's response in 1539 to the letter written the previous year to the leaders of Geneva by Cardinal Sadolet attempting to win them back to the Roman Catholic Church. In this response Calvin says to Sadolet: "Your zeal for heavenly life is a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God." (p. 16, italics his) Piper comments that "even precious truths about eternal life can be so skewed as to displace God as the center and goal." He concludes the discussion by quoting from another remark by Calvin where he avows that his aim in life is to "set before man, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God." ( p. 16, italics his)

Piper quotes B. B. Warfield saying this about Calvin: "No man ever had a profounder sense of God than he." (p. 16, 17) After quoting from G. Vos the Reformed insight that Scripture's root idea is the pre-eminence of God's glory, Piper goes on to conclude that "It is this relentless orientation to the glory of God that gives coherence to John Calvin's life and to the Reformed tradition that followed. Vos said that the 'all-embracing slogan of the Reformed faith is this: the work of grace in the sinner is a mirror for the glory of God.' Mirroring the glory of God is the meaning of John Calvin's life and ministry." (p. 17, italics his)

Returning to his reply to Sadolet, when Calvin came to the doctrine of justification by faith it is very significant to see what most concerns him about the attacks upon it: "Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished." (p. 17, italics his) Calvin in his other writings elaborates upon his concern for Rome's extinguishing the glory of Christ in other false Romish doctrines: Rome had "destroyed the glory of Christ in many ways -- by calling upon saints to interecede, when Christ is the one mediator between God and man; by adoring the Blessed Virgin, when Christ alone shall be adored; by offering a continual sacrifice of the Mass, when the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross is complete and sufficient; by elevating tradition to the level of Scripture and even making the word of Christ dependent upon the word of man," (p. 18) Finally, hear Calvin's answer to why it is that we are carried about with so many strange doctrines: "Because the excellence of Christ is not perceived by us." (p. 18)
Believing Calvin to be correct in his estimation, i.e. that the guardian of Biblical truth is a vital concern for the excellence and glory of God in Christ, Piper is concerned about the shift away from doctrinal fidelity that is bound to occur in today's man centered Christians. Surprisingly he does not mention the great departures from sound doctrines that HAVE been occurring in evangelicalism for at least a half-century, and which is most notable today among the so-called "emerging" church.

Finally, let us look at Calvin's conception of Holy Scripture. It is noteworthy that ALL of Calvin's writings -- letters, tracts, sermons, books, commentaries, lectures -- are EXPOSITIONS of Scripture! (p. 46) And the reason for this was the very high view Calvin had of Scripture. And, this high view is once again explicable by the centrality of his concern for the majesty of God. Piper says that, for Calvin, the relationship beween the majesty of God and the Word of God is to be explained in this way: "The Word mediated the majesty; and the majesty vindicated the Word." (p. 27) "Calvin saw the majesty of God in His Word." (p. 49) He also exhorted other pastors to see as their goal enjoining the hearers "to obey the divine majesty of this word." (p. 49) The final section of the last chapter of Piper's book is entitled "The Divine Majesty of the Word", which begins with these words: "The key phrase here is 'the divine majesty of this word'. This was always the root issue for Calvin. How might he best show forth for all of Geneva and all of Europe and all of history the majesty of God." What a great way to end a book!

I am convinced that Piper is right. I urge everyone to read this book, which will not be difficult or time-consuming because it is both very well written and very short -- only 59 pages. The only criticism I have of it is that when Piper italicizes words, he does not tell us if they are his italics or Calvin's italics or the italics of a source he quotes who is referring to Calvin. For this reason, in this review the only thing I could do is just to say "his" italics just to show you that they are not mine but I am sorry I cannot tell you whose they are because Piper does not say.

Piper tells us what needs to be done. Now what we need is someone to tell us how to make it happen -- how do we get today's man-centered and self-centered christians to repent and become vitally concerned about the majesty of God.


  • At Tuesday, April 28, 2009, Blogger Kent said…

    Have you seen the new resources posted at Among other things, you’ll find links to a 97-volume collection of material written by or about Calvin, including all of his commentaries, the Institutes, 10 biographies, and 20 volumes on the history of Calvinism, among other things. I thought you might be interested:

  • At Tuesday, April 28, 2009, Blogger Forrest Schultz said…

    I suggest checking it out. I did a little bit of that but not nearly enough to decide what to think of it overall. Listing the 500th Calvin anniversary conferences is a great idea. I saw some good critiques of bad stuff on Christian Was very disappointed with what were called "Calvinistic Cartoons": where's the humor?? That is all I had time to look at.



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