Book Reviews

Founders Journal 78 · Fall 2009 · pp. 29-32

Book Reviews

John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety, edited with translations by Elsie Anne McKee (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), pb., 360 pages. ISBN 0-8091-4046-2

Reviewed by Ray Van Neste

This is a finely done and very useful book. Calvin scholar E. A. McKee (Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship at Princeton Theological Seminary) here collects various writings from Calvin which demonstrate his piety or spirituality and his pastoral concern. This is a very useful point since many seem to conceive of Calvin as merely a cold academician and forget that he served as a pastor first and foremost. The books preface aptly states, “Professor McKee’s Calvin, by contrast [to negative views such as was just mentioned], is above all a caring pastor and teacher of pastors, and his piety is pastoral piety” (xiii).

The book is divided into five parts: 1) autobiographical orientation to John Calvin, 2) theological orientation, 3) liturgical and sacramental practices, 4) prayer, and 5) piety in the Christian life, ethics and pastoral care. Professor McKee has included a good biographical sketch at the beginning of the book so Part One of the book provides the reader with the key parts of Calvin’s writings where he spoke about his own experience, which was rare. Included are an excerpt from “The Reply to Sadoleto,” personal letters (including one about his wife’s death), and his preface to the commentary on the Psalms. Part Two draws from the Institutes for definitions of “piety,” “faith” and “the Church.” Part Three draws from Calvin’s use of the Psalms, specific liturgies, a catechism and discussions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Part Four draws from Calvin’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, some of his occasional prayers and prayers from sermons and lectures. Part Five draws from the Institutes, sermons, letters and other writings to document Calvin’s approach to ethics and his counsel to those facing suffering and difficulty.

This book provides a good way for introducing oneself to Calvin or to fill out one’s picture of him. The writings included provide much insight to issues of today. The book is useful in pastoral theology to show how one pastor, especially blessed by God, built his pastoral ministry on careful theology and lived this out before his people calling for the development of real godliness. One finds here no precedent for the CEO pastor to busy to be touched by his people. I close with the editor’s summation of Calvin’s pastoral piety:

“So what was Calvin’s pastoral piety? Intensely personal but never individualistic. Woven through with the great doctrines of justification by faith and regeneration of life, the glory of God and providence. Undergirded with prayer, proclaimed in word and shared in sacraments, sung in psalms. Embodied in action and demanding respect for the neighbor and solidarity with those who suffer in spirit, mind, or body. Not an easy or comfortable piety; it asks for one’s all. Sturdy and down to earth, lived in the mundane context of daily work, yet always conscious of the presence of the transcendent God and the high calling of living before God. An energizing, lifelong response to God’s liberating claim, God’s righteous mercy, God’s compelling love, a belonging that is all our joy. “We are not our own…. We are God’s” (34-35).

May we remember one who has spoken the Word of God to us, and considering his way of life, imitate his faith (Hebrews 13:7).

Dr Ray Van Neste is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies and Director of the R. C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University in Jackson, TN.


Trueman, Carl R. John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, Great Theologians (Aldershot, Hampshire, England, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), pb. 132 pages.

Reviewed by Nathan A. Finn

Many historians and theologians consider John Owen to be the greatest theological mind among the seventeenth-century Puritans. Recent years have witnessed a number of impressive studies of Owen by scholars in both Great Britain and North America. Carl Trueman, an academic administrator and church historian at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, is one of those scholars. His John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man is the most recent addition to Ashgate’s impressive Great Theologians series.

Trueman begins by asking whether or not it is appropriate to call Owen a Puritan. Building on the insights of historians of Reformed theology, especially Richard Muller, Trueman contends that it is better to classify Owen as a proponent of Reformed Orthodoxy, a less vague term than Puritan (though Trueman agrees that Owen was ecclesiologically a Puritan rather than a Separatist or Baptist). Though Owen was a minister, he was more than an exegetical theologian; he was well versed with the historical theology of the Patristic, Medieval, and early Reformation eras and dialoged with a variety of thinkers in his published works. Trueman also argues that Owen was a Renaissance generalist who read widely and was interested in numerous topics, though the bulk of his gifts were directed toward the advancement of English Reformed theology.

Many of Owen’s works were polemical in nature, including his works devoted to the attributes of God and Trinitarian theology. Socinianism, a form of Unitarian theology, was making inroads among dissenters in mid-seventeenth century England. Like other Reformed Orthodox theologians, Owen argued from the scripture principle and in dialog with the ecumenical creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries that God is Triune, existing eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s salvation of sinful humanity occurs within the context of a Triune God who has revealed Himself in history and acted decisively to reconcile sinners unto Himself.

Like previous generations of Reformed Orthodox theologians, and contra-Arminianism, Owen framed his soteriology around a series of divinely initiated covenants between God and man. Through Adam, humanity has broken a pre-fall covenant of works between God and the first man. But God takes action through the person and work of Christ to redeem all of those who have been chosen in Christ in a covenant of grace dating to before the creation of the world. Owen avoids speculation about the relationship of that covenant to God’s eternal decrees, focusing instead on the role each member of the Godhead plays in saving all of God’s elect. Owen’s covenant theology was representative of the view of salvation that prevailed among Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Particular Baptists during the seventeenth century.

Also like other Reformed Orthodox theologians Owen strongly defended the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Against Roman Catholics, Socinians, Arminians, and even some Amyraldians like Richard Baxter, Owen contended for the importance of Christ’s active and passive obedience to God’s law and the imputation of His righteousness to all those who are in union with Christ. Against the emerging High Calvinism of thinkers like Tobias Crisp, Owen argued against eternal justification by claiming that Christ’s atonement for the elect is federal (representative) and covenantal, actualized at the moment of justification rather than at the time of Christ’s death.

There is much contemporary evangelicals can learn from Owen’s theology. Like Owen, in our doctrinal articulations we must cling tightly to sola scriptura and reformational hermeneutics without discounting the (fallible) insights of tradition, particularly the great creeds of the church. In our own preaching and polemics we must guard against modern versions of the same errors with which Owen contended. We must reject the crypto-Unitarianism of so many evangelicals and articulate a robust Trinitarian theology. We must repudiate the anthropocentric understandings of salvation associated with Arminianism, or more often, semi-Pelagianism masquerading as Arminianism or revivalism, and defend God’s sovereign prerogatives in the salvation of sinners. We must counter the dismissal–or at least downplaying–of justification by faith among many so-called evangelicals with a clear preaching of a reformational understanding of such doctrines as sin, justification, imputation, and sanctification.

Trueman is a first-rate historical theologian and his treatment of Owen is appropriately nuanced and contextualized. Trueman’s argument that Owen is an English representative of Reformed Orthodoxy makes a significant contribution to Owen scholarship. Unlike studies that focus on a single aspect of Owen’s theology or his spirituality/piety, Trueman highlights the worldview and theological method of the man who produced all of those influential treatises, sermons, and other works. This book will likely be a starting place for all future scholarly treatments of Owen’s thought.

For those not already acquainted with Owen, this book is probably not the best place to start. Trueman’s book is written for scholars in the field, so it would probably be best to begin with a more introductory study like the recent collection of essays titled John Owen: The Man and His Theology (P&R, 2003); Trueman is a contributor to that volume. Of course the best place to begin is with Owen’s works themselves, available in numerous editions through publishers such as Banner of Truth, Crossway, and Christian Focus. The reviewer recommends beginning with the short classic On the Mortification of Sin in Believers.

Dr Nathan A. Finn is Assistant Professor of Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.