Pencil in need of sharpening
By John Calvin
Translated by Robert White
Banner of Truth. 208 pages. £14.50
The book majors on four of Calvin’s sermons on ‘how to confess Christ and maintain the integrity of one’s faith in a hostile environment’, reworked by him for publication and now translated into modern English. Also included are a short exposition of Psalm 87, and three letters, the very lengthy last of these a reprint of an older translation (Beveridge, 1850s).
Two burning issues of Calvin’s day dominate: may true believers living in ‘Popish lands’ attend Catholic masses (with ‘fingers crossed behind their backs’, so to speak), and/or should they seek to relocate to a Protestant country? The dust jacket (rightly) states that the principles involved in these questions are still ‘contemporary’, with ‘pressure to conform to non- or sub-Christian religions and cultures’.
An excellent service
I like the fact that most of these letters are translated into modern, down-to-earth English — in contrast to the last section, where numerous sentences run into six or more grammatically intense lines, and the vocabulary is far from simple.
It almost sounds incongruously earthy at times — it’s scarcely beautiful prose — but White is trying to translate and communicate Calvin’s arguments as clearly and simply as he can. He has done us excellent service here. Great!
I also like the inclusion of the selected footnotes, for those less familiar with the historical context. This suggests that the book is intended for a readership broader than pastors or historical theologians.
After a while, however, the topics do become a little repetitive, and the last section is much less digestible: serious effort! And I can’t get away from the feeling that, despite the dust jacket’s comments, this will not really attract the attention of many new readers.
I would really have liked, maybe, a short essay demonstrating clearly how contemporary these issues are. Think of Muslim Background Believers, for example: how far can they participate within the mosque or the Islamic community? Or, is going to Mass in Calvin’s day equivalent to participation in ecumenical co-operation nowadays? Not that such an essay should seek to answer such questions, but they could have been flagged up as points of modern-day application to think through.
So I think this will remain rather a specialist book, mainly for historical interest, a bit pricey, though nicely presented.
former research chemist, now pastor of Tuckingmill Reformed Baptist Church, Camborne, Cornwall