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Reviewed by:
  • John Calvin's Ideas
  • Jeannine E. Olson
Paul Helm . John Calvin's Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. x + 438 pp. index. bibl. $125. ISBN: 0–19–925569–5.

This is a book on Calvin's theology through the eyes of Paul Helm, a professor of philosophical theology at Regent College, Vancouver. Appropriate to a philosopher, Helm arranges the chapters of his book more in philosophical than in theological order and approaches his topics as a philosopher. Helm presents a clear, thorough, and knowledgeable consideration of those topics and authors he chooses to consider in both the medieval and modern world: God in Se and Quoad Nos, the Trinity, the Extra Calvinisticum, Providence and Evil, the Soul, Free Will, Divine Accommodation, Natural Theology and the Sensus Divinitatis, Revelation, Angels, the Power Dialectic, Equity, Natural Law, and Common Grace, and Faith, Atonement, and Time. Helm reveals an extensive knowledge of medieval and Reformation philosophy and theology.

Helm's intent is to "draw a tighter link between Calvin and medieval philosophy and theology than is usually done" (389), for Calvin had no academic degree in theology. Helm makes these medieval links without distracting from Calvin as a Protestant reformer in tune with Luther and other early Reformation theologians, who also had links to the medieval world of thought and to Saint Augustine.

Helm's central theme is to describe Calvin as freely drawing "on medieval philosophical and theological ideas where it suited him to do so while remaining critical of what he regarded as the over-subtlety and sophistry of some scholastic discussions" (189). Thus the book contains frequent references to Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and other theologians of the ancient and medieval world, as well as to modern theologians. The text ends rather abruptly — as if conscious of the page count, for which Helm apologizes — with an unexpected comparison of Calvin and Karl Barth. The clarity of the previous chapters renders a summary less necessary.

The book does what it intends to do, but its title, John Calvin's Ideas, is misleading. It implies a comprehensiveness that the author does not produce. A subtitle might have described the book's contents with greater precision so as to discourage false expectations. For instance, missing from Helm's book are Calvin's ideas about the poor and about slavery, which might have been welcome topics to [End Page 912] social historians. Missing also are Calvin's ideas on government and resistance theory, which political scientists might have expected, for Calvin chose to include them in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Missing are Calvin's views on the taking of interest and of what constitutes usury, which economic historians might have wanted to see analyzed. These topics are not within Helm's intended contents.

On the other hand, theologians and philosophers with theological interests will welcome this book, especially those theologians whose names and ideas are discussed within the text. There are many, both those with whom Helm agrees and, more commonly, those with whom he disagrees, in whole or in part.

The book has a ten-page index and a twelve-page bibliography. The latter is divided into "Sources in Calvin" and "Secondary Sources," which leads to the awkward inclusion of all non-Calvin primary sources in the section dedicated to secondary sources. One could benefit from a third category of primary sources including Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, and others.

Under "Sources in Calvin" there is only one work listed that is not in English translation, Ioannis Calvinus Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia (417). The author has indicated in his preface (vii) that sources in English are more accessible to the non-scholarly reader. Indeed they are, but this Oxford University Press book appears more comprehensible to scholars than to general readers. Scholarly convention demands that the original non-English work be cited in the bibliography and in the footnotes if non-English materials are actually used. This does not preclude the possibility of also including the English translations of these works so that the reader is aware of their availability.

Likewise, under "Secondary Sources" there is a paucity of foreign-language sources. The reader is left with the impression, perhaps erroneous...


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pp. 912-913
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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