Interpreting John Calvin

Interpreting John Calvin

Leith, John H

Interpreting John Calvin

By Ford Lewis Battles

Grand Rapids, Baker, 1996. 377 pp. $29.99.

Interpreting John Calvin is a worthy tribute to a great student and disciple of John Calvin, Ford Lewis Battles. Battles laid the foundation for the revival of Calvin scholarship in the last forty years by his indefatigable research as well as his personal commitments. His Library of Christian Classics edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion provided not only a new translation but a very useful scholarly apparatus that has stimulated Calvin research and inspired several generations of Calvin scholars.

Ford Lewis Battles was not only a scholar but also a person of great human quality and integrity. He was supported by a brilliant and committed wife, Marion Davis Battles (1924-1994), who was also an accomplished scholar. His life and work is worthily honored by the publication of Interpreting John Calvin, a book that is well edited, handsomely printed with a good picture of Battles and an appropriate dedication to the memory of Marion. The volume is edited by Robert Benedetto with introductory essays by I. John Hesselink and Donald McKim. The foreword is written by Richard C. Gamble, who was director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies, which sponsored the publication. Benedetto, McKim, and Gamble were all students of Battles, and John Hesselink was a friend. They write in gratitude for Battles’ person as well as in appreciation for his scholarly labors, especially for his investigation of the origins of Calvin’s life and work. Much of the work Battles did was tedious and required great linguistic skill as well as personal commitment. The primary intention of the introductory essays is to honor his memory. They rightly point out that Battles was an historian rather than a theologian, but there is little critical assessment of his work. No one volume can do everything; but it can rightly be asked if Interpreting John Calvin would have been a more appropriate honor for Battles if it had contained some critical appraisal of his work. The Library of Christian Classics edition of the Institutes is a monumental achievement, but it would not endanger Battles’ status for readers to be reminded that scholars are now raising questions about his translation.

Battles’ Calculus Fidei is printed in full in this book, and reveals his knowledge of the minute details of the Institutes. Yet many theologians have found its argument unpersuasive. Battles had a deep fascination with mathematics, and he sought to find a mathematical model in Calvin’s theology. He outlined Calvin’s theology in a clear mathematical calculus that is persuasive on the surface. His emphasis upon the antithetical character of Calvin’s thought and on the way Calvin’s thought arrives at a middle way between two extremes is true to an extent. Yet I know of no evidence that these mathematical models provided the methodological principles in the light of which Calvin did his theological thinking. Battles’ position will have to be established over against Calvin’s absorption in the exegesis of Scripture and his great appreciation of the theological heritage.

Battles is also well known for his emphasis on the “found poetry” of Calvin’s theology. “Found poetry” are those “passages whose elevated strophic style arises out of the spontaneous flow of thought and feeling, not cast in such forms by deliberate rhetorical intent.” Battles was aware, as many Calvin scholars have not been, that in the most intense moments of Calvin’s theological discourse “the shackles of a prosaic style fall away in flights of poetry, of hymn, of song.” The elegance of Calvin’s theological work is lost on many, Battles believed. He hoped that recognition of this quality in Calvin’s work would counteract the “sweetly siren strains of cheap, trite grace, strummed and sung by our young Christian troubadours.” Battles wanted the disciples of Calvin today to know the virility of the Calvinist faith. This faith was not the dry prose that some have regarded traditional Calvinism to be. Serious theology must be doxological.

In addition to the studies in the origins of Calvin’s theological work and the nature of his theological work, Interpreting John Calvin includes several of Battles’ essays on piety, luxury, and license in Geneva. This handsome book is a worthy tribute to Ford Lewis Battles, and it makes available his studies of Calvin for students today. It is indispensable to Calvin students and should be in every Reformed minister’s library.


Union Theological Seminary Richmond, VA

Copyright Theology Today Apr 1998

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