Calvin Studies has matured in recent decades. Like other historical subdisciplines, it has taken a turn to consider the longue durée (a historical perspective alert to the “long term”) and to plot the Genevan reformer amid events that pre- and post-date him. In doing so, the influence of David Steinmetz looms large, expressed through his many students such as Susan Schreiner, David Thompson, and Richard Muller. Scholarship on Calvin has also benefitted from considering him alongside contemporaries and overlapping figures in the 16th century. He was a second-generation reformer and one of several at that. While he was and still remains the most influential Reformed theologian, he was not and is not the definition of Reformed theology. Viewing “Calvin in Context,” as Steinmetz highlighted, means perceiving his power (as well as that power’s limits and contours) more accurately.
Lyle Bierma’s latest book, Font of Pardon and New Life: John Calvin and the Efficacy of Baptism, considers Calvin in such historiographic perspective by turning to one issue and considering its shape and development across the contours of Calvin’s own life. The author has proven his skill as a historical theologian in studies on early Reformed theology, not least on covenant theology and on the shape of the Heidelberg Catechism. Bierma’s book moves sequentially from phase to phase: the 1536 Institutes; the first period in Geneva and the Strasbourg interlude (1536-1541); the second period in Geneva to the Consensus Tigurinus (1541-1548); the Consensus Tigurinus (1549); and the Consensus Tigurinus to Calvin’s death (1550-1564). Other topics arise as well. Bierma considers infant baptism in chapter 7 after moving through the entire sequence of Calvin’s development and argues that so doing matches Calvin’s own pedagogical approach to this subject (which treats it as a derivative practice that cannot be grasped apart from a range of prior beliefs).
The volume concludes with a study of Reformed confessions that bear Calvin’s influence to greater or lesser degrees. Bierma patiently shows that the Second Helvetic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism takes the “symbolic parallelist” approach that Calvin at times affirmed; God’s grace here comes parallel to the symbolic role of the sacrament. Six other confessions seem to show Calvinian influence, however, in going further to speak also of symbolic instrumentalism, including the French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism; here the symbolic role of the sacrament itself plays an instrumental role in God’s granting of grace.
Among these Calvinian elements are a parallelism, but not mere parallelism, between physical and spiritual baptism; a view of the sacrament as not only a means of knowledge and assurance but also a means of grace; a conjunction between sign and signified; the use of instrumental language to describe the sign of baptism; a middle position between an overvaluation (confusion of sign and signified) and undervaluation (separation of sign and signified) of the external sign; the phenomenon of delayed efficacy; and an insistence that baptism is only efficacious in connection with the biblical Word, the Spirit, divine election, and the response of faith. (229)
That digest sketches the main emphases of Calvin’s baptismal theology and its confessional pedigree.
Bierma alludes to a sacramental typology introduced years ago by Brian Gerrish and argues that at times Calvin commends “sacramental parallelism” while at other times he supports “sacramental instrumentalism.” Interestingly, the shifts do not occur seamlessly or smoothly from one to the other or the like (244). In fact, Bierma’s study manifests the contextual, rhetorical, and polemical shape of Calvin’s baptismal teaching. His teaching may tilt parallelist when he is concerned about supposedly magical notions of intrinsic efficacy as in the Roman Missal. When he is faced with concern for Anabaptist religion or for basic discipleship, however, he employs language that suggests a more directly instrumentalist role of the sacrament. It not only parallels God’s giving of grace but serves as the instrument of that gift. Calvin writes baptismal theology in varied contexts, and those diverse stagings mattered to him.
Twin purposes are evident throughout Calvin’s baptismal theology (passim and summarized well on 133). The sacrament signifies that grace which is given in Christ by his Spirit. Yet this same sacrament both assures and saves in so doing. It builds up trust in the gift given, while it itself conveys that gift. It is the direct conduit of God’s kindness in Christ even as it also indirectly conveys a greater clarity about the gift of Christ given unto his people. God freely sees fit to convey that gift of Christ elsewhere, employing his divine liberty, and yet God also delights to grant such mercy in and through the celebration of this divinely appointed sacrament. Bierma notes that “Calvin takes great pains to give divine liberty and sacramental objectivity equal weight” (132).
Bierma closes by suggesting a parallel analysis of Calvin’s eucharistic theology. Indeed, such a study would be beneficial (though it has admittedly been better tended already in the literature than has his baptismal theology). We might also add that a study of the theology of the preached Word would be especially welcome, if it tended to the kinds of parallelist and instrumentalist language used by Calvin to depict God’s agency and blessing therein, and even more so if it also works developmentally throughout his writing career and into the reception history of his thought in the period of further confessionalization. Such developmental attention pays dividends, and here Bierma models patient and detailed study. Often it has been said that Calvin added and expanded his writing but did precious little to modify, change, or delete his past claims. Font of Pardon and New Life complicates such a picture by showing ways in which Calvin did in fact delete or modify earlier constructions, even as he came to say rather more of baptism over time. In doing so, the book will provoke and challenge this reviewer’s own teaching of Calvin’s theology to students and, I suspect, prompt and resource many others to attend more effectively to his sacramental theology.
Michael Allen is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.
Date Of Review:
June 27, 2022
Lyle D. Bierma is P. J. Zondervan Professor of the History of Christianity at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After receiving his PhD in Religion from Duke University in 1980, he taught church history and theology at Kuyper College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for nineteen years before joining the faculty at Calvin Seminary in 1999. His research and publications have focused on the early history of Reformed covenant theology, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and John Calvin.
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