Nico Vorster’s The Brightest Mirror of God’s Works: John Calvin’s Theological Anthropology assembles a series of largely independent chapters, some previously published, emphasizing theology and anthropology as “intimately interwoven” (1). This is appropriate, since Calvin’s belief in the applicability of understanding God to how we understand ourselves is reflected throughout both his academic work (especially disputes with opponents) and in his pastoral work, including his sermons, commentaries, and his Institutes.
Vorster begins by asking why anyone should want to study Calvin now given his “premodern” character. If Calvin is “methodologically outdated and no longer able to address modern questions” (2), then Vorster is obliged to rescue his relevance, first in the introduction, then at the conclusion of each chapter, and finally in the book’s conclusion. These are the weakest parts of the book, however, and most feel perfunctory and unpersuasive. The book is better approached as a summary of Calvin’s own work and arguments on a range of subjects: the created structure of the human being, sin and the bondage of the human will, union with Christ, the boundaries of human knowledge, the anthropological roots of society, and women and the church in society. Some common themes emerge from Vorster’s work that provide running threads through the chapters. For example, Vorster repeatedly considers the role of the imago Dei (image of God), what it means, to what degree it remains after the fall, and what it obliges in us toward one another. He also continually refers to the relationship of soul and body as examples of two realms unitis no confusis (united but not mingled), like the two kingdoms, or two natures in Christ.
Vorster’s work relies mostly on Latin primary sources, but his summaries can also be derivative. As a summary of Calvin’s ideas, the book should appeal to all scholars; as an attempted recovery of Calvin for our time, however, the book’s value will depend on the reader. In his effort to recover Calvin for a contemporary audience, Vorster rightly argues that historical theology is the root of contemporary theology and emphasizes that Calvin’s theocentrism in no way denies human agency. While the former is true of anyone of Calvin’s stature, and the latter obvious to anyone who has read Calvin, are these enough to win over those prejudiced against the past? If the reader is in agreement with Vorster that there are uniquely modern problems that “premodern” theologians can only address through speculation and extrapolation, then one will find the start of such pursuits here. If, on the other hand, one is disinclined to historicize theology, or consider one’s own challenges substantially unique in history, one can still appreciate the book for its summaries and engagement with relevant academic literature.
As much as Vorster wants to advocate for Calvin’s relevance, he offers some surprisingly stunted critiques, however. For example, “[Calvin’s] use of Platonic anthropological distinctions indicates that he did not escape the sixteenth century’s cosmological and philosophical understandings of human nature” (20). One must ask: if Calvin were to “escape,” where would he go? Similarly, Vorster feels obliged to tell the reader after his summary of Calvin on body and soul, “Clearly, the human body is not animated by a non-biological entity such as the soul” or “Human history is testimony to the dangers inherent in hierarchical forms of thought” (29), as if Calvin imagined the soul as an actual mechanism, or he was blind to the moral implications of hierarchy. To the contrary, Calvin deploys hierarchy against injustice in his famous deployment of the “lesser magistrate” against tyrants (Institutes 4.20.31).
Likewise, one wants to ask that if Calvin could have eschewed his own contemporary (and Pauline) interpretations of the woman not merely as helper but also subordinate (167–168), where should he go and why? Vorster argues that while gender relations in Reformed churches are not consistent with Calvin’s own teaching on gender, they would be consistent with his teaching on creation, the imago Dei, vocation, and so on. As Vorster puts it, “Calvinist churches might be forced to move beyond Calvin himself to develop a doctrine . . . that fits within the Calvinist theological corpus” (180). As with other recent studies in Calvinania, we get a kind of progressive revelation instructing us how to be more Calvinist than Calvin.
The problem is not that the author offers some predictable musings about how Calvin may yet be relevant for “colonialism,” “eco-devastation,” or “economic exploitation,” but that he implies that they would fall deaf on Calvin’s “premodern” ears. To the contrary, passages in the Bible condemn abusing animals (Proverbs 12:10. Exodus 23:4, 5) or the land (Deuteronomy 20:19), and both instructions fall under the overarching law of Sabbath rest. Calvin surely preached on and exegeted such passages. Calvin was also concerned with luxury and economic exploitation, as well as warfare and political power. Instead, the reader is expected to attribute “ecological disaster” to noetic shortcomings after the fall. Postlapsarian failings, Vorster says, explain why we do not understand “the sensitive interrelated effects of ecosystems and the effects of emission gasses on the planet” (118). At best, that’s unpersuasive. At worst, it’s an epistemological category blunder or descent into scientism.
Vorster is mindful of methodology: understanding Calvin’s historical progression of revision and development; the Renaissance and Reformation call to return to the sources (ad fontes), intellectual “revolutions” against Aristotelianism, or Calvin’s own axiomatic thinking, for example. For better or worse, however, the summary usually overwhelms the context in a work of this type and Vorster’s is no exception. The Brightest Mirror of God’s Works should stand on its merits as a careful study of Calvin’s ideas, but reading it makes one concerned for the future of historical theology and its ability to stand apart from the politics of exceptionalism prevalent in our time.
Glenn Moots is professor of philosophy and political science at Northwood University.
Date Of Review:
June 30, 2021
Nico Vorster is Extraordinary Professor of Systematic Theology at the Theological Faculty of the Northwest University in South Africa.
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