John Calvin As Teacher, Pastor, And Theologian: The Shape Of His Writings And Thought. By Randall C. Zachman
Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin. By Randall C. Zachman


Pp. 277 , Grand Rapids , Baker Academic , 2006 , $24.99.

Pp. 548 , Notre Dame , University of Notre Dame Press , 2007 , $55.00.

With these two books, Randall Zachman successfully argues for a more nuanced understanding of Calvin as a significant Christian thinker who focused not only on theological aspects of Word and a verbally oriented gospel, but also as one who maintained a highly developed sense of the importance of image, albeit one different from his Catholic or Lutheran counterparts. This review will engage each book successively, beginning with John Calvin As Teacher, Pastor, And Theologian.

This work by Randall Zachman brings together two critical insights the author has discovered from more than twenty years of teaching Calvin. First, Calvin's aim was to teach every person how to become a responsible and faithful reader of Scripture for themselves. Second, Calvin was a ‘deeply contemplative’ theologian whose emphasis was not merely upon the Word, as is often assumed by less nuanced readers of Calvin, but also upon Christ as the living image of God (pp. 7–8). Therefore, given the above, Zachman's book divides into two primary sections: Calvin as teacher and pastor, and Calvin as theologian. To elucidate these elements of Calvin's life and vocation, Zachman follows the majority of recent Calvin scholarship in not focusing solely on the content to be found in the Institutes, but even more so draws on the vast materials available from Calvin's commentaries. This approach allows Zachman to provide a meticulous and well-informed interpretation of Calvin. It also allows Zachman to offer genuinely creative insights which should overturn widely held misconceptions of Calvin. The most notable of these is the emphasis Calvin places on image, which will be addressed further below.

In describing Calvin as a teacher and pastor, Zachman specifically notes Calvin's differing methods of communication and assumptions regarding the knowledge base of his varying audiences. The result of these is the differentiation of Calvin's method of communicating his teaching while the content of the teaching remains a unified whole. For example, in Zachman's excellent chapter concentrating specifically on the Institutes, he states, ‘The ultimate goal of the Institutes is to bring its readers to the point where they may encounter, ponder, consider, and contemplate the nature and force of each reality defined and explained by Calvin, so that they might experience and feel that force for themselves’ (p. 99). This emphasis upon each person becoming a faithful reader of scripture themselves is illustrative of the first insight by Zachman described above. However, the methodology employed by Calvin in the Institutes to achieve this is more reflective of his role as teacher rather than pastor. Zachman ably demonstrates Calvin's assumption of the reader's familiarity with classical authors among whom Plato and Cicero figure prominently (pp. 81, 96, 114–115). Calvin's regular use of philosophy and historical questions in exegesis and theological endeavours is nothing new to Calvin scholars. What Zachman does, however, is juxtapose this with certain readings of Calvin he finds in contemporary systematic theology.

It is here that Zachman disputes the claims of narrative theologians George Lindbeck and Hans Frei. Zachman states that if the intratextual assertions of Lindbeck and Frei were an accurate portrayal of Calvin ‘then one would expect Calvin's exegesis to stay completely within the context of Scripture itself … and to forego any attempt to understand Scripture in light of a world of meaning outside of it, be that world literary, historical, cultural, scientific, philosophical, or religious’ (p. 104). Zachman proceeds to convincingly argue the integral role historical assessment, linguistic analysis, philosophical argument and the impact other scholarly considerations had on Calvin's exegesis. By itself, there is little here that has not already been explicated within Calvin studies. However, juxtaposing these insights from Calvin's work with the systematic concerns of Lindbeck and Frei offer a unique contribution to the use current systematic theology makes of Calvin. Insofar as the historical argument is concerned, Zachman carefully and convincingly argues his case. However, it may be that he is knocking down a mere straw man. While Zachman's portrayal of Calvin is undoubtedly well informed, the same is not as true of his construal of either Lindbeck or Frei. Zachman appears to maintain that for Calvin's exegesis to be intratextual it must have no influential considerations other than those of the specific text of scripture itself. However, neither Lindbeck nor Frei make such a claim. Lindbeck, for example, makes ample use of anthropological and philosophical figures such as Clifford Geertz and Ludwig Wittgenstein in developing the very notion of intratextuality and engages in historical criticism when addressing the ecumenical import of Catholic dogma concerning Mary. In this Zachman neglects the necessary insight that intratextuality is not ignoring such critical devices in theological endeavours, but merely subordinating their use to the narrative framework of Scripture so as to let Scripture have its own definitive voice within the context of the church. So far as this is the case, it would seem that Calvin would agree.

Beyond these scholarly issues, Zachman also notes Calvin's more modest use of philosophy, linguistic features in exegesis and technical jargon of theologians while engaging in his vocation of preaching. Zachman ably illustrates this through numerous references to commentaries and sermons throughout Calvin's corpus. What is most illuminating for understanding Calvin's role as a pastor, however, is Zachman's analysis of Calvin's development of catechesis and his ministry among children. Zachman clearly notes Calvin's change in method of communication. ‘Calvin clearly thinks that the best way to instruct children is to set forth in a clear, brief, and simple way the central topics of pious doctrine …’ (p. 135). Here the method of pastoral instruction through the catechism is largely developed through memorized questions issued from the minister and answers which the child would memorize as response. Additionally, Calvin notes the role instruction in the home has for the Christian development of children, but also the role which the child's progress in catechesis has in nurturing the faith of the parents (p. 138).

The most interesting historical and theological feature of the book is Zachman's excellent explication of Calvin's use of the notion of image alongside word throughout his theology and more specifically his Christology. This illustrates the second insight noted at the outset of this review. Zachman's unpacks these ideas more fully in his latest volume on Calvin, but many of the insights made there have their basis in the work conducted in these essays. Zachman contrasts Calvin with Luther's overwhelming emphasis on word. He writes, ‘Calvin … understands the self-manifestation of God in terms of living images, in which the invisible God renders Godself somewhat visible to us. The Word of God works in conjunction with these living images, so that the knowledge of God comes about by what we see and by what we hear’ (p. 187). Zachman then proceeds to unfold how Calvin interprets the cosmos as an image of God and ecology as the theatre of God's glory. Such considerations do not ignore Calvin's insistence that these images do not contain salvific power due to human depravity, but Zachman does convincingly illustrate the important role Calvin accords these in the life of the justified. Though Zachman by no means ignores Calvin's ridding of human-made images from churches, he does at time appear to downplay the impact actions such as this had on Calvin's followers. One hopes these historical issues are brought under closer scrutiny in future work, but Zachman's contribution by arguing for an authentic role for images in Calvin's thought is unquestionable.

The second work offered by Zachman, dealing with Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin, is a more thorough treatise with an expansive scope in addressing the role of image in Calvin's thought. In contrast to the majority of scholars who assume Calvin maintained an unwavering and ineluctable comprehension of the invisibility of God, in this second work Zachman delves with great detail into Calvin's understanding and use of image as a theological and pastoral category. After a brief introduction to the relevant issues in current Calvin scholarship, issues of method, and a summary of the theme, Zachman divides the book into two main parts. The first part deals with living images of God as Creator and the second deals with living images of God as Redeemer. The description of Calvin's use of images to describe God as ‘living images’ is an important point for Zachman. Zachman argues that the common understanding of Calvin as removing artwork and ritual from worship to include all images ignores Calvin's distinction between living and dead images. Such images as certain artworks, icons, and the like were ‘dead’ images. That is, images devised by human effort which are of no value in ascending via revelation to the Lordship of God. By contrast, ‘living’ images are those graciously given by God for the benefit of creation and Christians in understanding and covenantal relationship.

Exemplifying Calvin's use of image in creation is Zachman's understanding of the relationship Calvin perceives between biblical and scientific understandings of the created order. Zachman argues that, ‘According to Calvin, the liberal sciences are for the learned, whereas Scripture is written for the unlearned: hence there can be no real conflict between their descriptions of the universe’ (p. 37). This is because of the role such images in nature play for the believer. Such images found in nature are mediate causes whose role is to lead the Christian to its ultimate cause, who is God. In this sense, ‘God does become somewhat visible’ (p. 2) in the images of creation, although not entirely visible. God's invisibility become somewhat available through mediate causes, by means of which one may ascend to a fuller understanding of God as the ultimate cause. This is also evident for Zachman in Calvin's description of the doctrine of providence. Calvin maintains that providence of obvious to all who have eyes to see, thus maintaining the universal nature of the manifestation of providence given the observer does not ‘misjudge the works of God’, although this inevitably happens due to human sinfulness (p. 77).

The more substantial section of the book is the second part engaging Calvin's understanding of the living images of God as Redeemer. The extensive nature of Zachman's treatment of the topic prohibits a thorough examination of every relevant point. Therefore, the issues of sacrament and the removal of ceremonies and ornation from worship will compromise the material for this brief survey. Interestingly, the first mentions of sacrament in Calvin's thought do not appear in Zachman's discussion of church, eucharist, or baptism. Rather, they occur in Zachman's portrayal of Calvin's understanding of the prophets. Zachman initiates the discussion with a Christological emphasis. ‘[Calvin] argues that although God has never revealed Godself to anyone other than through the Son, the manifestation of the Son took diverse forms before the coming of Christ’ (p. 134). These representations through the Son occurred in the prophets through dreams and visions which may be described as ‘having a sacramental role’ (p. 137). This sacramental description occurs for Zachman because of Calvin's understanding of ‘the principle of analogy between the sign and the reality signified’ (p. 137). It is this principle which allows for a broader use of ‘living’ images in Calvin for the purpose of fostering a more profound understanding and growth in the piety of the Christian church. The analogy between symbol and reality signified allows Calvin to understand the sacraments of baptism and eucharist as ‘the primary visual confirmation of the Gospel’ (p. 306). In this sense, Zachman states, ‘A sacrament is therefore the visual representation of the grace and favour of God in an external symbol’ (p. 306). This means that for Calvin the sacrament as a ‘living’ image entails the images as the means by which ‘the Lord descends’ to the Christian, but also by which the Christian may ascend to greater understanding and more faithful worship of God (p. 306–308). This intricately argued and documented understanding of Calvin allows Zachman to overcome previous understandings of Calvin as not having a substantive role for image or symbol in either doctrinal formulations or the life of piety within the church.

In addition to the positive description of Calvin's theology of images and symbols, Zachman does not shy away from the controversial issue of Calvin's removal of ceremonies and ornation from the ecclesial life of worship. Zachman argues that Calvin was not opposed to artistic expressions of historical events as tools for teaching and exhortation (p. 373), but rather since the pious should always maintain the image of God in Christ as their foremost visual purview, such artistic items as portraits, or extraneous ceremony in worship would distract the believer from focusing on the ‘living’ image of God in prayer and sacrament. The result is an unwarranted emphasis on the created order, rather than the divine. Zachman argues that ‘Calvin's concern to simplify the worship of God is directly related to his conviction that the ostentation and pomp of ceremonies both reveals and fosters the lack of integrity in the heart of the worshipper. Once again, it never occurs to [Calvin] that such rites and ceremonies could in fact express and enkindle true faith and piety …’ (p. 392). In noting this Zachman successfully argues for a more nuanced and therefore balanced interpretation of Calvin's reformations in ecclesial worship.

One flaw in this second work by Zachman is his lack of critical interaction with Calvin. It may be argued that this is not the place of the historian, but rather the systematician. However, Zachman himself gives a place for briefly offering various theological critiques of Calvin periodically throughout the work (pp. 131–132, 226, 228, 288, 300, 330, 369). What Zachman does not do is offer a thoroughgoing description of his own critique or theological alternatives, be they modern or from Calvin's contemporaries. This is not a flaw in Zachman's research, which is at all times exhaustive and utilizing all the relevant materials. However, it does appear to be a shortcoming in Zachman's own desire to simply represent Calvin in arguing for his thesis regarding images, and Zachman's perceived need to address some issues. The result is that these critiques leave the reader wanting more of Zachman's own surmisal of the issue and constructive proposal.

These two works, when taken either together or separately, form an outstanding example of historical scholarship by one who has undoubtedly mastered the original texts of Calvin's vast corpus. Zachman recognizes the complexity in Calvin's thought, but also the keen pastoral sensitivities to be found within the reformer as well. The books accomplish nearly every goal they set for themselves and should become standard works in Calvin studies. Zachman's engagements with contemporary issues of systematic theology tend to be less nuanced, but this is not the primary aim of the books. By drawing upon the full gamut of Calvin's scholarly and pastoral works, Zachman has provided an excellent piece of scholarship and a genuine contribution to both the guild and the church.