Calvin for Armchair Theologians

by Christopher Elwood

Paperback, 2002



Call number




Westminster John Knox Press (2002), Edition: 1, 182 pages


In this concise introduction to Calvin's life and thought, Christopher Elwood offers an insightful and accessible overview of Calvin's key teachings within his historical context. The trials and travails Calvin encountered as he ministered and taught in Geneva are discussed, with special attention given to theological controversies associated with the Trinity and predestination. Elwood indicates the ways that Calvinism developed and its influence in today's world. Illustrations are interspersed throughout the text and humorously illuminate key points providing an engaging introduction to this important theologian. Written by experts but designed for the novice, the Armchair series provides accurate, concise, and witty overviews of some of the most profound moments and theologians in Christian history. These books are essential supplements for first-time encounters with primary texts, lucid refreshers for scholars and clergy, and enjoyable reads for the theologically curious.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member DubiousDisciple
by Christopher Elwood


This is another book in the Armchair Theologians series provided to me by Logos Bible Software for review. I found this one just a little more dry than other books in the series–more of a “just the facts, ma’am” presentation–but it did warm up nearer the
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end. For someone looking for a quick intro to Calvin, his life and very basic theology, this is a handy little book.

In some ways, Calvin gets a bum rap. Followers through the years have taken his tangential findings on election and turned them into full-blown predestination theology, a way of thinking that many Christians find utterly repulsive. Calvin also was a product of his times, so his hard-line stance against what he considered heretical ideas was not out of place for his era. His actions, such as burning opponents at the stake, today might raise a few eyebrows but Christianity has evolved. His insistence that curiosity which leads to questioning church doctrine garners a special place in hell doesn’t jibe with today’s inquisitive liberal scholars.

But Calvin didn’t consider himself a theologian; he felt that theology was “faith seeking understanding.” Is God really the cause of pain and suffering, as Calvin’s detractors often concluded from his doctrine? No. Have faith, Calvin would say. Somehow, from God’s point of view–which is far above ours–all things work out for good. Besides … we, as poor sinners born in iniquity and corruption, transgress against God’s holy commandments without end, yet God in his grace has chosen us. Well, some of us. The rest are predestined for hell.

Calvin was a dedicated Christian; of that, I’m convinced. He honestly felt his understanding of God was not harsh, but soothing. His legacy has become so complex, his ideas battered around so much, that we have lost sight of the God-fearing man he was. So, pick this little book up and get to know him better.

Westminster John Knox Press, © 2002, x pages

ISBN: 978-0-664-22303-8

Reviewed on Logos Bible Software
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LibraryThing member justindtapp
This book could also be titled "John Calvin in Four Hours." It is a brief biography, a summary of his religious views, and a look at his lasting impact on Western thought.

Apparently little of Calvin's personal correspondence remains for historians to pore through today. He didn't keep a journal or
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write an autobiography. But he wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion (about 1/3 of this book is devoted to explaining Calvin's views from ICR), wrote some speeches, and engaged in some debates.

Calvin started out on the road to the Catholic priesthood but was redirected when his father began to have falling-outs with the church. Calvin studied to be a lawyer, was well versed in humanism and making arguments through rhetoric, learned Greek, and joined other humanists who were pushing for reform of the Catholic church.

Calvin's role as a minister in Geneva, instrumental in shaping and enforcing the state's religious laws, was maybe most educational for me. He's famous for his debate with Servetus, which led to Servetus's condemnation to burning at the stake. Most people today are unable to fathom 16th century Europe, with city-states under Church authority competing for power with one another and debating doctrine and heresies; a Europe faced with the Ottoman threat from the East and Protestant-Catholic divisions within. Calvin was very influential in the Protestant movement, helping write liturgies and defining doctrine.

Elwood doesn't explore the historical context in an in-depth manner. He briefly describes it and summarizes Calvin's life inside it. Elwood concludes the book with a look at Calvin's "theological family tree." He makes the claim that today's liberals from Reinhold Niehuhr to today's liberation theology teachers all ultimately spring from Calvin's lineage. In that sense, Calvin has been very underappreciated.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. Very accessible and informative. Lacks the depth you might want in a biography, but I look forward to reading Elwood's "armchair" biography of Luther as well.
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LibraryThing member david__clifford
I recently downloaded the audio book from and am listening to it in my car as I drive to and from work. This is a good overview but not as good as Beeke's edited book "The Soul of Life: The Piety of John Calvin". I am over half done.
Trying to be well informed on Calvin's life
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during this 500th year of his birth.
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Physical description

182 p.; 8 inches


0664223036 / 9780664223038
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