Review: Calvin and the Calvinists (Paul Helm)

Overview:  early summary of the Calvin vs the Calvinists debate but excluding the Barth factor.

Application for today:  Good early rebuttal against some Federal Visionists who sometimes tend to pit Calvin against Calvinists.

This is an early response to the line of argument that said Calvin taught the sweet doctrines of the Reformation until the Puritans came along and ruined it. Paul Helm responds to RT Kendall’s book on Calvinism. While Helm vindicates Calvin, that is secondary in my opinion. The book is a fine, short read and gives helpful ways of thinking about Christ’s work.

Unity of Christ’s work of intercession and death. 

The question of the hour: Did Calvin teach Limited Atonement? Kendall takes Calvin’s silence as a “no.” Helm rebuts by showing what the atonement actually means for Calvin. It produces actual remission (Helm 13).

We are going to jump ahead and examine a claim by Kendall: Christ died for all but intercedes for the elect. Helm points out that such a view means Christ’s death wasn’t enough. The efficacy had to be completed by his intercession. But this is not what Calvin said: Christ discharged all satisfaction by his death (Inst. II.xvi.6). If that’s true, then what remains to be accomplished by his intercession (Helm 43)?

The Christian and Conversion

Kendall said that Calvin saw faith as God’s act; it is passive. The Puritans saw faith as man’s act, and Kendall quotes Inst. III.13.5 for proof of the former. Helm, however, shows that Kendall moves too quickly. Calvin said in that passage that faith as regards justification is passive, but not faith simpliciter.

The final problem Kendall has with the Puritans is their emphasis on “preparationism.” He sees them as proto-Arminians, as though man can prepare himself to be saved. But this isn’t what the Puritans meant. They denied man could prepare himself, but they affirmed that man could find himself in a state of being prepared (that is, by using means such as hearing the Word, etc.).


I read this book in about an hour. It is short and clear. Highly recommended


Review: Delivered from the Elements

My earlier notes here.  A potential problem with Leithart is that most people who read him either “join his camp” or “attack his camp.” I don’t want to do either. I actually think the book is quite good.  It has a lot of promise for evangelism and missions and steers a path through the problems with New Perspective on Paul. It is also a good book on metaphysics.

Main idea: the fundamental physics of every society consists of purity, pollution, and ritual (Leithart 12). If you “relocate” the sacred then you change the structure of society.  Goal: a successful atonement theology must show how Jesus’s death and resurrection is the key to history.

One interesting point is that he draws attention to the word “nature.”  Yes, the NT uses “substance” language, but not the kind usually thought.  The NT use of “nature:” a moral order rooted in the differences of the sexes (27).  When Paul uses “nature” it is neither Aristotelian or Stoic.  Gentiles do not have the Torah “by nature” but they still can do what Torah commands (sometimes). Physeis is closely linked to nomos, so of law means a change of the elements (29).

Here is the problem: given what is wrong with the world, how does Jesus’s death as my substitute fix the world?  Leithart will defend substitutionary atonement, but he does not the problem in most popular accounts.  If the goal is to cash Jesus out as the credit card on my account, then did it matter that he was a Jew?  Framed another way: how does Christ’s dying for me deliver humanity from ta stoichea?  You have to be able to answer this question.

“The elements (ta stoichea) are features of an old creation that Christ has in some way brought to an end” (25).  In both Gentile and Jewish worlds they are structures and symbols that involve distinctions between purity and impurity, sacred and profane.

Yahweh’s intention is to destroy the fleshly physics.  When he introduces Torah he is continuing his cutting away of flesh.  The problem with flesh is that flesh spreads pollution (100). As Leithart notes, “Torah cannot kill flesh without killing the man or woman who bears that flesh” (102).

Torah provides a way for Israel to be Yahweh’s people among the division of nations.  It regulates the flesh but does not fix it. As long as Israel is under Torah she is under managers. It is spiritual and we are flesh.  If we come to it it will kill us.


(1) The judgment is not a  mere verdict of righteousness, but it is the very act by which it is accomplished (181). “It is a favorable judgment in the form of resurrection.” It also makes more sense in the historia salutis than in the ordo.  Justification was an act in Jesus’s life (1 Tim. 3:16). And through it we are delivered from the realm of death and stoichea to the realm of Spirit.

Thesis: Paul denies that the Spirit comes through the mechanisms of Torah (193). Flesh and Torah are mutually defining (Romans 7:1-6).  Paul’s argument: to be reckoned righteous is to receive the Spirit.  We receive the Spirit who does acts of power by hearing the message [as Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Humanity is supposed to grow into maturity, but it cannot do this while remaining under the elements and Torah.  The elements are beings who guard and manage children. They could be angelic beings, since Jews received Torah through angels and Gentiles were under beings that are “by nature no gods” (Gal. 4.8).

While stoichea regulate the elements of social life, and a dissolution of stoichea would dissolve the universe, Jesus gives the Spirit who is the new fundamental element of social life (219).  As the Spirit spreads, stoicheic divisions give way to a new order of the Spirit. Instead of a pyramid society of slaves, Paul sees a single body.


The book has several appendices of varying interests.  My main problem with the book was it could have been about 50 pages shorter.  The chapter on Presbyterian Buddhists was neat, but could have been reduced to a footnote.

Review: Berkouwer, the Work of Christ

Berkouwer follows the movement of the Apostle’s Creed in showing forth the work (economy) of Christ. Berkouwer wants to maintain the unity of the Person and Work of Christ, so he sees the Incarnation as contingent upon man’s fall.

Message of the incarnation:  not the elevatio of human nature but its deliverance and restoration by him whom the father had sent (29).

Christ’s Office

Pivotal point:  Christ’s name, Anointed One, is in analogy with the office-bearers of the Old Testament (62). Contra Rome, there is no need to mediate the munus triplex to us, since Christ doesn’t need a mediator (78).  Christ is fully present in all of his work, so there is no need for a vicarious representative (79). The Mass:  the sacerdotal office replaces the munus triplex. Lost is the historical progression in Christ’s work from humiliation to exaltation.  And for the kingly office, while Rome says Christ is head of the nations, he isn’t really king in his church (85).

Half of the book was a remarkable analysis of key Dutch Reformed positions in the modern age.  The chapters on the Offices of Christ and the Sessio are outstanding.   The other chapters on reconciliation are good, but nothing unique about that.