Spirituality of John Calvin
Spirituality and Social Ethics in John Calvin: A Pneumatological Perspective. By Paul Chung (Sueng Hoon). Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000. 232pp. ISBN 0761817425.
In an age when “spirituality” is the watchword of the day, Paul Chung’s book offers a helpful study of the place of the spirit in John Calvin’s theology. In it, he not only corrects some of the most glaring misconceptions of Calvin’s thought, he also recovers a notion of the spiritual life that is a refreshing alternative to the anemic spirituality so prevalent today. John Calvin is often associated with legalism, individualism, and dogmatism: Chung offers an altogether different portrait. Tracing the doctrine of the Spirit throughout Calvin’s writings, he draws attention to the social nature and dynamic character of Calvin’s vision of God, world, and humanity.
Calvin’s understanding of God is fundamentally social and socializing. Within the trinity, the Spirit is the relational bond that unites the Father and Son. It is also the ordering and vivifying power within the creation. Chung writes, “The Spirit, which Calvin stressed in trinitarian context, is the fountain and source of all creature’s lives. God poured life into creatures and sustains their lives through divine power. All living things are in the power of the Spirit” (18). The same relationality that the Spirit manifests within the Godhead overflows into the Spirit’s role in the creation.
In human beings, the Spirit is not only the source of life, but also the communicator of new life. The Spirit engrafts Christians into Christ. According to Dr. Chung, Calvin understands “union with Christ pneumatologically” (44). Without the work of the Spirit, Christ’s benefits would not be available to human beings. The spirit effectuates both justification and sanctification, pressing humanity back toward the order and vitality of the creation they had abandoned and betrayed.
The relational and dynamic nature of Calvin’s theology is most apparent in Chung’s discussion of the relationship of the Spirit to the law and the church. The law provides the basic structure of the cosmos. It communicates the natural law, setting out our obligations toward both God and our fellow creatures. Yet, as scripture is barren without the inspiration of the Spirit, so the law is powerless without it. The Spirit illumines the dynamic purpose and provides the inner meaning of the law, which may be summarized simply as love. Revealing the connection between Calvin’s understanding of law and Spirit, Chung shows that, for Calvin, the law is dynamic and relational rather than static and legalistic.
The church, also, exists only by power of the Spirit. According to Calvin, it is the Spirit that knits the church into the body of Christ, and in the Lord’s Supper it is the Spirit that brings Christians into the presence of Christ. Moreover, connecting the work of the Spirit in creation with the role of the Spirit in the church, Chung argues that, for Calvin, “the church has the task to constitute a new society, i.e., to regenerate society” (106). Therefore, in the chapter on the church, Chung also examines economic and political ethics. In each case, he presents Calvin as an advocate of solidarity and community. Economic and political life are spiritually significant in the sense that they move us toward or away from proper relationship with God and one another.
In the end, this volume not only presents a sympathetic and enlightening view of Calvin’s thought seen through the lens of pneumatology, it also recovers an understanding of spirituality that is prone to neither individualism nor sentimentality. Chung notes that, when dealing with Calvin’s thought, “it is necessary to recognize and to investigate spiritual experience, not only in terms of the individual, religious dimension, i.e., the so-called interior life, but also in terms of its integration with the historical, social, and political realms of human life, i.e., outward life” (3). From this perspective, spirituality and social ethics cannot be divorced because the Spirit is the dynamic, ordering force at the heart of the creation and the transformative, humanizing power in the heart of the believer.
Dr. Chung offers a timely book that contributes to our understanding of the relationship between spirituality and social ethics through a close reading of Calvin’s theology. The book is difficult to read, partly because English is the author’s second language. It is probably not accessible to the average undergraduate or even seminarian. The effort, however, will reward the persistent reader.
Adjunct Professor of Religion, Davidson College
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING/SUMMER 2003, VOL. 3, #2.