Cover Image: An Explorer's Guide to John Calvin

An Explorer's Guide to John Calvin

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Member Reviews

This originally appeared at The Irresponsible Reader.
IVP Academic's website describes the Explorer's Guide Series as:

    Anyone who has ventured into new territory knows the importance and benefit of having an experienced guide. Discovering the classics of Christian theology is no different.
    The Explorer's Guide Series acts as a guide for those who are exploring some of the great Christian texts and theologians from the church's history.
    Written by scholars with years of expertise, these volumes will acquaint readers with the sometimes unfamiliar context in which these classic texts were written and help readers navigate the rich yet often complex terrain of Christian theology. New and experienced readers alike will benefit from these volumes as they continue on their journey of faith.

This volume focuses on John Calvin, the Genevan Reformer. Yudha Thianto has been introducing students at Trinity Christian College to Calvin for years. Now he aims to bring an accessible overview of his life and thought through this book.

The first part of this book focuses on the historical context and the person of Calvin. Why do people still read him today? Why is he so important—or at least why is he regarded as such?

After sketching out why Calvin's worthy of study, Thianto gives a brief (34 page) biography of Calvin. I've read a handful of full-length biographies of John Calvin, and I learned a thing or two from this.

Thianto follows this biography with a FAQ about Calvin—addressing several important questions and controversies about him and his teaching. Several parts of that FAQ were impressive, and I appreciated his approach to it (he did duck a couple of typical controversial points that are brought up—but it's safe to argue that those are for less introductory works). Then he spends a chapter focusing on Calvin as a pastor. It covers some of the material from the biography, but from a different angle—and it covers a lot of additional material, too. Whatever Calvin's legacy may be, this chapter addresses what was likely the most important part of his life to him.

A little more than half of the book is spent on the book Calvin's best known for. Thianto spends a chapter talking about the different editions the book went through, where Calvin was in his career when each was written, and discusses some of the major differences between editions.

The final version was the 1559 edition, which is composed of four books/parts. Thianto spends one chapter on each book—describing the flow of thought, some important arguments made, and the major doctrinal teachings.

This is not an easy work to summarize and condense into a little over 100 pages, and I'm sure some will say Thianto glossed over or skipped something important—he undoubtedly did. But he also covered most (if not all) of the essentials). Something like this part of the book would be great to have for someone diving into the book for the first time.

First, I really like the idea for this series, and hope to get my hands on other volumes. Naturally, I think someone as ill-understood and intimidating as Calvin is a good subject for this kind of book.

I appreciated Thianto's approach to Calvin, the misunderstandings surrounding him (although he doesn't cover all of them), and his writings. His experiences in the classroom have given him a solid understanding of those things that need to be covered for someone's initial/early exposure to the Reformer, and it shows.

As this is supposed to be a guide for those with little-to-no exposure to Calvin, I can't complain about the lack of depth displayed on some issues—and I really wouldn't want to, anyway. The only thing that jumped out at me to make me wonder about the book is a point in the conclusion where he suggested that different beliefs about the Trinity are equivalent to differences regarding sacraments or predestination and that Calvin would see them as such. It was a minor point in the conclusion, and I think the overall point was sound—but the Trinity isn't something Calvin would put on the same level as a debatable point of doctrine.

This is a great resource—a fantastic introduction to Calvin and a handy guide to reading the Institutes for yourself. If you're curious about Calvin and don't want to do the heavy lifting required by a full biography and/or reading his Institutes, I'd strongly recommend picking this up and giving it a read (and hanging on to it for future reference).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from InterVarsity Press via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.
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As someone who considers myself to be reformed, this book was a natural draw for me and I am so very glad that I read it. Yudha Thianto’s writing is very accessible, engaging, and interesting. If Calvinism or John Calvin’s theology is new or different for you, this is a great book to learn about John Calvin as a person and how his theology was shaped by his readings of scripture. If you’ve ever struggled with reading Calvin’s Institutes, the second half of this book works towards simplifying and summarizing the theology Calvin taught in the Institutes. I wholeheartedly recommend this book and have already preordered it myself. Thank you to NetGalley for an advanced copy in exchange for this review!
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To start, I do not usually read biographies or books dedicated to one individual because they tend to be longer, and I focus more on the theology of individuals instead of events from their respective lives. But this book is intriguing because it is not a traditional biography. As the title says, it is an explorer's guide, which is a very appropriate name! 

First off, I enjoyed how the book was divided into two distinct parts. The first part is about John Calvin as a person, and the second is a broad overview of his most famous work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. 

My favorite aspect of the first part of the book was the section with frequently asked questions about John Calvin. I recognized many of the questions that Thianto answered from conversations with friends about Calvin and his theology (yes, I am talking about TULIP and predestination). There were many answers to questions that taught me new things about Calvin as well. 

Thianto does a great job going through the four books of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. He summarizes the essential aspects and highlights the context and logic of Calvin's writings. The book's second part, which focuses on the Institutes, is an excellent overview of Calvin's work without going too in-depth into the "nitty-gritty." 

Overall, I thought Yudha Thianto's Explorer's Guide to John Calvin accomplishes its goal. It is an easy-to-read, short, focused work for anyone interested in Calvin as a man and theologian to read. I would recommend it to anyone interested in John Calvin’s life and/or theology.
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I love to read and discuss doctrine, theology, and the Reformation. I've sought to learn from Scripture, biographies, history books, and theological texts. Yes, I've even tackled Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (1551 French Edition) which means I didn't come to this book ignorant of who Calvin was or his many contributions to the church. For those of you who are new to Calvin, Yudha Thianto provides an unvarnished look at the events that shaped this sixteenth-century Reformer's life and ministry before proceeding to provide a sweeping overview of his theology. Since the Institutes are so expansive (something the author addresses at length in chapter 5), anyone may benefit from Thianto's summary of the doctrines contained in the four books of Calvin's 1559 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion because they’ll either serve to familiarize or remind them of the doctrines contained therein. Better yet, to a deeper understanding of God and a life led to glorifying Him.

Part One: Calvin the Man
1 Why John Calvin?
2 Who Was John Calvin?
3 Frequently Asked Questions About Calvin
4 Calvin as a Pastor

Part Two: A Guide to Institutes of the Christian Religion
5 Editions of Institutes of the Christian Religion
6 Book One of the Institutes
7 Book Two of the Institutes
8 Book Three of the Institutes
9 Book Four of the Institutes


In the Indonesian language, my mother tongue, there is a saying whose English translation roughly means, “If you don’t know a person, you cannot love them.” The implication behind this saying is that loving or understanding people requires taking the first step and making the effort to get to know them. But once we know them, we can love them quite well. In this chapter, I intend to write a brief overview of Calvin’s life so that you can know him better.

Calvin was supportive of the close relationship between church and state, but he emphasized that the two institutions are not to be mixed into one. He had a strong voice in the government of Geneva, but he clearly maintained that his job was to be the pastor of the church. He had a close relationship with the syndics and other members of the Genevan city council, working together for the good of the community without confusing the two.

Calvin’s intention in dedicating the Institutes to Francis was to show the king that his movement was not the same as that of the Anabaptists. He wanted to demonstrate the distance between his cause, under which Christians could still be good citizens, and that of this radical group.

In criticizing Rome’s standpoint on what he viewed as five additional and unnecessary sacraments, Calvin plainly calls those sacraments—confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, and extreme unction (or the last rites)—false. Besides being the visible sign of God’s good will toward us in our salvation, sacraments must also be the seal of God’s covenantal promise to his people. In his mind and in light of his reading of Scripture, only baptism and the Lord’s Supper fulfill those functions. Sacraments must be established by God, he maintains.
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