- Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (December 31, 1967)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195007433
- ISBN-13: 978-0195007435
- Product Dimensions: 8 x 1 x 5.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,251,636 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The History and Character of Calvinism
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"[McNeill] has done a great service in presenting in one volume not only an account of the life and teaching of Calvin but a survey of Calvinism down to our own day....One of the best short accounts of Calvin available, based on a thorough knowledge both of his life and writings and of modern
scholarship."--American Historical Review
"Will surely remain the standard book on Calvinism for many years to come. It deserves wide currency and careful reading."--Albert C. Outler
"McNeill has given us a very good and much needed volume on Reformed Christianity."--Leonard J. Tinterud, Theology Today
"A book that will certainly be the historical reference volume on Calvin in the English language for years to come."--Hugh Thomson Kerr, Jr., The Christian Century
"A masterful historical portrait of the whole movement of Calvinism."--Union Seminary Quarterly Review
"An excellent coverage of Calvinistic thought, its development and its expansion."--Richard Cherok, Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary
"Still the best available single volume on Calvin and Calvinism."--William Loyd Allen, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
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McNeill went over the course the Reformation took in Eastern Europe, France, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, and Britain. There was some discussion of the role of Calvinism in America, but the overall tenor of the book emphasized the role of Calvinism in Europe. Calvin was an intellectual titan and even scholars who disagreed with much of his theology were influenced by him in some respects. Most notably, this can be seen in the writings of Hugo Grotius of the Netherlands.
McNeill explains the controversies over the centuries, the synods and doctrinal assemblies, and the ecumenical movements. He correctly points out that a distinction must be made between Calvin and some of the extreme positions of his disciples over the years. McNeill believes that Calvin fostered some positive changes and ones that displayed more democratic impulses than the autocratic absolutist governments of his day.
McNeill believes that many have misinterpreted Calvin's ideas and have fallen into error. For example, he stated that Max Weber's equating wealth with the evidence of a man or woman being in favor with God was actually a perversion of Calvin's teachings. Calvin believed the community had a responsibility to help the less fortunate and that his teachings were not as associated with rugged individualism in a way that some think.
Overall, this was a very informative book. McNeill has nuanced opinions based on factual information. His findings defy some conventional stereotypes. For example, he demonstrated that John Wesley had more in common with Calvin's teachings than people realize. Calvin was so much more than just about predestination. The book was a fair portrayal. The author was a moderate who was critical of the strict dogmatism of some religious sects. He advocated an ecumenical understanding under the aegis of the Christian tradition. Overall, he had a favorable view of Calvin that was not divorced from the time he lived. This was an extremely well-informed book that relied on a host of impressive and authoritative primary and secondary sources. The book was good from a literary standpoint as well. It was an enjoyable read.
McNeill's 1954 work contains a Calvinist condemnation of South African apartheid that was ahead of its time. The book was published the same year Daniel Malan, a leading architect of apartheid, left the South African premiership. Malan's membership in the Dutch Reform Church ministry is troubling to McNeill and the author wishes to set the religious record straight.
Apartheid, while a personal preference rooted in natural law (people do better with their own kind), is self-defeating as a government policy. To those who would use Jean Calvin's doctrine of the elect to buttress apartheid and other elitist/separatist institutions, McNeill trots out the real Calvin - the great reformer himself said that only G-d knows who the elect are. Thus for man to judge who the elect are and create social mechanisms based on that judgment is anti-G-dly.
McNeill is again soaring to spiritual heights when he laments the fragmentation of Calvinism and the Christian Church generally. The author goes so far as to posit that Calvinist churches may come to reinstitute episcopacy (bishops). I dissent here. Jesus said "with G-d all things are possible" but Calvinist bishops?! Bosh!
But that doesn't mean Calvinists can't be inspired by bishops. The recent popes/bishops of Rome have put their church in the vanguard of the pro-life and economic rethinking movements. Calvinists should join in. That's what McNeill means when he writes about Christian "unity." Cooperation is probably a better term.
McNeill wisely observes that the spirit of Calvinism is more directed at bringing about overall social betterment than promoting components such as economic individualism. When weighing Max Weber's thesis that Protestantism spreads rational habits of mind which then spreads capitalism, don't leave off the scales Calvin's view of justice - "To prove ourselves to be G-d's children let us beware that we lend our helping hand to such as are wrongfully persecuted, and that according to the ability that G-d giveth us do we succor such as are trodden under foot." (p. 425).
Old enemies of Calvinism rise from the dead in McNeill's pages. Well-disguised doctrines such as the Erastianism that forms the outlines of contemporary church/state relations and even manages to fuel strife in the Islamic world are unmasked by our scholarly author. To understand big government as well as the bent of social movements toward government affirmation (and vigilante actions by some of the spurned) it is useful to consider how Erastianism mixed with republicanism and mass democracy. Thomas Hobbes, author of "Leviathan," was a secular Erastian, McNeill notes (p. 354), and his self-fulfilling worldview is thoroughly stamped on our times.
Changes in forms of worship are an interesting area addressed by McNeill. My own view is things such as kneeling and the handshake of peace could be imported from the Roman Church with positive effect. Kneeling during communion would be inappropriate based on Calvin's teachings but kneeling during The Lord's Prayer would bring sorely needed humility. Sign-of-peace handshakes might have prevented the destruction of my native Massachusetts/New England. Had the Irish been greeted with outstretched hands of peace and friendly displays of humility instead of Yankee pride New England might still be thriving today. Instead the Irish were treated as a servant class. Disrespected, they turned to boss politics, crime, social theatrics, and Kennedy worship. With other factors contributing, New England (Boston most notably) went from the cradle of liberty to a graveyard of socialism. Tragedy of tragedies!
The Romanists and others should take from the Congregationalists the meeting house forum. This public voicing of burdens and calls for prayer promotes family feeling within the assembly and would strengthen cooperation across religious boundaries. The long-delayed discussion about breaking down government to a more human size (as advocated by the great diplomat and Calvinist George Kennan) will start in the meeting house format - mark my words.
In this, the 500th year since Calvin's birth, we should utilize McNeill's fine book and point ourselves toward renewal and reunion that is internal and thus the most real. United Church of Christ and the rest of the Congregationalist/Presbyterian/Reform family need not make any organized shows with the leaders of the Orthodox and Roman churches. We should respect what G-d has wrought. In studying Judaism's Holy Torah, we learn that G-d's punishments always contain correctives within them. In analyzing the dispersion of the Jews and the breakup of Christianity we should consider the Tower of Babel. In all three cases scattering was meted out because people were misusing unity by aggrandizing themselves and using lavish public ceremonies as a substitute for faith and good works. God's great gift was a "punishment" of congregationalism marked by different languages and customs. Let us respect that but not fall into the trap of insularity.
Ultimately, McNeill calls us to follow the teaching of Saint Paul - "The real Jew is the person who is a Jew on the inside." Those words are from Romans, the epistle that convinced Calvin to become a Protestant (humorous that a document called "Romans" lead Calvin out of the Roman Church). Calvin, following Paul, teaches us through his "faith alone" exposition that the inside must be properly aligned for spiritual salvation and for human actions to do more good than harm. John McNeill's "History & Character of Calvinism" is a helpful reminder of what present and future generations, with their ever increasing focus on outward appearances and identity politics, can learn from Christianity properly understood.