Book Review: The Expository Genius of John Calvin

EXP03BH_200x1000No study of Reformation history would be complete without an entry into the life of the Geneva Reformer, John Calvin. Today I’ll review an entry into the Long Line of Godly Men series: The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steven Lawson, published by Reformation Trust.


This series contains short biographies that focus on a specific individual, and usually a specific aspect of that individual’s life and ministry. Calvin, although widely known as a theologian par excellence, however he considered his primary vocation to be a pastor who preaches God’s Scripture. In this short book Lawson explores Calvin’s life (Chapter 1) and his teaching style.

Overall, the book is great. It flows with a logical order and really illuminates an aspect of Calvin’s life that is usually overlooked. I do have a few minor critiques that are more stylistic than anything else. Like other books in the entry, although less so than most, the book takes on a hagiographical tone. Calvin was great, but he had a lot of flaws also. He would be the first to point to his flaws as the evidence of God’s grace in his life, so the fact that this was not brought out is somewhat frustrating. As I said in previous reviews, these books have a purpose. That purpose is to encourage the readers to grow in godliness by pointing to a previous Christian as an example. However, the fact that the faults of these believers is rarely addressed, and never with any depth, actually leaves me a bit discouraged. Another minor point is the use of a particular heuristic device. Lawson structures the book around what he calls “distinctives.” While I found this to be a helpful heuristic device, the use of the term distinctives bothered me. First, because the things he identifies are not at all things that make Calvin distinct (eg Specific Text, Climactic Prayer, Exegetical Precision). Furthermore, there are 32 distinctives in the list… that is a lot of distinctives if they really are distinctives. What Lawson probably intends is to say that these are things that are characteristic of Calvin, but the use of the term distinctive makes it sound like Calvin was unique in these things. While this may be the case for some of them, any number of people could be said to have Exegetical Precision or to use a Specific Text. Finally, it felt a little bit like Lawson was getting tired at the end of the book. As you reach the final few chapters, some of them are little more than long primary source quotes with a few introductory and commentary remarks. And, for the love of everything good and holy… use footnotes! I understand that this is a popular text, but when you are including lots of primary source quotes, and citations from other more academic sources, it helps so much to not have to go to end notes to find the citations.

Those minor critiques aside, I think that the way the book is structured around these 32 characterstics was incredibly helpful. Beyond that, the list is broken into chapters that move from Calvin’s preparation to preach, through to his delivery of the sermon, culminating in the way he closed the sermon. It makes a helpful pattern to follow for those who preach and made reading the book feel as though there was a movement and direction to the book (something that I have noted is lacking in Douglas Bond’s entries in this series). Lawson’s writing style is engaging and winsome, and it is clear that he knows his stuff. He presents the heart of Calvin in a clear and intentional manner, and really does break down the unfortunate image that Calvin has as a stone hearted tyrant who loves to crush heretics. Instead we see a marvelously painted picture of a man who loved his congregation and understood that the best thing he could do for them was to properly prepare them a meat and potatoes helping of the Scriptures.

Please note: Reformation Trust / Ligonier Ministries has provided me with an electronic version of this book for review purposes, and will be providing me with a hard copy edition in exchange for this review. They do not require positive reviews, nor have they edited or modified this review in any way.