Lester De Koster
Reviewed by: David M. VanDrunen
Date posted: 05/15/2005
Light for the City: The Preaching of John Calvin, by Lester De Koster. Published by Eerdmans, 2004. Paperback, 159 pages, list price $20.00. Reviewed by Professor David M. VanDrunen.
Like many Christians in the Reformed tradition, Lester De Koster shares a great enthusiasm for the thought and work of John Calvin. Such enthusiasm is evident in this short and informally written book that focuses upon the importance of preaching for Calvin and its effects in this world. De Koster's distinctive interpretation of Calvin is unlikely to garner unanimous agreement, but he does not fail to be provocative.
De Koster's case begins with the doctrine of predestination. Because Calvin believed that God had already determined eternal destinies, he distanced himself from Lutheran and Roman Catholic attention to the salvation of souls and the attainment of heavenly bliss. Calvin had a higher goal, which was to build "the City." The City, longed for in important respects by many great thinkers of pagan antiquity, is a community in this world, infused with democratic values and formed by the preaching of God's Word. The goal of the church, and even the goal of the Son's becoming flesh, is to achieve the temporal realization of, as De Koster puts it, "Christianopolis."
De Koster argues that Calvin recognized all of this to an unprecedented degree, and inspired legions of followers who put his convictions into practice. Looking at history since the Reformation, De Koster credits Calvin and his followers with a preeminent role in bringing Western democracy into being and speaks of this as Calvin's great victory over the devil. De Koster encourages Calvin's followers today to recover this vision by preaching the Word boldly, but as city-builders rather than evangelistic crusaders. He is convinced that momentous social and political consequences will follow.
De Koster has set forth a helpful reminder of the importance of preaching for Calvin. Despite the legacy of Calvin's writings, we should not forget the centrality of preaching for his practical ministry in Geneva, and certainly this is a crucial part of his legacy that his contemporary admirers will seek to emulate. De Koster's impassioned call for bold preaching and for confidence in God's ability and desire to bring fruit out of preaching is certainly to be heeded.
Nevertheless, De Koster's portrait of the goals that Calvin had when he mounted his pulpit gives a decidedly misleading description of the Reformer. That Calvin had an interest in social matters and shaped the civic life of Geneva is certainly true. Yet viewing this as the principal focus of his work has a distorting effect. Missing from De Koster's work are Calvin's convictions about the kingship of Christ as a spiritual and heavenly reality, the nature of the Christian life as one of pilgrimage, the doctrine of justification as the principal ground of religion, and the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Furthermore, Calvin's relationship to subsequent Western democratic government is much more complicated than De Koster suggests.
All in all, despite De Koster's engaging writing style and passionate call for a renewed confidence in preaching, his failure to account for a wide range of evidence in Calvin that runs contrary to the claims of Light for the City makes this a one-sided and unreliable guide to Calvin's life and thought.