Great Theology, Teachableness, & John Calvin [Balm in Gilead / Summer Read…Quote…Reflect]

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson (InterVarsity Press, 2019).

In an essay on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, [Marilynne] Robinson declared that “great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling with a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to the spoken voice.” In Gilead we are indeed listening, or rather overhearing, the dying words of the venerable, ailing, seventy-six-year-old Congregational minister John Ames writing a letter intended as a bequest to his beloved seven-year-old son. As I listened, I was drawn in, captivated by the voice of John Ames.

Bonhoeffer also refers to theology as “a word of recognition among friends.” In reading, or listening to, Gilead, John Ames became a friend. . . .

In 1555, [John] Calvin looked back on his transition from humanist scholar to Protestant pastor and described it this way: “By a sudden conversion, God turned and brought my heart to teachableness.” . . .

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Robinson began to read Calvin deeply and seriously, first the Institutes, but then also the commentaries and sermons. And although she does not use the language of “sudden conversion” to describe this intellectual and theological awakening, she comes pretty close when she confesses: “I was astonished to realize how utterly different Calvin is from anything I had ever heard or read about him. It was really moving to discover such a vast and lucid and gracious spirit. It was as if I had just happened upon Beethoven. Much better.” This discovery of Calvin happened for her at midlife, almost like Dante: “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark.” Karl Barth, a theologian who appears a number of times in Robinson’s works, once described Calvin as “a waterfall, a primeval forest, something strange, mythological, something straight down from the Himalayas.” Robinson, like Barth, would make her own pathway through the brambles and brush of the primeval forest that is John Calvin. Her project would be one of retrieval, reclamation, and “resourcement.” — Timothy George, “Marilynne Robinson and John Calvin,” 45, 47, 52.


I confess finding Timothy George’s “Marilynne Robinson and John Calvin” and John Calvin: Comeback Kid [1] of great interest. I resonated with the importance of fallen / sinful human beings becoming “teachable” to the dazzling light of God mysteriously present in the creation, the Word, the Spirit, the people of God (strangers and pilgrims in the world), and the new heavens & new earth.

  1. As with Healing…Fiction…Connectedness and Praise that pours forth from the lips of . . ., set aside a time of “rest” to read, reflect upon, and prayerfully consider the quotes from Balm in Gilead. Remind yourself of and dwell in the surprising grace of God which by the creation, the Word, Spirit, and people of God shape one more into the image of God that one was intended to be (individually and as part of the people of God).
  2. Prayerfully consider what theologian(s) and / or pastor(s) you have found not only fit insights, but also lives in a manner similar to those shared in the quote section. How has the Lord spoken into your life through their teaching? Give thanks to the Lord. If one (or more) are living, share your gratitude by a note and / or in person.
  3. Join me in prayerfully considering your relationship not only to John Calvin[2], but also other significant shapers of thought.[3]
    1. With whom do you identify? Why?
    2. To whom do you react and not desire association? Upon what basis?[4]
    3. How are you engaged with the people of God in dialogue regarding the streams of Christian thought, pointing toward what is firmly rooted in Christ Jesus as found in the Bible?

Stay tuned for more Read…Quote…Reflect from Balm in GileadTo God be the glory!


[1] Timothy George. “John Calvin: Comeback Kid.” Christianity Today, Vol. 53., No. 9 (September 2009) 26-32.

[2] Timothy George draws a lot of material from John Calvin: Comeback Kid. I recommend you prayerfully consider including this article, which is posted in full on the Beeson Divinity’s website, in your summer reading and / or a 2019-2020 book discussion group.

[3] E.g., the Emerging Scholars Network’s Faith and Reason Series.

[4] For Marilynne Robinson and Timothy George’s wrestling with 1) whether John Calvin was a “monster” in relationship to the case of Servetus and 2) how John Calvin taught Predestination, you’ll need to add Balm in Gilead to your reading list.

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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