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John Calvin, a Pilgrim?s Life

Author: Herman J Selderhuis
Published By: IVP (Leicester)
Pages: 304
Price: £9.99
ISBN: 978 1 84474 375 9

Reviewed by Philip Joy.

Biography appears in many guises, and it is advisable to judge one by what it attempts to do, rather than by comparison with other biographies. This one seeks to present the man behind an ‘ism’ and to begin to rehabilitate his reputation, which considering the reputation and the ‘ism’, it does well.

Was John Calvin “a horrid man” as a theological acquaintance once told me? Well, Selderhuis shows us at least he was flesh and blood. We are given chronological chapters such as ‘Orphan’, ‘Refugee’, ‘Preacher’, ‘Widower’ - each with its dates, and with particular emphasis on sources such as letters, which are too often considered of lesser value in mapping a life than the works of a great man.

This book is no thoughtless hagiography. Dipping into “Widower 1549-1551”, I enjoyed the frankness: “Calvin...needed a housekeeper more than a wife”, concludes the narrative! On the other hand, relevant theology is not avoided: section headings here include “marriage”, “women”, “courtship”, “children” - each showing his life and theology mutually embedded.

This pattern is repeated throughout the book, with the result that controversial moments, such as Servetus’ death sentence, are evenly handled, whilst light is shed on Calvin’s core beliefs such as Double-Predestination. The latter, for example, is dealt with whilst telling the story of how an erstwhile friend, Bolsec, had publically interrupted someone’s sermon on the doctrine. Apparently, in the subsequent hoo-ha, Geneva town council actually bothered to examine Calvin’s Institutes for themselves to decide which of the two men was interpreting the Bible correctly! Thus the biographical narrative reveals the heart of Calvin’s thought concerning predestination: whearas Bolsec asserted that the doctrine made God the author of sin, Calvin rejoined that without the doctrine, man became the author of salvation (thus denying the whole point of the Reformation)! I found this vignette useful in explicating both a difficult teaching and the character of its greatest proponent.

There is much to like in this book, and though not presented as scholarly, scholarship is certainly present. On the other hand, for a book which sells itself on going back to the sources, the opinions and reactions of Calvin’s peers are perhaps too little in evidence. I would have liked to have seen more of the other side of the correspondence. In the publication which he co-edited, The Uses of Biography, book historian William St Clair suggests that the biographer should proceed with the caution of an archaeologist who knows their source materials are almost certainly incomplete and randomly preserved. Notwithstanding the need for imaginative reconstruction, my impression is that Selderhuis has not always kept this caution in mind. Personal phrases like “Calvin thought...”, “Calvin wanted...” “he knew that...” are frequent enough to bother the reflective reader. Did he know him in a former life, I found myself asking? Checking other biographies, such as Bosworth’s magnificent Mussolini, I found that such phrases are avoided, the narrative concerning itself with what was said and what was done, copiously referenced. Perhaps it is simply the way Selderhuis is presenting the material - not explicitly referenced and for the curious believer rather than the critical scholar. I suppose a completely unbiased narrative would remove the reason for a book to be written at all.

At least we are offered an opinion of Calvin based on evidence, and then left to make up our own mind: a great teacher of the church, warts and all, who lived the pilgrim life of faith as much as you or I, and inspired others as he did so. In that sense you could happily put this on your church bookshelf whatever your churchmanship. Recommended!

Philip Joy

Specialist in Old Testament narrative and typology

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You are reading Issue 46 of Ministry Today, published in July 2009.

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