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John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life

John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life – Herman J Selderhuis (IVP)

Reformation The dangerous Birth of the Modern World – Harry Reid (Saint Andrew Press)  

Those who know about John Calvin’s theology are rarely neutral.  His belief in a view of predestination that means that God destines some for salvation and others for hell, has divided churches and had a major bearing on the life and mission of the church. His ‘Institutes of Religion’, which outline his theology has influenced Evangelical thought and many will have heard of Calvinism, before they heard of the French theologian. So it is no surprise that the 500th anniversary of his birth should lead to the publication aiming to help us understand the considerable impact he has had.

In John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Herman Selderhuisis uses Calvin’s own letters to provide what he hopes is a sympathetic and fresh insight. The book is chronological with chapter headings depicting phases of Calvin’s life: orphan, pilgrim, stranger, refugee, preacher, victim, widower, patient, sailor and soldier. It charts Calvin’s conversion from Catholicism (about which little detail is known), rejecting a legal career for one of academia, and into an unintended but defining detour to pastor churches in Geneva, Lausanne and reluctantly back to Geneva where he sought to make the city like a ‘new Jerusalem’ for its 10,000 or so inhabitants.

It assumes you know the basics of Calvin and want a more human insight, but it is a depressing read, both in content and style (maybe because it’s a translated book?) His mother dies when he is aged five, married at 31 because he needed a ‘housewife’, who bore him a son who died in  22 days, and then dies herself when he was 40. Vowing never to remarry, he pours himself into an austere lifestyle, preaching 10 sermons a fortnight and conducting voluminous correspondence on four hours sleep a night. He works through a variety of illnesses: notably migraines inflamed piles, gallstones and gout. The author defends Calvin against critics of his view of predestination, and his acquiescence in the burning at the stake of the ‘heretic’, Servetus. Calvin is a driven man, zealous for God and his glory; reminiscent perhaps of the way Ian Paisley once had influence within Belfast. A sympathetic, though not convincing portrait, which lacked perspective and colour to entice those ignorant of the theologian.

If Selderhuisis uses the microscope, Reid uses a telescope in Reformation The dangerous Birth of the Modern World placing Calvin geographically and historically with chapters on Henry VIII, James IV, The Reformation in England and Scotland, about which there are additional chapters, Swingli in Zurich, the counter Reformation, and the martyrs.

This is a well crafted, pleasant readable history of the whole Reformation.  Calvin gets just a few chapters, but you have a good sense of who he was within the wider movement, and a clearer view of the man than Selderhuis paints. Reid also sees Calvin as driven and lonely, focusing less charitably on Calvin’s latter life in Geneva, what he calls it a ‘noble experiment of godliness on earth’ with its social welfare, free schooling and democratic structure. Reid admits that ‘relentless straining for purity’ led to an excessive structure: expelling opponents of his predestination thinking, imprisoning people for minor offences – latterly punishing with whippings and banishments – and creating informers not unlike soviet Russia. Oddly although more critical of Calvin than Selderhuis, it is Reid’s portrait that evokes more sympathy.

It’s dangerous to purport to understand Calvin’s challenges with 21st century eyes, but certainly these books suggest that whatever truths he may have grasped of God, and however passionate for his glory, he lived under the frown of God, rather than his smile. Sadly his political work in Geneva suggest he had grasped little of the love and grace of Jesus, and the nature of the kingdom he sought to bring. Evangelical theology has profited much from his writings, but it is wise to leave his approach to ministry well alone: a reminder to us all perhaps that it is easy to ‘talk a good game’ but much harder to live it out.