This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2011 vol. 168 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s LifeIVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL January 29, 2009
Selderhuis is professor of church history and church polity at the Theological University, Apeldoorn, Netherlands, and director of the university’s Institute for Reformation Research. In this biography of Calvin he presents a mediating and sympathetic portrayal of the Genevan Reformer. Selderhuis avoids the two poles of hagiography or hero-worship and the straw man or caricature to which friends and foes often gravitate. Instead this engaging story draws on the author’s extensive knowledge of the primary and secondary literature to present a picture of Calvin with his strengths and weaknesses. Selderhuis interacts with the literature of Calvin’s time and the perceptions of him throughout church history to tell the story of Calvin’s life in a manner that is fair yet critical, readable yet well documented, scholarly yet accessible to a broad audience, and broad yet with careful attention to details. “In this book, Calvin is approached as neither friend nor enemy; I just do not categorize him in that sense. I feel nothing for Calvin either way, but I am fascinated by him as a person” (p. 8). Readers will sense that the author does attempt to maintain objectivity, but it is also clear that Selderhuis sees Calvin much more positively than negatively. Calvin is portrayed as a flawed yet forgiven man who persevered through challenging life experiences in a difficult time. Thus Calvin’s perseverance serves as a model for other pilgrims.
Particularly helpful is the author’s discussion of Calvin’s relationship to the political authorities in Geneva, his brief yet loving marriage, his love of beauty and the arts, his health struggles, his deeply passionate relationships with God and his friends, and his compassion toward his political and religious foes. Of the Servetus affair, which is often used to portray Calvin as a cruel, vindictive, and harsh autocrat, Selderhuis provides a much more sympathetic interpretation. He explains that Servetus had offended God and Calvin by calling God a “three-headed monster,” and Servetus also had violated the law of Emperor Charles V, which decreed that “everyone in his empire who denied the doctrine of the Trinity was to be punished by death” (p. 204). In short “a denial of the Trinity was a frontal attack on the Christian faith, and thus on the established power of the empire as well. This meant that Servetus could just as well have been burned in Cologne, Strasbourg or Antwerp. Unfortunately for Calvin, and for all Reformed believers, in fact, it happened that Servetus was executed in Geneva” (ibid.). Selderhuis speculates, “One might almost think that Servetus had intentionally chosen Geneva in order to smear Calvin eternally with a bad name in a sort of suicide mission. If this was indeed his intention, it has certainly been a considerable success” (ibid.). As is widely known, Calvin did attempt to convince Servetus to repent and recant his heresy and thus save his life, but Servetus refused.
Because of the size of the book, the breadth of the period covered, and the significance of this historical figure, readers may often wish for more detail and more depth. This is not a comprehensive work nor the final word, but it is an excellent introduction and overview of the life and impact of John Calvin. It deserves a wide reading. Fans of Calvin will receive a more complete picture of this complex and talented theologian. Foes of Calvin will have a better understanding of his situation and the context of his life. Like all followers of Jesus, Calvin had strengths and weaknesses; he was a flawed pilgrim who attempted to serve God faithfully. Like all pastors and theologians, he was a recipient of divine grace, a jar of clay in the service of his Master. From him, followers of Jesus, whatever their theological tradition, can learn to appreciate the faithfulness of the God he served. This book is highly recommended for students of church history and theology, pastors, and other Christian leaders. Also it would be an excellent textbook for college or seminary courses on Calvin and Reformed theology.
—Glenn R. Kreider