Friday, February 27, 2009

A Welcome New Biography - John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life by Herman J. Selderhuis (IVP)

Yesterday's mail included a very pleasant surprise: a review copy of Herman J. Selderhuis' John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life (InterVarsity Press, March 2009). Selderhuis has made his mark as a Reformation historian and Calvin scholar. In 2007, Baker Academic published Selderhuis' Calvin's Theology of the Psalms (WTS). I regret that I still have not obtained a copy of this title, but now that I have been introduced to Selderhuis via this biography I have put it on my "shopping list."

This will not be a full review, but rather an introduction and recommendation. While there are a handful of good biographies on John Calvin already available, Selderhuis has succeeded in offering a fresh perspective that does not build upon previous biographies, but rather primarily upon Calvin's correspondence. As Donald McKim states in his endorsement on the back cover, "Selderhuis has followed Calvin himself in going 'back to the sources.'"

"In this book," Selderhuis writes in the Introduction, "Calvin is approached as neither friend nor enemy." He goes on: "I have tried to tell the story of his life to discover what he was like as a person. Since Calvin himself claimed that we learn most about people from their letters, the most important source for this book is his correspondence."

I've read Beza's and some of Parker's biography of Calvin (I own but have not yet read Reymond's biography), as well as Gerstner's Idelette. I cannot speak for the ones I haven't read, but this new one already appears to be the best. It not only has been a delight to read, but Selderhuis' approach (especially working with Calvin's correspondence) has illuminated a number of details that were unclear after reading Beza's biography. He also does a fantastic job (at least in the first chapter, so far) of explaining Calvin's character, disposition and worldview. Here are a few highlights:

As a child, though, Calvin no longer had a mother [his mother died when he was 6]. Instead, the church increasingly became his mother, informing Calvin's later affirmation of the traditional Christian dictum that no one can have God as Father who does not have the church as mother. (11)
At the Collège de Montaigu (aka, the "college of lice"),

Calvin secretly read the forbidden books of that time, which were considered provocative and even dangerous by some. To avoid any misunderstanding, it should be noted that these were the writings of Luther and Melancthon, with the latter's generally considered to be the more dangerous (14)
The story behind his father's order to drop the theological studies and take up the study of law is illuminated. I'll leave this for you to discover on your own. The main point in this story is what appears to be a golden thread woven throughout Calvin's life. Calvin here began to submit to the providence of God.

Just as the death of Calvin's mother was directly related to his new bond to the church as mother, so the death of his father directly affected his bond to God as Father. (18)
The theme of pilgrimage clearly comes into focus when Selderhuis describes Calvin's life experience as that "of being a stranger, of being on the road, of continually having to let go" (21). He goes on to describe Calvin as a "watchdog" and as "God's advocate" (22). He argues that Calvin took upon himself "the virtually impossible keep God beyond humanity's reach, and yet at the same time make him the full concern of humanity" (22). Although he did not become a priest, as he had originally desired, he became a pastor and protector of the sheep of God.

Many have criticized Calvin as being harsh and cold, and Selderhuis addresses these charges. What I found to be very helpful and instructive was Calvin's recognition of his own negative characteristics. Although he tended to be timid and friendly face-to-face, he was very straight-forward and critical in writing. Many of his friends admonished him for this. It is for this reason that he felt that "it would be better for himself as well as for others if he withdrew a little, but God continually put him back on stage. God had given him his role in the play (theatrum) that is the world" (30).

Selderhuis concludes chapter one with the helpful reminder that "Calvin was simply a human being."

Many biographies paint such rosy pictures of their subject that they not only inspire us, but also intimidate us. This biography has been thoroughly encouraging to me, so far, and I am anxious to read the rest. I recommend this to you! (Read the endorsements below!)


Table of Contents

1. Orphan (1509-1533)
2. Pilgrim (1533-1536)
3. Stranger (1536-1538)
4. Refugee (1538-1541)
5. Preacher (1541-1546)
6. Victim (1546-1549)
7. Widow (1549-1551)
8. Patient (1551-1554)
9. Sailor (1555-1559)
10. Soldier (1559-1564)
Names Index

Book Excerpts

1. Orphan (1509-1533)

Reviews & Endorsements

"Herman Selderhuis presents here a fresh new biography based on a careful reading of Calvin's letters and other sources. Calvin emerges as neither hero nor villain, but rather as a flawed and forgiven pilgrim who never lost sight of his final destination and inspired many others along the way. A wonderful introduction to a great teacher of the church!"

—Timothy George, dean, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, and general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture

"This is simply one of the best biographies of Calvin I have seen. "

—Frank A. James III, president, Reformed Theological Seminary

"Selderhuis does not simply rehash the events of Calvin's life; he weaves those events into a story of a man on a geographical, theological and spiritual pilgrimage--or more precisely, a story of a man on a pilgrimage."

—Lyle D. Bierma, Jean and Kenneth Baker Professor of Systematic Theology, Calvin Theological Seminary

"Veteran Calvin scholar Herman Selderhuis has followed Calvin himself in going 'back to the sources' and provides a portrait of Calvin drawn exclusively from Calvin's own writings. The result is a fresh and invigorating look at the human person behind all the caricatures, the faithful servant of Christ who saw his life as being lived in the providence of God--a God whose ways he often did not understand. Find here a fully human Calvin whose commitment to the 'pilgrim life' instructs and inspires us still today."

—Donald K. McKim, editor of Readings in Calvin's Theology, The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin and Calvin and the Bible