John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life

2009 is the year of birthdays it seems as both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin are turning 200. Not to be forgotten is arguably the most influential Reformer within Christian history, John Calvin who turns 500 this July. Calvinists from all sectors of the church are celebrating his birth by writing biographies, holding multi-day conferences, and even blogging through his Institutes.

As an Arminian I do not have a lot of interest in Calvin, but amongst all the talk I realized that I had never encountered the man behind the theology. This can be a bit difficult, however, because so many biographies either lionize or demonize him that few if any are worth reading. Enter Herman J. Selderhuis’s new biography John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life whose book is neither laudatory nor disparaging and very, very well-written.

“Life is a steeplechase,” begins Selderhuis, “there are dangers everywhere, and God himself, who has put most of the obstacles in our way, watches to see whether we make it over them. Such is John Calvin’s view of life.” From there Selderhuis exposits the life of Calvin from ten angles:

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. Widower (1549-1551)

8. Patient (1551-1554)

9. Sailor (1555-1559)

10. Soldier (1559-1564)

Each portrait chronologically summarizes his life in insightful ways. Some interesting facts about Calvin include:

    -He was born in Noyon, France, where in 1551 the people celebrated at the mere rumor of his death.

    -Calvin’s father was a lawyer who was excommunicated from the church on the charge of mishandling a case concerning the estate of two priests. His disgust with religion kept the young Calvin from entering the clergy, and if he had not have died when Calvin was 21 his son would have probably grown up to be a lawyer. This marks the first sign of an interesting feature of Calvin’s thought: he was always obedient to those he felt were given authority over his life, and submitted to their directives as if they were from God himself.

    -Calvin never had a definite moment of conversion, but it seems he was always a believer in that he had a great sense of fear towards God. Fearing God, for Calvin, meant being aware of one’s guilt before God and sensing the anxiety of his displeasure. Like many Reformers, he found freedom from the guilt of Catholic teaching when he embraced the Protestant/Lutheran doctrines of forgiveness.

    -Surprisingly, Calvin was a humanist in the classical sense. He became proficient in classical Greek and Latin and wrote commentary on De Clementia by the Roman philosopher Seneca. Needless to say his first publication didn’t sell too well, but the remark that Calvin was the combination of Luther (in content) and Erasmus (in style) is not far off the mark.

    -Calvin saw his cause as one and the same as the cause of God, and so he worked himself to the bone producing a staggering corpus of literary work including commentaries on Scripture, thousands of sermons, and an almost unending correspondence of letters. All of this was on top of a rigorous schedule of teaching, giving legal counsel, and leading the church in Geneva.

    -The doctrine of predestination was fundamental to Calvin’s theology, and the denial of it was tantamount to idolatry. He came into conflict with various people over it, some of whom were friends, who were either banished from Geneva or rebuffed with silence in his correspondence. Calvin’s passion for this doctrine was born out of the desire to protect God from being dependent on human response, which he saw as weakness in divinity. He believed that the predestination of unconditional election gave believers certainty of their salvation, though his successors would make a mess of things latter by providing anything but certainty to those concerned about their eternal status. Everything happens for a reason in Calvin’s theology, and whatever setback or instance of suffering we have is an opportunity to grow and trust God.

    -The first version of the Institutes was published in 1535 as a response the persecutions of French Reformers. It’s stunningly comprehensive overview of biblical theology created an immediate sensation that was not unnoticed by a Swiss Reformer named Guillaume Farel. When Farel discovered Calvin was living in Geneva he sought the young theologian out and called upon him to help lead the Genevan church.

    -Interestingly Calvin did not want to lead or get involved with pastoral ministry and wanted to live a scholar’s life, but Farel called down imprecations on Calvin and cursed his desire to leave saying that he would never find peace if he ran away from Geneva. This reveals a peculiar feature of Calvin that would repeat itself in times of direction. He could always be manipulated by those whom he saw as authority figures if they believed he was opposing God’s will and that God’s displeasure would burn against him.

    -Calvin hated ministering in Geneva as he believed that the church should be free from the authority of the state in its decisions to administer church discipline. Calvin’s strong belief in discipline included withholding the Lord’s Supper from those deemed wayward, something that greatly affected the social status of anyone living in Europe at the time. Like in all cultures in all times, such treatment would be permissible if exercised on the poor and weak, but never could it be acceptable to the elite and powerful. Calvin was truly egalitarian in his administration of discipline, and he did not back down from protecting the church from impurity, which of course lead to his banishment from the city.

    -In Strasbourg Calvin wanted to get away from the turmoil of church life and take up a scholar’s position that he so longingly desired. But there he was again sought out, this time by Martin Bucer, who, like Farel, called down imprecations on Calvin and judged him to be running away from God’s call to ministry much like Jonah ran away from Nineveh. Unable to resist, Calvin was again bullied into ministry.

    -There Calvin ministered well and became a key player in the struggle against Rome. He came to the defense of Geneva and its interests several times, and impressed the city’s leaders once again. Farel made another call for Calvin to come back, and he obediently did, though he was reluctant and remarked in a letter he “would rather die a hundred other deaths than return to that Genevan cross.”

    -I am convinced that no admirer of Calvin today would want to live in Calvin’s Geneva. Worship was without instruments and only the book of Psalms could be sung. Discipline could be exercised on such infractions as dancing (a safeguard against adultery!) or throwing a party (weddings were to be sober affairs). Calvin even had a long list of rules for young men and women courting each other. With so many restrictions on time and intimacy together, Selderhuis humorously remarked that there really wasn’t anything for young couples left to do except read passages out of the Institutes to each other.

    -Calvin eventually did marry under the match-making prowess of Bucer. His two requirements that she not be wealthy (Calvin had little use for money) and that she be of good character. His wife Idelette was a widow of an Anabaptist who had considerable experience with religious reform and persecution. Calvin had a son with her, but he died prematurely. Idelette died seven years later leaving him alone in a world consumed with grief.

    -Calvin was always seen as an outsider to Geneva. As a Frenchmen he was seen to be threatening to the Genevan way of life as he welcomed French refugees and hired more and more French pastors. The idea that Calvin ruled Geneva as a “Swiss Reformer” isn’t very accurate, because he was neither Swiss nor was rule primarily political. The Servetus Affair would have happened in any city at the time, and Calvin had no authority to execute heretics. His rule was in the church and informed the public of what’s God’s law required and what discipline would take place if it were broken.

    -Calvin’s goal at Geneva was to make a heavenly city, a city ruled and governed by God’s law. But this was not originally his idea as it was already set in place by the government of Geneva before Calvin ever arrived. The fundamental problem Calvin came up against time and time again is how the Church’s rule intersects with the state’s. He never found a very workable solution, though he labored mightily through means of the time.

Selderhuis’s biography brings the stoic looking, long-bearded figure to life in numerous ways. Calvin was emotional and susceptible to anger and grief, but made strenuous efforts to deal patiently with his critics. He labored arduously to have unity with co-leaders, yet would not compromise if he felt the truth was in question. After reading about Calvin’s temperament, it is not surprising to see why his Reformed forebearers have embodied many of his personal traits. There is much to revere in Calvin’s character as their is much to be repelled by. His passion for God’s glory was fanatical, and his dedication to service unimpeachable. Calvin had a great heart for the poor that prophetically called upon the rich to sacrifice for their less fortunate brethren. All in all Calvin was a mover and a shaker in Christian history that defies simple categories and makes reverent adulation or supercilious attacks on his character seem silly. John Calvin was all too human, and would find such praise embarrassing, though he would not be surprised by his critics if he were alive today.

Much of what we believe and learn in the Protestant church today owes a debt to Calvin, even if one is not a Calvinist. We have much to be thankful for in Herman Selderhuis’s fantastic biography, because it successfully approaches the great Reformer as neither a friend nor an enemy. Calvin is fascinating for having the lasting worldwide effect that he has, and he is a testimony to Christ’s grace working itself out in the most fallible of human beings. For that, this book greatly helps us crawl into his skin.


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