John Calvin - A Pilgrim's Life

by Herman J Selderhuis

You think you know about John Calvin…?
Here is a book that will challenge your knowledge of this great reformer…

As Reformed believers, it is hard to miss the fact that 2009 marks 500 years since the birth of John Calvin. At the same time, we cannot disperse the hunch that John Calvin is more easily spoken of than known among us. We hear of him a lot but we cannot confidently say we know him. For that reason, it must be good to pick up a book written by him or a book about him to know who he was and what he thought. In terms of a book written by him, most of us would wisely grab his Institutes. When it comes to books about him, the amounts of available material can overwhelm anyone who attempts to master the subject. I would suggest that for a Reformed believer, the best possible choice is John Calvin: a Pilgrim's Life by Herman J. Selderhuis.

The following reasons illustrate why this book is beneficial for any Reformed believer to read.

There are many ways to understand a single man. The same man can be a hero or a tyrant, depending on the perspective. I remember reading a book which compares Calvin with Vladimir Lenin, the Russian Communist leader. An interesting comparison, but I am not sure how good it is to describe a man who was a preacher of the Church in this way. On the other hand, Selderhuis depicts Calvin as a godly man who strived to serve the Lord despite his many weaknesses. According to the author, after Calvin’s “conversion”, his life can be summarised as God's advocate (pg 22): “He (Calvin) would devote every minute of the rest of his life to the defence of God and of his cause.” At the same time, the author does not simply embellish Calvin. Frequently, Calvin's mistakes and weaknesses are pointed out without any reservation. The most classic example is the author's frank disappointment concerning Calvin's idea of “witches” (pg 139-140). At the end of the book, the author even expresses his difficulty with the efforts of Calvin scholars to defend Calvin from criticism (pg 259). Why defend, argues the author, since Calvin himself expressed his weakness and failures? The net result is that we understand Calvin as a typical Christian who aspired to serve the Lord better, yet struggled with his weaknesses just like any of us.

The reason why the perspective presented by the author seems to be convincing is largely due to where he derives most of his information, namely, Calvin's own correspondence. Apparently, Calvin himself believed that we learn most about people from their letters (pg 8; pg 165). Calvin in his letters would certainly shatter whatever wrong caricatured images we have of him. Somehow, I thought that Calvin was a man without much emotion; anger seems likely, but love or friendship doesn’t fit. Calvin's image to me was more or less that of an eccentric old professor who lived in his own world. I want to learn from him, but I do not want to be close to him. However, his letters show that Calvin was not only a man of head but also a man of heart. Particularly when I read the letters he wrote to his friends about his wife’s death, Calvin is not an eccentric professor any more. Rather he comes across to me as a friend whom I'd like to comfort even with a hug. Using correspondence as the main source of information, Selderhuis portrays Calvin more accurately as a “normal” man not only with a brain but also with a heart... … no more and no less.

Selderhuis, in his use of sources, shows his superior knowledge of them. As a biography, the book presents Calvin's life in ten sections as follows: 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).

Meanwhile as one endorsement acknowledges, in this biography, the events in Calvin's life are not simply narrated . Rather, Selderhuis “weaves those events into a story of a man on a geographical, theological and spiritual pilgrimage.” In such a way, as one of the finest Calvin scholars, the author exhibits a thorough knowledge of his main source, the works of Calvin.

Even though this book is a work by a world-renowned scholar in Calvin study, the work is very easy to read. As a matter of fact, it is fun to read. In that aspect, we can see the excellence of the translation. Such a good work in translation does not come as a surprise to those who know the translator, Albert Gootjes, a graduate of the Theological College in Hamilton. In the translation, Albert shows his outstanding knowledge, not only of the materials, but also of the Dutch and English (as well as Latin and French) languages.

Reappreciating being Reformed:
This fifth reason, although the last, is the most important one for why Reformed believers should read this book in order to understand Calvin. As a minister of the one of the Reformed Churches, the author knows well the customs of the Reformed Churches in general. What is interesting in the book is the connection the author makes between Calvin and the Reformed beliefs and customs. The intention in making such a connection is to show that the Reformed Churches are the true “heirs” of Calvin (pg 249). John Knox was not in the same line in understanding the role of a woman (pg 174). As to the concept of Sunday, Calvin cannot be called a Puritan (pg 224). Meanwhile, there are many resemblances between Calvin's ideas and the practices of the Reformed Churches: the Dutch-Reformed believers being Pilgrims (pg 43), to pray before and after the meals (pg 161) the typical image of the ministers in the Reformed Churches (126). Apart from these minor examples, more can be found. Meanwhile such information certainly enables us to appreciate the Biblical grounds as well as the beneficial elements of spiritual life entailed by the customs in our Reformed Churches. We have many, if not all, customs not because we are ‘dutchies’ (as my surname might prove:)) but because we are Reformed. For that reason, reading this book can drive us into deeper consideration of the customs in our churches.

If I may mention one of the drawbacks in the book, that would be the author’s use of some events in Calvin’s life to explain Calvin’s theology. By doing so, the readers might have a wrong impression that such events, not the Bible, were the determining factors in shaping Calvin’s ideas. It can be the case that the events of his life effected Calvin’s ideas, but as the author also acknowledges, the Bible had the final word in formulating his thoughts.

If you would like to know more about Calvin you would benefit greatly from reading this gem. After reading this book, you will have a greater understanding of the ‘real’ Calvin. He will appear just like an old friend, someone you would like to talk with, as the author indicates at the end: “If I am to end up there (heaven) myself, there are some things that I would really like to talk to him about” (pg 259).

Review by DW. Oh