Back in 2009 there were a lot of books published on the Genevan Reformer John Calvin. It was the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, so the attention was justified. After all, Calvin is a massive figure in Western history. The shadow of his influence touches church history, theology, the Christian life, foreign missions, political theory, secondary and college education, church-state relations, and much more. He also leaves an extremely controversial legacy. It would not be an exaggeration to say Calvin is a polarizing figure. Of those who think they know anything about Calvin, they generally either love him or loathe him. That is why Herman Selderhuis’s biography, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, is special. Selderhuis is fascinated by Calvin but not enamored by him. For those who chase that elusive position of objectivity, the author is in a better spot than most. He writes in the introduction:
In this book, Calvin is approached as neither friend nor enemy; I just do not categorized him in that sense. I feel nothing for Calvin either way, but I am fascinated by him as a person. Without intending to, he created a world-wide community of believers, arousing as much scorn as admiration and accomplishing so much in spite of his many limitations. I have tried to tell this 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. Because I hope it will get us closer to Calvin himself, there are few references to secondary literature. (pg 8)
This method and perspective places the author in an unusual position among many of Calvin’s biographers. Everyone who thinks they know a little or a lot about Calvin will be surprised by a careful historian’s look at Calvin. It turns out, Calvin was not the fearless, flawless saint as many of his fans portray him. Calvin was a man with acute faults that led him to struggle with the same kinds of sins throughout his life. Sound familiar? But even more surprising to his rabid critics, Calvin was not a cold, villainous, powerful, heavy-handed, persecuting monster. He was certainly a product of his time and place in history (who isn’t?), but he was also a reformer at heart. Through his writings and objective history, it is clear his surpassing goal in life was to live before the face of God in such a way that God received the glory due his name.
Any person in a position of leadership, whether it be in politics, the church, or any other civic organization will recognize the inevitable conundrums leaders face, and the simple fact that conflicts and disagreements produce complaints about leadership. Calvin, like any other leader, is subject this phenomenon. But contrary to popular opinion, Calvin was not a political dictator. He had no desire to be, and he couldn’t have been. The historical record shows he just didn’t have that kind of power in Geneva or anywhere else. Calvin was a leading pastor in his adopted city. He was a French foreigner in a Swiss city. He didn’t gain citizenship and its accompanying rights and privileges until the end of his life. Thus he was not a politician or a civil dictator as some claim. Actually, the record indicates that he and this church’s consistory (elders) serves as advisories to the city council, for most of Calvin’s life the Genevan governors were at odds with requests and suggestions. Some would criticize Calvin for accepting and cooperating with the church-state system in Geneva. But this was the way of Europe in the 16th century. The separation of church and state was only an Anabaptist dream at the time. Society at large could not comprehend our current secular political arrangement because Europe was a “Christian” civilization that the vast majority wanted to maintain. The Christendom consensus did not begin to crumble until after the Wars of Religion and the Age of Enlightenment arrived.
Selderhuis did not write the definitive Calvin biography. It is merely an introductory survey of his life, but the scope is Calvin’s entire life. The breadth of time and issues covered in the span of 250 pages is impressive. Each chapter focuses on a particular role in which Calvin found himself in successive periods of his life. Chapter titles are:
- Orphan (1509-1533)
- Pilgrim (1533-1536)
- Stranger (1536-1538)
- Refugee (1538-1541)
- Preacher (1541-1546)
- Victim (1546-1549)
- Widower (1549-1551)
- Patient (1551-1554)
- Sailor (1555-1559)
- Soldier (1559-1564)
Thus we review how God guided Calvin’s life, even directing his steps contrary to Calvin’s preference, along the way. That is the way Calvin understood God’s guiding hand on his life. We discover he was an orphan, and learn how that experience shaped him as a man. We see how he considered himself a pilgrim on the journey to heaven to be with God, feeling the need to leave his beloved homeland of France because he could not worship God according to the dictates of his conscience, bound as it was to biblical tenets and worship. We observe how Calvin first came to Geneva, stayed against his will, was run out of town (which made him glad!), only later to have his exilers warmly ask him to return. We read him speak tenderly of his wife and his only child whose untimely deaths broke his heart. And so on. Although Selderhuis claims he feels nothing for Calvin, he (perhaps inadvertently) persuades us to view Calvin as a sympathetic figure.
But someone will say, “What about Michael Servetus?” Selderhuis does not dodge this black mark. But he does, through examining primary sources of the period (not just Calvin’s testimony), demonstrate the Servetus affair is not the scandalous persecution by Calvin that so many make it out to be. The historian concludes the trial and execution of Servetus in Geneva was the kind of thing that was happening all over Christendom at the time. By our modern sensibilities we are appalled at the church cooperating with the state to execute religious heretics. And I think our modern sensibilities in this case are correct, because a theocracy established by anyone but God is asking for atrocity. It’s not even right when sincere believers establish theocratic governments in God’s name. In my judgment, most Christians today would conclude the only legitimate theocracy in history was the kingdom of Israel under the Mosaic covenant. Medieval Christendom, 16th century Geneva, nor “Christian America” qualify. That being said, we must evaluate history with an understanding of the era’s values, philosophy, and government. Not to offer a sort of relativistic justification that excuses past injustices, but to make informed judgments and accurate assessments of history. Doing so reveals that Calvin’s enemies smeared the blood of Servetus on Calvin’s clothes, even though Calvin’s hands were as clean as could be expected from any citizen of a Christian city. Calvin merely did his civic duty in reporting to the authorities the presence of Servetus at his Genevan church. Servetus was a refugee from the law all over Protestant and Catholic Europe. Calvin urged him to to come to Geneva because Servetus would not escape justice there. Inexplicably, Servetus defied Calvin’s advice and showed up one Sunday morning when Calvin was preaching! As a result, Calvin was the man in God’s providence who reported Servetus to the city government. To do otherwise would be to harbor a condemned criminal and risk the city’s reputation and safety. If word got out that Geneva was friendly to heretics, it might be abandoned by its Protestant allies and perhaps attacked by its enemies. Thus Servetus’s arrest, trial, and execution was not driven by personal animosity so much as political and security concerns. Put in historical context, Selderhuis explains from the sources why Calvin’s enemies hated him so, and where the more infamous stories of Calvin originated.
Disclaimer: I am a “Calvinist”. But that doesn’t mean I am a “disciple” or “follower” of Calvin. True Calvinists are disciples of Christ alone. The label is a shorthand way that has developed to describe Christians who believe in the sovereignty of God in all things, believe the Doctrines of Grace (commonly known as TULIP) are biblically true, and are confessionally “Reformed” in their theology and practice.
I say this to encourage everyone who is interested in John Calvin, both his friends and enemies, as well as you fence-sitters, to read this introductory biography on the man John Calvin. I don’t know if the author would consider himself a “Calvinist” or even “Reformed”. He doesn’t seem to betray any affection for Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. According to the book, he is professor of church history and church polity at the Theological University Apeldoorn and director of the University’s Institute for Reformation Research, and a leading Reformation historian. Despite all this, it is clear to me that Selderhuis believes John Calvin was a great Christian who finished his pilgrimage well on his way to heaven. I believe so too. And I think, with an open mind, you would believe so too.