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John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life

By Herman Selderhuis
October 2009 | Review by Mark Johnston


Professor and renowned Reformation historian Herman Selderhuis has written this book to bring John Calvin near to the reader, showing him as a man who had an impressive impact on the development of the Western world, but who was first of all a believer struggling with God and with the way God governed both the world and his own life. Selderhuis draws on Calvin's own publications and commentary on the biblical figures with whom he strongly identified to describe his theology in the context of his personal development. Throughout we see a person who found himself alone at many of the decisive moments of his life –– a fact that echoed through Calvin's subsequent sermons and commentaries. Selderhuis's unique and compelling look at John Calvin, with all of his merits and foibles, ultimately discloses a man who could not find himself at home in the world in which he lived.

  • Publisher: IVP Academic
  • ISBN: 978-0830829217
  • Pages: 287
  • Price: £18.26
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Book Review

With the surfeit of Calvin books appearing in this the quincentenary of the great Reformer’s birth, it would be tempting to groan and think, ‘Not another one!’ But here’s a biography that’s worth a second look.

The author approaches Calvin as one who sees him ‘as neither friend nor enemy’, but says, ‘I feel nothing for Calvin either way but I am fascinated by him as a person.’ This means there is a degree of detachment about Selderhuis’s book that sets it apart from other works.

It charts the course of his life very much as a pilgrimage from childhood through to death, with stark one-word chapter headings like, ‘Orphan’, ‘Pilgrim’, ‘Stranger’, ‘Refugee’ and so on until ‘Soldier’ –– the closing chapter of his life.

Each chapter not only traces the course of Calvin’s life chronologically, but also deals with it topically and so each chapter heading has a certain aptness that captures well the stage of his life under review.

Interestingly, citing Calvin’s own comment that one gets to know a person best through their letters, it is Calvin’s correspondence that provides the primary source for this biographer. When Calvin has been viewed largely through the lenses of either the Institutes or his commentaries, something of the depth of his humanity has been lost. But here we see Calvin, often through his own words addressed to correspondents, very much as the man he was.

The topics covered in relation to Calvin’s life and views in these pages are wide-ranging from the obvious theological ones, like predestination and election, right through to the more unexpected, such as Calvin’s views on marriage and sex.

All these topics are interwoven with comments and opinions expressed by the biographer –– some of which will inevitably raise eyebrows for different readers.

All told, there is a freshness about this volume that helpfully relates Calvin to the world we live in. It is a stimulating and satisfying read that leaves us in no doubt that the legacy and influence of John Calvin is not only alive and well today, but still much needed half a millennium after his birth.

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