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.