Book Review

"John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life" by Herman J. Selderhuis

John R. Muether
Herman J. Selderhuis
Friday, October 30th 2009
Nov/Dec 2009

Long before Jack Kerouac, there was John Calvin. According to the Genevan Reformer, the Christian life was a sojourn, and we are always on the road. The metaphor of pilgrimage serves as a distinguishing feature of this fine new biography by Herman Selderhuis (church historian at the Theologische Universiteit Apeldoorn in the Netherlands).

Calvin was all too familiar with the lifelong calling of a refugee. Pilgrimage meant first of all the pain of separation from friends who remained in the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin urged French Protestants to leave their country, following the command that Abraham obeyed. Fleeing France was important not so much for avoiding persecution and possible martyrdom. The real threat, as Calvin saw it, was the temptation to return to the Catholic Church. He likened France to Egypt, and he could not imagine how the Reformed could worship God in Catholic surroundings. As Selderhuis summarizes it, "One either stayed with Pharaoh or one followed Moses."

Contrary to popular impression, Calvin did not extend this metaphor to assert that Geneva was the Promised Land. The folly of imagining such was graphically displayed in Anabaptist Munster. Even in Geneva, Calvin experienced homelessness. His first stay (1536-38) resulted in another exile, to Strasbourg, where he was happiest and most productive. When he returned in 1541, respect came gradually for Calvin as Genevan citizens continued to resist the counsel of a Frenchman. When he finally earned citizenship in 1559, he still described himself as a "foreigner in this city."

Though Calvin is frequently compared to twentieth-century totalitarian monsters, Selderhuis argues that he was hardly the tyrant of Geneva. Calvin was downright apolitical by sixteenth-century standards; he exerted little political power in the city and even less did he try to cultivate it. Often he was more lenient and humane than city officials, as the Servetus affair reveals (to which Selderhuis appropriately devotes a mere three pages). Calvin did not get his way in the execution of the heretic even though "the smell of smoke has clung to Calvin's clothes for centuries."

Exile encouraged the Christian to see the world as a strange place. Calvin's Reformed restlessness cultivated discontent with this present age and prompted reflection on the future life. His love for the Psalms was owed in part to their being "existential pilgrim songs." Though Selderhuis only briefly alludes to the Psalms in this book, readers can find this theme developed further in the author's earlier work, Calvin's Theology of the Psalms (Baker Academic, 2007).

The world, under the pronouncement of God's curse, lost the order with which God endowed it at creation. So where amid the sin and chaos is that order to be found? Calvin writes that only in the reign of Christ in the church is God's order restored. There is no stability in the universe except in the church that is built on the foundation of God's Word. The church is a fragment of paradise on earth because of its order. Even here, Calvin was no perfectionist; Selderhuis writes that for Calvin, simul iustus et peccator applied corporately as well as individually.

Calvin reserved his strongest words of condemnation for those who would destroy the order in the church. When the wicked usurp ecclesiastical authority, the church is converted into a Babylon or an Egypt. Selderhuis concedes that Calvinism itself "unleashed a fury of scandals and schisms," but these cannot be blamed on Calvin himself. Sojourning did not mean separatism. Throughout the book Selderhuis notes the strong ecumenical impulse in Calvin. The breech with Rome owed to Rome's breaking unity by abandoning the gospel. The failure of Lutherans and the Reformed to unite was an ongoing frustration for Calvin, which, Selderhuis laments, is overlooked by Calvin's followers: "The Reformed had little esteem for the Luther in Calvin."

Selderhuis's portrayal is supported by his extraordinary attention to Calvin's letters. B. B. Warfield called Calvin "the great letter-writer of the Reformation," and his letters fill eleven volumes of the Corpus Reformatorum. Amid a remarkable number of direct quotations from these letters, Selderhuis observes that "the real Calvin is to be found in his correspondence," which Calvin himself claims to be "the living image of my soul." Nor are Calvin's sermons neglected by the biographer; he notes, for example, how the changing conditions of Calvin's ministry in Geneva affected his homiletical style.

From liberal use of these resources, Selderhuis's pen gives us a fuller picture of Calvin than previous treatments that seem more wooden in comparison. The pilgrim metaphor especially challenges the prevailing wisdom that Calvin taught a world-affirming spirituality. At the same time, Selderhuis does not diminish Calvin's revolutionary effect on Western civilization. Instead, this book underscores the irony of a pilgrim life: it is the church reformer, not the cultural warrior, that yields the most stunning of social transformations. Under the heavenly mindedness of Calvin's preaching and the diligence of his catechetical instruction, Geneva emerges as the most cosmopolitan of European cities.

Selderhuis describes Calvin as a "verbal decathlete" with a gift for words. The same can be said for the lively prose of this well-written book. Selderhuis can turn a phrase wonderfully, and this able translation reads fluently. For example, here is his explanation for the organic growth of Calvin's Institutes from first (1536) to last edition (1559): "Just as with children, the book kept its name and main characteristics, but in growing up it gained experience, size and weight."

All students of Calvin should treat themselves to this biography in this jubilee year. They will come to agree with the author's observation that "Calvin was not made of stone, and if there are Reformed Christians who are, they are not Calvinists."

Friday, October 30th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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