Book Review

"The Writings of John Calvin, Expanded Edition: An Introductory Guide" by Wulfert de Greef (translated by Lyle D. Bierma)

Carl R. Trueman
Wulfert de Greef
Thursday, June 11th 2009
Jun/Jul 2009

This book is the second edition of a work that has already established itself as something of a basic resource and reference tool for anyone engaging with John Calvin, whether at the level of a layperson or a more advanced scholar. It is exactly what it says it is: an introduction to the life and writings of the Genevan Reformer and is, as far as I am aware, without peer in the field.

The book consists of ten chapters, covering Calvin's life and works, plus a survey of primary sources, a select bibliography of secondary literature (not confined simply to English-language resources), and a chronological index of Calvin's writings. In short, there is a wealth of valuable reference material here that one will not find as conveniently or concisely assembled and arranged in any other book.

The structure of the work is thematic rather than chronological. The first chapter is devoted to Calvin's life. At 63 pages, it is a concise but not superficial treatment, and provides useful background information that theologians often ignore but that is significant for understanding Calvin (such as French political background to the Reformation, the population figures for Geneva in Calvin's time, and its ethnic make-up). DeGreef also usefully highlights the impact of Martin Bucer and the Strasbourg years on the formation of Calvin's thinking. But this is more than biography: de Greef moves in subsequent chapters to deal with a series of themes and genres within the Calvin corpus, from "First Publications" through "Debating with Roman Catholics" to "Letters." In each section, the author surveys the relevant literature, provides historical context, and draws out key themes and anything else worthy of particular comment.

Of course, such a work has its limitations. It is precisely an introduction and thus, while well worth reading from cover to cover, it serves as something of a reference tool for general reading than an in-depth study of any particular aspect of Calvin's thought. This is particularly evident in the treatment of the commentaries and the Institutes. This book is a springboard for further reading and a handbook to guide the interested reader, not as the final word on any issue. Yet the provision of a select bibliography helps the interested reader to explore further.

In short, I find it hard to find anything at all to criticize in this work. Bierma's translation is clear and very readable; the book is packed with useful information on every page; and, just for good measure, there are many, many helpful illustrations-contemporary woodcuts, portraits, maps, etc., which only add to the book's aesthetic appeal and overall attractiveness. Indeed, it is hard not to sympathize with Jon Thompson's jacket commendation that indicates that the pastor or scholar really needs two copies: one for the office and one for home. Thoroughly recommended.

Thursday, June 11th 2009

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