Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Book Note: Herman J. Selderhuis's John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life

Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (IVP, 2009): 287 pp.

I just finished reading this popular level biography of Calvin by the respected Dutch church historian Herman J. Selderhuis. A Presbyterian pastor friend gave a copy to me earlier this year. I met Selderhuis back in 2016 when he was one of the plenary speakers at the Houston Baptist University’s Erasmus conference (I recorded and uploaded one of his conference addresses here). He also attended the breakout session at the same conference in which I presented my paper on “John Calvin and Text Criticism” (audio here) and offered some encouraging feedback.

This is an engaging and very readable book, chocked full of interesting anecdotes and insights on Calvin, including ones that are both well-known and lesser known, drawn from Calvin’s letters, sermons, and papers. This is a not a hagiographic work. Selderhuis does not present Cavin as a cardboard cutout Protestant saint. On the other hand, the author is clearly sympathetic to his subject and keen to defend Calvin’s legacy from popular myths and historical misconceptions (e.g., notions that Calvin was a heartless stoic, that he reveled in the death of Servetus, etc.).

The book is written in simple and arresting prose. A brief note at the back offers thanks for translation help to Albert Gootjes, though he is not credited in the front matter (p. 262). Here is a sampling of some witty quotes sprinkled throughout the book:

“Servetus’ defamations of Calvin were like ‘the barking of a dog at a pile of manure’….” (p. 33).

“When a Reformed child sits in a church, there is nothing to do but listen or read because there is nothing to look at, and at home it is barely any different” (p. 41).

On Calvin’s expansion of his Institutes over time: “Just as with children, the book kept its name and main characteristics, but in growing up it gained experience, size, and weight” (p. 45).

“Calvin suffered from an inability to accept that not everyone was as enthusiastic as he was” (p. 145).

“He was like a scholar who dealt best with people when he did not see them” (p. 165).

“That he did not much care for women can almost be seen in his appearance” (p. 167).

On limitations placed on social interactions for courting couples in Calvin’s Geneva: “In short, there was little for couples to do except read the Institutes together” (p. 181).

“Seeing himself as an Old Testament prophet, he stood in confidence and pulled no punches” (p. 202).

“Servetus was burned, but the smell of smoke has clung to Calvin’s clothes for centuries” (p. 205).

“Calvin was not made of stone, and if there are Reformed Christians who are, they are not Calvinists” (p. 254).

The overarching theme of the book is reflected in the subtitle. Selderhuis holds that Calvin saw himself as a pilgrim in this life. He had fled his beloved France to live and minister in Geneva. More importantly, as a believer, he was the kind of “alien” and “stranger” in this life described in 1 Peter and Hebrews. So, Selderhuis observes: “Calvin was a stranger who felt at home only where the gospel could make its home” (p. 251).

The closing sentence of the main body of the work is also interesting. The friend who gave me the book had cited it once while we had a discussion on assurance of salvation, and this had prompted the gift. After discussing Calvin’s anticipation of heaven, Selderhuis closes with an observation that reflects some strains of high Dutch Calvinism regarding assurance, “If I am to end up there myself, there are some things that I would like to talk to him [Calvin] about” (p. 259).

The book is excellent and commended to all. Tolle lege!


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