OK, I don’t need to deny that Calvin (not Cranmer, although I am an Anglican) is still my favorite church theologian. It will most likely remain this way (now an Anglican may consider this a thorn in his/her flesh, but hey, it’s a great thorn). So reading yet another bio from Calvin doesn’t feel so burdensome. Plus it was the last book review I had to write before I am granted my MDiv (meaning I had to read it critically). I read 3-4 other bios of Calvin before. I have to say that this one shines brighter (thanks, Prof. Ken Woo!). If you want to learn more about Calvin, you must read this one. Anyway, this is my take.
Selderhuis stylistically recounts Calvin’s life from childhood to maturity and death both in temporal and theological senses. Each phase of Calvin’s life (from an orphan to a stranger and finally a sailor and a soldier) is accompanied with, and perhaps set as a context of, some aspects of Calvin’s theology. Claiming to approach Calvin “as neither friend nor enemy,” Selderhuis perceives Calvin as a fascinating person (8). While the reason for Selderhuis’ fascination remains unclear, Calvin is clearly presented as a paradoxical figure who was on the move. He “pleads for freedom, but prays for providence” (8). He desired to be both a scholarly humanist like Erasmus and a popular reformer like Luther (26). He was an iconoclast who was a “proponent of image in preaching” (114) and introduced large-scale congregational singing in the church (134-35). In this sense, someone who lived in such tensions would unsurprisingly be a lifelong pilgrim.
Comparing Calvin to St. Peter who was often “taken where he did not want to go,” (51) Selderhuis often correlates Calvin’s decisive turning points with geographical dynamics (from Paris to Geneva then Strasbourg and finally back to Geneva). Yet another dominant theme in Selderhuis’ Vorstellung of Calvin’s character is his constant quest for a father figure. Alienated from his biological father, Calvin was led to his humanist teachers, Farel, and Bucer from whom Calvin learned how to be a scholarly humanist, a reformer, a church leader, and a theologian. Ultimately, this prepared him for his final return to Geneva. His own father was not without contribution. Calvin’s success in Geneva was partly attributed to his training in law which was his father’s initiative (75). Lastly, is it possible that the excommunication of his father (and brother) somehow played a role in Calvin’s separation from Rome (10)?
But what ushered Calvin to break fellowship with Rome? Here Selderhuis interprets Calvin’s subita not as ‘suddenly’, but ‘unexpectedly.’ He compared Calvin’s conversion to St. Timothy’s: a believer who moved to a “purer doctrine” (18). Although reared by the Mother Church (11), Calvin came to know God “more as Judge than as Father because of the way the church had wrongly portrayed him” (19). Catholic preaching had burdened his conscience “without the comfort of forgiveness that is to follow” (20). As Calvin, having been equipped in humanism, familiarized himself with the Protestant reformation, he gradually found the centrality of adoption in his version of Christian theology. His guilt and fear of punishment drove him to perceive God as Judge yet eventually Father (21, 62). While Calvin moved from one human “father” to another throughout his life, God is his unchanging Father.
Calvin started his guilt trip (which led to an awakening from his dogmatic slumber) from a same point as Luther. Could this be due to their prior studies in law which might have enlightened, or rather, skewed, their understanding of biblical righteousness? As argued by a number of prominent New Testament scholars (such as Dunn, Wright, Bauckham, and Hays – dating back to Ridderbos), this could be true. Yet it should be noted that such understanding of righteousness was not initiated by Luther or Calvin, but rather the medieval church. The transactional theory of atonement of Anselm as well as the doctrine of excess righteousness and purgatory are but a few embodiments of this faulty abstraction and absolutizing of righteousness.
Regardless, this gradual turning point led Calvin to break fellowship with Rome (49). He left Paris for Geneva due to threat of persecution. There he met Farel and grew to love while, at the same time, hating Geneva (yet another paradox). His conflict with the Bern-reared “children of Geneva” led him to Strasbourg where he met Bucer and lived his most productive life as a humanist church theologian. The Institutes grew in size as he wrote his biblical commentaries (47). So his exegetical works continually refined his theology. In his first stay in Geneva, Calvin grew primarily through conflicts. In his stay in Strasbourg, Calvin grew in wisdom and stature through his pastoral and scholarly works. Here he demonstrated his undying love to Geneva as he wrote his response to Sadoleto’s letter. While it was primarily his personal defense, Calvin desired to prevent Geneva from returning to the yoke of the Roman papists.
These two phases prepared him for a final phase in Geneva. While he was unsuccessful in reforming Geneva in his first stay (55-56), both Geneva and Calvin had changed by the time of Calvin’s return. Now unlike Luther, Calvin viewed the law of God positively as a guide for Christian living since “Christ had not come with a new law, but brought the old law into our very hearts.” (73) This contributed to Calvin’s vision of reforming Geneva into a Christian city. This is done through the ministry of the church in teaching, visitations, and church disciplines motivated by “thanksgiving and obedience to God the Father” (121-23, 210-12, and 249). Another reason for Calvin’s success is that Geneva was already conditioned for a reform. Finally Calvin received his Genevan citizenship in 1559 and died there. As Calvin’s influence spread throughout the world, the child of God who continually searched for human father figure eventually became a father of many (258).
Throughout the book, Selderhuis attempted to correct some common misconceptions on Calvin. The first misconception is regarding Calvin’s tendency to be consistent and uncompromising. While Calvin behaved in such a rigid manner against Catholicism of his time (50), Calvin tended to promote unity within Protestantism. This was manifest in his critique against Luther’s resolute commitment to his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper which, according to Calvin, hindered Christian unity (105). While Calvin’s vision of ecclesial unity is doctrinal (142), he indeed chose his battles. For instance, his enmity with Bolsec was rooted in Bolsec’s public opposition to his doctrine of predestination that Calvin deemed essential (here I disagree with Calvin despite my subscription to this doctrine). His renunciation of Servetus, who was already a dead man by an edict of Rome, was an act of civil obedience. Even so, Calvin tried to convince Servetus to recant his heresy and ask for a lighter penalty on Servetus’ behalf.
This understanding is relevant to those who claim to be modern-day Calvinists or Reformed. Calvin’s antipathy towards Catholicism should be understood in his historical context (i.e. utter corruption of papacy which was protested even by those inside the church and the so-called counter-Reformation movements). Is Catholicism of the 21st century the same as the 16th century? Yet even more concerning is a divisive tendency promulgated by many “Calvinists” who dedicate themselves to the akribeia of doctrinal points. Some level of doctrinal unity is inevitable to foster any genuine unity. Yet how do we maintain the perennial tension between unity and diversity? Here modern-day Calvinists may be able to learn from Calvin himself.
In relation to unity and Calvin’s reformation, Selderhuis points out that “in Geneva … the agenda was not so much to impose a particular religion on the population but rather to promote unity among the people, which would also contribute to their economic and social welfare” (128). Not only did the city care for the poor, but it also opened their arms to refugees from other parts of Europe. Here one may find Calvin’s missional goal for unity. The priority was not a city of a single religion of Christianity, but a missional city which was founded on Christian worldview (quite parallel to Abraham Kuyper’s reformational project). How relevant this is for today! Rather than prioritizing on building our own sectarian kingdom, should we join hands with Christians from other traditions for the sake of mission to restore God’s good creation?
This brings us to Weber’s thesis of capitalistic Calvinism. Here Selderhuis admits that the doctrine of predestination tends to compel individuals to work hard (by combining piety and fiscal disciple) in order to attain assurance. In this sense, subscribing to this doctrine may lead to capitalism. But Selderhuis correctly points out that Calvin’s understanding of predestination differs from Weber as evident from Calvin’s fierce reaction against capitalism and individualism as well as his sense of responsibility to the poor and the welfare of community (219, 226). Here Calvin viewed humanity as a collective. This is far from some understanding of modern-day Calvinism which tends to be other-worldly and shackled by individualism. This distortion of the doctrine of predestination inevitably (and evidently) leads to pride and judgmentalism.
But is there any edifying individual aspect of the doctrine of predestination? Selderhuis explains that Calvin’s understanding of predestination did not turn him into stone. In fact, “if there are Reformed Christians who are [made of stone], they are not Calvinists” (254). For Calvin, “predestination means that one cannot lose faith, providence that one cannot lose the way” (40). A Christian who holds fast onto this truth proceeds from weakness, leading him or her onto a total dependence on God’s grace and mercy. It is a source of strength in the midst of tribulation. It is not an abstract doctrine to be paraded and used to measure others’ doctrinal maturity. It is a synonym of adoption. Being an orphan who was constantly haunted with lack of assurance, Calvin was able to find peace as he held onto his Father who is unchanging in his love and providence. This is the biblical doctrine of predestination. It is no wonder that this doctrine was essential for Calvin as well as for those who were persecuted (such as the Huguenots and the Dutch Calvinists in the 16th century).
Overall, Selderhuis has written an informative and inspirational biography of Calvin. At times he does not hesitate to criticize Calvin. For instance, he still thinks that Calvin was somewhat too sectarian, not completely innocent in the Servetus affair, and inconsistent in some other matters. Having said that, this biography could be improved if Selderhuis develops Calvin’s view on church tradition in relation to his view on the supremacy of Scripture. Is Calvin’s permanent break from Catholicism simply because he did not attribute any sense of authority to church tradition? Is it simply a matter of “Catholic preaching” which did not offer any hope for those who were burdened by guilt? Adding this would be helpful in presenting the historical context in Calvin’s time more holistically –especially to a number of Reformed Christians who subscribe to a skewed version of “sola scriptura” without any measurable regard to church tradition. Are such Christians not comparable to children who have lost their way to home –who, ironically, might end up in a worse position than any orphan?