Books: John Calvin by Herman J Selderhuis

Since I am not a fan of Calvinism, I did not expect to become a fan of Calvin. But after reading John Calvin by Herman J. Selderhuis (IVP Academic, 2009), my esteem for the man definitely grew.

Selderhuis claims to write as neither friend nor enemy of Calvin (1509–1564), and I think he maintained that neutrality. Since Calvin maintained that we learn most about people from their letters, that was the primary source used by the author. This is not a book for you to gain a grip on Calvin’s theology, but it works well in giving insights into his personality and life experience. For example, I’ll bet you did not know that Calvin used at least four names during his life, nor that he was an illegal alien for most of his adult life!

More to the point, you can understand that being excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC from here on) would not have had quite the impact on Calvin that you might expect, because both his father and brother had also suffered that fate earlier in his life. Calvin secretly read works by Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon during his RCC education, and he was convinced that there was much to learn from Judaism and the Old Testament. He seems to have become a Christian in his late twenties, though the timing is uncertain.

It is fascinating that Calvin never had any formal theological training, a fact that we should probably celebrate. It was after Calvin’s death that the odious scholastic theology – full of speculative philosophy and tedious logic – crept into Reformed theology through Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva. Calvin was gifted in explaining complex theological concepts simply.

It is astonishing that Calvin gave ten new sermons every fourteen days! That is a killing workload, yet Calvin also found the time to complete many editions of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion as well as commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. Calvin’s preaching featured short, clear sentences, and that was so innovative that it strongly influenced the development of modern French sentence structure.

Well, you can tell that this book has many interesting things to say about a remarkable theologian. It is unfortunate that Calvin’s biblical theology was made so speculative and philosophical by Beza and then later infused with even stronger determinism by Jonathan Edwards. I have problems with Calvin’s original views, but he did much to advance appreciation for the Bible as the basis for all Christian theology. Calvin sought to honor Christ in all things, and I applaud his intention but not all his conclusions.

I warmly recommend John Calvin by Herman J Selderhuis.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!