Book Review of John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life by Herman Selderhuis

30 December 2009 by Wes Bredenhof

John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Herman J. Selderhuis, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.  Paperback, 287 pages, $28.99.

After reading the fifth or sixth positive review of this biography, I finally bit the bullet and laid my money down.  Herman Selderhuis, a professor at the Theological University in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, wrote this volume about John Calvin originally in Dutch.  Albert Gootjes, a Ph.D. student at Calvin Seminary, translated it into English in time for it to be published during 2009, the 500th year since Calvin’s birth.

I hate to be contrary to all the other reviewers, but this book bothers me – a lot.  Before I go further and explain why, a few disclaimers are in order.  First, there is no question that Calvin was a great theologian and exegete.  I have the highest respect for him and regularly make use of his insights.  Second, the massive volume of Calvin’s writings cannot be underestimated.   To know a sixteenth-century figure well, the only thing you have to go by are his writings and perhaps what contemporaries said about him.  This biography is based primarily on Calvin’s correspondence and that may colour it a certain way.  Third, it is a well-known fact that biographies sometimes say more about biographers than about the objects of their writing.  Writing a completely objective biography is impossible.  One’s own interests and outlooks invariably creep in.  To what extent that is true of this biography is not mine to say.  I just want to draw attention to that fact since it does possibly mitigate some of what will follow.  By the same token, perhaps this review says more about the reviewer than it says about either Calvin or this book!  Let the reader beware…

As far as an outline of Calvin’s life in general goes, from what I can tell the book is a helpful and reliable guide.  My uneasiness is from the way Calvin’s relationship with God is portrayed.  I realize that there may be a difference between the way it really was and the way it’s described here.  While I may have read more of Calvin than the average person, I do not claim to be a better Calvin scholar than Herman Selderhuis.  All I’m saying is that the portrayal of Calvin’s relationship with God makes me uncomfortable – whether this is a true picture is difficult for me to say.  On the one hand, I want to be charitable to the author and believe that he has written as accurate an account as he could.  On the other hand, I want to be charitable to Calvin himself.  I want to believe that his relationship to God was healthy and his understanding of God biblical.

While Calvin is portrayed in this book as one who knew God as his Father through Jesus Christ, one often gets the sense that he believed himself to be one who was just barely loved by God.  Selderhuis relates how Calvin “drew awfully direct lines between sin and punishment” (61).  Calvin is pictured as one who believed that the hammer of God’s justice was always hanging over his head, and that it could drop at any moment and destroy him.  In his preaching and teaching, he sent the same message to others:  you are but a hair-breadth away from being struck down by an angry God.  At the end of his life, Calvin expresses “his fear of having to appear before God as a sinful person” (252).  At the end, it seems like Calvin has gone through his entire Christian life motivated by the dread (not ‘fear’ in a healthy sense) of God and his punishing justice.  There is very little evidence in this book of a man who is confident and certain of his heavenly Father’s love for him.  There is very little evidence of a child of God who found refuge and comfort in his gracious Father’s long-suffering.  Instead, the very word “Father” seems almost to be synonymous with “wrathful judge” for Calvin.

In both Lutheran and Reformed theology, there is a well-developed understanding of the doctrine of justification.  In this doctrine (which Calvin also held), after believers are justified through faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone, they remain sinners until they are glorified in the hereafter.  Simul iustus et peccator – at the same time righteous and a sinner.  The way Calvin is portrayed, it’s almost all peccator and very little iustus.  The picture of Calvin in this book is not of a man who found comfort in the gospel, but a man whose introduction to the gospel led him to yet more angst and guilt.

This is a Calvin I don’t think I’ve met before and a Calvin I even find pathetic (in the sense of being sad and miserable).  Is this the real Calvin?  Or is this a one-sided portrayal?  Again, I’m not qualified to judge.  I have read more of the writings of his contemporary, Guido de Brès.  As I read his letters, there’s always a profound sense of the nearness of God.  De Brès was a man who believed that his Father loved him and nothing could ever take that away, not even his sin.  De Brès believed that he was loved deeply by Jesus Christ and we find that reflected in my favourite line of the Belgic Confession:  “There is no creature in heaven or on earth who loves us more than Jesus Christ” (article 26).  They say that the Belgic Confession owes its biggest debt to John Calvin and from what I’ve seen I believe it.  But I do wonder then about the Calvin of Selderhuis – is this the same Calvin that de Brès supposedly met in Geneva?

I believe the conclusion of this biography speaks for itself.  After noting that Calvin looked forward to conversing with Luther in heaven, Selderhuis writes:

In contrast to many later Calvinists, at any rate, Calvin himself has no doubt as to whether or not we would recognize one another in heaven.  This would indeed be nice.  If I am to end up there myself, there are some things that I would really like to talk to him about. (259 – italics added)

It is with good reason that the German translation of this book was entitled, Johannes Calvin: Mensch zwischen Zuversicht und Zweifel (John Calvin:  Man between Confidence and Doubt).  Unfortunately, at least in Selderhuis’ portrayal, zweifel often overcame zuversicht.

For all of that, the book is worthwhile.  It has, for instance, helpful insights into why Reformed churches do certain things like home visits.  Above all, it’s certainly highly readable — probably at least some of that can be attributed to the translator.  In the final analysis, however, this is not a volume that I would recommend to someone if I wanted them to have a positive picture of the Reformed faith from the perspective of the one credited as being one of its pre-eminent fathers.

One response to “Book Review of John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life by Herman Selderhuis”

  1. Thanks for the review, Wes. I have not read the book, but I must say I appreciate your independence. Also, the conclusion you quoted is chilling.

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