The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor” & “John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life”

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John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey

Crossway, 2009 (208pp, pbk)

John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life by Herman Selderhuis

InterVarsity Press, 2009 (287pp, pbk)

john-calvin-3One cannot help but feel a little sorry for the genuine Calvin scholar as one reviews the glut of Calviniana being ushered in by the quincentenary.  The most assiduous reader would – however much he felt obliged to do so – struggle to wade through seemingly endless biographies, topical studies, translations of original material, re-issues of older works, and so on.

For those not so thoroughly enmeshed in academia, yet seeking insightful treatments of the life of Calvin, there is still a sometimes bewildering range of options.  Herman Selderhuis (PL) and Robert Godfrey (PP) provide two of them.

The books share certain similarities, and not just in the title. The particular strength of both is reliance on primary sources.  Both authors, rather than relying on scholarly surmise or the opinion of others, lean heavily on Calvin’s own words (in Selderhuis’ instance, particularly his correspondence) to press out insights into Calvin’s mind and heart.  This gives both volumes a welcome liveliness and freshness.

Another similarity lies in the fact that both books attempt to be both biographical and topical, albeit by different routes.  In the Godfrey volume, this takes the form of a two-fold division: Calvin as pilgrim (here a more thoroughly biographical section, plunging into the Strasbourg sojourn before skimming through his early life and student days and his first Genevan period) and Calvin as pastor (the second Genevan period, where Calvin’s convictions concerning various issues, and the practical outworking of those issues in Geneva, are addressed more topically).  Selderhuis takes a different approach: ten chapters are chronologically arranged, each with a pithy title, such as ‘Orphan’ for 1509-1533, ‘Victim’ for 1546-1549, ‘Sailor’ for 1555-1559, and ‘Soldier’ for 1559-1564. These slightly enigmatic headings are further subdivided in the chapters themselves, with sections of one-half page to two pages under their own very brief (usually one word) caption.  The combined effect is of being carried forward by pigeon steps – progress of a slightly fragmented kind.

John Calvin Pilgrim and Pastor (Godfrey)A further shared quality is the readability of the volumes.  Godfrey has a relaxed and accessible style, almost disappointing in its unobtrusiveness, but pleasantly simple and straightforward.  Selderhuis must thank his translator for doing an excellent job in producing a terse, compact, lively English idiom: it is a pleasure to read.  Neither book is excessively scholarly in style: perhaps the reputation of both men as scholars has rid them of any felt need to impress with their erudition.  The weight of learning lies behind the text, evidently present without being paraded on the surface.  Godfrey opts for very brief footnotes, quotes themselves often being linguistically updated.  Selderhuis has a more novel approach: page after unfootnoted page, all awash with apparently unproven assertions.  Turn to the back of the book, however, and you will find twenty sides of page-referenced notes, sometimes with snippets of text or brief pointers, all sending the reader back to the original sources.  Depending on one’s intention in reading, this is either wonderfully refreshing or painfully frustrating (especially if one does not have ready access, physically or linguistically, to the two main editions of the Calvini Opera, the Supplementa Calviniana, and the correspondence of the Reformers).  Selderhuis includes an index of names, while Godfrey supplies a broader general index.

Furthermore, neither author seeks to define Calvin in terms of any particular event: both are interested in the broad sweep and tenor of his life.  There is a subtle resistance in both cases to highlighting or dramatizing specific episodes or crises.  There are narrative peaks and troughs to be sure – the confrontation by Farel; exile from Geneva; the death of Idelette; the trial of Servetus – but both Godfrey and Selderhuis are too wise to make any one episode defining (except insofar as, for example, Calvin’s conversion set the course for his life).  They are more interested in character demonstrated across the contours of this pilgrim life.  Nevertheless, certain themes do develop, especially in Selderhuis: Calvin’s attitude to authority (especially paternal authority, whether human or divine), and his linked disposition toward God’s providential government of all things; the twin motifs of abyss and labyrinth that impact the pilgrim’s progress.  In Godfrey, it is perhaps more classic Calvin emphases – submission to God’s word, reverence for God manifest in worship, awareness of God’s utter sovereignty.

Perhaps the key difference lies in the approach of the two men to their subject.  Hints of this become readily apparent in the respective introductions.  For Godfrey,

Some have loved [Calvin], and some have hated him.  All would agree that he was a man with a brilliant mind and a powerful will who had a profound impact on the development of western civilization.  But was that impact positive or negative? (PP, 7).

So far, so relatively neutral.  A slightly clearer hint at the tone of the volume comes in the language of Calvin’s inspirational example to thousands of pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars; the language becomes increasingly warm, building to the assertion that

This book . . . aims at communicating Calvin’s passion and faith through extensive quotations from his works so that something of the force and eloquence of his language can be experienced by the reader.  He moved millions not through the power of his personality but through the power of his biblical ideas and words.  This book focuses on the essential Calvin, a man who lived out his Christian faith as a pilgrim and a pastor (PP, 9).

It would be wrong to conclude that what follows is mere hagiography.  At the same time, Godfrey appears as a fair-minded and insightful appreciator and defender of Calvin, standing in the same tradition and – without merely applauding him at every turn – clearly sympathetic to him as a man and as a Christian, while aware of his frailty and shortcomings.  When considering Calvin as pastor, he penetrates and summarizes Calvin’s thought, and then transcends it in ways that almost become preaching.  For example:

For Calvin, worship was not a means to an end.  Worship was not a means to evangelize or entertain or even educate.  Worship was an end in itself.  Worship was not to be arranged by pragmatic considerations but was rather to be determined by theological principles derived from the Scriptures.  The most basic realities of the Christian life were involved.  In worship, God meets with his people to bless (PP, 80).

This is the language of conviction and comradeship.

Selderhuis, by contrast, tells us that

In this book, Calvin is approached as neither friend nor enemy; I just do not categorize him in that sense.  I feel nothing for Calvin either way, but I am fascinated by him as a person.  Without intending to, he created a world-wide community of believers, arousing as much scorn as admiration and accomplishing so much in spite of his many limitations.  I have tried to tell the story of his life to discover what he was like as a person. . . . It is well worth trying to get under his skin, and – if you get that far – I will let you out again at the end, I promise (PL, 8).

This authorial stance, so bluntly introduced, leads to a curious and sometimes uncomfortable tone at points in the book.  Perhaps the terseness and wit of the prose, so commendable at points, contributes to this sense.  Selderhuis claims a lack of bias, rather a fascination: however, this doubtless well-intended distancing of himself from his subject can occasionally come across as a little glib, even snide, occasionally bordering on the callous.  So, for example, on courtship, we are informed that “The background of his prohibitions against [sexual] intercourse for those who were courting or engaged was Calvin’s view of all sexual activity outside marriage as adultery.  In short, there was little for couples to do except read the Institutes together” (PL, 181).  So far, so potentially tongue-in-cheek.  But when we are reading of the death of his wife, for example, Selderhuis displays a kind of empirical empathy without demonstrating much human sympathy:

Calvin claimed that he had lost his best friend, adding that she had been extremely faithful in helping him in his ministry.  These are nice testimonies, but Calvin felt the need to add also that she never hindered him in his work.  For one as truly afraid as Calvin was of the possibility that marriage could do this, this is, of course, a positive observation.  Still, although it is to be hoped that everyone might claim his or her partner was no hindrance, we might also wish that Calvin had simply dropped this remark.  Here, however, he was as open as he was everywhere else, as is also true of his remark that he tried to deal with his grief in such a way “that I continue my ministry without a break.”  His work had been given him before the woman, and his work also continued without her, and working hard did indeed help him overcome his grief (PL, 171-172).

The portrait that comes to the fore is of a workaholic (another theme of Selderhuis’) simply getting on with the job, and less a deeply sensitive man burying his grief in the only way he knew.  Admittedly, Godfrey focuses more on Calvin’s public than his private life.  At the same time, Selderhuis demonstrates a more ready humanity in his style, but less in his substance.  This strange ambivalence toward both Calvin and Calvinists (the author’s tone constantly suggests that he is distancing himself from such a designation) – not so much a balance between regarding as friend or enemy, as a seeming readiness to snipe when the mood takes him – continues all the way through to the abrupt and curious ending:

In contrast to many later Calvinists, at any rate, Calvin himself had 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 (PL, 259).

One cannot help but wonder what he wants to say, and in what tone!

John Calvin A Pilgrim's Life (Selderhuis)So, what is the prospective reader of a Calvin biography to do?  Which way should he turn?  It is fascinating that Calvin, to some extent, seems to defeat the biographer: trying to let the light glimmer fairly off his multi-faceted life and ministry leads to so many varied approaches and perspectives.  Selderhuis offers greater insight into Calvin the person, but Godfrey is more successful in highlighting the governing principles of the man in his public role.  Selderhuis gives us a more rounded character portrait, a “warts and all” depiction; Godfrey gives us rich insight into his abiding concerns and theological convictions.  Selderhuis provides an honest depiction, Godfrey an honest appreciation.  Selderhuis does not shy away from the flaws of the pilgrim, while Godfrey is more interested in his progress.  Selderhuis is profoundly aware of Calvin’s God; Godfrey seems often on the verge of preaching him.  Selderhuis leaves you saying, “What a man! – but a man nonetheless”; Godfrey leaves you saying, “Only a man, but – under God – what a man!”  Selderhuis evidently knows Calvin’s heartbeat intimately, and strikes out all its rhythms on the page; one feels that Godfrey’s heart is often beating in time with his subject’s.

One could argue that it is a matter of emphasis and intent.  In that respect, I would be loath to recommend one or the other, as different readers with different desires or expectations will doubtless prefer one to the other.  I am glad to have read them both.  Selderhuis keeps us from veneration while still communicating the great gifts that God gave to the man; Godfrey directs us in appreciation, revealing the underpinning convictions of Calvin so as to instruct, challenge, rebuke and encourage.  The pastor-theologian in me would recommend Godfrey, while enjoying Selderhuis; the pastor-historian would tend toward Selderhuis, but be very unwilling to relinquish Godfrey.  Those whose affection for Calvin is already secure might be well-served by reading Selderhuis in addition to Godfrey; those who know little about Calvin should head for Godfrey first, as I am not persuaded that they will know what to make of Selderhuis’ Calvin if he is their first exposure.

In many ways, then, read either.  By all means, read both.  Probably read Godfrey before Selderhuis.  But, certainly, read more.  I think both Godfrey and Selderhuis would concur here: read Calvin himself.  The present publishing glut is making Calvin the preacher more accessible in modern English, and it is here you will find Calvin’s heartbeat for yourself.  In addition, Calvin the man can be better understood, Calvin the polemicist heeded, Calvin the correspondent read, Calvin the pastor appreciated, Calvin the theologian entertained, Calvin the friend enjoyed, and Calvin the Reformer heard.  Both of these studies, to varying degrees and with different emphases, show us a man who lived before God.  Both should send us back with renewed appetite to read Calvin in his own words.  There we will find that profound God-awareness, that unshakeable reverence, that determined obedience, that makes Calvin worthy of the attention of both these authors, and which shines out in both their books.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 30 May 2009 at 21:03

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