Calvin books vary during his 500th celebration year
By Walter Taylor, The Layman, Johnson reinterprets key teachings of Reformed faith into the cardinal views of his own theological liberalism. For example, the doctrine of election becomes a call for “diversity” (p. 122), and a call to universalism (p. 48).
This book was sent out to all PCUSA pastors by the publisher in hopes that it could be used in congregations that wanted to learn more about Calvin in this anniversary year. This was quite an undertaking, especially in a time of recession. However, one needs to be aware of the picture of Calvin we get from Johnson. The Calvinist heritage becomes for Johnson a “ceaseless process of reform” (p. 123), so that one wonders if there are any limits or parameters to what this means. Instead of being a Reformer greatly concerned with both the Scripture and the practices of the ancient church, Calvin becomes the progenitor of a movement that could be characterized as “theological Trotskyism.”
A far different approach to Calvin is taken in John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life by the Dutch Reformed pastor and theologian Herman J. Selderhuis. Selderhuis, who is professor of church history and church polity at the Theological University in Apeldoorn (in the Netherlands), has given us a new biography of Calvin based largely on Calvin’s own letters. Selderhuis sets out to “tell the story of his life to discover what he was like as a person” (p. 8). Calvin is thus portrayed as a man of his times, yet this very portrayal shows what a man he was. Selderhuis does not present Calvin as some sort of superman (in fact Calvin’s own mistakes and foibles are revealed). However, Selderhuis shows us, unlike Johnson, that Calvin’s own failings were his own failings, and not a failure on his part to be a liberal Protestant.
Selderhuis shows us a very human Calvin, a Calvin who was hurt by others and who in turn could hurt others as well. He also asks questions about Calvin that hero-worshiping Calvinists might not ask. For example, Selderhuis lays out Calvin’s own pilgrim life as a search for a home and a search for fathers (his own father, William Farel, Martin Bucer, etc.). However, at the end of the book one has gained a deeper understanding of John Calvin the man. Selderhuis’ book is winsomely written, meticulously documented, and a downright “fun” read. The reader cannot help but pick up Selderhuis’ own sense of humor as he reflects on Calvin’s life, particularly as it has influenced the Dutch Reformed context. This makes John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life an accessible book both to scholars and to lay people who want a deeper understanding of the Reformer.
In addition to this biography on Calvin, Selderhuis has also edited The Calvin Handbook. This substantial work of more than 500 pages contains research from a list of international contributors, all of whom are serious scholars of Calvin and church history. Written “to provide a thorough overview of the biography, the theology, and the influence of Calvin, based on the most recent research” (Preface to the English Edition, viii), The Calvin Handbook, simultaneously published this year in Dutch, German, and English, will remain a major work for Calvin studies for years to come.
Johnson, Stacy. John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press. 2009. 142 pp.
Selderhuis, Herman. John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic. 2009. 285 pp.
Selderhuis, Herman, editor. The Calvin Handbook. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans. 2009. 585 pp.