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

  • Paperback: 287 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (January 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830829210
  • WTS Books

Many thanks to Adrianna Wright and InterVarsity Press for this review copy of John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life by Herman J. Selderhuis.  This book review will be somewhat shorter for a reason: there is just so much to appreciate in this work from a historical perspective, that I really don’t want to shortchange the reader.  So I would encourage the reader who wishes to delve in more, to read the book in its entirety, and so make his or her own evaluation and so on.

An Overview

In his own words, Selderhuis describes himself neither friend nor foe.  “I feel nothing for Calvin either way, but I am fascinated by him as a person.”  In Calvin’s own words, he bears his true soul in his letters.  With this in mind, Selderhuis says that the most important source for his book is his correspondence.  The book has ten chapters, each just over 20 pages, broken down in sections.

In this book, according to Selderhuis, he just wanted to tell the story of Calvin’s life to discover what he was like as a person.  Over 250 plus pages Selderhuis does just that, focusing on Calvin the man and the Geneva in which he lived and the key people he interacted with.  And Calvin wore many hats, even that of a husband, but the one he valued most was that of pastor-theologian.

An Evaluation

This work is quite informative.  I appreciate the chapter layout.  However, I wish there was a chapter on Calvin the humanist, since his humanism was such a foundational part of this approach.  While there was mention of the rising star Beza and the academy in Geneva and the fact that students came from all over the world to matriculate, there was no mention of John Knox, who studied under Calvin and took Reformed theology back to his native Scotland and the rest is history.

But I did appreciate greatly Selderhuis Geneva, if you will.  Since he described himself as neither a foe nor a friend, I was especially looking forward to his treatment on Calvin and Michael Servetus.  In the end, Selderhuis only confirmed what all objected scholars and historians of Calvin have already written.  Most importantly, I believe, Selderhuis did not take a photoshop approach to Calvin as a person.  Calvin was portrayed as a flawed human being, even dictatorial at times.  But it is what Calvin thought about himself in light of God’s will, that made the difference in his life.  As the saying goes, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

If you’re interested in the life  of Calvin, especially through his many letters, in which he bore his soul, and which serve to correct many caricatures of Calvin, then this work by Herman J. Selderhuis–is a must read.

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