Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Book Review -- John Calvin: His Life & Influence

John Calvin: His Life & Influence Robert Reymond's John Calvin: His Life & Influence is a biographical sketch of the renowned Protestant Reformer. The author states from the start that his intention is to dispel the prevailing notion that Calvin was either, at best, a stern and cold doctrinarian, or, at worst, a religious despot. Rather than accepting these caricatures, the serious Christian will find that Calvin's life and works provide a greatly-overlooked source of edification. Reymond's book is intended as a brief survey of Calvin's life and major accomplishments.

As mentioned, Reymond wrote the book to be a short (~150 pages) introduction, with content adapted from a series of hour-long lectures he delivered to a church audience in 2002. Reymond has also included thorough footnoting, both to cite his sources and also to provide extended quotations and commentary not included in the lectures due to time constraints. Even with the additional material, the book is still a quick read and serves as a good survey of Calvin's life for the uninitiated. Additionally, Reymond helpfully lists numerous biographical sources for further study.

Each of the book's four chapters corresponds to one of Reymond's original lectures. The first addresses Calvin's early life and impressive schooling, first in preparation for the Roman Catholic priesthood, and later in the field of law. Reymond also discusses the issue of Calvin's conversion to Protestantism, which he believes was a sudden occurrence, and not the gradual development that some biographers suggest. This topic carries over into the second chapter, which begins with the young Reformer fleeing Paris as a result of his Reformation sympathies. Eventually, Calvin severed his Roman Catholic ties and devoted his scholarship to defending the Protestant movement, publishing the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536 from the Swiss city of Basel. Reymond demonstrates how Calvin's magnum opus retained its basic shape from the beginning, despite the numerous later expansions and revisions. Reymond concludes this chapter with Calvin's initial call to ministry in Geneva, and his subsequent expulsion two years later. The explanation of the city's political machinery is helpful in understanding Calvin's tenuous relationship with the civil magistrates.

Chapter three relates Calvin's time in Strasbourg and eventual return to Geneva, having been recalled by the city leaders only two years after his removal. Most of this chapter surveys Calvin's accomplishments during his "second Geneva period": massive religious and civil reform, the limiting of the civil authority over ecclesial matters (particularly regarding church discipline), a French translation of the Scriptures (the "Geneva Bible," which soon led to an English version), rigorous academic training for pastors and missionaries to be dispatched throughout Europe and even into the New World, as well as Calvin's impressive written output, including revisions to the Institutes. Reymond spends several pages discussing Calvin's greatest work, demonstrating how the key distinctives of later Reformed thought were present either directly or "in seminal form."

The final chapter tackles the most controversial episode in Calvin's life: the execution of Michael Servetus by Genevan authorities (with Calvin's approval). On the whole, Reymond's treatment is good: he expresses disapproval of this act, but clarifies the political and culture context in which it occurred. Although he doesn't excuse Calvin's involvement, he convincingly demonstrates that the execution was not the result of extraordinary malevolence on Calvin's part; rather, Reymond shows that Calvin's attitude was simply in accord with his era's prevailing (although unfortunate) attitudes about the punishment of persistent heretics. (Indeed, prior to his flight to Geneva, Servetus had already been sentenced to death by Roman Catholic authorities, and the majority of Protestant leaders of that day also approved of his execution.)

Overall, Reymond provides a decent overview, with a few flaws. One of my more serious criticisms is that the book veers into hagiography on occasion. Granted, Reymond's stated intention is to dispel negative caricatures, and he certainly praises Calvin's many laudable achievements in glowing terms. But one is left to wonder how those negative depictions arose in the first place. Reymond does provide, in appendix form, a bibliography of Calvin biographies, including a number of negative assessments; however, based on Reymond's synopses, the "opposing views" appear a bit over-the-top in their treatment (and reviling) of Calvin. It would have been good to see more balanced treatments of Calvin the man. (Granted, the book is meant to be an introduction, not a detailed look.)

Additionally, Reymond includes several interjections that detract from his overall work, including seemingly-random potshots at N.T. Wright and Norman Shepherd (in a footnote), as well as misplaced swipes at gay marriage and abortion in current society. He also diminishes his treatment of Servetus' death by repeatedly addressing the subject of Protestants martryed by Roman Catholics during the same time period. Reymond is certainly correct that many Calvin-bashers employ a double standard when it comes to religious persecution. However, in this context, these arguments seem like attempts to deflect attention from the transgressions of his subject.

Despite these criticisms, John Calvin: His Life & Influence is probably a good starting point for anyone interested in a concise look at the great Reformer's life and lasting accomplishments.

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