Depending on who you talk to you will receive mixed responses when mentioning the name John Calvin. He is a menace to some and hero to others. It seems that you either like him or are against him and there is no one riding the fence. To hear some talk about him you wonder if they have ever read anything he wrote. To hear others talk about him you wonder if they had just had lunch with him and read everything he wrote. Robert L. Reymond is one such man.
In his new book, John Calvin: His Life & Influence, Robert L. Reymond gives us a very informative, short and honest presentation of the life and ministry of John Calvin. Reymond provides a timeline as well as description of the life of Calvin without the boring nature typically associated with listing names and dates.
Chapter one deals with the providential way in which God prepared Calvin for his life and ministry. Calvin enjoyed some of the best schooling under some of the best teachers of his time. Though he was trained in humanism it certainly did not hinder him coming to the faith and Reymond argues that it later aided him in his writing. In 1532 Calvin wrote his first and only humanist book at the age of twenty three which is the same year he came to faith in Jesus Christ.
Chapter two deals with Calvin and his famous Institutes. Here Reymond charts Calvin’s expulsion from Geneva and the events that led him to begin his work on the Institutes which was only two years after his conversion. Reymond points out that though Calvin’s Institutes is a theological work, it was written with political motives as well as he sought to defend his Protestant friends from persecution by King Francis I (p. 48). It was the persecution brought on by the Placard Incident that caused Calvin to rush his first of a number of editions of the Institutes.
Chapter three gives us a survey and context for Calvin’s many published works including his commentaries, further editions of the Institutes, sermons and various writings against the Catholic church and others. Interestingly enough, though Calvin was expelled from Geneva, he was later asked to return in an effort to bring moral and spiritual reformation to the city. After a year of deliberation and prayer he returned to Geneva where he would turn the city around. During his time in Geneva Calvin reformed the city, started a school and helped to write the Geneva Bible. What is very interesting about Calvin’s second time in Geneva is that we see a man who, though very scholarly, was very pastoral. Concerning Calvin’s work on the Institutes Reymond rightly states,
It is evident that where the Bible took him, there he went; where its declarations ceased, there he stopped to, but always giving benefit of the doubt to Scripture as God’s inspired and therefore inerrant Word (p. 93).
Chapter four addresses what unfortunately is the only event of Calvin’s life that his critics want to remember him for – the burning of Servetus. Despite the fact that Reymond favors Calvin’s theology and work he is not supportive of Calvin’s involvement in the situation. There are a number of aspects to the Servetus situation that Reymond brings to light that seem to have been lost in the darkness of Calvin criticism. Citing William Cunningham, Reymond notes that the putting to death of heretics was a law and duty held by Protestants and Catholics alike during Calvin’s day. Though this does not excuse the act (similar to not excusing Christians from having slaves a few centuries ago though they used Scripture to support it) it is not right to unfairly single out Calvin above the rest for his part in this. Also, it is not commonly known that though Calvin did support Servetus’ death, he did not support death by burning but rather some other means like decapitation. Further, though Calvin was in favor of Servetus’ death, he was only one among many who made the decision. Even if he had totally rejected the idea it was still going to happen. Reymond concludes his discussion of the Servetus incident with the following statement,
It is simply unfair to single Calvin out as if he were the originator of the practice of burning heretics of as if he were a particularly violent supporter of the practice at a time when a vast majority of the European continent’s enlightened populace would have wished it otherwise (p. 119).
In reflecting on the Servetus incident, Reymond makes one point of application that I find very helpful for our day:
But clearly in the sixteenth century the sense of order of both Catholics and Protestants was horrified by something else – something quite sobering and something to which few in our day heed anymore at all – namely, the thought of immortal souls being destroyed by false doctrine, of churches being rent asunder by heretical parties, and of God’s vengeance being poured out upon cities and nations that tolerate and endorse immorality by means of war, pestilence, and famine (p. 124).
Though death for heresy is not tolerated, nor should have been, we can learn this from these sixteenth century men – that the death of the soul to false doctrine is worse than the death of the body.
At the end of his life Calvin died at age 54 after battling numerous physical ailments but having accomplished so much for God, his church, the city of Geneva and having unknowingly effected the course of the future of the Protestant church worldwide.
John Calvin: His Life and Influence is a must read if you do not know much about Calvin or are looking for a good short Calvin biography. The chapter on Servetus alone is worth purchasing this great little book.
NOTE: I received this book for free and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.