Today being the day when every single blogger of Calvinistic leanings (and maybe even some who are not) will be noting that Calvin was born on this day 500 years ago, I thought I would review a new life of Calvin.
The slant in this biography is as the title of the blog post would suggest: Calvin as a pilgrim through life. The chapters are arranged chronologically, with an apt noun describing each period (orphan, pilgrim, stranger, refugee, etc.). I would highly recommend this life of Calvin, as Selderhuis seems to have gotten into the shoes of Calvin, and you get insight into how the man thought, and why he did and said what he did.
For instance, Calvin got the nickname accusativus while he was studying at the Collège de Montaigu. Selderhuis notes that this comment “was not meant as a compliment. The name appears to have had nothing to do with grammar, but with a perception that Calvin felt a moral obligation to tell on others to the administration” (p. 14). This helps explain Calvin’s role in the burning of Servetus, on which Selderhuis has a very balanced and sane opinion. Servetus was a dead man all over Europe (p. 204). Disbelief and active opposition of the doctrine of the Trinity was a capital offense in those days, not just in Geneva, but all through the Holy Roman Empire, according to the edict of the emperor Charles V. Selderhuis thinks that Servetus chose Geneva possibly because he wanted to get the council on his side. At any rate, he seems to have been suffering from a chronic death wish. Servetus went to Calvin’s church on August 13, 1553 (p. 205). Servetus, while eating after the service, was spotted by someone, who reported the event to Calvin, who in turn felt it his civic duty to report Servetus to the authorities. Calvin did this, and therein his involvement in the Servetus case came to an end, except that he petitioned (after the council deliberated to have him burned at the stake) to have him hanged rather than burned, as it was more humane. One has to understand that it was the council and not Calvin, who condemned Servetus to death. Calvin undoubtedly approved of the council’s decision, but it was not his decision. He was not on the council. Selderhuis also notes that “Any city that became known as tolerant of those who would deny the Trinity would be abandoned by friend and foe alike” (p. 206). This put Geneva in a very difficult position if it wanted to defend heretics. But all the advice from all the neighboring cities was to execute the man. Therefore, if Calvin is to be implicated in the burning of Servetus, then so should all the rest of Europe, for rejoicing in said crime. This may not excuse Calvin in the minds of many, but to single out Calvin, as if he were the sole person responsible, is irresponsible scholarship, and only engaged in by those who have it in for Calvin.
Selderhuis’s description of Calvin’s love for his wife Idelette, humanizes Calvin for us. He was a man, not a machine. Calvin wrote to a colleague in Frankfurt, seven years after he had lost Idelette, “What a terrible injury, what a pain the death of your wife has caused you, and I speak from my own experience. For even now I fully know how difficult it was, seven years ago now, to deal with such grief” (quoted on p. 172).
Of course, Calvin was not perfect, and Selderhuis does not have rose-tinted glasses. For instance, Calvin noted after Idelette’s death that she had never hindered him in his work. Selderhuis notes that “we might also wish that Calvin had simply dropped this remark” (p. 171). Perhaps Calvin’s work was too important in his own estimation.
All in all, I found it a very enjoyable read, based on original sources, having the feel of a scholar who had soaked deeply into Calvin’s life and work (Selderhuis has also published on Calvin’s theology of the Psalms).