A Pilgrim’s Life

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).



  1. Reed Here said,

    July 10, 2009 at 8:29 am

    Thanks for the review Lane. Think I’ll pick this one up sooner rather than later.

    I’m more and more persuaded that one of the greatest disservices a pastor can do to his people is to not teach, model and equip them for the life of a pilgrim. The eyes are so magnetized, the flesh is so ubiquitous, the world so invidious, that without a constant stream of what walking by faith is all about (i.e., a pilgrimage to the next world), God’s dear sheep can’t help but to live a stumbling life of walking by faith jumbled up with walking by sight.

  2. rfwhite said,

    July 10, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Reed: could we say that God’s people are too often just wanderers when they should be pilgrims?

  3. Roberto G said,

    July 10, 2009 at 9:15 am

    “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.”
    I am in the process of reading this book. Very, very enjoyable. Although I haven’t reached this part of the book yet, I’ve come across this remark by Calvin concerning his wife. I don’t consider this comment to be anything other than high praise from a preacher to his wife. If a similarly high compliment was to be stated in our day, it would have been phrased differently, no doubt, and would have emphasized a different aspect of appreciation for a wife’s support. But given the time and culture, this was a high compliment.

  4. james said,

    July 10, 2009 at 9:19 am

    I attended his lectures on Calvin at RTS Orlando. They were excellent! Dr. Selderhuis came across as a scholar of the highest caliber, but also as a Christian who saw Calvin as a godly Christian man, flaws and all. I’m not sure if they posted the lectures online, but he had us in stitches when he weaved a story of Calvin’s Sabbath observance with his own during a trip to America. Dr. Selderhuis has a keen eye on breaking down stereotypes of Calvin, whether good or bad.

  5. tim prussic said,

    July 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    God made Adam to work and Eve to help him… maybe Calvin had read that. The notion is a slap in the face of so much modernity, but… that’s okay. A godly wife would read Calvin’s words and bless Idelette’s name, seeking to emulate her.

    I’m always edified by reading Calvin and reading about him.

  6. July 10, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Has anybody read a biography of Calvin written by one Thomas H. Dyer? It was published in about 1850 or so and was, apparently, well-regarded in its time. I haven’t read it, but I saw a copy in a library the other day.

  7. Mike said,

    July 13, 2009 at 11:43 am

    I have read many sides to the Calvin-Servetus story which obviously produces a lot of heat on both sides of the issue. My question has alway been what did Calvin’s theological leaning play into the role he had with Servetus? And by this question I don’t mean the doctrine of the trinity but rather his reformed theology. I think it is an astute observation that Calvin may have thought more highly of himself than he should have. I agree

    Was his comdemnation of Servetus based upon his love of God and truth…or the fact that he felt personally insulted by Servetus? My vote is the latter.

  8. Roberto G said,

    July 13, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I attended a lecture on Calvin at RTS Orlando back in the summer of 2000. The prof mentioned that Calvin and Servetus had corresponded years before and Calvin agreed to meet with him to discuss doctrinal matters. Calvin agreed to do so at his own great risk, but Servetus never showed up. Whether Calvin thought more of himself than he ought have is probably as true for him as it is for all of us.

  9. Reformed Sinner said,

    July 13, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Here is some useful information:


  10. Reed Here said,

    July 15, 2009 at 6:12 am

    Dr. White: sorry, missed your comment. That sounds about right. Wanderers in the sense that the Fall has indeed left us homeless, and in the sense that sin nature is a cruel taskmaster, ever driving us to look in all the wrong places.

  11. rfwhite said,

    July 15, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Reed: yes, I was thinking of the exodus generation and how an 11-day pilgrimage became a 40-year wandering.

  12. Reed Here said,

    July 18, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Dr. White: been a little tied up with some of our wanderers here. Think I’m going to use that point – in the context of Hebrews of course – as it sure does make a strong warning.

    I guess I should be encouraged – Moses had two families out of millions (Joshua and Celb). Our ratio is not that bad :-)

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