Friday, September 25, 2009

John Calvin: Man or Monster?

Perhaps one of the most controversial, ubiquitously hated and slandered characters in history is the great Reformer John Calvin. Mention his name in many circles, and the response of cold and bitter contempt will be unparalleled (often the same circles of such as who try to hide their worship of men like Rob Bell, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, John Wesley, etc, depending on their particular tastes and the demands of the worldly culture or philosophy in their particular situation). Suggest that you have read a book by this man, and measure how rapidly the accusation will arise that you are following a man instead of Christ!

But I prefer to leave such bigotry and Anabaptistic fanaticism (by which they would cut themselves adrift from all the saints in Christ who came before them - just as they cut off their children) with the attention it deserves. I recognise John Calvin, and many others like him as my spiritual fore-fathers in the faith once delivered unto the saints. And what is he but a minister by whom God brought many to believe in Christ at the time of the Protestant Reformation? The Holy Spirit attributes similar descriptions both the Apostle Paul and to Apollos, who were mere men, yet they were used by God in the ministry of the Gospel of Christ (I Cor. 3:4-9).

Usually Calvin is portrayed as the "Protestant Pope of Geneva", a cruel tyrant, the evil executor of Michel Servet, a prideful polemicist, and many other horrid depictions besides, such as know no end. Few others have been smitten with so many manifestly rotten and vile slanders, but what is the truth about this Reformer? Have those who take so great a delight, along with so little care in calumniating him ever endeavoured to explore this enigma? That is very doubtful in my experience. More often than not they hold merely to hearsay about twisted representations of his doctrine and life. This book dispels such misrepresentations, and demonstrates unequivocally from his actual correspondences, reviewed by an excellent student of his history, how deeply filled this man of God was with great compassion, zealous love, moving sympathy, and fierce devotion to God, the church, and his dear fellow saints, friends, wife, and family.

Since I finished the lengthy introduction, I've been craving an opportunity to write a review of this book. Now, a shock for everyone - it is neither doctrinal, not polemical. It is simply biographical. Last Saturday evening I read "The Humanness of John Calvin: The Reformer as Husband, Father, Pastor, and Friend" written by Richard Stauffer, and translated from the French by George Shriver. You will not find a study of Calvin's theology here, though a new book by Engelsma which I am persuaded by many, deals with this subject superbly (I hope to review this in due course too, though I've a heavy weight of other books to get through first).

The author portrays the Christian man Calvin, as a man deeply connected with both the greatest of joys and griefs of his friends. As I have read a number of Calvin's works this year (since it is after all the 500th anniversary of his birth), I have for the most part read a lot of his polemical works on various issues of quite practical importance for myself. I find much encouragement in his godly argumentation, lofty respect for Holy Scripture, powerful logic, and uncompromising detestation of all manner of blasphemies, idolatries, superstitions and heresies. Yet, I perhaps have greater joy in seeing the sweet love for God and the church from which his fierce polemics flow. From this he derives his steadfast tenacious commitment to the truth of Scripture, the grace of God by which his heart was bound to the lives of the saints.

Read this book, and see how deeply Calvin shared in the trials and troubles of his many friends. See how hard he worked in maintained these friendships over great distances, and great differences, and in great hardships. And perhaps then, you may see a glimpse of the fruit of that true theology which God had granted to him in a great measure of clarity. And then perhaps, see how difficult it would be to come close to emulating such an great example of genuine Christianity. May many think twice before blasting him with all the criticisms they can muster. May we first take the planks out of our own eyes, and remember that there is none that doeth good, and it is God that justifieth - and that, not by works, lest we should all perish everlastingly.

I thank God for faithful ministers and godly examples like John Calvin that He has granted graciously to His church, because I know that it pleases God to place such treasures in jars of clay (II Cor. 4:6-7). This book definitely wins my approval. I don't know where the best place to purchase the book is, but a simple web search should find it no problem.

Sam W.

P.S. I felt that a few quotes would also be appropriate, first one that cannot be found in this book, but found in Calvin's famous reply to Sadoleto's attempt to win over the Genevans:
"For then only do pastors edify the Church, when, besides leading docile souls to Christ placidly, as with the hand, they are also armed to repel the machinations of those who strive to impede the work of God."
And from the book itself, as a hint of its contents, wherein Calvin is writing to Guillaume Farel concerning the plague that had swept through Strasbourg, including his own household:
"To the cruelty of the sorrow has been violently added an anxious fear for those who survive. Night and day my wife is in my thoughts, deprived of advice since she is denied her husband's presence. Bereavement over my excellent Charles [that is, de Richebourg] torments me in a particular way - he, who in four days had been deprived of his only brother and of his teacher whom he loved as a father. These events bring me such sadness that they completely overwhelm my soul and break my spirit."
Try to call him "monster" after reading this little book.

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