Engraving by I. Covens and C. Mortier/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sticking by the Bible

2009 Books Issue | A 500th birthday biography of Calvin shows a complex man with a singular belief who delivered the church from medievalism

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

A biographer's task is to narrate the arc of a life, not merely assemble a set of facts. He needs to enlist not just mind but heart, building sympathy for his subject while retaining sufficient critical distance to see him not as he saw himself, but perhaps as God sees him. Dutch scholar Herman Selderhuis accomplishes those tasks admirably in John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life. Relying heavily on Calvin's letters to friends and associates, he portrays him as not merely the great brain but a pilgrim with hemorrhoids, a man who knew his flaws but also knew that God, for Christ's sake, had forgiven him.

Secularists and some Christians think of Calvin, born on July 10, 1509, as a person who wanted to force theological conformity, but Selderhuis notes, "For Calvin, conversion meant freedom, a liberation from the torments of the conscience, from the feeling that whatever he did was sinful and wrong." He realized that the disciplines celebrated by medieval Catholicism-penance, fasting, and other forms of self-flagellation-were not required and could be harmful. He proposed instead, and modeled in his life, the discipline of work in a calling, and the discipline of service, particularly to the poor. Calvin's emphasis on godly work outside of ecclesiastical pursuits opened the door to many vocations. He saw God's grace in scientific discovery, because learning more about the created world taught us about the Creator. He argued that biblical opposition to usury referred to interest-free charitable loans, and that extending this ban to regular economic activity would reduce opportunities to promote business expansion and human flourishing. He thought the best way to tackle poverty was not to distribute alms but to open a business and employ those who would otherwise beg.

Selderhuis also shows how Calvin emphasized not just theoretical study but careful observation of all that happens: Terrible events show "that the world is passing away, that one must seek true rest elsewhere, that with God even setbacks aim at the good, that one must be humble, that one needs forgiveness of sins, and the list goes on. If God does nothing random, there must always be something to learn." For this reason Calvinists founded newspapers and colleges.

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Calvin wrote and preached in a way accessible to the broad public, not just scholars: He used "short, clear sentences. This was apparently so remarkable at the time that he is considered the inventor of modern French sentence structure." Calvin's appreciation of music-it "has a mysterious and almost unbelievable power . . . to turn hearts"-led him to introduce congregational singing.

In politics, Selderhuis shows that Calvin did not care much for monarchy, where birth rather than ability determined rulers, and where one person had too much power: Given sin, how many could resist grabbing and killing to get what they wanted, or at least taxing heavily? Others in his time still saw monarchs as limitless in their power by divine right, but Calvin argued, "If [note the if] kings want to be considered legitimate and as servants of God, they need to show that they are real fathers to their nation."

When the powerful demanded what was not theirs, Calvin recommended passive resistance highlighted by the patient bearing of wrongs. Giving God His due, though, might require active resistance: "If princes demand that we turn from honor of God, if they force us into idolatry or superstition, then they have no more authority over us than frogs and lice do." When Catholics tried to wipe out France's Huguenots and these Protestants took up arms to defend themselves, Calvin "actively engaged in the collection of funds for the Huguenot armies."

Selderhuis also shows that Calvin thankfully made use of many of God's blessings. When Calvin reformed Geneva's law code, the town fathers gave him a barrel of aged wine as a reward: He enjoyed it and later wrote, "If wine is a poison to the drunkard, does that mean we are to have an aversion to it? Please, no. We do not let that spoil the taste for us, for on the contrary, we delight in the taste of wine!" Calvin argued that those who promoted lifelong celibacy and thought sex was bad were opposing God's will: Sex, not solely for the purpose of procreation, was part of a healthy marriage.

Calvin's views of marriage generally seem more modern than medieval. He argued that prospective marriage partners should spend time together to gauge compatibility, and that marriages should not be arranged against the wishes of the prospective partners: If they "do not love each other, it is a desecration of marriage and actually is no marriage at all. For the most important bond is that they both want it." Nor was it wrong "that men in the choice of a wife take into account their beauty"-and women also could consider men's looks. Calvin even stated that although sex before marriage was wrong, life was complicated and it was foolish for men to insist that women they marry be virginal.


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