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John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life

Herman J. Selderhuis

Reviewed by: Ben Westerveld

Date posted: 10/11/2009

John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, by Herman J. Selderhuis. Published by IVP, 2009. Paperback, 304 pages, list price $25.00. Reviewed by OP missionary Ben Westerveld.

Our souls are nourished by reading Christian biographies, particularly those which faithfully recount the joys and struggles of this earthly pilgrimage. In this respect, Herman Selderhuis has done us a great service by producing a well-written biography of the Reformer of Geneva, John Calvin (1509–64).

While the bulk of the biography traces Calvin's ministry in Geneva, the reader will be intrigued to learn about the loss of his mother at the age of six, the strained relationship with his father, his gradual conversion to the Protestant faith, his exile from France, his cold reception as an immigrant in the Republic of Geneva, his distaste for accumulating money, his poor health, the death of his only child, the loving care given to his dying wife, his stubbornness, and his moments of personal discouragement and reproach. Neither applauding him nor cutting him down, Selderhuis simply presents the man of God, John Calvin.

Selderhuis has an engaging writing style, so that the biography reads easily. However, the numerous subtitles (on nearly every page) break the flow of the biographical pilgrimage. Also, Selderhuis has included few significant quotations from Calvin's personal correspondence. The addition of longer quotations would have enabled the reader to enter better into the thoughts and feelings of this brother in Christ.

I would heartily recommend Selderhuis's biography to all adult believers, and not simply to Calvinists. Critics of Reformed doctrine would do well to read about Calvin's faith and life. An appreciation of his wholehearted desire to serve God may soften the sharp criticisms of his modern-day critics.

Those who love Reformed (Calvinist) doctrine would also benefit from reading this biography. Calvin is neither Christ, nor an apostle, nor the last great theologian that the Lord has given to the church. Reading about Calvin in the weakness of the flesh reminds us that he too is an earthen vessel, a fallible pastor, as well as a struggling pilgrim.

I would strongly encourage pastors to read Selderhuis's book. Calvin's passion for the full ministry of the Word—preaching, catechising, writing, theological training, pastoral counseling, without neglecting the diaconal care of refugees fleeing persecution—should remind us of our full-orbed calling.

Reading the biography of John Calvin enables us to look at the man behind the theological system that we cherish. We are once again reminded that the Lord Jesus continues to give gifts to his church, particularly pastors and doctors of theology, to steer us away from false doctrine and to edify us in the knowledge of Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:7–16). In our time, may he again raise up such men of God to unite us in our one, holy faith.

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