[K:NWTS 24/2 (Sep 2009) 40-50]

Exsul, Peregrinus, Viator: Selderhuis on Calvin, A Review[1]

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Peripatetic student, European peregrinator, French refugee, earthly sojourner. John Calvin was all of these, even as he frequently declared that God “sent his gospel . . . to draw us out of this world that we might [draw near[2]] to him . . .that we might not doubt…the inheritance of everlasting life is prepared for us as it was so dearly purchased for us by our Lord Jesus Christ” (John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistles of Timothy and Titus [1579/1983] 1035, hereafter Timothy and Titus). That is to say, we are to take “hold of the heavenly life which he has promised us”—“to have an eye to the heavenly life whereunto God calls us” (ibid., 1149, 1148). Selderhuis’s subtitle, “A Pilgrim’s Life”, is an apt reflection of Calvin’s own semi-eschatological, way-faring self-consciousness. Calvin was conscious of belonging to the heavenly world already (“we are set already in the heavenly places,” ibid., 1235), even though his earthly world-consciousness often reflected that of a wilderness. The concomitant experience of Israel’s Exodus-Wilderness sojourn, graciously inaugurated by the redemptive hand of God, provided a paradigm for Calvin’s own pilgrimage: “for the life that we lead here beneath is answerable to the journey which the people of Israel made those forty years in the wilderness. . . . And verily we are in this world as in a wilderness” (Sermons of M. Iohn Calvin upon . . . Deuteronomie [1583/1987] 368). As Christians “are only guests on this earth” (Selderhuis, 146), nonetheless “we are but as pilgrims and do not cease to be for all that citizens of heaven” ( Timothy and Titus, 1235). Indeed, a semi-eschatological consciousness in Calvin’s persona and biography was pioneered and perfected by the consummately eschatological pilgrim, Jesus Christ. Selderhuis’s subtitle offers a unique Quincentenary perspective on Calvin’s career—a perspective which emerges from Calvin’s own Biblical and Christocentric identity.

We have here an engaging portrait of the “Geneva Star” arranged chronologically from his birth 500 years ago (1509) to his death more than fifty-four years later (1564). Selderhuis illustrates his narrative with copious selections from Calvin’s own corpus.[3] The source of these citations and allusions are listed in the “Notes” (260-85) and are coordinated by chapter and page. The book is a pleasure to read and contains numerous bon mots as well as insightful turns of phrase. We learn that Calvin “spoke of Christ as present and not present at the Lord’s Supper” (154). That his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, had “drifted onto the market in 1536 as a sailboat, but by 1559 . . . had grown into a cargo ship” (229). That the Academy Calvin established in 1559 was “a sort of boot camp for the army of salvation” (238). Indeed, Selderhuis writes with an attractive and winsome style.

The young motherless boy from Noyon is directed by his father to the University of Paris when he is but fourteen years of age (1523)—directed to master the humanities in preparation for undertaking the priesthood of the Roman Catholic church. As his maternal want thrust him into loyal submission to his earthly father, a heavenly Father was ordering his steps in the most surprising and unexpected ways. Calvin’s later consciousness of the sovereign providence of God was a product of his own biography interfaced with the Word of God—his participation in a disposing drama which originated in heaven. Paris turned out to be a proving ground for the brilliant young Calvin (his extraordinary memory for primary documents took form here), as well as a hotbed of evangelical or Protestant agitation. Calvin’s circle of friends would include many subsequent defenders of grace alone via faith alone through Christ alone. But Selderhuis is rather too premature in suggesting Calvin was reading “forbidden books” by Luther and Melanchthon during his days at the Collège du Montaigu (14)—a suggestion, incidentally, which he does not document; nor is it supported by other standard biographers of our subject, i.e., Beza, Parker, Bousma, de Greef, Cottret, van t’ Spijker. Which makes the absence of Melchior Wolmar from the account of Calvin at Bourges all the more anomalous (15). It was Wolmar who introduced Calvin to the Greek language at Bourges (1529) and it was this German who would eventually cast his lot with Luther and Protestantism.

By his all-disposing providence, Calvin’s heavenly Father was acting concurrently with Calvin’s earthly father to alter his vocational career. Accused by the Bishop of Noyon of embezzling ecclesiastical funds, Girard Calvin was excommunicated in 1527 and, in turn, interdicted his son from preparation for the priesthood by directing him to take up the study of law. Thus, our young pilgrim goes to Orleans (1528) and Bourges (1529) in peripatetic pursuit of a degree in law. However, the more evangelical friends back in Paris are becoming militant in defense of sola Scriptura (they clash with the Faculty of the Sorbonne in 1530) and Calvin is drawn into the circle of this debate perhaps through his own cousin, Pierre Robert Olivétan, and his friend, Nicholas Cop. He acknowledges a subita conversione (“Preface,” Commentary on Psalms) occurring between 1532 and 1533. Selderhuis (18) suggests his conversion was “unexpected” (a possible lexical definition for subita). But Calvin’s testimony is to the ‘suddenness’ of the ‘unexpected’ turning of his heart to Christ. A quotation about conversion in general is particularized to Calvin himself by Selderhuis on the top of page 20. The remark is lifted from “Sermon 18 on 2 Timothy 2:25-26” (Timothy and Titus, 864), where Calvin specifies his remark for “everyone of us.” While Calvin himself may be mirrored in “everyone”, the context of the sermon does not necessarily dictate that conclusion. And now, John Calvin, newly turned from self and personal merit to Christ alone and his all-sufficient merit makes his formal break with Roman Catholicism. In May 1534, he returns to Noyon and renounces “the superstitions of the papacy.”

Selderhuis confuses us with the chronology of l’affaire des placards (October 17, 1534) and the university address of Nicholas Cop (November 1, 1533) (26-27). In fact, Calvin and Cop both fled Paris shortly after the fateful address in order to avoid the edict of King Francis I to crush the “accursed Lutheran sect.” The placard affair occurred nearly a year later.

But we have failed to note the singular act of God’s providence which disposed Calvin to “conversion”, to leave the Roman Catholic church and to identify with Cop and his courageous address (in which the latter defended salvation “because of the grace of God alone” and declared that “reconciliation and justification do not depend on our own worth and merits”). The death of Calvin’s father in the spring of 1531 altered our pilgrim’s course once and for all. In the fall of that year, Calvin is back in Paris, not practicing law, but studying Hebrew, Greek, the church fathers, theology. The Lord had set him free for a different pilgrimage—free to pursue the deep knowledge of himself and the Triune God. The balance of Calvin’s earthly sojourn is a testimony to his eager pursuit of this duplex cognitio.

Selderhuis observes that Calvin’s letters contain expressions of self-reflection—grist for the historian’s and biographer’s mill. Our author also notes Calvin’s personal reflections in his sermons (30). In this reviewer’s opinion, there are in fact a plethora of biographical reflections in the sermonic corpus—reflections as yet insufficiently tapped. The record of our subject’s pilgrimage has left its traces in surprising places.

Calvin writes his first theological work in 1534. Entitled Psychopannychia (treating “soul sleep”), it was not published until 1542 (cf. de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin [2008] 151). Selderhuis incorrectly places the date of publication at 1545 (41). As much against the modern Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists as select 16th century Anabaptists who held to the unconscious state of the believer’s soul between death and the final resurrection, Calvin pointed to 2 Cor. 5:8 (“absent from the body at home with the Lord”) as sufficient repudiation of this aberrant view of the intermediate state. The consummation of a Christian’s pilgrimage is not delayed by a sleep of unconsciousness. Rather the sojourner arrives as Lazarus in Luke 16—carried consciously into the bosom of Abraham (heaven), there to be known immediately even as immediately known.

In 1535, we find him in Basel taking pen in hand in order to compose his monumental Institutes in the space of nine months. The first of five editions appeared in Basel in 1536. Subsequent revisions appeared in 1539, 1543, 1550, culminating in the major final edition of 1559. The first edition would catapult him to fame and notoriety—which Calvin despised. It was enough that the Triune God and his way of salvation and Christian living were described (originally) for suffering French Protestants. That Christian “foundation” (Latin, institutiones) was what Calvin drafted in 1536 and enlarged later. It was a Biblical basis of faith for Christian pilgrims; hence, a handbook to accompany the Scriptures on the way.

The eschatological pilgrim who had redeemed this semi-eschatological pilgrim would now providentially dispose his steps to Geneva and William Farel. Unwittingly, Francis I and Charles V were the instruments of the detour. Calvin was returning from Paris to Basel in 1536 when the troops of the two royal antagonists blocked his way. Circling to the south, our viator sought lodging in Geneva on a summer’s night. Fiery Farel had been laboring in the city for four years—his efforts crowned with the abolition of the Roman Catholic Mass by the city fathers but a few weeks prior to Calvin’s arrival. Farel had read the Institutes and when he learned the author was in town overnight, he immediately accosted him with the famous “dreadful curse” (52-53). The story is well known and Calvin, cringing in horror, bowed his will to God’s boney-fingered providence, agreeing to aid Farel in organizing the Reformation in Geneva. The pilgrim had found a home as a stranger in a strange land, albeit by imprecation!

Selderhuis presents us with a portrait of Calvin’s integrity in his office at Geneva—indeed, in his role as a humble servant of Christ throughout his career (59f.). These reflections mark a sober contrast with the careers of the ecclesiastical thugs who dominate the current Reformed landscape. Ever conscious of their public image, these modern egoists posture, preen and leverage themselves to advantage while ruthlessly trampling upon others—even launching blogsites which are vicious and defamatory. Such self-promoters, Calvin would label “charlatans” and “pettifoggers”. Alas, like the poor, they are ever with us.

Calvin and Farel quickly drafted two documents for structuring the Reformation in Geneva: Instruction in Faith (a catechetical summary of Reformed Christianity) and The Geneva Confession (both are available in J. T. Dennison, Jr., The Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 1, 1532-1552 [hereafter RC] 354-92 and 395-401 respectively). The former I label ‘Calvin’s Institutes Lite’; it is, in fact, a precise abridgement of the 1536 edition condensed to aid in the instruction of children. Calvin would provide a Latin translation of the 1537 French original in 1538 (ibid., 402-42). The second document became the infamous sticking point. Our author, however, touches on the real problem (83)—power. Power over others by subjecting them to imperious intransigence and self-interest. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose! Current Reformed circles are too full of this abusive self-aggrandizement. Calvin and Farel would insist that all persons seeking admission to the Lord’s Supper subscribe the Geneva Confession (the full title reads: “A Confession of Faith which all the Citizens and Inhabitants of Geneva and Subjects of the Country are to Swear to Keep and Hold,” ibid., 395). Au contraire, the magistrates ruled; “the Lord’s Supper was not to be refused to anyone.” The die was cast. Would ecclesiastical prerogative be subject to the power of the state? Would the civil magistrate hold the power of the keys (Mt. 16:19; 18:18) opening and closing the door to the sacraments? Calvin and Farel declared, “No!” And on Easter Sunday 1538, Calvin refused to serve the Lord’s Supper until the matter was resolved. Resolution was quick: the power-broker civil magistrates gave Calvin and Farel three days to clear out of town. More pilgrimage!

Our sojourner’s next resting place was Strasbourg, whose reformer, Martin Bucer, welcomed, influenced and frustrated Calvin. He welcomed the French-speaking theologian because he respected him and also because he had a bevy of French refugees on his hands in need of a pastor. Calvin obliged in what became the happiest days of his earthly sojourn. Bucer’s influence helped shape Calvin’s doctrine of the church (88-89), especially the liturgical simplicity which has now become passé in progressive modern Reformed circles, where the Neo-Orthodox liturgical renewal movement has finally caught up to the Reformed fundamentalists. Bucer frustrated Calvin as he exasperated others. Ever the irenicist, he gave away the bank (“stooped so servilely”—Calvin wrote in a letter to Peter Martyr Vermigli, January 18, 1555)—especially to the Lutherans (“bent on appeasing the Saxons,” ibid.)—while requiring little Reformed collateral in exchange.

Selderhuis suggests Calvin was critical of Zwingli’s view of the Lord’s Supper (95), but provides no documentation. Perhaps, he is unaware of Zwingli’s remark: “but Christ is present in the Supper by his Spirit, grace and strength” (Werk, VI [1828-42] i, 758.33-36; cpr. W. P. Stephens, Theology of Huldrich Zwingli [1986] 244). And what are we to make of the “light” which joined Calvin and Bullinger (Zwingli’s successor and staunch defender) in the 1549 Consensus Tigurinus (RC, 538-45)?

But our author is spot on when he explores Calvin’s desire to progress deeper into the riches of the Scriptures (98). Beyond the work of the church fathers, medieval glossators, even contemporary evangelical and Reformed authors, Calvin sought “penetration” into the mind, heart, will and acts of God as revealed in his Word. Again, we are struck by the moribund lack of penetration into the Word of God in contemporary evangelical and Reformed circles. There is not only resistance to deeper insights and new tools for Biblical penetration—there is outward indifference and contempt for such methods resulting in even more dull, duller, dullest preaching which is lifeless, drab and unexciting. Most Reformed seminary graduates cannot preach and have little interest in the subject beyond the superficial. Not so the pilgrim occupant of the pulpit at 16th century San Pierre.

It was at this stage that Calvin’s ecumenical doctrine of the church was revealed in his stunning letter to Bishop Jacob Sadeleto (100f.). Sadeleto’s approach was to exploit the Roman Catholic notion of ecumenical visibility as confirmation of Rome’s exclusive claims. Calvin brilliantly counters with a non-institutional unity of the body of Christ, affirming instead the unity of the Spirit in faith in Christ. This invisible unity does indeed transcend denominational barriers and acknowledges an innumerable host of every tribe and tongue under heaven (Rev. 14:6).

Selderhuis omits treating Calvin’s marriage to Idelette de Bure in the Strasbourg years (104), but compensates with a section on Calvin’s view of marriage (167ff.) in which he reviews the Reformer’s union with the widow of John Stordeur. Our author adds a number of sensitive touches with respect to Calvin’s emotions about his wife, his son (who died soon after birth), his circle of friends (especially Farel and Viret) and the church. Selderhuis successfully parries the “Stoic” charge leveled against Calvin with these poignant remarks (cpr. 251-52). He reviews Calvin’s opinions on divorce as preeminently Biblical. Unlike the ‘scandalous’ Bucer, Calvin recognized divorce for adultery only and the so-called “Pauline privilege” (i.e., willful desertion, 1 Cor. 7:15). The cases of marital difficulty which confronted Geneva’s Venerable Company of Pastors demonstrates the challenge which the Biblical doctrine demanded of the church and the state.

In 1541, Geneva would reverse its ban and beg Calvin to return. While he hesitated (“I would rather die a hundred deaths”), he nevertheless submitted once more to the all-disposing providence of God. Promptly and sincerely (eventually), he offered his heart and his life to the Lord in moving back to Geneva on September 13, 1541. The pilgrim returns!

One condition of his return was agreement on church discipline. But though tacit accord was granted, it would be fourteen long years (1541-1555) of struggle with the ruling Council before Calvin’s Biblical views were firmly in place. Even when they agreed in principle, in practice the magistrates held the reins of their political power in a death grip. Only their death and replacement would bring Calvin the real separation of church and state on ecclesiastical discipline.

Calvin now began his remarkable preaching regimen at San Pierre and lecturing protocol at la Madeleine: twice each Sunday (morning and afternoon); everyday of the week on alternate weeks; Friday lectures at la Madeleine (the basis of many of his commentaries). He is known to have preached more than 2000 sermons, only about 700 of which survive due to the foolish decision of a 19th century librarian in Geneva to discard some old manuscripts in order to free-up shelf space. The librarian’s dilemma turned into a nightmare—the old manuscripts were, in fact, Calvin’s sermons in transcription. A few bundles of these precious documents were eventually recovered (thanks to the Monods). Today, the on-going task of editing and translating these surviving manuscripts advances apace.

There were, of course, opponents. Selderhuis reviews the tensions with Sebastian Castellio (140-42), Pierre Ameaux (148f.), Ami Perrin (151-52), Michael Servetus (203-6) and Jerome Bolsec (189-94). Every orthodox Christian pilgrim faces thorn bushes along the way.

Our author disappoints with his treatment of the disagreement between Calvin and the brilliant classics teacher he recruited from Strasbourg, Sebastian Castellio. In particular, the dispute between the two over the canonicity of the Song of Solomon was far more pointed than our biographer lets on. Castellio had labeled the sublime Song a “lascivious and obscene poem” (CO 11:675). Calvin, in defending this beautiful expression of marital love, had aligned himself with the historic Jewish and Christian opinion about the work.

But Selderhuis reviews the Servetus affair with care and fairness. We acknowledge that Calvin was a man of his time in this matter (heretics were executed by Roman Catholic states as well as Protestant ones in the 16th century; in fact, had Servetus not escaped from a Roman Catholic prison, he would have been executed by the Tridentine Counter-Reformation. The fact that he begged, on his knees, to be tried in Geneva and not in Vienne, sealed his fate to a Protestant tribunal); nevertheless, we are also reminded that Christianity is not a religion of the sword in matters of personal religious belief. As Paul reminds us, “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (2 Cor. 10:4). Yet, it has taken some Christians many years to learn and appreciate this truth—that the Christian sojourn often requires submission to suffering, not the imposition of suffering. N.B.: our author appears to be mistaken when he writes that Calvin asked for Servetus to be “hanged” (205) rather than burned at the stake. Other sources indicate he appealed for beheading as the more merciful alternative.

Jerome Bolsec troubled Calvin over predestination, accusing him of making God the author of sin. Calvin’s response also completed his previous work on the bondage of the will (The Bondage and Liberation of the Will) against Albert Pighius (1543). Selderhuis has traced the Pauline doctrine of predestination in Calvin throughout his biography—a pilgrim to the celestial city is one predestined from the foundation of the world. Calvin found it to be so in his own experience of union with Christ (as Augustine before him) and so proclaimed and defended that marvelous doctrine in perhaps his most mature formulation of the matter—“Consensus Genevensis: Calvin on Eternal Predestination” (RC, 693-820). As John Gerstner once quipped (and Calvin would agree), predestination is “double or nothing”—election and reprobation.

With the political and social crisis of 1555, the “winds were finally at Calvin’s back” (214). Precipitated by the xenophobia of the French refugee immigrants to Geneva, the so-called Enfants de Genève (“Children of Geneva,” old native Genevans or citoyens) reacted with resentment and political maneuvering. Led by Ami Perrin (ironically one of those who begged Calvin to return in 1541) and his allies, they planted a rumor that the new French immigrant bourgeois were a fifth column intent upon subverting the city and capturing it for the king of France. On May 16, 1555, a riot broke out in which the mayor of Geneva intervened personally in order to pacify the crowd. Perrin seized the mayoral staff (symbol of his authority in office). This was a visible act of treason (grasping for the reins of power) and the official reaction quickly forced Perrin to flee Geneva, while four of his collaborators were arrested and executed. A number of the Children of Geneva also left the city. The election of 1555 placed the supporters of Calvin firmly in control of ecclesiastical and political functions. At long last, the dispute over the particular prerogatives of the church in distinction from those of the state was settled. The old guard which brought the Reformation to Geneva retired from the scene (214). But Selderhuis does not note that this element was simply laying low for another day—their grandsons and grand-daughters would be the vanguard of the literati and proto-Enlightenment forces of the mid-17th to 18th centuries. Pierre Bayle, Jean-Alphonse Turretin and Voltaire would repudiate the heritage of Calvin in the name of a different pilgrimage—a sojourn to tyranny and the suppression of Christian freedom with the ridicule of the gospel as well as the ethic of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our author is aware of the Weber-Tawney thesis and its reflection on Calvinism and capitalism (218). Addison H. Leitch, once President of Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, explored this issue in his own sadly forgotten dissertation (Calvinism and Capitalism, 1938).

Selderhuis provides a useful overview of Calvinistic resistance theory (246-48), i.e., the liberty of subjects to resist, even by revolution, unjust rulers through the actions of their duly constituted political representatives. This noble tradition of liberty over tyranny unfolds through Theodore Beza, Francis Hotman, the English Puritans, the Scots (and Scots-Irish) Presbyterians and thus distinguishes the American Revolution (1776) from the Enlightenment-spawned anarchistic bloody French Revolution of 1789 (cf. George L. Hunt, Calvinism and the Political Order).

On pages 233-34, there is a thoughtful reflection in which Calvin engages the question of serving the Lord’s Supper to members of the church who are shut-in or otherwise physically unable to attend at the place of public worship. More contemporary Reformed churches would do well to consider these remarks, for, in fact, pastoral and spiritual neglect, not moral fault, lies behind this custom. Why should the church penalize those whom God in his providence has hindered through physical indisposition by withholding the sealing ordinances from them, otherwise members in good standing? Calvin’s remarks here are worthy of imitation.

My strongest criticism of this book is Selderhuis’s sneering remarks about the Puritan Sabbath (224-25). He uses the Puritan doctrine to promote what he regards as Calvin’s decidedly non-Puritan view. Well, what did Calvin advocate on the Lord’s day Sabbath? Our author notes: “going to church, praising God, prayer and confession of faith” (225). What Puritan Sabbatarian would object?! He continues by noting that Calvin had all restaurants closed on Sunday so everyone could be in church? What Puritan Sabbatarian would object?! He further notes that Calvin insisted servants were to be granted Sunday rest in order to join the saints in worship. What Puritan Sabbatarian would object?! Hence, our author’s denigration of Puritan Sabbatarianism turns out to be unfounded prejudice. In practice, Calvin was as Puritan as the Puritans (as a reading of his sermons on Dt. 5:12-15 will confirm).

John Calvin’s semi-eschatological pilgrimage ended May 27, 1564. He had written: “we are always heading towards death, it comes near to us and we must in the end go to it” (250). Calvin went to it in faith and confidence in the eschatological Pilgrim. He too from the time of his birth was heading toward death and when it came near him, surrendered himself to it that in the end he might go beyond it to resurrection and life eternal body and soul. The soul of John Calvin on that May day went beyond; his body lies in an unmarked grave in Geneva awaiting the full consummation of his pilgrimage—resurrection conformity to the body-soul union of the risen Lord Jesus, his Savior. That is the legacy of every believer in the Son of God—a pilgrim’s life now and not yet, a sojourn completed “in Christ”. Reading Selderhuis’s book will awaken and refresh that blessed hope in the believer who walks with John Calvin from Noyon (1509) to Geneva (1564) and into the kingdom of heaven.

“Our life is framed as it ought to be . . . by [the] effect that our inheritance is in heaven, and that we pass through this world, and never stay in it” (John Calvin, Timothy and Titus, 1022).

[1]  Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life. Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009. 287pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8308-2921-7. $25.00.

[2]  The French text reads tendions and is retranslated accordingly; cf. CO[CR 82] 54:390.

[3]  One of the obvious benefits of our author’s work compiling the Calvin DVD; cf. “Calvin on DVD.” Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 21/2 (September 2006): 45-46.