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Portrait of Calvin

T. H. L. Parker


As I hope the whole Christian world realises this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin and the 450th anniversary of the publication of his ' Institutes of the Christian Religion'. I hope over the next few months to do several reviews of different lives of John Calvin and in so doing I hope that I can encourage you to pick up a few of his biographies.


Books on Calvin, Calvinism and this theology are almost endless. This is a good thing - but it is also important to understand a little of the man behind this theology - and to see him with the balances that he imposed on his writings - it is all too easy to think of Calvin as being solely concerned with predestination and reprobation and this would be a fallacy. He does touch on these issues but does so in such a balanced way that many readers are surprised - therefore, reading his life and reading his writings are very important.


The first life that I intend to review is this one by T. H. L. Parker and it is described as a Portrait. In his own words 'the title of this book should be taken as differentiating it somewhat from a straight biography. It is a portrait and not a photograph'.


The work begins with a chapter on the training of the reformer - this takes you through his schooling in Noyon, a Parisian university on from these general studies to the College de Montaigu with its reputation for medieval scholasticism. From this to the study of law at Orleans and then Bourges. In these two years at Orleans and Bourges he encountered a more questionning approach than that of his conservative upbringing and a training in good scholarship and free inquiry. After three years his father died and he was finding the practice of law increasingly distasteful. Calvin's heart seemed set on becoming a humanist scholar. Sometime between 1528 and 1532 his heart was changed. By 1533 he is whole heartedly on the side of the Reformation and has to flee Paris. Eventually he arrives at Basel and can settle down once more to his studies. By 1535 he has completed an initial draft of the Institutes. .


Parker goes on to explain the move to Geneva and his initial reluctance. included in this is a useful description of the politics of the city that played an important part of his life. He outlines his written output noting that 'In the definitive edition of his works, the Corpus Reformatorum, his writings fill forty eight quarto volumes in double column. There we find all his theological works, the Institutes and many shorter pieces; the commentaries on the Scriptures and the eight hundred-odd sermons; and ten and a half volumes of correspondence'. A little later he makes the following suggestion 'How should one set about reading Calvin? Most people start with the Institutes, and make heavy weather of Book I. The Institutes needs working up to, and should only be attempted when one has a taste for Calvin and some knowledge of others of his works. I would suggest that the Commentary on St. John's Gospel makes a good introduction to Calvin, and after that one might go on to the Commentary on Ephesians.'

He deals with Calvin and the variety of issues he faced in Geneva and the wider church. Tackling the attempts for re-union with Rome and then Cranmer's attempts to create a united Protestant Church.

At the end he notes 'He had been an old man for many years, and they said at the end that when you met him in the street it was like seeing a corpse walking, so emaciated was he with his many ailments and diseases. On his death-bed 'nothing seemed left but his spirit' said Beza. When he had died, all Geneva desired to see his body, as if he were a medieval saint or one of those relics he had so sardonically mocked. But he had seen to it that there should be no posthumous canonization and left orders that he should be buried in an unmarked grave. This his death and his burial were of one piece with his life; as a good witness, he would not be regarded but bent all his energies in life and death to making Jesus Christ alone great, and making that greatness visible... we may leave this man where he lies in his unknown grave and hear simply his voice, not as the tired whisper of a ghost over the years, but with all the power that once stirred St. Peter, glorifying God and His Son. '