Monday, July 01, 2013

Book Review (#11 of 2013) Calvin for Armchair Theologians

This book could also be titled "John Calvin in Four Hours." It is a brief biography, a summary of his religious views, and a look at his lasting impact on Western thought.

Apparently little of Calvin's personal correspondence remains for historians to pore through today. He didn't keep a journal or write an autobiography. But he wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion (about 1/3 of this book is devoted to explaining Calvin's views from ICR), wrote some speeches, and engaged in some debates.

Calvin started out on the road to the Catholic priesthood but was redirected when his father began to have falling-outs with the church. Calvin studied to be a lawyer, was well versed in humanism and making arguments through rhetoric, learned Greek, and joined other humanists who were pushing for reform of the Catholic church.

Calvin's role as a minister in Geneva, instrumental in shaping and enforcing the state's religious laws, was maybe most educational for me. He's famous for his debate with Servetus, which led to Servetus's condemnation to burning at the stake. Most people today are unable to fathom 16th century Europe, with city-states under Church authority competing for power with one another and debating doctrine and heresies; a Europe faced with the Ottoman threat from the East and Protestant-Catholic divisions within. Calvin was very influential in the Protestant movement, helping write liturgies and defining doctrine.

Elwood doesn't explore the historical context in an in-depth manner. He briefly describes it and summarizes Calvin's life inside it. Elwood concludes the book with a look at Calvin's "theological family tree." He makes the claim that today's liberals from Reinhold Niehuhr to today's liberation theology teachers all ultimately spring from Calvin's lineage. In that sense, Calvin has been very underappreciated.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. Very accessible and informative. Lacks the depth you might want in a biography, but I look forward to reading Elwood's "armchair" biography of Luther as well.
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1 comment:

Justin said...

I really like this bio of Calvin by Bruce Gordon. The THL Parker standard bio is very good as well.

The Armchair series is hit or miss. The one on Edwards is good.