Man of His Time for All Times
The occasion of John Calvin's 500th birthday has spawned several books on the much discussed, less understood pillar of the Protestant Reformation. Interest in the Genevan pastor and theologian has surged of late, yet even many of his devoted followers are more familiar with caricatures than history. Westminster Seminary California president and professor of church history W. Robert Godfrey seeks to counter this problem with a new popular-level biography, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. He was interviewed by CT editor at large Collin Hansen.
Why did you organize your biography around the themes of "pilgrim" and "pastor"?
Many approach Calvin first of all as a theologian, and he certainly was a great theologian. But his theology emerged out of his own spiritual journey and struggles. In the first part of the book I focus on that spiritual pilgrimage of Calvin, because his experience and his reading of the Bible are critical to understanding his vision of Christianity. In the second part of the book, I follow his pastoral career because he regarded his calling as primarily that of pastor. His work as theologian and biblical commentator really served his work as pastor. Organizing the book as I did also allowed me to try to integrate Calvin's life with his thought more than most books do. We have biographies of Calvin that contain little theology and we have introductions to his theology that have little of his life. I have tried to provide an introduction to both and to show how interrelated they are.
To what do you attribute the disparity between how most people remember Calvin and how historians view him?
Most people do not know Calvin's life or work. He has become a symbol or perhaps an epithet for what is narrow, judgmental, joyless, and intolerant. Calvin inspired a great and vital movement that led to the founding of Reformed churches in many parts of the world. Those churches were disciplined and serious in their pursuit of the Christian life. In some countries those churches or their members had a great influence on the life and laws of their lands. For those outside the Reformed churches, some of that life and culture did feel restrictive and intolerant. But the modern, often liberal, aversion to Calvinism has often been simply transferred to Calvin as a way of expressing distaste for a whole movement. Historians of Calvin know better than this, but often have not written in a popular way to challenge widespread misconceptions.
You quote Calvin's friend Theodore Beza, who said of him, "I can now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate." What is it about Calvin that has attracted so much criticism?
In his own day Calvin was attacked primarily by two groups. First, his theological opponents' passion was provoked in part by the effective, clear, and persuasive way in which Calvin presented his thought. The force of his ideas led those who disagreed with him sometimes to attack him quite personally. Second, his political opponents, especially in Geneva, attacked the kind of disciplined Christian society that he tried to build there. He believed that all citizens ought to be Christians, that they ought to live like Christians, and that they ought to be disciplined by the church and/or the state if they failed to live like Christians. A number of rich and influential leaders in Geneva thought that such ideas were fine for common people, but ought not to apply to the rich.