John Calvin: A Biography

Making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland

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John Calvin: A Biography

This is an old book and, understandably then, T.H.L. Parker is now a very old man. Parker is also an authority on all things John Calvin.

Parker published his first work of note on the great Reformer in 1954 with John Calvin: A Portrait. A Portrait was intended as a general introduction to Calvin’s life and influence. Although out of print for a number of years, Desiring God have recently sponsored a special edition to mark the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth (an event which is marked elsewhere on this site).

John Calvin: The Biography followed in 1975 and is a more substantial work. It is not, however, written with an academic readership primarily in view. Parker’s interest is keenly focused upon Calvin the man and much here is dedicated to his early life, the unclear circumstances surrounding his conversion and then his ministry in Geneva. The relative brevity of this work (224 pages in my edition) should not be taken a reflection upon the substance; Parker’s scholarship feels thorough.

And this thoroughness extends beyond the man. In addition to the purely biographical, Parker also provides a useful précis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion; the most well known (and arguably most significant) of Calvin’s life work. This is helpful as Parker then proceeds to trace the application of these convictions into his ministry in Geneva. It is illuminating, therefore, to understand Calvin’s theological convictions when considering the controversy regarding church discipline and the endless political intrigue against him with regards to church government.

In addition, Parker also traces the genesis of his Commentaries, which were considered exemplary by his contemporaries and still prove to be immensely helpful today.

Parker also gives serious consideration to John Calvin the preacher and this is most helpful and important. It is easy to forget that John Calvin was, first and foremost, a Pastor with very real pastoral concerns. We learn from Parker that Calvin preached literally thousands of sermons (for some time, he preached five different sermons a week) and we also glimpse something of the nature of the style of his preaching. One might expect Calvin the Preacher to be concerned with lofty and weighty theological matters, for example, the Doctrine of Predestination or Limited Atonement and one might fear his tone to be sharp and abrasive. We instead find that Calvin’s style was warm and engaging. He challenged his congregation to both think and feel. Rather than systematic theology, Calvin preached expository sermons through books of the Bible, some of which were adapted posthumously into Commentaries (e.g. Ezekiel). We further discover that his preaching was pastoral and immensely practical. Through his words, we feel Calvin’s love towards those entrusted to him.

In reading Parker, it is clear that he is warmly inclined towards his subject. Parker does not flinch from dealing with the more difficult areas of Calvin’s life (for example, he discusses the execution of Servetus at length and touches upon difficulties in Calvin’s own personal relationships).

And this is where the great value lies in this biography. As we read we find that Calvin was but a man, flawed and, at times, difficult, but greatly used by God. It seems to me that Parker understands this. Although Calvin is clearly the subject of this work, it is also equally clear that Christ worked powerfully in him and through him.

As we read of the great Reformer, his love of people and his zeal for the name of God, we are reminded that the glory of King Jesus shines in every generation through redeemed sinners like you and me.

Andy Evans

Click here to purchase John Calvin: A Biography.