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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Life of John Calvin, by Theodore Beza: a Book Review

The Life of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Evangelical Press, 1997, 144 pgs.


Of all the significant figures in Church history, probably none has been more maligned and misrepresented than John Calvin. One of the key leaders of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, his impact has been far broader than most people, and than even most Christians, realize. And yet he has been the subject of endless criticism, even to the present day, by non-Christians as well as professing Christians, including those who are heirs of Calvin's work, though those individuals may never know.

One of the things a person learns upon reading Theodore Beza's "The Life of Calvin" is that many of the same accusations that have been leveled at Calvin since he lived were also leveled at him during his own life. Written and published just a few months after Calvin's death, Beza's treatment of Calvin's life was clearly designed in part as a response to those who would paint Calvin in a negative light. This is especially evident in the last chapter of the book, where Beza specifically seeks to answer several mischaracterizations of Calvin.

Beza's defense of Calvin was something that I found very refreshing about the book. The most common approach to biography in our day is that of postmodern deconstruction, where it is the tendency to reject the notion of true heroes, to reject the idea that people of good character can exist. Biographers today focus much on bringing out the flaws of their subjects, and question the claims of integrity made by those who were close to the individuals in their lifetimes. Sometimes this is understandable. A biography is one person's viewpoint, after all, and not infallible. Yet the degree to which such skepticism is taken is often quite hilarious, and does little more than show the arrogance of modern commentators for what it is. Aside from this dubious approach, we have in the case of Calvin plenty of reason to accept Beza's presentation of him as a righteous man. Along with Beza's testimony, we have the testimony of others who were close to Calvin, who confirm the truth of what Beza said of him. And if that weren't enough, we have Calvin's own writings and sermons, and all the fruit of his labours, which to this day continue to be an unspeakable blessing in the Church, in Western culture, and in the world.

A few other things stood out to me in particular as I read this book, so let me highlight them in brief.

First, Calvin was a man who recognized his own flaws. In contrast to those who would portray Calvin as self-righteous, he clearly saw himself as a sinner, and noted his own mistakes openly. That said, he was a godly man, and sincere in his efforts to serve God and His people. He was not one who sought to tyrannize others, as he is often represented as being, but rather gave all of his time and efforts for the good of God's people.

Second, he was a man of a weak constitution and poor health. Beza considers this to be partly a result of Calvin's own nature, but also of his tireless service for the Church. Calvin slept little, which no doubt contributed to his many illnesses and led to his early death. In spite of his lack of sleep and poor health, he continued diligently in his duties as pastor and theologian, slowing down as little as possible. He dealt with a number of ailments, such as migraines, gout, and an irregular digestive system. He consequently ate little, limiting himself to one small meal a day, and it was not uncommon for him to go up to forty-eight hours without eating at all. On a personal note, I must say that I find this quite comforting, having my own health problems that plague me regularly.

Calvin also dealt constantly with spiritual attacks against the Reformed Church. Some came from outside of Geneva, especially from the Roman Church. And yet also there were constantly those who sought to undermine the Reformed doctrine who maintained no connection to Rome. In particular, there were many who attacked the doctrine of the Trinity. Much of Beza's work is focused on this aspect of life in Geneva. The most famous person in connection with Calvin to teach heresy about the Trinity is, of course, Michael Servetus, but he was far from the only one. Many were banished from Geneva by the city officials (of which Calvin was not one) for publicly teaching against the Christian faith. Calvin fought through all of this, defending God's Word and His Church from all who would seek to tear it apart.

Lastly, I would like briefly to address the matter of Servetus. If one portion of Calvin's life is brought up to discredit him more than any other, it is this one. Servetus was a well-known heretic in Europe. In fact, he was so well known that the Roman Church already had him in their sights, and would have put him to death for his false teachings, had they been able to get their hands on him. Calvin is often saddled with the blame for Servetus's death, but nothing could be further from the truth.

For one thing, most people would criticize the idea that heretics should be put to death at all. Whatever one might think about this, it was not uncommon, as Beza notes, to put to death not only heretics, but also adulterers, in Germany and Switzerland at that time. To treat Geneva as if it were some sort of unique case in this is historic dishonesty. But in my mind it raises a fundamental problem to the way we think in our time. Basically, the question is this: which is worse, the temporal death of one man, or the eternal death of many? So long as a heretic is allowed to live, he is leading others to Hell with him. We think that Christianity is a relationship that is essentially divorced from doctrine. A person may deny the Trinity, we think, but he still has a relationship with Jesus, and that's what matters. But that is contrary to Scripture. If one denies an essential aspect of the true God, then it is no longer the true God he worships, but a false god - he no longer has any hope of salvation, unless he repents. And so doctrine matters, and eternally so. In the economy of God, it would be better to put to death one obstinate heretic than to allow him to lead others away from God and to eternal death.

Beza makes it clear that both he and Calvin saw the death of Servetus as appropriate. That said, Calvin had done everything he could to prevent it from happening. Before even going to Geneva, Servetus had written to Calvin to tell him he was coming. Calvin promptly wrote him back, telling him not to come, and warning him that he would certainly be arrested and punished by the civil authorities if he did. But Servetus ignored his advice, and went to Geneva anyway. In his trial, Servetus was tried and convicted on charges of heresy, and condemned to be burned at the stake. Calvin petitioned for a lighter sentence, and requested that Servetus's execution be by beheading, therefore much less painful. The court ignored Calvin's request. And even just hours before Servetus's execution, Calvin visited him in his cell and begged with him to reconsider his views, that his life might be spared. Philip Schaff notes this in his multi-volume set "The History of the Christian Church". Servetus, of course, did not change, and was put to death.

I don't expect that many who read this will find themselves in sympathy with Calvin on these things. We are creatures of our time, and our time teaches us that the most important question to ask is, "why can't we all just get along?" Yet to allow ourselves to dismiss all of Calvin's teaching and work because of this one situation shows ourselves to be hypocritical. There is no one person that we have learned from in our lives of whom we couldn't find some aspect of their life that we would consider odious. In addition, the only way to properly critique those of another time and place is in humility. Whether we agree or disagree with him over the Servetus affair, his life overall was one of godliness, and his teaching was characterized by a sincere love for God and His Church. Few of us today could come close to him. And so it is on this basis that both Calvin's life and work are worthy of our consideration.

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