“The Humanness of John Calvin” by Richard Stauffer: A Brief Review

Richard Stauffer’s little volume on the person of John Calvin wonderfully paints the picture of who Calvin was in his roles as husband, father, friend, and father. Calvin is the reformer whom many love to hate, and false characterizations have abounded from early on. Stauffer’s aim is to “…exonerate the name of Calvin,” displaying, against misconceptions, Calvin’s “true stature” and “real humanness.”

John_Calvin_by_Holbein

From early on, Calvin’s critics have resorted to harsh personal attacks in order to discredit the theologian. Jerome-Hermes Bolsec was an early critic of Calvin’s. He joined the Protestant movement only to eventually go back to Rome, and in 1577 published a biography of Calvin that Stauffer describes as “no more than a vile tract.” In it, Stauffer reports, Bolsec ascribes to the Reformer all manner of faults, from arrogance and ignorance to being a liar and a sodomite. Accusations of this manner stuck, and Calvin’s opponents from the church of Rome often relied on marring his character in order to discredit his doctrine and ministry. Later, the critiques became more subtly, simply portraying Calvin as cold-hearted, sectarian, and tyrannical. As Stauffer points out, these sorts of accusations also came from Calvin’s Protestant opponents. Stauffer quotes Alfred Franklin, nineteenth-century liberal, to sum up the modern notion of Calvin: “Austerity without enthusiasm, an unfeeling and cold heart, never showing emotion. Did he ever laugh? Did he ever cry?”

Though critiques like these seem too wild to believe, this is the image that many in our day seem to have of the Reformer. Stauffer’s strategy for exonerating Calvin is simply to hold up Calvin’s personal correspondence, much of which has been preserved, and show who he was in his relationships with family, friends, and his parish. In these letters, we hear from a man who, though certainly not without fault, was compassionate, loving, sympathetic, and shepherding. Calvin’s deep love for his wife and his son are evident particularly as he grieves the loss of them both. Jacques, his son, died as an infant. Idelette, his wife, became ill after her pregnancy, and went through recovery and then back into illness often until her death in 1549. These losses greatly affected Calvin, and had a profound shaping influence on the rest of his ministry. In his letters he often counsels and grieves along side his friends and parishioners from the lessons he learned through these experiences.

Calvin’s friendships are inspiring. He was a loyal friend to many, and kept up correspondence with friends for years. According to Stauffer, “… there were few men who developed as many friendships as he and who knew how to retain not only the admiration, but also the personal affection of these friends.” Farel and Viret were two of his closest friends, having ministered with him for a time in Geneva. When the three were separated, “an active and often very moving correspondence maintained their warm unity.” He often sought to breach divides with friendships, such as the divisions with the followers of Zwingli as well as the Lutherans. In his friendships, Calvin displayed humility, warmth, and self-sacrificing unity.

As pastor, Stauffer emphasizes Calvin’s devotion, sympathy, and steadfastness in ministry. He cared for the needs of those in his church, related to them in their grief and hardship, and constantly preached the Word of God to them. He was certainly not, as many seem to think he was, the lofty intellectual who never dirtied his hands with the sheep. Calvin was more than a theologian: he was a shepherd.

Stauffer book, though brief, is much needed. He gives a refreshing and inspiring look at Calvin’s life in relation to others. Though John Calvin was not perfect, he was a great gift of God to the church, not only for his theological works, but for his example of a life lived for God and others.

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