Calvin, authored by Bruce Gordon (professor of Reformation history at Yale Divinity School) was a book I had been looking forward to reading for some time. Its publication date was back in 2009, so my interest in the book had been brewing for a while, in part because of its subject…the great sixteenth century theologian John Calvin, and also the high recommendations it had received from the likes of Tim Challies, who regards it as among the best biographies of Calvin. Further, the book was also among Tim’s “top 9 books read in ’09”. Perhaps the expectation was set too high when I picked up the book and started reading it.
I have been doing a fair amount of reading lately, but this was the first biography I had read in a while, and this book reminded me why that is the case. They are just not my cup of tea. Stated very simply, I did NOT enjoy reading this book. It was a labor to plow through, and I was never so happy to see the final chapter of a book as I was with this one. None of that is to say that this is a horrible book. It was very informative, and I did learn a great deal about its subject. And I will give Tim Challies the benefit of the doubt when he says this is an outstanding biography of Calvin. I certainly will not be challenging him by reading another.
My specific complaint was that the approach Gordon took was to not trace the life of Calvin in a sequential fashion, from young to old with all the details in between. Instead, his approach was to reveal Calvin in a variety of different contexts with relatively little concern over their date sequence. Or perhaps more clearly stated, the contexts demanded that there be a repeating timeline where we see Calvin over and over again in the period from the 1530’s to the 1560’s. It is not that this approach was confusing, instead it was just frustrating in the sense that the whole book seemed to have a circular flow, never making much progress forward, just looping back around to examine another context during a period of time you had already examined with respect to another context. Some who are fond of biographies may have found this approach refreshing. While it left me informed, it was not without frustration.
To Gordon’s credit, he revealed Calvin in what seemed like an unbiased and even unvarnished manner, demonstrating both the theologian’s brilliance, determination and passion for the sovereignty and grace of God, along with his cranky manner, dogmatism, sometimes even spiteful interpersonal relationships. Another positive for the book is that Gordon also managed to provide helpful looks at a number of Calvin’s contemporaries, usually, as they interacted with the man.
I am glad I finally read this book. That said, I am even more glad to have it behind me. If you are inclined to read a biography of John Calvin, read Tim Challies review (link above) and roll the dice based on your impression from him, not from my delight that I can now move on to something else.