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on April 4, 2002
When people think of the Reformation, two people often come to mind. The first is generally Martin Luther and the second is often John Calvin. Alister McGrath does a service both to historians and Christians; his balanced scholarship sets new standards for biographical writing. McGrath discusses Calvin's life, his academic experience, and his theology. McGrath also includes chapters on Calvin's turbulent relationship with the city of Geneva and properly shows that the man and the city had a significant influence on each other.
One of the best parts of this book is that McGrath puts Calvin in to proper historical context by discussing both France and the dominant intellectual trends therein and discussing the city with which Calvin would become forever associated with, Geneva. All throughout the work, McGrath will invite the reader to consider the problems encountered by the Calvin historian; where there is little documentation, McGrath is not afraid to tell the reader. Though McGrath has a clear perspective on who Calvin was and his contribution to history, he acknowledges the contributions of different historians and modifies his position when necessary. This book is not all intellectual and theological history; McGrath explains the social and political significance of heresy and discusses which classes of people tended to adopt Calvinism and why.
Some of the interesting observations that McGrath makes throughout the work:
- Calvin never opposed Copernicus' theory of heliocentrism; there is nothing to suggest that in, "The Institutes of the Christian Religion," (Calvin's main work of theology) or any of his other works. Indeed the first mention that Calvin was critical of Copernicus was in a 19th century biography of Calvin, written by the Anglican Dean od Canterbury, Frederick William Farrar (1831-1903)
- Calvin's relationship to Calvinism; one of the interesting problems in history is to examine the relation between leaders and the movements that they establish. If one looks at John Calvin's theology, one finds that the doctrine of predestination has quite a minor role. It was only later theologians working in what may be called the "Reformed" or the "Calvinist" tradition that put such an emphasis on the doctrine of predestination, election etc...
- Calvin's relationship to the emergence of modern capitalism; it has become a popular position among some historians to exaggerate the role of Calvin in the development of modern capitalism. McGrath notes that Calvin's real contribution was more so creating a religious outlook that removed restraints on capitalism (e.g. Calvin did not consider lending money at interest to be immoral) and his positive emphasis of the value of work, especially physical labour.
- There was analysis of the way Calvinism favored being involved in the world, rather than withdrawing. The only drawback to this approach is that sometimes the social practices of Calvinism would gradually lose their religious core and become secularized. One of the examples of this is how the doctrine of predestination is easily degraded into a vague notion of fate, destiny or in American history, "manifest destiny."
There were two chapters on Calvin's most important work of theology, "The Institutes of the Christian Religion." I am interested in knowing something of the history of theology but I am not dedicated enough to read through all of the Institutes. McGrath, of course, advises the reader to do this but nonetheless he provides a useful overview of the book.
The last few chapters discuss the movement known as Calvinism and its impact on work, the development of capitalism and several other issues. These last few chapters are of particular value because they remind you that theology has a major influence in real life.
I recommend this book for people that wish to understand the second generation of the Reformation following Martin Luther; Calvinism was an international movement of considerable importance and it continues to be relevant today. The book includes numerous black and white prints of Calvin, Francois I, a map of Paris and other relevant pictures. There is a glossary of terms and an index for easy reference.
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on December 16, 2003
McGrath's 'biography' of Calvin is an illuminating read, although I am sad to say that I learned much more about such subjects as the 16th century, the effects of Calvinism, and the organization of the French University than I did about Calvin himself. This does not appear to have been McGrath's fault, however, since Calvin was a very private individual who held back his personality whenever possible so as to let the Word of God gain precedence in all he did.
This isn't to say that you don't learn about a number of events in Calvin's life - it's just that you don't learn much about the man himself. You also get to have more than a few myths dispelled for you. Some of these myths are simply the result of ignorance, but other appear to be deliberate attempts to smear his name in an effort to turn back Calvinism. Some myths are wholesale inventions and others are merely 'creative' interpreations of actual events. It is nice to know that Calvin's Geneva was not, contrary to popular opinion, a theocracy. In fact, he possessed little power in the city since the city council opposed him for most of his time there and constantly interfered in his running of the Reformed Church.
There is also an oddity in McGrath's writing. He sometimes calls the RCC the 'Roman Catholic Church' but also the 'catholic church'. This is a strange practice, as I've always seen it written 'Catholic Church' if referring to the RCC and 'catholic church' if one is referring to the universal church. Since McGrath does not appear to be a member of the RCC, it would be beyond odd for him to write this way if he doesn't consider the RCC coterminal with the universal church.
Be that as it may, the book is interesting and filled with facts about the late Renaissance and early Reformation that are worthwhile to possess and is, mostly, a quick read. McGrath also gives us a short summary of the Institutes. I found his explanation of the organization of the Institutes to be very valuable, as I am tempted to see works as being organized along systematic lines. Calvin, however, was heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism and organized the work along pedagogical lines, not systematic ones. A wealth of learning is went into this book and you will not find your time wasted if you read it.
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on February 16, 2013
My first comment is that this book is not really your typical biography. After looking at different Calvin biographies, I purchased this one since I know Alister McGrath as an author and respect his scholarship. However, having chosen this as the first book I read about Calvin, I was sorely disappointed. It spends very little time telling you the details of Calvin's life. It is more of "AN OVERVIEW OF CALVIN'S LIFE AND IMPACT FROM A SCHOLARLY PERSPECTIVE". For those who have already studied Calvin and would like to learn more, this book would be a great choice. Also for those who are interested in a historical/critical study on the life and impact of Calvin(for it goes beyond his life to briefly talk about the cultural influences of the ideas of Calvinism), this book would also be a good choice. He does spend some time trying to "purge the dross" of past Calvin scholarship. However, if you don't know anything about Calvin when you start this book, you won't know much about him when you finish!!! This was my experience. Let me share one quote of his from the beginning of chapter 6 that demonstrates this clearly.

"The stories of Calvin's miseries at Geneva during his second period have been told so often and so well that it would serve little purpose to repeat them."

I laughed in ironic frustration after I read this passage since the whole point of my getting this book was to learn just what happened in Calvin's life. McGrath is clearly an excellent scholar in this book, but he certainly did not write a typical "biography".

Also, I should note that this book is also highly technical. If you are not into scholarly historical language or you do not have a background in historical and theological studies you may find yourself easily lost. So this is not a good "layperson" or "introductory" book on Calvin.

McGrath does his best to take a relatively "neutral" historical position on the content (though I believe he is a dedicated Christian in his own background if I remember correctly), so you won't find any Calvin "loving" or "hating" in this book.

If you are looking for a good general biography on Calvin, I would suggest T.H.L. Parker's John Calvin: A Biography. I am almost finished this book and it has been excellent. It is readable and not too long. He is thorough and fair in his treatment, he also provides clear information that would dispel many of the myths of the more modern portrayals of Calvin which show him to be the "Dictator of Geneva" and a calloused "Burner of Heretics". He also clearly has a fondness for Calvin and his work, which is not excessive, but refreshing for readers of a Christian background who appreciate this man and his contribution to their faith. I am also going to read Godfrey's Biography as well, since it has had good reviews, but I believe this book is more about Calvin's theology than the details of his life.

Happy Reading!!! Hope this has been helpful!!!
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on March 5, 2015
First off, Amazon has the name of the book is truncated: The title is, A Life of John Calvin. The reason McGrath used the indefinite article "A" is because Calvin's early life is not well known and many presumptions can arise from studying Calvin. Some extrapolation can be made about Calvin. I am glad McGrath is intellectually honest enough to title the book as he did. There are other, I suppose, equally good books on Calvin. I will begin to research those.
Second, someone loaned me the book about eight months ago and I put it on my library shelf thinking, I'll get to it one day. Then, one day, months later, I picked up the book, a spark of interest entered a few neurons, and I couldn't put the book down. The book is fabulous, way more than I expected! Here's why. I have heard the good, the bad and the ugly about Calvin because I attend a Reformed church. I've read a lot of other stuff and never had much of an interest in Calvin personally, but I have used Calvin's Commentaries in my own studies and classes and I have read some of Calvin's Sermons. So, I am not altogether unfamiliar with Calvin's thought and I believe his view of scripture, the culminating posthumous development of TULIP as what most people regard as his legacy, is very accurate -- although many would strongly challenge my statement concerning accuracy.
Lastly, the book is excellent because it didn't just focus on Calvin but gave a lot of the nuances of the French and Swiss history in the 16th century. That is like adding extra garlic to the great cuisine. I love garlic! Just for the fact that so much good history of France is in the book I encourage anyone wanting to understanding the early Reformation. One thing that Calvin developed and it really means a lot for believers, in God's infinite nature, wisdom and power, etc., God accommodated (lowered Himself) mankind and wrote a book, namely the Bible, with reference to who God is. Since man is finite, God must accommodate us so that we can know Him. God has done so many times, accommodated man, in the history of the world, most excellently in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
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on January 20, 2014
McGrath has done it again; an erudite yet readable account of the life of Calvin - including his french education up to qualifying as a lawyer - moving to the City-Sate of Geneva. Once there, the account of the ever-widening influence of his thoughts and writings upon the nation of France and the establishment of the Huguenots then through his followers both religious & secular who brought his thinking to the issues of North America and to world -wide capitalism. McGrath places Calvin's name alongside Lenin & Marx as among the great wheelers and dealers of societal progression.
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on April 11, 2005
I have read several biographies about John Calvin and I must say that this is by far the best one I've come across! The author is down-to-earth, a little scholastic at times but not too heady. He shows us the man behind the many diabolical and misleading myths. Calvin was an incredibly devout man who deserves to be treated with respect and careful consideration by our own generation. I learned so much about this great Protestant Reformer from this book. A timely masterpiece!
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on October 28, 2005
McGrath's book is a must read for those interested in John Calvin. It is a helpful introduction to the theologian, pastor, reformer, and his times. Careful reading of this work will repay the reader the time invested in diving into its riches. McGrath proves that he is one of the top English theologians and historians with this book. For those interested in learning about John Calvin--we are in his debt.
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on March 30, 2007
John Calvin has been cast by many biographical writers as an austere, iron-fisted, dictatorial sixteenth century theologian. Alister McGrath's exhaustive and detailed work seeks to dispel these myths while giving insight into the character and thinking of Calvin that profoundly shaped Western Culture. McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and author of several theology textbooks, including Christian Theology, The Christian Theology Reader, Christian Spirituality, Science and Religion, Historical Theology, and An Introduction to Christianity.

McGrath's purpose is to show how Calvin's theological thinking and events, that gained momentum even beyond his life time, shaped Western Culture. This includes the startling premise that capitalism and Marxism both owe their foundation, to some degree, to Calvin's innovating thinking, financial institutions, manufacturing developments, and ecclesiastical structures put in place while at Geneva.

McGrath's chronological approach starts with Calvin's educational background, where McGrath delved into obscure records and examines the Universities and professors he studied under, thereby forming his thinking and theology. McGrath even includes city maps and physical relationships of the various universities Calvin attended to help the reader sense and comprehend Calvin's learning environment. Contrasts and comparisons are made throughout the book between Calvin and Luther differentiating their theological viewpoints and emphasis. One such contrast is made between Luther's focus on justification by faith and Calvin's focus on sanctification by faith. In many cases, it appears McGrath is trying to prove Calvin's superiority over Luther.

McGrath chips away at various myths regarding Calvin's theology and behavior while at Geneva. Some have suggested that Calvin developed a systematic theology. However, McGrath believes Calvin did not consider himself a systematic thinker nor did he develop or arrange his works (primarily his Institutes) in any systematic form. McGrath notes, "To speak of Calvin as a theological systematizer is to imply a degree of affinity with medieval scholasticism which contradicts his known attitudes." McGrath also seeks to debunk the idea that Calvin's theology was dominated by the concept of predestination, particularly double predestination. McGrath states, "One may identify certain centrally important themes, certain fundamental root metaphors, which allow insights into Calvin's religious thought--but the notion of a central doctrine or axiom which controls it cannot be maintained. `There is no `hard core', no `basic principle' or `central premise', no `essence' of Calvin's religious thought." McGrath believes that if any doctrine was central to Calvin's theology, it was the centrality of Jesus Christ, which is covered in the first book of his Institutes. The `Calvinism' known today (hyper Calvinism) was not adhered to at all by Calvin, but developed by those who followed after him.

McGrath also seeks to dispel social myths that have captured people's imagination of Calvin as a `radical reformer', a `hard liner', or one ready to enforce his policies to the point of execution. McGrath points out "Geneva was not free to choose its own road to reformation: it must adopt the religious beliefs and practices already associated with Berne itself." "...the romantic and idealized vision of a reformer arriving in a city to preach the gospel with an immediately ensuing decision to adopt the principles of the Reformation must be abandoned as quite unrealistic." Further, regarding the myths of Calvin's propensity for enforcement of the ecclesiastical structures set in place within Geneva, (Balzac asserted that Calvin `reigned in terror' and Huxley asserted that Calvin had a child beheaded for striking his parents), McGrath's research shows "In the first place, there is no record of any such incident in the Genevan archives (which are as comprehensive as one could wish); in the second, there is no basis in the Genevan criminal or civil codes which could possibly justify such a prosecution, let alone such a draconian penalty; in the third place, the substance and execution of the Genevan civil and criminal codes owed nothing to Calvin." Throughout his book, McGrath portrays Calvin as an intellectual introvert, almost to the point of being a victim of circumstances, whom God chose to use in a unique way at precisely the correct moment in history to further the Protestant reformation. The result was an impact reaching further than Calvin dared to hope.

McGrath's key emphasis is the social and cultural impact Calvin made through his religious ideas during his lifetime and practical structures set in place while at Geneva. From Calvin's refining of the French language through his exegesis and sophisticated religious arguments, his use of printed medium to spread the reformation (in just over a seven-year period, Calvin's Institutes experienced over twelve printings in French), his use of foreign capitalization to sustain Geneva (during the siege by the House of Savoy), to his ideas of work ethic (through use of manufacturing and his ideas that God gave every man a unique job to perform), Calvin impacted not only Geneva but France and ultimately Western Culture. It was Calvin's financial ideas, social work ethic, and theology regarding predestination that provided the seed bed for the development of Marxism and Capitalism.

McGrath's biography of Calvin uncovers truly unique aspects of his life, blasts away long standing myths, and highlights God's amazing capability to take a humble man and use him to greatly impact the world. The careful and accurate research, fresh perspectives, and scholarly approach make this book a solid and necessary resource for theologians, historians, scholars, and those who just love reading a great biography.

(Initially submitted by N. J. Borrett to Liberty Theological Seminary (LTS)in partial fulfillment for M.Div degree requirements - CHHI-525 on 3/28/2007)
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VINE VOICEon November 23, 2006
The book delivered more and less than I bargain for. The sections on his life are weak. McGrath is very balanced and thorough in shifting through all the theories, but because there is so little actual information on his life, the book seems to drift among the different theories.

However, the book is very strong in describing the differences between Calvin and Cavlivnism, how Calvin and Calvinism influenced Western Civilization from the late medieval period until this very day. McGrath corrects the modern perspective that Calvin ruled Geneva with an iron hand. Calvin's influence in Geneva was profound, but not as strong politically as most people think. Calvin's role was within the religious side, his role in the political and legal arenas was very limited. Calvin was brought in to manage the impact of the reformation on Geneva. He did this through establishing ecclesiastical structures and his teaching.

The chapter on Calvin's influence on France and the chapter on how Calvin and Calvinsim change our perspective on work were excellent. The book is a very balanced, and at times dry, but most of the time fascinating. McGrath looks at Calvin and Calvinism, how they are separate entities and how they had a dramatic impact on the city of Geneva, the history of thought and Western Civlization.
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on October 4, 2014
An excellent book linking Calvin's social commitments in Geneva to contemporary efforts like Martin Luther King, Jr's public ministry.
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