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.