Robert L. Reymond’s John Calvin: His Life and Influence (Christian Focus, 2004) is an excellent introductory work on the life, work, and writings of the often misunderstood, John Calvin. This book had been reprinted in 2008 in anticipation for the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth taking place this year. It is fitting to spend this year focusing on the life and teachings of this great servant of God, and Reymond is a helpful guide along the way.
Reymond is former Professor of Systematic Theology at Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, FL, and now regular pulpit supply at Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, FL. The four chapters of this book comprise a series of four popular lectures the author gave on four consecutive Wednesday nights in February 2002 at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Chapter 1 (or lecture 1) is God’s Preparation of the Future Reformed. Here Reymond highlights the young live of the soon-to-be reformer, his studies, his conversion, and how God shaped him through all his experiences and education.
Chapter 2 (or lecture 2) is The Young Reformer and His Institutes. This chapter moves from his young life to his beginning as a reformer and especially in the writing of his Institutes, the magnum opus of the Protestant Reformation. This point goes to Calvin’s expulsion from Geneva.
Chapter 3 (or lecture 3) is The Mature Reformer of Geneva and His Accomplishments. This chapter moves to Calvin’s life outside of Geneva, his return to Geneva and the importance of this period especially in his writings.
Chapter 4 (or lecture) finalizes the life of Calvin and deals with his last years in Geneva, his emphasis on his influence on others all over the world, and the difficulties in his life especially the burning of Servetus.
It concludes with 3 appendices looking at opposing biographies of Calvin, his influence on Western history, and recommend biographies on Calvin.
Why another biography when there body of secondary literature on Calvin and Calvin studies is probably only rivaled by those of Jonathan Edwards? Reymond’s book provides a helpful, positive, but not hagiographical look at a much misunderstood figure, his thinking, writing, influence, written for non-specialists. In this, Reymond excels!
The best chapter in my opinion is the last where he deals with the difficult issues in Calvin’s life and His influence. While he does not completely defend Calvin in the burning of Servetus, Reymond does show how the situation is not unusual in the time period Calvin was ministering. Also, Reymond emphasizes the importance of studying the primary resources and writings. Too many who think they know so much about Calvin and Calvinism have never once actually read Calvin. So, he encourages people to especially read his Institutes. I cannot agree with Raymond more. To not read the original sources is to allow others to tell you what someone else believes. Just as we learn Greek and Hebrew to help understand the Scriptures and not rely on someone else’s translation we must read the writings of those we seek to understand.
Whether friend or foe of Calvin one must know about him and his thought since he was such a profound figure in the life of the Church. Guides like Reymond help to wade through the mire of what is written about Calvin and help to bring added and needed clarity about him and his thinking. Especially important is helping those in the church know better about Calvin and Calvinism since there is great misunderstanding in this.
So, if you are looking for an introductory biography to Calvin I would recommend Reymond’s book highly. For those with knowledge of Calvin and Calvinism you will probably still enjoy it but would probably want to turn to some more techinical works on his life and thinking. And more than anything, as Reymond says, read the Institutes! There is no substitute for reading the primary sources when understanding historical figures and historical theology.