Going to a Lutheran college makes it impossible to graduate without a complete understanding of Martin Luther. Knowing that, I decided to embark on what now seems like a never-ending quest to understand John Calvin, since he is suggested to be an influential figure in orchestrating the Reformation. For an independent study course, I chose to read Alister McGrath's A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture. However, McGrath decided to explain every nuance and detail about the shaping of Western culture, making this book simply too complex to be used as a beginning to Calvin. So I managed to wrangle whatever information I could at the time and shelve Calvin for another day. That day was last week, when I was tweeted about Calvin's 500th birthday on July 10. To commemorate such an occasion, I went to the local library (a place I seem to only frequent in the summer) and found Dr. William Lindner's 1998 book John Calvin.
Lindner is a Presbyterian pastor, which raised red flags concerning bias and balance. As I have found while reading biographical accounts of religious and spiritual figures, some authors have a tendency (intentional or not) to look back and write in an apologetic manner and gloss over critical details that may not look so favorably upon the figure. For John Calvin, this detail was Michael Servetus, a person condemned and burned as a heretic for holding views that were contrary to church teaching, such as loudly proclaiming the Trinity a false doctrine. This execution took place in Geneva, where Calvin had significant influence and some involvement in the decision to murder Servetus. Lindner did not gloss over this event and presented balanced and concise information to tell the entire story of this event.
This book did shed some light on my strange desire to learn about Calvin. Unbeknownst to many, I find an odd kinship with Calvin, despite my own spiritual beliefs. Unlike Calvin (rigid follower and preacher of Protestant doctrine), I am a religious free-wheeler who likes to heretically mix and match beliefs. I do not tow a doctrinal line nor do I pretend to be something I am not. Therefore, anyone that knows a smidgen about either Calvin or me will see that we are not compatible religiously or spiritually. However, there is a side of me that aligns quite well with him. Lindner alluded to it throughout his book.
Quite accurate, though, are the persecution, revolutionary ideas, sudden flight, and danger at the heart of the tale [Calvin's legend]. Indeed, they give us a truer picture of John Calvin than many of the modern images that present him as a cold, stern, legalistic academic who was the dictator of Geneva and responsible for the burning of an innocent man. (12-13)
Detractors from later years said that Calvin was know as “the accusative case” by his fellow students because of his critical spirit and sharp language skills. (27)
My interest in Calvin is much the same as the devotion I have with people like Andy Rooney and Alexandra Guarnaschelli. I have a natural attraction to stern, legalistic, and generally cranky people. I am glad Lindner's book did not disappoint in showing me the Rooney/Guarnaschelli potential in Calvin.