John Calvin and A McGrath - The real John Calvin

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Dieter Schneider

Puritan Board Sophomore
I am puzzled by two quotations found in A McGrath's 'A Life Of John Calvin': "As a human being, Calvin remains an enigma" and again " the human figure of flesh and blood...remains elusive"
Having read most of Calvin's letters (4 vols!) - and much else besides - I feel that one can say more about Calvin than that!
Do others feel that Calvin's personality is as elusive as McGrath seems to suggest?
What does it tell us about McGrath, who in the same book draws attention to those who see a parallell between Calvin and Lenin! Why would McGrath make this point - except to create a prejudice against Calvin, or am I being too unkind? I regard John Calvin as the greatest non-apostolic theologian and admire him as a saint - and do find him to be an attractive person.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
I don't think anyone will question that McGrath is a contributor to our understanding and respect for Calvin, on many levels. However, we don't have to accept all his analysis of the data he's collected and arranged.

Now, perhaps he's being comparative. Is there anything much to tell us who Calvin the man was outside of his theological interest? What copious material we have shows that if anything, Calvin was certainly focused. And so, we know him about as well as we know our teachers and professors. On average, we know something about their personalities, maybe if they are single or married, and what may make them laugh on occasion. But do we really know them? No, not really. Our contact with them is pretty focused on what brings us into contact with one another.

That, I think, is McGrath's point. We can know about one main focus (and it was pretty all consuming) in Calvin's life. And we know he was married, and loved his wife, but we don't have their conversations recorded for us. And we don't know what kind of food tasted best to Calvin, or what he liked best to drink, or if he liked art. We can teaste out little nuggets of Calvin from out of his prose, or what his friends (and enemies) said of him, or Beza's biography (probably mostly facts of his life, not analysis). But even after 4 volumes of letters, do we really know Calvin roundly, wholistically?

I don't doubt that Reuben's point about RM's criticism of AM has its merit. McGrath will probably never come off as someone quite as sympathetic to Reformed theology as he is to Anglicanism. His treatment of Iustitia Dei is proof of that.

I mean simply this: read such books as McGrath's Calvin not as if they must be a definitive, epoch-marking piece of your intellectual development, or else rubbish; but as a contribution to your knowledge, and subject to your own critical thinking.


I was converted while reading that book. It was pretty definitive for me. Maybe it just shows that God can shoot straight with a crooked stick.


Puritanboard Clerk
I don't remember the quote in context. I know many scholars have made a surface-level comparison between Calvinism and Marxism. Not that they teach the same economic theory (they don't) but that both immediately changed the world and did not confine their worldview to the closet.

I like McGrath a whole lot; don't know if I would quote him in a paper, though.

Dieter Schneider

Puritan Board Sophomore
A refreshingly sane reply - albeit I believe that we can glean a lot about Calvin's personality & character. We have less information available on other great Christians.
I guess it's difficult to be objective but I am intrigued as to why Calvin has attracted so much venom and had hoped that McGrath might be able shed some light on this.


Puritan Board Freshman
I"ve only read "In The Beginning" by McGrath & I found it to be a very interesting on a subject that most would not think that interesting. I am reading Keith Mathisons "Shape of Sola Scriptura" & he has several McGrath books listed in there. I can't comment on his writing on Calvin HOWEVER I can comment that prior to becoming Reformed in my thinking by the grace of God I was VERY turned off by "Calvinism" & largely in part TO Calvin. The very term Calvinist has very many negative connotations. I don't even refer myself as a Calvinist. I always say I'm Reformed in my christian beliefs. I remember when I was a WOF Dispensational I thought Calvin was a monster who went around burning heretics at the stake. My first thought upon reading of that was that was very "unchristian". Anyways like I said I have not read his book on Calvin but the comparison to Lenin could be that? Just my:2cents: . I must say my thoughts on John Calvin have changed QUITE a bit. I just keep thinking how many others won't even give him a chance just because of the negative connotations associated with him.
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