Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Friends of Calvin - A Review

I was really looking forward to reading this book and I was not disappointed. If ever a person in the history of the Church had a PR problem it is Calvin. What do you think of when you think of Calvin? Theologian? Preacher? Commentator? Defender of predestination? Persecutor of Servetus? Did you ever think he may have had friends and that they actually enjoyed his company? In the Friends of Calvin Machiel A. van den Berg paints a picture of Calvin with the hues of real humanity. He felt pain, disappointment and discouragement. He had sympathy for people. He got angry (okay, we all knew that one). And, lo and behold, he even laughed! In short, he was as human as you or I. Van den Berg introduces us to twenty four friends of Calvin. Through the eyes of these friendships we see Calvin in ways that may surprise us. We discover that the friendships that Calvin formed were not primarily based on sentiment but on the common bond of their faith and when that faith was threatened those friendships could be lost. But make no mistake, the friendships that were formed on this solid foundation were filled with emotions as strong and deep as any other and when some of those friendships were lost it was intensely painful.
The book is full of anecdotal stories. While on one trip we learn that Calvin “could not sleep in the inn because of the fleas.” (179) We read of an assassination attempt on Froment, Farel, and Viret by poisoned soup (94). Calvin’s friendship with Farel was brought to the breaking point when he informed Calvin that he was to wed a seventeen year old girl. The problem was Farel was 69! Calvin thought he had become senile (87). Another of Calvin’s friends, John Sinapius, found himself so in love he requested a mutual friend, Simon Grynaeus, to write Calvin and ask him to plead with the woman to marry Sinapius. While no one knows exactly what Calvin said to the lady she did accept Sinapius’ proposal (63-64). These are but a few of the stories that make this a truly enjoyable read. One of the most moving stories is about Galeazzo Caracciolo. Due to increased pressure from the Inquisition Caracciolo (who had converted to the reformed faith) left his family without notice. He eventually ends up in Geneva and develops a close relationship with Calvin. After several attempts to work out a compromise with his wife (who was still Roman Catholic) he leaves to live in Geneva permanently. The scene is given in poignant clarity: “His dear wife embraced him and pleaded with him not to abandon her. A little daughter of twelve cried and clung to his legs. But Galeazzao tore himself away, with great difficulty, from their embraces.” (204). Later Caracciolo realizes his marriage is irreparable and asks Calvin and the city council if he could obtain a divorce. Calvin tries to get him to live without a wife but to no avail. Eventually the marriage is declared null and void and Caracciolo remarries and remains so for twenty-seven years. Were such measures really necessary? Did Caracciolo need to leave his family? What you don’t know is that his friend had recently been arrested by the Inquisition and executed for his beliefs. If Caracciolo, who had already been condemned as a heretic, had stayed it most certainly would have spelled his death.

While you can certainly read the book out of order there is a certain amount of development which will be missed if read that way. The chapters on “Lord and Lady De Falais” and “Galeazzo Caracciolo” should be read in the order they are in. The author wrote them as “independent portraits” so he says “some repetition of central events and principles in Calvin’s life has been unavoidable.” (x) These repetitions are not that distracting. On a historical note, this is the second work where I’ve read that Calvin and Idelette together had three children (132). Every other work on Calvin I’ve read says they only had one son together.

Fair warning, readers of this book may actually like Calvin a little better than when they started. If not, you’ll surely understand him better. This is a worthy tribute for Calvin's 500th birthday.
The book is a paperback, 266 pages and sells for $20.00. It includes an index of people and places.

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