Some books you buy, some books you are given. Others make their way into your library through mysterious means. Such was the nature of the John Calvin biography I acquired by T.H.L. Parker. Mine is an old hard bound copy, printed in 1954 and originally property of Western College in Oxford, OH. I don’t know exactly how the book came to be in my possession, but in honor the 450th anniversary of Calvin’s death earlier this month I thought I’d pick it up and read it. The name Thomas Henry Louis Parker meant nothing to me, it had no frame of reference, nor did the 124 page Portrait of Calvin. Having read it, however, I find the book incredibly insightful and edifying. Calvin is a complex person whose life is full of complex details. Most short biographical sketches of his life give us the same isolated details of his life, but Parker does more. Attempting to present a unified view of the man Parker offers us the best introduction to Calvin’s life that readers will find in sketch format.
Parker’s intent is not to give us a full-blown biography. He makes that point clear himself. He writes:
The number of books on Calvin seems endless…There is little point in entering into competition…But because some village or other has been photographed from every possible angle, I am not prevented from attempting a water-colour of the same place. So the title of this book should be taken as differentiating it somewhat from a straight biography. It is a portrait, not a photograph. (7)
Parker, evidently, was a widely celebrated scholar and historian. He was most known for his work on Calvin, including a larger biography of the man. In writing this little volume he had the great desire to make Calvin appealing again to a generation that had grown accustomed to dismissing him or demonizing him. This little portrait, he says, has the high hopes of being a “pleasant surprise to some who have always in their imaginations seen Calvin with horns and wreathed about with the incense of brimstone” (7). It is the author’s belief, however, that Calvin represents a remarkable theologian, scholar, and thinker. He writes:
The last and truest thing to be said of Calvin is that, within the limits of sinful morality, the unity of his life is astounding; his thoughts, his actions, and his intentions point in the same direction. As he thought, so he lived and so he purposed…It is this harmony or consistency that gives its particular significance to Calvin’s life. (9)
Thus, Parker’s goal in this little book is more than just biographical sketch. Rather, it is an introduction to the unity of thought and life in the great reformer.
To demonstrate this unity Parker walks us through Calvin’s everything from Calvin’s educational background, his epistolary writings, his theology and pastoral ministry, his preaching, his conflicts, and finally his ecumenism. In 124 pages Parker covers a breadth of material, some of which is not even discussed in other larger biographies.
There are some qualms that observant readers may find with the book. Parker’s Barthian bent leads him to misconstrue Calvin’s doctrine of election, and the context of his original writing provided him some compulsion to take jabs at the American Fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture. Despite such weaknesses the book lends itself well to introducing readers to Calvin. It gives us more than the usual details, though it does not skip over such important events like the Servetus case. It also gives us a more unified picture of the man, as opposed to a scattered list of interesting facts and random stories. Parker does a good job of presenting the unity of thought, life and intention in Calvin. These 124 pages are compelling, easy to read, and insightful. For those who have often dismissed or despised Calvin, yet have no familiarity with him, this is the book to pick up! Thankfully Desiring God has recently seen fit to republish the work with a foreword by John Piper, making it once again more accessible. I highly commend and greatly appreciated this wonderful Portrait of Calvin.