The River of Grace: A Life of John Calvin, by Joyce McPherson
(Greenleaf Press, 1998), pb., 159 pp.
This Was John Calvin, Thea B. Van Halsema
(I.D.E.A. Ministries, 1959), pb., 221 pp.
In a previous post I commented on Beza’s life of Calvin which I recommended as background reading for parents. We had two other biographies of Calvin which were directed at children. I examined the two briefly in order to decide which one to read to my boys at this time. This was John Calvin seems to be very accurate and the endorsement from Roger Nicole speaks volumes. However, with my quick glance through the two books, The River of Grace seemed to be the most engagingly written of the two so we went with it.
I was very pleased with Mrs. McPherson’s retelling of Calvin’s life. Unlike some other children’s bio’s we have read this one covered the whole of the subject’s life which was really good. It was also very nicely written. The book opens with a very engaging scene of Calvin as a boy playing soldier with his friend. This is nicely woven into the story as the reader follows Calvin through his childhood, to the university, into his first contact with the Reformation, along his growing unease with the church and attraction to the Reformation, to his conversion, ultimately to Geneva, Strasbourg, and Geneva again. McPherson pays much attention to Calvin’s time in France as he came to embrace the Reformation. Though our knowledge of this time period is not complete, she creates a very plausible order of events emphasizing the danger of the time and the adventure of clandestine Bible studies, secret work of translating the Bible and eluding the authorities. I think this portion of the book helped my boys to grasp the tenor of the time, the danger of just studying the Bible, and the bravery of those who did so more than anything else we have read so far.
I am actually amazed that the Mrs. McPherson was able to cover so much of Calvin’s life in this short of a book. Of course many things are not covered, but that is to be expected. Of the wide range of doctrinal matters that could be covered, the book appropriately focuses on the centrality of Scripture and the true Gospel. Regarding Calvin himself there is particular focus on his role as pastor, his care for his people, his hard work and care for the broader church as well as his role in advising Reformation churches and leaders all over Europe. I will simply provide one example from the book, where Calvin goes to answer some questions from a church member named Jean Stordeur. Stordeur who had fled to Geneva from elsewhere has been affected by more radical views (which gained some hold at the time) which pitted the Spirit against the Scripture allowing private subjective impressions “from the Spirit” to trump Scripture (this ideas continues today!). I don’t know if we have actual accounts of this conversation or if the author is simply providing a typical conversation on this topic (which did occur), but she has captured well the sort of advice one would expect from this Reformer. After explaining that the Scripture and the Spirit will never be in conflict since the Spirit inspired the Scriptures, McPherson has Calvin continuing with these words:
Jean, if you want the Holy Spirit to be active in your life, you must be all the more diligent to study the Scriptures. Read your Bible. Listen to the reading of Scripture at church. Every time you attend to God’s Word, God is at work in you.” (111)
With some frequency I have to teach this same lesson to adults today. Reading this to your children then is a great blessing and another reminder that in encouraging parents to read good books to their children, the parents will learn as well!
Three other features of the book require mention. First, each chapter has a quote above the chapter title. Early on the quotes come from various places, but as the book moves on they are primarily taken from Calvin’s writings. Many of these are real gems, particularly on the topic of suffering. Secondly, there is a three page appendix providing an alphabetical list of other famous people in the book and a brief description of who the person was. This is a great resource for helping the reader keep track of characters and also could serve as a primer on key characters of this time period. Lastly, a nice two page bibliography is also included listing other helpful books (many of the key works) on Calvin.
We would heartily recommend this book.