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Book Review: A Life of John Calvin by McGrath

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Liberty University

Book Review on A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture,

By Alister E. McGrath

A paper submitted to Dr. Goza

In partial fulfillment of the Requirements for

the course CHHI 525

Liberty Theological seminary


Christopher W. Myers


Lynchburg, Virginia

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Table of Contents

Introduction- 2

The Content- 3

Interaction with the Text: Commendable- 4

Interaction with the Text: Critiques- 5

Conclusion- 6





       Alister E. McGrath is a prolific writer and has written extensively on the history and theology of the Reformation.  Previous to his A Life of John Calvin (1990), he wrote The Genesis of Doctrine (1990), Reformation Thought: An Introduction (1988), The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (1987), and his magnum opus Iustitia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification (1986), and also his The Making of Modern German Christology (1986), and Luther’s Theology of the Cross (1985).  Currently, McGrath is the professor of historical theology at Oxford University, and senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College.  McGrath has turned his primary interests from historical theology to natural theology, especially his concern to revive the study of natural theology so that it can interact successfully with natural science, and therefore, combating such atheists as Richard Dawkins.[1] 

       Dr. McGrath offered a modest, fair, and concise account of the life of John Calvin that emphasized a thoughtful reflection upon the effects of Calvin’s legacy both sociologically and theologically from his death to the present.  McGrath did not intend for his work to be exhaustive, but selective (pg. 261).  He did not write the book to condemn or to reward Calvin, but to respect the man for who he is—as a person most worthy of study because of the effect that he ultimately had on western civilization (pg. xiv-xv).  The book is not merely a biography, but more so an attempt to trace the development, proclamation, and legacy of Calvin’s ideas and discover their influence upon the world, especially sociologically as a movement (pg. xv).   

The Content

   After giving an introduction that places the reader within the 16th century context of Calvin’s time (chapter 1), McGrath goes about his task by chronologically moving through Calvin’s life (chapters 2-6, and 9).  Chapters 7 and 8 are a parenthesis in McGrath’s chronological discussion to briefly outline the theology of Calvin as understood primarily through Calvin’s Institutes.  Chapter 10 traces very briefly the development of Calvinism as a reformed movement from Calvin’s death to its current status and expression in order to show Calvinism’s genesis from Switzerland and eventually the expansion to France Germany, and then ultimately to the world at large.  Chapters 11 and 12 are McGrath’s attempt to understand Calvinism’s impact upon history and the modern western world.

Interaction with the Text: Commendable

       Three areas of strength in McGrath’s work are commendable.  First, McGrath not only sets many negative misrepresentations of Calvin straight, but he also corrects many of Calvin’s past biographers of untenable historical fallacies.  This became most notable in McGrath’s honest appraisal of Calvin’s early Parisian period, admitting it to be one of the “gaps” in our historical knowledge of Calvin due to scant data (pp. 18-19).  Where many of Calvin’s other biographers were willing to generalize or assume due to this lack of data, McGrath rightfully shows to be unwilling to do so and quickly admits uncertainties and calls out the uncouthness of the generalities and assumptions of other scholars (21-27).       

       Secondly, the short treatment of Calvin’s understanding of Christianity especially as seen through his Institutes was greatly helpful in order to introduce the reader to the many doctrinal truths that fueled Calvinism and produced many of the attitudes and ethics by which modern culture is affected.  However, McGrath was quick to point out to the reader that “To understand Calvin it is necessary to read Calvin” (pg.145, emphasis in original).  Therefore, McGrath did not set out to produce a comprehensive account of Calvin’s theology, but to produce a map of his ideas and show how they interrelate and to effect the reader with a stimulus to read Calvin, especially his Institutes, which McGrath argues to be the first and best source for understanding Calvin (pp. 145-147).

       Lastly, in the two chapters that McGrath used to explore how Calvin and his ideas have shaped the modern world, it was delightful for McGrath to display the Calvinist work ethic as directly the result of their theology (pp. 237-244).  And this reviewer agrees with Dr. McGrath that sociologically one of Calvinism’s most important contributions was “the transformation of the status of work from a distasteful and degrading activity…to a dignified and glorious means of affirming God and the world he created” (pg. 245).        

Interaction with the Text: Critiques

       While I have much praise for Dr. McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, there are two critiques that are in order.  First, McGrath is an author of in-depth knowledge of everything, but nothing too specific.  It seems that this is characteristic of all of his books, which would make him an excellent writer of introductory materials.  However, the book was not a full biography of John Calvin, neither was it a complete study of the shaping of western culture.  Rather, it seemed to be an introductory book for both of these specific topics.  It seems that Dr. McGrath completed his goals for the book, but his thesis for the book was too general and it would have been a better book if it had a more specific thesis.  Dr. McGrath tried to tackle three different theses in one book: he wanted to write a corrected biography of John Calvin, write on Calvin’s theology, and then also to complete a study on the shaping of Western culture; this was too much and made for a very general work.  And this shows when it is realized that he only devotes two chapters to the subtitle of his book--A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture.

       Second, Dr. McGrath was inventive and ambitious when he claimed that Calvin eliminates the obstacle of Biblical literalism to allow for the discussion between theology and the natural sciences.  He argues from his deductions of Calvin and McGrath is utterly mistaken.  Calvin was against spiritualizing or interpreting other-than-literal the first chapters of Genesis, yet McGrath would have us to believe otherwise (pp.253-257).


       Critiques aside, Dr. McGrath’s modest, fair, and concise outlined account of John Calvin’s Life and how his ideas and his movement affected the world should be read by laymen, undergraduate, and seminary students, and pastors alike interested in the history of the Reformation and John Calvin specifically.  This book will be a good introduction on John Calvin for this generation and should be used as such to introduce Calvin, his times, his ideas, and the general effects of the man and his ideas on the world.




       [1] This current information on McGrath was gathered from his website:

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