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A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture [Paperback]

By McGrath (Author)
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Item description for A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture by McGrath...

One of the best sources for understanding the impact of John Calvin, McGrath's work updates The History and Character of Calvinism by John T. McNeill with a fascinating biography that also explores Calvin's cultural importance.

Publishers Description
This biography reveals Calvin's life and his influence, his theology and his political thought, his determining of the course of European history and his impact on the social and political legislature of New England. It also traces Calvin's remarkable impact on the development of modern western attitudes to work, wealth, civil rights, capitalism and the natural sciences.

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Wiley-Blackwell
Pages   332
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.14" Width: 6" Height: 0.77"
Weight:   1.14 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Oct 8, 1993
Publisher   Wiley-Blackwell
Age  18
Edition  Revised  
ISBN  0631189475  
ISBN13  9780631189473  

Availability  57 units.
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More About McGrath

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Alister E. McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University. He is one of the worlds leading Protestant theologians and the author of numerous popular theology textbooks, including Christian Theology (Third Edition, 2001), The Christian Theology Reader, (Second Edition, 2001), Christian Spirituality (1999), Science and Religion (1998), Historical Theology (1998), and An Introduction to Christianity (1997), all available from Blackwell Publishing. He is also editor of The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism (2003).

McGrath has published or released items in the following series...
  1. Study in the Shaping of Western Culture

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > Biographies & Memoirs > General
2Books > Subjects > Biographies & Memoirs > Leaders & Notable People > Religious
3Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Philosophy > General
4Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Philosophy
5Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Church History > Protestant

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Reviews - What do customers think about A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture?

Biography of Ideas  Apr 14, 2008
It's a pity this book is so expensive. I checked it out of the library, and so I don't have a copy on hand to refer back to as I would like to. This book is good because it focuses more on Calvin's ideas and writings and his place in the intellectual climate of his times than on biographical details. Years ago, I read the Cottret biography of Calvin, which I also recommend as a way to learn a little more about Calvin the elusive man, but McGrath provided me with a refresher on what Calvin thought. McGrath is a superb scholar of late Scholasticism and the Reformation, and he illuminates Calvin's intellectual ties to his predecessors as well as to contemporaries like Luther and Zwingli. Some of the interesting chapters of this book include an overview of Calvin and the experiment of Geneva and the process of writing and revising The Institutes. It's a great book for the general reader.
You can't judge a book by its cover.  Dec 6, 2007
Based on the title of Alister McGrath's book, A Life of John Calvin, one would expect to read some sort of biography about John Calvin. This is not the case. A Life of John Calvin can be divided into three major sections, the first describes historical France, especially the universities in Paris and Orleans, the second describes Geneva and Calvin's role there, and the third attempts to show Calvin's impact on the modern world. Information on John Calvin is severely lacking in this book, the author's opinions are often unfounded, and his writing style is difficult to read.

McGrath proposes many of his own opinions, some of which are simply confusing, others are offensive, and some are heretical. McGrath refers to the Roman Catholic Church as the catholic church, with a lowercase "c", and capitalizes the "v" in virgin Mary. The reason for this is not clear, surely a man as learned as McGrath should know that the capitalization of these words changes their entire definition. Similarly, since John Calvin spoke French, McGrath constantly quotes him in French, without giving a translation. McGrath's most heretical and agenda filled attack is pages 255-257, in which he wholeheartedly defends evolution. How a person that confronts the high priest of the religion of evolution, Dr. Richard "Dinky" Dawkins, can believe in evolution is beyond this reviewer's comprehension. Even more insulting, McGrath implies that John Calvin would accept evolution and shun the literal Creation account of Genesis 1-3. Earlier, McGrath had attacked Luther as being a hindrance to the reformation process and calls justification by faith alone, "Luther's Doctrine", a rather strange thing for a protestant theology professor to say.

A Life of John Calvin has many flaws, chief among these is failing to detail John Calvin's life, however the idiosyncratic nature ensures that the reader is buried in history without any discernable relation to John Calvin. Pages upon pages are dedicated to describing the areas surrounding Geneva, the universities of Paris, Orleans, and famous people who attended them, almost with the assumption that this somehow described John Calvin. This reviewer attended the same university as the 9/11 Hijackers, to assume that a study of a university could describe an attendee is both presumptuous and a waste of pages.

Where this book nearly redeems itself is in the description of Calvin's Geneva, the historical and chronological aspects are impeccable, but after fifty-pages describing nearly thirty years, the reader realizes a grave disservice has been done in the examination of Calvin's Geneva. As the Apostle Paul said of pre-Messiah Israel, "For we see through a glass, darkly," (1 Cor 13:12) this is how Calvin comes across in this work, a fuzzy, blurry, incomplete image of the man, and especially his role in the city. There are no sermon quotes, no examples of Calvin's preaching, church services, church schedules, evangelization efforts, missionary events, or anything that could possibly cause the reader to learn something about John Calvin, or improve their own ministry. In between Calvin's two Geneva ministries is a forced sabbatical to Strasburg, in which Calvin greatly improved his theology and stewardship. This book devotes two pages to this monumental event, saying little more than it occurred.

In a book titled A Life of John Calvin, one would expect to find a biography about the sixteenth century reformer, however Alister McGrath has failed to describe the man who has so greatly influenced Western Culture. A person somewhat familiar with John Calvin will leave this book confused for its lack of depth. A person unfamiliar with John Calvin may be permanently damaged by this extremely poor representation of the life, theology, and subsequent following of one of the most important men in history.

McGrath managed to cloud this reviewer's otherwise clear image of Calvin, something that will take much study and examination to bring back into focus.
Critical Review of "A Life of John Calvin"  Mar 30, 2007
John Calvin has been cast by many biographical writers as an austere, iron-fisted, dictatorial sixteenth century theologian. Alister McGrath's exhaustive and detailed work seeks to dispel these myths while giving insight into the character and thinking of Calvin that profoundly shaped Western Culture. McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and author of several theology textbooks, including Christian Theology, The Christian Theology Reader, Christian Spirituality, Science and Religion, Historical Theology, and An Introduction to Christianity.

McGrath's purpose is to show how Calvin's theological thinking and events, that gained momentum even beyond his life time, shaped Western Culture. This includes the startling premise that capitalism and Marxism both owe their foundation, to some degree, to Calvin's innovating thinking, financial institutions, manufacturing developments, and ecclesiastical structures put in place while at Geneva.

McGrath's chronological approach starts with Calvin's educational background, where McGrath delved into obscure records and examines the Universities and professors he studied under, thereby forming his thinking and theology. McGrath even includes city maps and physical relationships of the various universities Calvin attended to help the reader sense and comprehend Calvin's learning environment. Contrasts and comparisons are made throughout the book between Calvin and Luther differentiating their theological viewpoints and emphasis. One such contrast is made between Luther's focus on justification by faith and Calvin's focus on sanctification by faith. In many cases, it appears McGrath is trying to prove Calvin's superiority over Luther.

McGrath chips away at various myths regarding Calvin's theology and behavior while at Geneva. Some have suggested that Calvin developed a systematic theology. However, McGrath believes Calvin did not consider himself a systematic thinker nor did he develop or arrange his works (primarily his Institutes) in any systematic form. McGrath notes, "To speak of Calvin as a theological systematizer is to imply a degree of affinity with medieval scholasticism which contradicts his known attitudes." McGrath also seeks to debunk the idea that Calvin's theology was dominated by the concept of predestination, particularly double predestination. McGrath states, "One may identify certain centrally important themes, certain fundamental root metaphors, which allow insights into Calvin's religious thought--but the notion of a central doctrine or axiom which controls it cannot be maintained. `There is no `hard core', no `basic principle' or `central premise', no `essence' of Calvin's religious thought." McGrath believes that if any doctrine was central to Calvin's theology, it was the centrality of Jesus Christ, which is covered in the first book of his Institutes. The `Calvinism' known today (hyper Calvinism) was not adhered to at all by Calvin, but developed by those who followed after him.

McGrath also seeks to dispel social myths that have captured people's imagination of Calvin as a `radical reformer', a `hard liner', or one ready to enforce his policies to the point of execution. McGrath points out "Geneva was not free to choose its own road to reformation: it must adopt the religious beliefs and practices already associated with Berne itself." "...the romantic and idealized vision of a reformer arriving in a city to preach the gospel with an immediately ensuing decision to adopt the principles of the Reformation must be abandoned as quite unrealistic." Further, regarding the myths of Calvin's propensity for enforcement of the ecclesiastical structures set in place within Geneva, (Balzac asserted that Calvin `reigned in terror' and Huxley asserted that Calvin had a child beheaded for striking his parents), McGrath's research shows "In the first place, there is no record of any such incident in the Genevan archives (which are as comprehensive as one could wish); in the second, there is no basis in the Genevan criminal or civil codes which could possibly justify such a prosecution, let alone such a draconian penalty; in the third place, the substance and execution of the Genevan civil and criminal codes owed nothing to Calvin." Throughout his book, McGrath portrays Calvin as an intellectual introvert, almost to the point of being a victim of circumstances, whom God chose to use in a unique way at precisely the correct moment in history to further the Protestant reformation. The result was an impact reaching further than Calvin dared to hope.

McGrath's key emphasis is the social and cultural impact Calvin made through his religious ideas during his lifetime and practical structures set in place while at Geneva. From Calvin's refining of the French language through his exegesis and sophisticated religious arguments, his use of printed medium to spread the reformation (in just over a seven-year period, Calvin's Institutes experienced over twelve printings in French), his use of foreign capitalization to sustain Geneva (during the siege by the House of Savoy), to his ideas of work ethic (through use of manufacturing and his ideas that God gave every man a unique job to perform), Calvin impacted not only Geneva but France and ultimately Western Culture. It was Calvin's financial ideas, social work ethic, and theology regarding predestination that provided the seed bed for the development of Marxism and Capitalism.

McGrath's biography of Calvin uncovers truly unique aspects of his life, blasts away long standing myths, and highlights God's amazing capability to take a humble man and use him to greatly impact the world. The careful and accurate research, fresh perspectives, and scholarly approach make this book a solid and necessary resource for theologians, historians, scholars, and those who just love reading a great biography.

(Initially submitted by N. J. Borrett to Liberty Theological Seminary (LTS)in partial fulfillment for M.Div degree requirements - CHHI-525 on 3/28/2007)
Very good for the most part.  Nov 24, 2006
The book delivered more and less than I bargain for. The sections on his life are weak. McGrath is very balanced and thorough in shifting through all the theories, but because there is so little actual information on his life, the book seems to drift among the different theories.

However, the book is very strong in describing the differences between Calvin and Cavlivnism, how Calvin and Calvinism influenced Western Civilization from the late medieval period until this very day. McGrath corrects the modern perspective that Calvin ruled Geneva with an iron hand. Calvin's influence in Geneva was profound, but not as strong politically as most people think. Calvin's role was within the religious side, his role in the political and legal arenas was very limited. Calvin was brought in to manage the impact of the reformation on Geneva. He did this through establishing ecclesiastical structures and his teaching.

The chapter on Calvin's influence on France and the chapter on how Calvin and Calvinsim change our perspective on work were excellent. The book is a very balanced, and at times dry, but most of the time fascinating. McGrath looks at Calvin and Calvinism, how they are separate entities and how they had a dramatic impact on the city of Geneva, the history of thought and Western Civlization.
A Helpful Book on Calvin  Oct 28, 2005
McGrath's book is a must read for those interested in John Calvin. It is a helpful introduction to the theologian, pastor, reformer, and his times. Careful reading of this work will repay the reader the time invested in diving into its riches. McGrath proves that he is one of the top English theologians and historians with this book. For those interested in learning about John Calvin--we are in his debt.

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