Tag Archives: Herman Selderhuis

Where Was the Location of the Synod of Dort 1618-19?


Every now and then it happens.  Someone travels to the Netherlands, visits the historic city of Dordrecht, and reports back that they saw the building where the great Synod of Dort was held.  However, this is impossible, I tell them, because that building is no longer there. In the interests of promoting historical accuracy, I thought I would write a little post about this, just providing a couple of sources to prove it.

The Acts of the Synod of Dort are currently being published by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht in a critical edition.  In the first volume, Herman Selderhuis provides a short historical introduction.  You can find most of this introduction online here.  The relevant page is xxiv.  There Selderhuis relates that the synod was held in a building known as the Kloveniersdoelen.  This was a building where the city militia met and also stored their guns.  No matter what a tour guide may tell you, the synod was not held in a church or cathedral.  It was in a civic building.  True, the Synod was opened and the Canons were publically presented in the Grote Kerk (according to Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg), but the sessions of the Synod (when the Canons were written) took place in the Kloveniersdoelen.

Moreover, if you can read Dutch, check out this Wikipedia article about the Kloveniersdoelen in Dordrecht.  If you can’t read Dutch, I can summarize the important parts for you:  the building is no longer there, it was destroyed in 1857.  Yes, in this case, Wikipedia is accurate — you can confirm it here.  Case closed.

Old photo of the Kloveniersdoelen, taken shortly before its demolition in 1857.

Old photo of the Kloveniersdoelen, taken shortly before its demolition in 1857.

How to Address God in Prayer

I’m continuing to read and enjoy Herman J. Selderhuis’ Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms.  In a section on “Prayer as Covenant Communication,” Selderhuis remarks that Calvin “describes the contact between both partners of the covenant as ‘familiariter,’ a term which suggests a child speaking with his father.  This contact, though, is most threatened when prayer is neglected.  The remedy for this is to regularly address God in prayer as ‘my God.’” (219)

In a footnote, Selderhuis refers to Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 5:2.  Unfortunately, the most common edition of Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms (published by Baker Book House and widely available) does not give a satisfactory translation from the Latin.  I have a .pdf of an earlier English translation (by Arthur Golding), but this page is not very legible.  So, this is my idiomatic translation from the Latin:

Furthermore, if we don’t feel like praying or our devotion to God is under swift attack, we must pay attention to these ox-goads which will prick us.  Just as the Psalmist called God “my king and my God,” and so sharply incited himself to better hope, we ought to learn to apply these titles in a similar way.  In so doing, we render God to be family with us.

Calvin makes an excellent point here.  This is exactly why the Lord Jesus taught us to address God as “Our Father.”  We should make it our habit to address God in family terms.  There is nothing wrong or sinful about calling him “Lord” (the Bible does that too, on many occasions).  But to consistently and regularly address him as your God and your Father is beautiful and serves to undergird the nature of our relationship with him.

Calvin on Thunderstorms

I love Ontario for its thunderstorms.  The Lower Mainland of British Columbia only rarely had thunderstorms and then usually they were pathetic unimpressive events.  Here we get some real storms, sometimes with some very dangerous results.  But they always leave you in awe of the Creator.  I’m not sure if Geneva is more like Ontario or BC, but apparently John Calvin knew a thing or two about violent thunderstorms.  Herman Selderhuis explains:

Calvin repeatedly speaks about God’s revelation in thunderstorms.  The power of God is revealed through the vehemence of such natural phenomena like violent and stormy weather.  When we cannot see God’s face, his presence becomes very clear in the thunder of stormy weather.  To shake believers awake and to let hardened unbelievers hear his voice, God from time to time will let the weather rage in order to impress all people.  Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms, 71-72.

Growing to Love the Psalms

Herman Selderhuis, in Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms, notes how Calvin grew in his love and appreciation for the Psalter:

…for Calvin the book of the Psalms assumed greater and greater significance in his theological development.  In the first edition of the Institutes (1536) the Psalter is the least-quoted biblical book, in the last edition it is quoted more than any other with the one exception of the epistle to the Romans. (16)

Is it fair to conclude that a sign of growing Christian maturity is a deeper appreciation for God’s songbook?

Book Review of John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life by Herman Selderhuis

John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Herman J. Selderhuis, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.  Paperback, 287 pages, $28.99.

After reading the fifth or sixth positive review of this biography, I finally bit the bullet and laid my money down.  Herman Selderhuis, a professor at the Theological University in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, wrote this volume about John Calvin originally in Dutch.  Albert Gootjes, a Ph.D. student at Calvin Seminary, translated it into English in time for it to be published during 2009, the 500th year since Calvin’s birth.

I hate to be contrary to all the other reviewers, but this book bothers me – a lot.  Before I go further and explain why, a few disclaimers are in order.  First, there is no question that Calvin was a great theologian and exegete.  I have the highest respect for him and regularly make use of his insights.  Second, the massive volume of Calvin’s writings cannot be underestimated.   To know a sixteenth-century figure well, the only thing you have to go by are his writings and perhaps what contemporaries said about him.  This biography is based primarily on Calvin’s correspondence and that may colour it a certain way.  Third, it is a well-known fact that biographies sometimes say more about biographers than about the objects of their writing.  Writing a completely objective biography is impossible.  One’s own interests and outlooks invariably creep in.  To what extent that is true of this biography is not mine to say.  I just want to draw attention to that fact since it does possibly mitigate some of what will follow.  By the same token, perhaps this review says more about the reviewer than it says about either Calvin or this book!  Let the reader beware…

As far as an outline of Calvin’s life in general goes, from what I can tell the book is a helpful and reliable guide.  My uneasiness is from the way Calvin’s relationship with God is portrayed.  I realize that there may be a difference between the way it really was and the way it’s described here.  While I may have read more of Calvin than the average person, I do not claim to be a better Calvin scholar than Herman Selderhuis.  All I’m saying is that the portrayal of Calvin’s relationship with God makes me uncomfortable – whether this is a true picture is difficult for me to say.  On the one hand, I want to be charitable to the author and believe that he has written as accurate an account as he could.  On the other hand, I want to be charitable to Calvin himself.  I want to believe that his relationship to God was healthy and his understanding of God biblical.

While Calvin is portrayed in this book as one who knew God as his Father through Jesus Christ, one often gets the sense that he believed himself to be one who was just barely loved by God.  Selderhuis relates how Calvin “drew awfully direct lines between sin and punishment” (61).  Calvin is pictured as one who believed that the hammer of God’s justice was always hanging over his head, and that it could drop at any moment and destroy him.  In his preaching and teaching, he sent the same message to others:  you are but a hair-breadth away from being struck down by an angry God.  At the end of his life, Calvin expresses “his fear of having to appear before God as a sinful person” (252).  At the end, it seems like Calvin has gone through his entire Christian life motivated by the dread (not ‘fear’ in a healthy sense) of God and his punishing justice.  There is very little evidence in this book of a man who is confident and certain of his heavenly Father’s love for him.  There is very little evidence of a child of God who found refuge and comfort in his gracious Father’s long-suffering.  Instead, the very word “Father” seems almost to be synonymous with “wrathful judge” for Calvin.

In both Lutheran and Reformed theology, there is a well-developed understanding of the doctrine of justification.  In this doctrine (which Calvin also held), after believers are justified through faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone, they remain sinners until they are glorified in the hereafter.  Simul iustus et peccator – at the same time righteous and a sinner.  The way Calvin is portrayed, it’s almost all peccator and very little iustus.  The picture of Calvin in this book is not of a man who found comfort in the gospel, but a man whose introduction to the gospel led him to yet more angst and guilt.

This is a Calvin I don’t think I’ve met before and a Calvin I even find pathetic (in the sense of being sad and miserable).  Is this the real Calvin?  Or is this a one-sided portrayal?  Again, I’m not qualified to judge.  I have read more of the writings of his contemporary, Guido de Brès.  As I read his letters, there’s always a profound sense of the nearness of God.  De Brès was a man who believed that his Father loved him and nothing could ever take that away, not even his sin.  De Brès believed that he was loved deeply by Jesus Christ and we find that reflected in my favourite line of the Belgic Confession:  “There is no creature in heaven or on earth who loves us more than Jesus Christ” (article 26).  They say that the Belgic Confession owes its biggest debt to John Calvin and from what I’ve seen I believe it.  But I do wonder then about the Calvin of Selderhuis – is this the same Calvin that de Brès supposedly met in Geneva?

I believe the conclusion of this biography speaks for itself.  After noting that Calvin looked forward to conversing with Luther in heaven, Selderhuis writes:

In contrast to many later Calvinists, at any rate, Calvin himself has no doubt as to whether or not we would recognize one another in heaven.  This would indeed be nice.  If I am to end up there myself, there are some things that I would really like to talk to him about. (259 – italics added)

It is with good reason that the German translation of this book was entitled, Johannes Calvin: Mensch zwischen Zuversicht und Zweifel (John Calvin:  Man between Confidence and Doubt).  Unfortunately, at least in Selderhuis’ portrayal, zweifel often overcame zuversicht.

For all of that, the book is worthwhile.  It has, for instance, helpful insights into why Reformed churches do certain things like home visits.  Above all, it’s certainly highly readable — probably at least some of that can be attributed to the translator.  In the final analysis, however, this is not a volume that I would recommend to someone if I wanted them to have a positive picture of the Reformed faith from the perspective of the one credited as being one of its pre-eminent fathers.