Among the leading reformers, studies on John Calvin rank second only to Martin Luther. Some scholars see Calvin as a theological dictator, but for others he was a blunt but compassionate first-rate thinker. The place to start is with T.H.L. Parker’s John Calvin: A Biography. Unlike earlier biographers of Calvin, Parker develops Calvin’s early collegiate education more fully, though hard details about his course of studies are still lacking. Parker thoroughly explains both the theological and political rationale for Calvin’s constant revisions of his own Institutes of the Christian Religion. Many reject history as the biographies of great men, but Alister McGrath, in his important work A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, argues that Calvin and, subsequently, Calvinism molded and shaped culture in a way that transcended the Reformer’s own age. Furthermore, McGrath argues that Calvin was no sterile theologian, but rather a creative thinker who merged thought and action together.
Stripping away the mystique of Calvin, Robert Godfrey in John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor contends that despite Calvin’s towering reputation as a scholar and theologian, Calvin saw himself foremost as a pilgrim and pastor. Godfrey humanizes Calvin in this insightful work. Herman Selderhuis’s John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life has a similar focus, drawing heavily from Calvin’s letters and commentaries. Selderhuis helps to balance the contrasting views of Calvin as either a humorless theologian or a saint hidden behind hagiographic portraits. The best all-around biography is Bruce Gordon’s Calvin. Gordon sees Calvin for what he was—hard and stern in manner, sometimes a bully, an intellectual giant, but first and foremost a great thinker and Bible interpreter who saw himself and the Christian life as a journey of discovery. This book, which draws thoroughly from Calvin’s own letters, is a must read.
Moving beyond the person of Calvin himself to Calvinism, Philip Benedict’s Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism provides a nuanced story of how Calvinism spread across Europe. Benedict traces Calvinism’s influence across the continent by following the careers of Calvin’s closest associates. Calvin and His Influence, 1509–2009 takes a similar theme. Compiled by editors Irena Backus and Philip Benedict, the book’s fifteen essays explore different themes in Calvin’s life and work, and show how his influence extended beyond his lifetime. This work is particularly helpful in tracing his influence down to the present day.