Praise for T.H.L. Parker's "Portrait of Calvin" and a few little caveats

Ligon Duncan

Recently, I tweeted my appreciation for T.H.L. Parker's Portrait of Calvin. I have had the little book since the days of my doctoral studies in Britain (my copy is a little hardback, published by SCM and bought second-hand - it originally sold for 7s 6d !), but had never read it. I'd read Parker's larger biography of Calvin twice, but it was hearing that John Piper was going to have copies of Portrait for his conference attendees (did I hear that right, or am I making that up?) that prompted me to take up and read. I'm glad I did.

Portrait has a verve about it that Parker's larger bio doesn't. And you can read it in a sitting (at 124 pages). A few small blemishes are the only warnings I offer the reader.

(1) Parker has some quasi-Barthian qualms about Calvin's doctrine of predestination 9p. 57. As much as I admire Parker as a towering historian and scholar of Calvin, you may safely ignore him here.

(2) Parker can't resist one passing jab at "American fundamentalists" in addressing Calvin's doctrine of Scripture. But Parker's very brief evidence for asserting that Calvin didn't believe in inerrancy (p. 52) misses the point. Again, one detects the influence of a kind of conservative Barthianism on Parker's reading of Calvin (you can see this also in the secondary literature on Calvin that he cites elsewhere: Dowey, Torrance, etc.). The interested student would do well to read John Murray's article on Calvin's doctrine of Scripture to get a quick feel for the lay of the land on Calvin's own view of this subject.

(3) Parker gives a weak defense of Calvin in the Servetus affair, IMHO. Granted, he's writing to (what he apparently senses is) a hostile or at best suspcious audience when it comes to Calvin (mid-20th century mainstream, church-going Brits, esp. Anglicans) and trying to put Calvin in a good light, but I think he falls short of helping the reader understand the historical context of that whole lamented story.

(4) You may catch a few Anglican ecclesiological swipes at Calvin along the way as well. Move along, nothing to see there!

But, really, as a whole the book gets you a feel for Calvin than many longer books fail to do. So read and enjoy in this year of the Calvinpalooza!