The Betrayal: A Novel on John Calvin

The Betrayal by Douglas Bond is a half-biography, half-novel treatment of reformer John Calvin. If you want a transition from reading solely Christian fiction into meatier biographies of Christian heroes, this novel would be a perfect fit.

Follow Calvin’s life through the eyes of his fictional servant, Jean-Louis, who was born six months before Calvin and grew up in the same village as Calvin; then attended him as a servant throughout Calvin’s days as a scholar, reformer, and until his death. Jean-Louis acts as antagonist, protagonist, and narrator depending on the point of the story.

Story:

Jean-Louis’ family dies from the plague sweeping his French village when he was a young man (about 17, if I remember correctly). J-L stumbles upon a rich man recently dead of the plague, steals his purse and rich cap and coat, and somewhat unbelievably hitches a ride on the underside of a carriage in which Calvin is riding all the way to Paris. J-L then finds himself a job as Calvin’s servant in school. He never quits being Calvin’s servant, a quite handy point for a narrator of Calvin’s life.

J-L, however, has from his boyhood been envious of Calvin’s brilliant genius and slightly wealthier status, which (genius) set Calvin apart even as a boy. Thus, after some events in J-L’s life, J-L decides to become an enemy of God. This fit perfectly with the French king’s point of view at the time, who sided with the intellectual “doctors of Sorbonne” and the Roman Catholic church and began a horrible persecution of those of the “new doctrine” throughout France. This included any who were translating the Bible into the “vulgar” tongue, or poets writing hymns in French.

Betrayal overviews (through debates and lectures at Calvin’s school of divinity) the abuses, incredible wickedness, and ignorance of the Roman church. It highlights Calvin’s conversion from simply disagreeing with the abuses of the Roman church to actively throwing in his lot with the persecuted reformers.

Meanwhile, J-L throws in his lot with the persecutors, eventually turning in Calvin and some of his beloved friends and co-workers in the Reformation cause. But just as the King’s men come to arrest Calvin, Jean-Louis, by God’s hand, amazingly decides to rescue Calvin, and is the major reason Calvin escapes Paris alive.

From then on, J-L tortures himself with the tensions of hearing Calvin’s amazing preaching almost daily (as they travel from city to city, finally staying in Geneva, Switzerland for several years); yet thinking that such doctrines cannot apply to himself, a betrayer of the church. Because of being unconverted throughout the book, he also lives in fear that the King’s men will consider him one of the Huguenots (for helping Calvin escape), and thus die a horrific martyr’s death for a belief he never held in a grace that he never received!

Positives:

  1. This method of giving biographical info in novel form is a brilliant way to give Christians a hunger to further learn about these amazing reformers who were the seed of our church today. It is a historical fiction novel, yet it is meatier than being simply a novel. Many who might not read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or other of his commentaries or biographies about him will read this novel.
  2. I learned a lot about Calvin and his times, including the dangers that many true Christians faced.
  3. My affections for Christ were raised. I was so impressed with the resolution of early Christians to face the pain of terrible martyrdoms for Christ and His Word.
  4. I learned theology as well.
  5. Calvin was represented well and fairly, with some documentation in the appendix. Several of his writings or sermons are quoted. Not too much or too little time was spent on the issue of the death of blasphemer Michael Servetus, which Calvin has been wrongly maligned for. There are marginally few pages that directly address predestination or election, and free will, and they are a helpful, somewhat lengthy quote of a discussion with a pupil and a sermon later on. I can imagine Arminians decrying this book before they’ve even read it, sure that it will be chock full of Calvinism. But I did not find it so, and I knew what to look for.

Negatives:

  1. Because of its novel format, the book takes a while getting into Calvin’s thoughts and the meat of his life. It doesn’t discuss much of his later years of his Geneva life (after his return), which maybe I’m glad of. As a character, you get to know Jean-Louis’ inner thoughts more than Calvin’s; but since most of J-L’s time is spent narrating Calvin’s life and words (the biographical format), you don’t really feel like you got a good feel for J-L’s inner character. But this is immensely picky. The novel was really well done.
  2. A few of the “gripping” parts are unbelievable.

Scoring:

Seth attempted to come up with a way to more objectively rate books. 🙂 Well, rating is certainly subjective and others might not agree.

0     The book was notable for lacking this category repeatedly.

1     The book dipped into this category at times.

2     The book consistently demonstrated this category.

Fiction Categories:

  • Biblical: Did the author honor Scriptural truth or a Christian worldview even if unwittingly? 2 points
  • Creative: Did the author grip the imagination by inventing characters, situations, or other aspects of reality? 1 point–I felt he did the best he could with such subject matter though!
  • Style: Did the theme, vocabulary, and composition represent an enduring standard? 2 points
  • Credible: Were the characters, plot turns, and relationships believable? 1 pointThey have to be since much of it is based on fact. However, a few of the parts concerning Jean-Louis may not have been so much so.
  • Affections: Was some truth presented powerfully to the affections? 2 points: There were many. I’ll share the lessons I learned and quotes next week!
  • Total: This book gets an 8 out of 10 on my gotta-read scale.
I was just getting into cake decorating around the time World magazine covered Calvin's 500th birthday. Here's a cake I tried to copy from their computerized magazine version.

I was just getting into cake decorating around the time World magazine covered Calvin’s 500th birthday. Here’s a cake I tried to copy from their computerized magazine version.

Here are lessons I learned from Calvin through this novel:

“A great cloud of witnesses”: So many Christians have lived through more peril for their faith than we can even imagine. This book alone recounts just a score, a miniscule percentage, of the deaths of Christians who believed in salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and who also labored to get God’s Word written into the common tongue. Modern Christianity is weak and selfish by comparison. Current ministers may sometimes feel discouraged that their labors are unknown, but I am encouraged to think of how many more “greats” there were in Calvin’s day that most of us have never heard of, or who were just a name in a list in a bio of Calvin; yet God counted them as faithful servants, and He holds their rewards in His hand.

Calvin evangelized, in the midst of temptation, trial, and death.

In temptation: Page 288 recounts the advance of a harlot on Calvin as soon as they entered Geneva for the first time, and his character in return. “But I [J-L] saw that day that not only was Calvin a man, subject to the temptations of men, he was, in the profoundest sense, a man of God. I felt certain that had he been alone, without attendants, without brother or sister, had he known no other living soul in Geneva that night, had he and she been the only inhabitants of the planet, he would not have followed that pathetic young woman to her bed….He was a man, true enough, but a man of integrity, a disciplined, self-controlled man of God. And I began that night hopelessly longing to be, in some small way, like him.” Calvin responds to her with Scripture, quoting Proverbs; he then encourages her to repent and flee for mercy to Christ.

In trial: While Calvin flees from place to place, he constantly stops to preach to gatherings in caves or cornfields, in French (not Latin).

In death: His final act while on his deathbed is a moving encouragement of J-L to run to Christ for grace alone after J-L finally and emotionally confesses of his betrayal years before. (Of course, this is fictionalized, I assume.) J-L asks,

“Am I forever damned? There can be no hope for such as I, can there?”

Calvin answers, “Christ came to save sinners. And only those who believe that they are great sinners will be saved. Paul persecuted the church; grace alone was sufficient to save him, the chief of sinners. You, good Jean-Louis, are a great sinner. Yet is Christ a far greater Savior. Flee to him alone.”

“But will he have me?” I said in earnest now. “How can I be one of his elect?”

“All who flee in faith, my son,” he said, seeming to gain new energy as he spoke, “are elect. Flee and live. Then tell the world of so great a doctrine of grace. Fall before the majesty of our great God, Jean-Louis, and acknowledge your sins, praying that he would make you increasingly conscious of them, so that you might hate your sin and embrace Christ’s mercy.”

Tears came to my eyes during this evangelization attempt, because who can not be moved by such words of grace?

And Calvinists do evangelize. I cannot imagine any disliking Calvin’s evangelistic efforts as portrayed.

Calvin’s final words to the City Council of Geneva (politicians–but they would apply beautifully to ministers as well): “You older ones be not jealous of the gifts which the younger generation has received, but be glad and praise the Lord who has given them. And you younger men, be humble and seek not to achieve greater things than you can do; for youth is seldom void of ambition and tends to despise the opinions of others.”

Calvin’s final blessing and exhortation to fellow ministers: After asking for forgiveness if he had wronged any, “I have not falsified a single passage of the Scriptures, nor given it a wrong interpretation, to the best of my knowledge.” “He urged them to avoid subtle and doubtful interpretations and to aim at simplicity, as he had done in his preaching. And then he added, ‘I pray you, make no change, no innovation. People often ask for novelty. Not that I desire for my own sake out of ambition that what I have established should remain, and that people shall retain it without wishing for something better, but because all changes are dangerous and sometimes hurtful.'”

Calvin practiced what he preached: After preaching on a specific abuse of the Roman clergy in taking paychecks for churches where they did not reside or minister, he was asked by pupils whether he did not receive compensation for being a minister somewhere? He was shocked to realize that he did the same thing that he had just preached against–not in one church, but in two. He immediately renounced them, traveling by foot hundreds of miles to give up his paycheck (to the great chagrin of Jean-Louis). This was his final cut with the Roman church, which launched him completely into trusting God for his daily needs. This was also completely unheard-of for the times.

The importance of prayer: After being almost bullied into taking a pastoral role in Geneva, and ensuring that he will teach the Word of God the “best way…by steady and methodical exposition, book after book…” he prays with his friend Farel, “Two things are united, teaching and praying; God would have him he has set as a teacher in his church to be assiduous in prayer.” [p. 296]

The unimportance of recognition or praise: When others wouldn’t give Calvin the credit for his confession of faith, he says, “If we served ourselves or other men, good Farel, we would be poorly rewarded, indeed. It is of no importance.” [p. 317] Calvin asked to be buried in an unmarked grave. Also read his amazing response to persecutors who banished him from Geneva on p. 321.

The virtuous woman for Calvin: “The graces which might capture me for a woman are discipline, gentleness, modesty, good housekeeping, and patience.” [p. 339] When he eventually married, this is how she was described,

“I have never met another like Calvin’s Idelette. In the contented years that lay ahead, I observed many times a woman of the most extraordinary piety, a mother to her–to their–children, who cared more for the holiness of their lives than for any other quality in them. I had seen many wives storm and rail, even strike and hurl, at the real and perceived failings of their menfolk. Never did I see such in Calvin’s Idelette. And he adored her….He often endearingly referred to her as ‘precious helper,’ and ‘excellent companion.’ I believe that if it came to it, Idelette would have died for her Calvin, and I know that he would have willingly done so for her.” [p. 343]

Calvin did not kill Servetus; the Genevan City Council did, at a gauntlet thrown at their feet by Servetus himself. Calvin’s response [p. 358]: “Calvin immediately appealed to the council on Servetus’s behalf, urging them to alter the form of execution to a more humane one. But they refused to listen. Calvin went to Servetus’s cell and pleaded with him to retract his false beliefs and teachings, to believe on the Son of God and be saved by Christ alone from eternal ruin. Servetus obstinately refused Calvin’s words, and the gospel freely offered in them. Again Calvin appealed for a mitigation of the form of execution, but in vain. The Genevan City Council burned Servetus, yet did I fear that his critics would see to it that Calvin would bear the blame for it.”

Calvin’s view on music and worship in the church (love this!):

“Although music serves our enjoyment rather than our need, it ought not on that account to be judged of no value; still less should it be condemned…There is scarcely anything in this world which can more turn or bend hither and thither the ways of men than music….Music can be made profitable to men if only it be free from that foolish delight by which it seduces men from better employments and occupies them in vanity.”

“Thus, when rightly employed,” said Bourgeois, “music is a great aid to men in the worship of God?”

“Indeed it may be so,” said Calvin. “When it is remembered that music in the Word of God is always about the worship of God….Indeed, music has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts.”

“But what of poetry?” said Marot.

“When melody goes with poetry,” said Calvin, “every bad word penetrates more deeply into the heart. Just as a funnel conveys the wine into the depths of the decanter, so venom and corruption are distilled into the very bottom of the heart by melody.”

“But when melody is matched with worthy poetry, with sacred poetry,” said Marot, “what then?”

“Danger may still lurk. We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words. You must remember this, Louis, as you form your music. Songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but be most displeasing to God. Augustine approved of music but added strong caution. ‘When it happens that I am more moved by the song than the things which is sung, I confess that I sin in a manner deserving punishment.’ We must beware of these dangers, dear brothers, in our use of music in worship.” [p. 363-364]

The importance of classical education, including memorization (of valuable things) and recitation. Calvin’s genius was in being able to memorize, recall, recite, and cross-reference works of the church fathers, or even important arguments of pagans. One of the most exciting chapters to me was on the Lausanne Debate, when finally Roman Catholic clergy and doctors came to debate three reformers, including Calvin. 174 Roman Catholics against the other three! Calvin was silent the first three days, and let Farel and the other reformer roar against the Catholics’ misinterpretations of Scripture. But when one Catholic accuses them of ignorance of the church fathers and caring only for Scripture, Calvin silences them all, winning the debate, in a brilliant one-hour dissertation of the church fathers’ beliefs on the sacraments. It was such a neat account!

The importance of the written word, both the Bible in the common tongue, and Calvin’s systematic theology, as expounded and enlarged in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, to combat false religion.

Finally, here are some of Calvin’s thoughts on the tricky issue of free will, election, or predestination; and they occur not because he (or the book Betrayal) was obsessed with them, but in natural exposition of the book of Romans at his Genevan parish:

“We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illuminates God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others. This Paul will later assert in Romans 11:5-6. Here he denies that this grace which needs so much to be known can be known unless God, utterly disregarding works, chooses those whom he has decreed within himself. Hence, our salvation comes about solely from God’s mere generosity–we must be called back to the course of election. Yet do many rail at such a teaching. Those who do, who wish to get rid of all this, are obscuring as maliciously as they can what ought to have been gloriously and vociferously proclaimed, and by so obscuring election they tear humility up by the very roots.

“They who shut the gates that no one may dare seek a taste of this doctrine wrong men no less than God. For neither will anything else suffice to make us humble as we ought to be, nor shall we otherwise sincerely feel how much we are obligated to God. And as Christ teaches in John’s Gospel 10:28-29, here is our only ground of firmness and confidence: in order to free us of all fear and render us victorious amid so many dangers, snares, and mortal struggles, he promises that whoever the Father has entrusted into his keeping will be safe….

From this we infer that all those who do not know that they are God’s elect will be miserable through constant fear.”

I [J-L] felt certain he delivered this sermon for me alone. I often felt thus. It was I who was miserable through constant fear, certain that my crimes against Calvin, if not against God, so I then perceived them, barred me forever from grace. How could one such as I be elect?

“Let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. God would have us revere but not understand that through the doctrine of God’s merciful election he should also fill us with wonder. He has here set before us, by his Word, the secrets of his will. And it is insane to seek any other knowledge regarding predestination than that which the Word of God discloses to us.

“There are others who require that every mention of predestination be buried; indeed, they teach us to avoid any question of it, as we would a reef. Yet Holy Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, wherein nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, and nothing is taught but what is expedient to know. Therefore, we must guard against depriving believers of everything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what is, in our all-wise opinion, more profitable to suppress. Let us, I say, permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God.

“Profane men, I admit, in the matter of predestination abruptly seize upon something to carp, rail, bark, or scoff at. But if their shamelessness deters us, we shall have to keep secret the chief doctrines of the faith, almost none of which they leave untouched by blasphemy. An obstinate person would be no less insolently puffed up on hearing that within the essence of God there are three Persons. Such men will not refrain from guffaws when they are informed that but little more than five thousand years have passed since the creation of the universe. Nothing, in short, can be brought forth that profane men do not assail with their mockery.

“False apostles, however, could not make Paul ashamed by defaming and accusing his true doctrine. Many say that the teaching of predestination is dangerous for godly minds, because it hinders exhortations, because it shakes faith, because it disturbs and terrifies the heart itself, but this is nonsense!”

I wondered. Such teaching felt to my soul as a terror, for surely it disquieted me….

“Augustine admits that on the basis of these objections he was frequently charged with preaching predestination too freely. It is true, that just as we should not investigate what the Lord has left hidden in secret, yet must we not neglect what he has brought into the open, what he has revealed in His Holy Word for our instruction and for our sanctification.

“For those who are so cautious or fearful that they desire to bury predestination in order not to disturb weak souls, with what color will they cloak their arrogance when they accuse God indirectly of stupid thoughtlessness as if he had not foreseen the peril that they feel they have wisely met by so being silent where the Scripture clearly speaks? Whoever, then heaps odium upon Paul’s doctrine, hence, on the Bible’s doctrine of predestination, openly reproaches God, as if he had unadvisedly let slip something hurtful to the church. Yet Paul elsewhere, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, declares the chief among the spiritual blessings the believer has in heavenly places, chief among thos is God’s loving predestination, whereby alone the believer may be truly grateful for such lavished kindness on his unworthy soul.”
[pg. 333-336]

2 Responses to The Betrayal: A Novel on John Calvin

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