• Author: Bruce Gordon
  • Publisher: Y~ U~y P~ (2009)
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 426
  • ISBN-10: 0300120761
  • ISBN-13: 9780300120769
  • Format: PDF

During the glory days of the French Renaissance, young John Calvin (1509-1564) experienced a profound conversion to the faith of the Reformation. For the rest of his days he lived out the implications of that transformation—as exile, inspired reformer, and ultimately the dominant figure of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin’s vision of the Christian religion has inspired many volumes of analysis, but this engaging biography examines a remarkable life. Bruce Gordon presents Calvin as a human being, a man at once brilliant, arrogant, charismatic, unforgiving, generous, and shrewd.

The book explores with particular insight Calvin’s self-conscious view of himself as prophet and apostle for his age and his struggle to tame a sense of his own superiority, perceived by others as arrogance. Gordon looks at Calvin’s character, his maturing vision of God and humanity, his personal tragedies and failures, his extensive relationships with others, and the context within which he wrote and taught. What emerges is a man who devoted himself to the Church, inspiring and transforming the lives of others, especially those who suffered persecution for their religious beliefs.

JOHN CALVIN was the greatest Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century, brilliant, visionary and iconic. The superior force of his mind was evident in all that he did. He was also ruthless, and an outstanding hater. Among those things he hated were the Roman church, Anabaptists and those people who, he believed, only faint-heartedly embraced the Gospel and tainted themselves with idolatry.

He saw himself as an instrument of God, and as a prophet of the Church he brooked no rivals.He never felt he had encountered an intellectual equal, and he was probably correct. To achieve what he believed to be right, he would do virtually anything. Although not physically imposing, he dominated others and knew how to manipulate relationships.He intimidated, bullied and humiliated, saving some of his worst conduct for his friends. Yet as he lay dying they gathered around the bed distraught with grief. There would be no other like him.

This is the story of a prodigious young boy from a provincial background and modest means who by sheer talent progressed through the elite world of the French Renaissance. He studied in Paris and the best universities under the leading figures of the day. Few would have had a better education, and few were intellectually equipped to make more of it. But the man behind the precocious talent was a difficult person and one with a troubled conscience. The religious ideas of the great French evangelicals as well as the revolutionary views of Martin Luther took hold of this impressionable young man and changed him for ever. The rest of his life was a coming to terms with that conversion.

But what made Calvin great? It may seem odd, but working on this biography has convinced me that the answer does not lie in the events of his life. Nor is the question adequately addressed in terms of the numerous and diverse influences that shaped his mind. They were significant, as we shall see, but there is more. What made Calvin Calvin, and not another sixteenthcentury writer, was his brilliance as a thinker and writer, and, above all, his ability to interpret the Bible. His coherent, penetrating and lucid vision of God’s abiding love for humanity, expressed in some of the most exquisite prose of his age, has continued down the centuries to instruct and to inspire. Like all great writers he transcends his time.

Calvin was fully aware of his talents, which he regarded as part of his special calling by God. His journey was to find the appropriate vocation for that summons. Ultimately it was located in a relative backwater, Geneva, which he beheld much as Jonah did Nineveh. But Calvin understood his destiny to extend far beyond Geneva’s walls: he was a man of the Church, and its unity was his deepest passion. Luther had brilliantly expressed what it meant to be saved by God. That discovery had changed Europe. Calvin’s genius was to discover the Church, and teach what it was to be part of that body if one lived in a besieged city, under a capricious Tudor monarch or as a refugee facing persecution and exile.

Despite his dominant personality, Calvin rarely and reluctantly drew attention to himself in his writing. He spoke through the Bible and its major characters: Moses, David and the prophets. Above all, however, his model was the Apostle Paul, the great teacher and pastor who belonged to no one church and spoke to all. The identification was so complete that Calvin painted himself into his portrait of the Apostle, revealing his own thoughts, struggles and anxieties. Exile was his defining experience, freeing him from attachment to any particular place as he roamed across Swiss and German lands. And it endowed him with his most powerful and resonant message: the Christian is never alone, for the Christian is at home in God.

What, then, is the point of a biography? The simple, and unapologetic, answer is that Calvin led a fascinating life with the requisite elements of danger, tragedy, conflict and betrayal. There was also friendship, love and vision. In short, John Calvin was a human being who ate, slept and travailed under a broken body. Similarly, his brilliant mind and dazzling ability with the written and spoken word were not created ex nihilo. Calvin saw the Christian life in terms of a journey; in his own case this was physical, intellectual and spiritual.He travelled through France, the Holy Roman Empire, into Italy and across the Swiss Confederation for his studies, to flee persecution and in search of Christian unity. His ravenous appetite for knowledge made him a lifelong student utterly devoted to books and intellectual exchange, never for their own sake, but in the service of the Church. His mind continuously soaked up the teaching of ancient, medieval and contemporary writers and the result was an ever evolving intellect. Calvin reworked and revised the Institutes of the Christian Religion extensively between 1536 and 1559 to take account of his scriptural work, his reading of theological tradition, contemporary debates and his desire to find the correct and clearest order of argument. Likewise, the biblical commentaries were revised and reprinted. Utterly driven, Calvin laboured all the hours the day permitted to bring knowledge of God’s saving action in Christ to the people and to combat those he believed to be opponents of the Gospel. To follow his path it is crucial to understand the contexts for his words and deeds. Despite his enduring renown, he was a man of the sixteenth century, and we have to enter that world.

That world was also populated by many other figures, and while the Calvin of legend stands alone, our story is very different. Friends, family, colleagues and students filled his life and not simply in walk-on parts. In person and through his networks of correspondence, which ultimately extended across Europe, Calvin was constantly in dialogue with others. That was how he defined both his theology and his role in the Church. The constant exchange of ideas and information was the very life blood of the Reformation and he came to see himself working with partners and linked churches.Most prominent were Philip Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger, but there were a host of others. These relationships could be complicated and might have to weather many storms, but no one worked harder than Calvin to preserve them. Much of the attention of this book will be focused upon the ebb and flow of his contacts.

The location of Calvin’s grave is unknown, and that was the way he wanted it. Fully conscious of his fame and the spell he cast over his supporters, he feared being made an object of veneration. Nothing would have horrified him more than the monument to the Reformation in Geneva with its enormous image of the Frenchman. He deliberately wrote next to nothing about himself and his life. In the preface to his 1557 commentary on the psalms he provided a spiritual autobiography, but to the modern eye it is conspicuously short on facts. This is hardly surprising as its purpose was to stress the omnipotence of God and Calvin’s providential calling. There are scattered fragments in the letters and tracts, but on the whole we search Calvin’s writings in vain for much personal information. Yet it is important to note that this concealment is only partial, as is evident if we compare Calvin with Shakespeare. Both lives are shrouded in mist, but, while for Shakespeare we know only what his characters thought, and how much they express the playwright’s own views continues to be debatable, we are in no doubt about what Calvin believed. For our part, we will not have to discuss whether Calvin was a Protestant or Catholic. He was a pedagogue dedicated to clarity of thought and expression: essential tools of the Christian faith. Like many of his contemporaries, he did not believe that details of his life and personality, profane ruminations that they were, should in any way obscure that message. By concealing himself he created space for the faithful to meet God directly.

This biography will concentrate on the Calvin we can know, following the events of his life and charting his thoughts through his letters and writings. Problems abound, and the historian must plot a careful course. The letters, our best source for what Calvin thought of the people and events of his day, often reveal him at his most intemperate and thin-skinned as he fulminated against the failings of others, including his closest friends. It would be easy to sketch an overly negative view of the man, but that is by no means the intention here. However, he was a man, and misjudgements and errors were made.

His character needs to be read alongside those of the other reformers who struggled, frequently in vain, against the often insurmountable obstacles standing in the way of religious reform: fierce Catholic opposition, reluctant, even hostile, political masters, and a laity often not at all persuaded of the necessity of change. They lived in an age when events moved quickly and information very slowly. Their actions and thoughts were profoundly shaped by a world over which they had little control. That was precisely why Calvin’s teaching on predestination and providence found a receptive audience.

The sources reveal a complex, volatile man who found relations with others troubling, if not a burden. In the public arena Calvin walked and spoke with stunning confidence. In private he was, by his own admission, shy and awkward. He adored his wife and suffered greatly when his baby son died. He worked ceaselessly on behalf of the refugees who came to Geneva and took an especial interest in the well-being of widows and children. To his intimates he was both a benevolent father and a bully, with opponents vindictive and even cruel, and certainly he knew how to bend, or at least conceal, the truth when circumstances demanded.

At times he could be waspish and obsessed with self-justification as if his reputation was the most important issue. When he made up his mind about individuals he seldom wavered; for good or bad, their lot was cast. This often resulted in conflict and a profound sense of betrayal. Calvin demanded complete loyalty from his intimates. He could accept error and ignorance, but never opposition. His confidence in his own judgment led to several critical miscalculations, such as with the German Lutherans, England and France. This is what made him human.

A few notes on terminology and usages. All labels for religious movements in the sixteenth century must carry health warnings, but he has chosen to use some and not others. Gordon have avoided the term ‘Calvinist’ because it is both vague and misleading in our context. While Calvin lived there were no ‘Calvinists’. He have preferred the name ‘Reformed’ for the theological tradition that arose out of the Swiss Confederation and which Calvin played a crucial role in shaping. Gordon have, however, preserved the use of the terms ‘Lutheran’ and ‘Zwinglian’ as shorthand for what emerged from Wittenberg and Zurich. Similarly, he speak of the reform movement in France as ‘evangelicals’ to indicate that they held a wide body of views, but that their central point of cohesion was the Bible. Only in the 1550s, with the emergence of churches, can one talk of French Protestantism. For the sake of simplicity, he have not used the term ‘Huguenot’. Finally, he speak of the Catholic and Protestant churches. Calvin would have hated the idea of Rome being called Catholic, but it is a modern convention that aids clarity. Church is used in the upper case to indicate its universal form. The choice of terms is not intended to indicate any confessional disposition, just to aid clarity. In quoting Calvin and other sources Gordon have made use of good existing translations where possible; with the letters, however, Gordon have reworked most of them in light of the Latin and French as the Bonnet translations can be quite misleading. Nevertheless, he has given the Bonnet references where possible for those who wish to read more. The interested reader should be aware that the dating of the Bonnet letters is frequently inaccurate.

This book is intended for those with an interest in John Calvin who may have little familiarity with either the reformer or the sixteenth century. He have tried as far as possible to provide sufficient background to events, persons and ideas without taxing the reader’s patience.Where I could I have avoided overly technical language, such as in discussing theology, to avert confusion. In the Select Bibliography at the conclusion I point the reader to more specialist studies in English for further reading.

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