Knowledge of Calvin is of two kinds. There is knowledge of Calvin himself, as we know him in his life. And there is the knowledge of ourselves that we project onto this historical figure in the name of our many versions of Calvinism and anti-Calvinism. Nowhere is this distinction more illuminating than in my own native Scotland, the country where Calvin’s theology carried out its most thorough reformation in Europe, led by his Scottish follower John Knox. One modern Scottish poet put it like this:

O Knox, he was a bad man,
He split the Scottish mind,
The one half he made cruel
And the other half unkind!

That verse says more about the psychology of modern Scotland than it does about the theology of John Calvin. Is it any different on this side of the Atlantic? Calvinism is enjoying a revival in the United States. Time recently named it one of the ten “new ideas” shaping the country. This was news to most American Christians in the Reformed tradition who celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of John Calvin’s birth last year. Time’s claim was based on the embrace of the more demanding doctrines of predestination and strict church discipline by a group of younger pastors. While historians have long recognized the influence of Calvinism on American religious life, this contemporary interest is happening outside the mainline churches with roots in Geneva, Edinburgh, or Amsterdam. Muscular Calvinism is back on the streets, sporting tattoos and attitude. In part this is a rejection of the baby-boomer culture of seeker-friendly, suburban megachurches. Calvin’s their man, or so they think: not so much What Would Jesus Do? as How Tough Would Calvin Be?

Indeed, what would the young Calvin have thought of the next five centuries of “Calvinism,” as he sought to make his name in the university circles of Paris and Orléans in the late 1520s? How did this respectful pupil of cautious humanist reformers within the Catholic Church in France become a Protestant convert and fierce exponent of separation from Rome? How did this ambitious law student become a church leader complicit in the burning of the heretic Servetus? How did the author of a forgotten commentary on Seneca’s De clementia become the accomplished writer of a best-selling theological guide to true piety, the Institutes of the Christian Religion? How did the timid scholar who loved the solitude of study become the fierce enforcer of civic holiness in the name of a sovereign God whose providence rules over all things?

Whatever your views on Calvinism, Calvin himself is an intriguing and significant figure in the history of Christianity and the West. A play based on Calvin’s early life, Becoming Calvin, was even commissioned by the Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington to mark the anniversary of his birth. Its title brings us to the heart of Yale historian Bruce Gordon’s superb account of the Reformed theologian’s life. In a narrative written with clarity and verve, Gordon tells the story of how that aspiring young scholar bent on literary fame in cosmopolitan Paris became the formidable leader-in-exile of a major international wing of the Protestant Reformation, one embracing the idea of a priestless church and the controversial doctrine of the “total depravity” of mankind. After an all-but-fatal false start, Jean Cauvin de Noyon finally became the John Calvin of history. But it was a close-run thing.

The first attempt at putting on the public mantle of reform in Geneva failed miserably. Calvin and his fiery mentor Guillaume Farel tried to force their ideas of church discipline on an unwilling population between 1536 and 1538. It backfired and Calvin found himself on the losing side of Geneva’s highly partisan local politics. He was expelled from the city and fled to Strasbourg at the invitation of the older, wiser, and more successful reformer Martin Bucer. Bruce Gordon sees this influence as the pivotal one for Calvin’s later career: “Three years in Strasbourg changed Calvin.” If he had not gone “to Strasbourg in the summer of 1538 he could well have become another forgotten figure of the sixteenth century.” Instead, he became, in the words of Gordon’s opening judgment in this biography, “the greatest Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century, brilliant, visionary, and iconic.” What brought about this transformation in his fortunes? Bucer took him under his wing, taught him how to be a true pastor, and sent him back to Geneva as a more mature and politically astute leader and a happily married man.

When Calvin was invited back to Geneva in 1541, his more considered proposals for reforming the church and its ministry met with greater local acceptance. This “perfect school of Christ,” as Knox called Geneva, was to have a lasting impact throughout Europe and beyond. Over the next two decades or so the pattern of Calvin’s pastoral life was set. He rose early, worked hard, prayed often, and preached almost daily. He wrote biblical commentaries and revised his Institutes in the light of his patristic scholarship and scriptural exegesis. Contrary to caricature, he enjoyed fine wine and earthly pleasures in moderation and mourned the early deaths of his beloved wife and children. He maintained an extensive correspondence with friends and opponents alike, advising his fellow Protestant reformers, ruling princes, and spiritual inquirers throughout Europe. He conducted disputations with Catholics, Lutherans, and Anabaptists, all the while pleading for church unity. He advocated leniency and appropriate punishments for wrongdoers, while seeking protection for women and children in the courts. He reproved reprobates and denounced enemies wherever he found them. He welcomed the company of friends and demanded the loyalty of aides. Even after his return to Geneva in 1541, he struggled with recalcitrant parishioners and civic leaders in his adopted city and labored to train godly and educated ministers to serve in Geneva’s parishes, right up to his death there in 1564. And through it all, this exile never ceased to care about the fate of the Reformation in his native France.

Gordon sets this industrious pioneer of the Protestant work ethic in the context of his tumultuous times and in the light of a more nuanced and complex portrait of the man and his God. Recent research on Calvin’s world, which the author draws on to great effect, shows us a humanist scholar who gave himself utterly to the evangelical cause of reformation. The Calvin that emerges from Gordon’s account is an eloquent Latinist whose vernacular sermons show a grasp of “the cadences of common speech,” to make Christ known to ordinary people. Publicly brave and fearless, he was privately consumed by worry and poor health. His role model, according to Gordon, was the apostle Paul. Calvin certainly displayed the same invincible spirit for the sake of the church. He sought to restore its ancient face of doctrinal and moral purity. Gordon sets Calvin’s part in the execution of Servetus, for example, in the context of the Protestant fear of the accusation of heresy by a resurgent Catholic Church in the 1550s. But this judicious and balanced biographer also shows us the vindictive side of Calvin’s personality that could not stand to be contradicted by those he found to be obdurate, like Servetus.

In the end Calvin’s knowledge of himself was of two kinds. As Gordon shows so convincingly, he was robustly confident in the God who had called him to preach the gospel. He was also deeply conscious of his own unworthiness before a holy God. While that fed his combative response to criticism, it also led to a true humility. He wanted no cult of Calvinism to survive him and was buried in an unmarked grave. As he had earlier written to the French Protestant congregation in London, which had sought his guidance, “do not make an idol out of me or a Jerusalem out of Geneva.” If only.

William Storrar is a minister of the Church of Scotland, and a visiting professor in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

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Published in the 2010-01-15 issue: View Contents
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