How Tough Was He?

Calvin

Bruce Gordon

Yale University Press, $35, 398 pp.

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,...

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About the Author

William Storrar is director of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, and co-editor of Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century (T&T Clark Continuum).