A Life of John Calvin
A Study of the Shaping of Western Culture
reviewed by Allen C. Guelzo
Of all the Western church reformers of the sixteenth century, none has been so consistently defamed, from his own time to the present, as John Calvin of Geneva. I use the word defamed with some care, since Calvin’s name is capable even today of provoking violently negative responses in connection with issues that often have remarkably little to do with what he actually did, thought, or wrote. Henri Daniel-Rops, the great Roman Catholic historian, snarled at Calvin as “one of those terribly pure men who ruthlessly enforced principles,” the theological dictator of a town where there were “too many policemen, too many pliable judges, too many prisons, and too many scaffolds.” Stefan Zweig wrote of Calvin in 1936 as though Calvin were interchangeable with Adoph Hitler and Oscar Pfister, Sigmund Freud’s Swiss theological admirer, wrote off Calvin as a “compulsive-neurotic who transformed the God of Love as experienced and taught by Jesus into a compulsive character, a fanatic of hateful cruelty, bearing absolutely diabolical traits. . . .” Even a modern American televangelist, the much-lamented Jimmy Swaggart, declared that Calvin was responsible for causing “untold numbers to be lost—or seriously hindered—in their spiritual walk and relationship with God.”
Despite the momentary burst of sympathy one might be inclined to feel for anyone whom Mr. Swaggart disliked so intensely, it is difficult to read all this and not conclude that Calvin was a 16th-century megalomaniac. And in like manner, it is rare to encounter anyone formed by the Catholic or Orthodox traditions who thinks of Calvin as anything other than the author of a schismatic system of church polity (Presbyterianism) and the promoter of a repulsive theological idea (predestination) that reduces human beings to the level of wooden playthings and God to the level of a tyrannical dictator.
In this light, the appearance of Alister McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin is particularly welcome. Not only is McGrath a fine writer, but he is also an Anglican (which keeps him from being too much of either an instinctive admirer or an instinctive hater of Calvin) and an accomplished scholar of 16th-century theology (his earlier two-volume study of the doctrine of justification, and his books on Luther and Reformation context, have all met with generous critical acclaim). He also is able to ride the tide of some important reappraisals of the anti-Calvin mythology (such as Jack Hexter’s connection of Calvin and Thomas More’s Utopia, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s writings on Calvin’s Erasmianism and the faults of the Weber thesis, and Robert Kingdon’s work on Geneva), and two major biographical and intellectual histories of Calvin by T. H. L. Parker (another Anglican) and William Bouwsma.1 And like these previous revisions of the myth, McGrath takes as his chief objective setting Calvin firmly in his sixteenth-century environment, where the frantic defamations have a fairly predictable tendency to fizzle away into critical nothingness.
To a large degree, McGrath succeeds in that task. One by one, McGrath peels away preconceptions and prejudices about Calvin, revealing a portrait which is at once clearer, brighter, and more comprehensible for being relieved of the sour-smelling varnishes which Calvin’s self-appointed critics larded over it. In particular, McGrath securely locates Calvin in the second generation of the Protestant reformers—coming, in other words, onto a scene where Protestantism in Europe has already securely established several important footholds and that is ready to develop its own self-conscious ideological structures.
Taken as a whole, McGrath’s Calvin falls roughly into three parts, beginning with a well-detailed description of Calvin’s early schooling in the arts faculty at the University of Paris and the law faculties in Orleans and Bourges (where Calvin briefly studied civil law from 1525 until 1531, when he returned to Paris to study theology). Oddly, he ignores Parker’s redating of Calvin’s arrival in Paris (Parker suggests 1521, McGrath and Bouwsma both prefer the more conventional date of 1523), but overturns conventions by suggesting that Calvin never studied at the College de la Marche (an assumption Parker accepted without a whimper). McGrath also focuses attention on Calvin’s crucial exposure to nominalism at Paris, and even though this is not a new insight and his analysis of nominalist philosophy is somewhat superficial, McGrath does score some important points on the nominalist context of Calvinism. The most important contribution McGrath makes to understanding the intersection of Calvin and nominalism is to point out the vital distinction that existed within nominalism between the popular but corrosive skepticism of the Ockhamist sort, and the devout “terminalism” of the schola Augustiniana moderna. Making that distinction (and locating Calvin in the latter) allows McGrath to explain how Calvin could dabble in nominalism and yet still come out a pious and devout evangelique.
It is unfortunate, after all this, that McGrath makes a serious miscall when he moves from Calvin’s philosophical roots to his psychological speculations. Far from seeing that “the continuity between Calvin and the late medieval voluntarist tradition will be evident,” Calvin is quite a thorough-going intellectualist, in the sense that he regarded the passions and the will as the inferior servants of the intellect. Even more jarring, though, is McGrath’s peculiar suggestion that the most important event of Calvin’s Paris years—his “sudden conversion” to the Reformation—may not have happened at all, or at least not as Calvin remembered it in the preface to his 1557 commentary on the Psalms. Instead, McGrath believes that Calvin’s subita conversio really took place “over a period of years” and was later telescoped as “a moment of devastating illumination” (p. 71). This is, to say the least, a fairly fantastic suggestion—Calvin’s comments in the 1557 preface repeatedly emphasize surprise and suddenness in his change of principles—but it does provide a convenient way out of the perennial problem of dating Calvin’s conversio.2
Calvin’s flight from Paris in 1534 rounds off the first part of McGrath’s biography. He moves Calvin at once to Geneva and there once again skillfully develops the urban context for Calvin’s career as a city reformer. In his eagerness to deal with Geneva, McGrath shortchanges the significance of Calvin’s wanderings from 1534 until 1536 (during which he produced the first edition of his famous Institutes), as well as his brief exile in Strasbourg, where the influence and example of Martin Bucer was probably the most decisive aspect of Calvin’s later church reforms. Stinting on Strasbourg (which gets all of three pages in McGrath’s biography) also causes McGrath to slight the importance of Calvin’s marriage to Idelette de Bure, whose premature death devastated Calvin and probably paved the way for his reluctant return to Geneva. However, once McGrath has Calvin situated in Geneva, he gives a masterful account of Calvin’s strategies and principles as a reformer and pastor. There is no sense in which McGrath’s Calvin could be mistaken for a Geneva Jim Jones: Calvin had little personal authority with the city council and no legal political standing or following (as a foreigner, he had no vote or voice in Genevan politics), and could rely only on the persuasiveness of his own ideas and preaching to carry his reforms forward. In making these points, McGrath clearly throws the notorious arrest and execution of Michael Servetus into the lap of Geneva’s secular leadership at a time when that leadership was hardly more sympathetic to Calvin than it was to Servetus; and he rightly stresses (as other biographers have not) that Servetus’ execution was due as much to his anarchical. Anabaptism as to his disagreements with Calvin on the Trinity.
In the last section of the biography, McGrath looks as how Calvin’s ideas spread outward from Geneva in the 16th century, beginning with a remarkable chapter on the active infiltration of Genevan-trained missionaries back into France in the 1550s. McGrath, like a number of others, believes that Calvin’s ideas were, in some measure, hijacked after his death in 1564. And like many others he points an accusing finger at Theodore Beza and Protestant Aristotelians who turned Calvin’s ideas into what they had never been designed to be, a system of theology. In dealing with the longer-term influence of Calvin, McGrath rejects the explanation long associated with Max Weber—that Calvinism fostered an ethic which created capitalism. But McGrath does admit that Calvinism plagued by the need to establish a human basis for assurance of an individual’s election to salvation, was willing to adopt as its own the evidences of divine favor which a successful capitalism seemed to provide.3 One does not have to agree with the Weber thesis to find this unsatisfactory and simplistic, and McGrath does not improve on this when he insists that Calvinism was “world-affirming” and “international” in its outlook. Where McGrath is most certainly correct, however, is in his acknowledgement that Calvinism is particularly vulnerable to secularization (so that, for example, confidence in predestination could be easily converted into faith in progress).
The greatest and most surprising weakness of McGrath’s book is how little we see of the person of Calvin. Wolfgang Musculus pinned Calvin in one searching phrase—“a bow always strung”—but McGrath finds him a person consistently elusive. Admittedly, Calvin was reticent and uncooperative throughout his life in providing personal details. Even so, McGrath gives us little or nothing about Calvin’s preaching or his voluminous correspondence, and even the significance of Calvin’s physical ills is inadequately explored. Nor does McGrath give us a very useful map of Calvin’s intellectual and theological structures (especially when compared to Bouwsman’s virtuoso analysis of Calvin’s anxieties, his dread of disorder and mixture, and his horror of “the abyss”). Calvin’s numerous commentaries get hardly a glance, despite the fact that he represents the apex of 16th-century humanist literary criticism, while McGrath’s chapter on the Institutes is remarkably summary. In particular, McGrath’s treatment of the significance of predestination is inexcusably brief. Predestination, for Calvin, functioned as something of a surrogate for the sacraments of the medieval Church in that predestination offered the sense of personal contact with God which the Reformation lost when it emptied the sacraments of their medieval meanings. Shrugging off predestination as “a mystery of divine revelation” (p. 167) offers no explanation of why this doctrine has become the single most identifying feature of Calvinism itself. Similarly, McGrath tends to downplay Calvin’s impatience and indifference to the Church. Calvin was not a barebones minimalist (John Williamson Nevin was right on that score), but neither was he a raging sacramentalist nor churchman, and he probably would be puzzled at the attempts of the modern “Christian Reconstructionists” to paint him that way.
Plainly, McGrath’s weaknesses in this biography lie mostly in what he omits. It is necessary to remember what McGrath manages to accomplish in only 261 pages of narrative, especially in setting the stages for Calvin in Paris and Geneva. McGrath’s gift for clarity of expression and his ease and familiarity with the mental world of the Reformation, make the reader’s approach to Calvin far smoother than an approach to Calvin himself might have been. Moreover, it is plain from the start that McGrath’s Anglican Evangelical loyalties make him sympathetic enough to Calvin to deal firmly with the anti-Calvin myth, and yet not so adoring that the book turns into hagiography. The traditionalist from Catholicism or Orthodoxy has a great deal to learn about Calvin here (and probably more than they would like to admit learning from Calvin), and McGrath’s biography is a particularly gracious and comfortable vehicle for that learning. McGrath’s Calvin will not supplant T. H. L. Parker’s or William Bouwsma’s, but it will complement them nicely, and that is no small praise to offer him.
1. J. H. Hexter, The Vision of Politics on the Eve of the Reformation (New York, 1973), pp. 107-117; H. R. Trevor-Roper, Religion, The Reformation, and Social Change (London, 1967); Robert M. Kingdon, “The Control of Morals in Calvin’s Geneva,” in The Social History of the Reformation (Columbus, Ohio, 1972); T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia, 1975); William Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (Oxford, 1988).
2. The dating of Calvin’s conversio has long been confusing because Calvin himself fixed no date to his own description of the conversio. Emile Doumerge, Karl Holl, and Peter Barth have preferred a relatively early date, as early as 1527; Parker places the event in 1529 or 1530. I am inclined to favor a still later dating, perhaps late 1533, which would place his conversio closer to his flight from Paris in 1534 and the resignation of the benefice in Noyons which had paid his way as a student at Paris.
3. See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York, 1958), pp. 104-117.
Allen C. Guelzo is the Grace Kea Associate Professor of American History at Eastern College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania. Rev. Dr. Guielzo also is a minister of the Reformed Episcopal Church.
Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, and a member of the National Council for the Humanities. He is currently the William Garwood Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“A Life of John Calvin” first appeared in the Fall 1992 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.