A Life of John Calvin by Allen C. Guelzo

A Life of John Calvin

A Study of the Shaping of Western Culture
by Alister E. McGrath
Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Glossary, notes, bibliography, index, maps, 332 pp., $29.95.

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.”

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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.

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