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Jon Wright enjoys a new biography of the influential theological genius
Mention John Calvin and hackneyed images immediately spring to mind. He was the dour, censorious, occasionally vindictive man with a handsome beard.
Some of this is hard to gainsay: the beard, certainly, but also his capacity for belittling his rivals and making lifelong enemies out of those who challenged his vision. As his voluminous writings and correspondence testify, Calvin knew his worth. He trained as a lawyer but, since a Reformation unfolded in his midst, he turned his hand to theologising and managed to produce a brilliant, sophisticated religious agenda that has enriched and befuddled the world ever since. Calvin’s intellectual pride produced moments of smugness, ferocity and petulance and they snared their share of victims – whether in print, in the pulpits of Geneva’s churches, or in his city’s attempts to impose moral rectitude.
Bruce Gordon denies none of this. Calvin could be awful but as Gordon also reveals, there was more to the man than the bellicose proponent of a heretical movement. The public Calvin could be a grouch, and much worse. The private Calvin enjoyed a glass of wine and a hearty meal, he seems to have loved his wife deeply, and he had a serviceable sense of humour. Life in Calvin’s house on the Rue de Chanoines was probably much less bleak than we might imagine. Nor was Calvin quite as self-assured as his brash utterances might suggest. By his own admission he was, at heart, a bashful and timid person. Perhaps, if a Reformation hadn’t intervened, he might have ended up as a socially clumsy, if sharp-witted, lawyer in provincial France.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, however. It entered Calvin’s head that, in such turbulent times, he was destined to be God’s vessel: no less than a latter-day Paul. He set out to prove it. Gordon guides the reader through Calvin’s absurd career: flight from France, the initial attempt to reform Geneva, Geneva getting rather cross with his efforts, Calvin sojourning in Bucer’s Strasbourg and learning about the arts of conciliation, and then the triumphant return to the Swiss town by the lake.
Because of the documentary lacunae, this is an impossibly difficult tale to tell, but Gordon’s version is steeped in the ever-expanding scholarly literature and, until someone unearths new archival treasures, it ought to be regarded as definitive. Gordon provides a nuanced portrayal of Geneva’s response to the arrival of Calvin’s Reformation (a blend of intellectual curiosity and grumbles about all the moral nit-picking and Calvin’s habit of shipping in French pals to fill the city’s pulpits). He offers an even-handed account of Calvin’s attempt to foster pan-European Protestant unity (a curious admixture of barking your own theological conclusions and embracing compromises whenever they seemed sensible) and, best of all, he tells us what it must have been like to live in Calvin’s Geneva.
This was a place brimful of radical change. By the mid-1550s all sorts of traditional Christian holidays had been banned, questioning predestinarian nostrums had become a very bad idea, and even naming your child after a saint had turned out to be a perilous enterprise. It was a place of ferocious factionalism, burning resentments, and overseeing it all was John Calvin, the cocksure theological genius.
Calvin will never be likeable, but there is room to admire his devotion (rising at four in the
morning to pray or pen yet more polemic) and to respect his audacity. For all his excesses, Calvin was an exquisite thinker who, despite being blighted by migraines and gallstones, grasped the Reformation nettle. Summing him up isn’t easy. Gordon has made a valiant attempt.
Dr Jon Wright’s books include The Jesuits: Missions, Myths and Histories (Harper, 2005)