Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    During the glory days of the French Renaissance, young John Calvin (1509-1564) experienced a profound conversion to the faith of the Reformation. For the rest of his days he lived out the implications of that transformation-as exile, inspired reformer, and ultimately the dominant figure of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin's vision of the Christian religion has inspired many volumes of analysis, but this engaging biography examines a remarkable life. Bruce Gordon presents Calvin as a human being, a man at once brilliant, arrogant, charismatic, unforgiving, generous, and shrewd.

    The book explores with particular insight Calvin's self-conscious view of himself as prophet and apostle for his age and his struggle to tame a sense of his own superiority, perceived by others as arrogance. Gordon looks at Calvin's character, his maturing vision of God and humanity, his personal tragedies and failures, his extensive relationships with others, and the context within which he wrote and taught. What emerges is a man who devoted himself to the Church, inspiring and transforming the lives of others, especially those who suffered persecution for their religious beliefs.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15981-3
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. vii-xi)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xii-xiii)
  6. Maps
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  7. CHAPTER ONE A French Youth
    (pp. 1-17)

    John Calvin as a child does not come easily to the eye. Our imagination quickly runs to familiar representations of an ageing, bearded man stooped by years of hard labour and illness and to the stool on which he allegedly had to sit to preach in his declining years, or to nineteenth-century illustrations of the great prophet declaiming before the cowering faithful. Of the young boy growing up in the cathedral town of Noyon, sixty miles north of Paris, we know almost nothing. Expansive reflections on his youth form no part of Calvin’s writing. Even the self-portrait offered in the...

  8. CHAPTER TWO Among the Princes of Law
    (pp. 18-30)

    Calvin’s shift from theology to law in the late 1520s has long confounded historians, largely because he has left almost no clues as to why and when it took place.¹ His biographers Beza and Nicolas Colladon provide a range of explanations, possibly drawn from personal knowledge: that Calvin changed course out of reverence for his father (Beza); that he moved away from theology out of contempt for its corrupt nature (Colladon); and, finally, that both Calvin and his father changed their minds (Beza, second version).² The best-known story, and from Calvin’s own hand, is that his father opted for a...

  9. CHAPTER THREE ‘At Last Delivered’: Conversion and Flight
    (pp. 31-46)

    For an aspirational French humanist, Paris was everything. And in March 1531 Calvin returned to the city in the hope of studying under the lecturers of the Collège Royal. He also had the task of seeing through the press Duchemin’sAntapologia, complete with his own preface. Perhaps he hoped to meet the patriarch of the Collège, Guillaume Budé, whom Calvin would praise in his Seneca commentary. In Bourges and Orléans he had been in the presence of greatness in the figures of de l’Estoile and Alciati, but Calvin wanted more – to dwell among the Olympian figures of French humanism....

  10. CHAPTER FOUR Exile in a Hidden Corner
    (pp. 47-62)

    Calvin’s journey to Basle was fraught with the hazards of sixteenth-century travel. ‘Near Metz he was plundered by a servant,’ Beza reported, ‘who saddled one of the strongest horses and fled with so much speed that he could not be apprehended, after he had perfidiously robbed his masters of all things necessary for their journey, and reduced them to great difficulties. The other servant, however, lent them ten crowns, which enabled them to proceed with considerable inconvenience to Strasbourg, and thence to Basle.’¹ In the psalms preface, Calvin speaks of his departure from France less dramatically as a flight from...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE Violent Reformations and Tumult
    (pp. 63-81)

    Towards the end of Calvin’s stay in Basle a mysterious episode occurred. Suddenly in March 1536, he and Louis du Tillet travelled into Italian lands to visit the court at Ferrara of Renée of France, daughter of King Louis XII (1498–1515). The details of the journey have remained unclear, though it seems that Calvin had been invited following the publication of hisInstitutes. Physically deformed, for which she was mercilessly mocked, and married to a philandering husband, Renée was a woman of remarkable character to whom Calvin developed a sincere and lasting attachment.¹ Deeply committed to the evangelical faith,...

  12. CHAPTER SIX Discovering the Church
    (pp. 82-102)

    En route to Zurich, Calvin and Farel broke their journey in Berne where they made a deposition in which they unreservedly blamed the Genevan council for their expulsion.¹ The two men emphatically denied having opposed the Bernese liturgical rites and claimed that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper had become impossible on account of the mounting chaos. They claimed there had been a conspiracy against them, and they cited rumours circulating in France that Genevan merchants would resume business only once the two reformers had been driven out.² When the Bernese forwarded the deposition to Geneva they heard a very...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN ‘Lucid Brevity’ for the Sake of the Church: Romans
    (pp. 103-120)

    The religious colloquies of 1540–1 yielded precious little in terms of Protestant unity or support for the French evangelicals. Calvin, however, had emerged from the disappointment a much enhanced figure who stood among the front rank of Protestantism. It was a remarkable transition from the dark days of 1538 following his expulsion from Geneva when few had wanted to know him. Although recognition must have brought a degree of satisfaction, Calvin remained deeply anxious about the divided house that was the Reformation. In 1540, the year of the Hagenau and Worms colloquies, he published a work that radically transformed...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT Building Christ’s Church
    (pp. 121-143)

    The expulsion of Calvin and Farel in 1538 had not brought about the peace desired by their opponents, and for three years Geneva remained in turmoil. Calvin’s former teacher, Mathurin Cordier, and Antoine Saunier, the rector, joined with the wealthy Genevan Ami Perrin to foster opposition to the magistrates and ministers appointed to replace the deposed Frenchmen. The result was further trouble as Cordier and Saunier were likewise expelled. Nevertheless, factionalism did not loosen its grip on Geneva’s throat, and Berne’s hopes to stamp its authority on its fractious client were frustrated. From Strasbourg Calvin had continued to advise and...

  15. CHAPTER NINE Calvin’s World
    (pp. 144-160)

    What would it have been like to have known John Calvin? One picture emerges from his letters and sixteenth-century biographers: serious, though not without a sense of humour, intense and deeply spiritual. Discipline was not simply for the church; discipline was his way of life. Calvin believed that he lived each day in the presence of God and that every activity, great and small, was consecrated to the Lord, to whom he would have to give account. He rose around four in the morning to begin the day with prayers with Idelette and their servants. Prayer punctuated the day, at...

  16. CHAPTER TEN Healing Christ’s Body
    (pp. 161-180)

    When he entered the gates of Geneva in 1541 Calvin saw himself as part of the wider European Reformation, a member of the Protestant fraternity, that cloud of witnesses of the living and the dead that included Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Bullinger, Zwingli and Oecolampadius. They stood united in their commitment to the Word of God. What remained to be achieved was to make that unity real among the Protestant churches. Calvin’s audacious plans to spearhead the evangelizing of France from Geneva required the support of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. But his eye was not just on France. With the...

  17. CHAPTER ELEVEN ‘Since Calvin Acts So Bravely, Why Does He Not Come Here?’: France
    (pp. 181-197)

    From the dedication of the 1536Institutesto Francis I, through his time in Strasbourg and participation in the religious colloquies, and ultimately beyond his return to Geneva, France was never far from Calvin’s thoughts. The situation in the kingdom was alarming. The Edict of Fontainebleau of June 1540 authorized the courts of the crown to take over from the church the prosecution of heresy, making false belief a matter of sedition, a crime of divine and temporallèse majesté. Ecclesiastical and secular authorities co-operated in the attack on heresy. In 1545, for example, the Paris Parlement sanctioned the list...

  18. CHAPTER TWELVE The Years of Conflict
    (pp. 198-216)

    Like most middling cities of the sixteenth century, Geneva’s foetid physical space was small, and its inhabitants rubbed shoulders daily in social interaction and commerce. Such was the age. It is recounted that when the humanist Erasmus passed through the squares of Basle he would cover his nose with a cloth on account of the stench.¹ In narrow streets, churches, market places and taverns friends and enemies were in constant contact, knowing nothing of our modern sense of privacy. Rumour and gossip were the daily fare of social discourse, and violence a common means of conflict resolution. If one reads...

  19. CHAPTER THIRTEEN ‘There is No Form of Impiety that This Monster Has Not Raked Up’
    (pp. 217-232)

    For many, the execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva has defined John Calvin’s posthumous reputation. From the sixteenth century to this day detractors have seized this moment as confirmation of his tyrannical, intolerant character. In contrast, supporters frequently argue that the execution of a heretic in Geneva was no worse than what was taking place across Europe, where the Inquisition used torture, Anabaptists were drowned and Protestants went to the stake. On these terms the debate will never be resolved.

    The events of 1553 had a history. There was bad blood between Servetus and Calvin, who had known of one...

  20. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Luther’s Heirs
    (pp. 233-249)

    If one were to admire Calvin for nothing else, his ability to sustain the relentless onslaught of the 1550s is astonishing. Generally 1555 is seen as the crucial moment of transition, when he and his supporters vanquished the Perrinists and took control of Geneva. Yet history can grace events with an inevitability by no means self-evident to the protagonists. Such was the case in Geneva. Victory remained balanced on a knife edge till the last moment, and for Calvin the maelstrom of politics in the city was accompanied by bitter feuds with opponents spread across German, Swiss and French lands....

  21. CHAPTER FIFTEEN European Reformer
    (pp. 250-275)

    With the remarkable growth of ‘Calvinism’ in the second half of the sixteenth century it is tempting to assume that during his life Calvin enjoyed widespread influence across Europe. This was true, to an extent. His involvement with imperial religious politics and close association with the leading German and Swiss reformers and the refugee communities brought prestige and respect. His growing reputation drew students to Geneva, expanding a network of contacts across the continent and furthering the transmission of his ideas. Yet, though his name was honoured among supporters, and his works enjoyed astonishing popularity, it would be misleading to...

  22. CHAPTER SIXTEEN The ‘Perfecte Schoole of Christe’
    (pp. 276-303)

    John knox’s description of Geneva’s perfections might well have made Calvin bristle. He could hope that with the establishment of true doctrine, proper worship and godly discipline the city would be an example to the struggling reform movements across Europe, but it was not a blueprint. And Geneva was by no means perfect. The very suggestion mocked Calvin’s view that the life of the church, and of individual Christians, is measured in a daily struggle against sin in which there is much failure. Sustained by the Word of God and fed by the Body of Christ, the faithful are almost...

  23. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Churches and Blood: France
    (pp. 304-328)

    ‘Do not doubt that our brethren of France hold the same opinions that are taught by me,’ wrote Calvin to the Elector Palatine in 1558.¹ He was not being immodest. Although Farel and Viret, as well as Bullinger in translation, were widely read during the 1540s and 1550s, Calvin had clearly emerged as the dominant Protestant author in France. The kingdom was awash with publications transported bycolporteursand merchants from Geneva along the main arteries of France. By 1550, Calvin had cultivated close contacts with evangelical conventicles who looked to Geneva for spiritual leadership and material support. After the...

    (pp. 329-340)

    The end was protracted and painful. Calvin was dying, and knew it. Most often it was to Bullinger he turned, sharing news of France, of common endeavours, of events in England and beyond, and of his deteriorating health. His attempt to dislodge kidney stones reminds us of the unimaginable torments endured by our early-modern forebears.

    At present, I am relieved from very acute suffering, having been delivered of a stone about the size of the kernel of a hazel nut. As the retention of urine was excruciating, on the advice of my physician I mounted a horse that the jolting...

  25. Notes
    (pp. 341-373)
  26. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 374-383)
  27. Index
    (pp. 384-398)
  28. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)