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Review of Gordon's Calvin

David Booth

Calvin, by Bruce Gordon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009, xiii + 398 pages, $35.00.

Few volumes have been as eagerly anticipated in the Reformed world as Bruce Gordon's major biography of John Calvin. The wait is over and Professor Gordon[1] has surpassed our highest expectations. Gordon's Calvin will rightly become the standard biography of the reformer in seminary and college classrooms. This work deserves the widest possible audience.

Gordon's most distinctive achievement has been to firmly situate Calvin within the labyrinth of complex ecclesiastical relationships and shifting political realities that characterized sixteenth-century Europe. For example, Gordon deftly reveals the implications for Calvin of Geneva's political reliance upon Berne in the late 1530s and upon Basle a decade later (124). Calvin was no Lone Ranger. His "position in Geneva was dependent on the other Swiss churches" (75) as well as upon how he navigated unpredictable shifts in the political landscape. The reader meets Calvin both as shaper of events and as one who chaffed under the judgments of other men. For example, Gordon movingly presents the horror which the young Calvin experienced when he and Farel were admonished by the leading Swiss churchmen for sowing discord within the church (82-83). By weaving such experiences into the portrait he paints of Calvin's life, Gordon magnifies the reader's appreciation for how skillfully and resolutely the mature Calvin would later fight for the unity and peace of Christ's Church. Rather than Calvinism unfolding as the inevitable result of some grand theological scheme, the reader feels the rough and tumble of the all-too-real conflicts in which Calvin, at least at first, was commonly viewed and treated as a junior partner.

On a personal level, Gordon shows us Calvin as an exceedingly demanding friend who pushed some of his friendships to the breaking point. "All his life Calvin would define friendship in terms of commitment to a common cause" (29), and, aware of his own extraordinary intellect, Calvin expected his friends to subordinate their judgments to his. Not all of his friendships survived the strains such expectations imposed. For example, Pierre Viret was one of the men who actively campaigned for Calvin's return to Geneva (121). A gifted preacher and scholar in his own right, Viret not only provided critical assistance to Calvin's reform efforts in Geneva, he also served as a loyal lieutenant in Calvin's struggles with the Bernese (172). Yet, in the late 1540s, Viret's iconoclastic approach to reform in France, in direct contradiction to Calvin's advice, cemented a drifting apart in their relationship (323-324). With the possible exception of Bullinger, Calvin never saw any of the other Reformed churchmen as his peer, and his lieutenants were expected to remain loyally in that role until death. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable fact that Calvin maintained close relationships with men as diverse as Bucer, Farel, and Bullinger over extended periods of time. A driven man, Calvin was at times impulsive, petty, and even vindictive. Gordon does not shield the reader from such less than flattering elements in Calvin's life; however, he so skillfully presents the strains of his vocation, and Calvin's zeal for the glory of God, that few readers will imagine themselves bearing such burdens more gracefully. Indeed what emerges is a man who is all the more extraordinary because he wrestled, not always successfully, with the passions that are common to us lesser mortals. The result draws the reader a fuller portrait of Calvin as a man than any other biography I have ever seen.

A second great distinctive of this work is how vividly Gordon portrays Calvin's labors to reform the church beyond the city of Geneva. While still in Strasbourg, Calvin received a favorable greeting from Martin Luther with the indication that Luther had read his Reply to Sadoleto. This deeply moved Calvin. "The fully understandable response was part of a discernable shift in Calvin's attitudes towards the German reformation.... Calvin was becoming receptive to the Lutheran world" (99). Years later, Calvin would bend over backwards to avoid criticizing Luther. When it became necessary for him to criticize some of Luther's teaching, Calvin attributed Luther's views to the medieval scholastics in order to avoid creating a rift with the Lutherans. Whether such behavior is diplomacy or duplicity is something each reader is left to decide for himself. Gordon adroitly unfolds how Calvin's zeal for Protestant unity flows from his own experience of being an exile from his native France. The reality of exile pervaded both Calvin's ecclesiology and theology proper. On the one hand, his experience of exile taught Calvin that Christians are to be a pilgrim people. "Home, for the exile, is not a location, but union with God (57)." On the other hand, exile stripped Calvin of parochialism in his approach to ecclesiology. While Luther was German to the core, and Zwingli died in battle for his Swiss canton, Calvin struggled for the reformation and unity of all the Protestant churches. The genius of Gordon's narrative is how vividly he reveals Calvin's efforts as both heroic and ultimately a colossal failure. Modern readers should remember that where Calvin failed, subsequent generations of Protestants have yet to succeed. The biblical requirement to be valiant for truth without being sectarian has challenged Christians in every generation. As heirs of the Reformation we have much to learn from Calvin's labors for both the peace and the purity of the church. Utterly unwilling to compromise God's truth, "Calvin never regarded his theological formulations as non-negotiable (179)." In this, and so many other ways, Calvin is a model worthy of emulation.

Professor Gordon begins this work by telling us that Calvin "never felt he had encountered an intellectual equal, and he was probably correct (vii)." The Lord rarely gives such exceptional men to his church. We are wise to learn as much as possible from them. This beautifully written volume is a reliable and enjoyable guide to help us with this task. I could not recommend this work more highly.

David A. Booth
Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church
North Andover, MA


[1] He is professor of Reformation History at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT.

Ordained Servant, February 2010.

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