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John Calvin, c.1550 

When Calvin died — worn out by overwork, weakened by TB and finished off by septicaemia — in Geneva in 1564, his favourite disciple quickly reached for his pen. Theodore Beza's biography of Calvin was published just three months later. A subsequent, enlarged version remains a basic source of information about Calvin's life and has helped to set the tone for biographies of him ever since.

Seen through Beza's eyes, Calvin was a titanic figure, a man of iron will and total devotion to God. He had a phenomenal memory, a penetrating intelligence and a huge appetite for work. And so on, and so on. But then, in a remarkable final section, Beza admitted that various accusations had been made against Calvin, and offered his own ripostes. Some charges were obviously absurd, such as that of womanising and "debauchery": Calvin had, in fact, been happily married to a respectable woman for nine years and had remained a chaste widower since her death. (Even more absurd were the claims made in a scurrilous life of Calvin ten years later, that he had a conviction for sodomy and that he died from an infestation of crab-lice.)

Other accusations were a little closer to the bone. It was said that Calvin was a domineering character and that he was cruel to his enemies. Beza rejected both charges, but the facts somehow conspired to make them plausible: Calvin did dominate Genevan life for many years and some of his enemies suffered badly as a result (most notably, the Spanish free-thinker Servetus, who was burnt at the stake). The final accusation was that Calvin had a fierce temper. Here, remarkably, Beza admitted that it was true. He could indeed be "irritable and difficult to get on with", and he had no interest in pleasing or placating men of the world.

That unexpected admission serves as a token of veracity. Beza's whole account is, it must be said, not obviously wrong. But it is an account of a Great Man at the height of his powers — and, indeed, of his power over other men. The difficult task that faces a modern biographer of Calvin is to get past the invincible self-assurance of the religious leader in his final phase and gain a sense of all the uncertainties and compromises that preceded it. One of the strengths of Bruce Gordon's new biography is that he does just that.

It is easy to forget, after all, how hesitant Calvin's early steps as a reformer had to be. He was trained as a lawyer and as a humanist intellectual (his first major work was a commentary on Seneca), not as a theologian. He was a whole generation younger than the founders of the Reformation, Luther and Zwingli. Other key figures, such as Luther's right-hand man Melanchthon, were setting the terms of doctrinal debate long before Calvin joined in. What is more, these other reformers were German-speaking and sometimes German-writing. Calvin, as a Francophone, was always in some sense an outsider.

Hence his early move to Geneva, a French-speaking city. It lay outside the control of the Catholic kings of France, without being a member of the Swiss Confederation. It was, however, dependent on the more powerful Swiss city of Bern, and Calvin's attempts to hammer out a truly reformed system of religion and church government were always subject to interference from the Bern authorities. But there were larger worries than that. The whole edifice of the Reformation was unstable, with a yawning gap between the doctrines and practices of the German Lutherans and the Swiss Zwinglians. Within Switzerland itself, there was a range of positions, and what the strict Zwinglians did in Zurich might be toned down in Bern and brushed aside in Basel.

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Anonymous
September 3rd, 2013
9:09 AM
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Remus Augustulus
March 3rd, 2010
7:03 AM
I felt that this review did not deal honestly with Historian Jerome Bolsec's appraisment of Joh Calvin's death by crab lice. After all, his close associate and successor, Theodor de Beza was known to be Gay. Nothing was said about what John Calvin read, nor was anything said about the contents of his library; both being significant in the development of Calvinistic Thinking. As Calvinistic Thought mirrored some Gbostic Scripture like the Gospels according to Judas Iscariot, Thomas, and Phillip, curiosity about Calvin's Library cannot be treated as if it were an obsession. Though the Albigeneses, (as well as the Bogomils who set up the original Albigenesis Mission) were slaughtered a century earlier, they exist even to this day. Calvin's ideas, especially Predestination, mirrored some of Albigenesis thought, and it was certain that Calvin knew a few of them because of their proximity to him, possibly even a bonhomie. As the Albigenesis mainfested the same thought patterns of those who used the Gnostic Gospels, Calvin's Library must be investigated. Calvin also had a dim view of the authority of Church Councils, as this contempt was later expressed in the Westminster Confession. His distaste for the decisions at the Council of Carthage 397 as expressed by his antipathy for the Books of James and Hebrews makes it clear that he would have reselected the books of the Bible if he could. Put another way, I feel that both author Malcolm and reviewer Bruce were trying to make John Calvin appear in far too favorable a light to be realistic.

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