Irascible Iron Man

Calvin by Bruce Gordon

Books Faith
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.

Because of his strict views on predestination, we tend to think of Calvin as representing the hardest part of the hard-line Reformation. Yet, as Gordon shows, he spent a huge amount of time trying to promote and sustain compromise positions — above all, on the central question of the Eucharist, where the Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ was flatly denied by the Zwinglians. Against the odds, Calvin formed lasting relationships both with Luther’s disciple Melanchthon, and with the leader of the Zwinglians in Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger: diplomacy, even deliberate ambiguity, played a part here, but so too did a capacity for friendship, loyalty and trust.

These delicate manoeuvrings between friends and doctrinal rivals fill many pages of this book. But of course they are not the whole story. Today, everyone has heard of Calvinism, while no one talks about Bullingerism, and Melanchthonism is discussed only by academic specialists. Gordon explains the ingredients of Calvin’s lasting success: he provided the essential tool-kit for reformed Christianity (a classic doctrinal handbook, a catechism, a system of church government), and his Geneva Academy turned out hundreds of ardent young ministers to take those tools elsewhere and apply them.

This is an impressive book, well-balanced in the sense that it is not at all partisan (the burning of Servetus is put in context, in a way that may partly exculpate Calvin, but other incidents show that he could indeed be irascible, even vindictive). Yet something is missing. Perhaps Bruce Gordon, a professor at the Yale Divinity School, was afraid that too much doctrinal detail might be a turn-off for the general reader. Whatever the reason, there are moments in this book — key turning-points, in fact — where the actual contents of Calvin’s beliefs are left frustratingly vague.

His conversion to Protestantism is described in terms so general that only a brief reference to “idolatry” gives any clear idea of why he may have felt compelled to reject the Catholic Church. When Gordon summarises the teachings of Calvin’s great handbook of reformed theology, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, almost every phrase he uses (“There is no disharmony between God’s revelation and the order of creation”, etc) could just as well be applied to Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. And I doubt whether any reader could work out what the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body might be, on the basis of Gordon’s compressed and fleeting explanation.

Beza also said rather little about Calvin’s core doctrines in his own biography of him. But that was because he lived and breathed them every day. His final defence of Calvin’s notorious temper was that he was fired with zeal to defend essential truths about God. Whether or not Gordon agrees with that view, it would help if he said a little more about what Calvin believed those essential truths to be.