John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait, by William J. Bouwsma


John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portraitr

This book purports to be an overview of John Calvin’s life from a fresh perspective, taking into account Calvin’s historical and theological influence on the modern world. Unfortunately, the book lives up to neither expectation. I’m working on finding a good in-depth Calvin biography. This is the worst sample I’ve found.

The good: Good explanation of some of he errors that histroians of Calvin’s life have been prone to, that introduction. Accurate overview of the events in his life, part of the first chapter. And blatantly secular humanist worldview is (while claimed to be neutral), open and obvious. Otherwise, um, the writing style is nice?

The bad: Bouwsma spends the entire introduction talking about how many historians have ignored or abused John Calvin’s memory in favor of their own agendas. Then he spends the entire book making Calvin out to be a caricature worthy of modern political cartoons. To this author, Calvin might as well have been Erasmus’s long lost twin brother who went off his meds and spent his life depressed, craving a father figure he never found in the papacy. The level of scholarship is pretty sad: both of the author’s main contentions fall flat.

The first contention of “A Sixteenth Century Portrait” argues John Calvin was a humanist, and that he agreed with Erasmus on every point (“Erasmus this” and “Erasmus that” gets really old by chapter two. The title really should have been “Erasmus, a 16th Century Portrait”). The logic behind this accusation is Calvin’s practical applications in his sermons. Applying the gospel to everyday life does not a humanist make. John Calvin’s practical streak was entirely bent on bringing the light of G_d’s Word to the people where they were, not on some academic plane but at home or in the marketplace.

Second, the author tries to argue that Calvin’s theological bent was a result of severe depression. The evidence cited is Calvin’s letters to a close freind back home, which are full of sorrows and complaints about his life in Geneva. No doubt, Geneva was a trial for John Calvin, and his calling there brought him little worldly pleasure. Its entirely possible to complain and rant about trials in one’s life and still be a very happy personality. Many college students, for example, feel called to complete their degree and use it in a career for G_d’s glory: this doesn’t preclude them from arguing about the high cost of textbooks, or complaining when a professor is perpetually late. Calvin may have been a weak vessel, but theological works and venting to friends are not evidence for a depressed soul.

Finally, its worth noting that the author also tries to make passing psychological evaluations of Calvin, his need for a father figure in G_d driving his break with Rome, etc. These are superficially made and unfair to Calvin as a person, historical importance aside.

Overall: You know you’ve hit rock bottom as a writer when your entire set up for the character of your book is based on someone else. Calvin was a complex but important historical figure who deserves more than a broadly stroked comparison: I was sorely disappointed by this book.

For a short but accurate overview of John Calvin’s life from a theological perspective, see “Five Leading Reformers”, by Christopher Catherwood. It includes Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Cranmer, and Knox.

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