John Calvin and Roman Catholicism: Critique and Engagement, Then and Now

By McGrath, Alister E. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2011 | Go to article overview

John Calvin and Roman Catholicism: Critique and Engagement, Then and Now


McGrath, Alister E., The Catholic Historical Review


John Calvin and Roman Catholicism: Critique and Engagement, Then and Now. Edited by Randall C. Zachman. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2008. Pp. 224. $26.99 paperback. ISBN 978-0-801-03597-5.)

The relationship between Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century remains a point of debate and discussion. The last generation has witnessed a welcome and positive warming of the relationship between Catholicism and the Reformed churches. But what of the historical legacy of John Calvin himself? Does not the figure of the Genevan reformer cast a shadow over this emerging relationship? If Jerome Bolsee, one of Calvin's earliest and most critical biographers, is to be believed, Calvin was an arch-heretic whose obvious theological failings were made even worse by his deplorable personal habits. Not only did Calvin bed just about every married women in Geneva; he was also a notorious sodomite.

This excellent collection of essays by Protestant and Catholic scholars will help lay such stereotypes to rest. The papers, originally delivered at a 2007 conference at the University of Notre Dame, cover a good range of historical and contemporary issues, and represent a balanced and scholarly account of occasionally tendentious topics. The opening chapters deal with the historical context of the conflicts between Calvinists and Catholics. In an excellent account of early Roman Catholic lives of Calvin- including Bolsec's masterpiece of historical spin- Irena Backus helps us understand the context that generated these highly critical works. The late George Tavard and others explore case studies that illuminate the specific historical circumstances, showing how local political concerns often exacerbated existing religious tensions. Charles Parker offers a particularly thoughtful essay on Calvinism and Catholicism in the Dutch Republic, noting the factors that both encouraged co-existence and called it into question. These essays demonstrate how the critical study of the past can cast light on the present, not least by allowing us to understand the intellectual complexity of past debates and tensions that are too easily described reductively as "religious. …

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