John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait

John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait

John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait

John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait

Synopsis

Historians have credited--or blamed--Calvinism for many developments in the modern world, including capitalism, modern science, secularization, democracy, individualism, and unitarianism. These same historians, however, have largely ignored John Calvin the man. When people consider him at all, they tend to view him as little more than the joyless tyrant of Geneva who created an abstract theology as forbidding as himself. This volume, written by the eminent historian William J. Bouwsma, who has devoted his career to exploring the larger patterns of early modern European history, seeks to redress these common misconceptions of Calvin by placing him back in the proper historical context of his time. Eloquently depicting Calvin's life as a French exile, a humanist in the tradition of Erasmus, and a man unusually sensitive to the complexities and contradictions of later Renaissance culture, Bouwsma reveals a surprisingly human, plausible, ecumenical, and often sympathetic Calvin. John Calvin offers a brilliant reassessment not only of Calvin but also of the Reformation and its relationship to the movements of the Renaissance.

Excerpt

Calvinism has been widely credited--or blamed--for much that is thought to characterize the modern world: for capitalism and modern science, for the discipline and rationalization of the complex societies of the West, for the revolutionary spirit and democracy, for secularization and social activism, for individualism, utilitarianism, and empiricism. What John Calvin thought is by no means necessarily identical with what is meant by the "Calvinism" to which these large consequences have been attributed. He is nevertheless implicated in the supposed achievements of the movement that bears his name, if ony because of the propensity of many "Calvinists" to invoke the authority of Calvin to legitimate their own ways of life and thought. It is accordingly remarkable that Calvin himself is now one of the least known among the great figures of his century. Machiavelli and Thomas More, Erasmus and Rabelais, Michelangelo and Copernicus, Cervantes, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, all Calvin's near contemporaries, are variously admired and vividly alive for us; but Calvin is virtually unknown, except perhaps as a reminder of the crimes and follies of the past.

The causes of Calvin's present obscurity are complex, but one among them has been his neglect, with a few honorable exceptions, by secular historians. Whether they have been intimidated by the mass of specialized Calvin scholarship, persuaded by their own secularism of the irrelevance of religious discourse to real life (and therefore also of the irrelevance of real life to theological discourse), or simply dissuaded from seeking to make Calvin's acquaintance by the forbidding persona that has been imposed on him, they seem tacitly to have acquiesced in the notion that knowing him could not add much to our understanding of the past. They have accordingly left Calvin to theologians and Calvin specialists whose interest in the historical Calvin has been at best marginal.

A further element in the obscurity of Calvin is suggested by the gigantic statue, erected by his followers and familiar to every visitor to Geneva, at the Reformers' Wall behind the University. Unlike the human Calvin, the . . .

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