Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Calvin: A Biography

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Calvin: A Biography

Article excerpt

Calvin: A Biography. By Bernard Cottret. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, 367 pp. $28.00.

This translation of Cottret's biography of Calvin is a welcome addition to the ongoing flood of material published about this seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation. In spite of the huge number of articles and monographs on Calvin, there is a dearth of biographies suitable as texts for courses on Calvin and on the Reformation. Cottret fills that void, especially when used in conjunction with Richard Muller's recent work, The Unaccommodated Calvin, a series of essays dealing with various aspects of the development of Calvin's thought. Other biographies of Calvin fall short of Cottret. For example, Bouwsma's John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait focuses on the apparent dichotomy in Calvin's personality and tells us as much about Bouwsma as it does about Calvin. McGrath's A Life of John Calvin is out of print and does not maintain as high a level of academic quality as does Cottret. T. H. L. Parker's Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought is simply too short and focuses more on Calvin's writings than on the life and ministry of the reformer.

Cottret's work is more of a historical biography rather than a theological analysis of Calvin's writings. Cottret is particularly strong on Calvin's education and early career. The author divides his work into two sections. The first is a chronological analysis of Calvin's life and ministry. The second focuses on the development of his thought with three themes: Calvin as a polemist, as a preacher, and as a writer.

Scholars have long debated the date of Calvin's conversion to the Reformation cause. The issue revolves around his preface to his Psalms commentary written seven years before his death. His purpose in discussing his conversion was to validate God's hand in calling him to faith and to his ministry. The key phrase in Calvin's discussion is conversio subita, which carries a passive sense of a conversion "suffered" with God as the initiator. In this context, Calvin compares himself to David rather than to the apostle Paul. David was the prototype of the elect because God called and sustained him in spite of his moral failures. In addition, Calvin's description of his conversion showed that he changed his academic interests from classical literature to theology. His commitment to the reform movement indicated that he was willing to forsake all for the gospel.

Another key issue relating to Calvin's conversion and flight from Paris was Nicholas Cop's inaugural speech as rector of the University of Paris. Cop was a friend of Calvin, and the speech indicated an adherence to the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. There exists a handwritten portion of this speech extant in Calvin's handwriting that would seem to indicate that Calvin was the author. Cottret admits that there is no way to know for sure, but he speculates that Calvin probably helped to write it or at least had a significant influence on Cop. Why else would Calvin have fled the city after the address?

The author goes on to note that Calvin did not convert to "Protestantism." The term "Protestant" was not part of Calvin's vocabulary. Calvin, rather, saw himself as a believer and lover of Christ. However, once he made the move to leave the Roman church, there was no turning back.

After his flight from Paris, Calvin took refuge at the family of his friend, Louis du Tillet, who ultimately remained in the fold of the Roman Catholic Church. The significance of Calvin's excursion to the home of the du Tillet family was his use of their extensive library. …

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