Calvin, by F. Bruce Gordon

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Then came the news of his father's impending death and Calvin rushed to Noyon. After a series of quarrels, Girard Cauvin had been excommunicated by the cathedral chapter, and he died on 26 May 1531 without the sacraments of the Church. John's brother Charles had to negotiate for a posthumous absolution in order that their father could be buried in consecrated ground. Calvin's reaction to the death was curiously muted. Writing to Duchemin, who was worried about the delay in his book's publication, he evinced little grief or emotion, all the more perplexing given an effusive expression of warmth towards his friend.1 What accounts for this contrast? His relationship with his father was complex, though not cold. It is entirely possible that Calvin's emotional bonds lay more with the friends with whom he lived, studied and travelled than with a family he had hardly seen. We cannot dismiss the influence of the Stoic philosophy of Seneca with which he was engaged; the letter may speak to a stylized role of impassivity as a means of dealing with his loss. What is certainly misleading is any suggestion that he was unaffected by death and grief. The raw emotions that poured forth later at the loss of his infant son and wife, as well as at the death of close friends, counter any sense of a Calvin hewn from stone. It is more likely that in 1531 he was masking feelings and emotions which had not yet found articulation. Only after his conversion and in his biblical commentaries, in the stories of the Old and New Testaments, and particularly in the psalms, did he find an emotional vocabulary inaccessible to a young man of twenty-two.
1 Ganoczy, Young Calvin, 71.

Anne got this as a souvenir of our Geneva trip in July 2020; it's a pretty dry and detailed biography of the major figure of Geneva's history, what he was trying to do and what he did. As usual (I keep saying this about theology books, but it's true) the ideological points mostly soared over my head, but I found a lot of interesting stuff. Calvin lived from 1509 to 1564, and from 1541 became the most important person in Geneva – he never held public office, but politics in the city became completely polarised between his supporters and his opponents, and usually his supporters won. (But not always.)

There's a lot here about the politics of Geneva as a city-state and Calvin as an individual with regard to France (where he was born and brought up), vs the Holy Roman Empire, vs Berne and the nascent Swiss Confederation (which Geneva did not fully align with until 1584, twenty years after Calvin's death). I'd have liked a bit more reflection on how Geneva became a theocracy in the first place – it had been an ideologically Protestant republic since 1536, before Calvin arrived – and also how it managed to survive as such, when other such experiments failed (for instance in Münster shortly before). But the books is about Calvin, not Geneva.

Calvin's wife died in 1649 after only nine years of marriage; he is not reported to have had other partners, but his brother Antoine was a major supporter throughout his career, and he had many other close friendships, some of which went sour when ideological differences emerged. He is remembered for his writing – and his output at the peak of his career was phenomenal – but his preaching was clearly an important factor as well; none of that survives, apart from a few second-hand notes taken by people in the congregation. Gordon is clearly a fan of his subject (most biographers are) and does his best to find in his favour, performing particularly intense gymnastics when it comes to the execution of Michael Servetus.

The most interesting part for me was the relationship between Calvin and England. He actually had something resembling a personal relationship with Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and regent of England in the first couple of years of the reign of Edward VI (1547-1549). But Somerset was overthrown, and when Edward died in 1553 his Catholic sister Mary took over. Calvin had hopes of winning England back when Elizabeth, a Protestant, came to the throne in 1558. However, in what Gordon calls "perhaps the worst mistiming of the European Reformation", that same year saw the publication in Geneva of Knox's The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women and Goodman's How superior Powers ought to be obeyed of their subjects, both of which opposed the legitimacy of women as rulers. Knox and Goodman had been thinking of Mary I of England and Mary of Guise in France, but Elizabeth took huge offence and returned Calvin's correspondence unopened, and although he still had some powerful sympathisers in England, he never again had the access to the top in London that he'd had ten years before. He was much more successful in Scotland, but there is surprisingly and disappointingly little about that here; he was of course less directly involved, Knox being the main figure.

Anyway, really a book for specialists only, but I got a bit more out of it than I had expected. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2020. Next on that pile is After Atlas, by Emma Newman.

One thought on “Calvin, by F. Bruce Gordon

Comments are closed.