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During the glory days of the French Renaissance, young John Calvin (1509-1564) experienced a profound conversion to the faith of the Reformation. For the rest of his days he lived out the implications of that transformation—as exile, inspired reformer, and ultimately the dominant figure of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin’s vision of the Christian religion has inspired many volumes of analysis, but this engaging biography examines a remarkable life. Bruce Gordon presents Calvin as a human being, a man at once brilliant, arrogant, charismatic, unforgiving, generous, and shrewd.

The book explores with particular insight Calvin’s self-conscious view of himself as prophet and apostle for his age and his struggle to tame a sense of his own superiority, perceived by others as arrogance. Gordon looks at Calvin’s character, his maturing vision of God and humanity, his personal tragedies and failures, his extensive relationships with others, and the context within which he wrote and taught. What emerges is a man who devoted himself to the Church, inspiring and transforming the lives of others, especially those who suffered persecution for their religious beliefs.

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Editorial Reviews

Christian Century
A magnificent biography . . . [Bruce Gordon] liberates Calvin from the many stereotypes to which he has too long been captive and turns him into a flesh-and-blood human being.—George Stroup, Christian Century

— George Stroup
“It is here at last . . . a great biography of Calvin ... the best biography of John Calvin to date.” —
Ordained Servant
Professor Gordon has surpassed our highest expectations. Gordon's Calvin will rightly become the standard biography. . . . This work deserves the widest possible audience . . . beautifully written . . . reliable and enjoyable.—David A. Booth, Ordained Servant

— David A. Booth

Mid-America Journal of Theology
Among recently published biographies of John Calvin, Bruce Gordon's Calvin is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and detailed in its telling of the story of Calvin's life as a sixteenth-century reformer and churchman...No English biography of Calvin does more than Gordon's with Calvin's times and context.—Cornelis P. Venema, Mid-America Journal of Theology

— Cornelis P. Venema

Gordon's book is now the 'must have' source for a fair and accurate account of Calvin as a human being.—Donald K. McKim, Interpretation

— Donald K. McKim

Religious Studies Review
Exceptional. . . lucid. . . masterful.—Matthew J. Pereira, Religious Studies Review

— Matthew J. Pereira

Christian Century - George Stroup
“A magnificent biography . . . [Bruce Gordon] liberates Calvin from the many stereotypes to which he has too long been captive and turns him into a flesh-and-blood human being.”—George Stroup, Christian Century
Ordained Servant - David A. Booth
"Professor Gordon has surpassed our highest expectations. Gordon's Calvin will rightly become the standard biography. . . . This work deserves the widest possible audience . . . beautifully written . . . reliable and enjoyable."—David A. Booth, Ordained Servant
Mid-America Journal of Theology - Cornelis P. Venema
"Among recently published biographies of John Calvin, Bruce Gordon's Calvin is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and detailed in its telling of the story of Calvin's life as a sixteenth-century reformer and churchman...No English biography of Calvin does more than Gordon's with Calvin's times and context."—Cornelis P. Venema, Mid-America Journal of Theology
Interpretation - Donald K. McKim
"Gordon's book is now the 'must have' source for a fair and accurate account of Calvin as a human being."—Donald K. McKim, Interpretation
Religious Studies Review - Matthew J. Pereira
“Exceptional. . . lucid. . . masterful.”—Matthew J. Pereira, Religious Studies Review
Library Journal

Most books on John Calvin have concentrated on specific aspects of his life or teaching or have approached him from a certain bias. Through the Puritans and their descendants, he influenced much of American history, chiefly by way of his doctrine of predestination. In this 500th year of Calvin's birth, Gordon (Reformation history, Yale Divinity Sch.; The Swiss Reformation) has produced a scholarly yet accessible study that is not hagiography but an honest assessment of a man who had great talent and great faith and also great flaws. While writing from a Reformed perspective, Gordon offers a balanced view. Given Calvin's significance in American church history, this would be an important purchase for all but the smallest libraries and an essential purchase for academic libraries and all larger libraries with theological collections. With a good chapter-by-chapter bibliography.
—Augustine J. Curley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300120769
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 7/10/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Gordon is professor of Reformation history, Yale Divinity School. He is author and editor of a number of books, including The Swiss Reformation.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2009 Bruce Gordon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12076-9

Chapter One

A French Youth

Ways of Speaking

JOHN CALVIN as a child does not come easily to the eye. Our imagination quickly runs to familiar representations of an ageing, bearded man stooped by years of hard labour and illness and to the stool on which he allegedly had to sit to preach in his declining years, or to nineteenth-century illustrations of the great prophet declaiming before the cowering faithful. Of the young boy growing up in the cathedral town of Noyon, sixty miles north of Paris, we know almost nothing. Expansive reflections on his youth form no part of Calvin's writing. Even the self-portrait offered in the preface to his psalms commentary, written later in life, passes almost in silence over his early years in Picardy. He offers only the single insight that his father had a change of heart. 'When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose.' A solitary childhood memory also appears in a 1543 tract when Calvin recalled the manner in which the good people of Noyon venerated the relics of saints.

His writtenwords do, however, contain revelations of the man. In the psalms preface of 1557 Calvin describes himself as being at once awkward, timid and bashful - qualities that his later opponents might be forgiven for failing to recognize. As with everything he wrote, however, context is essential. The preface is not autobiographical in any modern sense, but rather a carefully crafted account of his providential call to the ministry, utterly devoid of sentimentality. Providence is God's will, mysterious to humanity, that guides all things. It extends to specific events and actions, works through particular human characteristics and comforts men and women, who by faith see that the world is not random and chaotic, but in God's hands. For Calvin, it was God's providence that he had been chosen to serve in a special capacity. Yet within the lines of elegant Latin prose dwells something of the boy who became the man, and this takes us to the heart of Calvin's story. His great endeavour was to interpret the Bible to the world, and through scripture he saw his own life mapped out. In the Bible he found the man he was called to be: a prophet and apostle single-mindedly dedicated to one cause. His vocation, as described in his psalms preface, brought him face to face with the divine command and demanded unquestioning obedience, something he required both of himself and of others. He lived simultaneously in the world and before the face of God: judgement awaited, pressing upon Calvin the urgency of his calling and a sense of never having done enough. This was only intensified by his weaknesses. His body-destroying illnesses and volatile temperament were theologically interpreted and embraced within his sense of mission. This coexisting divine calling and human frailty formed his identity.

The Bible provided Calvin with the narrative of his life and it is possible to catch echoes of his lost childhood in the biblical characters about whom he wrote and preached so fulsomely. It would be too simplistic to draw direct autobiographical references from biblical reflections primarily theological in intention, yet the manner in which he spoke about childhood in the Bible does cast a refracted light on his own experiences. With his contemporaries, and much in contrast to our age, Calvin did not consider his childhood as psychologically formative: it was a brief and brutal preparation for adulthood associated primarily with ignorance, volatility and waywardness. The view was common enough. The great Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, to take one example, did not care for St Augustine's Confessions. He thought the church father talked too much about himself and discussed 'silly' and 'sordid' topics 'such as childhood, adolescence, his feelings of lust and such things.' From the vantage point of a mature man who had come to see his life in providential terms, Calvin regarded childhood as something a young person traversed with the guidance of parents, teachers and masters. Without authority and discipline childish ways distort character, a perversion not easily remedied in later life.

Calvin read himself into scripture. In his account of his conversion written twenty-five years after the event, he compared himself with David, the shepherd boy called to be Israel's king.

For although I follow David at a great distance, and come far short of equalling him, or rather, although in aspiring slowly and with great difficulty to attain to the many virtues in which he excelled, I still feel myself tarnished with the contrary vices. Yet, if I have anything in common with him, I have no hesitation in comparing myself with him. In reading the instances of his faith, patience, fervour, zeal and integrity, it has, as it ought, drawn from me unnumbered groans and sighs that I am so far from approaching them. It has, however, been of very great advantage to me to behold in him, as in a mirror, both the commencement of my calling and the continued course of my actions, so that I know more certainly that whatever that most illustrious king and prophet suffered was exhibited to me by God as an example for imitation.

The image of the mirror, or speculum, recurs throughout Calvin's writings to suggest both likeness and difference. In Calvin's eyes, he and David were separated by a vast temporal and cultural gap, but, as humble men called by God to a special office, they were one. 'As he was taken from the sheepfold, and elevated to the rank of supreme authority, so God having taken me from my originally obscure and humble condition, reckoned me worthy of being invested with the honourable office of a preacher and minister of the Gospel.'

In reading his own experience through the world of an ancient Israelite we are introduced to both a key aspect of Calvin's thought and a fundamental ambivalence in his character. The past, for Calvin and the other Protestant reformers, was to be reclaimed for the present. This was not to suggest the donning of Old Testament armour or Roman togas; it was the appropriation and application of what was good from earlier times to remedy the corruption and error of contemporary society. Thus Calvin found himself in the ancient figures of the Bible. Yet this was not unproblematic. A supreme confidence in his role as divinely appointed reformer of the whole Church, not simply of Geneva, sat alongside an uneasy, fretful sense of falling woefully short of that commission. Such was the man who rarely, if ever, changed his mind on a topic, yet continuously and restlessly reformulated and rewrote his thoughts in pursuit of greater clarity and insight.

Early Years

How then do we begin the story of this enigmatic figure? The sources on Calvin's youth are extremely sparse, forcing us to pick over the few known facts. To open with his name, it was, like much of his life, a creation of his adult years. Jean Calvin was born Jean Cauvin and only assumed the Latinized Calvinus later in Basle, probably in imitation of the Roman proconsul named in Cicero (106-43 BCE), the great Roman statesman and orator. There was logic in this. Cicero was in many respects Calvin's guide to the classical world: it was through the Roman writer that he became familiar with much of ancient philosophy and literature, and we know from Theodore Beza's biography, written after Calvin's death, that he re-read Cicero every year. Name changing was a commonplace among humanists of the sixteenth century: Johannes Heusegen, literally house lamp, became Oecolampadius, the reformer of Basle, and Luther's colleague, Philip Schwarzerd, black earth, is better known as Melanchthon.

From his name we move to geography. Sixteenth-century Picardy comprised the lands of the Somme river basin north of Paris stretching towards the Low Countries, scene of the worst fighting of the First World War. The inhabitants spoke Picard, close to but distinct from French, and this dialect would have been John Calvin's native tongue. The Cauvin family was local to the Noyon region where his father was an industrious and ambitious man who had achieved bourgeois status in 1497, just over a decade before John's birth. Girard Cauvin, the son of a cooper, made a remarkable ascent up the social ladder through the patronage of the de Hangest family, the bishops of Noyon. Girard married Jeanne Le Franc, a devout daughter of a local innkeeper who died in 1515 when their son John was only six years old. Calvin's positive ruminations on the good fortune of those brought up in the faith may well contain a trace of boyhood reflection, for his mother encouraged her children in devotion, and his later claim that he was blinded by superstition was at the very least a backhanded compliment to the traditional piety in which he was nursed.

There were plenty of children in the Cauvin family: John had one elder brother, Charles, who became a priest, though he ultimately turned his back on the Roman church, as well as two younger brothers, François and Antoine. François is thought to have died at an early age, while Antoine followed his brother to Geneva, where he became John's close confidant and business manager. Of the two sisters, very little is known: they were born to a second marriage and we know only the name of Marie, who likewise came to Geneva.

Girard Cauvin held a series of significant and prominent local positions that bore testament to the effectiveness of his patronage connections: notary, procurator to the cathedral chapter, and member of the judiciary. He was closely linked to the workings of the church, though his relations with the clergy were hardly easy, and his character bespoke a man who never stepped away from a fight, a quality evidently passed on to his son. John benefited from the close relationship with the de Hangest family actively cultivated by his father, and at the age of twelve received his first ecclesiastical benefice - barrels of wheat from the revenue of La Gésine, one of the altars of the cathedral. It was a straightforward arrangement whereby Calvin received income from the church benefice without the inconvenience of having to perform any religious duty. As a means of supporting the education of a talented young boy there was nothing remarkable in this arrangement; the revenues of the church had long been in the clutches of families eager to expand their patronage networks.

Calvin owed his education to aristocratic patronage, and for this he had good reason to be grateful. However, relations with his social superiors remained deeply problematic for him all his life. In certain respects he was besotted with the nobility, utterly persuaded that they ruled as of right. At the same time, he despised their immorality, their world of religious and political compromises and their addiction to material comforts. It was a conflict between the divine order of society and the corrosive effects of sin, a tension he never resolved. With the support of the de Hangest family, he began his rudimentary studies at the Collège des Capettes in Noyon, whose pupils were recognizable by their short gowns. Here Calvin received his first instruction in Latin, an essential prerequisite for advancement in the world, whether in the church or the law. Girard Cauvin well understood the importance of a good education to the further improvement of his family's standing, though there have been suggestions that the provision in Noyon was deficient. We know nothing of Calvin's days as pupil, but they were unlikely to have been pleasant. Schooling was a harsh world of rote learning and corporal punishment. Thomas More's Utopia of 1516 comments that English school masters would sooner beat their boys than teach them.

The most widely accepted, or at least most repeated, narrative has Calvin leaving Noyon in 1523 for Paris in the company of several sons of the Montmor family. Theodore Beza, who wrote two biographies of Calvin after the reformer's death based on personal information, tells us that Calvin began his studies at the Collège de la Marche, where as an auditeur, one following a course of study, he came under the direction of Maturin Cordier. Although the story is extremely patchy, attempts to deconstruct this version of events have not proved persuasive. What is not in doubt is that the young Calvin, who his father, with the financial support of the de Hangest family, had sent to Paris to study for the priesthood, was taught by Cordier. Later, in an affectionate dedication of his commentary on 1 Thessalonians, Calvin attributed to providence his arrival at Cordier's feet. He recalled the master's generosity towards a young boy whose Latin was far from proficient, and that he willingly and patiently condescended to teach the rudiments of the language, an act he remembered as a 'singular kindness on the part of God'. He had indeed been most fortunate. Maturin Cordier represented the best of French humanist pedagogy, committed to studies in the promotion of the Christian life and with a particular genius for the education of the young. His A Little Book for the Amendment of Corrupt Phrases in Our Speech (Paris, 1530) offered a succinct creed: 'There is a twofold reason for my undertaking this work: first, so that every learned person might be drawn to the writing of something better; and next, that youths may not only be stirred to speaking Latin, but stimulated to the leading of a noble life.... For without piety what progress is there in letters?' The reciprocity of study and faith, so famously expressed by Erasmus and inculcated in the young pupil in Paris, became Calvin's life-long standard.

How unlikely it must have seemed in 1523 that the lives of this celebrated humanist master and his young pupil would become so closely interwoven. Labelled a 'luthérien' in 1534 Cordier was forced to flee Paris for Bordeaux before travelling to Geneva to teach at the Collège de Rive, a position he was required to relinquish in 1538 specifically on account of his close association with the disgraced Calvin. For four decades the two men remained in contact and died in the same year, the master thirty years older than his former pupil. It was not just Calvin who found inspiration in this remarkable figure: the Savoyard Sebastian Castellio, whose initial friendship with Calvin putrefied into raw enmity, likewise saw in Cordier the perfect mixture of humanist education with biblical piety. Castellio named him his spiritual master.

After initial studies at the Collège de la Marche, Calvin moved to the more prestigious Collège de Montaigu at the end of 1523. From its creation, the University of Paris had been divided into four faculties (arts, medicine, law and theology) with around forty colleges founded by patrons eager to enable young men from their regions to study in the city. All of these colleges were situated in the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in the Latin Quarter, whose residents had long complained about the violent and debauched conduct of students. Teaching took place through the colleges, but the higher faculties of theology, law and medicine retained their pre-eminence. The university consisted of four nations (France, Picardy, Normandy and Germany) with the French subdivided into five provinces (Bourges, Paris, Reims, Sens and Tours). Each college had a distinct character owing to its head, or rector, men of influence who shaped education in the late-medieval period. When Calvin arrived at the Collège de Montaigu in the mid-1520s he entered a prestigious institution, radically reformed over the previous two decades, whose students were predominantly intended for the church, which, as far as we know, was the young man's path. Montaigu's two hundred students were divided into the 'domestiques' or 'galoches', who endured a brutal regime wherein they had to work for their keep, the stipendiary students and the 'caméristes'. It was to the last group that the talented boy from Noyon belonged, with his provincial patronage which enabled him to pay for board and lodgings.


Excerpted from CALVIN by BRUCE GORDON Copyright © 2009 by Bruce Gordon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of
1 A French Youth....................1
2 Among the Princes of Law....................18
3 'At Last Delivered': Conversion and Flight....................31
4 Exile in a Hidden Corner....................47
5 Violent Reformations and Tumult....................63
6 Discovering the Church....................82
7 'Lucid Brevity' for the Sake of the Church: Romans....................103
8 Building Christ's Church....................121
9 Calvin's World....................144
10 Healing Christ's Body....................161
11 'Since Calvin Acts So Bravely, Why Does He Not Come Here?': France....................181
12 The Years of Conflict....................198
13 'There is No Form of Impiety that This Monster Has Not Raked Up'....................217
14 Luther's Heirs....................233
15 European Reformer....................250
16 The 'Perfecte Schoole of Christe'....................276
17 Churches and Blood: France....................304
18 Endings....................329
Select Bibliography....................374
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