Bernard Cottret’s Calvin: A Biography is the fifth in a spate of English–language biographies of the Geneva reformer appearing in recent years. It is also the best.
Biographies of John Calvin tend to be rather predictable, even boring: they typically feature his little–known beginnings, speculation on the spiritual crisis that led to the break with Rome, his initially reluctant but long and often stormy ministry in Geneva, major influences and conflicts along the way, his writings, the inevitable crisis with Michael Servetus, and finally, something about his legacy. Calvin was not, after all, a colorful and outspoken character like Luther or an international networking scholar like Erasmus. Apart from an expansive correspondence—Cottret describes Calvin as “one of the great letter writers” of the sixteenth century—he left almost nothing behind to help us glimpse the soul of the man. He was reticent concerning himself and his journey in life, and tended to focus in his writings on whatever was the task at hand. There survives little contemporary documentation to aid the biographer in fleshing out the tones and contrasts in the reformer’s portrait.
As a result, Calvin tends to emerge from the biographer’s pen as a highly focused intellectual, drafted against his wishes for the work of reforming the Church, but devoted and effective in bringing order to the churches of Geneva and clarity to issues involved in the Reformation. He is not the kind of figure one comes to love as a result of reading about him; however, we may admire and respect him for his conviction, diligence, fruitfulness, and firm leadership in carrying out the work appointed to him.
Bernard Cottret, the founding chairman of the Department of Humanities at Versailles–Saint–Quen tin University in France, draws upon the surprisingly wide range of Calvin studies in French in writing a sympathetic and appreciative biography of his fellow countryman that nevertheless admits Calvin’s shortcomings and failures. Cottret offers more background on Calvin’s formation and on the temper of his times than any of the other recent biographers, allowing the reader a better understanding both of the factors affecting the various movements for reform in the sixteenth century, Catholic and Protestant alike, and of Calvin’s achievement in the use of the written word as a primary tool of his calling.
Cottret’s Calvin is anxious, frail, quick–tempered, and, at times, irascible, bold in his calling, faithful in all his work, a terror to his enemies, devoted to his friends. The author speculates very little on the persistent biographical questions concerning Calvin’s early years, instead tracing carefully Calvin’s movements and activities once he had settled in Geneva in 1536 (and again in 1541). Cottret also provides more material about Calvin’s three years in Strasbourg—a critical period in his development—than any other biography I have read.
The bulk of Cottret’s excellent book revolves around Calvin’s work of reforming the churches, both in defining that work in theological and theoretical terms (his tracts, manuals, and books) and in carrying it out in the trenches day–to–day (preaching and teaching, struggles with the civil magistrates, problems of discipline, confrontations with colleagues, etc.). Along the way Cottret allows us to sample Calvin’s thought as it developed in stages, providing good chunks of the reformer’s own words for our consideration.
In Cottret’s portrait Calvin comes across as a man of his age—a humanist dedicated to grounding truth in ancient texts and to the finest of literary expressiveness, and a reformer devoted to restoring purity of thought and practice to the church of his day. The author is especially appreciative of Calvin’s contribution to humanistic thought and French letters. However, as Cottret observes, Calvin “was not a writer only. Writing for him was inseparable from speaking, from preaching, from the Word, from the living text that is addressed to an audience from the height of the pulpit.” He was both a humanist and a reformer.
Cottret rightly emphasizes the importance of Calvin’s Institutes, both as a textbook of Reformation issues and evangelical theology and as a log of the reformer’s developing theological thought. Revised and reissued over a period of twenty years, the Institutes is Calvin’s most enduring legacy, and Cottret recognizes it as such. He applauds the Institutes as the high–water mark of evangelical theology as well as a precise manual of doctrine and an outline for church reform. Calvin’s humanist background—in particular, his preparation in the law—made him perhaps uniquely qualified to produce so wide–ranging and cosmopolitan a work. Cottret writes, “One enters into the Institutes as though into a cathedral, a sort of gigantic edifice where the succession of words, paragraphs, and chapters testifies to the glory of God and the enterprise of man.” However, Calvin’s magnum opus is no mere abstract theological treatise, but a handbook, of sorts, for growing in knowledge and service of the Lord.
While Cottret sprinkles comments on Calvin’s thought throughout the book, he reserves the third and last section for examining Calvin’s beliefs and appreciating his work as polemicist, preacher, theologian, and writer. The last of these is especially interesting as Cottret provides a comparison and contrast between Calvin and Montaigne. Both embodied aspects of Renaissance humanism, but their worldviews and objectives were diametrically opposed. He concludes this section with a helpful clarification of what he means by referring to Calvin as a “humanist”
If by humanism one means a concern for fine literature and the restoration of texts, Calvin was unquestionably a Renaissance humanist. . . . If, on the other hand, one means by humanism faith in man, in his rights and virtues, or confidence in the indefinite progress of the human spirit, Calvin was the absolute opposite of a humanist.
Cottret gives us helpful insights into this humanist reformer at work, especially in the chapter entitled, “To Thee the Glory,” where he examines Calvin’s pastoral, educational, and missionary work. Far from being content merely to advance the progress of human learning or to exalt the nobility of the human spirit, Calvin was devoted to the advance of God’s Kingdom and the glory of His name in all his undertakings.
The book is not without its weaknesses. Apart from a brief section on the reformer’s commentary on Romans, Cottret has very little to say about this aspect of his literary corpus, which many Reformed preachers and theologians today would regard as of very nearly equal importance to the Institutes. Given the turmoil in American evangelical churches over the nature of the Church and its mission and organization, a larger examination of Calvin’s plan for reform as outlined in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541 would have helped to make this biography of more contemporary relevance, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Further, Cottret’s portrayal of Calvin sometimes reinforces the view of him as narrow–minded, stubborn, and even ruthless in his aims and methods—that “totalitarian reputation” of which the author is aware—a view held by many historians and by theological foes.
Cottret might have provided more balance in his portrayal by showing ways that Calvin, like all ministers in Geneva, was subject to the oversight and correction of his peers; indeed, he was a warmly sensitive pastor who would agree to compromises when his colleagues thought it wise. Cottret might also have delved more deeply into Calvin’s personal piety—as revealed in his letters, commentaries, and sermons, for example, as well as his Catechism—in order to flesh out his picture of the reformer as a true man of God.
On another matter, Cottret gives us very little of Calvin’s passion for the unity of the Church, a burden Calvin felt from his early years of working for union with Roman Catholic theologians and throughout his ministry in Geneva. He labored for union with other Swiss churches, wrote many letters about his hopes for a rapprochement with the Lutherans and Zwinglians, and was routinely called upon to help resolve troubles in churches in other cities.
He wrote in the Institutes that disagreements over nonessential points of doctrine should not be allowed to bring schism into the Church. He describes the essentials as follows: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of the faith.” He wrote that “among Christians there ought to be so great a dislike of schism, as that they may always avoid it so far as lies in their power.” Calvin longed to see the churches restored to fellowship with one another, and he never tired of making himself available for whatever he might do to realize that objective.
Finally, Cottret leaves little room to discuss the ongoing legacy of Calvin and the Calvinism that grew out of his labors. He briefly acknowledges the following:
He was one of the basic figures of a Western awareness that extends far beyond France alone. “Calvinism,” in all the imprecision of the term, has permanently influenced the ethical and political views of modern thinkers, from Hobbes to Locke or Rousseau. He also began, as is less well known, an analysis of language that led to contemporary semiotics. Finally, he fashioned an exacting spirituality that reconciled faith and the secular world.
It was evidently beyond the scope of Cottret’s purpose to say much more than this, although some more expansive acknowledgment of Calvin’s contribution in his own day and beyond would have strengthened this otherwise excellent biography.
Cottret intends to offer his readers “a layman’s Calvin.” He provides, that is, a portrait of the sixteenth–century humanist reformer from the perspective of one who is neither theologian nor pastor but who, as a believer and a man of letters, admires his subject for his contributions to his own discipline and faith. The author’s scholarship is prodigious, his portrayal straightforward, thorough, and eminently readable. Calvin: A Biography will take its place among the finest and fairest assessments of the Geneva reformer.
T. M. Moore serves as theological advisor to Prison Fellowship Ministries, Editor of Scripture Union Publications, and Associate Editor of Reformation and Revival Journal.