Bruce Gordon's Calvin

Sean Lucas

In this five-hundredth anniversary of Calvin's birth, booksellers have flooded the marketplace with all things John Calvin. Of all the books published in this anniversary year, the one that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest is Bruce Gordon's Calvin. In fact, it is not too much to claim that what George Marsden did for Jonathan Edwards, Gordon did for Calvin: produce a well-written biography, rich in primary and secondary source material, which actually penetrates to the man himself. This is a high achievement.

Gordon's achievement is manifold. First, as a scholar of Reformation-era Europe, he successfully situates Calvin in the web of relationships that dominated the sixteenth century. For example, we learn that not only that William Farel and Calvin's relationship was important in 1536, but how that relationship developed over time, how it created difficulties for both men, and how loyalties to other players (Bucer, Viret, Bullinger) complicated their long-standing friendship. Likewise, we come to understand how Calvin's developing relationships with Bullinger and Melanchthon, driven by his own sense of a trans-European Reformation, impacted his public theology and pastoral sensibilities.

Next, not only does Gordon describe the relational Reformation, but he also shows how political developments in France created complexities for Calvin. Like the Apostle Paul with his fellow Jews, Calvin longed for the conversion of his fellow Frenchmen. However, the progress of the Gospel, reformed according to God's Word, was tied to the messy political situation within France. Though he attempted to woo French nobility to the Reformed faith, he also was increasingly frustrated with the leadership's willingness to dally with Roman Catholicism and unwillingness to separate and establish a fully Reformed church. What Calvin did not reckon with, and what Gordon wonderfully pictures, were the political complexities within France itself.

Moreover, Gordon probes Calvin's mindset in ways that are both fair to Calvin and realistic. When Calvin became angry or displayed arrogance, Gordon never rationalizes it away. For example, in an exchange with Bullinger, Calvin penned "an angry reply" in which he told Bullinger that to defend Jerome Bolsec "is the extreme of absurdity" (p. 207). While most of us would skip over that comment, Gordon explores how Calvin's passion and anger often would drive him to rhetorical excess. The result is a critically sympathetic portrait that is more real to life than any other Calvin biography in print.

Finally, Gordon helpfully summarizes vast tracts of Calvin's theology. For example, Gordon devotes an entire chapter to a summary of Calvin's commentary on Romans, which provides a pathway for probing his theological development (chapter seven, pp. 103-120). He explores the sacramental controversies with Wittenburg and Zurich as well as the compromises that led to the 1549 Consensus Tigirinus (pp. 161-180). His chapter dealing with Calvin's controversy with Servetus was masterfully done (pp. 217-32), not only for exploring the theological dimensions, but also for outlining the political realities. And throughout, Gordon demonstrates what historian Philip Benedict also observed: namely, that the key dividing line in the Protestant Reformation was between the Swiss Reformed and the German Lutherans and centered on the Lord's Supper. Calvin heroically tried to straddle that dividing line theologically and politically, ultimately with little success.

I hope that this book receives wide notice, not only among Reformation specialists and theological students, but especially among educated laypeople. Many of our people in Reformed and Presbyterian churches are woefully ignorant of Calvin's contribution; the few that know something about him are as likely to idolize him as to understand him. Bruce Gordon's Calvin is a marvelous corrective to both faults: informative, accessible, and realistic, it is the book to give to interested church members. And read with the eyes of faith, Gordon helps us move from seeing Calvin as a hero to seeing the True Hero, Jesus himself, whom Calvin loved and served.