Book Write-Up: John Calvin, by William J. Bouwsma

William J. Bouwsma.  John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait.  New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

I found this book at my local public library, and I checked it out because I figured that I needed to increase and solidify my knowledge about the Protestant Reformation.  The book was not entirely what I expected, since I was anticipating a thorough discussion of John Calvin’s life, including the political and religious forces that were at work in his time.  Instead, the book spent one chapter on Calvin’s life, and the rest of the book was devoted to his thoughts on religious and political issues.

I’m not sure if I know John Calvin more now that I have read this book.  Let me say that I do and I don’t.  I do in the sense that I learned about what Calvin thought about various issues.  If a book mentions John Calvin’s critical thoughts about Henry VIII, then it is definitely a book worth reading, in my humble opinion!  But, because the book breezed through Calvin’s life, I felt rather deprived.

After reading this book, I can’t really tell you why John Calvin became a Protestant.  There do appear to be similarities between Calvin and Martin Luther: both had stern fathers who wanted them to enter law, yet they ultimately chose a religious path.  But I can understand why Luther took the religious and spiritual path that he did: Luther joined the monastery because he was afraid of God, and he came to be disappointed with Catholicism because he felt guilty and depressed within that system, and so Luther found personal liberation when he accepted justification by grace through faith alone.  I do not see those kinds of fireworks with Calvin.  Perhaps it’s not Bouwsma’s fault that his book lacks those sorts of details, for Bouwsma argues that Calvin tended to downplay the importance of immediate conversions, stating that “Calvin always emphasized the gradualness rather than the suddenness of conversion” (page 11).  Some have appealed to Calvin’s preface to his commentary on the Psalms as Calvin’s account of his own conversion (see here), but Bouwsma does not give that a whole lot of weight, for Calvin did not discuss his conversion before, plus the account leaves out important details (i.e., how Calvin arrived at the beliefs that he did).  Maybe it’s not Bouwsma’s fault that I feel that I don’t know much about Calvin after reading his book, for Bouwsma may be working with the material that he had.  As Bouwsma said, “Calvin was generally reticent about himself” (page 10).

In terms of Calvin’s thought, what I saw as I read Bouwsma’s book was a lot of tension.  You had the conservative, rigid, authoritarian, dogmatic Calvin, and the republican Calvin who was understanding of people’s flaws and the diversity of humanity, championed the poor, criticized the rich and powerful, and actually struggled with the Bible rather than accepting it without question (though he did believe that he was accepting it, notwithstanding his rather liberal interpretations of certain passages).  Obviously, I found the latter Calvin to be much more endearing, even though I (as an Aspie) was somewhat drawn to the methodical approach of the former Calvin.  And yet I wondered: Who was the real Calvin?  Will the real John Calvin please stand up?  Can one person have such contradictory beliefs and tendencies within him?

In the conclusion to his book, Bouwsma tries to account for the tensions within Calvin.  He portrays Calvin as a bridge between the medieval and the Renaissance, with the conservative, authoritarian, philosophical Calvin reflecting the medieval, and the humanistic, understanding, republican Calvin reflecting the Renaissance.  But what were Calvin’s true beliefs?  Did Calvin want to embrace the trends of the future, yet felt obligated to aspects of the past?  Did Calvin feel that he had to embrace the trends of the future for his message to go anywhere?  I got both impressions as I was reading Bouwsma’s book.  And yet, I believe that Bouwsma thinks that even some of the tensions within Calvin were rooted in what Calvin truly felt.  Bouwsma depicts Calvin as one who was insecure about life—-Calvin aptly noted that there were so many things in life that could kill a person in the next minute—-and Calvin was seeking order.  Calvin may have found peace in his ideas about God’s sovereignty and predestination (even though he wrestled with that doctrine).  Calvin wanted order, and yet there were times when Calvin recognized that life was messy: that authorities are not always fair, that not all people can be forced into a mold, and that certain doctrines were not obvious to everyone.

I found Bouwsma’s book to be worth reading, largely because I find Calvin and his thoughts to be fascinating.  I like Calvin more than I like many Calvinists!  A criticism that I have of Bouwsma’s book, however, is that I wish that he had gone into more detail about the impact of humanism on Calvin’s thought.  Bouwsma probably feels that he went into a lot of detail about that already, and I can see why he (or a reader) might think that he did: Bouwsma has a chapter that discusses Calvin’s views about rhetoric!  But I felt that there was something missing: How can humanism (in this case, reading and studying sources in their original languages) shape a person’s religious views, such that he becomes a Protestant (not that this is inevitable, for there were humanist Catholics)?  I don’t think that I can fully answer this question after reading Bouwsma’s book, even though I get the impression that Bouwsma (on some level) was trying to address it.  Bouwsma did an excellent job relating Calvin’s thought to Greek philosophy (i.e., skepticism, reason being above the passions, pagan optimism about the human potential for good, etc.), and, in that sense, he demonstrated how Calvin’s scholastic endeavors and reading of sources could have shaped his theology.  But I’m ultimately less than satisfied.  Perhaps my problem is that I wish that Bouwsma had organized the information a bit differently: that he had briefly summarized at the outset what humanism was, and what its ideological implications could have been.

But this is a good book, and it has a lot of pearls within it!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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