Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

John Calvin Between the Labyrinth and the Abyss : JOHN CALVIN A Sixteenth-Century Portrait by William J. Bouwsma (Oxford University Press: $22.95; 310 pp.)

December 20, 1987|Donald R. Kelley | Kelley teaches history at the University of Rochester. and

To modern readers, the name "Jean Calvin" calls up various images: the idealized champion of purified Christianity (depicted in the great Reformation monument in Geneva), the saintly patriarch of French Protestantism, the embattled defender of a divisive and politically threatening sect, the fanatical and authoritarian "pope of Geneva," the austere and oppressive creator of "Puritanism" and its legacy. To correct such caricatures, William Bouwsma (Sather professor of history at UC Berkeley and a distinguished and versatile historian of early modern Europe) offers a more human and more colorful "portrait," drawn largely from the writings closest to Calvin's heart, especially his biblical commentaries and sermons.

In order to catch this likeness, Bouwsma makes a very large assumption, which is that "in what mattered most to him, Calvin developed little between his break with the church that had nurtured him and his death some thirty years later" (1564). In other words, Calvin's career was not, like Augustine's, a pilgrimage; it was a continuous struggle with the demons--the inner as well as the outer demons--of 16th-Century Christian existence. We may question the assumption, but it does have the advantage of making Calvin sit still for his portrait, with his features composed, his expression constant, and his blemishes apparent to all viewers.

Yet even in this magisterial rendition, Calvin never quite comes into focus. Contradictions remain, and for Bouwsma, there are at least "two Calvins--one drawn to rationality and order, the other to emotion and divine mystery. Calvin was never able to overcome the tension between the two, though he did hold up unity as an ideal, even in his conception of "total depravity." He hated "mixture," whether sexual, social, or spiritual. Above all, he detested the contamination of the godly by the human, exemplified by religious hypocrisy and, most conspicuously, by the Roman church. He insisted upon rules and "boundaries" and tried to impose them on his large and growing "Calvinist" following in Geneva and throughout Europe.

As pastor and patriarch, Calvin, like Martin Luther, projected his anxieties on his society, and applied his confessional, social, and, at least implicitly, political remedies to a world terribly "out of joint." He was fascinated with power and emulated his God by trying to wield it in the interests of a social order that touched on all aspects of the human condition. Again, Bouwsma presents Calvin's social, political, and ecclesiastical program for the times in terms largely of his confessional writings.

In general, Bouwsma stresses personal above religious or social factors. Yet he does not indulge in any recognizable form of psycho-history, and he avoids exploiting the more sensational episodes in Calvin's life. He does not even mention, for example, the scandal within Calvin's own household (which involved the adultery of his sister-in-law and then his step-daughter). Nor does the famous confrontation with Servetus figure significantly in Bouwsma's portrait. Bouwsma prefers to follow the ups and downs of Calvin's career in his writings, sometimes retaining Calvin's own contradictions: "Like other humanists, he defended wealth," Bouwsma writes--"But"--elsewhere--"he particularly criticized mercantile wealth."

Intellectually, Calvin also shows two faces--one fashionable inclined toward Renaissance humanism (a law-school dropout with a taste for classical literature), the other drawn back toward the "traditional culture" of scholasticism. In religious terms, he was torn between rational theology and the mysteries of a transcendently powerful God. His conversion was not, like Paul's, sudden, blinding, and terrifying; it was only "a shifting and quickening of his interests." More unsettling, Bouwsma argues, were the early death of his mother and subsequent exclusion from his father's house.

In his writings, Calvin often lived up to the Puritan stereotype. He warned of the dangers of sex, and talk about sex, and activities like dancing, which was a "prelude to fornication." His attitude toward women was ambivalent. He professed a happy marriage, brief as it was, but found much to lament in the vanity and self-love of womenkind in general. Children were there to be shaped in the faith. None of Calvin's own children survived, and his true family was (as his language abundantly suggests) his confessional flock.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|