Bruce Gordon


On his book Calvin

Cover Interview of April 20, 2010

The wide angle

The biography seeks to capture the dynamic nature of Calvin’s character; to illuminate how heady interaction with influential friends and enemies, unexpected events, and spiritual and intellectual growth shaped the man. Yet he was more than the sum of circumstances. His prodigious mind, his extraordinary memory, and his unrivalled talent in crafting prose separated him from contemporaries—a fact readily acknowledged by his fiercest opponents. The Institutes of the Christian Religion is an extraordinary piece of theology and pedagogy, setting before the reader a compelling vision of God, creation, humanity, and redemption.

Calvin’s life in the sixteenth-century world, and his relations with the people he loved and served, are what most fascinated me.  He surrounded himself with friends and family on whom he depended emotionally, spiritually, and financially. To get inside his world is to meet a broad cast of characters, many of whom left the stage after bitter quarrels.  Calvin struggled with his own personality, his friendships, and the frailty of his body.  All of these fit uneasily with his profound sense of divine calling.

It was a life lived in many phases.  Calvin thought he was going to be a priest, then a lawyer, then a humanist writer.  He ended up a Protestant reformer in a backwater city he disliked intensely, and the feeling was mutual.  His eyes were always on his native France, yet he had to learn to be a leader to the whole of Protestant Europe, from England to Poland.  Exile from France was his greatest burden, yet it was the experience that gave him his voice to a generation of people dislocated for their faith.  Calvin spoke as one who had lost everything: he made the trials of the Israelites real to his contemporaries.

The challenge of this biography was to do justice to the many, often contradictory, aspects of Calvin’s life.  He was himself aware of the fragmentary nature of his character.  It was in the Apostle Paul, I argue, that he found a model to emulate, and he wanted to be Paul to his generation.  The great convert to Christianity, Paul was the apostle to all the churches without belonging to any one in particular. He was Calvin’s ideal as the Frenchman devoted himself to the unity of the Church.

Few religious leaders left the security of the city walls to travel the dangerous roads of Europe more than Calvin, though he had precious little to show for it.  By the time he emerged as a leading figure in the 1540s the Protestantism of the Reformation was a broken body.  Calvin believed that he was uniquely placed to resolve the endless quarrels, but in the end he became stuck in the tar pit that nearly ended Protestantism.  His hopes of bringing true religion to France vanished on the battlefields of the Wars of Religion.  As he lay dying in 1564 there was meager reason for optimism.  Yet after he had gone to his unmarked grave movements claiming his name sprang up that would transform Europe and the New World.