John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”: A biography
Princeton University Press £19.95
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WRITING to a friend in 1950, arguably the greatest Anglican novelist of the 20th century, Rose Macaulay, remarked: “If only the Marian persecutions hadn’t sent Protestants fleeing to Amsterdam to be infected with Calvinism, or if only they hadn’t come back . . . then the Anglican Church might have been from the first more lovely, fine and learned.”
Macaulay articulates the dominant view of Calvin and Calvinism across church tradition in modern Anglicanism. Predestination, especially Double Predestination, the supposed doctrinal lynchpin of Calvinism, is as disliked by most Anglican Evangelicals as it is by the rest, even in its milder version in the Thirty-Nine Articles.
It was not always so. Scholars such as Diarmaid MacCulloch have shown us the profoundly European nature of the English Reformation: Thomas Cranmer was no Brexiteer, but one of many English divines committed to locating the struggle for reform in England as part of a broader movement in Christian Europe.
That is one of the reasons that Bruce Gordon’s short book is worth reading. Gordon, a professor at Yale Divinity School, is a distinguished recent biographer of Calvin, and he brings his vast knowledge of the Reformer to this volume in the Princeton University Press series Lives of Great Religious Books. It is not so much a “biography” of the Institutes, as the title claims, but rather a reception history of Calvin’s most substantial work from its first edition in 1536 into the 21st century.
There are some problems: at times it isn’t clear whether it is a book about the reception of the Institutes, or John Calvin, or his theological legacy “Calvinism”. Gordon’s examination rarely ventures outside Calvin’s readers within the Reformed (as opposed to Lutheran) Protestant tradition, though, in his defence, a tradition that contains Karl Barth, Allan Boesak, and Marilynne Robinson can hardly be described as lacking substance. In many ways, the most thought-provoking chapter is the examination of the way Allan Boesak reclaimed Calvin as a theologian of justice and put him to use in the struggle against apartheid.
Still, I should have liked some assessment of Richard Hooker’s reading of Calvin, or modern Roman Catholic engagement with the Institutes, as current scholarship on Calvin and the Institutes has emphasised the indebtedness to, rather than departure from, medieval scholastic thought. But as an introduction to the complex legacy of one of the magisterial Reformers, Gordon’s book is an excellent place to begin.
Canon Judith Maltby is Chaplain, Fellow and Dean of Welfare of Corpus Christi College, and Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford.