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John Calvin in Context, edited by R. Ward Holder

04 September 2020

Calvin was complicated and his power persists, declares Alec Ryrie

CALVINISTS are theology’s Wimbledon FC: nobody likes them, and they don’t care. Why should they, when their detractors are simply being what they were predestined to be? The purpose of R. Ward Holder’s splendid handbook, then, is not to justify the ways of Calvin to men. And yet it may partly achieve that, since its mission is to explain him: to look at his myriad contexts, social, political, theological, and more.

Not every reader will be persuaded of what one contributor calls the “warmth” of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. But you will meet the human reality beneath the icy logic of his theology. Calvin was “a complex man living in a complex time”, as the editor tells us: if we reduce him and his ideas to slogans, either to praise or to bury them, we do both him and ourselves a disservice.

The book’s most daunting aspect is its contents page, which is liable to make you check that you are not holding volume one of an encyclopaedia. It promises no fewer than 48 essays covering subjects by a formidable army of leading scholars. But these are bite-sized snippets of no more than ten pages apiece, written to be accessible to the near-total novice, each accompanied by a handful of notes for further reading.

Much of the book is a general history of the Reformation era as seen from Calvin’s point of view, and some of the essays could be repurposed pretty easily to illustrate the context of any other great figure of the age. And none the worse for that: it gives us some of the volume’s gems, such as Amanda Eurich’s splendid account of why the Reformers’ polemical style was so vitriolic.

Other essays focus more closely on Calvin’s life and times, as a lifelong exile in a turbulent, vulnerable city-state. William Naphy’s contribution reminds us that Geneva did not exist purely as Calvin’s backdrop, but had its own lively history. The wave of French Protestant refugees which he helped to attract nearly doubled the city’s population in the 1550s, but also enriched it: these wealthy incomers paid handsomely for Genevan citizenship. Meanwhile, the property seized from Calvin’s local opponents funded the new Geneva Academy.

A recurring theme, predictably, is myth-busting. Calvin was not as singular as his devotees or his detractors have claimed: several essays point out that supposedly distinctive ideas such as systematic church discipline or double predestination were merely developments of already widespread notions. And, of course, almost every thinker of the age agreed with his support, in extremis, of the death penalty for egregious heretics.

If he is so much a man of his times, then, does he deserve a 500-page book explaining him? Yes. He did not aspire to originality, which in Christian theology is not a virtue, but to synthesis: to demonstrate the underlying coherence and spiritual power of the best Reformed theology, and to unite the Christian world around it. He failed, but he tried: he laboured mightily to make peace with the Lutherans, and even, although with no optimism, participated in colloquies with Roman Catholics. And, in a monumental feat of cat-herding, he brought the scattered, quarrelsome, and mistrustful Reformed world together into an entity that we call Calvinism.

If Calvinism seems like a historical curiosity now, the volume’s final section is a salutary corrective. Karl Barth never swallowed Calvin whole, but was always in awe of him. Calvin was pivotal on both sides of the apartheid struggle in modern South Africa. And, as Yudho Thianto’s invaluable contribution on “Calvin in Asia” points out, behind the story of modern Korean Presbyterianism lies a deep history of Dutch Calvinism in Indonesia.

Indeed, anyone who has read Marilynne Robinson’s novels knows Calvinism’s persistent power. If you haven’t read Robinson, put this down and go and do so right now. If you have, and want to understand the roots of the strange, deep, rich tradition that she brings to life, this book is an excellent place to start.


Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.


John Calvin in Context
R. Ward Holder, editor
Cambridge University Press £84.99
Church Times Bookshop £76.50

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