Saturday, January 15, 2011

Books I've Read Recently 2 - Calvin, by Bruce Gordon

2009 was the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, and this was one of the biographies released to celebrate. From reviews I've read, it's meant to be just about the best biography of Calvin written thus far. And it is very good. I don't think it's the definitive biography - you don't feel like you know Calvin after reading it - but you feel like you know someone who knows him well.

It's an interesting read particularly because I get the impression that Bruce Gordon's natural reaction is not to like Calvin much at all, and there are a few bits where that comes through. But he ends up with at least a strong grudging admiration for him. There's one sentence in the preface which kind of captures that. "[Calvin] never felt that he had encountered an intellectual equal, and he was probably correct." I'm not sure that's true from Calvin's life as Gordon tells it either - Calvin certainly attached himself to various people (e.g. Martin Bucer) as mentors and so on.

But Gordon does do a very good job of showing us how Calvin fits into the times, how he was influenced by different people at different times, and changed his mind on some issues, and so on. It's very much a warts-and-all biography, but Calvin wouldn't have wanted it any other way! He really gets into Calvin's thoughts and priorities as well - I hadn't realised, for example, how closely some of the issues addressed in the Commentaries tie into events in France and the world at that stage.

What he doesn't get into really is Calvin's passion for God and his personal relationship with God, which there is such a strong sense of in his writing. But with Calvin, that is so tied up with his theology that to understand it probably needs a historian who is at least strongly sympathetic to Calvin's understanding of God's sovereignty. This is quite possibly as good a biography of Calvin as could be written by someone who doesn't share his theology.

A really good read, and a very good biography of one of the key figures in European History, and one of the biggest figures in Church History. It might be the best one yet written, but it isn't the best possible one.

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