Study Guide

John Calvin

by William J. Bouwsma

John Calvin Analysis

John Calvin (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

William J. Bouwsma’s study of John Calvin is, in a sense, not a biography at all, for it assumes a general knowledge of its subject’s life and deals with what can reliably be said about Calvin’s family history in fewer than forty of the work’s more than three hundred pages. The work is, instead, a sensitive and sympathetic exegesis of Calvinist theology which traces its development through the peculiar historical circumstances of the late Renaissance. Bouwsma recognizes, as more traditional biographers of Calvin have not, that the religious movement generated by Calvin’s ideas was of far greater consequence than the life of its namesake; moreover, Bouwsma steadfastly resists the understandable though tiresome tendency of contemporary biographers to psychoanalyze. Most remarkable, Bouwsma avoids overt analysis even as he argues that one may discern archetypal motifs in Calvin’s theology. In short, what most informs Bouwsma’s work is scholarly discipline and order, the two qualities Calvin admired most. Calvin would have been very pleased with this book; the general reader will find it enlightening.

Paradoxical though it is, Calvin’s theology and inner life were quite separate. External circumstances forced his theology to grow and develop; his inner life never actually developed at all. His last years were plagued by the same doubts, confusions, and contradictory impulses which had bothered him as a young man. Actually, such precarious unease is inevitably characteristic of those who adhere to creeds which stress absolute certainty. Calvin was born July 10, 1509, into the episcopal traditions of Noyon, a cathedral town in Picardy, France. He founded a variety of Christian humanism derived from reading Desiderius Erasmus. The contradictions inherent in this unlikely mixing, which could never be fully reconciled within the man, produced limitless and inextinguishable anxieties: philosophy which ultimately denies intellect and humanism which distrusts human motives.

Though American Puritanism was founded upon an admixture of Separatist Calvinism (more properly called Browneism after Robert Browne) and Augustinian theology, Calvin himself rejected or was at least uneasy about dramatic conversions such as those of Paul and Augustine. He even distrusted elements of what in his own time had become a mythology surrounding the conversion of Martin Luther, though he clearly respected Lutheranism as a reaction to what he considered papist degeneracy. Calvin’s reflexive hatred of the Roman Catholic papacy derives from his humanism. It is an irony that history often portrays him as the sullen patriarch of Geneva.

Bouwsma argues that Calvin’s twofold homelessness (he was reared in a foster home after his mother’s death and exiled from France as an adult) aggravated these feelings of anxiety. He notes Calvin’s near-indifference upon being informed of his father’s impending death. Bouwsma wisely does not push the argument to its potentially absurd conclusion: as a way to explain Calvin’s visceral hatred of male figures of authority.

The real focus of this study begins to emerge after Bouwsma has set forth the facts of Calvin’s life. Calvin was aware that anxiety indicated an imperfection in faith, a failure to trust in God’s will; even so, he was haunted by the fact that one could take only a limited number of precautions to guard against disaster. He equated disaster with confusion and confusion with sin. Confusion characterized the world in general and intruded upon the lives of individuals in the form of sin. One could never hope to eliminate this intrusion; insistence on clarity and order in one’s personal life was the only response one could make.

This conclusion had far-reaching consequences, for Calvin saw the conflict in almost Gnostic terms, a daily struggle to assert the primacy of orderly goodness over disorderly wickedness. He would have liked it to be the underpinning of his own cosmology. This drive led him to perceive the world’s constituents in terms of mutually exclusive categories: white and black, elect and reprobate, stainless and defective. Still, he must have recognized the contradictions in such a scheme. If all human desires are evil, as he maintained, then clearly the only...

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John Calvin Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIV, September 15, 1987, p. 94.

The Christian Science Monitor. January 6, 1988, p. 17.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XXXIV, January 20, 1988, p. A8.

Library Journal. CXII, October 1, 1987, p. 98.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 20, 1987, p. 5.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 10, 1988, p. 13.