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Calvin: A Biography [Paperback]

By Bernard Cottret (Author)
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Item description for Calvin: A Biography by Bernard Cottret...

"Modesty, softness, and mildness"-such was John Calvin, in his own words. This brief self-portrait will surprise posterity, quick as it is to detect in Calvin a deeply passionate man of zealous action. Calvin adds elsewhere: "I acknowledge myself to be timid, soft, and cowardly by nature." He repeated the same idea feelingly on the eve of his death, calling himself "timid" and "fearful" before an astounded group of pastors who knew by experience that the old fellow could raise up storms. These various descriptions of Calvin strongly underline the vigor of a character that owed all its energy to God alone. At the same time, the apparent contradictions within Calvin's personality make it hard to capture his true nature. The large number of biographies attempted to date attest to this fact, many of which simply picture Calvin as a rigid fundamentalist or as a totalitarian who ruled Geneva with an iron hand. Such interpretations, however, are much too one-dimensional. This sterling new biography by Bernard Cottret opts for a Calvin "in movement," thus distinguishing itself from works that present Calvin as a man of relatively static character. The aim of this book is simply to recover the truth, or rather to reclaim the intelligibility of a man in his time. This is a historian's Calvin, the work of a university professor who is neither a theologian nor an ordained minister. Cottret's welcome approach sheds new light on the great Reformer's personality by concentrating on the milieu in which Calvin did his life's work. In the largest part of the book, Cottret explores Calvin's life chronologically. We are introduced to the world into which Calvin was born, a Europe in the throes of upheaval owing to the development of the printing press and divergent religious views. We follow Calvin from his birth and childhood in Noyon to his school years in Paris. We accompany Calvin on his humanistic and literary pursuits in Basel, his early ministry in Geneva, and his halcyon Strasbourg years. Finally, we move again to Geneva, where the brunt of Calvin's serious-and better known-life was lived. Along the way we encounter the major issues of Calvin's day-the sacrifice of the Mass, iconoclasm, predestination, the Arianism of Michael Servetus-issues to which he reacted with all his religious emotion. We tarry with him in Geneva and get an up-close look at the governance of Calvinism's "holy city." And we share in Calvin's joys and sorrows through a reading of his prolific correspondence. In the final chapters, Cottret explores thematic aspects of Calvin's persona-Calvin the polemicist, the preacher, and the writer-and looks in greater depth at his foremost work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Widely acclaimed in its French edition, this balanced and beautifully written biography will take its place among the best-and most enjoyable-portraits of Calvin's life, work, and lasting influence.

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Item Specifications...


Studio: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Pages   396
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9" Width: 6" Height: 0.88"
Weight:   1.3 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Sep 1, 2000
Publisher   Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
ISBN  0802831591  
ISBN13  9780802831590  


Availability  140 units.
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Reviews - What do customers think about Calvin: A Biography?

Good book  Jun 18, 2007
This is an admirable biography of an important figure. Cottret opens up a world to readers and takes them for a tour of Calvin's life. Reading this was pleasurable because it opened up 16th c. Geneva and, as far as is possible, portrayed a very human John Calvin. My only negative issue with this book is the prose. Perhaps it's because of French styles of narrative. It read as though one were having a conversation. So, given the book's good qualities that such a style lends--warmth combined with good scholarship--, it was not tightly conveyed, thereby dropping the prose into a style of loosely strung thoughts at times. However, the book's good qualities outweigh such criticism. The scholarship is excellent and the subject is examined with care, presenting truly a portrait.
 
Calvin--A Biography  Jan 25, 2007
This is the fourth book I have read on the subject of "The Refomation" (two books by that title), then Luther, now Calvin. Since Calvin did not write much about himself and not a lot is know this book concentrates on the folks around him that incluenced his style. The most interesting revelation in reading all these books is that the three primary "influencers of opinion" during the Reformation, Erasmus, Luther and Calvin were not priests but primarily humanist academics. Some speculate it was the printing press that was the most important factor with ELC providing content.
 
An Outstanding Bio of An Incredible Saint!  Apr 6, 2005
Calvin has long been misunderstood and misrepresented! The author portrays the man as a mortal, and as a sincerely devoted Christian. His teachings are still as clear and wise as the day they were written. John Calvin was a genuine saint and this biography really does him justice. Thank goodness for biographers who care to objectively and accurately portray their subjects!
 
'Poor Calvin, a victim of his system.'  Jun 9, 2004
Cottret does give an abundance of interesting historical and biographical detail, his description of the early years of reform in France (e.g., the affair of the Placards, 1534) is wonderful, and his portrait of Geneva is fascinating (Parts I and II of the book). But when it comes to Calvin's theology (Part III), he does a shockingly poor job.

In treating Calvin's theology, Cottret deals first, and at rather greater length, with Calvin's polemical works and sermons (chapters 12-13), and only then does he turn to a brief analysis of the Institutes (chapter 14). Cottret thus gives to an apparently random sampling of Calvin's occasional pieces (especially the treatise On Scandals, 1550) greater interpretive weight for Calvin as a theologian than to Calvin's life-work of systematic theology. This is absurd. What's worse, we get no real consideration of Calvin's theology as expressed in his commentaries. Does Cottret think that, because he is portraying `a historian's Calvin' (p. x), and not a theologian's, he can simply ignore this source? What's still worse, when Cottret does finally get to the Institutes, he totally arbitrarily, without explanation, and against the entire consensus of Calvin scholarship, selects as his basis of exposition the 1541 French edition as `the most significant version during the Reformer's lifetime' (p. 311)! Never mind that Calvin himself continued to refine this work through 1559-60, and that these final editions of the Institutes (not that of 1541) were the standards that fed subsequent Reformed theology.

When Cottret does speak of Calvin's theology from the Institutes (and elsewhere), he is surprisingly clumsy and extremely condescending. According to Cottret's Calvin, the Old Testament patriarchs have `a right to salvation' (p. 317). A right to it? Can anyone so grossly misunderstand Calvin's soteriology as to speak of human `rights' before God? (But perhaps this is just a very poor translation.) In Cottret's estimation, `"election," "faith," "vocation," and "conversion" are practically equivalent' in Calvin's theology (p. 322). Well, that just simplifies everything, doesn't it? Calvin, we are assured, was never fully convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity is exegetically warranted (308), and his disagreement with other Protestants over the nature of the Lord's Supper `was linguistic before it was theological' (340). Eh? Calvin's commentaries (look no further than that on the Prologue to John's Gospel) are by no means lacking in trinitarian confidence (or did Cottret check these?), and simply because Calvin debates the meaning of words does not make the debate a matter of linguistics. We learn that, in his entire teaching about predestination, Calvin was `not wise', but was `carried away by polemics and his authorial vanity'; moreover, he took a `malign pleasure' in this `system of death' (p. 322). `Poor Calvin, a victim of his system' (p. 323)! One may certainly disagree with Calvin's doctrine of predestination, but so to caricature both the doctrine itself and Calvin's intention in teaching it hardly counts as good history.

As a final example of Cottret's carelessness and doctrinal confusion, take his statement on p. 337: `Calvin's Christ is "at the same time the God who elected and the man who was elected."' Cottret footnotes here Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics II/2, p. 1 (in the French edition-no thanks to the translator). Apparently, Cottret thinks that, because Barth is classed as a Reformed theologian, what Barth says must be what Calvin said. In fact, Barth chastises Calvin on precisely this point, that Calvin saw Christ as the prototype of elected man, but did not see the implications of the fact that Christ is also the electing God (see, for example, pp. 110-11 in the English edition of Barth's Church Dogmatics II/2). If Cottret had perhaps read Barth's preface, he might have caught the following hint: "I would have preferred to follow Calvin's doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of departing from it so radically" (p. x). So not only does Cottret think he can make statements about Calvin's theology with no reference whatsoever to Calvin himself. He also thinks he can glance over a few pages of a recent work of `Reformed' theology and assume he's getting pure Calvin. This is inexcusable negligence.

 
"Poor Calvin, a victim of his system" (?!)  Jun 8, 2004
Yes, Cottret does give an abundance of interesting historical and biographical detail, his description of the early years of reform in France (e.g., the affair of the Placards, 1534) is wonderful, and his portrait of Geneva is fascinating (Parts I and II of the book). But when it comes to Calvin's theology (Part III), he does a shockingly poor job.

In treating Calvin's theology, Cottret deals first, and at rather greater length, with Calvin's polemical works and sermons (chapters 12-13), and only then does he turn to a brief analysis of the Institutes (chapter 14). Cottret thus gives to an apparently random sampling of Calvin's occasional pieces (especially the treatise On Scandals, 1550) greater interpretive weight for Calvin as a theologian than to Calvin's life-work of systematic theology. This is absurd. What's worse, we get no real consideration of Calvin's theology as expressed in his commentaries. Does Cottret think that, because he is portraying 'a historian's Calvin' (p. x), and not a theologian's, he can simply ignore this source? What's still worse, when Cottret does finally get to the Institutes, he totally arbitrarily, without explanation, and against the entire consensus of Calvin scholarship, selects as his basis of exposition the 1541 French edition as 'the most significant version during the Reformer's lifetime' (p. 311)! Never mind that Calvin himself continued to refine this work through 1559-60, and that these final editions of the Institutes (not that of 1541) were the standards that fed subsequent Reformed theology.

When Cottret does speak of Calvin's theology from the Institutes (and elsewhere), he is surprisingly clumsy and extremely condescending. According to Cottret's Calvin, the Old Testament patriarchs have 'a right to salvation' (p. 317). A right to it? Can anyone so grossly misunderstand Calvin's soteriology as to speak of human 'rights' before God? (But perhaps this is just a very poor translation.) In Cottret's estimation, '"election," "faith," "vocation," and "conversion" are practically equivalent' in Calvin's theology (p. 322). Well, that just simplifies everything, doesn't it? Calvin, we are assured, was never fully convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity is exegetically warranted (308), and his disagreement with other Protestants over the nature of the Lord's Supper 'was linguistic before it was theological' (340). Eh? Calvin's commentaries (look no further than that on the Prologue to John's Gospel) are by no means lacking in trinitarian confidence (or did Cottret check these?), and simply because Calvin debates the meaning of words does not make the debate a matter of linguistics. We learn that, in his entire teaching about predestination, Calvin was 'not wise', but was 'carried away by polemics and his authorial vanity'; moreover, he took a 'malign pleasure' in this 'system of death' (p. 322). 'Poor Calvin, a victim of his system' (p. 323)! One may certainly disagree with Calvin's doctrine of predestination, but so to caricature both the doctrine itself and Calvin's intention in teaching it hardly counts as good history.

As a final example of Cottret's carelessness and doctrinal confusion, take his statement on p. 337: 'Calvin's Christ is "at the same time the God who elected and the man who was elected."' Cottret footnotes here Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics II/2, p. 1 (in the French edition -- no thanks to the translator). Apparently, Cottret thinks that, because Barth is classed as a Reformed theologian, what Barth says must be what Calvin said. In fact, Barth chastises Calvin on precisely this point, that Calvin saw Christ as the prototype of elected man, but did not see the implications of the fact that Christ is also the electing God (see, for example, pp. 110-11 in the English edition of Barth's Church Dogmatics II/2). If Cottret had perhaps read Barth's preface, he might have caught the following hint: "I would have preferred to follow Calvin's doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of departing from it so radically" (p. x). So not only does Cottret think he can make statements about Calvin's theology with no reference whatsoever to Calvin himself. He also thinks he can glance over a few pages of a recent work of 'Reformed' theology and assume he's getting pure Calvin. This is inexcusable negligence.

 

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