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John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait [Paperback]

By William James Bouwsma (Author)
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Item description for John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait by William James Bouwsma...

(PUBOxford)Bouwsma has given us a biography that is different from most of its predecessors. here we meet a vulnerable, anxious Calvin; Calvin the Renaissance man; Calvin the evangelical apologist and systematizer. Bouwsma discovers themes and discontinuities never fully exposed before. ''Will require at least a decade to sort through Bouwsma's findings,''---Times Literary Supplement. 310 pages, paper.

Publishers Description
Historians have credited--or blamed--Calvinism for many developments in the modern world, including capitalism, modern science, secularization, democracy, individualism, and unitarianism. These same historians, however, have largely ignored John Calvin the man. When people consider him at all, they tend to view him as little more than the joyless tyrant of Geneva who created an abstract theology as forbidding as himself.
This volume, written by the eminent historian William J. Bouwsma, who has devoted his career to exploring the larger patterns of early modern European history, seeks to redress these common misconceptions of Calvin by placing him back in the proper historical context of his time.
Eloquently depicting Calvin's life as a French exile, a humanist in the tradition of Erasmus, and a man unusually sensitive to the complexities and contradictions of later Renaissance culture, Bouwsma reveals a surprisingly human, plausible, ecumenical, and often sympathetic Calvin. JohnCalvin offers a brilliant reassessment not only of Calvin but also of the Reformation and its relationship to the movements of the Renaissance.

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Oxford University Press, USA
Pages   320
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.34" Width: 6.14" Height: 0.86"
Weight:   1.1 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Mar 17, 1989
Publisher   Oxford University Press
ISBN  0195059514  
ISBN13  9780195059519  

Availability  119 units.
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More About William James Bouwsma

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William J. Bouwsma is Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of the highly-acclaimed Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter-Reformation.

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1Books > Subjects > Arts & Photography > Art > Art History > Schools, Periods & Styles > Renaissance
2Books > Subjects > Biographies & Memoirs > General
3Books > Subjects > Biographies & Memoirs > Leaders & Notable People > Religious
4Books > Subjects > History > World > Renaissance
5Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > General > Contemporary
6Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Anthologies
7Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Church History > Protestant
8Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Religious Studies > History

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Reviews - What do customers think about John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait?

A nice collection of Calvin quotes, but that's all  Oct 17, 2005
This book is organized into chapter topics such as Cosmic inheritances, Being, Knowing, Society, Polity and so on. The value of the book is the extensive quotations he has assembled from Calvin on each of the chapter topics. In that sense, the book functions almost as an index of Calvin's thought, and it's valuable for scholars looking for quotations from Calvin on specific topics.

The title advertises the book as a biography, but it's not. Bouwsma states that the biographical facts of Calvin's life have been covered elsewhere, and he does not plan to revisit that ground. So we have a biography of Calvin which assumes that you have already read his biography elsewhere! Much of what Bouwsma argues doesn't make much sense without knowledge of Calvin's life and time. Dividing Calvin into arbitrary and abstract topic areas fragments his thought unnecessarily, distorting his life and thought.

Bouwsma sets up a strawman to his position, that Calvin's debt to Renaissance humanism has been ignored. This is not true at all. In fact, Calvin's debt to humanism is virtually a truism of Calvin scholarship. Unfortunately, Bouwsma's approach here is typical of post-modern revisionary historical scholarship.

Bouwsma's interpretation of Calvin is deeply problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, he portrays Calvin's thought as essentially a reaction to the uncertain times in which he lived, and to Calvin's own anxieties and fears. Calvin emerges here as depressed, anxious, and neurotic. That's a very one-sided view, and there's just not enough evidence to support that claim. It seems very reductive to interpret Calvin's theology as just an expression of his personal insecurities. What's missing here is any kind of larger historical perspective that can explore and appreciate the constructive dimension to his thought. Calvin is a hugely influential thinker who contributed to the development of modernity, but to read Bouwsma, one might think Calvin was merely an obscure pastor obsessed with his own anxieties.
Calvin's Psycology and his Major Themes  Oct 3, 2003
It is important before committing to this text that one recognizes the author's distinction between a biography and a portrait. If you are looking for a narrative biography (or even a summary of Calvin's teachings) I would look somewhere else. In either of those categories I would have given this 2 or 3 stars. But this Bouswama's work is not intended to be either of these. It would almost be best described as a reflection on Calvin's psychology as expressed in his major themes. The themes chosen are not those that I would have. However, I would estimate that nearly a quarter of this text is composed of direct Calvin quotes, and the author displays a fairly high level of rigor and competence with respect to Calvin's body of work. There were times that I was unhappy with inferences made from some of the reformers statements and tracking some quotes to the source left myself and others I have talked to wondering about the consistency of the author's fidelity to context. However, on the whole it is a helpful text that provides a non-traditional (but not necessarily negative) view of John Calvin. I would not recommend it as an introduction, but it is an interesting analysis for advanced study.
Calvin and the Sixteenth Century  Sep 18, 2003
William J. Bouwsma considers John Calvin the least known and most misunderstood of all the great figures of the sixteenth-century. Bouwsma's unique attempt to elucidate John Calvin for a contemporary thinker is contextually driven and methodologically persistent. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait aims to read, understand, and interpret Calvin within his sixteenth-century setting.
In order to give the reader a clear picture of Calvin and through him the mood of his generation, Bouwsma begins with Calvin's anxiety. This aspect of Calvin's life gives the contemporary reader, in Bouwsma's opinion, the opportunity to get a glimpse of an anxiety-filled age. This approach allows Bouwsma, at least in theory, to understand Calvin even better than Calvin understood himself. Taken together, the external influences and internal struggles show Calvin as a man who saw himself in a world on the edge of a great calamity, even divine judgment.
This aspect of Calvin and his society is the point of departure for Bouwsma's major thesis: humanism is the umbilical cord between the "labyrinth" and the "abyss" in Calvin's thought. Bouwsma uses "labyrinth" to denote the safe, yet problematic philosophical worldview the Europeans inherited from the Hellenistic and Hebraic cultures. While these two worldviews were woven together with relative ease in antiquity, the Renaissance would unravel and lay bare the problem. Bouwsma believes Calvin has but a glimpse of this and knows that his sixteenth-century context is a labyrinth of dangers, but still safer than the "abyss" of doubt.
Bouwsma asserts that as Calvin tried to alleviate his anxieties he clung to certain assumptions inherent in the labyrinth. The issues brought forth by the labyrinth include the cosmological inheritances such as an intelligible universe, a cyclical view of time, and the imago dei. In addition to this view, Calvin continually strove for order through moderation, control, and high moralism. Finally, Calvin's "cultural baggage" in Geneva was his strict adherence to rational religion (i.e., the mind rules the other human faculties and is capable of grasping reality). Ultimately Calvin was unable find solace in the complexities of his inherited philosophical culture and sought an opening.
The opening for Calvin was Humanism. Here, Calvin found a way to hold to the eruditio while pursuing persuasio. The task of the preacher is not just to explicate the scriptures; it is also to move the listener to action. Humanistic rhetoric allowed Calvin to do this in a manner he found comfortable.
In a strange semantic twist Bouwsma's opening for Calvin finds its way into the "abyss" where a rhetorical culture had presuppositions about the human condition, the possibilities of knowledge, human experience of the world, and the organization of life. Bouwsma now uses "abyss" in a manner which left Calvin on the edge of an ambiguous unknown. What is human? What capacity do humans have for knowledge of God? What is God? What is the human role in the drama? Bouwsma treats these questions and more as he moves Calvin through the abyss.
Bouwsma concludes by looking at Calvin's programs as they appear in society, polity, and the church. Calvin's moderation is evident in his social thought and the power of God places the government in a subordinate position to the church. Bouwsma is aware that those fans of Calvin at either extreme might not be pleased with his account, yet he is quick to point out the complexities in Calvin that are often overlooked by both margins.
Bouwsma succeeds in offering a unique contribution to the corpus of Calvin scholarship. He takes a serious look at Calvin in his historical context while looking at Calvin's historical context through Calvin's eyes. This is achieved by extensive referencing of primary sources and pertinent secondary sources. Bouwsma weaves the abundance of quotations together in a surprisingly readable manner.
In light of widespread confusion and misunderstanding over Calvin and his thought, this book offers a "man behind the myth" picture of John Calvin. A related issue stems from the church audience to which Calvin continues to speak. Bouwsma's intended audience is of secondary importance here. The first section, "Quest for the Historical Calvin," is instrumental as a contextual compass. While this book is not intended for a small-group discussion or as a devotional aid, it is accessible to the average reader, thanks in large to the first fifty pages.
Two words of caution must be added to this review. Bouwsma does an outstanding job of giving a close-up of Calvin and a panoramic of the society, but does he get a glimpse of the local, the towns? What about Geneva and Strasbourg? Bouwsma inadequately treats the immediate physical setting and its relationship to Calvin's thought. He makes use of the events in Geneva and Strasbourg only in passing. It is clear that Calvin was influenced by the world at large. It also follows that he must have been greatly influenced by the events on his doorstep. Bouwsma only uses these events with reference to Calvin's continued struggle in feeling overwhelmed with work and frustration with the local polity. The additional information in this area would strengthen the book as a whole and portray a more accurate scene of Calvin in his context.
Second, at times Bouwsma's attempt to get a portrait of the sixteenth-century from Calvin's perspective paints an inaccurate picture of the relationship between the two. For example, Bouwsma uses "drama" as a window that the modern reader can see into Calvin and out toward the world. The weakness is that Calvin's relationship to drama was only an ostensible one. Drama, then, is a tool to introduce the role of the believer in Calvin's thought and then becomes a symbolic shape as the drama is "played out." If one is not careful he or she will miss the portrait for the background.
These two criticisms aside, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait is a great tool for any study of Calvin. One would do well to own it and use it.
A solid and insightful academic biography  Jan 12, 2003
This is one of the finest academic historical biographies to have appeared in the past couple of decades, and will provide nearly anyone with an insightful and in depth introduction to one of the most important figures of the early modern age. It must be stressed, however, that Bouwsma will not please everyone. He is a professional historian, and not a theologian nor an apologist. Many hardcore Calvinists might not enjoy the style with which he deals with his subject matter or his theologically neutral stance in discussing Calvin's work and thought. But most students of theology and all students of history will discover in this a study of Calvin that not only discusses his thought, but relates it to the particular period of history in which it was produced. Too many Calvinist treatments of Calvin discuss him in almost ahistorical fashion, as if his thought were developed in a vacuum. As Bouwsma demonstrates, however, the was very much the product of the Late Renaissance as much as he was the Reformation.

One review below states that Bouwsma claims Calvin was a pagan. This is an important misunderstanding, the correction of which will take us to the heart of Bouwsma's central argument. Absolutely nowhere does Bouwsma assert that Calvin was a pagan, but his central argument in the book is that Calvin was deeply entrenched in renaissance humanism. The humanists went back to the pagan writers of Greece and Rome as literary models as well as alternative sources of inspiration to medieval Catholicism. As Bouwsma quite correctly points out, humanism was in no way antithetical to Protestantism. Calvin was absolutely not a pagan, nor does Bouwsma make that claim, but he did study the pagans such as Cicero and Quintillian, and modeled his writing style on them.

Many biographers delight in the smashing of myths of their subjects. While Bouwsma might not please hardcore Calvinists, in that he isn't deferential or assuming that Calvin articulated truths nearly as authoritative as those of the New Testament, he also does not try in any sense to defame or criticize Calvin. On the contrary, he goes out of his way to debunk many of the negative myths concerning Calvin. What he does try to do is provide the most accurate portrait he can of a major figure of the 16th century, both his positive and negative traits, and situation him in his time and place. In this he succeeds marvelously. This volume could stand for some time as the premiere biography of one of the two most important figures in the history of Protestantism.

Disapointed.  Jun 5, 2001
I read the first several chapters of this book and found the author didn't have a grasp of the Calvin's basic theological teachings which plainly contradicted some of Bouwsma thoughts. I do not question his historical expertise, but i doubt very serriously that he knew John Calvin In his book he called Calvin a pagan and anybody who knows Calvin knows he was a man of God. He also took a passage from the Institutes that Calvin was addressing the Catholic church and applied it to Calvin to support his claim that Calvin was anxious. I tried three times to get something out of this book and failed all three times. I appreciate Calvin too much to keep this book in my library.Also I crossed referenced some of his notes he claimed he quoted Calvin from and found discrepricancies. If you want a secular oppion of who Calvin was not based on his Theological mindset, then read this book. Otherwise disreguard it.

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