John Calvin in Context

Ward Holder, ed. John Calvin in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. xxiv + 494 pages. $110, cloth.

The late David C. Steinmetz was my external dissertation reader and the supervisor of my supervisor, Richard A. Muller. Steinmetz, himself a student of Heiko A. Oberman, emphasized understanding historical figures in their various contexts, especially the context of the history of exegesis and theology, but also in their broader socio-political contexts. This collection of forty-eight essays attempts to sketch out that broader context and to facilitate the study of the reformations in early modern Europe in a way that is firmly rooted in history, in the full sense of the term, and not merely intellectual or even theological history. In envisioning this project and in bringing so many recognized experts to fulfill it, Ward Holder deserves our gratitude. No such resource existed when I was writing my dissertation at the end of the 1990s. There were numerous studies of Calvin’s life and thought, but few compendious resources on his world. Thanks to Holder and this impressive collection of scholars, that is now the case. As Holder describes the project, “Instead of a chapter on Calvin’s literary output,” for example, “there is a chapter on the printed word in the early modern world” (3).

Ironically, however, the author of that particular chapter seems to have missed the memo, as this entry is narrowly focused on Calvin’s literary output and influence. Moreover, this senior scholar misidentifies “the definitive edition” of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion as that of 1563, which was not a distinct edition at all, but merely a reprint. The definitive Latin edition appeared in 1559, with Calvin’s own French translation following in 1560, as every scholar of Calvin should know. This author proceeds to compare Theodore Beza’s book sales unfavorably to those of Calvin, and then to characterize William Perkins as an “interpreter” of Calvin—precisely the kind of fixation on one exceptional man’s influence that Steinmetz’s method sought to avoid.

Happily, nearly all the contributors did read and understand the memo, with truly remarkable results. Holder has divided the project into six sections that cover a considerable range. In the first part, “France and its Influence,” we find a succinct life of Calvin the Frenchman by Sujin Pak, in addition to chapters on French university education, religious life, religious politics, and the French Wars of Religion. Of particular interest and value is Olivier Millet’s contribution on French humanism. Millet’s massive study of Calvin’s rhetoric is currently only available in French, but this entry is a considerable help for students seeking to understand Calvin’s language and style.

The second part moves geographically to “Switzerland, Southern Germany, and Geneva.” Bruce Gordon helps us understand the complex political entity that was the Swiss Confederation and Geneva’s tenuous position in relation to it. Jill Fehleison paints a portrait of daily life in Geneva. We learn about the important free imperial city of Strasbourg, and about Geneva’s decision to support the reformation. William Naphy unfolds the system of government in Geneva, and Karin Maag details the development of education in the city and the formation of the Academy. We gain insight into the consistory from Jeffrey Watt, who reminds us of Robert Kingdon’s observation that the institution “resembled more a type of mandatory counseling service than a tribunal” (106). From Elsie McKee we learn how the offices of pastor and the diaconate functioned in early modern Europe.

The third section encompasses “Empire and Society.” Here we encounter a broad range of subjects, including the politics of that complicated entity, the Holy Roman Empire, which not only failed to unify the church but was also unsuccessful in eliminating Protestantism. In David H. Price’s chapter, the entrenched anti-Semitism of the era comes into ugly relief. Not only does Price recount Luther’s anti-Jewish tendencies, but he also dispels the myth that Calvin loved the Jews of his day. Price notes Calvin’s nearly unknown and posthumously published (1575) work that Calvin wrote in response to a rabbi and in which Calvin describes Jews as a “profane people, indeed, filthy dogs” (146). The rise of Christian Hebraism did not signal a corresponding rise in respect for Jewish persons. Also in this section, in addition to the important topic of refugees, we learn about Calvin’s complex relationship to women and the fact that while the Reformation opened up possibilities for women, it just as quickly slammed that door shut. Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt paints a picture in which Calvin seems to appreciate the support of women only in proportion to their political power and influence.

The fourth section, on “The Religious Question,” is packed with expertise. Among the fifteen chapters in this section, the ever-provocative Brad S. Gregory considers the western ideals of religious reform. David Whitford provides a concise review of Luther’s reforms. Karen Spierling reveals the importance of baptism for both those who accepted and rejected the protestant enterprise. Amy Nelson Burnett surveys the wildly diverse views of the Eucharist in early modern western Christendom, one of the most crucial and intractable subjects. Jon Balserak provides a masterful review of early modern biblical interpretation. Kenneth Woo helps us understand Calvin’s controversial reaction to the Nicodemites and the mysterious identity of the Libertines. Kathleen Comerford elucidates the significance of the Council of Trent and the Augsburg Interim. In one of the most outstanding chapters of the collection, Carlos M.N. Eire demonstrates the significance of images in the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s religious system and its power and control over people, and thus also the grave threat that protestant anti-idolatry posed to that system. Essays in this section also contextualize the charge of heresy and its punishment, demonstrate the lack of originality in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, and help us understand the function of early modern polemics.

Under “Calvin’s Influences” we meet individuals and movements that shaped Calvin’s thought. Martin Luther himself read with approval a work by Calvin, likely his 1539 reply to Cardinal Sadoleto. Here we meet Melanchthon. We are apprised of Calvin’s relationship to other Swiss reformers and colleagues. We encounter his enemies, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics, as well as individual antagonists like Jerome Bolsec and Sebastien Castellio. Here, a chapter on the Anabaptists disappoints, failing to explore the crucial question of why this movement was considered such a threat to protestant and Roman Catholic alike.

In the sixth and final section, the collection turns to the reception of Calvin’s thought. Contributors consider the appropriation of Calvin’s thought internationally, including in the Netherlands, in England and Scotland, and in Asia. Jennifer Powell McNutt takes up Calvin as an object of veneration or, alternatively, demonization, while Keith Stanglin surveys Calvin’s reception in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Bruce Gordon returns to consider Calvin’s reception in the twentieth century to the present.

The project is ambitious but almost entirely successful. Holder has assembled the best scholars in the field and has provided students a resource of which there has never been the like—a guide to Calvin’s world, and not merely to an isolated and idealized Calvin.

Raymond A. Blacketer, PhD
Independent Scholar at Blackadder Research, Inc.