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Calvin: A Biography, by Bernard Cottret. Tr. M. Wallace McDonald. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000. Pp. xv + 376. $28 (cloth). [Reviewed by the editor.]

From a French historian who is neither a theologian nor a Calvinist, we have a new biography of John Calvin that is outstanding. It gives insight into the man John Calvin without resorting to miserable psychologizing. “Thin as a lath,” writes Cottret of Calvin, contrasting him with his fat foe, Perrin, “(he) said only what he knew, and detested bluster.” It traces Calvin’s life and development. It takes up all of Calvin’s controversies with the heretics, as well as all of the important church-struggles in Geneva. The issues in these controversies and struggles are described fairly. The gifted writer does justice to the pressures and tensions for Calvin in these conflicts. And the third main section of the book, headed “Beliefs,” consists of brilliant analysis of Calvin the polemicist, Calvin the preacher, Calvin’s Institutes, and Calvin the French writer.

The book is the product of fresh study of the sources. The result is new light on aspects of Calvin’s life and work. The French Reformed synod that met in Paris in 1559 to draw up a confession of faith replaced Calvin’s proposed first article on “The Word of God” with five articles of their own. Calvin’s proposed article concluded with the words, “it is God who speaks.” Rightly, Cottret observes, “this is undoubtedly the most perfect summary of Calvin’s theology: God speaks, God chooses, God summons.” Cottret adds: “But this message, by its audacity, escaped his contemporaries.”

To the Reformed in France who were about to hold a conference with the Roman Catholics, Calvin sent advice instructing them that the main issues were, first, the regulative principle of worship and, second, justification by faith alone.

As regards the bitter struggles in Geneva, when Berthelier was rebuked by the authorities for disrupting Calvin’s sermons by coughing violently, he responded, “Calvin doesn’t want us to cough? We’ll fart and belch.” An opponent of Calvin’s teaching on predestination, carrying on the opposition of Jerome Bolsec, blasphemed predestination with a shockingly foul adjective. Cottret’s account of Calvin’s encounter with the infamous Servetus is fascinating. The account of the Reformer’s encounter with Idelette de Bure—Calvin’s wife—is ironic: “connubial bliss.”

Although Cottret himself is plainly no Calvinist, his analysis of Calvin’s doctrine is correct, as the analysis by many who claim to be Calvinists is not. Cottret understands, though he does not agree, that “the Calvinist doctrine, in its implacable character (sic), promises salvation without conditions; it does not depend on any works, on any will, on any contrition, on any repentance.” There is hardly a Calvinist theologian in the world today who shares this understanding of Calvinist doctrine.

Cottret also recognizes, though he doubts Calvin’s wisdom for doing so, that Calvin himself “gave an increasing emphasis to predestination in his work,” so that “it is right to ask whether Calvinism is not simply predestination.” Today, the theologians hate or fear predestination with all the intensity of Calvin’s anti-predestinarian enemies, all the while advertising themselves as Calvinists. Probably, they suppose that they are.

Besides all this, the style of the author, which the translator, M. Wallace McDonald, has managed to keep, is lively and vivid. An example, which will add to our knowledge of Calvin the man:

He hardly had a body. Sleeping little, eating similarly, prey to violent headaches, Calvin did not hesitate to dictate certain of his works while lying in bed at the end of a life of austere labor. The clarity of his style and the transparency of his thought found their origin in this asceticism, crowned by a proverbial chastity. Fasting was neither mortification nor weakness for Calvin; instead, it was the result of a disgust for food, or rather a way of protecting his sickly body. He was a meditator certainly, but nevertheless not a contemplative; a dreamer, and also an often inflexible man of action, sometimes even frantically so, from fear of yielding to weakness, to the secret “softness” and “mildness” that his adversaries hardly suspected. His slender, almost elegant body housed a will of iron….