John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait    -     By: William Bouwsma
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John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait

Oxford University Press / 1988 / Paperback

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Product Description

(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.

Product Information

Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 320
Vendor: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1988
Dimensions: 6 X 9 X 1 (inches)
ISBN: 0195059514
ISBN-13: 9780195059519
Availability: Usually ships in 24-48 hours.

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Publisher's 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. John Calvin offers a brilliant reassessment not only of Calvin but also of the Reformation and its relationship to the movements of the Renaissance.

Author Bio


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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  1. 1 Stars Out Of 5
    Author's writings seem biased and Calvin-hating
    April 25, 2012
    jackiekaulitz
    Quality: 1
    Value: 1
    Meets Expectations: 1
    I got this book from the library and was thrilled to find a book on the life of John Calvin. Naturally, I assumed a Calvinist had written it and so I came to this book expecting great things. I was shocked by the outright hostility this author seemed to have towards John Calvin. This is not an unbiased work. I was shocked that any Calvinist would write such slanderous words, so I googled the author. He is a historian but no mention is made as to his being Christian at all. Well, that might explain his hostility towards John Calvin and his lack of understanding of God's things. To me, this book is like the critical writings on "the historical Jesus" and this book should be renamed "the search for the historical John Calvin" because it seems as slanted and biased as the books claiming to search for Jesus Christ.

    In the Introduction:

    - Bouwsma writes that no one has written a good book on John Calvin and the best book is "marginal at best"

    - In Calvin is "demonstrated our very human tendancy to invent the fathers we need" (Wow. That's a claim. Sure authors tend to focus on only the positive or perhaps exaggerate but to "invent" makes it seem like much the writings on Calvin may be "lies or fictional")

    - Bouwsma is attempting to show Calvin "with all of his characteristically 16th-century ambiguities, hesitations and contraditions - in a word, his finiteness and humanity" (Calvin was just a man and so limited in his humanness and certainly not infallible, but this author seems to take this seeking to demonstrate "the historical Calvin" like philosophers who seek to find "the historical Jesus". They are biased and hostile towards their subject, attempting to tear it down or apart.)

    - Bouwsma believed that "except for showing increasingly the abrasions wrought by troubles and time, Calvin made little advance over the years in those matters that troubled him the most. Unlike Saint Augstine, whose life, both outwardly and inwardly, was a genuine pilgrimage, so that to understand what he wrote one must, so to speak, catch him on the wing, Calvin was still wrestling as inconclusively with the same inner demons at the end of his life as when he first arrived in Geneva." (Little advance? I would consider a human's conversion from unsaved to saved a huge advance in itself. Also, Calvin is famous for his focus on living for God's glory, so this is a major advance in most Christian thought. If Bouwsma is referring to Calvin viewing himself as a "wretch of a human unworthy of God's mercy", then this is true and this applies to all us humans. This statement "little advance" seems so negative and biased to me. It's like saying "John Calvin wasted his life. He wrote some good philosophy but he never really changed and God never helped him with his struggles or taught him much")

    Chapter 1:

    - Bouwsma wrote, "I call this book a portrait rather than a biography because I think Calvin developed little in what mattered most to him between his break with the Catholic church and his death 30 years later. His inner life showed few signs of progress "which he associated with godliness; he was still wrestling at the end of his life with the self-doubt, confusions, and contradictory impulses that had been with him from the beginning." (Again to claim "Calvin developed little" seems slanderous to me. All Christians encounter times or periods of self-doubt and times where they doubt their salvation because of their own wretchedness and sinfulness. This is a natural and humble attitude and not to be considered "an undeveloped life." What confusions and contradictions? If Bouwsma is writing about certain topics like "Why do bad things happen to good people" then God DID teach Calvin answers to these questions. God did teach Calvin answers to predestination, election, etc. God did teach Calvin many ideas that cleared up contradictions and confusions - probably more so than almost any other Christian since Jesus and the apostles. What areas is this author claiming were not developed or learned? Of course Calvin did not learn everything but he learned and "developed a lot" compared to all other Christian authors.)

    - Bouwsma writes that because of Calvin's "self-doubt, confusions and contradictions" that he went from being "about thirty, his face, handsome, sensitive, and fastidious" to "worn and wrinkled, and the clear eyes of his youth are glazed with fatigue and revulsion." (Who in their 50s does look a little "worn and wrinkled"? And considering his persecution, stress, work schedule, loss of wife, fighting for the truth, who would expect him to look any differently? Do we really expect the apostle Paul to look any different? Paul would look even worse because he went through imprisonments and beatings. It seems low, biased and false to me for Bouwsma to draw such a conclusion that "Calvin looked ragged because he struggled with doubt")

    - Pg 10-11, Bouwsma dismisses what is historically considered to be Calvin's spiritual conversion story (which is found in Calvin's preface to his commentary on the Psalms) as not a spiritual conversion but a change in his interest in studying law to studying philosophy. Bouwsma writes, "the passage seems almost useless as evidence for what is commonly taken to be demonstrative." "The evidence for a "conversion" corresponding to this model in Calvin's life is negligible." "By "conversion" Calvin meant only a shift and quickening of his interests." "All we can be sure of, from this account, is that much later in his life, Calvin believed that at this time he became more open - "teachable"." "The most balanced discussion of this subject is Ganoczy's book Jeune Calvin. Ganoczy views Calvin's conversion not as a discrete event but as a process, perhaps never completed." (Is Bouwsma claiming Calvin may not have been saved when he restates Ganoczy's belief that Calvin's "conversion was never completed"? And how can he claim Ganoczy has "the most balanced" view of Calvin's conversion if in fact he is claiming Calvin wasn't converted?)

    The author seemed to have one seemingly correct view: Calvin did not seem to have a close relationship with his father.

    I could not read more of this book.
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