Calvin by Bruce Gordon - review by Edward Norman

Edward Norman

Not So Harsh



Yale University Press 448pp £25

To the extent that ‘Calvinism’ means anything at all to the modern mind, it evokes images of Puritan witch-hunts in New England, or, perhaps, memories of stifling restrictions on leisure in a formerly Sabbatarian Scotland. In some ways it has been Calvin’s own latter-day enthusiasts who have prepared the way for this. It is, as Bruce Gordon points out in his biography of Calvin, the Reformation Memorial in Geneva that casts him ‘to look like some forgotten figure of Middle Earth’. There were times when Calvin’s judgements on the citizens of Geneva were not visited with grace or mercy: in 1549 he likened them ‘to dogs chasing bitches in heat’. But Gordon’s study is generous to his subject, while at the same time placing before the reader a man who is described gallstones and all – literally, since he died of a blood infection induced by them.

This is a considered book, balanced and fair, and very informative, written in an accessible manner that is still able to convey with lucidity some of the niceties and evident obscurantism of Calvin’s theological distinctions. There are occasional demotic lapses (was it really necessary to say that Calvin

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