Calvin: A Biography by Bernard Cottret

Calvin: A Biography by Bernard Cottret (Edinburgh: T&T Clark / Continuum, 2000).

This is an English translation of Cottret’s 1995 biography of John Calvin, translated by M. Wallace McDonald.  It is a book of three parts, focusing in turn on the “Youth of a Reformer”, “Organization and Resistance” and finally, “Beliefs”.  The first two parts are arranged chronologically (1509-1536 and 1536-1564), while the second looks at Calvin as a polemicist, preacher, and French writer, as well as examining his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Given the more historical (rather than theological) interest of the book, Cottret’s examination of the Institutes focuses on the 1541 edition as the one more significant during Calvin’s own lifetime, rather than the definitive edition of 1559.  This is an interesting departure from the approach of François Wendel in his similarly organized Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (ET, 1963), although Cottret’s chapter can hardly rival Wendel’s more lengthy treatment.

The book is well written throughout, if a little flowery at times in true French style.  This sentence from page 282 well illustrates my point: “The repugnance the Reformer admitted regarding the viscosity of the holy oil the Roman Church used periodically, what was it in the end but a gigantic disdain for the physical forms of a carnal religion, accused of giving way to the giddiness produced by morbidity and self-indulgence?”  In places it reads like a translation, and since the vast majority of the footnotes contain references to works in French, the reader is always aware of the fact that the book was not originally written in English.  It is a shame that even where English translations of the works cited in the footnotes are available, the bibliographical details have not been altered accordingly, but this is a small point.  The author is, after all, a Frenchman with a particular interest in Calvin as a Frenchman.  Another small point concerns the rather otiose Appendices on “The University System in France” and “The Small Council” which contain information of some minor interest which could perhaps have been better placed in the footnotes earlier on in the book.

Cottret clearly admires Calvin without being too sympathetic to his theology.  At times Calvin is judged too much by the mores of the Twentieth century rather than those of the Sixteenth especially, I felt, where the trial of Servetus is concerned.  Yet the author is consciously attempting to present “a layman’s Calvin… without the glossy embellishments of forced sanctity or false devotion” (page x).  There are some interesting speculations on the motives for Calvin’s opposition to the Anabaptists, as well as some humorous reflections on his search for a wife: Cottret has us picture Calvin placing a Classified advert: “Preacher of the gospel seeks chaste woman for caregiving, and possibly more.  Only serious woman wanted” (page 140)!  This is not the place to go for a first introduction to the life of the Reformer, but if one has already dipped into Beza, Wendel, Parker, and McGrath, then Cottret might be the next place to go for a different perspective.

This review was first published in Churchman 115/2 (2001).

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