#49—The unexpected life of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, with Bruce Gordon [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. When the Protestant Reformer John Calvin published his book Institutes of the Christian Religion in the 1500s, he couldn’t have anticipated ahead of time the incredibly different purposes his book would come to serve long after he died and was buried somewhere in an unmarked grave by his own request. The Institutes was a blockbuster in Calvin’s day, but why, hundreds of years later, did it wind up playing a part in debates about apartheid in South Africa? How did the exact same book managed to help some people justify racial discrimination on one hand, but also help others powerfully oppose it on the other?
Bruce Gordon is here to answer that question. He’s talking about his new biography of John Calvin’s Institutes. It’s the latest in Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series, and we’re glad to have him on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to mipodcast at byu.edu.
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HODGES: We’re speaking today with Bruce Gordon. He is the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. His books include a biography of Calvin and a book called The Swiss Reformation. But today we’re talking about his latest book—it’s a biography of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It’s part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series. Bruce, thanks so much for taking your time to come on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
BRUCE GORDON: It’s a great pleasure to be here.
HODGES: I wanted to set the stage with the state of religion at the time of John Calvin with the Reformation. Before we get to Calvin himself, let’s set the historical stage. So take us to the first decade of the 1500s when Calvin was born. What did Christianity look like at the time?
GORDON: I think one of the things that is misunderstood is that it’s often said that the late Middle Ages was a time of great decay, of decline of religion, of corruption—
HODGES: —It was the “Dark Ages,” right?
GORDON: It was the “Dark Ages,” exactly. But what Calvin would have found in the world of the early sixteenth century is a church that was extraordinarily diverse, and in some areas, extremely vital—we look at England, where parish churches were being built all over the place, there were great signs of life. In other places, such as Germany, there was decline. The picture was extremely diverse. But what you also would find is extraordinary levels of devotion. The churches were full of statues, full of worshippers, images, painted walls. So this idea that it was in decline is really quite hard to sustain.
Nevertheless, with the Reformation—which we associate with Martin Luther whose anniversary is being celebrated next June 2017—something extraordinary happened. Luther put his finger on a problem that many people were recognizing, that there was corruption within the church and that people were being asked, essentially, through the purchasing of indulgences, to pay for their salvation. And he struck a rich seam of anticlerical sentiment.
And the reaction of the Catholic Church against Luther which said “This obscure monk and professor at university has no right to raise these objections” stirred a lot of people into thinking that there was a serious problem with the church. Luther’s own role in this was absolutely crucial. He began to identify the church as being occupied by antichrist, thinking about Rome. His own position grew and grew as he articulated an idea of how the church should be reformed. And crucial to this, of course, was the printing press. Luther’s image was everywhere. His words spread. And people were persuaded that there was a problem.
So I would say that the role of the individual transformed what had been a fairly lively religious culture into something else. He had persuaded them that there was a serious problem and a serious mistake. So the Luther affair then attracted many other people who found, in going back to scripture, that many of the things he was saying were right—they were compelling. And so he found himself at the center of a great storm, which attracted many other leading figures, and a revolution started.
HODGES: With Luther, how much would you say he was a precipitator of Reformation ideas and how much was he more of a manifestation of what was already cooking?
GORDON: A little bit of both, but probably more of the first. He picks up on ideas that are already circulating in the late Middle Ages. People, of course, are reading scripture. They see what’s in Paul’s letter to the Romans about questions such as justification and grace. But Luther takes them to a new level. He really does, in his writings and in his preaching, give a new expression which is highly attractive and it takes all sorts of people back to scripture. So he is really at the front of this and really is the center of the storm.
HODGES: And you mentioned the printing press. So there’s a pretty robust body of literature that began to be published and circulating here. And the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which John Calvin wrote, people think of it as such a huge book today. It’s really had staying power. But it was actually just part of a wider stream of literature as the Reformation moved from sort of being a breakthrough and perhaps not even initially intended to be a breakaway from the Catholic Church, but it then became its own sort of establishment, which then had its own kind of schisms. How did the literature reflect those shifts and how did John Calvin’s book fit into that?
GORDON: We’re already in the 1520s. There are splits developing because Luther articulates a few of the sacraments, and one of the people who emerges just about at the same time who was originally highly influenced by Luther—a man named Ulrich Zwingli—takes a look, goes back to scripture just as Luther has said, “sola scriptura,” and he sees a very different teaching on the Lord’s Supper, on the sacrament.
So right in the 1520s there’s an extraordinary split. The so-called Anabaptists or radicals are seeing scripture in very different ways. The peasants who rebel in 1525 are saying, “Well we thought we were following Luther, we’re following from scripture,” and Luther says, “No! Absolutely not!” So the splits are right there in the 1520s.
When John Calvin emerges with his writing in 1536, he sees that as contributing to a wider body of literature. It’s not a standalone work. He hopes that it will contribute to the discussions of the emerging Protestant doctrine; also will address some of the wounds that have been exposed within the Protestant camp. So the Institutes, right from its beginning in the 1530s through to its final versions, was always part of a wider body of literature with which Calvin was in conversation with.
HODGES: So we’ve kind of seen the state of the church here. You mentioned the sale of indulgences and some of the issues that Reformation figures were objecting to. Theologically, some of the ideas that were circulating at that time—I’m thinking of the relationship between God and his creatures, the role of sin obscuring reality, and that sort of thing. Paint a little theological picture of what the Christian plan of salvation, so to speak, looked like at the time of the Reformation that would play into Calvin’s book.
GORDON: Well, Calvin saw himself as inheriting these great ideas that emerge in the 1520s—the so-called “sola,” or “only,” the scripture alone, the idea of justification by faith alone. The center of which is that it is not human merit that brings one to salvation, that God does not judge us according to our own achievements or worthiness. But what Luther articulates, of course following Augustine and a long tradition, is that salvation comes from the grace of God alone. That it is God who acts and that we respond in gratitude and in worship.
So this is the center of this and this is the message of scripture, and that scripture alone and not the institution of the church is the source of authority. So Luther and Calvin following him saw themselves as doing nothing other than interpreting the word of God, that there was no other source. So Calvin falls in this, which emerges in Luther’s great works of 1520.
Those are the central theological ideas from which will build teaching on the sacraments and teaching on the church, the teaching on the Christian life—those very full doctrines which will increasingly find expression in the subsequent editions of the Institutes.
HODGES: So let’s talk more about John Calvin, the person. There are a lot of views and stereotypes of him that you cover in the book, throughout the life of his book. These include things like being an interpreter of the Bible, an advocate of theocracy, or the father of democracy he is the murderer of a heretic, as a gloomy [laughs] precursor to the Puritans. Let’s talk about some of these stereotypes, where they come from and what they suggest.
GORDON: Well a lot of them [laughs] come from his contemporaries, many of whom disliked him intensely and named him as being this cold, distant, uncaring figure—In fact there’s a letter from Calvin in which he says, “This is how my opponents continually portray me. But I am a person who loved my wife, I am a person who grieved for the loss of my child.”
Calvin was in many ways an austere figure. He rose early in the morning, he worked extremely diligently. All day was devoted to the service of God. He had no sense of leisure as we would think of it now. Every moment of the day—including sleep—was to the glory of God. And he dedicated himself to this. And because of that he could be extremely demanding on those who were around him because he expected much the same of them.
But you know, he valued friendship very highly. His correspondence is full of concern for the families of others. He was a human being, but he found himself in an extraordinarily difficult position. Head of the Church in Geneva, which required enormous control and discernment. He was part of a wider international movement that he cared for greatly, the spread of what he saw as the word of God. He did not tolerate those who gave only half their efforts to the job. He demanded extremely high standards. And that resulted in an image of him being this austere bibliophile.
But to read his works—and I would recommend, for instance, his introduction to the book of Genesis—you see that for him the word of God, the Bible, was a source of great pleasure, that he saw in it extraordinary beauty. The Bible was not some rule book for him, but it was the word of God and it manifested the glory of God. And I think it’s difficult for us and for those who simply have access to his words to get a sense of how, for Calvin, there was this extraordinary sense of wonder.
So he was difficult. He saw himself in the light of the prophets of the Old Testament. He saw himself with a particular calling to Christ’s church. He was very demanding. But he was not humorless. He was known to enjoy a drink with his friends in friendship. He just was a complicated individual, but one who was dedicated to the service of God as he saw it.
HODGES: And in his dedication, one of the ways he wanted to spread that was by writing a book—
HODGES: —and the book we’re talking about is Institutes of the Christian Religion. So let’s talk a little bit about that—the factors that led him to write that book.
GORDON: Yes. Well he writes the book, in its first version in 1536, as a complete unknown. And he sees it as following from the work of Martin Luther; he adopts the structure of Luther’s catechism. The book receives an extraordinarily warm welcome. It brings Calvin to the notice of a large number of quite prominent individuals. But Calvin, himself, was not someone who was satisfied with his efforts. He continually strove to improve, to expand, because he saw the Institutes as reflecting his ongoing work of the study of the word, his service to the church.
So it would continue to grow as his ministry, as his studies expanded. But the book was moving towards what he wanted it to be, which was the sum of Christian doctrine, and he says in the 1559 edition that he at least has achieved a state where he could be satisfied that this is what he’s done. It was to be what we could call a summary of Christian doctrine in which the doctrine was laid out in an orderly way following the word of God and was comprehensible to readers.
HODGES: How about its relationship to the Bible? I mean Calvin was very dedicated to scripture. So how did he see writings like his book and Martin Luther in comparison with scripture, equal status, different status…
GORDON: Not equal status, because the word of God is the word of God and that is the Bible. What the Institutes was to serve was never to be a replacement for the word of God but was to be part of the interpretation of the word of God. It was to be an aid for both candidates for ministry, ministers in parishes, and also lay people, in its vernacular form to study the bible, but it was never meant to take them away from the Bible.
It’s important—you spoke earlier about a relationship between the Institutes and other forms of writing. The Institutes for Calvin was to be seen together with his biblical commentaries. They were to be read side by side. Because they did two related but separate things. The biblical commentaries followed line by line through scripture explaining to the reader what was unfolding. The Institutes had a different role. It was to outline what Calvin referred to as the “doctrine” of scripture. It was to teach what was the doctrine which is contained within scripture. So it pulled from scriptures the teachings of God. So they were to be read alongside one another, they did two distinct things, but both were to serve the individual in understanding the word. And never to replace the reading of the word itself.
HODGES: That seems to raise a question about authority because one of the things that Reformers were concerned about was that the church was adding these layers onto scripture. The Catholic Church had scripture, but it also always had this idea of the Tradition that the church took care of and that would be alongside and just as authoritative as scripture, right? So with the Reformers, they also didn’t find the Bible to necessarily be sufficient if they’re writing these commentaries on it. So although they had this belief in sola scriptura, yet they were creating their own body of tradition. Did they ever reflect on that paradox at all?
GORDON: Yes. Absolutely. And their critics reflected on that paradox, a great deal of critics who were within the Protestant world, many of them said “You are simply replacing the old orthodoxies here, that you are replacing the word of God with your own books of authoritative interpretation.” And Calvin was extremely sensitive—not just Calvin but the whole generation of Reformers were extremely sensitive to this criticism. And their position was that the theological works, as I said before, were not in any way to distract from the word of God, but served the interpretation of the word of God. And also were not simply new works, but stood in the tradition of the wisdom of the church—going back to Augustine and the fathers of the church—that they read that tradition, profitably drawing from it a great deal of learning. But always criticizing that learning in light of scripture. So they are secondary forms of literature which served to help the church interpret the word.
So that’s the position they held. But as I say their critics continually said “You are in many ways creating a new form of ecclesiastical authority.” What the Reformers wanted to say is, it’s not the Bible only but the Bible alone. You have this tradition of reading the Bible, which is informative, it’s the wisdom of the church. But one must always have a critical relationship to it. But it is there and it is to be honored, but it is always subordinate to the word itself.
HODGES: So it sounds like a lot of the critics then were coming from a Reform-minded perspective of being skeptical about the sort of additional authority that could be built up. How about within the Catholic Church? Did the church look upon these writings as subversive or contradictory to the tradition?
GORDON: Absolutely. And towards the end of his life, Calvin was viewed by the Catholic Church as the number one enemy, by the Council of Trent. It was no longer Luther. Calvin was seen as the most dangerous figure, not least of which because his Institutes was such a popular work and so widely distributed in Europe.
But, yes, their criticism was one that was slightly different. And there, they saw that you had placed theology outside of the church by emphasizing the interpretation of scripture by individuals. That what you created was a whole plethora of theological interpretations. So that when they looked at the Protestant world they’d say, “Well you people can’t even agree amongst yourselves about all things, which just shows what the danger is when you allow people to interpret the Bible without the authority of the church. So you’ve created chaos.”
And you have this one figure of Calvin who has great deal of influence but we see in other places, the Lutherans disagreeing with him. So how do you bring those together? “Well this is the world that Luther has brought upon us.”
HODGES: And in the book you talked about how he intended the Institutes to be for lay readers, not necessarily for clergy, but he wanted this to be an “all-access pass.”
GORDON: Yes, absolutely. That’s why he created it both in its French version—he wrote in French—but also in Latin. The Latin was primarily for students of theology, those who were preparing to become pastors and for those who are already pastors, and of course it was also to be read by theologians. But he put a great deal of effort into the vernacular versions, the French versions of the Institutes, which were not entirely the same. He took out a lot of the references that were in the Latin version to make it more user-friendly.
But very quickly in the sixteenth century the Institutes is translated it into English, its translated into Dutch, and to a range of other languages so that lay people can be reading this work as well. So the Institutes has multiple lives. It is a book instruction in theology and the life of the church. But it’s also a devotional work, helping lay people—women and men—to read the Bible with greater understanding.
HODGES: You talked about how the church came to see Calvin as an even bigger opponent than Martin Luther. This is something that you cover throughout the book, that there’s a very close relationship between Calvin the person and his book, and that these things get muddled throughout the history of the book’s life. Talk about that for a minute.
GORDON: Yes. I mean, often, when people are asked to name a book from the Reformation they will say “Calvin’s Institutes.” And then if you press again, you say, “Well what else did Calvin write?” they will say “The Institutes!” And he’s seen as a bit of a one book wonder. Well he’s not. He wrote a great number of works throughout his life and of course, he wrote voluminous biblical commentaries. But nevertheless, the Institutes has been the book which has defined his character. And it’s also—and this is one of the things that I tried to look at in the book—is that it shaped very much the way people understood Calvin. But at the same time, the way people read the Institutes was greatly molded by what they thought of Calvin himself. So there is this relationship between the individual and his book.
But for many decades and even centuries of them thinking primarily—and from the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century when Calvin was not widely read—the book was mentioned without people knowing much about it, but it was taken to represent the various, usually unpleasant, qualities that were associated with Calvin himself. And really what happens in the nineteenth century, when you start to get additions of the Institutes appearing again, is that people are seeing that the book itself has many different dimensions to it, and with the growth of biographies of Calvin in the nineteenth century, we’re seeing his life had many different dimensions to it. And the two were not exactly the same.
HODGES: That’s Bruce Gordon. He’s written a biography of Calvin called, appropriately enough, Calvin. He’s also an author of book called The Swiss Reformation. Today we’re talking about his new biography of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It’s part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.
So let’s move to the Institutes itself, Bruce, and talk about the first edition in 1536. It opens with the declaration that “the whole of sacred doctrine consists of two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves.” So the nature of knowledge seems to be a guiding theme in the Institutes, according to your book. And Calvin identifies a twofold knowledge. Let’s talk about that idea of knowledge that he frames the book with.
GORDON: I think it’s very important to think about what he means by “knowledge” because it’s not entirely how we would respond to it in the first instance. It’s not simply something you learn about or you hear about, but this knowledge that Calvin opens the Institutes with famously—the twofold form of knowledge—is related to what God has revealed to us, that our knowledge, our awareness—you can think of other terms—our sense, to use a word that Calvin likes very much, our sense of the divine has been revealed to us by God. And so the whole of the relationship between God and humanity is defined by this reaching out of the divine to us.
Now, that knowledge will take different forms because, in one way, it will go to all humanity. All have a sense of the divine. But that for Calvin it takes a special form in Christ, in that those who are, in Calvin’s language, “chosen” or “elect” will have a full knowledge of the divine.
HODGES: How did this play into his doctrine of predestination? Because if knowledge is something that’s given by God, then, this speaks to a pastoral question—
HODGES: —that seems to have driven the book: Why some believe and why some don’t.
GORDON: Well that is the great question and of course the source of tremendous controversy not only in Calvin’s day but ever since, it raged through the eighteenth and nineteenth century and into our own time. Why does Calvin speak of what comes to be known as “double predestination”—that God has not only chosen those who enter into paradise but those who are the reprobate. And there’s many different forms of criticism to this, but one in particular is that what Calvin does is make God the author of evil. And that’s something his sharpest critics in his own day said, that Calvin had created this tyrannical God, this God who, without any sense of rhyme or reason or justice, condemns the vast majority of humanity to the fires of hell.
And Calvin was very aware that he had to respond to this. You see this in the 1559 edition of the Institutes, which has a very full treatment of predestination, in which he says that what is the will of God is good. And it is God’s will that all are undeserving of God’s grace. But it is God’s goodness that it is extended to some and not to others. And why it goes to one person and not to another is something humans can simply not know. And he is fierce on the point that we must never speculate about who belongs to the elect and who belongs to the reprobate.
He speaks, for instance of in his commentary on Genesis, of Lot’s wife. Lot’s wife is punished for turning back. But Calvin says “we do not know of her eternal fate. That belongs to God alone.” So he says this is a mystery to which our minds cannot ascend. But it is a reality both that God makes the eternal decision, and that those who are being punished are so because of their own fault. Because Calvin does not want to suggest that it is God’s fault that they are condemned—he wants to hold together human responsibility, culpability for this. But these are the two that are in tension with each other, and he says “it’s simply a reality that’s found in scripture and that’s not for me to resolve why that is.”
HODGES: So his was “double predestination”—
HODGES: —the idea that God created those who would be elected to salvation and those who would be damned to hell, and that that was God’s sovereign decision from the beginning. What were other Reformation responses to that? Because there were other Reformation figures who didn’t believe in double predestination. How did they reckon with it?
GORDON: No. I mean, very important figures, such as Philip Melanchthon, or I mean one could say Luther himself does not really enter into this discussion. Heinrich Bullinger, who was in some ways Calvin’s closest colleague—he was the head of the church in Zürich. They worked together very closely. They all did not accept this idea of double predestination because they felt that it stressed a tyrannical sounding God, although all of them advocated a doctrine of predestination which is pretty much shared by all Augustine reformers, and all back to Augustine and Aquinas on this point. But they did not accept the formulation of “double.” And they would say that God punishes the damned but we cannot know—first of all we cannot know who they are, and secondly it is not God’s will that they should be punished. One can only speak of God electing those to paradise whom God has chosen. But one cannot speak about God choosing those to perdition as a form of glorification of God’s name.
So Calvin said this position was ridiculous. You can’t have one without the other. And it is a very knotty insensitive problem. But it’s untied by Calvin by saying that there are these two forms which belong together and that’s what scripture teaches. If you hold to any form of “single” predestination, you can’t find any basis for this in scripture. So they disagreed on.
HODGES: It’s interesting that behind…To simplify it into two different sides—and there were more than that, but Calvin’s double predestination versus people who kind of held to the single predestination idea—behind both of those sides seems to be an appeal to mystery. I mean, Calvin was grounding it in his interpretation of scripture but saying “ultimately this is something that we can’t understand” and it seems like his opponents could have just said the same thing, like “Yeah, the scripture may seem to say that to you, but there’s a mystery here,” you know—Did they appeal to mystery as well?
GORDON: Yeah, very much so. And people like Bullinger and Calvin simply would say, “We agree that there is a doctrine of predestination, that that is found in scripture, but the exact form in which it takes we don’t agree on and we will leave that to the next world. We’re not going to try and resolve it.” They knew they couldn’t. They reach the point when one party would take a particular view, the other another. But it was Calvin’s double predestination which outraged people. This idea that the reprobate were chosen by God. It was that particular formulation that really made Calvin infamous for this doctrine.
HODGES: How important was correct belief on this kind of an issue to Calvin and to other Reformers? Did they expect that it would be a sign of election if you did believe in these certain ways? Or did they think that these kind of beliefs just didn’t pertain to salvation at all, they were just sort of things you could think about that weren’t important?
GORDON: Calvin believed that predestination was a subject that you could preach from the pulpit. That the people should know about it. That they should accept it. But it was also a pastoral issue, above all, for him, and I know that sounds odd to people now. But for Calvin it was a deeply pastoral issue in that he believed that the doctrine of election provided people with assurance that God would not ever abandon them. That it was assurance of God’s promises of the covenant that was eternal. So therefore, that predestination should be preached is something that would build up the community, would build up the faithful.
So it was very prominent in the life of the church and people were to accept it in the sense that it was part of their catechism. But it’s not controversial, as far as I can tell, except when people openly deny it. For that you can get into difficulty.
HODGES: It also seems like in addition to the pastoral issue of it—I read a book by Peter Thuesen on predestination. He talked about double predestination’s role in political and authoritative sort of thinking, this idea that the church would mediate your salvation and that Calvin resisted that, and part of the resistance was God’s sovereignty. And in order to be logically consistent, God had to be the one to make that decision and the church could have no say in it. Do you agree with that interpretation?
GORDON: Well, I think Calvin has a very high view of the church. The church is the body of Christ. He also was a lawyer, he knew how to put together the institutional form of the church and he believed very strongly that a community had to have discipline, structure. He didn’t name it as a mark of the church but it was pretty much for him a mark of the true church that it had discipline and order, which meant you had to have the Consistory were people were brought up to answer for their behavior or where their marital problems were resolved.
So he has this view that the institutional life of the church is highly important because that is the means by which the godly community is built up. But it does so only through fidelity to the word of God. It has no independent authority because…It comes back again to the question of the centrality of scripture. The church only has authority insofar as it professes the word of God, but within that, there are certain responsibilities that it has to maintain that body. So for Calvin, there was always a tension with politics because he wanted to ensure that the church could make decisions over the spiritual questions. The magistrates in Geneva were much keener to have control [laughs] over such questions. So there is embedded—in Calvin’s polity and vision of the church—already a clash with civil authority.
HODGES: And we’ll see how that plays out in some of the discussions later on, because those issues crop up throughout the history of the life of the book.
That’s Bruce Gordon speaking about his new book, a biography of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bruce Gordon is a professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School.
Let’s give people overview of Institutes in the nutshell. It’s separated into four books. Let’s talk quickly about each of those books. What do we have in book one? What does that cover?
GORDON: In book one you have the treatment of the doctrine of God, which [laughs] is an enormous topic, but Calvin speaks about essentially the name and the nature of the divine. Book two treats on the nature of the saving work of Christ. In book three, you have the Spirit, or the treatment of justification by faith. Also, that’s where you find the doctrine of providence and predestination. Then the outward forms of salvation—the church—is treated in book four. So you have there the treatment of the institutional forms of the faith.
HODGES: So it kind of gives a basic overview, then, beginning with God, moving to Christ, through the Holy Spirit—the fruits of the Spirit and the Christian life itself, which includes discussion of things like double predestination. And then book four, the church and the sort of outward manifestation of what the Christian life looks like.
How did he do this? Was he citing scriptures? What kind of things was he doing to lay out that case?
GORDON: Calvin had what he referred to as the “right order of doctrine,” which was that he searches—and he talks about this in the introduction to the Institutes of 1559. He said, my search, my labor has been to put the doctrine of the Christian faith in the right order which is kind of the order of teaching. So that he lays it out step by step, so that those who are the readers—in which case for the Latin version which would be students of theology preparing for ministry—would be able to follow it in a most straightforward way.
But that’s not just Calvin imposing an order on doctrine. He thought that order was embedded in scripture, so that the order that he was seeking to replicate in his book is actually, for him, found above all in Paul’s letter to the Romans. And that that is the right order of teaching, of doctrine, that he seeks to emulate in this text. And he expresses a degree of satisfaction that he’s got pretty close to what he wanted to do.
So it’s not an arbitrary structure, but there are other people whose works were highly influential on Calvin as he wrote the Institutes. Above all Philip Melanchthon, who had been in Wittenberg and was a friend of John Calvin, so they corresponded extensively. Philip Melanchthon’s work, the Loci communes, “the common places,” was deeply influential on Calvin’s own organizing of the text. But of course it begins with this whole question of the knowledge of God and then proceeds through a series of questions.
During his many versions of the Institutes he moves material around quite a bit, but he also adds to it, considerably. He never changes the arguments, but he adds to it considerably as his reading goes on, as his study goes on, as his work preaching and teaching of the Bible goes on. The work expands. It’s extraordinarily dynamic. It never stays exactly the same from one edition to the next.
HODGES: Did he ever feel like one of them was sort of the definitive edition eventually before his death?
GORDON: I think the 1559 Latin. It then appears in French the following year, but the 1559 Latin. He doesn’t name it as definitive but he certainly seems to be…I mean by that point he’s a very ill man. He didn’t actually think he’d live to do this. So I think he saw this as the culmination of his work.
HODGES: You’ve talked a lot about the sources that he drew on and the fact that there was other literature going on at the time. So a pressing question for your book is, why then today do we have a biography of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion? Why did it stick around compared to all this other literature that people usually haven’t heard of anymore?
GORDON: Yes, absolutely a great question because, why has the Institutes survived? I think I ask at one point in the book, if asked to name a book from the Reformation the Institutes would be very high in the list of what people would say.
I think there are a number of reasons for this. I would begin by saying it’s extremely readable. Calvin was a great writer. He sought the virtues of lucidity and clarity. In both French and Latin he was recognized in his own day as an extraordinary stylist. French and Latin in the sixteenth century could often be very convoluted, long sentences, very difficult. Calvin writes in short sentences. He makes it easy on the reader’s eye to follow the text. So it’s a beautiful book. It’s a piece of literature. And there are not many of those that appear in the Reformation—certainly from the Protestant sides, but you can think of some great writers in the Catholic church from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. There are not that many in the Protestant world.
But it’s also—the clarity of it is expressed in the structure that we just spoke about. It lays out a summary of the Christian religion in a way that’s extremely accessible and can be used to teach across Europe and then soon across the Atlantic. It is a model of exposition and people respond very clearly to this.
And I think are other aspects you would add into this. Calvin writes it from strongly a pastoral sense. It speaks to people of a powerful God, but of a loving God, of a Christ who is present, who invites to a growth into—you know as Calvin frequently speaks of becoming more Christ-like. It speaks to problems that people endure. It’s not cold theology, but it really is a book of the church.
In its own day it becomes the bestseller. It’s very well known. It outsells almost all other Protestant literature by a great distance and it remains very popular. But what I try to show in the book is it goes through periods where it’s almost forgotten and then it keeps enjoying these rivals.
HODGES: That’s what’s so interesting. It sort of hits the “Geneva Times bestseller list,” so to speak, and then it sort of drops off the radar, but then it comes back.
And your biography talks about how the Institutes was understood and interpreted in the years following Calvin’s death. He died and was buried somewhere in an unmarked grave at his own request and his book continued to live on. Your book tells us the story. Let’s focus on—since we don’t have a lot of time, but the book covers all sorts of different things—but let’s focus on two different specific examples that I think people might find particularly interesting. One from America and then one from South Africa.
First with America. The book and the author were seldom far apart in people’s minds. In the United States Calvin has been hailed by some as being the father of modern democracy on the one hand—
HODGES: —and on the other hand, as an example of tyrannical leader who suppressed freedom of expression if not belief, who was responsible for the execution of a heretic. So these are pretty different portraits. On the one hand, you have this champion of freedom. On the other hand, you have this master inquisitor. Where did these different portraits come from? What do you make of them as a historian?
GORDON: Yeah, fascinating for me because to see in looking at these texts you think, “Are they actually talking about the same person? Is this the same life that they’re looking at?” And I think one of the things I wanted to do in the book is to demonstrate the ways in which Calvin was read very much reflected the changing intellectual, spiritual, cultural conditions in which the book appeared. And in the nineteenth century, with the rise of liberal Protestantism and a new perspective on the Reformation, Calvin is a bit of a problem. In that liberal Protestant tradition which is flourishing, what do you make of this person from the sixteenth century who seems so austere, who teaches double predestination, who has a whole range of views that do not agree in a particular way with what the liberal Protestants view of the nineteenth century is evolving as?
And so they recreate Calvin because they want this authority figure from the Reformation. They recast him. And one of the ways they recast him is as a great author. They see him as this extraordinary writer of the French language. But they also recast him, as you say, as a father of democracy. That Geneva belongs to a tradition that flows from antiquity. That what Calvin creates with the Consistory and the institutions in sixteenth century Geneva is a sort of proto modern democracy. And so they start to talk about this and then when you get the anniversary of Calvin’s birth in 1909 this is the Calvin that they venerate—this person who has created, in a sense, the modern world, leaving aside and or choosing to forget many of the inconvenient doctrinal questions that separate them very much from that culture. So they’ve chosen to take this view of who Calvin was, and in many ways…Many of your listeners may be familiar with the wall in Geneva, the Reformation wall in Geneva, which has that image of Calvin. Well that was the world that produced this idea of Calvin, the modern figure.
At the same time, as you say, Calvin was remembered by many as the person who burnt at the stake Michael Servetus— a man who denied, or was thought to have denied, the Trinity, a doctrine of the Trinity. And this is a long complicated case. The two men had had contact over a number of years, but in 1553 Servetus, after a trial in which Calvin played a prominent role, is put to death. He’s burnt at the stake. And this becomes for many people a sign of Calvin’s intolerance—that he is a tyrant and that he made the civil magistrates in Geneva kill this person. Well that’s not the case but it doesn’t matter whether it’s the case or not. This is what people thought he did. And so that created a long tradition which I tried to talk about where Calvin and his Institutes were associated with tyranny. This horrible figure, the worst of the Reformation, the worst of religious intolerance.
So you get many people in the nineteenth century reviving this view of Calvin as the intolerant figure while others are creating a Calvin who is this voice of the modern world. And for both, they have very particular reasons for wanting to create that image of Calvin. It suits their own purposes, for a variety of ways, to have this tyrant on the one hand or this modern figure on the other. And that debate goes well into the twentieth century and into our own time. Two quite different views of Calvin. You will still find books and articles on Calvin which see him a modern figure, and you will find plenty of literature now that still speaks of Calvin, the person who puts people to death.
HODGES: The difficulty for any defender of Calvin there is the fact that Calvin…He may not have lit the tinders with his own torch, but I mean he did facilitate that, he didn’t oppose that, he went along with that. How do people reconcile that with…People who see Calvin as this sort of enlightened figure or democratic figure, how can they reconcile with the fact that he really was involved with that death? Because it seems like you’ve got on the hand, this idea of him as this brave hero freedom guy and on the other hand this evil murder tyrant. Both of those seem to speak to what [laughs]…He’s being weaponized for contemporary debates, obviously.
GORDON: Yeah, absolutely.
HODGES: Where does the historian come down on—to the extent that they can—on a judgment of the historical Calvin in his context?
GORDON: Sure. Well, I think it’s a lot of cases. You have to look at the details, but I won’t go into all of them, just to say that for Calvin, he was extraordinarily reluctant in being drawn into this case. He had known Servetus for some years. He had famously predicted that if Servetus came to Geneva he would probably die. Why Servetus actually came to Geneva in the end of summer 1553—nobody knows. There’s various reasons for why that happened.
Calvin believed it was his task to defend the orthodox faith. Because in the ancient world or in ancient Christianity, the denial of the Trinity was seen as a capital offense. Calvin continued to believe that the denial of the Trinity as the doctrine was the most severe attack on Christianity and posed not only a threat to the doctrine of the church, but it posed a great threat to the community or the body of the church itself. He engaged in this trial demonstrating through a whole range of arguments that Servetus was a heretic—and very few people doubted that he was a heretic. He then ensured that the opinions of all the leading Protestant theologians were gathered as well, as well as the opinions of the leading Protestant political authorities—he and the council gathered these. They were unanimous in saying that Servetus should die.
It was an extraordinarily unfortunate event, a greatly difficult moment for the Reformation. Those who saw Calvin in a much more positive way in the nineteenth and in the twentieth century would say it was a mistake. And one of the things they did just before the 1909 anniversary of Calvin’s birth was to issue an apology for that event. And they erected a monument to Servetus in Geneva and you will find there’s a Servetus Avenue in Geneva. So there was a collective confession of guilt, seeking to apologize, and they realized that the only way they could continue to honor Calvin was by making some sort of apology for what happened.
HODGES: Right, and that can be difficult to do for people who revere historical figure to acknowledge those types of difficulties and still…There’s almost a forgiveness that has to be issued.
HODGES: It’s really fascinating part of the book. Does this play at all into some of the divisions between modern followers of Calvin? I’m thinking, for example, of Marilynne Robinson, who we spoke with on the podcast previously, as well as people like John Piper. They seem to have radically different Calvins.
GORDON: I think he can be read in remark…I mean the story that I sought to tell is ongoing. Because I spoke of teaching a class a couple of years ago where we read the whole of the Institutes and in some ways you could smile and say “Did everybody read the same book?” They came to radically different conclusions about what Calvin was saying. Some of the old debates about not being able to accept his position on double predestination or other issues. But he continues to be read in remarkably different ways.
Some people will find in him the great spiritual teacher. That in his Biblical commentaries, as well as in Institutes, but in the wider body of work, that what’s really striking about Calvin is his extraordinary pastoral sense. For people like that, the emphasis on predestination—which is central to the way some people read not just the Institutes, but Calvin’s work—is not how they see the Reformer. He’s capable of sustaining considerably different types of reading and I’m not surprised when you hear people come and talk about him in quite different ways.
HODGES: There’s more to the American story, that’s just kind of a drop in the bucket there. Let’s go to South Africa. I was most impressed by the diametrically opposed uses that the Institutes was put to in South Africa. How did the same book manage to help some people justify apartheid and to help others opposed apartheid? And maybe bring people up to speed who aren’t familiar with apartheid.
GORDON: Yes. I mean this dreadful situation in South Africa that emerged by the separation of blacks and whites, which was a great horror that lasted until at the time of Nelson Mandela being emerged from prison and the collapse of the system—That theologically, this was most problematic because many within in the Reformed church drew not only upon Calvin, but from others in the Reformed tradition to defend this separation of the races.
That was the story that I really knew when I came to this, that within the Reformed church there was this veneration of Calvin, there was a veneration of Abraham Kuyper and other writers who were used to teach a notion of separate spheres which justified separation.
What astonished me was a couple of years ago when Allan Boesak came to speak at Yale Divinity School and he agreed, when I was teaching a course on the Reformed tradition, to come to the class and talk about South Africa. And he just blew me away. And I think the students as well, when he started to talk about how important Calvin had been in the resistance. That what they had learned—and I think this quotes him accurately I hope—was that they realize that apartheid, this separation, was in many ways a theological construct that needed to be taken apart theologically. And they realized that when they went to Calvin that there was no argument in favor of this oppressive system. In fact, there were powerful arguments against any form of justification for using this work. And they started to read the Institutes and I found—as I read more into what was being written—extraordinary ways in which the Institutes was being cited, that Calvin was being named as an authentic tradition of the church, which stood in diametrical opposition to what had been this oppressive system in South Africa. And that, for me, probably was the greatest revelation in preparing the book. I just didn’t know that story at all and I found it incredibly compelling.
HODGES: I agree. That was the most striking part of the entire biography of the Institutes, was you had people who had been systematically oppressed and justifications had been given based on Calvin’s Institutes. You would think that the people being oppressed would have no purchase with that work at all. Yet, you have this figure—a black South African himself—embrace Calvin as a way to theologically turn the tables.
GORDON: Yes. Yes. He showed in many ways the whole basis of the theological arguments that had been made to be false. And by reading Calvin and reading the Institutes and doing so in a public way, Calvin became a voice for something very different. Absolutely, as you say, many people assumed that Calvin was just part of an oppressive system. But it was this other way of introducing him that was mind-blowing.
HODGES: The quote here from the book where you talk about this particular issue, you say that Allan Boesak told your Yale students that “apartheid was a theological construct that had to be dismantled theologically, and that meant not going around John Calvin’s Institutes but going straight through it.”
HODGES: It’s quite a fascinating thing.
That’s Bruce Gordon; he is a Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. His books include Calvin which is a Biography of the Reformer. He also is the author of the new biography of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It’s part of the Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series. We’ll take a brief break and be right back for the rest of the interview.
HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges, speaking today with Bruce Gordon, the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School, and today we’re talking about his biography of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Before the break, Bruce, you mentioned a course that you taught at Yale Divinity School in 2014 on the Institutes. Your class included people from a variety of faith backgrounds, or no faith, or from different types of traditions. I’d just like to hear a little bit about what you took away from that experience that helped inform the biography, maybe some of the impressions from some of the students and what that experience was like.
GORDON: It was a wonderful experience for a variety of reasons. It started as a group of three or four students who came to see me and asked me if I would do a reading course in which we went through the Institutes and I agreed. And then word got around that this was going to happen and it grew and grew and grew and I think in the end we were about twenty some. We were in a fairly large room so that we could sit in a circle all looking at each other and I drew up a plan, a kind of travel plan, that got us through the Institutes in twelve weeks. I think that’s right. So it was a lot of reading, but it was fascinating for a variety of reasons.
One of which you named, and that is that there were people from radically different backgrounds—believers, non-believers, graduate students, people who were preparing for ministry, there were some people who audited who had just come from outside the university. And we shared around the room in a most remarkable way. People were extremely generous with others in the way in which they read the text because they were reading the text quite differently, seeing different things in Calvin’s words.
And I saw in my role in this was to try and give people a fair bit of context to the book—not only Calvin’s life, but the form of literature that it was, when it was produced, what sort of people Calvin was in conversation with, what were the battles that he was engaged in as he was writing this section, how the text was growing as he added pieces in or moved pieces from one place to another. So I saw that as my central role. I thought my role was going to perhaps be a referee but that never actually happened, as I say the courtesy with which people treated one another was terrific.
But I guess I didn’t realize going through this that I kept stressing Calvin’s image of the mirror, which he uses frequently, as the mirror of creation and God’s glory. Because at the end of the course they gave me a big mirror to stick upon on the wall. It was good natured, it was rigorous and it was fascinating to see how a text evolves when you go from the beginning to the end—particularly when it’s such a long text, because you can see how Calvin is reworking arguments. He’s returning to material that he’s covered before but he’s doing so in a different way with a different purpose.
The text, I think, really came to life. I think that’s the thing that we all found. It really came to life no matter how differently it was being read. Everybody was surprised by how they were drawn in by Calvin’s brilliance as a writer, the way which he structured the work, and the compelling way in which he put forward his arguments. Which is not to say they accepted all of them, but they all came away admiring the way Calvin wrote the Institutes.
HODGES: That’s what’s so interesting, in the book you quote from several of the participants who talked about being surprised by Calvin’s pastoral concerns. They found him often to be sympathetic—having sympathetic insights in human nature. Some people found it to be “delightful.” Another student wrote, [laughs] he called it a “Dear John letter” to John Calvin,
GORDON: [laughs] Oh yes—
HODGES: —it doesn’t seem like he came away with much more love for his theology. So you just had this really cool mix of reactions in that.
GORDON: Yes, I think he says in the letter—he’s a wonderful person—I think he says in the letter, “I tried to love you. But didn’t take in that case.”
HODGES: Walking away from this project, this biography of a book, I wanted to ask one final question about what it’s like to write a biography of a book in general. This is something I’ve asked most of the authors of the Princeton series. We usually think of biographies as being about humans. This is about a book. So what did you learn about the nature of a book in writing a biography of a book?
GORDON: When I started out to do this I thought “the one thing I don’t really want to do is simply list editions and printing dates and where it was produced and when.” But I wasn’t quite certain what I did want to do. And so as I read and read and spent time thinking about it, what I came to—and I think I took away from it—is the extraordinarily varied ways in which the book has been read, the extraordinary contexts in which the book has appeared, how important the Institutes has been for so many people, and how compelling an author Calvin has remained—even amongst those who find him unacceptable—how compelling and powerful an author Calvin has remained after 450 years. People still, as the class showed, respond to him passionately. And that says to me a great deal about sixteenth century religious book.
HODGES: Finally, on the cover, did you have any input about the piece that was put on the cover? Because it’s pretty cool.
GORDON: I did. I didn’t choose it in a sense of, I didn’t find it. Princeton had a variety of possibilities. And when I saw this I thought “this is beautiful.” It’s by a Japanese artist. It’s an image of the flight in to Egypt. It captures a number of things that I thought the book tried to be about—That is the theme of exile, which is so powerful for Calvin. And the unexpected context of an Asian artist showing that Calvin has, in this book, a worldwide presence. It’s very much part of a spreading tradition.
HODGES: Speaking of Japanese, you mentioned before the interview that you have a book that translated into Japanese.
GORDON: [laughs] Yeah. I just found it today it’s going to be. It hasn’t been, but it’s going to be translated. The biography of Calvin is going to be translated into Japanese. But as I say, I won’t be doing the proofs!
HODGES: [laughs] Yeah. Any other projects that you have cooking right now?
GORDON: Well, I have a couple of things. One big project which I’m finishing is on the Bible of the sixteenth century, so that’s another large topic. But I think my next big project will be to take on Zwingli and the early Reformation.
HODGES: That’s Bruce Gordon. He’s a professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. Today we’re talking about his book on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bruce, thanks so much for taking the time today.
GORDON: Oh, it was my pleasure Blair. Thank you very much for asking me.
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