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Calvin: A Biography Hardcover – September 1, 2000

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 391 pages
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (September 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802842895
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802842893
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #994,463 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

What is it that makes a good biography so satisfying? An interesting subject, of course, but also one that is treated with both fairness and depth, placing that figure in the richness of his or her historical context. In this way we get all the pleasures of a good story along with the delight of learning. This is what Bernard Cottret accomplishes in his biography of John Calvin, now translated into English from the French. More historian than theologian, Cottret brings a useful objectivity to this study. In doing so the book reminds us of the fascination of subjects we might too easily consider merely academic. Immensely influential in his own time (and in our own, almost 500 years later), this biography gives us the story of Calvin's life in its historical context and a succinct analysis of his theology. It appropriately detours in order to remind the reader of the context in which Calvin was growing up: brief explorations of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, for example, remind us that these were not simply subjects in school in the early 1500's. As Cottret notes, Calvin turned 21 in 1530: what would it mean to be an immensely gifted and driven young man at such a time in Europe? It's a great question to ask, and in this book Cottret answers it with style and depth. --Doug Thorpe

From Booklist

Calling this book "a history of faith," Cottret says that "the history of a particular man is also a history of the hope he entertained as much as a history of what actually happened." That this is a history of John Calvin's hope as much as a biography of him helps account for the careful attention to political developments in Switzerland and France that makes it also a history of ideas that pivots on the sixteenth century's religious controversies. Readers will encounter Calvin at that pivot point, as if more at the edge of the eye than face-to-face. As Cottret notes, this view fittingly contrasts with the full-bodied, earthy, and personal portraits of Luther that emerge from the same period. We meet Calvin in the institutions he shaped and not as a figure with whom we might enjoy a drink at the corner bar. We see him as a behind-the-scenes architect of an edifice that casts a shadow across the more than four centuries that separate us from the man, John Calvin. Steven Schroeder
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3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Chris Johnson on July 7, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Whatever else may be said about French intellectuals, French historians are the finest in the world. Their biases don't get as flagrantly in the way as is sometimes the case with British and American historians. They are less chatty than the British can often be and they are far less inclined to the grand, sweeping statement than the Americans. The best of them observe even French people and events with scientific detachment.
This new biography of Calvin could only have been written by a Frenchman and Bernard Cottret does a wonderful job. The Calvin who emerges here is a far more complex figure than the cartoon that other historians have drawn. Far from a firebrand, John Calvin was a remote, shy, almost withdrawn figure who had whatever offices he held forced upon him. Geneva had gone in for Reformed Protestantism long before he arrived there and Calvin's Geneva was far from the "theocracy" it is often caricatured as.
Calvin's faults are not papered over; Cottret does not attempt to hide his displeasure at the burning in Geneva of many accused of witchcraft or of the burning of Michael Servetus, for example. But in the case of Servetus which is dealt with extensively here, he points out that Geneva only did what the Roman Church would have done if it had the chance and that Calvin actually cooperated with the Roman Catholic Church in this matter, seeing Rome as less of a threat than certain radical Protestants, rather cutting the ground out from under those who believe Calvin was rabidly anti-Catholic.
All in all, Calvin is an outstanding book that I cannot recommend too highly.
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31 of 37 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Cottret does give an abundance of interesting historical and biographical detail, his description of the early years of reform in France (e.g., the affair of the Placards, 1534) is wonderful, and his portrait of Geneva is fascinating (Parts I and II of the book). But when it comes to Calvin's theology (Part III), he does a shockingly poor job.
In treating Calvin's theology, Cottret deals first, and at rather greater length, with Calvin's polemical works and sermons (chapters 12-13), and only then does he turn to a brief analysis of the Institutes (chapter 14). Cottret thus gives to an apparently random sampling of Calvin's occasional pieces (especially the treatise On Scandals, 1550) greater interpretive weight for Calvin as a theologian than to Calvin's life-work of systematic theology. This is absurd. What's worse, we get no real consideration of Calvin's theology as expressed in his commentaries. Does Cottret think that, because he is portraying `a historian's Calvin' (p. x), and not a theologian's, he can simply ignore this source? What's still worse, when Cottret does finally get to the Institutes, he totally arbitrarily, without explanation, and against the entire consensus of Calvin scholarship, selects as his basis of exposition the 1541 French edition as `the most significant version during the Reformer's lifetime' (p. 311)! Never mind that Calvin himself continued to refine this work through 1559-60, and that these final editions of the Institutes (not that of 1541) were the standards that fed subsequent Reformed theology.
When Cottret does speak of Calvin's theology from the Institutes (and elsewhere), he is surprisingly clumsy and extremely condescending. According to Cottret's Calvin, the Old Testament patriarchs have `a right to salvation' (p. 317). A right to it?
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By M. Parks on June 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is an admirable biography of an important figure. Cottret opens up a world to readers and takes them for a tour of Calvin's life. Reading this was pleasurable because it opened up 16th c. Geneva and, as far as is possible, portrayed a very human John Calvin. My only negative issue with this book is the prose. Perhaps it's because of French styles of narrative. It read as though one were having a conversation. So, given the book's good qualities that such a style lends--warmth combined with good scholarship--, it was not tightly conveyed, thereby dropping the prose into a style of loosely strung thoughts at times. However, the book's good qualities outweigh such criticism. The scholarship is excellent and the subject is examined with care, presenting truly a portrait.
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7 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Teddy W. Booth on November 24, 2003
Format: Hardcover
John Calvin is a man to whom many pledge their spiritual alliegance. However, Cottret is careful to separate the man Calvin from the ensuing Calvinism that developed later. Calvin appears more timid and much more interested in spiritual reform than promoting a theocracy in Geneva. He appears often as an unwilling accomplice in the Protestant Reformation. Yet, his effect is still felt around the world today. Cottret also delves into Calvin's theology and casts him in his different roles.
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