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John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait Paperback – December 31, 1989

11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195059519 ISBN-10: 0195059514 Edition: Reprint

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

In this work, Bouwsma provides a clear and brilliantly argued analysis of Calvin's place in 16th-century European intellectual history, focusing on his thought rather than his life. Bouwsma places Calvin in the context of the humanist rhetorical tradition, the medieval Scholastic tradition, and the biblical scholarship of the Reformation. Thus, he explains how the contradictions in Calvin's thought represented the conflicting value systems of his day. Bouwsma also provides an excellent exposition of Calvin's views on issues of church, state, and society as an attempt to confront the existing anxieties of a transitional era witnessing the collapse of certainty. Susan A. Stussy, Marian Coll. Lib., Indianapolis, Ind.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"W.Bouwsma's John Calvin offers an excellent view inside the life and the times of one of histories most complex and intriguing minds. An excellent resource for intellectual, religious, and cultural historians; first rate."--James LeSueur, University of LaVerne "A wonderful book. Brings fresh insights not only to our understanding of Calvin's life, but also to our understanding of the intellectual climate of early modern Europe."--David Koeller, Phillips University

"At last someone has rescued the great reformer of Geneva from the stony grayness to which he had been so wrongly consigned and has drawn an animated picture of a passionate and complex man."--Harvey Cox, Harvard Divinity School

"A fresh and insightful exploration of John Calvin's thought, viewed within the context of sixteenth-century intellectual, psychological, cultural, and religious forces."--Dave Rightmire, Asbury College

"This is must reading for anyone interested in the Reformation period as a whole or Calvin in particular. All future studies on Calvin should interact with this work."--Trinity Journal

"By intense reading in Calvin's work [Bouwsma] has come up with a twentieth-century psychological scheme, giving a genuinely new insight into the man and into the sixteenth century as a whole."--The New York Times Book Review

"A richly wise, and splendidly engaging portrayal of a man whose doctrines and aspirations--and whose anxieties and fears--shaped, and perhaps are still shaping, the modern world."--Los Angeles Times Book Review

"An intellectual tour de force. We will never be able to think of Calvin the man in the same way again."--St. Petersburg Times

"An impressive contribution to our understanding of Calvin and our understanding of ourselves from one who is thoroughly acquainted with Calvin's Institutes, commentaries, sermons, treatises, and letters."--Eternity

"A study that Calvin scholars have been waiting for....It provides a 'disclosure model' of Calvin's personality and his work that will fertilize future studies....A booming success."--Sixteenth Century Journal

"A clear and brilliantly argued analysis of Calvin's place in sixteenth-century European intellectual history, focusing on his thought rather than his life."--Library Journal
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; Reprint edition (December 31, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195059514
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195059519
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 0.9 x 6.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #607,820 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Timmy on January 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
In John Calvin, a Sixteenth Century Portrait Bouwsma attempts to find the historical Calvin. In other words, he seeks to strip Calvin of all the baggage which he has picked up over the last few centuries and show his reader a real man, not just the cold, hard, tight lipped, iron fist of Geneva. As an interdisciplinary historian Bouwsma makes use of disciplines such as sociology and psychology to reach back into the sixteenth century and uncover the insecure, dual personality of John Calvin. This book suprised me. Bouwsma's Calvin is one I never met in the Reformed tradition. It is important to note, however, that Bouwsma is by no means the final word on Calvin. One of Bouwsma's mistakes, in my judgement, is that he seemed to interpret all of Calvin's thoughts and actions in light of his own psychological analysis of Calvin. This becomes problematic when, according to Bouwsma, Calvin's Sola Fide is only a result of his psychological uneasiness. Bouwsma completely disregards Calvin's Sola Scriptura and reverence for sacred scripture. He interprets Calvin's doctrines of election and predestination in a like fashion. Calvin, according to Bouwsma, had a deep need for order; God's election and predestination provided this order for Calvin. The elect and reprobate could never be mixed. Therefore, in a fundamental sense, the doctrines of election and predestination provide psychological peace for an otherwise frightened and undone Frenchman. Bouwmsa is just as interested in examining the sixteenth century as he is in finding Calvin within it. He uses Calvin as a figure to illustrate the century and he shows how the century sculpted the reformer. Bouwsma's interdisciplinary style of history, his extensive use of Calvin's commentaries, letters, sermons, and Institutes, and his readability make him a good read for all sorts of people, who may be looking for very different things from a study of the great reformer.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Stanford Gibson on October 2, 2003
Format: Paperback
It is important before committing to this text that one recognizes the author's distinction between a biography and a portrait. If you are looking for a narrative biography (or even a summary of Calvin's teachings) I would look somewhere else. In either of those categories I would have given this 2 or 3 stars. But this Bouswama's work is not intended to be either of these. It would almost be best described as a reflection on Calvin's psychology as expressed in his major themes. The themes chosen are not those that I would have. However, I would estimate that nearly a quarter of this text is composed of direct Calvin quotes, and the author displays a fairly high level of rigor and competence with respect to Calvin's body of work. There were times that I was unhappy with inferences made from some of the reformers statements and tracking some quotes to the source left myself and others I have talked to wondering about the consistency of the author's fidelity to context. However, on the whole it is a helpful text that provides a non-traditional (but not necessarily negative) view of John Calvin. I would not recommend it as an introduction, but it is an interesting analysis for advanced study.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By John Dempsey Essick Jr. on September 17, 2003
Format: Paperback
William J. Bouwsma considers John Calvin the least known and most misunderstood of all the great figures of the sixteenth-century. Bouwsma's unique attempt to elucidate John Calvin for a contemporary thinker is contextually driven and methodologically persistent. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait aims to read, understand, and interpret Calvin within his sixteenth-century setting.
In order to give the reader a clear picture of Calvin and through him the mood of his generation, Bouwsma begins with Calvin's anxiety. This aspect of Calvin's life gives the contemporary reader, in Bouwsma's opinion, the opportunity to get a glimpse of an anxiety-filled age. This approach allows Bouwsma, at least in theory, to understand Calvin even better than Calvin understood himself. Taken together, the external influences and internal struggles show Calvin as a man who saw himself in a world on the edge of a great calamity, even divine judgment.
This aspect of Calvin and his society is the point of departure for Bouwsma's major thesis: humanism is the umbilical cord between the "labyrinth" and the "abyss" in Calvin's thought. Bouwsma uses "labyrinth" to denote the safe, yet problematic philosophical worldview the Europeans inherited from the Hellenistic and Hebraic cultures. While these two worldviews were woven together with relative ease in antiquity, the Renaissance would unravel and lay bare the problem. Bouwsma believes Calvin has but a glimpse of this and knows that his sixteenth-century context is a labyrinth of dangers, but still safer than the "abyss" of doubt.
Bouwsma asserts that as Calvin tried to alleviate his anxieties he clung to certain assumptions inherent in the labyrinth.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Robert Moore HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is one of the finest academic historical biographies to have appeared in the past couple of decades, and will provide nearly anyone with an insightful and in depth introduction to one of the most important figures of the early modern age. It must be stressed, however, that Bouwsma will not please everyone. He is a professional historian, and not a theologian nor an apologist. Many hardcore Calvinists might not enjoy the style with which he deals with his subject matter or his theologically neutral stance in discussing Calvin's work and thought. But most students of theology and all students of history will discover in this a study of Calvin that not only discusses his thought, but relates it to the particular period of history in which it was produced. Too many Calvinist treatments of Calvin discuss him in almost ahistorical fashion, as if his thought were developed in a vacuum. As Bouwsma demonstrates, however, the was very much the product of the Late Renaissance as much as he was the Reformation.
One review below states that Bouwsma claims Calvin was a pagan. This is an important misunderstanding, the correction of which will take us to the heart of Bouwsma's central argument. Absolutely nowhere does Bouwsma assert that Calvin was a pagan, but his central argument in the book is that Calvin was deeply entrenched in renaissance humanism. The humanists went back to the pagan writers of Greece and Rome as literary models as well as alternative sources of inspiration to medieval Catholicism. As Bouwsma quite correctly points out, humanism was in no way antithetical to Protestantism. Calvin was absolutely not a pagan, nor does Bouwsma make that claim, but he did study the pagans such as Cicero and Quintillian, and modeled his writing style on them.
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