Biography in Brief – Calvin

Continuing on with my recent ‘Biographies in Brief’ series (here, here and here), we come in this post to Calvin. It is difficult to think of a theologian (and his ideas) who has been the object of more grotesque distortion than Protestantism’s greatest: Jean Calvin. For all the attention he has rightly received, there is, oddly, a dearth of biographical material available on Calvin. Up until recently, we have had little more than Theodore Beza’s classic, The Life of John Calvin. In 1993, Alister E. McGrath offered his most readable biography, A Life of John Calvin (London: Blackwell, 1993). Even with the recent gem on Calvin by Randall Zachman (anything this guy writes is worth reading!), John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought, McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin remains the best biography available. Here’s a taste:

[Calvin’s] importance lies primarily, but by no means exclusively, in his being a religious thinker. To describe him as a ‘theologian’ is proper but misleading, given the modern associations of the term. A theologian is one who is generally seen to be marginalized as an irrelevance by church and academy alike, whose public is limited to a severely restricted circle of fellow theologians, and whose ideas and methods are generally derived from other intellectual disciplines. The originality, power and influence of Calvin’s religious ideas forbid us to speak of him merely as a ‘theologian’ – though that he certainly was – in much the same way it is inadequate to refer to Lenin as a mere political theorist. Through his remarkable ability to master languages, media and ideas, his insights into the importance of organization and social structures, and his intuitive grasp of the religious needs and possibilities of his era, Calvin was able for forge an alliance between religious thought and action which made Calvinism a wonder of its age.


  1. Hi Jason,

    My favourite is Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography (Eerdmans, 2000). What do you think of it?


  2. Hey Paul. Good to hear from you. I haven’t read all of Cottret’s book, but am familiar with it. It is a helpful (and readable) treatment.


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