The Protestant Reformation has long had the reputation as being a movement of “the Book”, led by reformers like John Calvin who were “men of the Book”. The essays in this volume reveal many of the underlying complexities of these terms. Building on research and scholarly discussions of recent decades, these authors delve into a variety of topics related to John Calvin and the printed word, ranging from the physical changes in printed texts in the first decades of the Reformation to Calvin’s thinking about the relationship of two books – the Bible and his own Institutes – to Christian doctrine.
Calvin remains a towering figure in the Protestant Reformation, whose theology and religious views are still often cast as rigid and unchanging. These essays emphasize, in contrast, the evolutions and transitions that were fundamental to Calvin’s own participation in the Reformation and to the ways that his leadership influenced developments in Reformed Christianity in the following centuries.
The contributors, international experts on the history of Calvin and Reformed Protestantantism and on Calvin’s theology, bring a wide variety of historical and theological approaches to bear on the question of Calvin’s relationship to the printed word. Taken all together, these essays will push specialists and general readers to rethink standard assumptions about Calvin’s influence on Reformed Christianity and, in particular, about the interplay among theology, Reformed discipline, religious education efforts, and the printed word in early modern Europe.
The essays here collected … began as papers presented at the 2013 Calvin Studies Colloquium, held at Princeton Seminary. The volume itself reflects the particular focus of that conference and the essays herein are specifically related to the importance of the book in the Reformed and Lutheran traditions.
The volume commences with an Introduction: Calvin, the Book, and Reformed Traditions. Here the editor describes the value of the book in Reformation history. Calvin and Luther as Men of the Book follows; and then the remaining essays are Practicing the Books of Discipline: The Problem of Equality before the Law in Scottish Parish Consistories; Replacing Calvin? The Catechism of Calvin in Eighteenth-Century Geneva; Calvin the Historian: Biblical Antiquity and Scriptural Exegesis in the Quest for a Meaningful Past; Creating a Reformed Book of Knowledge: Immanuel Tremellius, Franciscus Junius, and Their Latin Bible, 1580–1590; God’s Play: Calvin, Theatre, and the Rise of the Book; and lastly “Even More Deeply Moved”: Calvin on the Rhetorical, Formational Function of Scripture and Doctrine.
Even a casual glance at that listing of essays will notice the specificity and narrowness of the topics they discuss.
The authors are – of course – highly qualified and the work they do is superb. The volume is, however, not extensive. It consists of only 173 pages so that readers are left wondering which essays from the Conference were left aside and why. Nonetheless, Zwingli gets a nod here and there, and that makes up for the brevity of the collection.
As to the substance of the work itself, a few excerpts should provide sufficient ‘flavor’ to give potential readers a good idea of the volume’s ‘taste’.
Luther and Calvin were both writers of genius, but they also both understood that a book is more than a text: it is an industrial product, an artifact, that requires the intervention of multiple skills and trades to bring it to an audience. We can only really understand the thought world of the sixteenth century if we keep this in mind (p. 32).
That’s a flash of insight worth remembering.
I will focus on John Calvin’s use of theatre and the influence of this both on his theology and on these cultural developments. First, I will sketch in some significant medieval developments and then suggest how Calvin made use of these in some cases, and parted company with them in others. It is well known that the theatre played a significant role in Calvin’s theological reflection (p. 124).
I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I wasn’t aware that theater played any role at all in the development of Calvin’s theology; nor was I aware that the imagery drawn from theater was anything but illustrative.
The same contributor concludes
Buried in our western consciousness, sometimes too deeply to be an operative part of our lives, is a sense that there is a story, a drama that can bring us life. Our English teachers were right: reading might just help us discover that story. But I believe that sense is present in our consciousness because there is such a book, and such a story (p. 136).
If that notion seems a bit too precious to be applied to Calvin, it may well be. The value of the essay isn’t necessarily its ideological accuracy but its ability to open to readers a potentially fruitful avenue of thought into Calvin’s own mind. Whether or not it succeeds will have to be left to the judgment of each reader. For myself, I confess, I find it wanting simply because it is, again, too precious; too postmodern.
Finally, an observation about the importance of reading footnotes: I’ve long been an advocate of reading notes at the bottom of the page since there is often information contained there which is not only extremely important but also because much that matters isn’t contained in the body of the text. This volume too offers those who bother with the footnotes important news:
The research for this essay was supported by a major grant from the AHRC of the United Kingdom. A full study of these Bibles is forthcoming in Bruce Gordon and Matthew McLean, Protestant Jerome. Reformed Latin Bibles of the Reformation, in the series Library of the Written Word (Leiden: Brill) (p. 96, note 4).
I contacted the good Professor Gordon to enquire further about the volume but have not yet received a reply. It sounds like an incredibly interesting volume, especially given my love of St. Jerome, Latin Bibles, and the Reformation. If I am able to discover anything further I will certainly update here.
As to the book presently under review, I can heartily recommend it. Each essay has something to commend it and the topics – though not of interest to all – will be quite interesting to specialists.