What Am I Reading? Willem Spijker’s “Calvin: A Brief Guide”

Long-time DET readers know that I have a soft spot for Calvin. My posting will inexorably circle back to him if given enough time. This is one of those times because I’ve been reading Willem van’t Spijker’s Calvin: A Brief Guide to his Life and Thought (WJK, 2009). This is one of a slew of books that were published about Calvin to mark the 500th anniversary of his birth.

Generally I wouldn’t pick up such an introductory volume at this point in my Calvin-reading career, but I hoped this one would provide a glimpse at the state of Calvin scholarship in Europe in general and the Netherlands in particular. It’s hard to know whether that’s what I received, but I will say that the various European languages are well represented in the bibliography. Furthermore, I discovered that Spijker has an effortless way of bringing in a great deal of historical detail that I had not encountered in such an economical, summary fashion before.


For instance, Spijker's treatment of the background to the Reformation period in the French church was very helpful. He provides a quick accounting of what happened when: in the early 14th c. the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges established that the French king would appoint his own bishops; this dovetails with the conciliarist deliverances of the Council of Basel in the same period; this position is reaffirmed between the French king Francis I and Pope Leo X in 1516 at the Concordant of Bologna. The net result of this was to make "the French church more or less independent of the papal see" and, on the flip side, "the church became an instrument of power in the hands of the monarchy."

Happily or not, depending on your perspective, this independence of the French church meant that "measures similar to those taken by Henry VIII of England were wholly unnecessary" (3). It also explains, to some extent, how one ends up with Cardinal Richelieu in the following century, as well as providing background to Calvin's fights with the Genevan magistrates over the jurisdiction of the Genevan church over church discipline: he did not want the Genevan church under the thumb of the Genevan magistrates in a way analogous to the French church's position under the French monarch.

I also appreciated Spijker’s way of relating Calvin to other reformers. My plan is to do another post later specifically about Spijker on Calvin’s relationship to Luther, since I tend to post about that from time to time as well, so I’ll restrict myself for the present to a really nice summary statement that encapsulates what Erasmus, Luther, and Bucer contributed to Calvin’s thought. I’ll conclude this post by quoting from Spijker for you (bold is mine):
Calvin’s critique of scholastic theology appeared already in the oration that he drafted for Nicolas Cop in 1533[*] and that became part of the reason for his flight from France. There he worked with material taken from Erasmus and Luther, the latter in a translation by Bucer. These three were the key names in the construction of his theology: Erasmus, because of his devotion to going back to the sources of theology; Luther, because he was the teacher whose disciple Calvin wished to be; and Bucer, because of the personal influence he exerted on Calvin, the significance of which cannot easily be overestimated. (129)

[*] Ed. Note: We don’t know for sure that Calvin drafted this, but there is a copy of the speech in Calvin’s handwriting.

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