Published on March 9, 2020 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Baker Academic, 2018 | 208 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Andre A. Gazal


The reforming career of John Calvin consisted of almost endless controversy as he was compelled to defend not only his reform program in Geneva, but also his doctrine from sundry opponents. Yet, according to Gary Jenkins in his book, Calvin’s Tormentors: Understanding the Conflicts That Shaped the Reformer, Calvin’s battles with his many detractors actually shaped his theology. Throughout this work, Jenkins trenchantly examines the manner in which the reformer’s conflicts with ten adversaries contributed to the ongoing development of his theology. In this regard, the author devotes one chapter to each opponent.

Chapter 1 concerns one of Calvin’s earliest antagonists, Louis du Tillet, a member of a noble French family whom the young Calvin befriended as a student in Paris. In the wake of the University of Paris’ fierce reaction to Nicholas Cop’s convocation address in 1533, Calvin took refute with du Tillet at his family’s estate. There Calvin took advantage of the immense library there which enabled him to write his first theological treatise, Psychopannychia against the Anabaptist doctrine of soul sleep. It was also at this library where Calvin commenced his work on the Institutes. Calvin and du Tillet also travelled together where they took refuge at such places as the court of Margarite of Navarre at Meaux as well as Basle and Ferrara. After Calvin and du Tillet left Ferrara due to political misfortunes having befallen the French evangelicals with Calvin returning to France momentarily to administrate the affairs of his recently deceased father’s estate. Significantly, they travelled together to Geneva where they eventually joined Farel in the work of reform there. Du Tillet was present in Geneva with Calvin and Farel up to their expulsion from the city by its magistrates in 1538 for their refusal to adopt the liturgical rites of Berne in its services as well as their insistence for ministers to practice excommunication (as demonstrated by Calvin and Farel themselves when the withheld communion from the entire city). From there, Jenkins traces the course of Calvin’s correspondence with du Tillet over the subject of Nicodemism, the term attached to those who externally participated in the rites of the Roman Church even though they privately held to evangelical beliefs. With Calvin strongly opposing Nicodemism, and du Tillet being more sympathetic towards it, the two finally ended their friendship over the issue with du Tillet eventually returning to Rome. The author ends the chapter by calling attention to the irony that Calvin, who from 1538 onward stridently denounced Nicodemism had himself been a Nicodemite.

Chapter 2 details Calvin’s conflict with Peter Caroli who accused him of Arianism. This was because Calvin, in his earlier career as a theologian, minimized extra-biblical terms in describing doctrine. However, the controversy forced Calvin to reassess his view on this, resulting in both his use and defense of such terms as “Trinity,” etc. in identifying truths taught in Scripture.

Chapter 3 examines the life and career of Jacopo Cardinal Sadoleto (1477-1547) in order to provide the larger context for his polemical exchange with Calvin. Throughout this chapter, Jenkins notes, that despite Calvin’s portrayal of this humanist scholar as dogmatic champion of the Roman Church, Sadoleto was actually an Erasmian who participated with Gaspero Contarini (1483-1542), Reginald Pole (1500-1558), Gian Pietro Caraffa (the future Pope Paul IV (1476-1559)) in various aspects of reform within the Roman Church. His biblical commentaries aroused suspicion on the part of papal officials, particularly Tomoso Badia, the Master of the Sacred Palace. Sadoleto further incurred the reproach of controversialists like Johann Eck, Johann Cochlaeus, and Johannes Fabri for the irenic nature of his correspondence with Protestant reformers like Philipp Melanchthon. It was with this same irenic spirit that Sadoleto composed his well-known letter to the magistrates of Geneva in an effort to persuade them to return to Rome. However, the more strident opponents of the Protestants regarded this missive as counterproductive.

Calvin’s most infamous and controversial “tormentor,” Michael Servetus (1509-1553), is the subject of chapter 4. Throughout his discussion, Jenkins points out, that contrary to popular opinion, this most enigmatic character was not a unitarian, but rather a modalist who predicated his alleged anti-trinitarianism upon his appropriation of Neoplatonism, which in itself had undergone a revival among humanist scholars during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Moreover, the author notes that Calvin’s adversarial relationship with Servetus predates all of his other controversies for the exception of that with du Tillet. After their extensive polemical exchange, Servetus, having escaped prison in Vienne where he was awaiting execution, found his way to Geneva, despite Calvin’s warning, where he was eventually recognized in the Church of St Pierre, and arrested. Even though Calvin, as the theological prosecutor, drew up the charges against Servetus, it was ironically, the reformer’s opponents, the “Libertines” on the city council, who judged and eventually sentenced Servetus to death. Servetus’ trial and execution would serve as rhetorical ammunition by his other opponents, especially Sebastian Castellio (1516-1563).

Castellio is the subject of chapter 5. At first an admirer and close associate of Calvin’s, Castellio’s friendship with the reformer eventually dissolved in Geneva when he vehemently opposed his spiritual interpretation of the Song of Songs as well as his explanation for Christ’s descent in hell in the Apostles’ Creed.  Later in Geneva incurred Calvin’s fierce opposition over his literal interpretation of the Song of Songs as an erotic poem rather than a spiritual parable illustrating God’s intimate love for the Church. Calvin’s rebuke to Castellio for his public criticism emboldened him in his opposition. Castellio’s views earned him considerable criticism not only from Calvin, but many other reformers as well. As the animosity between Calvin and Castellio increased, it cost the latter professionally in that it ultimately prevented him from securing a pastoral position within the environs of Geneva, and eventually his banishment. This controversy between Calvin and Costellio ultimately led to debate over the lawful authority of civil authorities to suppress religious dissent initiating for the first time discussion of religious toleration.

Much of the controversy Calvin faced in Geneva came from the city’s prominent families. Jenkins gives considerable attention to these local “tormentors” in chapter 6 on Calvin’s engagement with the Enfants de Geneve. To highlight the intense animus these prominent citizens had towards Calvin, the author references Philibert Berthlier’s admitted flatulence in the middle of one of the reformer’s sermons in defiance of his proscriptions against coughing and other irreverent behavior during public worship. Jenkins situates this rancorous relationship between Calvin and these foremost citizens in the context of Geneva’s recent achievement of independence from the Duke of Savoy, whose governing instrument was the city’s bishop as well as its tenuous alliance with Protestant city-states like Berne in whose aid it depended. With regards to the latter instance, it was Calvin and Farel’s opposition to the Bernese liturgical forms the city council expected them to implement that ultimately resulted in their expulsion from Geneva in 1538 as well as their audacious move to excommunicate the whole city by refusing to administer communion to anyone within its boundaries over issue of excommunication. Yet even after Calvin and Farel’s departure, there were two factions in Geneva, the Guillermines, those who sympathized with the reformers, and the Articulants, who opposed them. When the Guillermines, the most influential of whom was Ami Perrin, ascended to power in Geneva, they invited Calvin to return. Upon his return, Calvin, at the behest of the city council, drafted the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, and embarked upon a program of further ecclesiastical and societal reform that brought him into frequent conflict even among his supporters. Especially contentious was Calvin’s insistence that excommunication be exercised by the city’s ministers. Calvin’s position on the ministers’ sole use of excommunication as well the Consistory’s discipline of prominent citizens for various offences alienated his strongest allies, like Perrin, whose wife was regularly disciplined for her fondness of dancing. The relationship between Calvin and Perrin steadily disintegrated (no doubt in part because his wife and father-in-law were regularly facing discipline by the Consistory) to the point of personal attacks with the reformer dubbing Perrin, who was the captain general of Geneva, “Caesar comicus.” The root of this animosity on the part of important citizens towards Calvin was fear of returning to a form of clerical rule from which they had liberated the city back in 1535.

Chapter 7 details the convoluted journey of another of Calvin’s opponent, Francois Baudoin ( 1520-73) from Protestantism to the fold of the Roman Church. In his discussion, Jenkins notes that Baudoin’s trajectory began very similarly to Calvin’s. He began his education in the study of law in which he came under the same legal and humanistic influences as Calvin. Moreover, from within these humanistic circles, Baudoin, like Calvin, embraced the Reformation, which resulted in his exile as well. Baudoin’s pilgrimage in Protestantism reached its climax in 1546 when he joined Calvin in Geneva, where he served as his personal secretary, living in his house, beginning in 1547. However, failure to obtain in academic appointment in Geneva prompted Baudoin to seek other employment, eventually securing a professorship in law at the University of Bourges in 1548. Throughout the next twelve years, Baudoin immersed himself in the study of law and history. These studies eventually led Baudoin to a more nuanced ecclesiology, causing him Calvin’s allegedly more precise doctrine of the church. The rift between Baudoin and Calvin further widened because of the former’s effort at the Colloquy of Poissy to promote the Augustana as a basis for reunion among the disputing confessions. Calvin, to the contrary, opposed the use of this confession because he feared it would undermine unity among the Huguenots. Eventually, Baudoin’s further disillusionment with the prospect of reconciliation given the increasing rigidity of Protestantism, especially as represented by Calvin, led him into the Roman Church.

Chapter 8 examines one of the bitterest of Calvin’s conflicts, that with Jerome Bolsec (d. 1584). Bolsec is infamously distinguished for his inflammatory, slanderous, and salacious biography of Calvin as his very publicized dispute with the reformer over his doctrine of predestination. Probably the most instructive aspects of this chapter is the manner in which the author locates this dispute within the larger narrative of Calvin’s own theological development with respect to predestination. The specific doctrine of predestination that Calvin held, and that Bolsec so vehemently opposed, was that of “double predestination” according to which God, according to the good pleasure of his will from eternity, determined who would be saved, and damned without consideration of unseen merit. Throughout the chapter Jenkins traces the development of Calvin’s doctrine from its very tentative form in the 1536 edition of the Institutes to its fuller, mature explication in his response to the Catholic theologian, Albertus Pighius, about free will. Significantly, Jenkins observes that the Bolsec controversy revealed the glaring disagreement between Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, and that of other Reformed theologians, particularly Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75) of Zurich who went as far as to tell his counterpart in Geneva, “For you ought to believe me that many are offended by your words in the Institutes on the matter of predestination…” (116). The controversy with Bolsec not only increased attention to the doctrine of predestination, but resulted in malicious portrayals of Calvin’s character that fueled the polemics of his opponents well beyond the reformer’s lifetime.

The so-called “second eucharistic controversy” precipitated by the literary debate between Calvin and the Gnesio-Lutheran theologian Joachim Westphal (1510-74) is the subject of chapter 9. As he does in chapter 8, Jenkins situates this controversy within the context of Calvin’s developing eucharistic thought. Throughout this chapter Jenkins notes that Calvin essentially held to Martin Bucer’s interpretation of the eucharistic article in the 1530 Augustana by way of the Wittenberg Concord (1536) which the Strasbourg reformer was instrumental in drafting. This understanding of the Eucharist stood in stark contrast to that propounded the theologians of Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli, and his successor, Heinrich Bullinger, heavily stressed the memorialist aspect of the sacrament. However, in order to form an alliance among the Reformed in the face of the ominous threat posed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who defeated the Schmakaldic League at Muhlberg in 1547, Calvin and Bullinger signed a compromised agreement on the Eucharist, the Consensus Tigurinus, in 1549. Conspicuously absent from this agreement, Jenkins rightfully observes, is any element of Calvin’s own eucharistic doctrine. Thus, it was the theology of the Consensus Tigurinus that Calvin ultimately defended against Westphal, which in the author’s estimation ultimately failed because the reformer of Geneva underestimated the resolve of the Gnesio-Lutherans in stridently maintaining their position. Furthermore, Calvin succumbed to the onslaught of the Lutheran resistance as well as dismay over the inevitability of war. Thus, Calvin’s sacrifice of his own convictions for the sake of peace failed.

Finally, chapter 10 analyzes Calvin’s conflicts with the Italian anti-Trinitarian radicals who ill-affected the Reformation in Poland: Matteo Gribaldi, Francisco Stancaro, Giorgia Biandrata, and Laelius Socinus, and his nephew, Faustus. This is truly one of the most fascinating chapters in the book as Jenkins trenchantly shows how these radicals, especially Laelius and Faustus Socinus, were able to advance their doctrines by exploiting the alleged imprecision and inconsistency of Calvin’s Christology. Specifically, they attacked Calvin’s doctrine with respect to Christ’s merit in the Institutes 2:17.1-6. Appropriating Scotus, Calvin maintained that Christ merited nothing apart from God accepting his righteousness and death as meritorious based on the divine decree. Laelius Socinius tried to demonstrate that this could not work on the grounds that if Christ could merit salvation by his obedience, then merit could not be gracious, but dependent on works. Furthermore, if Christ’s merit is based only on God’s decree as God’s gracious act, then how could Christ alone be truly mediator and savior since his redemptive work would be merely “accidental” (170)? Indeed, Socinus contended, Calvin contradicted himself by asserting in some instances Christ’s inherent righteousness, an in others averring that his righteousness is based on the divine decree. By employing this strategy, Socinus had hoped to demolish Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement. If Socinus could destroy this view of the atonement, then there would be no need for a divine Christ to reconcile human beings to God.

Calvin’s Tormentors successfully presents the reader with another perspective through which to interpret the development of numerous aspects of Calvin’s theology. The crucial necessity of responding to sundry opponents forced the reformer to refine his doctrine as these detractors regularly confronted him with inherent weaknesses in it. Thus, in many ways, Calvin’s “tormentors” proved to be invaluable assets in his theological formation. Calvin’s Tormentors is a useful text for courses on the Reformation, Calvin’s life and thought as well as the history of Reformed theology. It is and will continue to be an invaluable resource for scholars, students, pastors, and informed laypeople for years to come.


Andre Gazal is Vice President of Academic Affairs at Montana Bible College in Bozeman, Montana.

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Baker Academic, 2018 | 208 pages

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