Book Review

"Life Writing in Reformation Europe: Lives of Reformers by Friends, Disciples and Foes" by Irena Backus

Patrick J. O'Banion
Irene Backus
Thursday, June 11th 2009
Jun/Jul 2009

Luther threw inkwells at the devil. Calvin dictated books to his secretary during bouts of insomnia. Young Theodore Beza gave up his legal studies to write poetry full time in Paris. Such historical anecdotes have resonated for some five centuries now. Have you ever wondered whence they came? Occasionally, we get them from the horse's mouth, as it were. With Luther, for example, the remarkable Table Talk contains the Reformer's words and stories as recorded by students who shared his dinner table. Since Little Brother Martin frequently talked about himself, we get to listen in as he regaled his listeners with feats and foibles. But such bonanza sources are rare, and most of the anecdotes that proliferate, even today, come to us through biographies, or lives, written by those who knew the great Reformers or otherwise had a claim to speak authoritatively about them. It is to these sources that Irena Backus has turned in her most recent book.

Backus contends that these lives are an important source of information. But, curiously, their significance has little to do with the particulars of the Reformers' personal lives. Rather, the biographies illuminate "the nature, status and context of the various Reformations" (229). That is, they demonstrate the various ways in which friends, enemies, disciples, even governments, used the memory of the Reformers to accomplish a wide variety of goals. Backus demonstrates, for instance, how quickly Luther was turned into a symbol for German Lutheran national unity. Similarly, in 1531, just two years after Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich, died, his devoted friend Oswald Myconius produced a Life of Zwingli that presented him as a virtually sinless Protestant saint and a worker of posthumous miracles.

As this implies, the early biographies of the Reformers conformed to a different set of rules than do modern examples of the genre. As it was understood in the sixteenth century, a biography was meant to "treat the subject's intellectual and moral qualities and make a number of didactic points intended to edify the readers so that they follow the biographee's example" (122). The lives, then, were not rigorously researched academic works. Rather, like medieval saints' lives, their purpose was to encourage, challenge, and uplift by presenting readers with godly examples.

Having attacked the Roman Catholic cult of saints, however, Protestantism and most Protestant life writers had qualms about creating a new pantheon of saints. Indeed, those biographers who wrote sympathetically of the Reformers found themselves struggling to find their voice. Beza, for instance, was involved in three separate attempts to craft Calvin's biography. Often, Protestant biographers found themselves vacillating between traditional medieval saints' lives and the models of classical antiquity as they sought to depict their subjects in a fashion that would edify readers, answer the libelous attacks of opponents, and demonstrate that the developing confessional Protestant communities remained true to the spirit of their founders.

Those communities became inextricably bound to individual Reformers-Geneva to Calvin, Zurich to Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, Germany to Luther, and so on. As this occurred, the Reformers themselves became less individuals than pawns in the games of party politics. The stakes were high politically, socially, and theologically. And the debates drew in not just scholars but kings and common folk as well. In the 1580s, for example, both Beza and Stephen Laing, a bitter Scottish opponent of the Reformation, dedicated works about the Reformers' lives to James VI of Scotland. Beza lauded his subjects while Laing was virulently hostile toward them, but both authors hoped their book would sway the monarch's opinion and gain his support for their cause.

As this vignette suggests, not all of the lives were written by sympathetic authors. Indeed, during the era of the Reformation, Roman Catholics hostile to the spread of Protestantism developed the anti-life, describing their subjects as the most wicked of men-ruthless, bloody, tyrannical, sexually deviant, and (sometimes quite literally) the children of Satan.

Jerome Bolsec's life of Calvin (1577), for instance, described the Reformer as a dissolute and power-grubbing lecher whose poor health was proof of God's displeasure. Bolsec's negative depiction of Calvin, like that of Luther by Johannes Cochlaeus, became, for many, the standard depiction of the man. And even today, in both the academy and the church, it is often the salacious rumors first spread by those sixteenth-century antagonists that come to mind when students and laypeople think of the Reformers.

There is, of course, great irony in all of this. How did those who attacked the cult of saints and reminded the church of the radical sinfulness of all men so quickly become quasi-saints themselves? Why were they recast as the gold standard for the Christian life? Those who argued for the sufficiency of Christ in salvation became indispensable figureheads for their theological traditions. Sadly, the political and religious context of Reformation Europe created an environment in which being honest about the foibles and sins of certain key figures became very difficult. When, for example, Calvin described himself as a "tyrant" in a letter to a friend and admitted that he struggled with that aspect of his character, this became fodder for Roman Catholic opponents seeking to soil his reputation and his theology. Conversely, examples abound of Protestants softening the rough edges of the Reformers in order to make them more appealing and acceptable.

Roman Catholic apologists ought not to have spread rumors that have tarred the reputation of individuals for centuries. But those who saw Luther, Calvin, and Bullinger as the formulators of their theological tradition erred in turning those men into moral paragons and quasi-saints. As Calvin himself reminds us in his Institutes, the human mind "is a perpetual factory of idols." On this quincentenary of his birth, it is appropriate to remember that, while Calvin was a remarkable individual in many regards, his own theology leads us to remember him primarily as a sinner saved by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone.

Thursday, June 11th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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