John Calvin

The Strasbourg Years (1538-1541)

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Matthieu Arnold
Felicity McNab
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock Publishers
    , July
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John Calvin: The Strasbourg Years is a collection of fourteen papers presented to a Calvin studies symposium that focused on the reformer’s three years in Strasbourg (1538-1541). The papers give us context and some primary evidence, followed up by appraisals of such themes as Calvin’s cultural contributions, doctrinal developments, and lasting impressions. While these three short years were a very productive period in Calvin’s life, they are often overlooked by researchers in favor of his longer and more productive Geneva years. Indeed, the lack of any previous Strasbourg-focused study makes this a welcome addition to the Calvin canon. The collection offers up expert opinions on a wide(-ish) range of topics, and the editor, Matthieu Arnold, notes that the intention of the collection is to “refine and review” (xv) what scholars think they know about Calvin and his time in Strasbourg in an effort to inspire corrections and further research. This is a noble purpose in itself that the volume largely achieves, and a quick scan of the contents shows that no one paper is so long as to put off the non-expert but interested reader. That reader, however, will have to have some grounding in Reformation and Calvinist studies if they really wish to profit from reading this collection; it is not a book for everyone.

As students of the Reformation know, Calvin spent about three years in Strasbourg at the invitation of the magistrates and religious leadership of the city. He acted as the pastor of the French refugee community, and during this time he also accompanied Bucer and Capito on key diplomatic missions (e.g., Ratisbon, Worms); wrote famous treatises (e.g., the commentary on Romans); and important letters (e.g., to Sadoleto), as well as revising and translating his famous Institutio into new and expanded Latin (1539, 1543) and French (1541) editions. This is the theme of Stephen Buckwalter’s essay on The Intiututio, which details Bucer’s influence on Calvin’s thinking on inter-confessional issues arising in urban settings, Holy Communion, and the importance of John, verse 6, to the Reformed school of thought. Calvin also perfected his preaching style, his literary style, and his understanding of “Reformed” theology (pioneered by Zwingli and Oecolampadius), surrounded as he was by a heavily humanism-influenced scholarly establishment (as detailed in Anton Schindling’s essay, “Jean Calvin and the School of Jean Sturm”). Several of the volume’s essays highlight Calvin’s development as an effective pastoral shepherd. In my opinion, however, the stand-out contributions are Annie Noblesse-Rocher’s piece on Jacques Sadolet, and Volkar Ortmann’s “Calvin and the Religious Colloquia of 1539-1541.” Noblesse-Rocher provides a useful expansion of not only the influences of Calvin’s new environment on his reply to Sadoleto, making it part and parcel of a community exercise, but also the wider impact of the exchange on contemporary Catholic reform, as well as evolving solafideism theology across the board (whether Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed). The Strasbourg religious leadership clearly sought to separate themselves from Lutheran doctrine, and the Ortmann’s essay scrutinizes Calvin’s involvement in the major religious colloquia of the period where this might have been done (Frankfurt, Hagenau, Worms, and Ratisbon), mapping out Calvin’s consistent advocacy of persecuted evangelicals in France, skepticism of proposed compromises with traditional Roman or Lutheran theology, and his growing friendship with and (mutual) respect for with Philip Melanchthon. One minor criticism of some of the essays is that they are often too short (at least for those familiar with Reformation studies), but this is the result of the original medium, meant to inspire question-and-answer sessions, challenges, and defenses in situ rather than fully rounded, contained arguments.

Having read through the papers, it is still difficult to ascertain with certainty how living and working in Strasbourg influenced Calvin’s work and thought, and how much he influenced the Strasbourg leadership with his own ideals, but some points have been greatly clarified. Calvin was familiar with the works of Bucer and Capito, and they with his, long before he reached the city; Calvin knew the reputation of Jacob Sturm (as a humanist and educator) and Sturm knew of Calvin’s reputation. The original symposium was, therefore, faced with a formidable task: deconstructing Calvin’s contemporaneous works to ferret out any details of subsequent change. For example, Bucer espoused an interpretation of a biblical source, and Calvin, post-1539, changed his own understanding of the source to engage with Bucer’s ideas. Sometimes this proved easy, as in the case of putting psalms to music for singing in the church or subsequent editions of Institutio, and sometimes rather more difficult. But where Calvin was exposed to new situations, his brilliance (and his stubborness) shine through. For example, supervision of a parish provided him with insights into social and pastoral questions he had not previously considered; moreover, a parish of refugees (i.e., outsiders) challenged his ideas on church/social unity and the question of diversity. Any conclusions he drew from the situation were sharpened by the necessity of closer interaction with Anabaptists (who challenged his stance on unity), whom the magistrates wanted accommodated but who gave the religious authorities administrative and doctrinal nightmares. For Calvin, the church is a society of Christians in the process of becoming sanctified (of becoming Christian) while acknowleding their imperfections, directly contradicting Anabaptist sectarianism. To reiterate the initial warning, however: while this collection covers a wide range of topics and themes, and offers some often very interesting new insights, it is not directed at readers without a foundation in Reformation studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew A. Chibi is Director of the Distance Learning Association in Sheffield, UK.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthieu Arnold is Professor of Modern History at the University of Strasbourg.

Felicity McNab is a freelance translator of Huguenot descent, living in England. Her work includes the translation of History of the Conquest of Abyssinia from the French "Histoire de la conquete d'Abyssinie," by Jules Perruchon (broadcast on BBC World Service), The Abductor from "Ravisseur," by Leila Marouane, and True Piety from "La vraie piete," by John Calvin in 2014. She has also worked for several departments of the Irish Civil Service in patent translating and as a court interpreter.



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