Randall C. ZACHMAN, Editor, John Calvin and Roman Catholicism: Critique and Engagement, Then and Now. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008. Pp. 224. Np pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-3597-5.
Reviewed by Jill RAITT, Fontbonne University, St. Louis, MO 63105

Solid historical studies help ecumenical dialogues to progress toward understanding of differences and the degrees of difference between dialogue partners. This book is a fine example of fruitful willingness to hold to one’s own beliefs and practices while honoring those of others. In fact, I would argue that without such studies and the discussion of their findings, ecumenical dialogues would lack the depth they need to move beyond old suspicions and polemical obfuscations. Once that has been achieved, dialogue can proceed to genuine appreciation for the positive contributions to a fuller grasp of the breadth and depth of Christianity that result from the best dialogues.

The historians who contribute to this volume come from both Reformed and Roman Catholic traditions. Randall Zachman dedicated the volume to a consummate ecumenist, George H. Tavard (deceased 2007), Zachman’s teacher and friend and contributor of the chapter “Calvin and the Nicodemites.” Tavard discusses those Catholics who, although they adopted such Reformation doctrines as justification by faith, remained within the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin accused them of cowardice or love of comfort. Tavard found in them examples of Catholic Evangelicals who, in their own minds, found such doctrines convincing but not enough reason to depart from the church in which they had been baptized. They existed in centuries before the Reformation and in such fine scholars as Lefevre d’Etaples, who, in 1509, interpreted Romans as Luther would years later. But d’Etaples remained a Catholic.

The leading chapter, “Roman Catholic Lives of Calvin from Bolsec to Rechelieu: Why the Interest?” is by Irene Backus. It is a good example of the careful scholarship and familiarity with the sources that has characterized her work during her years at the Institute of Reformation Research at the University of Geneva. Catholic biographers of Calvin in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example Bolsec and Richelieu, were intent to portray him as an immoral heresiarch. An outstanding exception was the Catholic humanist Jean-Papire Masson whose presentation of Calvin has been used by Protestants and Catholics alike who wanted a biography that fell neither into excessive praise nor into vitriolic denunciation.

Two chapters, “Friend and Foe: Reformed Genevans and Ctholic Neighbors in the Time of Calvin” by Karen E. Sperling and “Rules of Engagement: Catholics and Protestants in the diocese of Geneva, 1580-1633” by Jill Fehleison emphasize Geneva’s porous borders and the sort of continuing communication that Geneva could not prevent without endangering its relations with powerful neighbors like Savoy or its reputation as a free Republic. All of the engagements were not of the high level of the meeting between Theodore Beza and Francis de Sales, Catholic Bishop of Geneva and resident in nearby Annecy, who hoped to persuade Beza to return to the Catholic Church—without success, of course. Much of the traffic was of Genevan citizens in and out, with consistorial permission of course, and of ordinary people going off to visit friends and relations.

Carlos N.M. Eire finds an incipient history of religions in the proto-anthropologist that Eire argues Calvin was in the chapter “John Calvin, Accidental Anthropologist.” By denying an age-old ascription of false religions to the influence of the devil or demons and instead ascribing them to the sinful inventiveness of humans looking for deity in the wrong places, Calvin had in common with twentieth-century anthropologists an affirmation of religions as of human origin—except of course, that form of Christianity that held true to God’s revealing and promising Word.

The last two essays complement one another. Randall C. Zackman lays out Calvin’s theology of the sacraments in “Revising the Reform: What Calvin Learned from Dialogue with the Roman Catholics” while Dennis E. Tamburello tells us that he was pushed to spend a sabbatical looking into Calvin’s sacramentality through exchanges with one of his Reformed dialogue partners. The chapter “Calvin and Sacramentality: A Catholic Perspective” puts Calvin in dialogue with Edward Schillebeeckx and David Tracy quite successfully. Both authors extend work of earlier scholars that found sacramental theology a fertile area for positive comparisons of Reformed and Roman Catholic sacraments.

This volume will be useful in seminaries and graduate schools as well as various ecumenical venues, official and unofficial.


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