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John Calvin’s prophetic calling and the memory

By Jon Balserak


What is the self, and how is it formed? In the case of Calvin, we might be given a glimpse at an answer if we consider the context from which he came. Calvin was part of a society that was still profoundly memorial in character; he lived with the vestiges of that medieval culture that’s discussed so brilliantly by Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers — a society which committed classical and Christian corpora to remembrance and whose self-identity was, in a large part, shaped and informed by memory. Understanding his society may help us to understand not only Calvin but, more specifically, something of his prophetic self-consciousness.

To explore this further, I might call to memory that wonderful story told by Carruthers of Heloise’s responding to her friends when they were trying to dissuade her from entering the convent. Heloise responded to them by citing the words of Cornelia from Lucan’s poem, “Pharsalia”. Carruthers explains that Heloise had not only memorized Cornelia’s lament but had so imbibed it that it, as set down in words by Lucan, helped her explain her own feelings and in fact constituted part of her constructed self. Lucan’s words, filling her mind and being memorized and absorbed through the medieval method of reading, helped Heloise give expression to her own emotional state and, being called upon at a moment of such personal anguish, represented something of who she was; they helped form and give expression to her self-identity. The account, and Carruthers’s interpretation of it, is so fascinating because it raises such interesting questions about how self-identity is shaped. Was a medieval man or woman in some sense the accumulation of the thoughts and experiences about which he or she had been reading? Is that how Heloise’s behaviour should be interpreted?

John Calvin by Hans Holbein the Younger. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
John Calvin by Hans Holbein the Younger. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Does this teach us anything about Calvin’s self-conception? One can imagine that if Calvin memorized and deeply imbibed the Christian corpus, particularly the prophetic books, that perhaps this affected his self-identity; that it was his perceptive matrix when he looked both at the world and at himself. To dig deeper, we might examine briefly one of Calvin’s experiences. One thinks, for instance, of his account of being stopped in his tracks by Guillaume Farel in Geneva in 1536. He recounts that Farel, when he learned that Calvin was in Geneva, came and urged him to stay and help with the reforming of the church. Farel employed such earnestness, Calvin explains, that he felt stricken with a divine terror which compelled him to stop his travels and stay in Geneva. The account reads not unlike the calling of an Old Testament prophet, such as Isaiah’s recorded in Isaiah 6 (it reads, incidentally, like the calling of John Knox as well). So what is one to make of this? This account was written in the early 1550s. It was written by one whose memory was, by this point in his life, saturated with the language of the prophetic authors. Indeed, it might be noted that Calvin claims in numerous places in his writings that his life is like the prophet David’s; that his times are a “mirror” of the prophets’ age. So is all of this the depiction of his constructed self spilling out of his memory, just as it was with Heloise?

The question is actually an incredibly fascinating one: how is the self formed? Does one construct one’s ‘self’ in a deliberate, self-conscious manner? What is so interesting, in relation to Calvin and the story just recounted, is not merely that he seems to have interpreted this episode in his life as a divine calling — so important was it, in fact, that he rehearsed it in his preface to his commentary on the Psalms, the one document in which he gives anything like a personal account of his calling to the ministry in fairly unambiguous language — but that his account should be crafted after the manner of Old Testament prophets descriptions of their callings. That is what is so intriguing and important here. It is true, as I have just said, that he wrote this many years after the event and it seems most probably to have been something which he did exercise some care over. All of that is true. But none of this takes anything away from the fact that Calvin, when he wanted to tell the story of his calling, used imagery from the prophetic books to do so. He could easily have mentioned many things or adopted various methods for explaining the way in which God called him into divine service, but he didn’t choose other methods, he turned to the prophets.

Why did he do this? Surely the answer to that question is complicated. But equally certain, it seems to me, is the fact that his ingesting of the prophetic writings represents a likely element in such an answer. For if, as Carruthers argues, memory is the matrix of perception, then Calvin’s matrix was profoundly biblical and, especially, prophetic. Naturally, much could be said by way of explaining why he interpreted this episode in his life in the way that he did. But the fact that his mind turned towards this prophetic trope says an immense amount about Calvin and the resource by which he interpreted himself and his life.

Jon Balserak is currently Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Bristol. He is an historian of Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, particularly France and the Swiss Confederation. He also works on textual scholarship, electronic editing and digital editions. His latest book is John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet (OUP, 2014).

To learn more about John Calvin’s idea of the self, read “The ‘I’ of Calvin,” the first chapter of John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet, available via Oxford Scholarship Online. Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) is a vast and rapidly-expanding research library. Launched in 2003 with four subject modules, Oxford Scholarship Online is now available in 20 subject areas and has grown to be one of the leading academic research resources in the world. Oxford Scholarship Online offers full-text access to academic monographs from key disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, science, medicine, and law, providing quick and easy access to award-winning Oxford University Press scholarship.

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Recent Comments

  1. Debbie

    Substitute “social media” for “prophetic writings”–perhaps how today’s Self is formed.

  2. Jon Balserak

    Hi Debbie,

    Thanks for the comment. I would have responded sooner but was on holiday.

    I suspect you might be right. My only wonder would be whether we today imbibe anything (social media, music, etc) to the same depth that people did prior to the Enlightenment. Will Self, the writer, had an interesting column in the Guardian newspaper about 2 months ago in which he argued that our society is changing and, with that change, he sees the decline of the novel. He compared it to the decline in classical music. His argument is that social media is creating a society in which people simply cannot concentrate in the same way upon a text. I am no expert on social change but am inclined to think he is correct.

    Anyway thanks for the comment! If you are right, your point raises fascinating issues for a range of topics – ethics, government, etc.

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