Reckoning with John Calvin’s Brain: #Refo500atDET

Calvin is one of those figures who accomplished such an incredible amount of intellectual work that from time to time one just has to take a step or ten back, get a good view of the lot, and stand in awe. And that awe is only increased when you consider how powerful the content of that work has proven through the centuries. Spijker’s book Calvin: A Brief Guide to His Life and Thought (WJK, 2009) provides some insight into the production of this oeuvre and the brain that produced it. Won’t you join me in getting to know this side of Calvin a bit better? As always, bold is mine.

The first selection from Spijker that I want to share today pertains to some of the first stirrings of Calvin’s brain as a student:
As a student, Calvin was known not only for his sternness; he attracted attention especially because of his intellectual abilities and overall dedication to his studies. His memory was well trained. Not only later at the University of Orléans but already now at Montaigu he must have worked very methodically at memorizing facts and information. He possessed the gift of a sharp and lucid judgment, which enabled him to analyze situations and problems clearly. Perhaps his greatest gift was that of assimilation, his ability to absorb material. In his cognitive work, that automatically led to a natural selection of what seemed important to him. (12–13)
My takeaway from this passage is that—through a combination of natural talent, raw intellectual horsepower, and discipline—Calvin was able to fashion his mind in such a way that it accomplished rather demanding work automatically, and even subconsciously. Upon reading something, not only would he remember it but he intuitively grasped why it was important and what he should do with it. So jealous. I’m also very jealous of this, from Spijker’s elaboration on Calvin’s memory: “he also had a photographic memory, which enabled him to quote sources almost perfectly” (29). This came in handy when writing, obviously, but also enabled him to make quite an impression in debates and colloquies. For instance, one of the first indications that Calvin would be a force to be reckoned with was at the Lausanne disputation in 1536, where he made an impression with “his knowledge of the writings of Cyprian, Tertullian, and Augustine, which he could cite from memory, chapter and verse” (44). And Bucer made sure Calvin went along to various colloquies because he was useful “as someone well read in the fathers” (61; Spijker quoting Bucer).

Turning now away from Calvin’s intellectual tool-box, as it were, and too his production. First, an excerpt about his teaching or lecturing in Geneva, especially toward the end when the Genevan academy really got up and running in the early 1560s:
In his role as professor of Holy Scripture, Calvin had been giving lectures on the books of the Bible ever since his arrival in Geneva in 1536. The founding of university [i.e., the Genevan academy] did not change that, although he now focused especially on the books of the Old Testament. It was out of this activity that his commentaries developed. According to Jean Budé, who wrote a foreword to Calvin’s commentary on the Minor Prophets, Calvin had barely a half hour each time to prepare for a lecture. Usually he would read the text in Hebrew, translate it into Latin, and then begin his explanation. According to the publisher of this series of commentaries, Jean Crespin, Calvin spoke without the use of notes, “extemporaneously and fluently.” He gave three lectures a week, each a full hour, keeping time in the Auditoire by the striking of the clock of St. Peter’s Church next door. (110)
Where to begin with this! Three lectures a week may not sound like much to those who teach in today’s university. But he only had 30 minutes to prepare for each lecture, and he spoke extemporaneously! Anyone who has read even a little bit in Calvin’s commentaries can’t avoid being amazed by this given their richness (check out DET’s Reading Scripture with John Calvin serials, one on 1 Peter and another on Malachi). His command of the requisite languages is both inspiring and demoralizing.

Furthermore, we have to remember that he was also producing multiple editions of his Institutes in both Latin and French, piles of polemical treatises and church order documents, keeping up a voluminous correspondence, and—perhaps above all—preaching. Here’s a short passage from Spijker on the latter:
From 1549 onward, Calvin preached twenty times a month. . . . Calvin never entered the pulpit unprepared; he always immersed himself in the text ahead of time. But he then left it to the current moment to address his material in a discerning way to his audience. (148)
Once again, extemporaneity. But just imagine: twenty sermons and 12-15 lectures a month (depending on whether it’s a 4-week or 5-week month). Those things start to pile up! And what that tells me is that for all Calvin’s brainpower, his unique combination of raw talent and ironclad discipline, what really enabled him to produce the amount of work that he produced was his remaining faithful to the day in and day out work demanded by the reformation of Geneva. The writings that he left us are the lasting monument to that work and to the life-history, the man, who produced them. Which is a good thing because he insisted that his grave go unmarked . . .

#Refo500atDET introduction & schedule available here.


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L.R.E. Larkin said…
Talk about stopping me dead mid complaint about how busy I am... Calvin certainly does inspire one to push harder.

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