Bruce Gordon: Keeping the Reformation Relevant
By Ray Waddle
Editor, Reflections Magazine
The court of public opinion hasn’t been terribly kind to John Calvin. Nearly 450 years since his death, his name has become synonymous with a certain style of spiritual severity – inflexible, brooding, humorless.
Bruce Gordon, Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at YDS, was well aware of the Protestant reformer’s reputation, but he also knew that Calvin was more complicated than the clichés admitted. In his acclaimed 2009 book Calvin (Yale University Press), Gordon redresses distortions and sketches the life and work of this pivotal church leader for 21st century readers. For many church leaders and commentators, Calvin’s vexed preoccupations with God, Bible, and church unity still ring true. His shadow reaches across religious life today.
“There’s a general feeling that Calvin was a hardened, inflexible figure, that if he didn’t get his way he’d demolish his opponents,” Gordon says.
“But actually he believed in leadership through flexibility. He believed himself above all to be a servant of the church who was called to a particular moment when reformation was a powerful force, and everything was hanging in the balance. The question was: how to keep it unified? That impressed me – how committed he was to preserving that unity. He was prepared to be flexible in a range of ways, for he was terrified the Reformation would fail and fragment.”
What Gordon did for John Calvin is something he endeavors to do for the Reformation itself – bring it to vivid life for new students and readers at a time when that tumultuous era is no longer viewed as a central explanation of the beginnings of the modern world.
“As a discipline the Reformation has retreated quite considerably in the academy in the last 20-30 years,” he says.
“It’s very much a minority interest. Yale is one of the few places in the U.S. where you can do a Ph.D. in Reformation. As a result, though, we hear from lots of people who are interested in studying it.”
Today the traditional textbook narrative of the rise of western culture has fragmented. Research interests have moved to other historical forces – Asian and African history, Mideast studies, anthropology, social histories – in the effort to chart and comprehend the contemporary, globalized world.
“There was a time when people were aware of the Reformation as the beginning point of the modern world,” Gordon says.
“It helped frame the rise of nation states, scientific knowledge, the fundamental shift of religion with the formation of confessions and denominations, the changing relation of church and state, the age of religious wars – the importance of all this in creating Europe, which sets the stage for the Enlightenment and beyond.
“That’s not the case now. I no longer walk into a classroom assuming students know something about it. This is an interesting challenge. It’s new, uncharted territory for them.”
Gordon’s interest in the power of history to shape the present goes back to his childhood in Canada. He got curious about the epochs of history and knowledge that he wasn’t hearing about in his own church milieu.
“I grew up in a kind of liberal Christian background, with a form of Christian history that emphasized early church and Reformation but said nothing about the millennium in-between. I was absolutely fascinated by that 1,000-year gap. I threw myself into it and loved it. But I knew I’d want to come back to the Reformation, looking at it as an outgrowth of the medieval age, seeing the continuities and innovations there.”
Gordon accordingly specializes in late medieval and Reformation history. Besides teaching classes in Reformation and Calvin, his course offerings include the culture of death in medieval and early modern Europe, and interpretations of medieval religion in literature and film. He received his B.A. at King’s College of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, an M.A. at Dalhousie, and a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He taught at St. Andrews from 1994 to 2008, then joined the YDS faculty. This year, he is also acting chair of the Renaissance Studies program in Yale’s Department of History. His latest project is a study of Reformation-era Protestant translations of the Bible into Latin, which offer a window on Reformer attitudes toward authority, theology, and their own identity in church history.
For Gordon, historical study is a way to “get out of our own skins” and dive into the drama and mystery of human conduct.
“The challenge is not just accepting or condemning what happened in the past but getting out of our own skins to understand why things happened. History constantly requires us to think about how we are interpreting things. It makes us think about the kinds of questions we ask of history and why we ask the questions we do.”
Recent new trajectories in historical research, for instance, have enriched our knowledge of the diverse threads of world history, he says. They have given economic and sociological insights into the late medieval and Reformation periods themselves.
“These diverse approaches demonstrate that the changing role of religion in the early modern period happened not in a linear way but was a complex negotiation of interrelated factors,” Gordon says.
“We study history to find how extraordinarily complex these things emerge, because in the end we are studying human relationships, human nature.”
He cautions that an indifference to Reformation history – the convulsions of the 16th and 17th centuries, the religious and political tumult – is poor preparation for understanding 21st century cultural change.
“YDS students are learning to become interpreters of culture, whether in sermons or whatever form the communication takes,” he says.
“Understanding the dominant ideas and conflicting impulses of the Reformation is not just background information at a place like YDS. We see ourselves as part of the big picture only by being informed about these areas from history.
“It’s very difficult, for instance, to talk of the modern state, or the breakdown of the nation state, if we don’t look at the formation of state culture in Europe in the early modern period. The way religion is domesticated by the state – the roots of secularism – these questions were launched in the 16th century.”
Despite Calvin’s search for unity, the religious fragmentation that he feared eventually stormed across Europe. That shattered unity continues to define – and enliven and trouble – the religious scene in the U.S. and abroad.
Readers and churchgoers will likely find their way back to Calvin, and to studies like Bruce Gordon’s, because of Calvin’s ambitious attempt, using powerful prose, to discern God’s will in the individual soul and in turbulent society.
“What made Calvin Calvin, and not another 16th-century writer, was his brilliance as a thinker and writer, and above all, his ability to interpret the Bible,” Gordon writes in his book.
“His coherent, penetrating and lucid vision of God’s abiding love for humanity, expressed in some of the most exquisite prose of his age, has continued down the centuries to instruct and to inspire. Like all great writers, he transcends his time.”