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Calvin’s Latin

Carl P. E. Springer


In this paper, I will examine John Calvin’s Latin style, paying special attention to his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While Calvin’s works have been studied extensively over the years, the scholarly attention they have received has been almost exclusively from a theological perspective. In this paper, I want to explore how a consideration of his Latin prose from a literary vantage point may help readers to appreciate how Calvin’s thoughts (res) and the language (verba) he used to express these thoughts are related.

Calvin’s training in Latin was thorough. Already in his preparation for the priesthood under the tutelage of Maturin Cordier, he excelled in Latin. When he went on at age 18 to study Roman law at Orléans, he came under the influence of the humanist, Andreas Alciati, directly, and Cicero and Quintilian, indirectly. Devoting increasingly more of his energy to classical philology, Calvin prepared a commentary on Seneca’s De clementia.i It was published in 1532 but sold poorly.ii The work that established his reputation, his Institutio religionis Christianae, was first published in 1536 in Latin. Calvin produced a second edition of the work in Latin before he finally completed a French translation in 1541. An even longer Latin version appeared in 1559.

Although he spoke and wrote French as his first language, it was in Latin that Calvin’s influence was able to spread quickly beyond Geneva and other French speaking regions of Europe. I will argue here that Calvin did not use Latin for this reason only. Calvin loved the ancient language, not only as a young man, and continued to use it throughout the course of his life. According to his biographer, Theodor Beza, he reread Cicero every year. The enormous success of Calvin’s Institutes, at least for its earliest readers, must have owed much to the clarity, cogency, and beauty of the language in which it was written, "Ciceronian" Latin.

I will use the opening words of the Institutes to illustrate this point:

Tota fere sapientiae nostrae summa, quae uera demum ac solida sapientia censeri debeat, duabus partibus constat: cognitione Dei, et nostri. Illa scilicet, quae non modo unum esse Deum ostendat, quem ab omnibus oporteat coli et adorari: sed simul etiam doceat, illum unum omnis ueritatis, sapientiae, bonitatis, iustitiae, iudicii, misericordiae, potentiae, sanctitatis fontem esse.

This is impressive Latin prose written in a stately periodic style, correct, pellucid, and ornamented appropriately. Verbs are positioned at the end of phrases, not directly following the subject; the relative clause of characteristic is in the subjunctive; the indirect statement uses the accusative and infinitive construction. Even though the sentences are fairly long and quite intricate there is nothing here that is obscure. The antithesis in the second sentence, for instance, is made explicit. And the passage is ornamented - but not overly so. The most conspicuous figure, asyndeton, is appropriate to the context, not simply added as a decorative flourish: the conjunctions that one might expect to find connecting the eight nouns in the genitive are missing, but God is the connecting element that conjoins them. This is made all the more emphatic by the fact that the nouns are enclosed within the adjective and the noun describing God. The effect is not only acoustically striking but meaningful. While the positive values that flow from God are many, they all have but one source, a fundamental Christian and Calvinist doctrine.

Like his rhetorical model, Cicero, Calvin knew that how something is taught can be as important as what is taught. His sparkling verba play a critical role in teaching, delighting, and moving readers of his Latin, as the author seeks to help them understand more fully the res in which he so devoutly believed.

i Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven and London, 2009), pp. 22-3.
ii  Ford Lewis Battles and André Malan Hugo, Calvin’s Commentary on Seneca’s De clementia (Leiden, 1969), p. 386.

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Neo-Latin Texts in a World Context: Current Research

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