Book Reviews

Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone "Out of the Flames" The Story of one of the Rarest Books in the World, and how it changed the Course of History

Century UK 2003 ISBN: 0 7126 7698 8

Michel de Villeneuve (1511?-1553) was a man of many parts and different identities. To the outside world, he was a well-respected physician who cured his patients rather than making them worse. To the world of French publishing, he was an author and researcher with varied interests. At home, when no-one was watching, Michel de Villeneuve was transformed into Michael Servetus, a Spanish-born fugitive, branded a heretic by the Inquisition, but also hunted by European reformers whom he had antagonized as a brash young man. Of these adversaries, Servetus’s enemy-in-chief, John Calvin, had the means and influence required to secure the Spaniard’s destruction.

The publication of Servetus’s theological manifesto, “On the Restoration of Christianity” (Christianismi Restitutio, 1552) ended his medical practice in rural France and led to his initial arrest by the Catholic authorities, his escape from jail and subsequent wanderings, capped by his foolhardy decision to go to Geneva, where Calvin - unable to believe his own good fortune - had Servetus tried by kangaroo court and executed horribly at Champel. Copies of “Restitutio” were burned at the stake along with him. Only 3 were known to have survived, but in time these passed into the emerging antiquarian book market. Gradually, their author’s story spread and left an impression on all who read about his fascinating life and monstrous end.

A small but vital section of “Restitutio” – a throwaway paragraph in an even more elusive text – discusses the pulmonary circulation of the blood, which Servetus had independently observed while performing dissections at medical school in Paris in the 1530s. This discovery broke with the misconceptions of mediaeval physiology, and marks Servetus as one of the fathers of modern medicine. It is hard to read this passage without gasping in amazement – Tyndale’s translation of the opening lines of Genesis has the same effect.

Does “Out of the Flames” add to our knowledge of the Spaniard? The existing bibliography has always been patchy. Reformation textbooks tend to dismiss Servetus in a paragraph or footnote, recycling one another’s entries (another parallel with Tyndale). New titles deliver less than they promise. When I chanced upon a Spanish-language book discussing Miguel Servedo in a bookstore in Seville in 1999 - an “ahah!” moment familiar to book-collectors everywhere - my purchase turned out to be a rehash of Roland Bainton’s earlier account (still the best of the bunch). As a biographical subject, Servetus never seems to attract the attentions of a Roy Jenkins or Alan Bullock, for reasons that will soon become clear. But in Servetus studies, even a flawed biography – and they are all flawed in various ways – can bring the reader to a closer understanding of the subject.

This is especially true if - as with the Goldstones - the biographer’s enthusiasm is infectious. The authors revel in the paradoxes of this extraordinary character. Here was a man who eased the suffering of others but died in agony himself. Here was a fanatical yet secretive heretic who counted orthodox Catholic priests among his friends and moved smoothly through establishment circles, even taking the Mass (a big no-no for other Reformers).

Beyond the documentary record, the authors do not burrow down to the roots of why Servetus, a natural escape artist, allowed himself to get caught in Geneva. We do know that, in contrast to other Reformers, Servetus did not welcome his own sentence of death (“Misericordia!”, he shrieked). There is much more that will remain a mystery.

Servetus holds a powerful attraction for readers of a solitary disposition who root for the brilliant outsider trapped in battles with officialdom. History forgets such individuals and lauds their persecutors, who may have the benefit of a public-relations machine that keeps on ticking long after their deaths, drowning out the cries of their victims. The annals of science tell of inventor Nikola Tesla and his doomed confrontation with Thomas Edison. Calvin was another establishment bully. And Tyndalians know all about Thomas More.

Comparisons of the Servetus and Tyndale stories can be overdone, but they are instructive. Both were gifted linguists who knew the Classical languages inside out, including Hebrew; they were forced to leave home, and its comforts (including the everyday sound of their mother tongue), at an early age. They had a talent for making the wrong enemies. Other common denominators included the ability to make quick getaways; both men knew periods of high tension interspersed with calm. After their arrests, each penned jailhouse letters begging for fresh clothes and better treatment.

What, then, are the pros and cons of “Out of the Flames”?

The authors assume nothing about their readers’ knowledge of the subject – and I mean nothing. Each and every reference, from Erasmus to Luther, from indulgence-selling to the invention of the printing press or the logistics of burning at the stake, is explained in exhaustive detail.

Although Tyndalians may find this all too basic, this meticulous approach has its uses. Other writers and encyclopaedists short-change the confusing logical linkages in the Servetus saga. Previous books used to say such things as “Next we find Servetus in Lyon” or “Servetus practised dissections alongside Vesalius at medical school in Paris”; but it takes the Goldstones to spell out the reasons for Servetus’s move to Lyon, or the precise nature of his connection to Vesalius, etc. Remember that “Flames” is not a conventional work of academic history, but one that approaches the subject from the perspective of antiquarian books, their rarity, their discovery, and their impact. There is novelty in this technique.

At times this feels more like a biography of “Restitutio Christianismi” than about Servetus. Indeed the second part of “Flames” speculates on the roamings through Europe by the handful of surviving copies of “Restoration” that Calvin did not burn. It also describes how the Servetus story touched the lives of intellectuals and booklovers along the way. I was cheered to learn that Voltaire was a Servetus admirer.

Now, “Out of the Flames” has much to offer college students who are new to the subject, but how many are likely to read it? The “great man” school of history - the idea that the movers of history are scientists or intellectuals working in isolation - is congenial to Tyndalians, and to me. Alas, this style of writing is poison in the academic world today, especially in the USA. I fear the Goldstones’ old-fashioned approach to scientific history is unlikely to earn their book much space on college reading lists, although I hope I am mistaken.

There are other quirks and solecisms which could put readers off. Perhaps in an effort to make their book contemporary, the Goldstones rope in modern-day references (Erasmus is the Oscar Wilde of his time; Galen was a practitioner of “sports medicine” at a gladiator training camp). The best of these comes when Calvin’s friends plead with him to get married in order to reduce his irritability (this was a simpler time, note the authors). This quest for street-credibility will annoy readers attuned to more traditionalist language; and they will blench at the cliffhanger sentences tacked on at the end of each section.

Other quibbles follow. The movement to professionalize the practice of medicine in the USA in the 19th century is oversimplified. Evidence-based (non-Galenic) medicine did not exactly start in Paris in the 1530s (Servetus’s namesake Arnaud de Villeneuve was making feints in an empirical direction a couple of centuries beforehand). The Servetus memorial at Champel is not neglected so much as ignored (on my three visits I struck a lonely figure snapping photos by the hillside as cars darted by). I was delighted to learn of the Annemasse memorial, however - and if the Goldstones read this review, they ought to visit the Servetus mural at the Chicago Museum of Surgical Science.

This is not a scissors-and-paste book and it tries to make sense of its baffling subject in a fresh and personal way. The authors’ fascination with Servetus is obvious, and I share it. There are details here and there which justify this book’s inclusion in one’s library. The Goldstones mention that “resurrection stories” began to attach themselves to Servetus’s Parisian colleague, the pioneering anatomist Vesalius. In these anecdotes - presumably circulated by his foes - Vesalius brought patients back from the dead, albeit briefly. I noted this detail with interest, for I remembered how similar tales, implying the use of forbidden knowledge, had grown up around Paracelsus (another 16th century physician) and around Arnaud de Villeneuve! Furthermore, both Arnaud and Paracelsus were alleged to have created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster in their laboratories… In those days, practising medicine was bad for your reputation. Concentrating on medicine would have saved Servetus, but his fate lay elsewhere.

Neil L. Inglis, July 2003

Philip Benedict Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A social history of Calvinism Yale University Press £30 (ISBN 0-300-08812-4)

Benedict’s book is truly a tour de force. In nearly 700 pages, he provides a comprehensive and detailed examination of the Churches of the Reformed tradition, including those somewhat on the confessional fringes of “Calvinism”. Indeed, the use of “Calvinism”, while understandable, is somewhat misleading; the title’s emphasis upon “Reformed” is more accurate.

His work opens with a discussion of the beginnings of both the Swiss tradition and Calvin’s ministry in Geneva. Thus, one sees the conflicts between Zwingli and Luther as well as the rise of Bullinger. This first section ends with a close analysis of Calvin’s thoughts, work and struggles in Geneva.

The carefully nuanced evaluation of Calvin and Geneva sets the stage for what follows in the second section. Here, Benedict considers the major areas of Reformed expansion: France (with a particular analysis of Béarne), Scotland, the Netherlands, the Reformed states of the Holy Roman Empire, Anglicanism and the Reformed tradition (Puritanism), and eastern Europe (Poland, Lithuania and Hungary). Each of these studies is detailed and based on the most up-to-date research available. On their own, each stands as an excellent introduction to the work and place of Reformed thought and ministers in that given area.

However, this approach tends to present the Reformed tradition in a rather episodic manner, and perhaps underplays the internationalist aspects of this brand of Protestantism. This minor defect, though, in no way detracts from the masterly handling of each case study.

The third section takes a more thematic approach, and goes some way to providing a pan-European overview of the Reformed tradition as a truly international movement. Benedict begins with a fascinating discussion of the theological disputes in the Reformed tradition, especially over predestination, and the rise of Reformed “orthodoxy and scholasticism”.

He then examines the fate of the Reformed tradition in the changing political climate of 17th-century Europe. He concludes this section with another case study: the part played by the Reformed tradition in the socio-political and religious struggles of 17th-century Britain.

The fourth section focuses on the socio-cultural impact of the Reformed tradition on the lives of individuals. He examines the ministers and other officers of the Church, then considers the place of discipline in detail. Finally, he looks at the development of a Reformed piety, with an emphasis upon family worship and godliness.

Each section has a brief conclusion that rather neatly brings the episodes and case studies together. The work is supported by nearly 20 illustrations, ten maps, two graphs, and nearly 20 tables. The depth of detail and scholarly research is impressive.

For scholars and students interested either in the Reformed tradition as a whole or in individual Churches in that tradition, this volume will be of great use. The episodic nature of the study (almost unavoidable), and the focus on case studies, may somewhat underplay the internationalism of the Reformed movement, but the two thematic sections largely compensate for this. It is a volume that will remain a standard source for scholars of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition for years to come.

Dr William Naphy

Stanley Malless & Jeffrey McQuain Coined by God: Words and Phrases that First Appear in the English Translations of the Bible Norton, New York hardback pp221 $23.95 (ISBN 0-393-020445-2) 2003

It’s easy to understand how popular English expressions like “salt of the earth” and “reap the whirlwind” derive from the Bible. But what about words like “adoption” and “cucumber”? In “Coined by God: Words and Phrases That First Appear in the English Translations of the Bible”, Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain discuss how many everyday words from Hebrew, Greek and Latin texts were transformed into English. Among their 131 fascinating examples: “female”, which first appeared in John Wycliffe’s now familiar 1382 translation from Genesis: “male and female he made them of nought”; and “botch”, which, in his version of the Chronicles, meant simply “repair”. Shakespeare gave the word its modern meaning when he had Henry V dismiss those who “botch and bungle up damnation [with pious motives]”.

The authors mined seven translations, starting with the first English version by Wycliffe in 1382, and including the King James Bible from 1611. The information on each entry is thorough, quoting the passage in which each word is first found, discussing how others translated it and how the meaning has changed through history. They throw in fun, illuminating examples from modern usage, quoting Gandhi’s famous twist on a phrase from Exodus “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”, and Virginia Woolf ’s rephrasing of Tyndale’s “a double edged sword,” which inspired her to write in “A Room of One’s Own”: “The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish”. It ensures you’ll never watch” Casablanca” or even read the sports pages in quite the same way again.

Tara Pepper

This review entitled `God and Language: a look at the Biblical origins of English` by Tara Pepper was first published in Newsweek on 12 May, 2003

R. M. Kingdon, T. A. Lambert, I. M. Watt ed. trans. M.W. McDonald Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin: Volume 1: 1542-4. Eerdmans, The Meeter Center ii + 470pp. hbk, $50 (ISBN 0 8028 4618 1)

This is an English translation of volume 1 of the meticulously prepared French edition of the Registers — the court reports — of the Consistory of Geneva. (Not to be confused with the Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the time of Calvin trans. P E. Hughes, Eerdmans, 1996). Composed of syndics and councillors, representative of all the districts of the city, together with all the ministers, and elders (in excess of twenty members), the Court had jurisdiction in matters of ecclesiastical discipline over the entire population of Geneva (c. 13,000). Though constituted in this way, according to Calvin the ministers were to have no civil jurisdiction, using only the spiritual sword of the Word of God. Nevertheless, the Consistory may be said to have perpetuated an essentially mediaeval structure of church and state in so far as the church was regarded as coterminous with the political unit (or nearly so), even though the ideals it sought to uphold and inculcate were those of the Reformation, as then understood in Geneva.

The Consistory was set up at Calvin’s insistence on his return to Geneva in 1541. He took its activities with great seriousness, and was invariably present at its hearings, held usually on Thursdays. Extracts from the Ordinances that Calvin prepared, the Consistory’s constitution, are reprinted as an Appendix. The Consistory had the power to admonish and to excommunicate and remitted the more serious cases, which it believed merited a fine or corporal punishment, to the Council of the City. It is estimated that in the first two years the Consistory summoned about six per cent of the entire population.

The chief reason for the publication of this voluminous material now (this is only the first of several volumes) is for the light that it throws on the daily life of Geneva at this time. It will undoubtedly be of great value to historians of the Reformation and to social historians of the period. The editors have traced with amazing thoroughness the family and other connection of those brought before the Consistory for various misdemeanours, and they offer explanations of many of the offences and their significance. The Consistory was concerned not only with breaches of the Second Table of the Decalogue, particularly the Seventh Commandment and matters associated with it, but also with the extirpation of the influence of the old religion, the use of the rosary, the dislike of hearing sermons, attendance at Mass, the use of Latin in worship, etc. Those under suspicion were typically asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer (in French) and the Confession, and admonished for non-compliance. Reading the Registers, even flipping through them, quickly dispels any idealized view of Geneva that one might have had.

From the Registers it is clear that, being an inhabitant of Geneva, one could not but be a member of the Church of Christ, at least until excommunicated. If this equation between religious profession and citizenship is accepted, much in these pages is explained: the eldership ‘with their eyes everywhere‘ the suspicion, the gossiping that led to charges being preferred, even the inequity of the proceedings — and much may even be justified. But many of those who reject that equation may believe that the Registers are evidence of the sadly all too frequent attempts in the history of the Church to pull down strongholds by forging carnal weapons of war.

Paul Helm

This review by Paul Helm first appeared in The Banner of Truth issue 452 May 2001.

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