Book Review: The Betrayal

Released last year for the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, Douglas Bond has written The Betrayal as a sort of novelized version of an introduction to Calvin. The story is not told through Calvin’s eyes, but rather through the fictional character Jean-Louise, Calvin’s personal servant. What makes the plot interesting is that Jean-Louise secretly works for the Crown, denouncing those fledgling Protestants who come and meet with Calvin. Many go to the stake through Jean-Louise’s efforts, leaving him rejoicing and Calvin mourning as Calvin’s friends are consumed.

In a lot of ways, this book doesn’t know if it wants to be a novel or a theology manual. Bond undertook a difficult task in trying to novelize Calvin’s life, as he is a man remembered not primarily remembered for some heroic deed, but rather for what he said and thought. Unlike figures such as Churchill, Washington or Patton who are remembered as great statesmen or military generals, Calvin’s main impact on history was through his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

As a theology book, The Betrayal does serve to give the reader a broad overview of the issues surrounding the Reformation. The first half of the book spends a great deal of time illuminating the spiritual darkness and corruption that gripped the Roman Catholic Church. Bond chooses three doctrinal distinctives of the reformation (the sufficiency of Scripture, the sacraments, and predestination/free-will) and deeply explores Calvin’s thoughts of the matter. Most of the words spoken by Calvin in the novel are drawn from his writing in the Institutes.

As a novel, this book is difficult to adjust to stylistically. Since most of Calvin’s lines are drawn from the Institutes, the remainder of the book is written in rather formal language to match the tenor of Calvin’s other words. For an uneducated servant, Jean-Louise seems to have a rather large vocabulary! The book is written as a deathbed confession, making everything past-tense. This serves to put some distance between the reader and the story. While I had a difficult time with the first half of the book, the book picks up speed once Calvin is betrayed.

Bond’s book both succeeds and fails. Don’t pick it up expecting a gripping novel set in the religious-political turmoil of 16th century France. The book moves slowly and is full of detailed theological arguments. However, that doesn’t make it a book not worth reading. If you’re looking for a broad overview of Calvin and the issues facing him and other leaders of the Reformation, this is probably the book for you.

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