John Calvin (1509 – 1564) is a giant in church history. He published his first edition of a systematic theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion, when he was twenty-seven. He even wrote more commentaries than John MacArthur! I think. His name probably stands at the top of the list of the magisterial reformers, including Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli. He certainly didn’t get everything right (e.g. he baptized babies!); some will even accuse Calvin of murdering the heretic Michael Servetus and say that is why we should be concerned about the resurgence of Calvinism in America today. (They really may be right on Servetus. I suppose if the whole thing played out today, instead of 16th century Europe, the case would fly.)
As Timothy George would say, there needs to be a middle ground between the extremes of “Calvinphobia” and “Calvinolatry.” I will deal mostly with the things I admire about Calvin in this post, but keep in mind that I do not worship the man. Anyway, the big idea in this introduction to Calvin and the famous “-ism” that bears his name is: you should get to know the guy. So in this post on John Calvin, theologian, reformer and pastor, I hope to pique new interest in one of the men God greatly used to reform his church, a man who was just a man who loved God in “a long line of godly men.” I will focus primarily on his life and preaching, but I will also mention a few things about his writings and the Reformation he led in Geneva.
Steve Lawson wrote a terrific profile of John Calvin titled The Expository Genius of John Calvin. In it he wrote, “John Calvin—his French name was Jean Cauvin—was born to Gerard and Jeanne Cauvin on July 10, 1509, in the farm country of Noyon, France, sixty miles northeast of Paris” (6). Calvin’s father was a cathedral notary and registrar for the Catholic bishop of Noyon. So Calvin was basically destined to become a priest, and his parents encouraged him that way. Calvin attended the University of Paris at the age of twelve, studying in the same college that Erasmus studied in, and he graduated in 1528. “Upon Calvin’s graduation from the University of Paris,” Lawson continues, “his father attempted to gain two more appointments for him in the Catholic Church. But a conflict with the bishop of Noyon prompted Gerard to redirect his brilliant son to study law at the University of Orleans” and later at the University of Bourges, where Calvin “learned Greek, the powers of analytical thinking, and persuasive argument, skills later to be used in his Genevan pulpit” (6-7). He learned Hebrew too.
As Lawson will say, “It was while he was studying at Bourges that Calvin came in direct contact with the biblical truths of the Reformation” (7). Calvin, renouncing his benefice in 1534, joined the Protestant cause. He no longer wanted to be involved with the Catholic Church at all. In that same year, Calvin describes his “sudden conversion.” In his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin writes:
“God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardour” (xl-xli).
Calvin would soon join the ranks of Luther and Zwingli as a leader in the Reformation. The Reformation, which began in haste in 1517, by now was a raging war (both political and religious) in many places in Europe. In fact, Calvin’s road to Geneva was originally a detour. He really wanted to join the reformers in Strasbourg, but he could not continue passed Paris because of the fighting. Once in Geneva, Calvin’s friend, William Farel, persuaded him to stay in Geneva as Lecturer of Holy Scripture at St. Peter’s Cathedral beginning in 1536. He stayed there, apart from a brief, three-year exile to Strasbourg (where he was a pastor 1538 – 41), for the rest of his life. While in Geneva, Calvin preached, wrote, and he reorganized all of Geneva. His Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which gained acceptance by the town council in 1541, created Calvin’s Geneva as we know of it. Of Calvin’s death, Lawson writes, “Calvin died at age 54 on May 27, 1564, in the arms of Theodore Beza, his successor” (17).
During his exile, Calvin married a woman named Idelette de Bure, who was the (Anabaptist!) widow of his friend John Storder. They had three children, all who died in infancy, before Idellette died in April 1549. Calvin was driven, dedicated to his work in Geneva, but he loved her:
‘I do what I can’, he writes, ‘that I may not be altogether consumed with grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life; she was the faithful helper of my ministry. My friends leave nothing undone to lighten, in some degree, the sorrow of my soul.’ (from a website).
Calvin was definitely both a pastor and theologian. His brilliance and study of law sharpened his precision and language. He could talk intelligently with the town council of Geneva, and he had a remarkable writing style that makes his writings a tremendous read even 400 years later. If one reads Calvin’s commentaries, I believe one can easily observe why Calvin was so influential (and in some cases, why he was/is so hated!).
Calvin is a tremendous example in history of the pastor theologian. He was driven, he knew the original languages of the Bible, he was passionate about the things of God, and he carefully exposited the Word when he preached. Calvin was committed to the great doctrines of the Reformation, which are terrifically summed up in the Five Solas. He tried valiantly to restrict communion from any one who is not in the faith, and his church practiced graciousness in church discipline. He certainly was no perfect man, but today’s pastor could learn much from this careful preacher, genius writer, and diligent Protestant reformer.
“Upon his return [from exile],” says Lawson, “Calvin hit the town preaching. Reassuming his pulpit ministry precisely where he had left off three years earlier—in the very next verse of his earlier exposition—Calvin became a mainstay, preaching multiple times on Sunday and, during some weeks, each weekday” (13). His preaching was relentless exposition! In fact, Lawson’s entire book is dedicated to the preaching of Calvin, so there is certainly much to say. Lawson quotes the fervor of Calvin in this quote: “God will have His church trained up by the pure preaching of His own Word, not by the contrivances of men [which are wood, hay and stubble]” (30).
The priority of the Word in Calvin’s ministry is the obvious and right result of the Reformation. The Catholic Church elevated tradition over the Word. Calvin would never do that. He believed the Bible has “flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men” (George, 194). As a pastor and theologian, he also frequently wrote letters to “Protestants who had been imprisoned for their faith” (212). Most of all, Calvin had a big view of God and sovereignty and his Word. John Piper quotes Calvin, saying of preaching the Word, “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has nothing of man mixed with it” (Legacy, 137).
In a chapter on Calvin’s preaching, Lawson records Calvin’s sermons as he preached through entire books. Some of the numbers are amazing: 107 sermons in 1 Samuel, 48 in Ephesians, and 189 in Acts (Parsons, 73-74). He preached every paragraph with careful precision, as Lawson says, in a “lively fashion” while “excavating the biblical text” (75-76). Apparently he would even do this regardless of his health; of course that’s not wise, but I guarantee it is better than the pastor today, who steals a sermon from the web and tacks on a tear-jerking illustration. We need more preachers who love the Word and the big God who wrote it and all of the doctrines therein. I can’t say more in this short space, but I think this alone shows there is much today’s pastor, Reformed or not, can learn from a man who preached the Word like Calvin.