The Supremacy of God in the Life and Thought of John Calvin
by Jeremy Bass
TO MANY, John Calvin represents the essence of repugnance. It almost seems that people enjoy disassociating themselves with Calvin: But, they aver, I am not a Calvinist. Most of the time, people have their reasons for this, but when examined, such reasons are often discovered to be framed not from historical evidence but from what they have heard others say about him. Nevertheless, they are ready to turn you off the minute you bring up Calvins name. T. H. L. Parker, in his Portrait of Calvin, gives an example of this from his own experience:
A new clerical acquaintance and I were talking of John Knox. He was reminded of John Calvin.
Calvin, now, he said, he was terrible.
Terrible, I asked, how?
I mean Calvin, he said, you know about Calvin, dont you?
He plainly thought I had not caught the name. Calvin was terrible. No one, surely, who called himself a loyal Anglican could dissent from the verdict that Calvin was terrible.
But why terrible? I asked.
He found the question difficult. It was axiomatic that Calvin was terrible; but in what way, it was not easy to say, especially if one knew of him only by hearsay. But he was a strong-minded man and refused to be beaten.
He was terrible, he replied firmly; and then, with inspiration, I mean, look how bad-tempered he was.1
And a long list of other grievances is readily at hand if Calvins bad temper is not enough to prove the point: his firm stance on predestination, the involvement in the burning of Servetus, and the invectives which he often employed in the service of polemics are some examples that people are ready to trot out as evidence that Calvin was, after all, a particularly disgusting individual.
I feel differently about John Calvin. I do not deny that Calvin could at times fly off the handle, nor do I deny that he was involved in the burning of Servetus. Calvin had his faults. But alongside undeniable faults, as Parker has pointed out, we shall see undeniable virtues in him.2 As a minister, Calvin has inspired and taught me - and often, after considering the herculean amount
of labor he undertook in his short life of fifty-four years in the midst of tragedy and enormous opposition, I have walked away with the realization of how far I fall short in the work of the kingdom and am quickened to renew my step with more diligence in the service of God. This paper is an attempt to acquaint the reader with this man of God whose life has meant so much to me personally.
But first of all, it is necessary to meet the objections to the study of John Calvin, for they are many. Let me begin by saying that I do not think it is necessarily bad that Calvin has so many detractors who would do anything to rid Calvin and his influence from the pages of history. Any man who has no enemies probably is not worth the ground he is standing on. This is because a man who agrees with everyone only demonstrates that he has no convictions of his own. The last thing the Church today needs is another theological invertebrate whose doctrinal convictions are no better than a nose of wax to be shaped by the latest innovation to come down the pike. John Calvin was not like this at all and we can learn a lesson from him in this.
As I said, it is not to be denied for a minute that Calvin had faults. But I have noticed that a lot of objections against Calvin are based either on ignorance of the total picture, or on an imbalanced presentation of the total picture. This in turn leads many to unnecessarily and unfortunately turn away from Calvin in disgust whereas if they knew the whole story this could avoided.
This leads into one of the objections that is poised against Calvin. I heard one individual put it this way: Calvin is nasty. They are referring of course to the invectives that Calvin often employs in his writings against those who disagreed with him. It seems that Calvin used every beast in the animal kingdom to describe his opponents. For example, when Calvin castigates Pighius for teaching that Gods grace is universal, he uses this sort of language: After this, Pighius, like a wild beast escaped from his cage, rushes forth, bounding over all fences in his way, uttering such sentiments as these, etc.3
But lets get real. Its easy to criticize Calvin at the distance of 450 years. Fact is, the twenty-first century isnt like the sixteenth. That was a polemic society and it was considered normal to use the type of language that Calvin often employed. Indeed, Calvins enemies often used just as insulting language, or worse, when they wrote against him. Perhaps this fact is not mentioned as often as it should be. Neither is the fact that other notable reformers were even worse in their use of opprobrious language. The language Martin Luther utilizes, for example, is far more harsh than anything John Calvin ever thought about using. If one must condemn Calvin, he must condemn all the great Reformers.
Another complaint against Calvin is his involvement in the trial and burning of Michael Servetus. In fact, some consider this act so despicable that they will not even consider Calvin as a true Christian because of it. However, again Calvin has fallen prey to half-truths that fail to complete the historical record, which - although it does not completely extenuate Calvin - yet does present a more balanced picture.
On October 27, 1553, a man was burned at the stake on a hill outside Geneva. His name: Michael Servetus. His crime: heresy. This leads to the difficult question as to how a Christian could ever be liable to supporting the death penalty of someone whose crime lay in the realm of thought and speech.
Calvin is certainly implicated in the death of Servetus. During his trial, Calvin argued the case against him. Before Servetus ever came to Geneva, Calvin informed Farel about the letters he had exchanged with Servetus. Evidently, Servetus had asked permission to come to Geneva. If I consent, Calvin wrote, he will come here, but I will not give my word, for should he come, I will not suffer him to get out alive.4 Calvin believed that the death penalty was right, and even wrote a book afterwards in which he defended it.
However, some things need to be said to give a balanced picture. We need to realize that to judge Calvin as if he lived in our own day would be unfair. He lived in a day when the church and state were united in a common cause. To defy the church was to be politically seditious. And for over a thousand years this had been the case. Calvin, unfortunately, was a man of his time and was borne away by the traditions of the ages. Calvin the jurist knew what the law books said. The Codex of Justinian, which was the standard civil law book in the Holy Roman Empire, said that for the crime of denying the Trinity, the penalty was death.5 Calvin was simply following the laws of his time.
Further, the ultimate verdict did not lay in Calvins hands at all, but in the hands of the Council of Geneva. Many today still think that Calvin was some sort of dictator over a Genevan theocracy. As much as this may approximate the truth after 1555, in 1553, nothing could have been farther from the truth. At that time, the Libertines were at the height of their power. They had a controlling influence in the governing bodies of Geneva. For a while, Servetus enjoyed their support and even thought that he might win the case against Calvin. But things changed when the Council (against the advice of Calvin) sent off for advice from four other Swiss cities (Basel, Zurich, Bern, and Schaffhausen). They expected mild replies, and armed with these the Council would free Servetus. But the replies were anything but mild. Basel wrote back that the penalty there would be death by fire.6 A shock to the Libertines, the Council had no choice but to condemn Servetus. The penalty would be death by burning, they said.
It should also be noted that Calvin opposed burning at the stake as the means of execution. When Calvin heard the sentence, he at once begged the Little Council to substitute the sword for the stake, because beheading was more merciful than burning.7 Calvin had written Farel even before the sentencing: I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon him; but I want the severity of the punishment to be mitigated.8 But his request was refused.
Calvin enjoyed the support of almost all the Protestant churches and ministers in the death of Servetus. Farel had even written Calvin blaming him for wanting to mitigate the punishment.9 Melanchthon was supportive as well. The church of Christ will be grateful to you, he wrote.
Your government has proceeded in the death of this blasphemer according to all laws.10 The ministers of Zurich urged him on for this reason: We think that in this case you ought to show great faith and zeal, inasmuch as our Churches have abroad the bad reputation of being heretical and of being particularly favourable to heresy.11 To them, it was absolutely necessary that the Genevan church come down hard on Servetus in order to rid them once and for all of the odious charge of being favourable to heresy. To condemn Calvin is therefore to condemn all of Protestant Christianity at that time.
Nevertheless, many like to use this as an example to prove that Calvin was really no different than the Roman Catholics. But T. H. L. Parker shows that is not quite the case. There is a difference between the two, as is seen in the fact that Roman Catholic persecution does not shock us, whereas Calvins liability in the death of Servetus does. He writes: Moreover, what is it that so shocks us in this case? Not, surely, only that a man was burned to death, horrible though that is. It is that he was burned to death in the Reformed city of Geneva. At that time of the Reformation literally hundreds of Protestants were burned by the Romanists. We take it almost for granted, for Rome was a persecuting Church. It is because Calvin knew better that we are shocked. When a man of blameless respectability commits a crime and is sent to prison, we are far more horrified than when a dozen hardened criminals are convicted. So with Calvin and Rome. One burning less or more was neither here nor there to Rome, and it is a thousand pities they ever let Servetus escape; but this one burning has burnt an ineradicable scar on Calvins reputation.12
It is easy from the vantage point of the 21st century to condemn Calvin. All we can say is that it was a pity that Calvin was swept away by the tide of a thousand years of tradition that did not recognize the basic right of freedom of speech. That does not make him right, but it helps us to realize that Calvin is not the monster that some paint him to be. He is worthy of the study of committed Christians.
Let us therefore pass on to the positive reasons why we should study Calvin. There are many reasons why we should study Calvin, his life, thought, and writings.
FIRST, we should study Calvin because of his extensive impact on history. John Fiske, an eminent American historian, has said, It would be hard to overrate the debt which mankind owes to Calvin.13 We see this preeminently in two ways. First, in the realm of civil liberty. Of course, having just discussed the case of Michael Servetus, some might question how Calvin ever had anything to do with civil liberty unless it were to obstruct it. It must be conceded that in some ways Calvin never did follow through with his ideas to their logical conclusion. That was left to his followers. But nevertheless Calvins ideas with regard to the government of the church and its relation to the state were key elements in leading to the civil liberty that we enjoy in the West. This is due to several reasons:
1. Calvin believed in a presbyterian theory of church government. This method of church government allowed the people to elect their own leaders and allowed laymen to serve as elders along with the pastors. This deleted the entire Roman Catholic caste of priesthood that stood between the people and God. In Roman Catholicism, the people had no part in the leadership of the Church; all that was required of them was an implicit faith in the Church and in those who led it. John Calvin changed all that. The presbyterian form of church government is essentially republican in nature. It does not take a very large step to pass from freedom in choosing ones officers in the church to freedom in choosing ones political leaders. James I is quoted as saying, Presbytery agreeth as well with the monarchy as God with the Devil.14 As George Fisher has put it: Men who were accustomed to rule themselves in the Church would claim the same privilege in the commonwealth.15
2. The second reason why Calvins thought has aided the cause of civil liberty is to be found in his belief in the separation of church and state. Both are institutions given by God, but both are separate entities. They may aid one another, but the church must never yield its power to the state nor the state to the church. This was different from the Lutheran churches that operated under the consent of the prince and left the discipline of offenders in his hands. Calvin on the other hand fought long and hard in Geneva to establish the principle of church discipline and the right of the church to excommunicate those who refused to amend their lives. Fisher writes, It is certain that the distinction between Church and State, which was recognized from the conversion of Constantine, notwithstanding the long ages of intolerance and persecution that were to follow, was the first step, the necessary condition, in the development of religious liberty. First, it must be settled that the State shall not stretch its power over the Church, within its proper sphere; next, that that State shall not lend its power to the Church, as an executioner of ecclesiastical laws.16 Calvins ideas of the church did not lead immediately to civil liberty, but they contained it in the bud, certain to flower at the right moment.
This is demonstrated practically by the history of our own nation. It is a fact that many of the first immigrants to this country where civil liberty has reached its highest level were dedicated Calvinists, and they carried their fervent dedication to its principles with them to the New World. It is a fact that when the Revolutionary War broke out, the nation has just emerged from a Great Awakening that was characterized by the Calvinistic teaching of men as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and William Tennant. It is a fact that the Revolutionary War was spoken of in England as The Presbyterian Rebellion and one ardent colonial supporter of the king wrote home, saying, I fix all the blame for these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians. They have been the chief and principal instruments in all these flaming measures. They always do and ever will act against government from that restless and turbulent anti-monarchial spirit which has always distinguished them everywhere.17
Another impact that Calvin has had lies in the realm of education. Calvins crowning work in Geneva was the Academy and he was a fervent proponent of popular education. Many of the first universities in America (e.g. Harvard, Yale, Princeton) were Calvinistic in their origin and remained so for many years. Wherever Calvinism went, education followed. Boettner explains why: It is a system which demands intellectual manhood. In fact, we may say that its very existence is tied up with the education of the people. Mental training is required to master the system and to trace out all that it involves. It makes the strongest possible appeal to the human reason and insists that man must love God not only with his whole heart but also with his whole mind. Calvin held that a true faith must be an intelligent faith; and experience has shown that piety without learning is in the long run as dangerous as learning without piety.18
Calvins influence has been primarily felt in the Church, however, since it is for the Church that he gave his life. From Geneva, Calvins influence reached out and was felt all over the world. This was accomplished chiefly by two means. First, Calvin maintained a correspondence with the greatest Protestant leaders of his day. Bullinger in Switzerland, Melanchthon in Germany, Cranmer in England, the embattled leaders of the underground church in France were all the recipients of advice, counsel, direction, comfort, warning and admonition from Calvins pen. Many of those whom he wrote, including the great leaders, looked to Calvin for advice or regarded him as an equal.
Another means whereby Calvins stretched forth his hand over the world was through his writings, and chiefly through his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. After the accession of Elizabeth, writes George Fisher, the Institutes of Calvin were generally in the hands of the clergy, and might be considered their text-book of theology.19 He goes on later to say that in England at that time, no name was held in higher honor among them [the English Reformers] than that of the Genevan Reformer.20 The English Church was at first decidedly Calvinistic, as is attested by the Thirty-nine Articles. It was not until later through the influence of Archbishop Laud that Arminianism eventually began to be disseminated throughout the English Church. Nevertheless, his influenced passed on to the Puritans who carried his theology out of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century. Other churches have even more direct ties to Calvin. The Church of Scotland has a direct link with the Church of Geneva, as its founder, John Knox, spent several years in Geneva sitting at the feet of Calvin. The Reformed Church in France was directly influenced by Calvin as well. Many of her ministers were trained in Geneva, and when thirty churches assembled for a national synod in 1559 in Paris to draw up a confession of faith and a system of ecclesiastical discipline, Calvin sent a proposed confession of faith which was accepted with a few changes.21 In 1549, the Zurich Consensus was drafted, probably mostly by Calvin, which was the beginning of unity among the Swiss churches.22 Parker sums it up: Switzerland, Germany, England, France, Poland also, Italy and the Netherlands; to all these countries Calvin spoke with an almost apostolic voice. They might not always like what he had to say, but they paid heed to his opinion.23
Many churches today trace their heritage to the Genevan Reformer. All the Presbyterian and Reformed churches regard him as their spiritual father. In some ways, he is the benefactor of all who hold to the doctrines of grace, no matter what their polity may be.
Above all the above considerations, however, we should study Calvin for he is a model theologian. Some of course would disagree with me, and there will always be those narrow spirits who will say, with the writer in a nineteenth-century Scottish periodical, that John Calvin . . . never was converted, but all his life was an ungodly man.24 This man probably never read very much about Calvin, or if he did, it was through jaundiced eyes. For myself, the more I have read about Calvin, and the more I have read the writings of Calvin himself, the more I have come to appreciate him. This is primarily because Calvin was a man who knew God, a man who sought the supremacy of God in all things.
A man God mastered.
Above all other things, Calvin was a man God mastered. He lived in the shadow of the Almighty and saw everything in light of the majesty of God. He was a God-saturated man. To him, it was the essence of life to know, worship and love God. Calvin wrote that to know God is mans chief end, and justifies his existence. Even if a hundred lives were ours, this one aim would be sufficient for them all.25 Again, he stated: Now the great thing is this: we are consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may thereafter think, speak, meditate, and do, nothing except to his glory.26 Calvin did not merely trumpet a truth that he did not practice. Others have recognized the God-centeredness of his life. George Fisher has written this testimony about Calvin: To obey the will of God was his supreme purpose in life, and in this purpose his soul was undivided; no mutinous feeling was suffered to interpose a momentary resistance.27
This is what I think made Calvin Calvin. Despite his deficiencies - which no one questions -he had this towering strength: he walked before God. Not just any god: Calvin walked and lived in the presence of the sovereign God of the Bible. Benjamin B. Warfield wrote of him, No man ever had a profounder sense of God than he; no man ever more unreservedly surrendered himself to the Divine direction. Warfield then quotes Bernhard Bess: We cannot better characterize the fundamental disposition of Calvin the man and the reformer than in the words of the Psalm: What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? After that virtuoso in religion of ancient Israel, no one has spoken of the majesty of God and the insignificance of man with such feeling and truth as Calvin. Warfield himself shared the conviction that this is what set Calvin apart: If there is anything that will make a man great, he writes, surely it is placing himself unreservedly at the disposal of God and seeking not only to do nothing but Gods will, but to do all Gods will. This is what Calvin did, and it is because he did this that he was so great.28
I think the reason why Calvin so unreservedly committed himself to God lies in his vision of God. He thought high thoughts of God. Martin Luther, in one of his letters to the Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, said: Your thoughts of God are too human.29 Luthers comment was particularly insightful into the way men like to bring God down to their level. But Erasmus is not the only one to be guilty of this, and to this day there are many who follow in his steps.
Calvin, however, was not guilty of this. This no doubt lies in his perception of the majesty of God which was founded on his rock-solid belief that God is absolutely sovereign in all things. He did not buy into the notion that somehow God cannot accomplish His will either out of a lack of power or wisdom on His part or out of deference to the free-will of man. But it makes total sense that if we are to have great thoughts about someone, that someone must be great. And the greater that someone is, the greater will be our thoughts of him. To Calvin, God was infinitely great and therefore worthy of infinite praise and total obedience. In his commentary on Psalm 145, he wrote that we only praise God aright when we are filled and overwhelmed with an ecstatic admiration of the immensity of his power.30
For Calvin, God is not only the Creator, but He is also the Preserver and the Governor of all things. Further, God is intimately involved in His creation, guiding it by His secret influence in accordance with His eternal purpose. Nothing, therefore, can happen that is outside of Gods eternal plan. Calvin stated that faith ought to penetrate more deeply, namely, having found him Creator of all, forthwith to conclude he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver - not only in that he drives the celestial frame as well as its several parts by a universal motion, but also in that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow.31 Calvin makes this point very clear: we make God the ruler and governor of all things, who in accordance with his wisdom has from the farthest limit of eternity decreed what he was going to do, and now by his might carries out what he has decreed. From this we declare that not only heaven and earth and the inanimate creatures, but also the plans and intentions of men, are so governed by his providence that they are borne by it straight to their appointed end.32
God is not only sovereign in providence, He is also in salvation. Calvin believed that we
have not traced our salvation back far enough unless we have traced it back to the benevolent purpose of God who unconditionally elects us to everlasting life. He contends: If - to make it clear that our salvation comes about solely from Gods mere generosity - we must be called back to the course of election.33 Nor does mans free will have anything to do ultimately with his salvation. Calvins understanding of this arose partly from his understanding of the condition of men by nature. Men cannot save themselves because they are blind and dead to spiritual things. Therefore, if a man is saved, it is entirely owing to the effectual calling of God. Calvin writes: Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto; for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to Gods grace.34 Quoting Psalm 100:3, Calvin notes that we see how, not simply content to have given God due praise for our salvation, he expressly excludes us from all participation in it, it is as if he were saying that not a whit remains to man to glory in, for the whole of salvation comes from God.35 And that is just the point: salvation is all of God because that is the only way that God gets all the glory.
This high view of God in turn led to certain convictions about His word. When one reads Calvins writing, he gets the feeling that if there was anything that caused him to recoil in horror, it was the flippant abuse which Scripture suffered at the hands of the impious. For his part, Calvin did not dare go beyond the pages of Scripture to define his theology. Writing to Socinus, a man well known for his heterodoxy, Calvin says, Certainly no one can be more averse to paradox than I am, and in subtleties I find no delight at all. Yet nothing shall ever hinder me from openly avowing what I have learned from the word of God; for nothing but what is useful is taught in the school of this master. It is my only guide, and to acquiesce in its plain doctrines shall be my constant rule of wisdom.36 In his Institutes, Calvin speaks of an attitude of humble teachableness by which we ought to embrace whatever is taught in Sacred Scripture.37 And as a preacher, Calvin maintained that it is not our own ideas but Gods revelation that is to be dispensed: When we enter the pulpit, it is not so that we may bring our own dreams and fancies with us.38
One more result came from such a high view of God. If this God - this God who is infinite in holiness, mercy, wisdom and power - if this God is God, then that only means one thing. It means that we must prostrate ourselves before Him and gives our lives to Him. And that is exactly what Calvin did. It is exhibited at every turn in his life after his conversion. It could not be said of Calvin, as it was of Melanchthon, that he preached eloquently about bearing the cross but never learned how to live the cross. Indeed, in some ways, Calvins whole life after his conversion was a cross. Perhaps that is why Calvin could write with such feeling in the Institutes about self-denial in the Christian life. We shall notice some examples in the following pages.
This is the man who is before us. I believe that the supremacy of God in all things to Calvin was what made him the man he was. Now let us look at the life that this kind of theology and thinking produced.
Beginnings: 1509 - 1532.
CALVIN WAS BORN in Noyon, France, on July 10, 1509. His early life was spent in a religious atmosphere: his father was a staff official in one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals, being secretary to the Bishop and notary in the ecclesiastical court. This brought Calvin closer to the church than most people enjoyed at that time. To augment, Calvins mother was known for her piety and her devotion to the Roman Catholic Church.
Calvins father destined him for the priesthood and this would necessitate an education. At first, Calvin was taken under the wings of a noble family in Noyon and was educated with the nephews of the Bishop himself. But he would need to attend university next and this would require some income. So when Calvin was twelve years old, his father arranged for him to receive a chaplaincy, and then added another one later. In this neat arrangement, Calvin was priest of a certain chapel in name, paying a part of the income from the chaplaincy to another priest to do the work while Calvin kept the rest. This wasnt supposed to happen, but it was a common occurrence in those days. Anyway, at fourteen, Calvin - priest to be - rode off in the southwest direction for Paris to attend the university there. He would never back at Noyon to stay.
When John Calvin entered university, he entered into a world which he would come to love. Calvin was a born scholar. Whatever subject he pursued, he mastered it. At first, Calvin studied the arts for three years at the College de la Marche. Here, Calvin learned Latin from one of the best Latin teachers of the day, Mathurin Cordier. Many years later, Calvin would show his appreciation by dedicating his commentary on 1 Thessalonians to him. Then he transferred to the College de Montaigu which was the school of theology in Paris, a school known for its lice, bad food (O how many rotten eggs did I eat there! Erasmus said about the school39), and discipline. The great French writer Rabelais had an apt phrase for the lice that swarmed on the walls, in the beds, and on the black-robed boys. The short-winged hawks of Montaigu, he called them.40 Only Latin was allowed to be spoken within its walls. Here, Calvin was taught Medieval theology from the scholastic writers.
But then Calvins father decided that he did not want him to become a priest after all, and directed him to change from theology to law. So, as an obedient son, Calvin packed up his bags and went to Orleans first, and then to Bourges, where the best law schools of the day were located. Calvin, in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, gives this explanation of why his father wanted him to change: When I was as yet a very little boy, my father destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of law.41
Probably another reason lied in the fact that Gerard Calvin was in trouble with the church authorities, and, being disgusted with the clerics of his town, decided against Calvin becoming one of them.
It was here that Calvin especially distinguished himself. Halsema writes: More than in Paris, if that were possible, he drove himself deeply into study. For supper, he usually ate little or nothing, so that his mind would be clear in the evening. He allowed himself only a few hours of sleep and then lay awake an hour in the morning, reviewing all he had studied the night before, developing his memory, filling it with knowledge. Within a year, Calvin was known more as a teacher of law than as a student. Sometimes he lectured in as substitute for professors who were absent.42 Here also, Calvin began to study the Greek language under the Lutheran professor Wolmar.
Calvins primary love was not with law, however, and so when his father died in May 1531, he quit the law school and went back to Paris to become a free lance writer and scholar. He had fallen in love with the Greek and Latin classics (the writings of men like Cicero, Aristotle and Seneca) and he wanted to pursue his new-found passion. In 1532, he came out with his first book, a commentary on Senecas treatise De Clementia. The book did not sell well, but Calvin was doing the thing he loved, studying and writing.
Up to this time, Calvin was a loyal and faithful son of the Roman Church. He was very strict in his morals, but ignorant as to the way of salvation. Nevertheless, we can see even throughout this time how God was preparing Calvin for his lifes work. As a reformer in Geneva, Calvin would need all the skills that he had learned through his years in school. The years spent studying law would especially help him out later in working with the councils of Geneva. Everything had fitted him to be a great scholar. All that was needed to access these talents for the service of God was a conversion to the true faith.
Before continuing with Calvin, it is necessary to paint the backdrop against which the rest of his life is placed. During most of Calvins childhood and right up to 1532, a mighty movement had been taking place that literally convulsed Europe and changed it forever. In fact, the change was so dramatic that it began a new era in world history, the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. This movement was the Reformation. Basically, the Reformation was a back to the Bible movement. It has been described as the reestablishment of the principles of primitive Christianity.43 For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had been degenerating until it was almost unrecognizable with the church founded by the apostles. In the place of a living relationship with Jesus Christ, the Roman Church taught that salvation is only acquired through the church and her priesthood who stood between man and God as the channels of Divine grace. In the place of faith in Christ, they had substituted faith in the church and submission to numerous rituals in order to be saved. The Reformation sought to correct all this.
Among the many abuses which had crept into the church at that time, the indulgence was
one of the worst. Basically, an indulgence was a certificate that a person bought which guaranteed to him or her the forgiveness of sin and a shortened time in purgatory. It also could extend to departed relatives already in purgatory. But what was worse, in 1517, indulgences were sold in order to raise money for the building of St. Peters basilica in Rome. Thus, indulgences had the twofold honor of being both unbiblical and the servant to the Popes avarice.
Tetzel, a monk of the Dominican order, was appointed to sell the indulgences in Germany. His voice rang out: As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.44
However, another monk by the name of Martin Luther rose to oppose the sale of indulgences and nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. He said that the forgiveness of sins could not be bought with money. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith, he proclaimed.45 This began a popular revolution against the power and the corruption of the papacy. After uttering his immortal words at Worms -Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise - Luther was excommunicated and the formal separation of Protestant churches from Roman Catholic churches began. Many in Germany rallied around Luther. In other places, men were proclaiming against the abuses of the Roman church as well. About the same time that Luther began his combat, a monk appeared in Switzerland named Zwingli. He, too, preached against indulgences with success. In France, Jacques Lefevre was pointing people back to the truth that salvation is of grace.
Of course, the Roman Church responded. In France, the Church clamped down on the Protestants by burning at the stake those who clung to the Lutheran heresies and forbad anyone to read his writings. In 1523 in Paris, the year Calvin entered France for the first time, an Augustinian monk was burnt at the stake for holding to the teaching of Luther. Many more were to follow in the coming years.
All of this was going on throughout Calvins childhood and years in school. He obviously was not one of the first generation of Reformers. In fact, Calvin was only eight years old when Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door. But sometime between 1532 and 1533, something happened that brought Calvin into the fray on the side of the Reformers.
We do not know exactly when Calvin was converted. But it is an unmistakable fact that it happened. Calvin himself tells us about it in his preface to the Psalms. Speaking of the study of law, to which his father had directed him, Calvin says, To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame. . . . 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 ardor.46
Calvin immediately began to pour all his effort into Biblical scholarship. He never really wanted a pastorate. He would have always preferred a nice comfortable place to read, study and write for the Reformation. But God was not going to allow that to happen. Calvin writes: I was quite surprised to find that before a year had elapsed, all who had any desire after purer doctrine were continually coming to me to learn, although I myself was as yet but a mere novice and tyro. Being of a disposition somewhat unpolished and bashful, which led me always to love the shade and retirement, I then began to seek some secluded corner where I might be withdrawn from the public view; but so far from being able to accomplish the object of my desire, all my retreats were like public schools.47
Quiet Calvin was not to have. In November 1533, he was forced to flee from Paris incognito. Since he came to the side of the Reformers, Calvin was not safe in France. At that time, France was not a safe place for anyone who believed in the Gospel in its purity. For several months he wandered from place to place until in 1534 he finally ended up in Basel. Here, he continued to read, spending much time in the church fathers. He also mastered Hebrew and came out with the first edition of the Institutes (1536), of which we shall have more to say.
Calvin continued to wander. First to Italy, where he did not stay long (he only entered Italy that he might have the pleasure of leaving it, he said), then back to Noyon and Paris for a short time where he settled the family estate. From there, his plans were to travel to Strasbourg with plans to settle there as a scholar and influence the Reformation with his pen. One problem presented itself to his travel plans, however. At that time, a war was going on between Francis I and Charles V, and their armies blocked the direct way to Strasbourg. So Calvin had to go the long way around, bringing him through the city of Geneva. Calvin only planned to spend a night there. But he ended up staying the next twenty months.
Calvin was detained at Geneva by William Farel who had introduced the Reformation to the city. Although he was twenty years Calvins elder, he knew that this young man was the key to consolidating the work of reforming the city. No one was better at bringing the Reformation to a city than Farel, who was afraid of no man, persecution, or death itself. But he lacked the organizational skills of day-to-day administration. After the Reformation had been ushered into Geneva, Farel and his associates began to run into trouble with the various factions within the city, some of whom bitterly opposed his efforts of reform.
Therefore, when Farel was told that Calvin was passing through the city, he seized upon the opportunity of enlisting his valuable gifts. Farel, Calvin explains, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. But Calvin tried to excuse himself. Farel was not to be put off so easily; having failed to convince Calvin by earnest entreaty, Farel resorted to imprecation. Calvin continues: . . . at length William Farel detained me at Geneva, not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by a dreadful imprecation, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me. . . . And
after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.48
So Calvin stayed to help Farel. The task before them was massive, for Geneva was not known for its godliness. It was this city of wickedness that was Calvins task to transform into a city of God. He set himself to the task but soon ran into opposition when he attempted to claim for the church the right of excommunication. The councils refused. Things continued to get worse in February when three Syndics were elected who opposed Calvin and his reforms. Later, they tried to impose certain church rites upon the church of Geneva which Calvin and Farel were both opposed to. A day before Easter Sunday, 1538, the preachers were ordered either to accept the rites or to desist from preaching. Calvin and Farel disobeyed both orders and preached anyway. In the afternoon service, Calvin was attacked by a number of men with swords. He was only saved when his friends formed a human shield around him and escorted him out of the church. The next day, April 26, Calvin and Farel, along with another preacher Corault, were ordered to leave Geneva.
Farel was used to getting thrown out of cities. To Calvin, it was a release. He says, Being, as I acknowledge, naturally of a timid, soft, and pusillanimous disposition, I was compelled to encounter these violent tempests as part of my early training; and although I did not sink under them, yet I was not sustained by such greatness of mind, as not to rejoice more than it became me, when, in consequence of certain commotions, I was banished from Geneva.49
From 1538 to 1541, Calvin spent some of the happiest years of his life in Strasbourg, pastoring a French refugee church there. It was here that he wrote some of his best writings, including his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord, the Commentary on Romans (March 1540), and the second edition of the Institutes. It was during this time also that he married Idelette de Bure, the widow of a former Anabaptist. Calvin was also involved on the international scene, attending various meeting convoked by the Emperor to resolve differences between the Catholics and Protestants. The meetings themselves came to nothing, but it was here that Calvin met Martin Luthers right-hand man, Melanchthon, who dubbed Calvin The Theologian.
Geneva Again: 1541-1564.
If it were not for the fact Calvin had entirely submitted himself to God, we might have left Calvin at Strasbourg for the rest of his life. Geneva was not a pleasant memory; it was a nightmare. After being banished from Geneva, Calvin wrote Farel, saying that rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one had to perish daily a thousand times over. He told Farel this, Calvin said, that you may set yourself to oppose the measures of those who shall
endeavor to draw me back thither.50 Clearly, Calvin never wanted to see Geneva again. But on October 22, 1540, the council of Geneva sent Calvin a letter asking him to return. Immediately, his friends urged him to return, including Farel. In answer, Calvin wrote to him: . . . had I the choice at my own disposal, nothing would be less agreeable to me than to follow your advice. But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord. . . . Therefore I submit my will and affections, subdued and held fast, to the obedience of God.51 Another friend, Peter Viret, advised Calvin to return to Geneva on account of his health. Its climate would do him good! Calvin responded: I read that passage of your letter, certainly not without a smile, where you show so much concern about my health, and recommend Geneva on that ground! Why could you not have said at the cross? For it would have been far preferable to perish once for all than to be tormented again in that place of torture.52
Calvin returned, nonetheless, to Geneva in September of 1541. He would spend the rest of his life here until his death in 1564. Even though he was never kicked out of the city again, it was a struggle for the next fourteen years to implement the principles in which he believed. Calvin wrote: Were I to narrate the various conflicts by which the Lord has exercised me . . . and by what trials he has proved me, it would make a long history. . . . During the whole of this lengthened period, I think that there is scarcely any of the weapons which are forged in the workshop of Satan, which has not been employed by them in order to obtain their object.53 Calvin in this passage was talking about the Libertines, who, from Calvins return in 1541 to their demise in 1555, did everything they could to undermine his ministry. At times, it seemed as if they were precariously close to obtaining their object. Nevertheless, Calvin was the victor in the end. The Gospel triumphed in Geneva. And the city which was known for its wickedness eventually became, in the words of John Knox, the most perfect school of Christ.54
The Ministry of Calvin: An Overview.
We have noticed Calvins radical God-centeredness and have given a short overview of his life. We now continue with a survey of his ministry. From there, we will take a closer inspection of Calvins Institutes.
The first thing that strikes one about Calvins ministry is his exhaustive labor for Gods kingdom. Once let a person get a vision of the glory of God, and he will say, with Isaiah, Here am I; send me (Isa 6:8). When God is supreme, ones personal interests fade away, and the priority of Gods kingdom grips the soul. That is exactly what happened to Calvin. When he was converted, he pursued his other studies with less ardour being inflamed with the intense desire to pursue the Word. We see this zeal in his writings. When he died, Calvin had left the world an amazing legacy
of 96 books, 35 folio volumes of letters and 2000 sermons. As Charles Spurgeon said of John Gill, one wonders how he ever found time to sleep. But that wasnt a fraction of his workload. As a pastor in Geneva, Calvin had his hands full. Halsema describes a typical day in the life of Calvin: Calvin worked in a way that would have exhausted any healthy man. At five in the morning he was up and busy. If he was ill, he was in bed and busy, with books spread out on his coverlet. On Sundays he preached two or three times in Saint Pierre. During the alternate weeks he preached the weekday sermons on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Every week he gave public lectures on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Thursdays he also presided over the consistory meetings, at which all the ministers and elders met to study the Scriptures. Calvin took his part in visiting the sick and the prisoners. He regularly visited the families of his parish, as he had said in the Ordinances that it should be done.55
All of this work was not done in a vacuum, or in some ivory tower. Calvins house at Number 11, Canon Street, was filled with people. In addition to Calvin and his wife and her daughter, was the servant and Calvins brother and his family. Then there was the constant flow of visitors. Parker writes, It is strange to realize that for most of his life Calvins house was full of young children.56 Parker goes on to quote Nicholas Colladon, a contemporary of Calvin that stood amazed at the amount of work he was able to accomplish: If we come to consider his work, I do not believe there can be found his like. For who could recount his ordinary and extraordinary labours? I doubt if any man in our time has had more to listen to, to reply to, to write, or things of greater importance. The multitude and quality alone of his writings is enough to astonish everyone who looks at them, and still more those who read them. . . . He never ceased working, day and night, in the service of the Lord, and heard most unwillingly the prayers and exhortations that his friends were daily addressing to him that he should give himself some rest. Even in his last illness he only stopped dictating about eight hours before he died, his voice at last playing him traitor. Beside the innumerable cares belonging to his pastorate, Calvin had to bear the heaviest load in all the difficulties and perils that this poor city found itself in, assailed within by several mutinous and desperate citizens, tormented without in a thousand ways, menaced by the greatest kings and princes in Christendom.57 Would that every Christian had the commitment that this man of God had!
It was the kingdom of God for which Calvin gave his life. He loved the cause of God and truth. On the other hand, money never meant much to Calvin at all. All through his life, he was a comparatively poor man. Satisfied with my humble condition, he said, I have ever delighted in a life of poverty.58 When Calvin first went to Geneva, though he was given the lofty title of Professor of Sacred Scripture, the council never got around to paying him. At Strasbourg, Calvin was not paid until six months after his installation as one of the citys pastors. When they did get around to doing it, Calvins salary was hardly enough to support him. Such is my condition at present, Calvin wrote a friend during his time at Strasbourg, that I cannot reckon a single penny my own.59
Notwithstanding, Calvin was always generous to others, even sometimes having to borrow money to do so. When Calvin was in Basel, shortly after being dismissed from Geneva, Farels nephew died. Calvin himself paid for the burial, even though he was selling part of his library for money to live on. Sometimes Calvin was too liberal. Halsema describes one such situation: . . .a pious-talking swindler came to see Calvin. The man put on such a convincing Christian act that he persuaded the poor pastor to lend him twenty batzen, or about eighteen gold francs. . . . The swindler left him a little basket of his belongings as proof that he would be back soon to pay the debt. When he returned a few months later, wrote Calvin in a letter, he asked me smilingly, or rather, mockingly, whether I didnt want to lend him a few crowns. I answered that I was in need of the little sum which he had already had. Without repaying the loan, the swindler disappeared. A year and a half later Calvin decided to open the basket that had been left with him. He called over his friend Sturm of the gymnasium and a few others. Together they lifted the lid and viewed the precious contents - some rotten prunes, some tattered clothes, some frayed books, and some letters which the man had stolen from others. Not without much laughter did we look at these things, said Calvin, who chuckled heartily despite the trick that had been played on him.60
Nevertheless, after Calvin had returned to Geneva, he was constantly accused of using his position in the city and church to pursue money. Calvin became somewhat exasperated when such reports circulated. He wrote to one friend, Neither the table at which we eat, nor the bed on which we sleep, is our own. . . . Where then do these rumors come from? My acquaintances well know . . . that I do not possess a foot of land. . . . I never had money sufficient to purchase an acre.61 In his preface to the Psalms, Calvin said that if there are some whom I cannot persuade whilst I am alive that I am not rich, my death at length will prove it.62 Indeed, it was so. After hearing of the death of Calvin, Pope Pius IV remarked: The strength of that heretic came from the fact that money was nothing to him.63
The next thing we notice about Calvins ministry is his commitment to the Word of God. We have already pointed out that Calvins high view of God led to high views of Scripture. Now let us notice how that devotion translated itself practically in his life and ministry. First of all, we see it in his commitment to the exposition of Gods Word as the medium of ministry. Year after year, Calvin preached through books of the Bible. After returning to Geneva in 1541, people crowded to Saint Pierres to hear what Calvin would have to say about his forced exile from the city and his return to it. But of this Calvin said nothing. Instead, he simply picked up at the verse where he left off three years earlier! Dillenberger has rightly summed up Calvins philosophy of preaching: Preaching meant the exposition of Biblical books, taking phrases, clauses, and sentences as they give themselves to be elaborated in their own right and as their meaning for faith broke in on the contemporary believer. Calvin believed that Gods lively encounter with people came through the
nexus of such Biblical exposition vivified by the Spirit.64 This philosophy of ministry in turn led to long term expositions of Scripture. Parker gives us an example of Calvins preaching schedule: On Sunday, 25 August 1549, Calvin began to preach on Acts, and continued with it until March 1554. On weekdays during this while, he had preached on eight minor Prophets and on Daniel, Lamentations and Ezekiel. After Acts he went on to both epistles to the Thessalonians, both to the Corinthians, the three Pastoral Epistles, Galatians and Ephesians. This made up his Sunday preaching until May 1558. Then comes a gap while he was very ill during the winter of 1558-1559. After recovering, Calvin took to the pulpit again: At this point he took up the Harmony of the Gospels and had not completed the series at his death. But on weekdays of all this time he had preached through Job, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Genesis, Judges, both books of Samuel and both of Kings.65
Calvin, who preached without any notes, was a much sought after preacher. After some time, his parishioners were able to obtain the services of an amanuensis to take down his sermons for print. Many volumes of his sermons were preserved, though Calvin himself was not that excited about them since they lacked the polish of his other writings.
Secondly, we see Calvins commitment to Scripture in the care with which he handled the Biblical text. Calvin was an exegete of Scripture. That simply means that he took pains to get at the original meaning of Scripture by studying the grammatical structure and the historical background of the text. In fact, Calvin is called by Warfield the creator of modern exegesis.66 This probably cannot be properly appreciated unless we understood that at that for years allegory was the rule of the day. Calvin detested such interpretative principles. As such, he produced a remarkable series of expositions of Scripture that are consulted by laymen and scholars even to the present day. Calvin spoke to the Reformed world of his day through his commentaries and it listened. Almost immediately they were recognized as a cut above everything else. Calvin writes in the dedication to his commentary on Romans that he believed the excellency of an expounder consists in lucid brevity.67 This is exactly what gives them their quality and what has attracted so many to them. Their value was acknowledged even in Calvins own day. Richard Hooker, with reference to controversies in England at that time, said, the sense of Scripture which Calvin alloweth was of more weight than if ten thousand Augustines, Jeromes, Chrysostoms, Cyprians were brought forward.68 Later even Arminius, the great enemy of Calvinistic theology, praised Calvins commentaries in these words: Next to the perusal of the Scriptures, which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvins commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself; for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the Library of the Fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent gift of prophesy.69 George Fisher writes, If he created an epoch in doctrinal theology, it is equally true that he did much to found a new era . . . in the exegesis of the Scriptures. Luther seized on the main idea of a passage, but was less precise as a philological critic. The palm belongs to Luther, as a translator, to Calvin, as an interpreter of the Word.70
Another thing that marks Calvins ministry is the constancy with which he faced unremitting opposition. Calvin in a letter to a friend, noted that God had given him a powerful self-control. But the real ground that underlays this endurance is to be found elsewhere, in Calvins vision of the glory of God. He really believed that since God sovereignly ruled the universe, nothing could happen to him except what was for the glory of God and his own good. Calvin wrote: Therefore the Christian heart, since it has been thoroughly persuaded that all things happen by Gods plan, and that nothing takes place by chance, will ever look to him as the principle cause of things, yet will give attention to the secondary causes in their proper place. The result of such assurance? Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge.71 But at the end of his life, Calvin probably put it best. In his last letter to Farel, he wrote, It is enough that I live and die for Christ, who is to all his followers a gain both in life and death.72
Christ a gain in life and death. It reminds one of the apostles words in Philippians: For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Believing that is the only way one can endure the sufferings that the apostle Paul and Calvin went through.
And suffer Calvin did. Nor did he need to look far to find suffering. His own body was enough to drag him down without the help of anyone else.73 But the main opposition came from those who opposed Calvins ideas. This came primarily from the sworn enemies of Calvin, the Libertines. It wasnt that they were opposed to Calvin as a preacher. The problem they had with him was the moral yoke he was seeking to place on the city. Calvin had urged the councils to implement the laws that were already on the books, which dealt with nearly every facet of life. To this ethical order the Libertines were resolutely opposed, and therefore did everything in their power to overthrow Calvins influence in the city. Indeed, Calvin wrote Farel in the midst of these trials that hardly a week passed without some trouble.74
Their efforts came to a climax in September of 1553, at a time when the Libertines were at the height of their influence and power in the city councils. Some weeks before, the Consistory had excommunicated Berthelier the son of a man who had given his life for Genevas independence. His son was not made of the same noble character, however. The Libertines, in open defiance, persuaded the Council to reinstate Berthelier, despite Calvins repeated and vehement expostulation.75 If Calvin yielded, he would be admitting defeat over the single most important issue for which he had fought long and hard over: church discipline. Further, he would be giving up the control of the church to the state, to which he was virulently opposed. But if he did not give in, he would probably be banished from Geneva again. Those were the choices that faced Calvin when the Council took the action that it did.
September 3 was set for the celebration of the Lords Supper. Calvin was determined not to allow Berthelier to celebrate it with the church, even if that would mean his dismissal. Parker narrates: At that time he was preaching on Sundays on the Acts of the Apostles. He spoke during his sermon of the wickedness of treating the Lords Supper lightly or profanely. Then he raised his voice and his hand in that characteristic gesture of his and quoted Chrysostom: I will die sooner than this hand shall stretch forth the sacred things of the Lord to those who have been judged despisers. The atmosphere in the Cathedral, where, of course, everyone knew what was happening, was tense. Beza tells us that the Sacrament was celebrated in an extraordinary silence, not without a certain fear and trembling, as if the Deity Himself had been present. In fact, however, Parker continues, the danger was already past, since the nerves of the conspirators had cracked and Berthelier had been warned not to present himself after all and was not even in the Cathedral.76
Calvin, unaware of this, awaited the expected herald from the Council to order him from the city. But the herald never came. In the afternoon, Calvin preached what he thought would be his farewell sermon. But it was not his last. Indeed, he had really won the battle over excommunication.
The next year, the Libertines were finally defeated when they staged a riot which the Council took as an attempt to seize power by force. The mob only succeeded, it seems, in making a lot of noise, but the Council proceeded to dispense retribution. The main leaders of the Libertines were therefore forced to flee; those who stayed were executed. From this time on, Calvin enjoyed a much greater influence over the city, and he became, in effect, the virtual legislator of Geneva from this point on until the time of his death in 1564.
At the end of his life, Calvin reminisced with the pastors of Geneva about the troubles he had endured since he had been at the helm of the church there. I have lived here amid continual bickerings, he said. I have been from derision saluted of an evening before my door with forty or fifty shots of an arquebuse. How think you must that have astonished a poor scholar timid as I am, and as I have always been, I confess?77 Nonetheless, Calvin endured through it all. It has been said that the conflicts that he weathered would have broken down any other than a man of iron. But
Calvin knew where his strength came from. The apostle Paul had said it before: I can do all things through Christ who strengthenth me (Phil. 4:13).
Lastly, Calvins ministry demonstrates that a firm belief in the sovereignty of God is consistent with an emphasis on evangelism. You are not a Calvinist if you do not believe in missions, for Calvin certainly believed in them. From Geneva, men were sent out to preach the Gospel all over Europe. Halsema writes: They stood at Calvins door, begging to be sent. Many of them were Frenchmen, pleading to be sent to their native land. They besiege my door, Calvin wrote a friend. They fight with each other for the posts. . . . Sometimes I try to keep them back. . . . I remind them that in more than twenty towns missionaries have been killed by the people. But nothing can stop them.78 Even the French king had protested against all the missionaries being sent into France and demanded for such activity to cease!
Calvins Cardinal Contribution: The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
One of Calvins chief contributions to the Church is his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was a book that was sorely needed in his day. Up to that time, there was no adequate positive summary statement of Protestant theology. Calvins Institutes met that need. It was quickly adopted by Protestants all throughout the European world as the standard textbook of systematic theology. There, said Albrecht Ritschl, pointing to it, There is the masterpiece of Protestant theology.79 Though many other systematic theologies have been written, this treatise still stands apart from the rest and continues to influence the minds of the greatest theologians. The noted theologian J. I. Packer recommends it in these words: For years I have been getting help from Calvins 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion (1300 pages), which from its second edition on was explicitly tailored to help Bible students and teachers in living and witnessing for God.80
What gives the Institutes its value? First, its quality lies in the fact that Calvin did not pursue theology as an end in itself. Calvin wrote in order to bring the reader face to face with God. He believed that a right knowledge of God should lead one further in a life of piety and it is for this reason that he wrote it. J. T. McNeil writes: It is a living, challenging book that makes personal claims upon the reader. This is because it presents, with eloquent insistence, that which has laid hold upon the author itself.
Another reason also lies in the profound reverential tone to the book: Looking back at his conversion, Calvin wrote, God subdued my heart to teachableness. As a consequence of that profound and lasting change, he lived and wrote as a man constantly aware of God. . . . The whole work is suffused with an awed sense of Gods ineffable majesty, sovereign power, and immediate presence with us men.81 Therefore this book lacks the dryness that characterizes so many tomes of theology and thus registers an appeal in the hearts of all who want to seek the face of God.
The second merit of the Institutes lies in the emphasis Scripture receives in it. We have already seen how that Scripture dictated what Calvin preached. For the same reasons, it also
dictated the content of his theology. Everything Calvin says is well watered with Scripture. Further, Calvin is careful not to let logic alone determine his theology, but reverently submits his mind to the boundaries created by revelation. For example, with reference to the doctrine of predestination, Calvin urges restraint: For it is not right, he maintains, for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder. Calvin warns: For we shall know that the moment we exceed the bounds of the Word, our course is outside the pathway and in darkness, and there we must repeatedly wander, slip, and stumble. Let this, therefore, first of all be before our eyes: to seek any other knowledge of predestination than what the Word of God discloses is not less insane than if one should purpose to walk in a pathless waste, or to see in darkness. And let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of something in this matter, wherein there is a certain learned ignorance.82 But Calvin is also careful to avoid a second pitfall: namely, to be silent on those matter of which Scripture speaks. In Calvins day, as in our own, some viewed the doctrine of predestination as being what the evolutionists would call a vestigal organ: its in the Bible, all right, but were not sure why. Calvin strenuously contended that all Scripture is given for edification (cf. 2 Tim. 3:14-16). He writes: Let us, I say, permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes his holy lips, he also shall at once close the way to inquiry.83
WHO WAS JOHN CALVIN? He himself tells us: You yourself know, or at least ought to know, what I am; that at all events, I am one to whom the law of my heavenly Master is so dear that the cause of no man on earth will induce me to flinch from maintaining it with pure conscience.84 He was a man who discovered the transcendent God and was accordingly inspired in every aspect of life to the love, worship and obedience of this God.
But really one of the best ways to judge the character of a minister is to examine the fruit of his ministry, and this is primarily discerned by scrutinizing the character of those who came under the influence of his ministry. Jesus said, Wisdom is justified by her children (Luke 7:35). What caliber of people were those who benefitted from Calvins ministry? What kind of mark did he leave? The Reformed Church in France probably gives us the best picture of the kind of people who came under the influence of Calvins leadership and teaching. Even though Calvin was never able to be in France for the majority of his ministry, nevertheless he was the guiding hand in the early years of the French Reformed Church.
Through all Calvins life, these French Protestants suffered severe persecution. Many died for their faith. Speaking of the French martyrs, Fisher writes in a moving paragraph: For one martyr who disappeared in the flames, there presented themselves a hundred more: men, women, children, marched to their punishment, singing the Psalms of Marot, or the Canticle of Simon . . . . Many expired in ecstasy, insensible to the refined cruelties of the savages who invented tortures to prolong their agony. More than one judge died of consternation or remorse. Others embraced the faith of those whom they sent to the scaffold. The executioner at Dijon was converted at the foot of the pyre. All the great phenomena, in the most vast proportions, of the first days of Christianity, were seen to appear. Most of the victims died with the eye turned towards that New Jerusalem, that holy city of the Alps, where some had been to seek, whence others had received the Word of God. Not a preacher, not a missionary was condemned who did not salute Calvin from afar, thanking him for having prepared him for so beautiful an end. They no more thought of reproaching Calvin for not following them into France than a soldier reproaches his general for not plunging into the melee.85
These are the kind of people who directly or indirectly fed on Calvins teaching. The Calvinistic doctrine of the sovereignty of God in all things put iron in their blood and revolutionized their lives. In fact, the truths they heard from him so transformed their lives that they were willing to give them up in the cause of Jesus Christ.
Men, women and children willing to give themselves as martyrs in the cause of Christ. How did they do it? With Calvin, they too had caught a glimpse of the supremacy of God.
1T. H. L. Parker, Portrait of Calvin (Philadelphia: Westminster, n.d.), 8. It should be pointed out here that Parker is not a Calvinist himself, and he makes it very clear in this book that he disagrees with Calvin on the issue of predestination. But that just makes his testimony all the more valuable, for it proves that those who disagree with Calvin theologically can still find much in him to admire, which Parker obviously does.
3Quoted in David Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism & the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1994), 147.
4Theau B. Van Halsema, This Was John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), 188.
8Portrait of Calvin, 101.
10This Was John Calvin, 199.
11Portrait of Calvin, 102.
13Quoted in Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1932), 391.
15George Fisher, The Reformation (New York: Scribners, 1912), 208.
17The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 383.
19The Reformation, 288.
21Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography, trans. M. Wallace McDonald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 242.
22T. H. L. Parker, Portrait of Calvin (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, n.d.), 115.
24Quoted in Ian Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1966), 179.
25John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vol., ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), lxxi.
27George Fisher, The Reformation (New York: Scribners, 1912), 180. Fisher was a nineteenth century professor of church history at Yale University.
28Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 5, Calvin and Calvinism (New York: Oxford, 1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 24.
29Quoted in Arthur Pink, Practical Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), 157.
30John Calvin, Calvins Commentaries, vol. 6, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, (reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 5:273.
31Institutes, 197, 198.
36John Calvin, The Letters of John Calvin (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), 128.
38Portrait of Calvin, 83.
39Quoted in This Was John Calvin, 23.
41Calvins Commentaries, vol. 4, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1:xl.
42This Was John Calvin, 28.
43J. H. Merle DAubigne, The History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, vol. 1, trans. H. White (New York: American Tract Society, n.d.), 18.
44Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Mentor, 1950), 60.
46Calvins Commentaries, vol. 4, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1:xl, xli.
47Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1:xl,xli.
48Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1:xlii,xliii.
53Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1:xliv,xlv.
54The Modern Age: The History of the World in Christian Perspective, vol. 2, ed. Laurel Hicks (Pensacola: A Beka, 1981), 53.
55This Was John Calvin, 148.
56Portrait of Calvin, 72.
58This Was John Calvin, 166.
60This Was John Calvin, 109,110.
62Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1:xlvii.
63This Was John Calvin, 164.
64John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, edited and with an introduction by John Dillenburger (Scholars Press, 1975), 9.
65Portrait of Calvin, 82,83.
66Calvin and Calvinism, 9.
67John Calvin, Calvins Commentaries, vol. 19, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), xxiii.
69Quoted in Charles H. Spurgeon, Commenting & Commentaries (reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 5.
70The Reformation, 178.
71Institutes, 1:218, 219.
73Sometimes his asthma gave way to attacks of pleurisy. He who had always to speak, in pulpit and lecture and council and at home, was forced to get his words out deliberately because breathing was not easy. Often Calvin could not sit or move comfortably because of severe hemorrhoids. Or the knifing pains of kidney and gallstones would torment him. If his hemorrhoids were bearable, he would take to his horse and gallop as fast as he could, hoping to jolt loose the stones for which his day knew no surgery. Headache - was he ever free from it? Sometimes he was blinded by the pain or kept awake all night. Many times Calvin ate only one meal a day. Cramps, indigestion, influenza were regular problems. This Was John Calvin, 184.
74Portrait of Calvin, 98.
76Portrait of Calvin, 104.
78This Was John Calvin, 207.
79Calvin and Calvinism, 8, 9.
80J. I. Packer, foreward to Know the Truth, by Bruce Milne (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), 11.
84Portrait of Calvin, 95.
85The Reformation, 220,221.