As you know, a number of our brothers and sisters are in Europe at the moment enjoying a historical tour of the sites associated with the life and work of John Calvin, the 16th century reformer, 2009 being the 500th anniversary of his birth. I thought that those of you who stayed home might appreciate hearing something of the great man’s life and its lessons. Then, when the group returns and eagerly tells you about what they learned, you can say, “Oh, I already knew that,” and “Oh, I didn’t need to go to Europe to learn that.” In this way we will keep our traveling brothers and sisters humble!
Every Christian should aspire to be a church historian to some degree, interested in and informed about – at least to some extent – the great figures of the church’s past. We expect American citizens to know something of the history of their country. We want them to know that history because we want them to appreciate the nature of this Republic, what a great cost was paid to establish it and to preserve and defend it, and something of the genius of its political establishment. We want people to appreciate being citizens of the United States and to appreciate and understand how to live worthily as a citizen of the country and to that end we teach our children its history. Well, in the same way Christians ought to know the history of the Kingdom of God in the world. The Bible is so much a history book that it teaches us to be historians of the faith. There is so much to be gained in this study, so much in the way of wisdom, grace, humility, and perspective. For that reason every Protestant Christian should aspire to be a historian of the Reformation because so much of what we are and what we believe stems from that momentous revolution in thought and life that overtook the church and the nations of Europe in the first half of the 16th century. And for those same reasons every Presbyterian should aspire to be a student of the life of John Calvin. Not an expert, surely; I am sure not even the experts can keep up with the flood of literature in the professional journals and books that are being published this year and every year, each a study of the life and thinking of John Calvin. Not an expert; but acquainted with its broad outline and some of its most important lessons.
- We are Calvinists, after all. It is a nickname, to be sure, a sobriquet, but it is both one we use to describe ourselves and one often imposed upon us by our theological adversaries. Calvinism is, at one and the same time, a badge of honor and a slur. We ought to know what we mean by the term and what others mean by it. Is Calvinism biblical or is it, as is often charged, an alien philosophy imposed upon the teaching of Holy Scripture? No one less than Charles Spurgeon, perhaps the greatest and most influential preacher in the history of English speaking Christianity, said:
“I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel…unless we preached the sovereignty of God in his dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out on the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called.” [Autobiography, i, 172]
- We are also Presbyterians and, as Presbyterians, we find our family history originating in the Geneva of John Calvin. John Calvin may not have been the first Presbyterian (after all, we believe the apostles were Presbyterians!) but he was certainly the father of modern Presbyterianism.
- Calvin is one of the most original and influential thinkers in the history of the church. He was, in fact, one of the most original and influential thinkers in the history of the world. If you were to count up the 10 or 15 most influential thinkers in the history of the human race, I guarantee you John Calvin would be in that list, if not high in that list. He is, however, as almost all great thinkers are, a controversial figure, a lightning rod. He is adored and despised and has been since his own lifetime. One of our Reformed party, the 19th century church historian Philip Schaff, wrote of Calvin: “Taking into account all his failings, he must be reckoned as one of the greatest and best men whom God raised up in the history of Christianity.” [viii, 834] But you could find many others who have little good to say about the man. Like all great men he attracted fawning admiration and bitter opposition.
The Story of His Life
Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, Picardy, the canton immediately north, northeast of Paris. His father was a minor government official whose name was Gerard Cauvin. As you know in the scholarly world of that day everyone’s name was Latinized because Latin was the language of the university. If you were a student, you heard your lectures in Latin. If you were reading books, you read books that were written in Latin. And you referred to one another in names that were Latin. Cauvin became Latinized as Calvinus and then Anglicized as Calvin. He was a bright boy and enrolled at the University of Paris at the age of 14 (not unusual in those days). He was a brilliant student and received the best education Europe could offer in those days. Think of someone who got 1600 on his SAT, was a National Merit finalist, went on a full ride to Harvard, and you’ve got some idea of Calvin’s prospects as a young man graduating from university. At just 23 years of age, in c. 1530 he self-published his first work of scholarship, a scholarly commentary on the Latin work of the 1st century Roman moralist, Seneca, On Mercy. To be honest, it was not a best seller! We have letters from Calvin to friends and acquaintances urging them to buy the book! New and radical ideas were in the air in those days. Like all university men he had heard of Luther and other Reformers, discussed his ideas in the cafes, and had read at least some of the new works coming out of Germany. And it was apparently Luther who made a great difference. We don’t know precisely how. Calvin spoke very little about his own conversion, but in one place, he says this:
“…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 though I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.”
Later on, however, he would acknowledge that he owed a great debt to Luther. At the time Calvin was training for a career as a lawyer. That was soon given up but it is interesting that Calvin was never ordained. His entire life as one of the principle figures of the Protestant Reformation and as a pastor of the church in Geneva, doing all the things that ordinarily ordination is required for, was spent as the layman he was when he first became a real Christian and first began to work for the Reformation.
At first, like many others attracted to the ideas of reform abroad in the church, he remained a Roman Catholic, hoping to see the church reformed from within. The break came in 1533, Calvin was 22 or 23 years of age at the time, when a friend of his, Nicolas Cop, was elected rector of the University of Paris. It was Cop’s duty to deliver a speech suitable to the occasion of his installation, a speech that, according to Theodore Beza, Calvin’s friend, associate, and successor, Calvin wrote for Cop. In fact, if you read the address, you will not find it very inflammatory. It was a complaint against the errors and superstitions of the church of the day, but many loyal Roman Catholics of the time might have said similar things in the same way. But the church authorities were on the lookout for heretics and sniffed ones in Cop and Calvin. Calvin’s room was searched and his papers confiscated, he almost certainly would have been arrested, but by then he had already escaped the city by being let down out of a window by bed sheets. [It has long reminded historians of the beginning of the Apostle Paul’s ministry: a sudden conversion, his articulate championing of the new faith, and the virulent reaction of his enemies requiring his sudden escape from Antioch.]
For the next three years Calvin wandered as a fugitive evangelist through Southern France, Italy, and Switzerland. He was never far from danger and traveled under assumed names. We don’t associate this kind of daring do and adventure with John Calvin, but three years of his early life were spent this way One of the aliases he used was Alcuin, an anagram of Calvin (the “u” and the “v” interchangeable in Latin).
But moving from place to place, living an unsettled life did not deter him from the life and work of a theological scholar. That is a real mark of a scholar. He cannot stop reading, learning or studying no matter the circumstances of his life. The Anabaptists were beginning to appear in numbers in Europe, forming the more radical left wing of the Reformation. They were gaining converts by the numbers. Among their views was that at death the soul went to sleep until awakened at the resurrection of the dead on the last day. Calvin’s first theological performance was a small book that would later bear the title, Psychopannychia or “Soul Sleep.” It was a refutation of that idea and a reassertion of the church’s historic teaching that at death the soul lives on, the person remains awake and rejoicing in the presence of Christ. It was also during this early period, of which we wish we knew more – Calvin was very reticent with the personal details of his life; never wrote an autobiography, rarely spoke of his personal history in his letters – that he first published, in French, his Institutes of the Christian Religion or “Instruction in the Christian Religion.” In its original form it was a relatively brief manual of Christian doctrine in six chapters. It would eventually grow to five times its original size as one edition followed another until the last edition was published in 1559. The Institutes were furnished with a preface addressed to Francis, the King of France, defending the Reformation and the evangelicals who were advocating and fostering the reformation of the church. It is a beautifully written apology for the reform and is widely regarded in the scholarship of the French language as one of the great performances that defined the next chapter in the development of that beautiful language.
In his address to the king Calvin did not contest the notion that the nation ought to have a single church. He was not pleading simply for toleration for the Protestant movement now underway in all of the European countries. His argument was nothing less than that the evangelicals were the one, holy, catholic church and that the Roman Catholic church of the day represented a drastic departure from the biblical and early Christian faith. Against the complaint being made by loyal Catholics that the teaching of the evangelicals was a novelty, “If this is really true, why haven’t we heard it before?” Calvin wittily replied, “I have no doubt our teaching is novel to them. So is that of the Bible and of the church fathers.” The church’s outward form was no doubt impressive, Calvin admitted. But in Elijah’s day the church’s outward form was impressive but entirely a fraud. The true communion of the saints consisted in 7,000 souls who had not succumbed to the false teaching or superstition then prevalent in the church. In many ways the Reformation was an argument about precisely who and what is a Christian: someone who is in some outward way submissive to the church’s hierarchy and conforms to its ritual life or a person with living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who serves him with his or her life? It is a magnificent testament to Calvin’s intellectual greatness that such a work as the Institutes could have been written by someone so young and so recently a serious Christian. One of the revolutionary works of Christian theology, written by a man in his mid-twenties, providing an almost uniquely clear and simple account of the Christian faith that, at the same time, anticipated virtually all the great developments in theology that were to occur over the next generation. It is not too much to say that the first edition of the Institutes, quite unwittingly on Calvin’s part, became the manifesto of the Reformation and a new and world-changing definition of the Christian faith. Luther, for example, wrote nothing like the Institutes. Neither did any of the other magisterial Reformers. It was an utterly unique, dramatically new, kind of performance.
However, the argument of the Preface fell on deaf ears. The government’s pursuit of advocates of reform intensified, there were more burnings, and Calvin left France for Switzerland. Calvin was no longer a man of no reputation, however. The Institutes were greeted with wide acclaim. Martin Bucer, one of the principal leaders of the Reformation up to that point wrote him shortly after their publication: “It is evident that the Lord has elected you as his organ for the bestowment of the richest fullness of blessing to his church.” It was not a work intended for the layman. Unlike much of Luther’s writing, Calvin addressed himself to the ministers, the teachers of the church, among whom the Institutes have been wielding their greatest influence ever since. A well read layman can read it with great profit today as then, but its influence has always been greatest through the Christian ministry which has avidly read the work for these five centuries since its first publication.
Calvin’s goal at this point in his life was to devote himself to study and writing. He thought of himself as a scholar and he wanted to live the life of a theological scholar. The Lord had other plans! Some few months after the publication of the Institutes, Calvin arrived, with his brother and sister and a few friends in tow, in the Swiss city of Geneva. Geneva had already declared itself for the Reformation (and had withstood attack from Catholic forces for doing so). It makes for too long a story to tell, but the Reformation of the church in the 16th century took place amidst great political and social changes in Europe and, in particular, the growing influence of the middle class whose presence in the Swiss cities was considerable. Such people were less inclined to follow the course charted for them by privileged authorities, the government and the Catholic ministry. They were beginning to think for themselves. The liberty of the church and the liberty of the citizen were being discovered at one and the same time and, in many respects, the discovery was one and the same. Calvin planned only to spend the night on his journey elsewhere. He was, however, to remain there, with only one interruption, for the remainder of his life. William Farel, one of the pastors of the town and champions of the Reformation, heard that he had arrived and went to see him. He implored him to stay and assist the work of reforming the town in both doctrine and morals.
There was a lot to reform. Geneva was a town of some 12,000. St. Peter’s, which exists today and in which our brothers and sisters had church services today, is still the same building that it was in Calvin’s day, though there is not supposed to remain a single home that existed in Calvin’s time in the old part of the city. Many of its citizens were not at all sincere Christians. They were accepting of the change to the Reformation, but they had no personal stake in it. There was too much drinking, prostitution was legalized and superintended by the state, gambling was widespread, and most of the city was, spiritually speaking, both ignorant and indifferent. The city was in the Reformation camp, but there were factions that were not enthusiastic about this at all and the city was deeply divided over a variety of issues. Calvin declined Farel’s invitation to remain as his assistant. He pled his youth, his inexperience, his need of further study. Farel was not a man to take “no” for an answer. Here is Calvin’s own account of what happened next.
“…Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after learning 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 the imprecation that God would curse my retirement and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to help, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so terror-struck, that I gave up the journey I had undertaken; but sensible of my natural shyness and timidity, I would not tie myself to any particular office.” [Cited in T.H.L. Parker, 63]
Calvin began his work by teaching the Epistles of Paul in the afternoon in St. Peter’s, the city church. There is an assignment likely to gain you great success! Just when everybody has had lunch and is sleepy you are going to explain the Epistles of Paul to them. He was still serving as the lawyer-theologian. He had a rare gift for teaching and it began to tell. People began to turn out to hear his expositions in increasing numbers. Soon thereafter he was elected pastor of the town and found himself conducting services, baptizing babies, officiating at weddings, preaching sermons and so on.
At first Calvin lived and worked under the shadow of Farel – indeed, five months into his work the minutes of the town council report that he had still not been paid for his work – but his gifts and greatness could not be hidden for long. In those days when every government assumed as a matter of course that there would be one church and one only, one form of Christianity approved within its boundaries, none of these denominations such as we are used to today, the church of Geneva would be one thing only for everyone – that a uniformity of belief and practice was essential to political order was the assumption of that time – cities would sponsor debates as a way to help them decide whether they would remain Romanist or join the Reformation. Eight years earlier, through such a debate, the city of Berne had been won almost overnight to the Reformation. Now another such debate was scheduled for Lausanne, not far from Geneva, and the Genevan pastors were assigned the task of upholding the Reformation side of the debate. Here is a shortened form of an account of what happened:
Farel brought from Geneva the young rector from St. Peter’s, “ille Gallus.” [that Frenchman] At seven o’clock in the morning while the church bells were solemnly ringing, the mighty Cathedral was filling up. [You would be interested in the outcome of this debate if it had as much to do with your life as being a Romanist or a Protestant had to do with the life of Europeans in the early 16th century. It had everything to do with your personal freedom and with your opportunities both economically and politically. It had everything to do with what a worship service was going to be like for you and your family every Lord’s Day when you went to church.] In the center of the nave were the seats of the two party leaders, the lawyers, the Bernese delegates clad in official red and black and the participants among whom were one hundred seventy-four Roman priests. [So there were four Protestants and one hundred seventy-four Roman Catholics doing the debate.]
Farel addressed the opposition, “speak straight from the shoulder! We do not dispute with galleys, fire and sword, prison and torture behind us. [He means like you do.] We have no hangmen for preconceived opinions. Let Holy Scriptures alone be the judge. If the truth is on your side, step forward!”
For three days Calvin was silent. As often as Farel nodded to him he shook his head. And in the evening he answered the reproaches by saying, “You and Viret know well how to answer all questions. Why should I interfere?” Farel wrung his hands, “It is a shame that you have so much insight and knowledge and at the same time so much shyness.”
On the fourth day, however, the Lord’s Supper was the topic of discussion. [As you know at the time of the Reformation, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass was a central issue. How you looked at that particular piece of Christian worship had a great deal to say about how you thought about the gospel and the Christian faith in general.] Mimard, one of the Romanists, read a carefully prepared speech. He accused the Reformers of holding the teachings of Augustine and other divinely inspired Church Fathers in low esteem.
Farel looked at Viret, Viret back at Farel, who was about to retort, “Human words! Our only basis is the Holy Scriptures.” But it did not come to that. The young lector had risen and in silent scorn he fastened his eye upon the accuser who was looking about himself assured of triumph. Full of amazement everyone stared at the young man. Now he began to speak. “Honor to the Holy Church Fathers: he among us who does not know them better than you, let him beware lest he mention their names. Too bad that you are not more thoroughly read in them, otherwise certain references could be of benefit to you.”
Freely, without any manuscript before him, Calvin began to refute the opinions presented. [Remember this is a man in his twenties.] And how he refuted them! Everyone listened attentively because all his arguments were taken exclusively from the Church Fathers. He quoted and expounded the opinion of Tertullian, added a homily ascribed to Chrysostom—“the eleventh, about in the middle.” Then a passage from Augustine— “from the twenty-third chapter toward the end”; another from Augustine’s book against Adimantus the Manichean—“about in the middle”; another, from the ninety-eighth Psalm, and again another, always quoting from Augustine—”the beginning of a homily on the Gospel of John, it must be the eighth or ninth. . .“ He was not yet finished with the presentation of proofs from the old Christian commentaries, the titles of which were not even familiar to most of the people present. He had still another witness for the evangelical interpretation of the debated question: “In the book De Fide ad Petrum Diaconum, we read this, and in the Epistle ad Dardanum the following. All by heart! Followers of the old faith and the new held their breath as they listened to the unmatched scholarly presentation supported by a miraculous memory. The opponent who earlier proclaimed his accusations with a voice of conviction felt himself shrinking as the small, pale speaker, directing his eye upon him, continued with victorious expression: “Judge for yourself whether your assertion is not audacious, that we are hostile to the Church Fathers. Admit that you hardly ever saw the covers of their works. If you and those who spoke before you had ever leafed through them, you would have wisely remained silent!”
These scholarly blows are enough. Yet suddenly the surprising speaker switched over to a different type of attack. He was not in vain a pupil of de L’Estoile’s, the prince of lawyers. Disturbed, the followers of Rome found themselves defeated by their own arguments. Move by move their opponent, assured of his victory, placed his chessmen until the enemy was checkmate. Terribly beaten—with his own weapons! Clearly the final words could be heard: “A spiritual communion which binds us in truth and reality through everything which we are able to receive by grace from His body and blood, which binds us to our Saviour. . . , a spiritual communion binds through a spiritual bond, the bond of the Holy Spirit: that is the Lord’s Supper.” [Stickelberger 56]
Calvin sat down and wiped his pale forehead. Absolute silence filled the sanctuary. Even the countless common folk who understood only the smallest part of it felt that decisive worth had been spoken.
The startled looks of the priests met each other. No one had a word of rebuttal, no one wanted to expose himself… Then, a Franciscan friar stood up. It was Jean Tandy, well known, a good preacher who zealously spoke against the Reformers from the pulpits of the city and its neighborhood. The speech of the otherwise so eloquent orator was almost tongue-tied today as, pale from emotion, he began to say: “It seems to me that the sin against the Spirit which the Scriptures speak of is the stubbornness which rebels against manifest truth. In accordance with that which I have heard, I confess to be guilty, because of ignorance I have lived in error and I have spread the wrong teaching. I ask God’s pardon for everything I have said and done against His honor; and ask the pardon of all of you people for the offense which I gave with my preaching up until now. I defrock myself henceforth to follow Christ and His pure doctrine alone…” The people were deeply moved. Everywhere there was whispering, even among the preachers. It was obvious that the Franciscan friar was not the only one whose mind had been changed during this hour.
The morning after the end of the debate all houses of prostitution were closed in Lausanne, all whores expelled. The religious debate began to bear fruit. Day after day, clergy of Vaud land declared themselves for the Reformation, within a few months eighty regular and one hundred and twenty secular priests. Among them were some of the most confirmed defenders of the teaching of Rome…
I need now to compress a very long story into a very short report. The Reformation began to take root among the Genevan people – under the preaching of Farel and Calvin and others – but then a fundamental mistake. They overreached and demanded too much too soon. They cajoled the city fathers to embrace a wide-ranging set of reforms – especially in worship and in church discipline – for which the population was not ready and even persuaded the government of the city to require an oath of allegiance to a new confession of faith. There was great resistance in the town, the enemies of the Reformation gained strength, pamphlets and dirty songs against the Reformed pastors began to appear, and, in order to keep the peace, Farel and Calvin were banished. Calvin admitted later that his own naïveté and inexperience had contributed to their banishment.
Where to go now? The people of Strasbourg had heard of the phenomenal young theologian and entreated him until he came. The now famous author of the Institutes would put their city on the map! His experience in Geneva had confirmed Calvin in his reluctance to take on a public role and in his opinion that he was cut out for the study not the pulpit. But he also needed an income and Strasbourg was offering him a job! Strasbourg did not belong to France in those days and was home to a large company of French refugees, Protestants who had fled their homeland for fear of their lives. It was of this French church that Calvin became pastor.
There followed three very happy years and productive in Strasbourg: expanding the Institutes, writing other books, preaching, developing a Reformed liturgy and gaining in fame and stature year by year. During this time he married a member of his congregation, the widow of a man, formerly an Anabaptist, who had been converted to the Reformed doctrine. They were to have one child, a son, who died in infancy.
Meanwhile, things had gone from bad to worse in Geneva. But the Reformation party was back in charge and asked Calvin to return: all was forgiven. He refused. Emissaries were sent to plead with him. He still refused. Why return to that place? Farel once again intervened with a letter full – as Calvin put it – “thunder and lightning” and at 32 years of age, in 1541 he returned to the city from which he had been banished 3 years before. He was supposed to be on loan for six months from Strasbourg, but was, in fact, to remain in Geneva virtually without ever leaving its walls for the remainder of his life, some 23 years. The folk in Strasbourg sent to Geneva this word of introduction.
“Finally he comes to you, this incomparable, this rare instrument of the Lord. Our century knows no other like him – indeed if beside him one can still speak of another…”
It is very interesting how important Calvin’s return to Geneva was taken to be by the wider reformed church in Europe, especially in Switzerland and Germany. It seems widely to have been felt that the fate of Geneva depended upon Calvin and that the fate of the evangelical cause in France and Italy depended upon Geneva. [Schaff, viii, 433] Back in Geneva Calvin was, by this time, more mature, more moderate, more a peacemaker. The absence of the hot-headed Farel no doubt was a help. He began a course of regular preaching (more than 2000 of his sermons have been preserved), of organizing church life (setting the calendar of church services, establishing catechism classes for the young, establishing Presbyterian government [including deacons with their orphanages and hospitals], with ruling elders to administer discipline), schools, including the Academy for the training of ministers, and writing his commentaries and other books. His wife died after nine years of marriage. Sometime after her death, he wrote to a friend, “My wife, a woman of rare qualities died a year and half ago, and I have now willingly chosen to lead a solitary life.” [Cited in Schaff, viii, 416] It was a time of letter writing and Calvin was an avid correspondent. His letters fill eleven of the immense volumes of his collected works. He wrote to the great – kings and princes and bishops – and to the small, men and women alike: answering questions, sending encouragement, consoling the bereaved.
This long period was marked with a long and often bitter quarrel with the town council over the authority of the church to impose discipline. Many members of the council were not overly sympathetic with the Reformation to begin with, were not spiritually minded men, and, in any case, had no interest in surrendering their power. It had been the council that had approved all excommunications in the past, not the church. But finally the council itself was controlled by evangelicals and thus began what in the history of Geneva and the Calvinian Reform has been called the “era of triumph.”
Geneva was visibly renewed as a society. The population became, in virtually everyone’s estimation more industrious, more sober, and more peaceful. It came to be known throughout Europe as the Paradis de Femme, a paradise for women because the church so often rose to the defense of women in unhappy marriages and refused to countenance mistreatment of women in their homes. Women came from other places in Europe to Geneva in the confidence that they would be cared for and protected there. The city thrived economically and socially. Geneva became a haven for a host of exiles fleeing oppressive regimes elsewhere, including some important figures of the English and Scottish reformations. In 1556 John Knox, exiled from Britain for his role in the English Reformation, wrote of Geneva:
“Here exists the most perfect school of Christ which has been since the days of the Apostles on earth. Christ is preached elsewhere too; yet nowhere did I find that morals and faith have been improved more sincerely than here.”
And Farel exclaimed: “Better to be last in Geneva than the first somewhere else.” [Cited in Stickelberger, 142] During this period too came the affair of Michael Servetus who was the only person executed for heresy in Calvin’s period as pastor of the city. Calvin has been often condemned for his role in the affair and, to be sure, we do not accept that what was done was right. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that heretics were being executed all over Europe in that day, he had been condemned by Roman Catholic authorities – who would have executed him themselves if they had been able to catch him –, it was actually the council that executed Servetus, not the church, and the council had before doing so asked for and received the full support of the other Swiss Reformed city governments, and Calvin did recommend a milder form of execution than the customary form for heretics which was fire.
Calvin died in 1564 at the age of 54. So much more to say, so much more that could be said to personalize the account but my time is exhausted.
Some Lessons from Calvin’s Life
- The first and one we are inclined in our egalitarian day to pass over, and should not do so, is the extraordinary influence that men of great gifts can wield. God uses men and uses great men to do great things. It is remarkable that still today, these 500 years later, Calvin is still such an influential figure in political and economic history as well as the history of theological thought. In this 500th anniversary of his birth Europeans are producing virtually unnumbered works on the significance of John Calvin for the history of the continent. He is regarded as a major figure in the history of republican forms of government, the sort of political government we have as Presbyterians in the church, now taken as a matter of course in Europe and the United States. He is still regarded as having exercised a great influence, not on the rise of capitalism itself, the origins of which lie deep in the Middle Ages, but capitalism in its more modern form: the market and the freedom of the market without the more unfortunate forms that market economy can take. Capitalism in its more attractive forms. Calvin is regarded as having been an important influence in the development of that economic theory and practice. [cf. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin, 217-234] The church owes a great deal to the genius of a few great minds and Calvin’s was one of them. More than you know, you think the way you do about your faith because of John Calvin. We need to pray for such men to be given the church in our day as well and in the churches of the other parts of the world. In 1539 a Roman Catholic cardinal by the same of Sadolet had written an appeal to the people of Geneva, thinking that the city’s unrest and the recent banishment of its Reformed pastors created an opportunity to win the city back to the Roman church. There was no one in Geneva capable of making a reply so Calvin, the banished pastor, now in Strasbourg wrote one and sent it to Geneva for the purpose. It is the great polemical work of the Reformation era, cordial but firm in tone, and devastating in argument. Luther was delighted with Calvin’s Reply to Sadolet and wrote to a friend, “This answer has hand and foot, and I rejoice that God raises up men who will give the last blow to popery and finish the war against Antichrist which I began.” “God raises up men…” that is the lesson of Calvin’s life.
- What God can do with a submissive, consecrated life. The astonishing thing about Calvin’s life is that it was spent largely doing what he did not want to do. He wanted to be a lawyer-theologian who spent his days in private reading books and writing books. He ended up being a pastor consumed with the daily business of a city and a church with everyone pestering him for his opinion about everything. Calvin’s life work was not what he wanted to do, but when called to it, when it was set before him he set to it with industry and resolve. He was never a healthy man but he worked indefatigably through illness. And he changed the world. No one knows how much more your life could accomplish if only you added industry to your gifts. So many of us far too much of the time do what we have before us to do with only half a heart and mind and the result is much less than it might have been. The Lord says, “he who honors me, I will honor.” A text to live by. Calvin’s motto, as you may know, was “My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” It is a good motto for any Christian. A mighty lesson from the great man’s life.
- The importance of tolerance. Calvin learned it as he went, was much better at it later than earlier in his life, which I hope will be true of all of us. He was a principled theologian but he preserved very happy friendships with men who deviated significantly from his theological viewpoint. Calvin produced a preface for a new edition of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, his systematic theology, the last edition published in Melanchthon’s life. By that time Melanchthon had altered his theological viewpoint dramatically from what it had been in the early editions of that very influential work. Now it was representative of what we would today call an Arminian theology. Yet, Calvin, the Calvinist of all Calvinists, supposedly unbending in his assertion of the sovereignty of God in everything, wrote a recommendation of this work by his friend, a work that at least in one important respect represented a viewpoint very different from his own.
- No one is perfect; and all men have feet of clay. Calvin complains against himself at the very end of his life for his temper and imperious manner. He created more controversy than he needed to. We know that. He admitted that. Nor did he get everything right. Such is his authority that today theologians are always trying to prove that Calvin taught such and such a doctrine, but the study of the Bible moves on and no one can think of everything. I think he is wrong at several points in his Institutes though his system of theology is better than anyone else’s before or since in my view and that the performance, the creation of that great work by a man in his mid-twenties, is one of the rarest and most stupendous achievements of individual initiative and genius in the history of the world. A prodigious intellect, a great heart, an indefatigable spirit and by the blessing of God he changed the church and through the church changed the entire world. You have no idea how different your world would be today had there been no John Calvin, a man whose 500th birthday is very well worth remembering!