We all know John Calvin the theologian. What about Calvin the preacher? The Genevan reformer we all know created and systematized what is known as the Reformed tradition in Protestant theology.1 Interpretation of Calvin the preacher, who we don’t know as well, requires some understanding of the geographic, social, political, and theological world in which he lived.
As with every preacher, the life of Calvin provided a backdrop and stage props to the drama of his preaching. He was a Frenchman, born at Noyon, Pacardy in 1509. In contrast to Luther, whose passion for spiritual living was well known to others around him, Calvin was a quiet, sensitive man. He said little about his inner life; he was content to walk with God privately and trace the workings of the Lord in his life.2
In the year 1512, when Luther was seeking peace for his soul, Calvin was a three year old toddler in his mother’s arms. That year, Jacques Lefevre published a Latin translation and commentary on the epistles of Paul. “It is God who saves by grace alone,” said the old professor.3 The teachings of Lefevre were later to have a monumental impact on the theological formation of Calvin.
In 1525, the writings of professor Lefevre were condemned, and his translation of the New Testament was publicly burned. Yet, he continued to work even as the writings of Luther began to make their way into France, smuggled and translated for the people. In Paris, John Calvin began to acquaint himself with the teachings of Luther.4 One day, as the neophyte found his way through narrow, twisting streets in Paris to the home of his uncle, the blacksmith Richard Calvin, the smoke and smell of burning human flesh went up from the Palace de Greve. A converted Augustinian monk was tied to the stake and burned for his “Lutheran heresies.”5 Lefevre shaped the early thought of Calvin the theologue. Calvin would never forget the spectacle of burning for one’s convictions.
About 1533, Calvin experienced a sudden conversion. He later wrote this testimony of his experience:
God subdued and brought my heart to docility. It was more hardened than was to be expected in such a young man.”6
Breaking with Roman Catholicism, he left France and lived as an exile in Basel. It was there he began to formulate his theology and enter into correspondence with the Swiss and Strasbourg reformers.
In 1536 he published the first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this work the young theologian gave a brief, clear defense of reformation beliefs. Soon after this manuscript was published, Calvin came to Geneva. Here Calvin learned that preaching the Word could achieve what religious rules and regulations could not. Together with Guillaume Farel, he concentrated on consolidating the reform movement there.
The townspeople swore allegiance to a reform statement in 1537, but Calvin met serious opposition in the town because of the strict discipline and uniformity that he imposed on believers. In fact, in November of 1537, the general council of the town refused to enforce the confession of faith; subsequently, the “Council of Two Hundred” denied Calvin and Farel the right to excommunicate recalcitrant members.7 These matters led only to further frustrations and quarrels, both theological and political, and the result was the expulsion of both Calvin and Farel from the city.8 Church discipline had failed to accomplish the desired result.
In September, 1541 he was invited back to Geneva. The town council actually accepted Calvin’s revision of city laws, but many bitter disputes followed. Calvin sought to bring every citizen under the moral discipline of the church, and naturally there were many who resisted these restrictions, especially when imposed by a foreigner. These frustrations of haggling over political matters led Calvin to seek a new focus.
Perhaps he could do as a preacher what he had failed to do as an ecclesiological policeman. He decided to try to renew people from the inside out, and he set about attaining his aim of a mature church by preaching daily to the people.9 Calvin began to preach to the people of Geneva twice on Sunday and daily during the week. At the week day services Calvin preached series on books of the Bible, chapter by chapter.10
His listeners must have had more stamina than the average modern congregation. On Friday, June 7, 1555, Calvin began a six-week series of preaching on the Ten Commandments, which fell within a larger series on the book of Deuteronomy. He started this series March 20, of that year, and continued preaching daily through Deuteronomy for sixteen months until the following summer, July 1556. A swift calculation reveals over three hundred sermons in this series alone.
Calvin had found an effective agent of change: God’s Word in people’s hearts. What he failed to do through autocratic leadership, Calvin achieved through biblical exposition and proclamation. His preaching influenced civic life as well as contemporary theological thought. Calvin’s labors in the field of action, whether in the pulpit or in municipal affairs or in theological writing, bore a oneness of purpose. As he shifted his emphasis from legislation to proclamation, Calvin seemed to adopt a more narrow focus. Benjamin Farley observes, “The scope of [all] Calvin’s labors embodies a deep unity.11 In preaching, Calvin discovered for himself a living bridge to bring together in unity “the scholarly exegete and the spiritual man of action.”12
In 1555, during his decalogue sermon series, Calvin saw the collapse of his opponents and the ratification in Geneva of the Consistory’s right to ban delinquent members from the church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper. There was also a renewal that year of the political-theological disputes between Bern and Geneva. He had become a theological force to be reckoned with. He taught all knowledge of God and man is to be found in the Word of God. He taught God can only be known if He chooses to be known. He taught pardon and salvation are possible only through the free working of the grace of God. He taught that before the creation, God chose some of His creatures for salvation, and others for destruction.
For Calvin, the church was supreme. It should not be restricted in any way by the state. He gave greater importance than Luther to the external organization of the church. Calvin regarded only baptism and communion as sacraments. Baptism was the individual’s initiation into the new community of Christ. Calvin rejected Zwingli’s idea that the sacrament of communion was merely a symbol, but he also warned against a magical belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.13
Calvin seemed to advocate a sort of real presence not in the Eucharist, but in the evangelist. For instance, in the Institutes he describes how “in revealing Himself, God … unites with Himself, for a moment, a human element. We may call this activity of God His sacramental action.”14
The sacramental element of Calvin’s views hold the truly preached word to be the very Word of God. He notes in communicating His Word to the children of Israel, God did not normally allow His voice to boom out as thunder directly from heaven; but rather God normally used the medium of the prophet when He had a word to speak to His people. So for Calvin, man’s speech becomes God’s Word when God uses a man to communicate to His people:
The Word goeth out of the mouth of God in such a manner that it likewise goeth out of the mouth of men; for God does not speak openly from heaven but employs men as his instruments.”15
As in communion, preaching combines divine meaning and the human instrument of transmission. Human instrumentality does not preclude divine activity. Therefore the task of preaching must be undertaken in the expectancy that Christ Himself will come and mediate or intercede with His very presence where the Gospel is preached, and cause men to hear His voice through the voice of the minister. So, the preached word becomes a “sign” or a symbol of the presence of God, as words are nothing but signs and symbols themselves.16
Calvin’s doctrine of scripture also reflects the divine/human balance:
“Whether God revealed himself to the fathers by oracles and visions, or by the instrumentality and ministry of men, there cannot be a doubt that the certainty of what he taught them was firmly engraved on their hearts, so that they felt assured and knew that the things which they learned came forth from God who invariably accompanied his word with a sure testimony, infinitely superior to mere opinion.”17
There is disagreement among scholars over the degree to which Calvin was a biblical literalist. Some argue that Calvin saw the biblical writers as passive agents, and that “God spoke into their spiritual ears as an announcer would speak into a microphone … and their hands and mouths spoke … like … the receiving set … the words God had spoken.”18
Others say Calvin must not have held to a literalist view of scripture because of his constant attention to “scriptural discrepancies in many places.”19 However, textual criticism was not of consuming interest to Calvin. His view of the Scripture was very high, though it is doubtful that he went to the extremes of some scholars who have studied him.20
Another essential tenet in Calvin’s theology is that of preaching as the instrument or scepter of Christ’s rule: “His whole authority consists in doctrine, in the preaching of which He wishes to be sought and acknowledged.”21 Simplicity characterized Calvin’s high view of scripture, his high view of God’s Sovereignty, his high view of sacrament, his high view of moral law, and his high view of preaching. All these convictions grew out of his essential unity of purpose. He simply believed in the truth and efficacy of God’s word, and understood his calling as a simple messenger of truth.
Calvin did not burst onto the preaching scene without intriguing role models. T. H. L. Parker reminds us before Calvin there was “a Luther, a Bernard, an Augustine– and, above all, an Origen.”22 Origen caused a far reaching change in homiletic methods. Before him the preacher had not taken a text, but spoke upon a theme which he illustrated or proved, by the quotation of certain scripture. Origen made the sermon an exposition of Scripture.23 This method strongly influenced Calvin and his homilies formed a continuous exegesis of a particular book or portion of Scripture. Farley notes that in addition to Origen, “it was perhaps the New Testament exegeses of John Chrysostom of Antioch and Constantinople that most appealed to Calvin.24
The influence of Origen’s relating the sermon to a specific text gave Calvin the view of the preacher as by no means a free agent, working on his own behalf, but a minister verbi divini, the minister or servant of the word of God.25 Taken to extreme, this attitude could lead to blind biblicism, “a religion of the letter, rather that the Spirit.”26
The Spirit has been promised to the church to lead her into all truth, with the Bible as the basis, the source and the criterion of preaching, because without it we would have no knowledge about Jesus Christ. And we believe that the word the Scriptures speak is the word of God Himself. “It is a high eulogy on heavenly truth, that we obtain through it a sure salvation; and this is added that we may learn to seek and love and magnify the word as a treasure that is incomparable.”27
Calvin’s position on the relation of the text to the sermon is summarized by Parker in this way:
“Preaching is exposition in the sense of interpreting the Scriptures to the congregation. This is no unnecessary task, for the modern man, with all his admirable civilization is as far from having the mind of Christ as the most depraved and ignorant savage. What our congregations need to know above all else, is to know what God says to them. Hence our task in the pulpit is not to set before them our own thoughts or our own experiences, however lofty they may be, but to tell them what the Bible says, and to tell it in such a way that the sermon is not a simple lesson in Biblical theology, but an application of the Gospel contained in the Bible teach the Bible. He wanted the Word of Christ to rule in the hearts of men, and change their attitudes and actions in the world in which they lived. Calvin was not timid in stepping on toes as he preached. Potter and Greengrass support this observation, stating, “Few subjects of contemporary interest escape Calvin’s attention during his sermons and lectures.”29 An example of Calvin’s direct and confrontational application sheds light on this phenomenon:
“Women have been allowed for a long time to become increasingly audacious. And besides, speech apart, they wear such provocative clothes that it is hard to discern whether they are women or men. They appear in new dresses and trinkets, so that some new disguise is daily to be seen. They come decked out in peacock-tail fashion, so that a man cannot pass within three feet of them without feeling, as it were, a windmill sail swirling past him. Ribald songs, too, are part of their behavior.”30
His purpose was not just to be provocative, but to witness the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit upon his listeners. This internal testimony is the agent by which true persuasion is achieved.31 In other words, it is the internal testimony that has efficacy and relevance in respect to the persuasion and assurance of our minds.
If there is an area of weakness in Calvin’s preaching it may be that he did not use illustrations very much. Perhaps Calvin considered his preaching to have irresistible grace to those chosen to sit in his congregation. In form, he used the homily, or continuous commentary on a passage. This method was begun by Origen, used by most of the great church Fathers, and revived by Wyclif and the Reformers. The value of the form, primarily, is that it connected his preaching to the Scriptures. “With such a form, it is nearly impossible for the preacher to deliver a religious speech on some subject near or remote from his text,” Parker notes.32
Despite these strengths, the homily form also has its weaknesses. First of all, the sermons of Calvin often lack unity of subject, “owing two or three or more principal ideas appearing in the text.”33 This poses danger to the artistic quality of the sermon and offers practical problems as well. The main point of the sermon should develop in unity, whether or not the hearer is aware of it. Another difficulty is the homily tends to be repetitive (especially in reading), which detracts from interest. Calvin made no attempt at novelty in his treatment of passages. “Repetition was necessary because men rarely did their duty at the first exhortation, but needed to be continually urged to it.”34 Calvin believed that in order for his listeners to experience the thrill of exhortation, they had to endure the agony of repetition.
Despite the repetition of the same form of sermon day after day, year after year, homily was the best form for Calvin’s purpose “to combine a scrupulous fidelity to Scripture with a thorough and pertinent application of doctrine to the lives of the people.”35 He simply served generous ungarnished helpings of God’s word, trusting God to speak through him to satisfy those who truly hungered and thirsted for righteousness.
1Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977, p. 380.
3Thea B. Van Halsema, This Was John Calvin, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1959, p, 17.
4Eerdmans, p. 380.
5This occurred in August of 1523. The monk was the first of many to die that way in Paris. Van Helsema, p. 19.
6John C. Olin, A Reformation Debate; Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans, and Calvin’s Reply. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966, p. 17.
8Eerdmans, p. 381.
10Benjamin W. Parley, John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980, p. 7.
11Farley, p. 8.
13Eerdmans, p. 381.
14Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, p. 159.
15Ibid., pg 82. Wallace quotes Calvin here from his Commentary on Isaiah 55.
16Wallace, p. 84, 85.
17John Murray, Calvin on Scripture and Divine Sovereignty, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1960, pp. 15, 16. (Murray quotes Calvin here from his Institutes.)
18Richard C. Prust, “Was Calvin a Biblical Literalist?,” Scottish Journal of Theology, (September 1967), p. 314.
19Ibid, p. 315.
20A. T. Robertson, “Calvin as an Interpreter of Scripture,” Review and Expositor, no. 4 (October, 1909), 577-78.
22T. H. L. Parker, The Oracles of God; An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin. London: Lutterworth Press, 1947, p. 13.
23Ibid., p. 15.
24Farley, pg. 7
25Parker, p. 136.
27Wallace, p. 89
28Parker, p. 137.
29G. R. Potter and M. Green grass, John Calvin, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1983, p. 120.
31Murray, p. 47.
32Parker, p. 71.
34Ibid., pg. 72.