April 8, 2014 Broadcast

John Calvin & Geneva

A Message by W. Robert Godfrey

 When John Calvin was expelled from Geneva, he assumed he would never return.  Calvin was content to live out his days writing and ministering in relative obscurity, far from big city politics.  But God excels at toppling human expectations.  Dr. Robert Godfrey describes Calvin’s historic return to Geneva, and the permanent mark this left on the Western world.

From the series: A Survey of Church History, Part 3 A.D. 1500-1600

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  1. article

    Savoring the Institutes

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    John Calvin

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    The Pastor-Scholar

Savoring the Institutes

Keith Mathison

There are a very small number of books other than the Bible that have affected the course of history. One thinks immediately of books such as Nicholas Copernicus’ Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, or Albert Einstein’s Relativity. There are also a small number of books that have profoundly influenced the history and thought of the church. One might think, for example, of Augustine’s City of God, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Among the few books that have shaped the course not only of church history but also of world history is John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.

The first Latin edition of the Institutes was published in 1536, when Calvin was only in his late twenties. This first edition consisted of six chapters. A fully revised edition consisting of seventeen chapters appeared in 1539. While the first edition was viewed by its author as a compendium of doctrine and a confession of faith, the revised edition was intended as a theological textbook to be used in the training of candidates for the ministry. Calvin revised his work again in 1543, adding four chapters to the new edition. A fourth edition appeared in 1550, but it contained only minor revisions, the most significant of which was the numbering of the paragraph divisions. Finally, in 1559, the fifth and final edition of Calvin’s Institutes was published. This edition is substantially larger than its predecessor, containing 80 chapters. This definitive edition has been translated into many languages over the last 450 years. The standard English translation since 1960 has been that of Ford Lewis Battles. His translation was edited by John T. McNeill and published in the Library of Christian Classics.

John Calvin’s Institutes is, essentially, the first Reformed “systematic theology.” Its influence on the thought of all subsequent Reformed theology is immeasurable. The work is divided into four major sections or “Books.” Book One concerns the knowledge of God the Creator. In this Book, Calvin discusses God, Scripture, and man’s knowledge of God and of himself. Book Two concerns God the Redeemer in Christ. Here Calvin explains, among other things, the biblical doctrine of the fall, the Law, the incarnation, and the atonement. Book Three concerns the way in which we receive the grace of Christ. In this section Calvin discusses faith, justification, the Christian life, and more. Finally, Book Four concerns the external means by which God invites us into the church. Here, Calvin covers subjects related the church, the sacraments, and the civil magistrate.

Contrary to the portrayals of Calvin that one often finds in contemporary books and articles, Calvin was not a dry academic scholar. Such caricatures are evident the moment one takes the time to read his works. Calvin has a passion to see God glorified and Jesus Christ exalted, and this passion shines throughout the Institutes. Even those Christians who cannot read the entire work should take the time to read at least Book Three, chapters 6–10. The wisdom contained therein for the Christian’s daily walk with Christ is truly profound. 

It is unfortunate, but many contemporary Christians who consider themselves “Reformed” or “Calvinist” have never read any part of this classic Christian work. Admittedly, the Institutes can be an intimidating work. The standard English translation, for example, consists of two large hardback volumes, and the text, not including introductions and indexes, itself fills 1,521 pages. It is easy when looking at a book of that size to pass it up in favor of something shorter and less difficult. However, many things that are worthwhile are difficult, and those who do pass up this work because of its size are missing the opportunity to sit at the feet of one of the church’s great teachers. 

Completing the book is actually not as difficult as one would imagine at first glance. Each of the eighty chapters is divided into smaller sections, which average a little over one page in length. If a person reads four of these subsections (4–5 pages) per day, every day, he will complete the entire work in less than a year. Read two per day, and he will finish the book in less than two years. Such a reading schedule is actually helpful because it will give the reader time to contemplate what he has read each day. There are great Christian works, and then there are true classics. The Institutes is a true classic that we should all take up and read.

John Calvin

Our next model of faith from church history is the French theologian and reformer John Calvin. Perhaps no other figure from church history has been as misrepresented and maligned as this man who is often regarded in popular culture as dour, rigid, and mean-spirited. However, as we shall see, nothing could be further from the truth.

John Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France, the son of an official who worked for the Cathedral church there. At fourteen he entered the University of Paris in order to study Latin, but his track towards the Catholic priesthood was soon steered toward a degree in law after his father had a falling out with church authorities.

Calvin wrote very little about himself and so the exact details of his early life are sometimes sketchy. We do know, however, that sometime between the years 1528–1532 he was converted to Christ and wholeheartedly embraced the doctrines that Protestants were emphasizing. In fact, not long after his conversion, Calvin was forced to leave Paris when university authorities discovered that he had helped compose a sermon that preached Reformation theology.

Calvin fled to Switzerland where he spent two years studying Hebrew and mastering the works of Augustine. He attempted to settle in the city of Strasbourg but was convinced by the leaders of Geneva to stay there and help reform the city that, at the time, was a city notorious for scandal and licentiousness. Calvin would remain in Geneva for the rest of his life, except for a brief exile, preaching and teaching and helping to promulgate biblical doctrine.

Calvin was widely regarded for his kindness and friendliness. He remained quite shy his entire life, preferring the role of a scholar to that of an administrator. His commentaries on nearly the entire Bible remain a model of sound exegesis and practical, theological application, benefitting the church even today. His Institutes of the Christian Religion is perhaps the finest systematic theology ever produced.

Today’s passage alludes to the motto of Calvin: “I offer my heart to thee O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” Calvin knew that God desires the offering of our whole being to Him in gratitude for our great salvation, and he endeavored to live his life accordingly. He died in 1564.

The Pastor-Scholar

Philip Ryken

As far as John Calvin was concerned, almost nothing was more urgent for the church than the reformation of pastoral ministry. For centuries, most ministers had been shockingly ignorant of the Scriptures and thus ill-equipped to preach the gospel. As Calvin said in one debate with a Catholic cardinal (pretending to defend the Protestant cause before God): “Those who were regarded as the leaders of faith neither understood Thy Word, nor greatly cared for it. They drove unhappy people to and fro with strange doctrines, and deluded them with I know not what follies.”

Calvin was determined to be different and thus to do everything he could to promote the ideal of the pastor-scholar — a minister who had a deep knowledge of the Scriptures and able to preach its doctrines to his people.

This commitment to scholarship came naturally, since Calvin had been trained as a legal scholar before he gave his life to Christ and entered the ministry. It was also his calling. Based on his reading of Ephesians 4:11, Calvin made a clear distinction between “shepherds” (who served as shepherds of a local church) and “teachers” (who served the wider church by interpreting God’s Word, defending true doctrine, and training other men for ministry, much like seminary professors today). But since Calvin held both of these offices, he set an example as a pastor-scholar that Reformation churches have followed ever since.

Calvin held a high view of the gospel ministry. Ministers are “God’s hands,” he said, to do his saving and sanctifying work in the world. When the church has “good and faithful teachers and others that labor to show us the way of salvation, it is a sign that our Lord Jesus Christ has not left us, nor forgotten us, but that he is present with us, and watches for our salvation.”

Evidently, God had not forgotten his people in Geneva, for the church there was blessed by Calvin’s preaching ministry for nearly thirty years. The Reformer’s work load was heavy. He preached almost daily, and twice on Sunday — roughly four thousand sermons in all, carefully transcribed and collected in forty-eight bound volumes. In addition to his preaching, Calvin was a prolific writer, producing personal letters, essays on the reformation of the church, theological treatises, commentaries on almost the entire Bible, and of course his famous Institutes.

Calvin’s goal in all his preaching and writing was to teach the Word of God faithfully so that the Holy Spirit could use his words to bring people to saving faith in Jesus Christ and to help them grow in godliness. He knew that only God could do the real work of the ministry. Preaching accomplishes nothing, he said, “unless the Spirit of God does inwardly touch the hearts of men.” Yet Calvin also believed that the Spirit’s work included his own best efforts to teach the Bible: “Through [the Spirit’s] inward operation [preaching] produces the most powerful effects.”

In order for his ministry to have this effect, the minister had to be faithful in interpreting and applying the Scriptures. This, in turn, required careful study. Although his preaching was not for a scholarly audience, Calvin took a scholarly approach to his preparation. Typically, he preached through whole books of the New Testament (or the Psalms) on Sundays and from the Old Testament the rest of the week. In both cases he preached directly from the Bible in its original languages. 

Although Calvin usually preached for more than an hour, he spoke extemporaneously, without text or notes. He was not speaking “off the cuff,” however, because whatever he said was the product of his own careful, first-hand exegesis and wide reading in the early church fathers and other Bible commentators. As Calvin once remarked to his congregation: “If I should enter a pulpit without deigning to glance at a book, and frivolously imagine to myself, ‘Oh well, when I preach, God will give me enough to say’ — and come here without troubling to read, or thinking what I ought to declare, and do not carefully consider how I must apply Holy Scripture to the edification of the people — then I should be an arrogant upstart.”

Needless to say, Calvin was no such arrogant upstart, but a humble and rigorous expositor of the Word of God. If faith in Christ is a sure and certain knowledge of God’s grace in the gospel, and if that knowledge comes through the preaching of God’s Word, then every minister is called to be a diligent student of that Word. “The teaching of a minister,” Calvin once said, “should be approved on the sole ground of his being able to show that what he says comes from God.” 

Calvin’s example as a pastor-scholar is instructive today. For pastors, his life serves as a call to work hard in ministry, giving our best efforts to understanding the Scriptures. For parishioners, Calvin’s ministry can help us understand the God-given calling of our pastors. In devoting their time to prepare for preaching, they are not serving themselves but Christ and His church.

But of course, the calling to study God’s Word is for all of us, all through life. Here Calvin should have the last word: “God will not have us trained in the gospel for two or three years only, but he will have us go through with it, so that if we lived a hundred years or more in this world yet we must remain scholars, and know that we have not yet approached our perfection, but have need to go forward still.” 

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