John Calvin as Church Reformer (2)

Prof. Dykstra is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2009, p. 56.

In the first article, we maintained that John Calvin was God’s instrument to build upon the foundation of Martin Luther, thus furthering the reformation of the church. The basic details of Calvin’s life indicate the work God called Calvin to do. In this second article, we take note of the man as God created and molded him to be the powerful reformer that he was.

God’s Prepared Instrument—Training

Focusing briefly on John Calvin as church reformer, we face the question: What about his early training equipped him to be a reformer?

First, John Calvin was thoroughly Roman Catholic. He wrote in his treatise against relics that he had kissed a body part purported to be of Saint Anne, the mother of Mary. He had watched the mass countless times. He had endured the confessional, had worshiped the bread and then partaken of it, firmly believing that it was the very body and blood of Jesus. Calvin had prayed to Mary and other saints, kneeling before their statues and pictures. And he was convinced that his salvation depended in part on his good works.

God caused John Calvin to know the idolatry, the perversions in doctrine, worship, and life, for this purpose: That he would know the evils inside and out and be able to reject them accurately.

Secondly, God prepared Calvin by means of the thorough instruction he received. One can see God’s providential direction, for example, giving Calvin a complete knowledge of the Greek and Roman philosophers so that he could demonstrate where the medieval theologians followed the philosophers rather than the Bible. God likewise saw to it that Calvin gained a thorough knowledge of the biblical languages. Calvin learned Greek because it was necessary to read Plato and Aristotle, and Hebrew because it was part or the Renaissance study in vogue in that day. But God intended that Calvin become a master exegete, who could work from the original languages of Scripture. Even his law degree developed in Calvin a disciplined, logical mind, well able to prove his points, as well as to organize not only theology, but also the church itself.

God’s Prepared Instrument—The Man

God also created Calvin to be a reformer. What about John Calvin the man—his personality and character—equipped him to be a reformer?

One of the most notable things about John Calvin is that God created him with a brilliant mind. Calvin loved to learn, and his mind absorbed knowledge like a sponge. He was astoundingly disciplined and diligent. As a student, Calvin studied late into the night. In the morning, he awoke long before others, and reviewed the lectures of the day before, trying to commit them to memory. As a result, later in life, he quoted the philosophers and church fathers from memory. To produce the amount and quality of the work that he did, Calvin had to be intellectually gifted.

We find also that John Calvin was a man of iron will. He could not be budged from his positions. The negative side of that was that he had a terrible temper and could erupt when he was opposed. Yet Calvin knew this weakness, would apologize for and confess his weakness. One recent biographer made the point that because Calvin knew of this, he was particularly guarded in his writing. Generally this was true. He was more careful in his writing than many theologians of his day—and infinitely more than his enemies.

An example of his iron will in his own personal life is that—largely due to health concerns—Calvin determined to eat but one meal a day. And he stuck to it.

A third notable trait of John Calvin was that he had the gift of humility. This humility was a direct result of his knowledge of the greatness and sovereignty of God. It also arose from the knowledge of himself, that he was a sinner. Evidence of his humility is that Calvin did not consider himself qualified to be a pastor. He was, he insisted, by nature, timid. We do know that he was physically not a hardy man, but was weak and sickly. Yet when God called Calvin to be a preacher, he humbly obeyed.

In addition, Calvin was never too proud to learn from others. Unashamedly he leaned on Luther. He wrote to Bullinger about Luther: “This…I would beseech you to consider first of all…that you have to do with a most distinguished servant of Christ, to whom we are, all of us, largely indebted” (Selected works, vol. 4, pp. 433-434).

After Farel and Calvin were ejected from Geneva, and the pastors who remained were maligning their characters, Calvin wrote to Farel: “But if we know that they cannot calumniate us, excepting in so far as God permits, we know also the end God has in view in granting such permission. Let us humble ourselves, therefore, unless we wish to strive with God when he would humble us” (Selected Works, vol. 4, p. 75).

He conferred with hundreds of believers and fellow pastors. He was not a maverick who went his own way. He stayed in touch with believers in many countries, writing over 1,200 letters.

More evidence of his humility is that he promoted unity, not himself. One notable example is the work he did together with Bullinger on the document on the Lord’s Supper. That document went by the name of Zurich (the Zurich Consensus), even though Calvin had done most of the work.

Calvin also established regular meetings of pastors in Geneva so that they could confer with each other.

A fourth significant characteristic of John Calvin the reformer was his detachment from this world. He had almost a disdain for earthly things. Calvin preached and lived the life of a pilgrim and stranger on the earth. He understood that “we are inclined by nature to a slavish love of this world” (Inst. 3.9.1). Such a love, affirmed Calvin, leads to a bondage to this world such that a man cannot even seek God.

While recognizing that all good gifts are from God, to help us contemplate the goodness of God, Calvin himself shunned the riches of this world. He exhorted the flock: “We are to be ready without regret to leave all that belongs to this world.” God makes Christians, he wrote, as “birds upon the branch.”

Why is this significant for John Calvin as reformer? A man who loves the things of this world cannot be an effective church reformer. Such a man will not dare to take a stand for the truth, for fear that he will lose his position, his home, and his possessions. Calvin would stand for the truth boldly. He would refuse to compromise on the significant points of the reformation. He was not concerned about his earthly position or possessions. Calvin, as reformer, sat loose with regard to the things of this world.

A fifth personal characteristic of the man is his astounding ability and determination to work. Calvin refused to be idle. He refused to allow his many bodily ailments and afflictions to deter him from work. In the last year of his life, after he was no longer able to preach, he was encouraged to rest and cease his working in his bed. Calvin’s answer indicates his thinking on work: “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle?” (Beza, “The Life of John Calvin,” Selected Works, vol. 1, p. lxxxiv).

All that, God determined for and created in John Calvin, in order that he might be a powerful tool for reformation. But there is one thing more, which overshadows all the rest. Calvin, by the grace of God, was such a powerful reformer because he was a preacher.

God’s Prepared Instrument—The Preacher

Calvin became a preacher after but a short time into his first stay in Geneva. He had received a solid theological training in the universities. Initially in Geneva he lectured on Scripture. But it was not long before the church recognized his God-given abilities and ordained him, and he began preaching regularly.

In Strasburg Calvin blossomed as a preacher and pastor. Ordinarily he preached there four times a week. He also conducted faithful pastoral labors in his congregation of four hundred members.

In his second stay in Geneva, Calvin eventually preached twice on Sunday, and early in the morning Monday through Friday on alternate weeks. On Fridays all the ministers (and any interested members) gathered to hear and discuss a sermon preached by one of the ministers in rotation, including Calvin. Thus Calvin regularly preached eight or nine times in two weeks.

Calvin’s preaching was expository. He preached through whole books of the Bible, explaining all the verses. About 1,500 of these sermons have been published.

John Calvin was also a faithful pastor who visited his flock.

Why is this, namely, his being a preacher and pastor, important for Calvin the reformer? Partly the answer is that he was not an ivory tower theologian, unattached to the realities of life and the church. Calvin had wanted that solitary life of a scholar; but God called him to the ministry in Geneva, using Farel.

Calvin preached to real people. He knew the needs and struggles of God’s sheep. He understood, for example, that the theology and worship of Rome was a spiritual disaster for the people. It took their eyes off the cross of Christ. It brought them into dread terror of God. It robbed them of the assurance of salvation.

As a pastor, Calvin saw too that both the theology of Rome and the gross immorality of the clergy had led to immoral living among the people. Consequently the people needed to be instructed and admonished. And Calvin admonished them pointedly—from the Scriptures. He called them to godliness, arising out of thankfulness.

Secondly, God intended that Calvin be a preacher because it meant that Calvin was immersed in the Scriptures. He drew his theology from the Scriptures. Scripture governed his thinking. His Institutes were drawn from and proved by the Bible. Every new edition of the Institutes gave evidence that Calvin was immersed in Scripture, for the Institutes would include new references from the particular books of the Bible that Calvin had preached or on which he had written commentaries.

Most of all, God determined that Calvin be a preacher because God’s word, especially His word preached, is God’s means for reforming His church. That stands to reason, since reformation is forming the church back to the Bible in doctrine, worship, and walk of life.

It is worth noting that Calvin had the highest regard for the Bible. The Bible is God’s word, he insisted, and believers accept that word as surely as if they heard God speak the words. Thus the Bible is true. It is also sufficient, as well as clear and understandable.

As preacher, John Calvin was God’s instrument to reform His church. And a powerful preacher and reformer he was. All thanks and praise be to God for raising up such a man, using him mightily, and blessing the church yet today with the benefits of John Calvin’s work.