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Calvin - 500 Years

Calvin - 500 years.doc 

A Bit to Read

Calvin – Agent for change

“The light Calvin brought to society made the world a fundamentally different place after his life’s work began to be displayed.”  Those, obviously, are big words, yet that how David Hall typifies Calvin in his recent book The Legacy of John Calvin (P & R, 2008).  More precisely, Hall insists that “Calvin was a change agent – and one whose influence was for the better.”  One wonders: how could this man –who features so prominently in our own heritage– make the world a fundamentally better place?


John Calvin was born precisely 500 years ago last July 10.  The Europe into which he was born was firmly in the grasp of Roman Catholicism.  The Roman Catholicism of the time was marked by two principle characteristics, namely, corruption in practices and corruption in doctrine.  As an example of the corruption in practice, one can mention the fact that Calvin’s father obtained for his 11 year old son John a position as chaplain of a church some distance from where young Calvin lived – a position that required no obligations from young John but guaranteed him an income….  As to doctrine, young Calvin was taught that reconciliation with God came about through your good works.  Calvin’s father wanted his son to study (for he was exceptionally gifted) for the priesthood, and from the money his chaplaincy provided the young lad set about doing precisely that. 

In the course of the young lad’s studies, he was introduced to a wave of learning that had recently spread through Europe, an approach to learning known as ‘humanism’.  This humanism had a distinct weakness, for it thought very highly of man’s ability.  It had a redeeming quality, though, and that was the notion that people are able to say things plainly so that others can understand them clearly (an item, by the way, that today’s postmodernism rejects).  Why that’s striking?  In Calvin’s day the Bible was seen as too hard for the common people to read, and priests who studied Scripture were taught to read Scripture allegorically – that is, the text doesn’t mean what it seems to say.  Humanist scholars took the writings of ancient Greek and Roman times at face value, and so explained them with logical rules of reading.  Calvin was trained in this manner, and in 1532 (so, at age 23) had completed a commentary on De Clementia by Seneca the Younger, an ancient stoic philosopher of Rome.  In this commentary Calvin demonstrated that he had learned well this straight-forward manner of reading, and so hoped to establish himself as a reputed humanist scholar.  But the Lord had different plans; He intended to use the reading lessons Calvin learned from the humanists to reform His church.

When Calvin was but 8 years old, Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses on that door in Wittenburg.  That event, of course, got the ball of the Reformation rolling through Europe.  Several of Calvin’s teachers, humanists as they were, were keen to follow the developments resulting from Luther’s activities, and so their young student stayed up to date.  Yet the Reformation movement did not catch Calvin’s imagination till he experienced a “sudden conversion” (Calvin’s words) sometime in 1532 or 1533.  Calvin never shared the details, but it appears that Calvin was in some way confronted with the majesty of God.  So taken was he by the greatness of his Maker that Calvin henceforth never wavered from seeking to serve his Master with every ounce of strength he had, every talent he possessed, every moment of his life. 


Around the time of Calvin’s conversion King Francis I of France undertook to persecute the followers of the Reformation.  Though Calvin himself managed to escape France, many of his countrymen lost their lives for the sake of the gospel.  Calvin was convinced that the king did wrong in persecuting those who held to the new teachings, and set out to show (using the skills he’d been taught by humanist teachers) that the new teachings were in fact neither new nor unscriptural; they were in fact the thinking of the ancient church.  He appealed to the straightforward meaning of Scripture, and plundered the works of forgotten church fathers from 1200 years earlier to make his case, then put his argument to paper in a masterpiece initially published in March 1536 under the title Institutes of the Christian Religion.  This work contained an exposition of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the two Sacraments (plus an explanation of why the other five sacraments of Rome are not sacraments) and a section on Christian Liberty.  It was prefaced by a letter to King Francis I himself, pleading with him to note that the faith of people he was persecuting was nothing other than the faith of the Bible and of the ancient church.

This first edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion did not persuade Francis to give up his persecution, let alone join the Reformation.  It did, however, catapult Calvin into the leadership role of the growing reformation movement.  Though other reformers had pointed out Rome’s errors on various points in the past and shown the Biblical teaching on the point in question, Calvin was the first to take all the different aspects of Biblical thinking and bring them together into one system of thought.  Here, for the first time, was an up-to-date manual of Christian thinking, expertly put together.  Its many references to Scripture and the church fathers gave it added authority and clout.  The result was that the book was quickly and eagerly received throughout the Protestant movement of the time.

Geneva – in, out, in

By the providence of God, Calvin passed one day through the city of Geneva on his way from here to there.  William Farel, the minister of this protestant town (for city council had earlier voted to join the Reformation) pressed upon Calvin the urgent need of the city and insisted that God Himself wanted Calvin to labour in this city.  We ought to note that Calvin had no desire to become a preacher of the gospel; he wished to be left alone to study privately and quietly, and then publish books at his leisure.  But such was Calvin’s respect for the greatness of God that once he was persuaded God called him to Geneva, he did everything in his power to answer that call faithfully.  In July 1536 he became teacher of the gospel in town.  By his plain and straight forward explanation of Scripture, he quickly established a reputation that enabled him to pursue changes in how church life was run, what authority city council had, etc.  But no Scriptural work progresses without opposition and that happened in Geneva too.  The moment came when the city council ordered Calvin (and Farel) to offer the Lord’s Supper to all the citizens of town, something Calvin refused to do because of the known ungodliness of some of the citizens.  As a result, city council ordered Calvin and Farel out of town (April 1538).

Calvin ended up in Strassburg, pasturing a church of French refugees.  The work here met much less resistance than his work met in Geneva, and so Calvin could find time, besides his preaching and teaching, to prepare a second edition of his Institutes – this edition being three times as long as his first edition.  It the three years he was in Strassburg he found time too to write his second commentary, this time on a book of the Bible, Paul’s letter to the Romans.  He took the plain sense of what the Greek text said (of course, in context of all Scripture) and set its meaning forth in terms that the people of the street could understand.  And the commentary, as well as the expanded edition of the Institutes, was well received.

Meanwhile, back in Geneva a letter had come to the city council from a certain Cardinal Sadoleto, a staunch Roman Catholic, applauding Geneva’s decision to expel Calvin and inviting the people of the city back into the Roman Catholic fold.  The city council and the citizenry were not willing to grant the letter’s request, and decided instead to prepare a reply.  After much indecision as to who should write the reply, the Council came, cap in hand, to Calvin with the request that he please pen a reply to Sadoleto.  And Calvin obliged.  His reply was a masterpiece of Biblically faithful writing, showing –as his Institutes did– that Reformed convictions were faithful both to Scripture itself and to the understanding of the early church.  Specifically, Calvin made clear that the final authority for all matters of faith and life is the Word of God and not the (Roman Catholic) Church.  He drew out too that one becomes right with God not through one’s works but only through the atoning work Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross, a work made one’s own through faith.  There was, then, no reason for the people of Geneva to return to the Roman Catholic fold; on the contrary, there was every reason for the work of Reformation to continue.  In part because of this solid reply, the city of Geneva requested Calvin to return to his place in the city.  Calvin was loathe to give up the opportunities he had in Strassburg for studying and writing, but recognized the call of God in Geneva’s request, and so returned in September 1541.


In the years that followed, Calvin maintained a busy schedule of preaching and teaching, at times preaching 20 sermons in a month.  Over the years he produced commentaries on every book of the New Testament except 2 & 3 John and Revelation, as well as on the books of Moses, the Psalms and all the prophets of the Old Testament.   His commentaries are marked by excellent exegesis, a skill he learned from the humanists who taught him to take seriously what the text actually says.  He also wrote numerous tracts and articles on topics of the day, seeking to shed the light of God’s Word on issues of importance.  Furthermore, he dictated some 4000 letters over the years to various contacts across Europe….  More still, he remained actively involved in ensuring that the gospel of Jesus Christ be not just preached in Geneva but lived, and so he sought to establish a Biblically founded model of civil government as well as Biblically faithful church government.  He encouraged the establishment of schools and saw to it that deacons cared for the poor of the city.  His esteem for God and his desire to have Him receive the glory that was His due drove him to do all in his power to have the people of Geneva live God-centred lives in all they did.

Yet without doubt his most influential work remained his Institutes of the Christian Religion.  A third and a fourth edition appeared over the years, and in 1559 Calvin published the fifth and final edition.  This last edition is five times the length of the first edition, and covers the entire body of Christian doctrine and life.  It is divided into four books (the first of God the Father and our Creation, the second of God the Son and our Redemption, the third of God the Holy Spirit and our Sanctification, and the fourth –by far the largest– concerning the church), and comes altogether to some 80 chapters.   It is striking that though Calvin wrote the first edition when he was but 27 years old, he never had to rewrite the material in the sense that he disagreed with what he wrote earlier.  All his changes fall within the category of saying it more clearly or adding new material or expanding on what was already there.  That’s remarkable, and shows that from the time of his conversion Calvin had a clear understanding of what the Bible is all about.  And perhaps that’s not surprising, for once one appreciates the greatness of God and the finiteness of man, once one confesses what God has done in Jesus Christ to reconcile unworthy sinners to Himself, the rest falls into place.  Calvin’s final edition of the Institutes was welcomed with the same enthusiasm as the first, and has been hailed as the best theological work of the entire Reformation period, in a class on its own.  Here, in truth, is a book that belongs in every home – and not just to decorate the shelf.


Why, precisely, did Calvin write the Institutes?  In his note to his reader in the 1559 edition, Calvin explained his reason like this:
“…it has been my purpose in this labour to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling.  For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents.”

There’s his purpose, then: he wants to give his reader a broad overview of Scripture’s teaching so that one can understand Scripture better, both in its direct teaching and in its actual application in daily living. 

Given this purpose, it’s perhaps desirable that we dust off our copies of Calvin’s Institutes and read his book again.  A number of chapters at a time could even serve as good discussion material for a Bible study evening.

One more thing

Perhaps you’re familiar with Calvin’s signet: a heart held in a huge hand, bearing the (Latin) words prompte et sincere in opere Dei (“promptly and sincerely in the work of God”).  This was Calvin to the core: so taken was he by God’s identity and the resulting wealth of the gospel that he gave his entire self readily and whole-heartedly to the service of this God.  He slept but four hours a night, and kept on working even when he was sick (which he often was).  When he was once encouraged to take time off, he rebuked his well-meaning advisor with this question: shall my God find me idle?!  Such was his devotion to the cause of the Lord.  Zeal for his God consumed him, so that he received from his Master the crown of glory at the relatively young age of 55.  No one today knows where he was buried, and that’s exactly the way Calvin wanted it.  For it wasn’t about Calvin; it was all about the God who used Calvin so marvellously for His church gathering work in Europe five centuries ago – and around the world ever since.  It’s indeed fact: the Lord God has blessed Calvin’s work enormously, to the point that Calvin’s work has truly been foundational to western culture as we know it today.

And why it was foundational?  Why, it’s because Calvin took the Word of God so seriously, and received from the Lord the privilege to understand its plain sense and communicate this sense to the people of the street through his preaching and his writing.  That’s why, in this 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, it is fitting that we reacquaint ourselves with the work of the man who looms so large in our heritage – both as Canadians as well as Canadian Reformed people in Canada.  To be a force for change in our land, we do well to follow Calvin as he followed the Light God has given for man’s path – His Word.

C Bouwman
9 October 2009