The Preaching of John Calvin
Calvin’s conversion in 1533 came at a time when biblical preaching was sorely needed. Preachers were not great scholars or good communicators and the standards were low. The Roman Catholic Church had starved the people of the Word of God and the knowledge of Christ. Calvin sought to change this by combining great scholarship and good communication in order to change people’s hearts and minds for Christ. Soon after Calvin’s conversion to the Reformation, Calvin began preaching. W. Stanford Reid, editor of John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World (1982), wrote, “Calvin had apparently begun preaching very soon after his conversion, for there is a tradition that he used to preach in some of the churches in or near Bourges when he was a student. On his return to Geneva in 1541, preaching became one of his chief occupations, as he occupied the pulpit of St. Pierre not only on Sundays, but also as often as three times during the week.” Indeed, preaching both in the pulpit and the classroom, became a primary way in which Calvin’s ideas were communicated and reform was brought about in Geneva and beyond.
Calvin preached and taught often during each week. But what did Calvin’s sermon preparation consist of? Calvin prepared by working with the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek. If he was preaching from an Old Testament passage he would translate it into French. For him, working from the original languages was important so that the meaning of the text would not be lost. However, there is no record that he ever used a Greek or Hebrew word from the pulpit. It was important to Calvin that the hearers of his message receive the same message the biblical author intended for his original recipients. When he preached on a New Testament passage, he simply had the Greek New Testament before him in the pulpit. In this regard, one can only be amazed at his familiarity with biblical Greek.
The context of the biblical passage was also important for Calvin. Calvin did not want to get the wrong meaning from a biblical text. He wrote, “When passages of Scripture are seized upon thoughtlessly and the context is ignored, it should not surprise us that mistakes arise everywhere.” In this way he was no modern day fundamentalist. He saw the human side of Scripture and knew that context must be studied diligently. Calvin used history, geography, and philology, and one also finds that Calvin used the tradition of interpretation available to him. We can see that he was influenced by John Chrysostom, and most of all by Augustine of Hippo. Since Calvin was so effective at using the available resources in studying the meaning of a passage, some in over-exaggeration have hailed him as the “exegete of the Reformation.”
Prior to formally preaching sermons, Calvin spent hour upon hour studying and pondering the meaning of a passage. If Calvin had already studied a passage and wrote on it in a commentary, he would employ that commentary for his sermon preparation. The purpose for reading the Scriptures was always to get meaning and was never a casual endeavor. Calvin wrote very few of his sermons being confident in the knowledge that he attained through his research and study. When he got into the pulpit he worked from memory. The reason we have some of his sermons today is because a certain Raguenier of Bar-sur-Seine, a French refugee, wrote down Calvin’s sermons during the second Geneva period (1541-1564). In 1557 Calvin’s sermons were printed and soon after were translated into various vernacular languages. Although Calvin did not write his sermons, he did not get into the pulpit without a plan. He wrote,
“If I come here without carefully pondering how I must apply the Holy Scripture to the edification of the people – well, then I should be a cock-sure charlatan and God would put me to confusion in my audaciousness.”
Reid writes, “His usual practice seems to have been to spend considerable time thinking about the meaning of his text. Then he would go into the pulpit prepared to give a homily on a passage of from five to fifteen or twenty verses.”
Calvin’s Intention and Hope
Calvin’s ultimate hope for his preaching was that it would change people’s lives, and that they would learn to trust in and walk in fear of God. When he pondered passages during sermon preparation his question was: “How is this profitable to the congregation.” His desire was that his hearers would benefit from his preaching and be edified. He wanted them to know God’s Word so he made it a point to not give people what their itching ears wanted to hear. He did not seek to compromise with the ways of the world, or to be a people-pleaser from the pulpit. His hope was that hearts and minds would be changed by the Holy Spirit. T.L.H Parker, author of Calvin’s Preaching (1992), and a pioneer in the study of Calvin’s preaching, says that Calvin’s hope was that his sermons would change the way people think and behave. Calvin thought that if Christ did not impact people here and now, the cross would remain something of the past, and then there would be no gospel. He hoped that the law of God would be written on his hearers’ hearts so that they would live the way God wanted them to live.
Calvin also hoped that through his preaching, people would be lead into that particular book he was expounding upon. Parker writes, “Calvin believed in the universal relevance of Holy Scripture. There was not a man, woman, or child in the congregation to whom each book and each passage did not apply. It was just a question of trying his best to bring it home to them.” Calvin’s hope was that people would be transformed by Scripture so that they would think and act biblically. He believed that the closer one was to the Scriptures the closer one was to God, and through the transformation process, God would reveal the meaning of Scripture to the person more and more.
The Oral Word of God
Calvin believed the preached Word was an instrument of grace. Thomas Davis, who presented a paper at the 12th Colloquium of the Calvin Studies Society at Union Seminary in Richmond (1999), wrote concerning Calvin’s view of preaching:
“Preaching is the instrument God uses to span time and space and to bring Christians, Christ, and cross together. Preaching is the bridge between the work of the cross and the grace of God experienced in the present. This is one of many attributes the preaching and sacraments share with one another: grace is offered in the here and the now through the instruments God has chose to present and to make present the new life in Christ.”
This may come as a surprise to Lutherans, but Calvin, unlike Bullinger and Zwingli, also believed that the preached Word was the Word of God. Here he was in agreement with Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformation. Calvin believed that the transcendent God was brought to his hearers through the proclamation of the Word of God. As long as the preacher did not invent anything of his own, the message was the Word of God. Since Calvin had such a high view of the preaching office he believed the teaching had to be pure and could not come from the world, or dreams, or reveries. If it were from man’s own imagination, Calvin believed the Spirit would not work. Since Calvin believed the Word of God was dispensed through the mouth of the preacher, he did not believe the preacher should attempt to create a following. He did not want his hearers to follow him, but he wanted his hearers to follow God’s Word. This view of Calvin is captured in a sermon he gave on 1 Timothy 3:2:
“For St. Paul does not mean that one should just make a parade here or that a man should show off so that everyone applauds him and says, ‘Oh! Well spoken! Oh! What a breadth of learning! Oh! What a subtle mind!’ All that is beside the point…When a man has climbed up into the pulpit, is it so that he may be seen from afar, and that he may be preeminent? Not at all. It is that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man. And he does us that favor of presenting himself here and wishes a mortal man to be his messenger.”
Calvin further expounds upon his view that the preacher’s word was the Word of God when he wrote:
“It is said that the ministers are sent to enlighten the blind, to deliver the captives, to forgive sins, to convert hearts. What! These are things which belong to God alone…For there is nothing more properly his own than to pardon sins; he also reserves to himself the converting of the heart. Now, nevertheless it is the case that he imparts all these qualification to those whom he appoints to convey his Word and declares to them that he does not separate himself from them, but rather shows them he uses them as his hands and his instruments.”
Further evidence that Calvin believed the oral word was the Word of God comes from his sermons on Romans 10. One quote will suffice:
“The Word, accordingly, is required for a true knowledge of God. But it is the preached Word alone which Paul has described, for this is the normal mode which the Lord has appointed for imparting His Word.”
Although the preached Word was the Word of God, it was normed by the written Word of God. Again, Calvin is in agreement with the Lutheran Reformation. Parker writes concerning this concept in Calvin’s preaching, “Scripture is definitive and sovereign; preaching must be derivative and subordinate….Scripture does not have to conform to preaching; preaching must conform to Scripture.”
Style and Structure
In the late Middle Ages, there was little continuity in a series of sermons. One Sunday a preacher would preach on the Gospel of John, and then another Sunday on Deuteronomy. Calvin did not think this was the most helpful way to communicate the meaning of Scripture to his people. He also saw the lectionary as an unnecessary human innovation. His desire was to create continuity in instruction and application in his sermons. His method was to go book by book, and verse by verse through whole books of Scripture. He felt that this would give more permanence to the hearers from week to week and they could focus on one author, and one historical setting. In his first sermon on a book, he would simply preach on the historical setting and the entire theme of the book. With regard to book by book preaching, Calvin was going back to the early patristic tradition post-Nicea. Most notable among post-Nicene book by book preachers were Augustine of Hippo and John Chrysostom. Calvin had access to Augustine’s sermons on the Psalms, and Gospel of John, as well as Chrysostom’s sermons on almost all the books of the New Testament. Sometimes for six months or one year, he would preach on books written by one biblical author. He wanted authors of the Scriptures to be understood in all their depth and brevity. Since Calvin was an expository preacher, the text determined the direction of the sermon. Parker writes of Calvin, “The form of the preaching is determined by the movement of the text. The preacher does not so much move forward form point to point as be borne onwards by the movement of his author’s thought.”
So if Calvin preached verse by verse, and book by book, how long did he preach on any given Sunday? The answer is that Calvin normally preached for one hour. In this regard he preached for less time than John Chrysostom who preached for two hours. His preaching consisted of a running commentary on a biblical book emphasizing application to the people’s lives. Calvin preached on New Testament books on Sunday mornings and afternoons, and Old Testament books during the week.
For Calvin, preaching was teaching and teaching was preaching. In the light of the fact that he was preaching to many misinformed Catholics, his task was to re-educate them. Davis writes concerning Calvin’s teaching method, “Preaching has, thus, a didactic function: the congregation leaves worship knowing more about Gods’ word than when they entered.” This was more then just a cognitive exercise for Calvin. His preaching skills persuaded people as he moved from doctrine to application to his hearer’s lives.
The usual form of Calvin’s sermons was to 1) expound upon what he had said in a previous sermon, 2) expound upon the meaning of the passage (textual exposition), 3) and apply that passage to his hearers lives (hearer application). The function of his sermons were that the people would know God more (teaching) and would be inspired to live lives in accordance with His will (sanctification).
Since Calvin was such an educated man, how did he communicate God’s message to his people? Calvin often taught using figurative expressions and metaphors. In this regard, Calvin wrote,
“Although a figurative expression is not so distinct, it gives a more elegant and significant expression than if the thing were said simply, and without figure. Hence figures are called the eyes of speech, not that they explain the matter more easily than simple ordinary language, but because they attract attention by their elegance and arouse the mind by their luster, and by their lively similitude better penetrate the soul.”
Calvin thought the language of metaphor would better penetrate the hearts and minds of his hearers. Davis writes of Calvin, “It is the language of metaphors that moves hearts, and Calvin states how he is willing to sacrifice some exactness of definition, inherent in the use of metaphor in order to find that persuasive metaphor that impresses upon the heart the meaning of Scripture.”
What about words in Scripture that his hearers were unfamiliar with? Calvin did not shy away from using terms like “justification,” “grace,” or “faith,” but expounded upon their meaning. When there was a theological term that came outside the Bible like “Trinity,” Calvin would often expound on the meaning using metaphor. Concerning the two natures of Christ, Calvin said:
“So then, let us note well that this word ‘manifested’ conjoins the two natures in such a way that we have to know Jesus Christ, not at all as double, but as one only, although he has two natures. We have two eyes in our head and each eye can have its own partial sight. But when we are looking at something, if our two eyes are directed at what you will, our vision, which of itself is separated, is co-coordinated and united to focus entirely on the object which is set before us….Just as we have two yes in our head, there are in Jesus Christ two different natures.”
In this regard, Calvin was able to adapt himself to his congregation. He realized what kind of knowledge they had and adapted himself to them. Often after driving home the meaning of a particular point, he would bring up possible objections and respond to them. Sometimes they would even be objections from real people, sometimes even heretics. In this way, Calvin used the art of persuasion quite well from the pulpit. He taught using figurative expressions, and responded to objections. His rhetorical genius were evident in his preaching.
Calvin’s Use of Law and Gospel
While this section will hardly be exhaustive, it is necessary to our understanding of Calvin’s preaching. The 3rd use of the law dominated Calvin’s preaching. In this regard he differed from the Lutheran Reformation. Due to the stubborness of Agricola, the Lutherans were debating whether or not there was a 3rd use of the law. There was no such debate in the Calvinistic Reformation. In Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 5:17, he wrote,
“With respect to doctrine we must not imagine that the coming of Christ has freed us from the authority of the law; for it is the eternal rule of a devout and holy life, and must, therefore, be as unchangeable as the justice of God, which it embraced, it is constant and uniform.”
For Calvin “Christ is said to be that of a ‘faithful interpreter’ of the law.” In the law, Calvin believed God set forth a standard for all mankind: “In the Law of God a perfect standard of all righteousness is presented to us which with good reason can be called the eternal will of the Lord.”
J. T. McNeil, who edited an edition of Calvin’s Institutes in 1960, identified three referents of the term “law” in Calvin: “1] The whole religion of Moses, 2] the special revelation of the moral law to the chosen people, e.g., chiefly the Decalogue and Jesus’ summary, or 3] various bodies of civil, judicial, and ceremonial statutes.” In this regard we can see that Calvin did not believe that the laws of Moses were abolished and saw a continuity between the old and new covenants. He did not believe that God abandoned the law in the New Testament, but simply that its form or administration differed. Therefore he believed that the substance of the covenants and laws remained the same, only the administration of the covenants changed. For example, when commenting on Jeremiah 31:31, Calvin wrote, “It [The new covenant] being new, no doubt refers to what they call the form…but the substance remains the same. By substance I understand the doctrine; for God in the Gospel brings forward nothing but what the Law contains.”
Since Calvin believed there was a continuity of substance between the old and new covenants, he also did not see law and gospel as opposed to each other. In fact, he held that the law and gospel contained the same substance as well, but only their form or administration differed. That Calvin did not see law and gospel as opposed to each other is evident in his preface to his commentary on Isaiah where he writes, “The law consists chiefly of three parts: first, the doctrine of life; second threatening and promises; third; the covenant of grace, which being founded on Christ, contains within itself all the special promises.” As we can see there is a twofold meaning for the term law. The first is God’s will for one’s life, and the second is God’s promises. But these are not opposed to each other. For Calvin, the law contained promises. Calvin also did not have a consistent use for the term gospel. In the broad sense the gospel contained the law, but in the narrow sense it only contained the promises through Christ. With this understanding of law and gospel, it is no wonder why the 3rd use of the law dominated Calvin’s preaching.
The Christocentricity of the Sermon
Calvin did believe that his preaching should be centered on Christ. In his commentary on John 5:39, Calvin said, “The Scriptures should be read with the aim of finding Christ in them.” However, this is not the same as the Lutheran understanding of a Christ-centered reading of Scripture or preaching. Calvin believed that Christ was at the center of the Christian life with promises of grace, but also as Teacher. Therefore, a Christ centered sermon was not limited to promises of grace in the narrow sense. Parker writes concerning Calvin, “The Teacher of the Old Testament Church is the same Christ as the Teacher of the New Testament Church.” When preaching on Matthew 28:1-10, Calvin said, “His will is to have a common life with us, and that what He has may be ours, even that He wishes to dwell in us, not in imagination, but in fact.” One can see here that the emphasis is not on Christ “for us,” but Christ “in us.”
Calvin did, however, have an emphasis in his preaching on Christ as Savior in the narrow sense. For example Calvin said in a sermon on 2 Tim. 1:8-9 concerning gospel in the narrow sense, “If the gospel be not preached Jesus is, as it were, buried.” Calvin desired to present Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Davis wrote concerning this concept, “In preaching, Christ is present. That is the goal, that is the content, that is the raison’ d’etre of preaching. Everything else flows from recognition of this experience.” Davis also notes that Calvin often did present Christ’s perfect obedience, death, and resurrection for the sinner. He wrote concerning Calvin’s understanding of preaching, “Any preaching that does not present the drama of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection from the perspective of his human life will not convey the heart of the Gospel.” For Calvin, the sermon was centered on Jesus Christ. However, sometimes when Calvin preached on the Old Testament Prophets he did not mention Jesus Christ.
The Legacy of John Calvin’s Preaching
What legacy did Calvin leave post-Reformation? After consulting several sources, my conclusion is that the verse by verse, book by book expository sermon with an emphasis on teaching and sanctification is the most long lasting legacy Calvin left after his death. At the Academy in Geneva, one finds that in the classroom the expository method with an emphasis on languages was central to a preacher’s education. Reid writes concerning Calvin’s influence, “The city’s [Geneva] population of around nine thousand was almost doubled by the number of refugees who had flocked there to obtain respite from persecution in their own countries.” These countries included people from Spain, Italy, France, Netherlands, Germany, and England. And one can see that Calvin had an influence on important men that took his style of preaching back to their own countries.
One example was the Bishop in Hungary, Peter Melius. Melius published five volumes of sermons, but these are small in comparison to how many he actually preached. In his sermons, we can see Calvin’s theology and impact in his life. He said, “It is God’s counsel, God’s decree that in Hungary, in Debrecen the Word of God be preached. It is not by chance.” Kalman D. Toth, a retired Presbyterian minister in Ottawa, Ontario, writes concerning Calvin’s impact on Melius, “Melius’ volume on Colossians (1561) is verse-by-verse ‘expository preaching,’ in the style of the [Calvinistic] Reformation.” Many of his other sermons are expository in style and reflect a Calvinistic influence.
Another example of one who was influenced by the book by book expository method was John Knox who took Calvin’s method back to Scottland. Reid writes, “Richard Bannatyne, John Knox’s secretary, reports that as Knox lay on his deathbed, some of the sermons of ‘Messire Jean Calvin’ were read to him in French, which he understood very well.” In America today, the book by book expository method with an emphasis on teaching and sanctification is evident in the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Presbyterian Church in America. Further, the book by book expository method is rampant in Calvinistic Baptist churches in America even today.
In conclusion, we can see that Calvin had a high view of the Scriptures and preaching. His desire was that people would know God’s Word, so that their lives would be changed. He wanted people to know Christ, trust Him, and walk in fear of Him. Indeed, his desire was to write the law of God on his hearers’ hearts. He had a tremendous impact on Europe and later in America. In conclusion of this paper I will end with a quote from Reid:
“It was from this rather small city at the headwaters of the River Rhone – a city with little economic, political, or intellectual prestige – that Calvin exercised a wide influence over Western Europe’s religious Reformation, the effects of that movement still being felt to the present day. In the fifty-five years of his life he made an impact on his own age and succeeding ages, an impact equaled by very few in history.”