John Calvin as Pastor
John K. Baumann MC'57
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This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at email@example.com.
When I was a student at Monmouth College in the 1950s, one of the classes I took from Dr. Charles Speel was an independent study course on John Calvin. As I remember, the major assignment was to read Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion and discuss various parts of it with my advisor. At that time in my life some of the questions that I was interested in were: What were Calvin's unique contributions to the Reformation? Why were his Institutes of the Christian Religion so vital to the spread of the Reformation? Why is it important for Christians of the twentieth century to read Calvin's Institutes? What was Calvin saying in his Doctrine of Predestination? How does free will fit into his theology?
Now that I have been in the pastorate for a number of years there are some other questions about John Calvin that have captured my attention. It is some of these that I would like to address in this tribute to Dr. Charles Speel, a deeply appreciated college professor and friend. Here are some of them: What was it like for John Calvin to be a pastor in sixteenth- century Europe? How did he deal with all the demands that came upon him, such as being a leader in the Reformation, preaching and teaching as extensively as he did, writing Bible commentaries and theological treatises, as well as caring for the people entrusted to his care? How did he spend his days? What motivated him to keep such a pace? What can pastors today learn from Calvin about the pastoral ministry? It is these questions that I would like to address in this article.
When most people think of John Calvin they probably think of a monumental theologian, a distinguished preacher, a leader of the reformation in Switzerland, and a major commentator on most of the books of the Bible. Most people may not think of Calvin as a pastor, yet he was above all a pastor, concerned with shepherding those in his flock. He certainly was a great theologian, a deeply appreciated preacher and lecturer, and a prolific writer, but his pastoral care for people permeated all he did. His focus on pastoral ministry is evident in the opening words of the Geneva Catechism which speak of the chief purpose of human life as coming to know God, which knowledge is to enable people to glorify God through their lives.
What then was it like for John Calvin to be a pastor in sixteenth-century Europe? It must have been a very challenging time for him and for all who sought to further the cause of Christ at that time in history. Jean-Daniel Benoit (1959:65) speaks of the sixteenth century as being a very turbulent time "in which war was everywhere and in which were burning the stakes of persecution." As a young man Calvin had fled from France to get out of range of those who did not like the convictions he embraced. There were plagues that caused illness and death to numerous people. Calvin himself was a frail man and often found it difficult to do all the things he believed he was called upon to do. I picture him putting in long days, in preparation for the numerous sermons and lectures he had to prepare and deliver, pushing himself to finish another section of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, visiting people who needed his care, and writing letters by candlelight. He preached almost daily, taught catechumens on the Lord's Day, sought to keep in touch with other reformers so that the Reformation could progress, and worked at being in touch with individuals who had special need for pastoral care. It was a time when congregations did not see that the financial needs of their pastors were provided. While in Geneva the first time, he was forced to sell household utensils and books from his library to help make ends meet. It was only after eight months of lecturing that he began to receive a salary of a gulden a week, an amount which was insufficient for comfortable living (Stickelberger 1954:69). There he remained unmarried until the age of twenty nine, living in a house without central heat, seeking to serve God who had claimed him, and having to wonder from whence the next meal might come. Yet rather than hearing him complain, we see him involved in a laudatory ministry.
How then did Calvin fulfill the many responsibilities that came upon him, such as being a leader in the Reformation, preaching as extensively as he did, writing Bible Commentaries and theological treatises, and serving the people under his care? I believe at the heart of his being able to be involved in such a profound ministry was his realization of the claim that God in Christ had upon his life. When he went to Geneva the first and the second times he became aware that the mighty hand of God was upon him to stop him in his course and to give the direction his life was to take. He offered his heart to God and was willing to be subject to Him alone (Parker 1954:25 and Stickelberger 1954:80). Whether in Geneva or Strasbourg, Calvin maintained fruitful contacts with reformers in various countries seeking to enable the work of reformation to go forward.
Calvin was a faithful pastor for twenty-seven years--half of his life. Though he may be first thought of as a theologian, he was even more a pastor of souls. His thought was always directed toward the kind of life that could be lived in Christ. He wanted people to know Jesus Christ in the pure light of His gospel. Nicolas des Gallars, one of Calvin's colleagues in Geneva, summed up his pastoral ministry in this way:
What labors, what sleeplessness and worry he bore, with what keenness and finesse he foresaw dangers, with what zeal he guarded against them, what fidelity and understanding he showed in everything, what a kind and obliging spirit he had toward those who came to him, how quickly he answered those who asked him even the most serious questions, and with what wisdom he settled both privately and publicly the difficulties and problems which were posed for him to settle, with what sensitivity he comforted those who grieved and lifted up the broken and discouraged, how resolutely he opposed the enemies, how ardently he attacked the prideful and the obstinate, and with what grandeur of spirit he endured misfortune, with what restraint he behaved in prosperity, and finally with what dexterity and elan he discharged all the duties and responsibilities of a true and faithful servant of God. (Staufer 1971:93)
Here is one of countless illustrations that could be cited with regard to how Calvin cared for people: In 1538 when the reformer was in Basel, Switzerland he learned that the nephew of another French reformer, Guillaume Farel, had been stricken with the plague. Without fear of danger and thinking only of his responsibility, he went to the bedside of the sick boy in order to take him the comfort and encouragement of the gospel. He also took care of the cost of the lad's nursing, and, when the boy died, Calvin paid for the expenses of the burial (Staufer 1971:84-85).
At the center of Calvin's pastoral work was the preaching of the gospel. He preached or lectured every day with two sermons on Sunday. He believed that preaching was to be a pastoral event through which souls could be brought to the full and liberating assurance of faith. For Calvin preaching was meant to open the door of the kingdom of God to the hearer (Wallace 1990:171-172).
In addition to preaching, the reformer from France wrote a great deal, and his writing was often pastoral in its intent. He wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion so that his students could be trained in theology, but more than that could have access to the divine Word and keep it without stumbling. In his commentaries he sought to interpret the mind of the New Testament writers so that his readers could come to a greater knowledge of God and of themselves (Parker 1975:72-73). When one reads his letters it is evident that the pastoral motive is nearly always present. He wrote to the troubled, the anxious and the distressed with a desire to minister to them in their need.
In answer to the question,"How did Calvin spend his days?" one could easily conclude that they were full from early morning long into the night. As the leading pastor in Geneva he had the chief responsibility for the church's life and organization, but he was also actively engaged in pastoral work. His time was not spent sitting in an office and planning, nor was it devoted to numerous committee assignments. Rather he busied himself with preparation for preaching and teaching, meeting with couples to be married, counseling parents whose children were to be baptized, visiting those who were sick or in some kind of trouble. On the Lord's Day there was a 6 A.M. service in the summer (7 A.M. in winter), catechism for children at midday, with another sermon at 3 P.M. Most weekdays there was a sermon as well, not to mention the preparation for that message and others to come. He preached steadily through book after book of the Bible. On Sunday mornings the text was from the New Testament, whereas on Sunday afternoons it was often from the Psalms. During the week the text was always from the Old Testament. He expounded books of the Bible, a passage at a time, day after day, until he completed the exposition. This meant that he was forced to deal with the scriptural range of ideas (Parker 1954:82-83).
What motivated Calvin, who was quite frail, to keep such a pace? Early in his life he was somewhat withdrawn and was content to devote himself to study rather than to get involved in the affairs of others. But when he was challenged by Farel to serve the Lord in Geneva he felt he had been called not by men but by God. Without even being formally set apart, he became a conscientious shepherd feeding the flock assigned to him (Benoit 1959:52). He went about his work serving the Lord to the end that more and more people could come to know the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ.
What are some things that pastors today can learn from the sixteenth-century reformer from Noyon? I believe a number of things. To begin with, in Calvin was a humanity which endeared people to him, which could be a pattern for the lives of all who seek to serve the Lord. Jean-Daniel Benoit says he had a strength of sympathy, a warmth of soul, and a pastoral concern which opened hearts to him (Benoit 1959:67). Being a great preacher is not enough, even if it enables a person to serve an historic pulpit. The pastor who seeks to relate to people where they are must be able to relate to people in helpful ways if they are to be in a better position to receive the proclamation of the Word.
In addition, the Swiss Reformer had a sense of his own weakness which enabled him to know that any strength he possessed came entirely from God. Aware of his weakness he looked to God to give him the strength sufficient for the task to be done or the situation to be faced (Wallace 1990:182-183). Here again we can learn from Calvin. He was used mightily at an important time in history because he had a sense of his own weakness as well as the sufficiency of God. We too need to be mindful of our weakness and know that apart from our Lord we can do nothing.
Another area where those who seek to serve Christ today can learn some things from Calvin has to do with his tireless fidelity and sense of the power of the Word of God. A contemporary of Calvin by the name of Ernst Pfisterer, in seeking to explain why people by the thousands were drawn to Geneva from all over Europe and why some local people after years of resistance found him to be of great help to them spiritually, attributed his influence to his untiring fidelity and unswerving conviction of the power of God's Word (Wallace 1990:180). If Calvin were asked about this he would probably say,"The Spirit of God works in spite of the frailty and sinfulness of the human instrument. God's Word will accomplish that for which it was given." When we realize that we must work at being obedient servants of God, and when we believe that the Word of God has power to transform lives, things beyond our comprehension can happen.
I believe we can also learn some things about expository preaching from Calvin. He was convinced that one should work at representing the thought of a book of the Bible, passage by passage, until one had completed the book. He was horrified by those who preached their own ideas. Many today use the texts of the lectionary for preaching and there is some merit to that. But often the texts do not follow one another. They may relate to a season of the year, but are not designed to help one work through a book of the Bible. This is not to say that lectionary preaching should be abandoned, but it is to say that expository preaching has merit and might profitably be tried for a season of the church year or for a series of messages.
I believe it is also helpful to consider how Calvin dealt with people. He was a man who in drawing near to people gained their trust. Those who sought his counsel found in him not only wisdom and compassion but also the strength that God often communicates to people through those who serve Him faithfully. One of his closest colleagues over the years in Geneva described how Calvin dealt with people in this way:
No words of mine can declare the fidelity and prudence with which he gave counsel. The kindness with which he received all who came to him, the clearness and promptitude with which he replied to those who asked his opinion on the most important questions, and the ability with which he disentangled the difficulties and problems which were laid before him. Nor can I express the gentleness with which he could comfort the afflicted and raise the fallen and the distressed (Wallace 1990:181).
It seems that all Calvin did, whether it be preaching, teaching, writing, or conversing with individuals had a pastoral intent. He sought to minister to people in whatever he did. Here is another area where we can learn from this man of God. Pastors today have many different responsibilities. If they can consider these as ways to bring people to the knowledge of God and into the new life in Christ, they will be following in the footsteps of John Calvin.
It has been helpful to me, as a pastor in twentieth-century America, to ask and to work
at answering some of the questions which come to mind when one thinks about John Calvin,
the pastor. It is my hope that this brief paper has been of interest and will help all who
read it to be challenged by a man who was used of God in mighty ways during the time of
the Reformation and whose ideas and life can continue to have an impact on the lives of
Benoit, Jean-Daniel. 1959. John Calvin. Contemporary Prophet, edited by Jacob Hoogstra. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Parker, T. L. H. 1954. Portrait of Calvin. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
__________. John Calvin. A Biography. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Staufer, Richard. 1971. The Humanness of John Calvin. New York: Abingdon Press.
Stickelberger, Emmanuel. 1954. Calvin. A Life. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
Wallace, Ronald S. 1990. Geneva and the Reformation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
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