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Calvin Taught Directly From the Greek & Hebrew

Not only did Calvin teach and preach without any notes, he did so directly from the original language:

Calvin would then read a text in Hebrew or Greek, and offer a very literal translation of it into Latin. After that, he would provide a smoother Latin translation, followed by his commentary. Jean Crispin, a publisher of Calvin’s day, attended some of the reformer’s lectures. He commented on Calvin’s lecture style as follows: ‘… but he kept on lecturing continuously for a full hour and did not write down one single word in his book to help his memory.’ The book in question was the Hebrew Old Testament and, thus, Calvin was sight-reading the Hebrew text without any linguistic aids. Then, also without notes, he made comment on the text that had been read.

Colladon also remarked on Calvin’s teaching style; he said:

When lecturing, he always had only the bare text of Scripture; and yet, see how well he ordered what he said! Even when (some years before his death) he was lecturing on Daniel, although at some places he had to narrate historical facts at length, as we see from the lectures, he never had any paper before him as an aide-mémoire. And it was not as if he had adequate time to prepare; for, whatever he may have wished, he simply had not the opportunity. To say the truth, he usually had less than an hour to prepare.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 47.

Preaching to the Very End

The thought of “retirement” in the traditional sense doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. There is a part of me that hopes I can continue preaching and ministry to the very end. I was encouraged to read of Calvin’s passion to preach as long as his body would hold out:

Calvin loved preaching, and he continued preaching nearly to the end of his life. He died on May 27, 1564. We read that near the close of his life, when he was beset with infirmities and could not walk, he was carried in a chair to his well-loved and familiar pulpit. Colladon, who wrote a biography of Calvin in 1565, provides an account of these last days of preaching.

… his gout began to abate somewhat, and then he forced himself to go out sometimes to be entertained among his friends, but chiefly to lecture and even to preach, having himself carried to church in a chair … he continued to do all he could of his public office, always dragging his poor body along, until the beginning of February 1564 … on the Sunday, February 6, [he gave] his last sermon on the Harmony of the Three Gospels. Thereafter he never went up into the pulpit.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 28.

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Loving Your Enemies

Even though Geneva banished Calvin, Calvin still held the city close in his heart. His care for its people, for the truth of the Gospel, ran so deep that he even fought for its faith while in exile.

“Not long after this unjust banishment, Calvin extinguished a greater evil, which would probably have been attended with the worst consequences, had not this illustrious exile applied a prompt remedy to it. Jacques Sadolet, Bishop of Carpentras, was a man of considerable eloquence, which he employed only to oppose the truth. His morals being regular, the pope made him a cardinal, with a view to give a currency to the false doctrine taught in his church. The cardinal, seeing that the people of Geneva were deprived of such excellent pastors, thought this a favourable opportunity to attract them to the Romish religion, with which view he wrote a long letter wherein he employed all his address and talents to over-throw the reformed religion, and to establish his own. There was at this time no person in the town capable of answering him, and if this letter had been written in French, it is probable that it would have created considerable disturbances amongst a people so much divided and so ill disposed as they were at this time. But Calvin, forgetting all the injuries which he had sustained, evinced that the love which he had professed for that church was not diminished; and answered the cardinal with so much eloquence and spirit, that he abandoned his project entirely.”

Theodore Beza and John Mackenzie, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of John Calvin (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 46–47.

Living Preaching is Done Without Notes

As one who often preaches from a transcript, I was cut by Calvin’s comments to the Duke of Somerset about the “little living preaching” done in his kingdom (emphasis mine).

Calvin objected to read sermons. He was a ‘pattern extempore preacher’. He frequently intimated that the power of God could only pour forth most powerfully in extemporary preaching. In a letter to the Duke of Somerset, Calvin commented, ‘I say this to your Highness because there is little of living preaching in your kingdom, sermons there being mostly read or recited.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 25-26.

Preaching Without Notes

Whenever I preach, I typically create an outline and then work on a transcription of everything I plan on saying. I then bring the transcript to the pulpit where I will reference it as needed throughout the sermon. This was not how John Calvin rolled:

Based on all available evidence, Calvin preached with no notes, but it was extemporary preaching directly from the original text. We have no manuscripts of Calvin’s preaching extant from his own hand. Gerstner remarks, ‘Calvin preached not only without a manuscript; not only without notes; but apparently without any outline whatever unless it was the order of the verses in the Bible itself.’ The only reason we have so many of his sermons is because a man named Denis Raguenier wrote them down in shorthand between the years 1549 and 1560 (the year of Raguenier’s death). In this period of ten and a half years, Raguenier was able to take down about 2,000 of Calvin’s sermons ipsissima verba, that is, word for word.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 25.

Calvin Preached 200 Sermons on Deuteronomy

John Calvin’s dedication to preaching verse by verse through the Bible was impressive. He was a firm believer in preaching from the original language, in the historical-grammatical approach, with application to the hearer. What is even more amazing is to see the shear number of sermons he preached on various books of the Bible (emphasis mine):

Calvin’s method of preaching is well-documented: it was consecutive, expositional preaching through various books of the Bible. He would begin in verse 1, chapter 1 of a particular book and then preach through the book until the end. The next sermon would begin a new book, and he would preach that book sequentially until finished. This is serial preaching at its best. Calvin’s immediate movement to preach one book after another is what Gerstner calls ‘chain preaching.’ He spent, for example, one year preaching through Job, a year and a half on Deuteronomy (200 sermons), and three years on Isaiah (350 sermons).

According to Beeke, ‘The average length of texts covered in each of Calvin’s sermons was four or five verses in the Old Testament and two or three verses in the New Testament. His sermons were fairly short for his day (perhaps due in part to his asthmatic condition), probably averaging thirty-five to forty minutes.’

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 22-23.

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The Reviews are in on Calvin’s Institutes

At the young age of twenty-six, John Calvin finished the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. The results and response to the work was impressive, to say the very least.

He was only in his twenty-sixth year, when he published the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, with an address to the persecuting King of France which has ever been esteemed a production unrivalled for classic purity, force of argument, and persuasive eloquence. Designed as a defence of the calumniated Reformers, and an exposure of the base injustice, tyranny, and corruption of their persecutors, this work became the bulwark of the Reformation, and the stronghold of its adherents. It was made the Confession of Faith of a large portion of the Protestant world, and the text book of every student. It was recommended by a Convocation held at Oxford, to the general study of the English nation, and long continued to be the standard work in theology in the English universities. The Pope makes it one of his anathematizing charges against Queen Elizabeth, that the impious mysteries and Institutes, according to Calvin, are received and observed by herself, and even enjoined upon all her subjects to be obeyed.* According to Schultingius, the English gave these Institutes a preference to the Bible. “The Bishops,” he says, “ordered all the ministers, that they should learn them almost to a word; that they should be kept in all the churches for public use.” He informs us also that they were studied in both the universities; that in Scotland the students of divinity began by reading these Institutes; that at Heidelberg, Geneva, Lausanne, and in all the Calvinistic universities, these Institutes were publicly taught by the professors; that in Holland, ministers, civilians, and the common people, even the coachman and the sailor, studied this work with great diligence; that esteeming it as a pearl of great price, they had it bound and gilt in the most elegant manner; and that it was appealed to as a standard on all theological questions. According to this writer, and the Cardinal Legate of the Pope, these Institutes were considered more dangerous to the cause of the papacy than all the other writings of the Reformers.

Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 21-23.

Calvin’s Sermons Sold as “Waste Paper”

It is painful to think of how many of John Calvin’s sermons were lost over the years. One wonders what troves of treasure were lost as trash:

Over 2,000 of Calvin’s sermons have been preserved. Unfortunately many others have been lost. Bouwsma comments on this point:

Not all Calvin’s sermons have yet been published; many, indeed, have disappeared. Early in the nineteenth century the pastor in charge of the Bibliothèque de Genève where they were stored sold most of the volumes of Calvin’s manuscript sermons ‘by weight,’ that is, presumably as waste paper; and although some were eventually recovered, about a thousand were permanently lost.

This painful and tragic story has been told in various places; for an account in English the reader ought to consult the work of T. H. L. Parker.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 22.

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Calvin Always Makes Me Feel Lazy

It never ceases to amaze (and humble) me when I look at how much work John Calvin did in his lifetime. Besides all his writing, travel, and other work, here is a report of his preaching efforts:

During the decades of the 1540s and 1550s, Calvin was the senior minister in Geneva. This position, as one would expect, entailed a considerable amount of preaching. Between 1541 and 1564, it has been estimated that Calvin preached no fewer than 4,000 sermons on the Bible. On the Old Testament alone he preached at least 2,000 sermons, and that figure only covers the years 1541 to 1556. Calvin usually preached twice on Sundays, at dawn and at 3.00 p.m.; in the morning service he exposited a New Testament passage, and he tackled the Psalms in the afternoon. One or two mornings a week (6.00 a.m.), he would deliver a sermon on an Old Testament passage.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 21-22.

I seriously need to remember this next time I feel the pressure of writing ONE sermon.

The Judgement of Arminius

Say what you will about the conflict between Calvinists and Arminians, at the very least Calvinist have this card to play:

The judgment of his great opponent, Arminius, upon Calvin’s merits as a commentator, has been sustained by the verdict of three centuries, and his present advancing reputation. Arminius says, “after the Holy Scriptures, I exhort the students to read the commentaries of Calvin, for I tell them that he is incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be held in greater estimation than all that is delivered to us in the writings of the ancient Christian Fathers, so that in a certain eminent spirit of prophecy, I give the pre-eminence to him beyond most others, indeed beyond them all.”

Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 24-25.

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