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Calvin Didn’t Master the Languages

It seems to be the common opinion that John Calvin was neither a master of Greek or Hebrew, yet he passionately perused them and encouraged and instructed all pastors to do the like. I find encouragement in the fact that Calvin wasn’t a master of the languages. It helps me see that some things were hard work for Calvin, yet he persisted because the worth of the goal was great. He believed in the importance of the original languages and it showed in all he did.

Calvin firmly believed in an educated pastorate, and part of this eruditio was mastery of the languages of Scripture. Prudence and fairness requires us to agree with the assessment of David Puckett when he concludes that Calvin ‘probably should not be regarded as a expert Hebraist, as was Münster, but he did know the language a great deal better than the seventeenth-century Roman Catholic scholar Richard Simon believed.’ Basil Hall perhaps provides an accurate judgment when he says that Calvin was ‘competent in Hebrew without being a distinguished Hebraist’ and that he was an ‘homme trilingue, a worthy representative of French biblical humanism.’ The reality is that ‘there is scarcely a Reformed exegete of the sixteenth century who did not have a good knowledge of Hebrew and was passionately concerned to establish the hebraica veritas.’ Calvin was an excellent Greek scholar, yet, again, he was not alone. Indeed, Reformed interpreters of the sixteenth century were masters of the Greek language, and men like Beza even surpassed Calvin in it.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 77-78.

Calvin’s Thoughts on Seminary

John Calvin’s aim of the Genevan Academey is inspiring and should most certainly be applied, or should I say adopted, by more seminaries today:

The creation of the Academy was perhaps Calvin’s crowning achievement. However, it needs to be noted that Calvin’s purpose in establishing this enterprise was not merely to produce scholars. In reality, ‘one of its chief titles to renown has always been, up to very recent times, that of having formed a body of pastors provided with a high degree of intellectual culture.’ His aim in the schola publica was to raise up and train pastor-scholars. These were men who could work well with the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, who could perform proper exegesis of a text, and who understood theology and philosophy; yet, they could take all that intellectual work and translate it to the masses. These were pastor-scholars who did not stay in the ivory tower, but they sought to find the truth and then apply it to the people. The purpose of the academic work was to affect the church and the world with the truth and power of the Word of God.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 60.

Centrality of the Languages in Study

In the establishment of the Genevan Academy we see Calvin’s passion for the biblical languages shine. It is clear from the heavy emphasis on the Biblical languages that Calvin felt they were of utmost important for those who would be pastors of the church. As I read the section below, I could not help but wonder what great things might come of us leading our children towards Hebrew and Greek at young ages:

The Genevan Academy had two departments: the schola private (the lower department) and the schola publica (the upper level). The former was for children beginning school at six years of age. There were seven levels of education; the seventh class was the most rudimentary and the first class was the highest order in the school. The content of the various levels are well-known and we do not need to repeat them here. When one reads them, however, one is immediately struck by the amount and centrality of the linguistic work. Bilingual instruction commenced in level seven, that is, the opening grade: students began to learn both French and Latin at this early age. By the fourth class they were introduced to the Greek language. In the upper three class levels the students were preparing almost all of their work in the original languages of Latin and Greek: they read, for example, Homer, Virgil, Cicero from their original tongues. They also translated directly from the New Testament; in level two they were reading the Gospel of Luke and in level one they were translating the Epistles.

The schola private served as a feeder to the schola publica; the latter had its primary purpose to train future ministers of the gospel. These were students who were preparing to preach the Word of God. And since ‘the exposition of the Bible was central to the sermon, Calvin ensured that the biblical languages were given primary place in the curriculum.’ Walker concludes that Calvin’s purpose was to ‘make Geneva the theological seminary of Reformed Protestantism.’ To Calvin, the Academy was to be an institution of great learning. And he believed that erudition required mastery of three languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 57-58.

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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What Is Calvin’s God Like?

Many wrongly assume that they know Calvin’s God as the stern God of predestination.  Or they wrongly assume that Calvin’s God is the Kingly Sovereign, untouched by human pleadings and unmoved by human suffering as he relentlessly pursues his single-minded inexplicable purpose.  But that isn’t Calvin’s God and in fact that isn’t the God known to and worshiped by Christians.

The God Calvin loved, the one true God, is aptly described as follows:

A God who is not holy is no God. A God who is not just or good or true is no God. A God who does not satisfy and surpass our highest conception of ethical ideal is no God. A God who is not supreme over all, who shares the throne of His rule and glory with angel or man or devil, who does not know all things, who does not control all things, whose eyes are closed to any scene of tragedy or distress, whose ears are stopped to any cry of suffering or of need, whose love is quenched by any offense against His holy will, whose arm is bound by any force or fate or law—this is no God. When we hear any one declare that he believes in God, it is necessary to wait until he tells us what kind of a God he believes in that we may be sure that he believes in God at all. Many a qualified theism is, at bottom, an unqualified atheism.  — Henry Collin Minton, in Calvin, the Theologian.

Minton has perfectly captured Calvin’s view of God and summarized it in a single paragraph.  Never has a better, more specific, and more useful summary been written.

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