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 Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, pt.2

Connections to Today’s Current Situation: The London Baptist 1689 Confession of Faith’s Influence on the Abstracts of Principles

James Petigru Boyce, often called the Cavalier and Puritan, was a pastor, a university professor, and above all, the founder and first president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), a seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Boyce more than appreciated Calvinistic theology—he was raised by a mother of Presbyterian descent, and he studied under Archibald Alexander at Princeton Theological Seminary. As Timothy George has stated, “Princeton provided Boyce with a systematic framework in which to cast the Calvinist theology he had imbibed from Basil Manly Sr. and his other Charleston pastors.” After his education at Princeton, Boyce pastored for two years before moving on to teach at Furman University. In 1856, Boyce gave an address titled “Three Changes in Theological Institutions,” which would not only affect where he worked at the time, but also bring about the foundation of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

As Boyce made clear during the birth of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), three ideals were essential to building a common theological seminary in the South: The first was openness, creating a seminary for everyone and anyone who was called by God regardless of academic background or social status. The second was excellence—Boyce was intent on establishing an advanced program of theological study that, in its academic rigor, would be comparable to the type of instruction offered at Princeton, Andover, Harvard, and Yale. The third change that Boyce brought to SBTS established a set of mandatory doctrines and a confessional guideline for SBTS’s instructors. Timothy George sheds light on this in his Theologians of the Baptist Tradition.

“The third ideal was confessional identity. Boyce proposed that the seminary be established on a set of doctrinal principles that would provide consistency and direction for the future. This, too, was a radical step in the context of nineteenth-century Baptist life. Newton Theological Institute, the first seminary founded by Baptists in America, had no such confessional guidelines. Nor, indeed, did the Southern Baptist Convention, organized in 1845. However, Boyce firmly believed that it was necessary to protect the seminary from doctrinal erosion. From his student days in New England, Boyce was aware of the recent currents in theology: Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, the New Divinity. In particular, he spoke against the “blasphemous doctrines” of Theodore Parker, who had denied that Christianity was based on a special revelation of God. At the same time he was concerned about populist theologies in the South, and warned against the “twin errors of Campbellism and Arminianism.”

While all three areas of Boyce’s address and vision are true of SBTS today (thanks to Dr. Al Mohler), that is not the case for the SBC. It is not false in the light that it has fallen short of Boyce’s Abstracts of Principles—the SBC was not, in fact, founded on Boyce’s Abstracts of Principles—but the SBC did not follow the examples set before it by its earlier Baptist forerunners (London Baptist in 1689, Philadelphia Baptist in 1742, and New Hampshire Baptist in 1833) in making a confessional theology, which would have given it a denominational foundation. The SBC was finally organized as a convention by 1845, but it had no foundational set of doctrines to follow until 80 years later, in 1925. These have been edited, revised, and added to a number of times throughout the past century, and they have led to the different views within the SBC on salvation, especially in the absence of the SBC doctrines’ earlier Calvinistic brother, the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833).

The SBTS still holds to its original confessional standard, maintaining that its professors agree to the same Abstracts of Principles that Boyce meant to define the SBC. As Timothy George points out, “The Abstract of Principles was intentionally modeled on the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, which was based on the Second London Confession, which, in turn, was a Baptist adaptation of the Westminster Confession.” Thus one sees the historical value in taking a look back into his or her church history. Seeing the godly examples, the doctrinal stances, and theological guidelines God has given to His Church brings great value to the Church’s future growth.

For Additional Information
Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, ed. Timothy George and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001).

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.

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.

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’s Prayers: A Model of Scholarly Humility

Calvin prayed at the conclusion of his lectures.  Those prayers are both intriguing reading and profound spiritual instruction.  For example, at the conclusion of the 38th lecture on the Minor Prophets, he prays

Oil painting of a young John Calvin.

Grant, Almighty God, that as almost the whole world give such loose reins to their licentiousness, that they hesitate not either to despise or to regard as of no value thy sacred word,—Grant, O Lord, that we may always retain such reverence as is justly due to it and to thy holy oracles, and be so moved, whenever thou deignest to address us, that being truly humbled, we may be raised up by faith to heaven, and by hope gradually attain that glory which is as yet hid from us. And may we at the same time so submissively restrain ourselves, as to make it our whole wisdom to obey thee and to do thee service, until thou gatherest us into thy kingdom, where we shall be partakers of thy glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.  [Calvin, J., Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Joe 1:1–4)].

Noteworthy here is the focus of Calvin’s prayer:

1- that his hearers value Scripture; 2- that they reverence God’s speech; 3- that they be humbled by the fact that God stoops to speak to them; 4- and finally, that they heed it to the point of real active obedience.

The background to this prayer is the remarkable claim of Calvin that

The Prophet reproves the Jews for being so stupid as not to consider that they were chastised by the hand of God, though this was quite evident. Hence they pervert, in my judgment, the meaning of the Prophet, who think that punishments are here denounced which were as yet suspended; for they transfer all these things to a future time. But I distinguish between this reproof and the denunciations which afterwards follow. Here then the Prophet reproaches the Jews, that having been so severely smitten, they did not gain wisdom; and yet even fools, when the rod is applied to their backs, know that they are punished. Since then the Jews were so stupid, that when even chastised they did not understand that they had to do with God, the Prophet justly reproves this madness. Hear, he says, ye old men; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land, and declare this to your children. But the consideration of this passage I shall put off till tomorrow.

Calvin’s rather gruff remarks – set in balance with the prayer he uttered moments afterward- indicate that for Calvin there was a terrible danger in refusing to respect God’s address.  Such refusal was, in his terminology, ‘stupid’.  As those who refused to hear Amos were ‘stupid’ so too, Calvin would argue, are those who refuse to hear God today (in Calvin’s day).

Calvin was absolutely convinced that God must be heard.  Surely Christians today would assert the same (albeit without such free use of the word ‘stupid’).

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