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Calvin's Preaching.

When I was taken under care by the presbytery of the Redwoods PC(USA) many years ago, a very active elder in our Presbytery handed me Calvin's 1559 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (not the McNeill edition) to "edify" me in the Reformed faith. But I was already thoroughly reprobate, having read the McNeill once or twice on the New York City subway system going to and from work. And the Calvin I read on the subways was about 180 degrees from the Calvin my denomination revered, mocked and lauded. Briefly, I never thought Calvin to be a systematic theologian. Rather, he was an architect of an ecclesiastical institution, even a progenitor of modern political theory, a teacher, a lawyer, our Protestant Rabbi Akiba, who had a wickedly gleeful time exaggerating the woeful course of Abraham's miserable life, and finally a pastor, but not the creator of Reformed doctrine. Once more, TULIP, I knew, was not of him but came later with the synod of Dordrecht, the winners of the debate being self-proclaimed followers of Calvin. It was not Calvin's style to fashion any set of principles without at least one caveat. "Ja, aber" ... that was Calvin: Calvin the rhetorician, Calvin the lawyer with an acidic Gallic wit who, as Francis M. Higman pointed out in his lectures at the University of Geneva (here come the Anglicans!), showed how Calvin also created the modern French language among his other chores, such as drawing up schedules for Geneva's night watchmen.

When I did read Reformed types on Calvin I had the sense that they were pushing Calvin into a position he never assumed for himself, namely as the man to whom you turned to justify your present position, whether ecclesiological or political. That mutually exclusive positions can be legitimately maintained based on Calvin's thought ought to inform us that Calvin might have been up to something other than systematic theology - or systematic anything. It is remarkable that after the development of Western scholarship Edward A. Dowey's 1994 expanded version of The Knowledge of God in Calvin's Theology (1952) still believes that the Institutes are Calvin's definitive word and that the role of rhetoric in shaping Calvin's thought does not affect his theology. And while Reformed feminists can turn to Jane Dempsey Douglass' Women, Freedom and Calvin (1985) to learn that Calvin regarded the ordering of church life as adiaphora, that is, as a matter of custom, indifferent to the basics of the gospel, and that Calvin had no formal objections to women's ordination, there is a "Ja, aber ..." able to tear a church apart on this issue. The right decision, for Calvin, would depend upon the Bible's message in relation to context. Regarding the church's political involvement, besides reading Book IV of the Institutes for a great "Nein, aber ...", one can read Calvin's exegesis, also in the Institutes, on the fifth commandment: honour your father and your mother. In paragraph 36 (p.402), the scope of the commandment reaches out to include the state, equivalent to your parents and, therefore due obedience and honour. But in the last paragraph (38), read Calvin lash out at government and call for a Christian to oppose it if the government is no friend of the gospel. It is nothing less than a call to revolution. Again, the faithful position would depend upon the biblical message in relation to context. In short, a church must decide for itself in each age on the basis of its interpretation of scripture and the Zeitgeist.

The Anglicans, however, are not pushing Calvin into any theological comer but simply trying to understand him. Through their eyes, we Reformed can breathe a little easier and, I think, get closer to this fellow to whom we refer for our marching orders in the world. I focus here on two books by Anglican scholars and the lectures of Francis M. Higman at the University of Geneva. The first is William J. Bouwsma's John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (Oxford U.P., 1988). Bouwsma uses Calvin as an iconic representation of the tensions - philosophical, political, religious of the Renaissance. In so doing, he brings into the foreground a Calvin who, consistent with his era, focused on what was practically possible for the church, the faith and the believer. The essential question for Calvin is, "is it useful?". By asking this question, Calvin "clarified and strengthened the instrumentalism of Renaissance culture. The belief that knowledge is 'for use' dissolved the boundary between the contemplative and active life; it brought biblical scholarship and theological reflection out of the study and into the world... The most important knowledge of all, that which God imparts to his people, is for Calvin supremely and exclusively practical. Scripture contains nothing 'that is not useful to us', nothing 'but what is expedient'".

The heavy emphasis Bouwsma places on the utilitarian character of the Renaissance and thus of John Calvin draws our attention to certain lines in the Institutes, which do not quite convey the image of the cowering believer trembling in his or her shoes in face of God. Rather, right away, God is put to the test: "What is God? Men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations. It is more important for us to know of what sort he is and what is consistent with his nature. What good is it to profess with Epicurus some sort of God who has cast aside the care of the world only to amuse himself in idleness? What help is it, in short, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do?"

The key notion of gratitude to God for his/her benefits has been sugared and spiritualized by generations of Reformed Christians who have not yet understood that this question is more than just a rhetorical nicety. Calvin means it. In Calvin's rescuing God from the clutches of the church, questions from the believer's mouth to God's ears had to be asked again clearly and directly. Indeed, even God's Bible undergoes a certain "demotion" from a book too lofty for any but clerical minds to read. Scripture is God's technology, a teacher and guide, a nursemaid cooing to the infants who can't speak God's language. The Principle of Accommodation, God's condescension, is just this chucking the infant under the chin.

The sum and substance of Bouwsma's contribution, I believe, is the presentation of Calvin's frame of mind as essentially anxious, always seeking clarity and eminently practical. If philosophy is a matter of definitions, Calvin offers few, and if systematic theology is, in part, a formal presentation of God's ways to humankind or humanity's ways to God, Calvin offers only one clear path that is yet never open to scrutiny: the experience of God's nature and human nature uniting together in the soul. The following is taken from the French version (1560) of the 1559 Institutes, which, I feel, points precisely to the intimacy between God and the human being that Calvin had felt called to proclaim and encourage. It is a corollary to the opening strophe in Book I which set out the purpose of the Institutes as to come to the knowledge of God and ourselves: "C'est pourquoi il a fallu que le Fils de Dieu nous fut fait Emmanuel, c'est-a-dire Dieu avec nous, voire a telle condition que sa divinite et la nature des hommes fussent unies ensemble: autrement il n'y eut point eu de voisinage assez proche, ni d'affinite assez ferme pour nous faire esperer que Dieu habitat avec nous."

Bouwsma's sources for his portrait of Calvin draw more heavily from the commentaries than from the Institutes. T.H.L. Parker's Calvin's Preaching (1992) draws heavily on, of course, the sermons. And his decision to write the book was due, he tells us, above all to the editing of Isaiah 30-41 with Lewis Thorpe and Francis M. Higman.

Parker sees Calvin first and foremost as a biblical scholar and a man for whom the "theological impulsion and the pastoral impulsion were one and the same thing". Calvin's view of scripture and the task of preaching are given succinctly via Parker in Calvin's sermon on 2 Timothy 3:16-17, where scripture is divinely inspired and profitable for us. Both the preacher and the congregation - the speaker and the listener - are equally bound to the business of edification. If the preacher cannot instruct so that the congregation does not profit or if the congregation is not prepared to benefit, both commit a profanation. The emphasis for Parker as for Bouwsma is on the practical and efficacious side of things. But, I think, even more clearly than Bouwsma, Parker paints a picture of Calvin's understanding of the relationship between God, scripture, preaching and church as a scene of boundless activity. "God speaks; God teaches; God governs; Christ comes to his people; Christ offers himself; the church preaches in obedience to the commission and command; the preacher delivers the message from his prince; men submit and believe or they reject the light and remain in darkness. Whatever the terminology used, whatever the imagery, all is a scene of divine activity, and of human activity drawn into the divine."

If, as Parker tells us, we learn by Calvin's sermons what Calvin really thought of preaching, we also learn from Parker what sort of preacher he was. In Geneva, after 1549 and for the next 15 years, the picture becomes more clear. Calvin was an expository preacher who preached directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, a conclusion drawn by the work done on Isaiah 30-41. His hermeneutics were unscathed by principles. Parker writes: "Calvin was not a slave to any theory of biblical interpretation. Each piece is treated on its merits; but above all, the question he has asked himself in preparation is 'How is this profitable to the congregation?' And therefore every part of every passage is addressed directly to that congregation... 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."

What is instructive about Calvin's interpretation of scripture for us Reformed types - who think we know what Calvin is doing because we read some of the Institutes some of the time - is that Calvin was faithful to the scripture to the extent that he would not catch the Bible in a theological "net" to make it say what the churches wanted to hear. Therefore, as Parker tells us, in Old Testament preaching there is usually no mention of Jesus Christ because Jesus Christ did not exist for those authors, and Calvin took their part. The preacher was a chameleon, taking on the colour of the text he/she was interpreting. Calvin was faithful to the historical context of scripture and did not presume to gainsay God for whom, Calvin believed, the Old Testament had in no way been diminished by the New. When, however, Calvin is applying scripture, he must be just as faithful to history as his congregation, and the congregation for whom the Bible is a gift was born after the incarnation and should not be asked to pretend that it didn't happen. If there was any hermeneutical principle involved in Calvin's preaching, it was an attitude, a disposition towards scripture that offered the key to its meaning. The biblical point of view for Calvin is that God is revealed for humanity's eternal and temporal good, and that disposition governs the interpretation and application of scripture. His sermons are au fond Good News, and Calvin, the dour-headed champion of sin and damnation is strangely absent from the pulpit. The positive, happy (if sarcastic!) preacher resonates with Bouwsma's assessment that Calvin was intent upon relieving the terrible anxieties of faithful people who still believed in devils and warlocks and who, without indulgences and the confessional, had lost their anchors. But Calvin does, indeed, thunder. During the troubles with the state of Bern, in which Calvin was involved, his sermons are angry. Parker tells us that nothing so infuriated Calvin as injustice, "especially injustice under the cloak of legality", and hypocrisy, "the flagrant opposition to the gospel by those who had sworn to uphold it".

Whatever the sermon, whatever the text, Calvin's style was homespun French and not the French of his writings that shaped the language we know today. The similes are bucolic vitriol full of earth and animals and dust and dung. Parker refers to E. Mulhaupt's categories of imagery: "judicial, natural, animal, artisan and academic", with animals, Parker thinks, showing up more frequently than the others. The point was: keep it simple, plain and, lest I put a word in Parker's mouth, - relevant.

Calvin's preaching schedule was vicious, requiring him to preach every day and twice on Sundays every other week. The sermons were an hour long. He also gave lectures on the scriptures, taught theology and performed normal pastoral duties in addition to getting himself embroiled in city politics and negotiations between Bern and Geneva.

The lectures of Francis M. Higman (1992, 1994) complement the picture of the man and preacher John Calvin drawn by Bouwsma and Parker. We learn about a life of unremitting, gruesome activity. The emphasis is on a person who reluctantly did everything that was "asked" of him, the "asking" including being threatened with eternal damnation, first by Farel if he did not go to Geneva, then by Bucer if he did not go to Strasbourg, then again by Farel and Bucer if he did not go back to Geneva. From Higman we can draw up a cahier des charges for John Calvin in addition to that of ecclesiastical architect, preacher, pastor and creator of the modern French language: (1) Administrator: Calvin fussed with administrative details such as scheduling rounds for the night watchmen and keeping track of wheat exports, the administrative cadre of priests having fled from Geneva when the city became reformed. (2) Liturgist: Calvin produced the Psalter which became, according to Higman, one of the biggest musical successes in the 16th century. But more than that, Calvin produced the skeleton of Reformed liturgical practice. (3) Christian educator: "The Shorter Catechism" and "The Little Book on the Lord's Supper" become the children's and layperson's guide to understanding the faith. (4) Ecclesiastical politician and polemicist: For instance, The Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541. after many revisions, becomes an exercise in international diplomacy, a brilliant rhetorical performance in which both sides, the city council and the consistory, believe they have got what they want. Higman tells us that the Ordinances cannot be used to adjudicate arguments because it says yes and no at the same time. The art of compromise was very much with John Calvin, whom Higman dubs as "lawyer for Christ".

If we now bring together Bouwsma, Parker and Higman, the theological contribution of John Calvin begins to take a more humble place alongside the practical bent and achievements of the man. The picture drawn for us is that of a Calvin who could be said to illustrate sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide in his life. Even the burning of Michael Servetus was a rotten business for Calvin in an age where a death was all too often a convenient solution for the current problem. Finally, we are in the presence of a giant of praxis - in the original Aristotelian sense of that word - whose dilemmas were those of his age and who could only say, ultimately, that what was most important in a human being before God and the world was, according to Bouwsma's rendering, "a sincere heart". This virtue, the only one Calvin could identify without caveat, is surely missing from many churches today.

Jill Schaeffer

Jill Schaeffer is presently in doctoral studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, focussing on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead in relation to that of Ernst Troeltsch. She is an associate pastor with the Reformed Church of France, as ecumenical consultant.
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Author:Schaeffer, Jill
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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