Humble Calvinism – Part 6

Posted: November 17, 2010 in calvinism, humility, theology

See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Calvin’s Life: A Scholar

Calvin’s highest literary achievement, his Institutes of the Christian Religion, also demonstrates his profound humility as a pastor and theologian.  Unlike many theologians today who write extremely technical treatises on only the most obscure and esoteric points of doctrine, Calvin was much more interested in writing for the good of the common man.  His goal was to provide normal Christians with a tool which could be used in tandem with the Word of God, helping the layman understand and apply the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith found in the Scriptures.  Calvin makes this fact clear in his dedication of the Institutes to King Francis I:

“My purpose [in writing this book] was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness…This book itself witnesses that this was my intention, adapted as it is to a simple and, you may say, elementary form of teaching.”[1]

During his lifetime, Calvin updated and greatly added to the Institutes, but he never lost his original purpose for writing the book.  The language throughout is simple, clear, and passionate.  In many ways, the Institutes is better likened to a modern day devotional work (assuming it is strong doctrinally, quite an audacious assumption in our day) than to a systematic theology, as it is full of exclamatory doxologies and pastoral questions designed to convict and quicken the soul of the reader.

Calvin’s commentaries on Scripture were also designed for the layperson, with the goal of helping him or her understand the words of the Bible.  During his life, Calvin wrote commentaries on twenty-four Old Testament books and all but two of the books of the New Testament.[2] As Phillip Johnson writes,

“Calvin’s commentaries are at once warm and pastoral, powerful and lucid, sumptuous and scholarly.  They are a remarkable achievement, and if this had been Calvin’s only contribution to the literature of the Reformation, his reputation as the greatest biblical thinker among the leading Reformers would have been secured.”[3]

Likewise, Calvin’s preaching was directed at the common man as well.  He simply exposited the Scriptures, chapter by chapter, verse by verse.  Once he began a book, he would work through it each week until he had finished it.[4] Contrary to what some may assume, Calvin’s sermons were not harsh or extremely logical lectures on the sovereignty of God, predestination, or church discipline.  The message and theme of each sermon was derived from the particular text that Calvin was currently preaching through.[5] Additionally, Calvin always made it a point to use simple language, understandable by even the most uneducated layperson.  He was not interested in showing off his rhetorical abilities, nor his extensive knowledge of the biblical languages.  Calvin’s goal in preaching, as in the Institutes, was simply to help the common Christian understand the message of the Bible.  And, as in the Institutes, “every word weighed a pound.”[6]

Calvin’s Life: Marriage and Death

Two final anecdotes should serve well in illustrating Calvin’s profound humility before God and man alike.  Calvin never remarried after the death of his wife, whom he loved dearly.  He remarked that she had never been a hindrance but had been very helpful to him in his ministry.  This is why it is surprising that he never remarried.  He explains his reasoning in a sermon on 1 Timothy:

“As for me, I do not want anyone to think me very virtuous because I am not married.  It would rather be a fault in me if I could service God better in marriage than remaining as I am…I abstain from marriage in order that I may be more free to serve God.  But this is not because I think that I am more virtuous than my brethren.  Fie to me if I had that false opinion!”[7]

The last thing that Calvin would have wanted was his congregation to think more highly of him than they ought.  He wanted no praise nor for anyone to think of him as an especially holy man.  Impressed with the immensity of his sin, and the sovereign mercy and grace of God, Calvin could not accept the admiration of men, for he knew that all the good he had flowed freely from God alone.  He also understood that even man’s most noble and seemingly righteous acts were nonetheless stained with impurity.  He writes,

“Let a holy servant of God, I say, choose from the whole course of his life what of an especially noteworthy character he thinks he has done.  Let him well turn over in his mind its several parts.  Undoubtedly he will somewhere perceive that it savors of the rottenness of the flesh, since our eagerness for well-doing is never what it ought to be but our great weakness slows down our running in the race…We have not a single work going forth from the saints that if it be judged in itself deserves not shame as its just reward.”[8]

Calvin's small tombstone, inscribed simply with the letters "JC".

Finally, Calvin’s humility can even be seen in his death.  On May 27, 1564, he died after a long and protracted illness.  So many people came to see his body that Calvin’s close friends feared that people would start accusing his followers of having started a cult dedicated to a new saint.  Therefore, just a day after his death and in accord with his request, Calvin was buried in the local cemetery, without a tombstone and next to the graves of common men.[9] Even in death, Calvin did not want fame nor accolade.  In both life and death, John Calvin was committed to magnifying the glory and majesty of God through humble service to and gracious leadership of Christ’s church.

Part 7

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 9.
[2] Phillip Johnson, John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine, Devotion, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons, 102.
[3] Ibid., 103.
[4] This fact is illustrated, perhaps to the extreme, in Calvin’s return to Geneva after he was exiled.  Upon returning to the pulpit in Geneva, Calvin’s first sermon picked up right where his last sermon had left off over three years earlier.  He is reported to have reasoned, “[In doing this] I indicated that I had interrupted my office of preaching for a time rather than I had given it up entirely.”  Derek Thomas, John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine, Devotion, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons, 26.
[5] T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 121.
[6] Theodore Beza is reported to have said this about Calvin’s sermons.  Steven Lawson, John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine, Devotion, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons, 74, 76-77.
[7] Quoted in T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 130.
[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:14:9
[9] T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 190-191.


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