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John Calvin An appreciation by Erroll Hulse

July 2010 | by Erroll Hulse

In the aftermath of last year’s 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, I would like to express three ways in which Calvin has been an inspiration to me. First Calvin is an inspiration as a pastor/preacher. He was a pastor for 27 years. He served at St Peter’s Church in Geneva from 1536-1538. Here he encountered opposition to his reforms and was dismissed, whereupon he served a French-speaking church in Strasbourg from 1538-1541.

He testified that to be the happiest period of his life. He was then called back to Geneva and continued as pastor at St Peter’s Church, from 1541 until his decease in 1564.

Tremendous spiritual battles ensued. Then 1555-1564 was relatively peaceful, enabling Calvin to devote more time to missionary enterprise.

Exemplary piety

As a pastor Calvin was exemplary in personal godliness, family life and the ministry of prayer. His pastoral care for people is reflected in his letter-writing, there being 4000 letters extant.

Calvin stuck to his pastoral calling through trials of every kind and persevered through terrible painful physical afflictions. If he had suffered these in the 21st century, he would have been under the supervision of at least four different medical consultants.

Initially, Calvin preached three times each Lord’s day – twice at St Peter’s and once in a weekly rotation of St Gervais and Rive. Daily worship was offered in all three churches. French was the language he used.

It is estimated that his preaching rota required Calvin to preach five sermons a week. His preaching was very well prepared, so that his delivery could be entirely extempore. He had only the Bible open before him in its original languages.

He knew it was necessary for preaching to be inspired, energetic, gripping and passionate. The extempore method can be disastrous if used by preachers who are not gifted like Calvin. Even C. H. Spurgeon and Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones used rough sermon outlines.

Calvin preached sequentially through Bible books: 123 sermons on Genesis, 201 on Deuteronomy, 175 on Ezekiel, and 47 on Daniel. He preached through Romans and John and Acts, the latter in 189 sermons. From these sermons came his published commentaries. He wrote full commentaries on 24 out of 39 books of the Old Testament and on all the New Testament books, with the exception of 2 and 3 John and Revelation.

His example inspired the English Puritans to follow the same method of sequential preaching, which they then refined, edited and published as expositions of the highest quality.

Consistent exposition

Secondly, I am inspired by Calvin the theologian. Early in his life Calvin was tutored by top scholars in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. The time of his sudden (unexpected) conversion probably took place in 1530.

In March 1536, aged only 27, he published The Institutes of the Christian Religion in a 516-page pocket edition, expounding the Law, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, sacraments and Christian liberty. All this was designed to edify the increasing number of Protestants in France.

Later improved, enlarged editions of the Institutes were published. I prize my two volume 1733 page edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles and edited by John McNeil. I especially value Calvin’s exposition of the Ten Commandments and believe that much theological good has been preserved through his holding to the distinctiveness of the moral, civil and ceremonial law (ibid, pp. 1503ff).

Most Bible believers in the world today hold either to Calvinism or Arminianism. It was at the international Synod of Dort (1618) that the so-called ‘five points of Calvinism’ were defended against the five points of the followers of Arminius (1560-1609).

Calvin died 54 years before the Synod of Dort, yet his name was given to those who followed his teaching on salvation. He was cogent on the doctrines of the bondage of the will, election, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints, but also on common grace and human responsibility.

Unlike John Owen who wrote a treatise on particular redemption, Calvin did not. Theologians are divided as to whether Calvin held to particular redemption, to which matter I devote a chapter in my book Who saves? (published by EP Books).

Thirdly, I am inspired by Calvin the missionary. This October, the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation convenes in Capetown, South Africa. In its publicity, missiologist Christopher Wright criticises the sixteenth century Reformation because, he says, ‘it lacked missionary awareness and energy’. This negative line follows an earlier critic Gustav Warneck who made the outrageous claim that: ‘We miss in the Reformers not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions’.

Missionary zeal

The reality is that Calvin’s Geneva became the hub of a vast missionary enterprise. Europe was unevangelised. Ministers trained under Martin Luther at Wittenburg and transformed with their effective preaching ministries the religious landscape of Europe.

For instance, two brothers Laurentius and Olaus Petri, both powerful preachers, turned Sweden from Catholicism to Lutheranism. Likewise, refugees studied and trained at Geneva and went as missionary church planters, in the Acts 13-14 sense, to Italy, the Netherlands, the independent states of the Rhineland, Hungary, Poland, Germany, England and Scotland (where John Knox exercised an amazingly effective ministry).

The majority of foreign refugees in Geneva came, like Calvin himself, from France. Although now settled in Geneva, Calvin retained a missionary burden for his homeland. And so it was Calvin’s homeland that received a large number of trained preacher/church planters.

Robert Kingdon’s research has revealed that 142 missionaries left Geneva for France in 1561 alone. More than 100 underground churches had been planted in France by 1560, and the number increased to 2150 by 1562. In the years that followed, the number of Protestant believers rose to over two million.

Of these missionaries, those who were not already accredited pastors were obliged to conform to the rigorous standards set by Calvin. The moral life of the candidate, his theological integrity and preaching ability were subject to careful examination. With regard to moral discipline, a system was established by which the pastors were responsible to each other.

There was an exacting code, listing offences that were not to be tolerated in a minister. Offences involving dishonesty over money or sexual misconduct meant instant dismissal. There has been much failure in missionary effort today because of neglect of these basic biblical standards.

All Calvin’s students had to be fully proficient in Latin, Hebrew and Greek, in order to be thoroughly proficient in line-by-line exegesis of the Scriptures. They were also required to be trained in church history and systematic theology.

Character training was paramount; these pastors had to face the reality of martyrdom. Only when Calvin judged a man to possess the necessary fibre and stamina, would he be sent into France to preach and plant churches.

World vision

John Calvin is the father of Presbyterianism and his missionary zeal has been repeated many times in Presbyterian denominations.

One example is the missionary outreach that has extended from the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa to many tribes across southern Africa. This was conducted by missionaries converted during a powerful revival in prisoner-of-war camps in Bermuda and Sri Lanka, during the Boer War (1899-1902).

Another example is South Korea, the home of the largest and most numerous Presbyterian bodies. Only the USA exceeds South Korea in the number of serving missionaries in the world today.

Leading missiologist David Bosch states: ‘It is absurd to summon the Reformers before the tribunal of the modern missionary movement and find them guilty for not having subscribed to a definition of mission which did not even exist in their time’ (Transforming mission, p. 244).

John Calvin’s world view was based on a ‘Corpus Christianum’ perspective in which the whole of society (that is, all without exception) is nominally Christian and cemented together by infant baptism. Roman Catholic baptism was recognised by Calvin.

Evangelisation or mission, for Calvin, was to preach for conversion and gather believers into churches and then employ various disciplines to maintain consistent church membership. Such world views today will doubtless need to be re-appraised as Western Europe increasingly becomes no longer even nominally Christian, but secular.

Fleeing for his life from Paris, Calvin lived briefly in Poitiers in 1535-1536. In Poitiers he engaged in secret evangelism in homes and held secret services in a cave just outside the city. That missionary mindset never left him and it is significant that the first named Genevan missionary, Jacques I’Anglois, was sent to Poitiers.

As pastor/preacher, theologian and missionary, the influence of John Calvin continues worldwide today.