I’ve recently been enjoying learning about the ministry of John Calvin and his colleagues in Geneva. I am thoroughly blessed by how relevant many aspects of his ministry are to us today.
The resource I’m using is the Oxford Studies book Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 by Scott Manetsch. Three-hundred and seven pages of incredible insights, followed by 108 pages of sheer footnotes and bibliography. This is a tenaciously researched volume.
I want to look at a small portion of the book and highlight 13 observations about the preaching of the Genevan reformer, John Calvin.
Calvin preached in difficult environmental conditions (154-55). Extreme temperatures would either bake or freeze the gathered hearers in the summers and winters. The sermon competed with the frequent and noisy distractions of nearby blacksmith shops, crying babies, barking dogs, chatting children, violent coughs, vomiting drunkards, and heavy snorers. It was common for congregants to socialize and even flirt with one another during the sermon. There was no technology for amplification to overpower any of it, so many who were hard of hearing simply gave up on attending services.
We might think of Calvin’s sermons as hardly accessible to hearers who have not attained to his level of genius. Yet his friend Conrad Badius testified that Calvin’s preaching is “pure, plain, and appropriate for the text that he is examining” and “well-suited for the capacity of his sheep” (164). Calvin was on another level in terms of thinking capacity and productivity, but he did not preach above his hearers.
Theodore Beza, in his biography of Calvin, asserted that he “never spoke without filling the mind of the hearer with the weightiest of insights” (156).
Calvin was influenced by and impressed with “golden-mouthed” preacher John Chrysostom whom he praised for exposing the listener to a faithful model of interpreting the text. It’s not enough to tell people what we got from our study in the text. We should show them how we got it.
Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture (including inspiration and inerrancy) shaped his homiletic (159). It meant at least four things:
- Scripture is timeless truth and is therefore relevant to his congregation.
- The primary way in which people hear God today is through the proclamation of this timeless Scripture.
- The authority of the preacher is derivative, not intrinsic.
- The proclamation of God’s word is transforming. The same Holy Spirit Who inspired the text also illumines the hearts and minds of hearers.
The goal of all preaching is exposition and by that Calvin means to not only explain the passage but to apply it to the needs of the audience (160). The sermon is never complete without a vehement application of the doctrinal truth to the hearts of the hearers.
Expositors must especially shun allegorical interpretations unless the text absolutely demands it (160).
Given the unity of Scripture, the preacher must do more than parse a local text in disconnection to the whole of the Bible. Rather the preacher is to “demonstrate how these individual parts relate to the theological meaning of this passage, and indeed, to the larger storyline of the Scripture as a whole.” The central focus of the Bible for Calvin was the person of Jesus Christ. “[T]he Scriptures should be read with the aim of finding Christ in them. Whoever turns aside from this object… will never reach the knowledge of the truth” (161).
(Notice how adamant Calvin is against allegorizing Scripture, yet how firmly he requires arriving at Christ no matter the text. To preach Christ from all of Scripture does not equate to finding allegories everywhere).
Rhetoric and persuasion must serve the gospel and not the other way around (161-62).
Calvin’s structure was predictably simple (162):
I. Brief introduction recapping last week’s message.
II. An Examination of the text, one clause, one verse at a time.
III. Final comments and a closing prayer (when time ran out).
Calvin preached lectio continua (moving successively through a book) typically one to six verses at a time (162).
He very rarely spoke of his personal affairs in a sermon.
He was apt to use vivid imagery, would paint dramatic scenes and constructed imaginary dialogues with his opponents (162-65).
We need not emulate Calvin at every point in his preaching. But as we contemplate these characteristics we should think about how we might embody the principles even if they show up differently in our preaching.
For those of you who can read French, Manetsch says the best place to go for more on Calvin’s preaching is Olivier Millet’s Calvin et la dynamique de la parole: étude de rhétorique réformée (which I understand to mean “Clavin and the dynamics of the word: a study of reformed rhetoric). I might take up French for the sole purpose of reading this.