Calvin, the pastor

I still haven’t ever read Calvin’s Institutes. At this point, it’s almost a badge of honor – I can say I learned my Calvinism from the Bible, not John Calvin! I had hoped to read it over the summer, but then I was hit by a good dose of realism. This is, however, the summer of Calvin’s 500th birthday (actually, Calvin and I share a birthday, July 10th. I guess it was preordained that I’d be a Calvinist!), so I did pick up a short bio of Calvin by Robert Godfrey, Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor.

When we think of Calvin we often think a theologian, an author, one of the leaders of a movement we call the Reformation. Some might add heretic to that list, others might want hero instead. How did Calvin see himself? As a pastor. Here’s a quote from the preface that explains a little of Calvin’s heart:

“Calvin saw the importance of his life as a pastor in his own day and did not focus on his influence in years to come. When his friend William Farel [who coerced him into staying and pastoring in Geneva by threatening him with curses] urged him to publish his study of Genesis, he replied, ‘As to my observations on Genesis, if the Lord shall grant me longer life and leisure, perhaps I will set myself about that work, although I do not expect to have many hearers. This is my especial end and aim, to serve my generation; and for the rest, if, in my present calling, an occasional opportunity offers itself, I shall endeavor to improve it for those who come after us. I have a mind to set about writing several things, but as my wife is not in ill health, not without danger, my attention is otherwise engaged.”

I love this portrait of Calvin – not overestimating his importance (which is so easy to do). He wasn’t aiming to be a great man that would be remembered by history, but aimed at being faithful to his calling as a pastor and a husband. If opportunities presented themselves, he’d take them for the good of kingdom, but he wasn’t seeking them in a self serving manner.

Its so easy to get sucked into thinking incessantly about our legacy (at least it’s easy for the guys I talk to. I suspect it is for the women out there also). We want to be remembered, to be a part of a great movement, to do something historic. Praise God if we do, but praise him still if we don’t. If we are faithful in what God has given us, praise him for the opportunity and the grace needed for that.

4 thoughts on “Calvin, the pastor

  1. i always found it interesting that the whole doctrine of predestination (which only takes up a very tiny fraction of the institutes) was a practical and pastoral theological assertion made by calvin in the institutes to explain his experiences. it wasn’t quite the Big P in TULIP that subsequent calvinism adherents insisted. still, its a foundational aspect of calvin’s worldview. seriously though, i’m saddened to hear you haven’t read the institutes, yet you are one of the most pronounced calvinists i know. lol.

  2. Better to learn your “calvinism” from Calvin than from calvinists, I always say.

    I just finished the Institutes about a month ago and found them to be intensely pastoral, often poetic, and at times hilarious. Who knew?

    On the whole it’s a bloody work written by a man who was fighting for men’s souls in the trenches of pastoral ministry, who was intensely aware of what was at stake, and who wrote like he was assaulting the gates of hell–not like so many ivory tower theologians who pretend to be his followers. And all you have to read is the prefatory address to get that much. After reading those books Calvin easily secured his place as one of my greatest heros–not for his theology, but for the pastor that oozed out of it.

    May God grant us the courage to not be more garland layers on this prophet’s tomb.



  3. I should say, in my defense, that I have read nearly 200 pages of the Institutes, and I agree Jake, they are so very pastoral. I’ve also read a lot of his commentaries (I consult them nearly every week – along with many others).

    Interesting that you both picked up on how Calvin’s theology became more ‘starched’ in his subsequent followers. I’ll second that. Surprisingly, Calvin showed an amazing willingness to compromise on fine points of theology and ecclessiology – at least that is one of the threads in this bio I’m reading. Him and Bucer were very concerned with the fragmenting of Protestantism into the Reformed camp and the Lutheran camp (did they pay any attention to the Anabaptists?). Calvin, despite major disagreements with Melanchton (Luther’s successor) on predestination, was hopeful that the breach could be mended and worked quite well with M-. He was also willing to compromise with the city council in Geneva on matters of church discipline and the relationship between the church and state (he wanted the relationship to be more separate than it was).

    Calvin’s predestination (most closely connected with the U of TULIP – the P actually stands for Perseverence of the Saints), wasn’t his cornerstone for sure. He built his theology from Scripture and the conviction that God’s glory should be preeminent.

    What does it mean to be another layer of garland on his tomb?

  4. >>did they pay any attention to the Anabaptists?

    Oh yes–Calvin spends entire sections of the Institutes mocking/anathematizing them…

    >>garland on the tomb

    Mtt. 23:29… not sure where "garland" came from, though–my imagination I guess.

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