Book Review: Calvin’s Preaching

T.H.L Parker, Calvin’s Preaching

(Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992). 149 pp.

Introduction:

John Calvin is a very misunderstood historical character. Those who hate him often caricature him to be a kill-joy, stern, serious, holier-than-thou, heretic-killer, and determinist academic. Thomas Henry Louis Parker, in his book Calvin’s Preaching, is not primarily interested in proving or dispelling these ideas concerning Calvin’s character. Rather, Parker is most interested in examining and describing Calvin’s preaching and his preaching style. Yet, in doing so, he presents a picture of John Calvin, that would seem to be quite the reverse of the common caricature of Calvin. So this post will examine and review Parker’s book, Calvin’s Preaching, looking at a subject that is not often considered: John Calvin’s preaching.

The Summary:

Calvin’s Preaching is arranged into five main sections, each section containing two or three chapters. These five sections are: (1) The Theological Impulsion, (2) The Word in Action, (3), An Account of Calvin’s Preaching, (4) From Exegesis to Application, (5) Form and Style.

The Theological Impulsion is divided into three chapters with the first chapter being “The Divine Message.” In this chapter, Parker argues that Calvin’s impulsion to preach was not primarily to refute the error of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, his desire to preach sprain from the fact that he believed what he preached (1) and he believed that as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart (2).  He firmly believed that the Bible was the word of God and thus it held absolute authority for the ordering of life. As a result of this, Calvin’s preaching was expository.

The argument of the second chapter deals with “The Pastoral Impulsion”. In this chapter, Parker deals with Calvin’s view of preaching. It is important to note that Calvin had a rather high view of preaching. He quotes one of Calvin’s sermons saying,

“When I [i.e. Calvin] expound  Holy Scripture, I must always make this my rule: That hose who hear me may receive profit from the teaching I put forward and be edified unto salvation. If I have not that affection, if I do not procure the edification of those who hear me, I am a sacrilege, profaning God’s Word.” (12 – 13)

This, in consequence, means that Calvin believed the congregation had a heavy responsibility as well as the preacher. Thus, “Those who read Holy Scripture or who come to the sermon to hear it, if they are looking for some silly speculations, if they are coming here as a pastime, they are guilty of profaning such a holy thing” (12).

So this high view of preaching is partly what drove Calvin to preach, but there is a highly pastoral element to his desire to preach: the edification of the congregation. Calvin believed that there were four things in preaching that accomplished this: teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (12 – 16).

Calvin believed that it was the preacher’s primary task to expound the Scripture and this is the argument of chapter three: “Scripture and Sermon.” In this respect, Calvin differed from both Hocker and Bullinger. These two men believed that the bare reading of the Holy Scripture was the proper way to deliver the Word of God (18 – 20). They argued that there is a fundamental difference between the preaching of the Apostles (which was expository) and the preaching that occurs in the post-apostolic age (18).

 

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The pulpit Calvin preached from in St. Pierre, Geneva 

However, Calvin shared a similar view with Luther regarding preaching. Calvin believed it was the preacher’s duty to declare what the Word of God said, expound what the Word of God said, and expound only what the Word of God said (23). Anything that was not what the Word of God was not preaching. In this way, Calvin maintained the special place of the Bible and its authority, but also maintained the importance of exposition and application of Scripture. As Parker states, “This is not to elevate preaching to an equality with Scripture. Scripture is definitive and sovereign; preaching must be derivative and subordinate. Obviously, Scripture does not have to conform to preaching; preaching must conform to Scripture” (23). Hence, Calvin states,

 

For what ought sermons and all teaching to be but exposition of what is contained there? It is certain that if we add anything to it, however little, it is only a corruption. Our Lord has delivered to us a perfect teaching in the Law, in the Prophets, and in the Gospel. And what, then, is it that is preached to us now? It is not that anything new is brought, but it is a more ample declaration to confirm us the more in God’s teaching. (24)

Thus, God works through the preacher to the conversion of sinners.

Parker argues in “The Preacher” that Calvin believed that preaching was essentially teaching (35). Yet it is a special type of teaching: one that is handed down from Jesus Christ, who is The Teacher (36). There are four fundamental qualifications that Calvin believed a preacher must have: humility proceeding from faith, submission to his own preaching, courage to proclaim the truth, and authority that belongs to the message and not to the preacher (39 – 40). Calvin very strongly believed that Christ was present in the preaching in a spiritual manner, just as He is present in the sacraments spiritually.

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St. Pierre, Geneva

The next chapter, “The Congregation”, deals with what Calvin thought the duty of the congregation was to the preaching. Calvin argued that the congregation is not merely passive in receiving the preaching, but rather they have a duty to be very actively engaged in the preaching. Parker writes, “Calvin certainly expected the congregation to be active in the business of the Church’s preaching. For preaching is a corporate action of the whole Church; it is a specific act of the worshipping Church” (48). Yet, this responsibility is in no way accomplished by the congregation’s own willpower. Rather “It is by God’s Spirit that the congregation desire(s) to hear God’s Word preached to them, that they recognize it as God’s Word and distinguish it from all other words, and that they believe and become ‘doers’ of the Word” (51).

The third larger section in Calvin’s Preaching deals with “An Account of Calvin’s Preaching.” It deals more with the history of Calvin’s preaching, rather than the theology of Calvin’s preaching. Due to the constraints of this review, this section will not really be touched on, suffice to say a couple things. The first is the sheer number of times that Calvin would preach in a week. He would at times preach at least once a day as happened in 1549 (62). The other issue of importance is the fact that Geneva hired a professional stenographer to write down Calvin’s sermons as he preached them (65). This was done with the intent for them to be eventually published and it demonstrates to the historian that these sermons were highly valued by Geneva.

In the section “From Exegesis to Application”, Parker gets to a really important issue with Calvin’s preaching, as he describes how Calvin actually did his preaching. The first chapter is entitled “The Expository Method” as this is the method that Calvin used to preach. Calvin’s own manner of expository preaching is to preach through books from either the Old Testament or the New Testament verse by verse (80). In this manner, he followed the pattern of some of the early Church Fathers such as Anselm, Chrysostom, and Augustine (80).

Calvin would preach directly out of either the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament, translating as he went along (81). He would also preach without the use of notes, though he considered sermon preparation of great importance (81). He remarks,

if I should climb up into the pulpit without having deigned to look at a book and frivolously imagine ‘Ah well! When I get there God will give me enough to talk about,’ and I do not condescend to read, or to think about what I ought to declare, and I come here without carefully pondering how I must apply the Holy Scripture to the edification of the people – well, then I should be a cock-sure charlatan and God would put me to confusion in my audaciousness. (81)

Parker proceeds to examine Calvin’s sermon structure and he does this by looking at a multitude of sermons from Deuteronomy, Ephesians, Job, 2 Timothy, and Micah. In brief, these are the discoveries: Calvin would start off preaching on a book, by having a sermon that explained the argument of the entire book (84). In the following sermons, he would proceed to explain the text in the simple terms so that everybody could understand and benefit from the preaching (86). He would never give the original word in the Greek or Hebrew, but would simply explain the meaning of the word (86). Thus, here one no longer sees the highly academic Calvin, but the pastoral Calvin. Calvin would then proceed to explain the sentence or clause, with the primary interest of discovering how profitable it was for the congregation to know this. Lastly, Calvin would seek to make application of the text for the lives of the hearers. This application would be direct and immediate.

The next chapter is entitled “The Message of Scripture” and deals with common themes in Calvin’s preaching. Parker brings out that in Calvin’s expository preaching, there is both unity and also variety (93). Since it is expository preaching the content of the message often changes because of the different circumstances of the text, however, the core foundation of that text: the Gospel, never changes (98 – 100). But also Parker observes that “Everything said about God is positive. About man the only negative statements are of his ‘poverty and wretchedness’ and the prohibitions of idolatry. Even these are, so to say, stepping stones, the first to riches, the second to the knowledge of the true God” (96 – 97).

In his preaching Calvin was very interested in ensuring that the congregation benefited from his preaching. Parker demonstrates this in the chapter “The Stimuli of Exhortations.” He shows that Calvin applies the substance of the text to the congregation for their edification (114). Calvin remarks,

It is not enough to preach what is good and useful. For if men were well-disposed and received what God set before them, and were so teachable that they could put their minds and hearts into line with it, to subject themselves to what is good, it would be enough to have said, ‘This is what God declares to us’. But since men are malicious, are ungrateful, are perverse, ask only for lies in place of the truth, readily go astray, and after they have known God turn again and distance themselves from him – for this reason it is necessary, say St. Paul, ‘for us to be held as it were forcibly in obedience to his Word. (114 – 115)

In contrast to the caricatured understanding of Calvin, he was not a harsh preacher, but rather simply gives gentle instruction. Parker comments, “There is no threshing himself into a fever of impatience or frustration, no holier-than-thou rebuking of the people, no begging them in terms of hyperbole to give some physical sign that the message has been accepted” (119).

The Last Section of this book deals with “Form and Style” and is divided into two chapters: “The Pattern of the Sermons” and the “Familiar Style.” In these chapters Parker deals with a number of important issues including pointing out that Calvin’s method of speaking was not the rhetorical style of the great speakers of the Classical Age. Rather, Calvin’s method is the Scholastic Style and in this Calvin followed the example of Bullinger, Melanchthon, and Bucer (132). Finally, Calvin, in his preaching desired to make the Scripture familiar to the people. He wanted to make the Scriptures primarily personal to his congregation and in this Calvin demonstrates a very homely style of preaching (139).

The Review:

Parker, in his book Calvin’s Preaching, does a very good job in presenting an overview and introduction into the preaching of the Reformer John Calvin. His comments on Calvin are balanced and fair and so he presents a fairly non-biased description of Calvin’s preaching. However, he never really touches on the overall importance of all this research into Calvin’s preaching. He never posits to the reader, why such a discussion is necessary. He never discusses Calvin’s influence on the preaching in the Reformed Churches from the 1500s to the present. Discussion on these topics would lend some needed flow, purpose, and greater interest into studying Calvin’s preaching.

Calvin’s Preaching appears to be exceptionally well researched with the use of a lot of primary sources and examinations of Calvin’s own sermons, preaching schedules, and consistory meeting minutes. In Parker’s use of these materials he lets Calvin speak for himself and does not interpose his own commentary on Calvin’s sermons, suffice to explain them. In this way, he again allows for a non-biased presentation of Calvin’s beliefs. This allows for a clear understanding of Calvin’s position and also opens up the way for good discussion around Calvin’s preaching, as it presents the basic facts regarding Calvin’s preaching. However, the reader cannot help but wonder if some commentary on the importance of Calvin’s position on preaching for the church during the Reformation, after the Reformation or even the relevancy of Calvin’s preaching to twenty-first century preaching, would add to the benefit of reading this book. For example, to help the reader understand Calvin’s position on preaching better, it would have been helpful to understand something of the type of preaching that existed in the Roman Catholic Church during the time of the Reformation. It may have been helpful for Parker to compare Calvin’s preaching to Savonarola’s preaching in Venice.

That being said, it was demonstrated quite well that Calvin’s position on preaching was nothing surprisingly new. Calvin was very much in the line of numerous of the Church Fathers when it came to the manner and philosophy of his preaching. Indeed, as was pointed out above, Calvin continued in the tradition of men like Anselm, Augustine, and Chrysostom. But here, Parker just speaks to the preaching of men some 1000 years before Calvin, and nothing really is said of contemporary Roman Catholic preachers.

In addition, to the person who is familiar with the history of John Calvin and the Reformed faith, Parker does not present anything that is particularly surprising about Calvin’s preaching. The average Reformed believer would certainly understand that the preaching of John Calvin is expository. However, Parker does do a good job in presenting that Calvin was not this fiery preacher calling down hell-fire on everybody left, right, and center. Parker shows that Calvin, in his preaching, was not really a holier-than-thou preacher: he was not the joyless tyrant of Geneva that he is often made out to be.

It is surprising that Parker never even touches on Calvin’s view of predestination in the preaching and perhaps this is to be lamented in this book. This doctrine, which Calvin is often remembered for and is often (perhaps incorrectly) considered to be the foundation of his theology, is not touched upon. Considering the discussions that have been happening in the Reformed Church world in this age, one would think this would be a very important part of the discussion regarding Calvin’s preaching. So the reader is left with the question: what was Calvin’s view on the place of the doctrine of double predestination in the preaching?

That being said about the lack of comment on Calvin’s view on predestination, Parker does do a good job in demonstrating Calvin’s views on God’s sovereignty in the preaching (that it is God who works through the preaching of his tool, the preacher, to the conversion of sinners by the work of the Holy Spirit) and his view on the supreme authority of the Scripture. By spending the first chapter dealing with Calvin’s view on the Holy Scripture, Parker paves the way for why Calvin’s preaching is expository and in doing so, demonstrates one of the key doctrines of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura.

Thus, in conclusion, Calvin’s Preaching is a good introduction for somebody who is not very familiar with John Calvin and is interested in getting a good brief overview of various characteristics of his preaching style. Parker presents the subject material in a clear, and well-researched style. The book perhaps lacks a depth that would add it greater interest, but nonetheless is a fair and unbiased description of Calvin’s preaching.

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