Posts Tagged ‘The Reformation’
People gathered from all over Sicily, Italy, and beyond for the opening of the new church premises of Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica “Sola Grazia” in Caltanissetta, in the heart of Sicily. The building itself is beautiful, though it remains – in some of its details – a work in progress. Every major part of the whole is intended to communicate something of the truth of the church and its biblical convictions.
You enter the building as you reach the seventh step – hints of a Sabbath rest. The visitor walks through four ‘Gospel’ pillars into an octagonal meeting room, reminding us that the Lord Jesus met with his people on the day of resurrection, and eight days afterward. You come in from the west, leaving the darkness behind you. On the eastern side of the church, the pulpit is the focal point, and there the light of God’s Word is shining. Behind the pulpit are two windows, suggesting the Old and the New Testaments. Opposite the pulpit are three windows in front of one window. The light shining through the one also beams through the three, giving at least an inkling of the God whom we worship. On each side of the main hall are a further twelve windows, a nod to the patriarchs and the apostles reminding us of the church of all the ages, and the great cloud of witnesses about the church militant. All the light coming in shines from above. Simple decor and wise use of space indicate that the light of nature has also taught the people one or two things.
The grand opening began on the evening of Friday 2nd December 2016. The particular focus of this night was the immediate community, a good number of whom were represented in the crowd who filled the building, along with several local dignitaries. The first act of the evening was to go back outside for the unveiling of the stone plaque bearing the church’s name and the five key Reformation solas. Underneath, a bronze plate records thanks to the God of all grace, and to his people – known to himself – whose generosity has contributed to the erection of the building. Pastor Reno Ulfo spoke simply as the green cloth dropped from the plaque, and we all filed back inside.
The strains of “Amazing Grace” in Italian filled the building before Pastor Leonardo de Chirico (Chiesa Evangelica Breccia di Roma) opened proceedings. He spoke briefly and pungently of the purpose of the church, addressing the local authorities plainly, and broadening his gospel applications to all those gathered. It was both instruction in and an example of the priorities of the people of God. The local mayor responded, followed by one of his predecessors. Both spoke as politicians, but I thought that in both a note of personal respect and some interest could be detected. Certainly, this opens up a door of opportunity for the church. The fact that the building has been constructed without draining local civil funds – unusual for this part of the world – is a testimony in itself. Already this is established as a congregation that gives more than it takes.
Professor Bolognesi of Padova then briefly outlined the theological implications of the architecture. Pastor Reno went on to identify several people and groups who had made particular contributions to the building project. After this, a video history of the church was shown. Minor technical problems, typical of life in new premises, somewhat curtailed that exercise. I don’t believe anyone was too bothered, though, as it ushered in refreshments. Light and sweet Sicilian snacks paved the way for the heavy stuff – rice balls and varieties of pizza providing enough carbohydrates for the most demanding athletes, and with enough leftovers to keep many small armies on their feet for a week or two. One is tempted to suggest that a good twelve baskets of hefty fragments could have been gathered.
Notable on this first evening and over the whole weekend – and highlighted in Pastor Reno’s thanksgiving – was the investment of the whole church, both local and beyond. The tireless and generous contributions of God’s people were evident even before attention was drawn to them. The fruits of the work were often more evident than the workers themselves, but it was clear how much had been given by so many, in terms of time, energy, and expertise. The living stones have not been neglected for the sake of the concrete blocks. Particularly moving was Pastor Ulfo’s brief tribute to his family. Few will appreciate that, for all the pastor’s sacrifices, those made by his wife and children can often be greater. In some measure, they sacrifice him as well as for him and for the Lord. Giovanna Ulfo and the children deserve credit for the work that Reno Ulfo does, and it was good to see that publicly recorded. We pray that the fruit of Reno’s gospel labours might shine as brightly in his family as it does anywhere else.
As the night wound down, we drifted back to our various rooms and guesthouses. The Saturday began fairly slowly. The overseas preachers gathered again: Pastor Alan Dunn (Grace Covenant Baptist Church, Flemington, New Jersey, who was travelling with his wife, Patricia), Pastor Gordon Cook (Grace Baptist Church, Canton, Michigan), and myself. We met with a number of the key men at Caltanissetta, including all those involved in various church planting endeavours. We also chatted with our translator, Damion Wallace, to prepare for the next couple of days’ work. After the usual generous hospitality, we went back to our lodgings and prepared for the evening.
As we gathered, we discovered that some of our preparations had been less helpful than others. Damion was losing his voice. Alan Dunn had adopted a non-traditional way of arresting an unpremeditated act of violent genuflection he had undertaken in Reno’s home, viz. bringing his forehead into vigorous contact with a very hard object. Butterfly stitches and plasters had somewhat repaired the damage. Add in Gordon Cook’s travails in travel, and our fighting capacity was sliding badly. We forged ahead.
The focus of the ministry that night turned to the broader church, represented among us by various believers from around the island and further afield. With that in mind, we began to address the solas of the Reformation. I began with sola Scriptura, followed by Gordon Cook on solus Christus and Leonardo de Chirico on sola fide, before Alan Dunn closed the evening dealing with sola gratia. All the ministry seemed warmly appreciated, and fellowship over further piles of food was very profitable. There was clearly much intelligent and heartfelt engagement with the truth, and several men and women spoke thoughtfully and earnestly about what they were hearing.
The Lord’s day started early, and added to our catalogue of outward woes. Reno’s voice started to get croaky, and I had a blithe journey with a man who was late even before he casually announced that he did not know the way to the church building.
Despite all this, we started at a reasonable time. I completed the series on the solas with a study of soli Deo gloria. A brother called Jose was stepping in to assist with the translation, and did a cracking job. This day we were speaking more to the local church, and so I tried to make this a particular emphasis. From there we moved straight into the formal dedication of the building to the worship of the true and living God, and Pastor Reno preached the Word of God, giving us a wonderful survey of the concept of God’s temple throughout the Scriptures. He ensured we got and kept our eyes fixed on God’s presence among his people, rather than mere buildings. God also strengthened Damion’s voice and restored him to his duties, further assisted by Jose and Giovanni Marino, one of the faithful and gifted deacons in Caltanissetta. Several brothers – local pastors – stood and pleaded earnestly with God for a blessing on the church and its work in the new premises. Gordon Cook represented the visitors in this season of intercession.
Lunch followed before we turned, for the balance of the day, to the doctrines of grace. I opened on the depravity of fallen man, and was able to finish before the effects of our latest abundant feeding were too well-advanced. Pastor Dunn followed with redemptive-historical studies on the election of God and the redemption that Christ accomplished. The weight of these sessions was, for me, relieved by a delightful older lady doubtless using headphones for the first time. This meant that she regularly bellowed at her husband at a volume which ensured that she could hear her own voice. She also cackled loudly at anything humorous about fifteen seconds after it was spoken, as the translation caught up.
Given Reno’s other duties and to preserve his voice, I had the unexpected opportunity to address the irresistible grace of the Spirit’s work in the heart. By this stage, the folks were flagging, and several had been obliged to leave, so I kept it to about thirty minutes. Pastor Cook finished the public ministry by highlighting the perseverance and preservation of the saints, admirably demonstrated on one level by the fact that most of them were still listening to us after three days of intense teaching and preaching. Gordon’s focus on the double grip of divine power and love from John 10 was a fitting end. As Pastor Ulfo said, “dulcis in fundo” – “the sweet stuff is at the bottom.”
There seems little doubt that God’s strength was made perfect in our weakness on this occasion. Weariness, illness and injury in us was outmatched by grace and goodness in him and in the patience and earnestness of those hearing.
Monday morning saw Reno and I have a brief opportunity to explain the gospel to a couple of people at my lodging house. Attempts at trilingual (English, Italian, French) evangelising leave me half-wishing that the gift of tongues remained extant. Would it not be wonderful if these brief contacts bore gospel fruit?
We drifted toward Catania for Pastor Cook’s last preaching engagement and my flight home. Along the way, we stopped at a city set on a hill, Calascibetta. Unfortunately, far from being an enlightened and enlightening place, it was wrapped in fog and sunk in spiritual darkness. A visit to the Roman Catholic church building confirmed the vacuity of the question driving one hundred conferences in the next year: Is the Reformation over? That so much genuine spiritual ugliness could be communicated in a place of undeniable architectural beauty answered that question, for these falsehoods if not for many more. Flagrant Mariolatry vied for the laurel of ungodliness with statues of the church ‘patron’, Peter, decked out in all the regalia and symbolic power of the pope. From the position of the building to the message of the decor to the arrogance of the priest (it became clear as we spoke that he was an old-school Catholic and personally godless), it all shouts a message of carnal dominion that Islam itself can only rival.
Walking back down the damp streets, we paused at the prison from which a man called Francesco Giovanni Porcaro was taken by the Spanish Inquisition to his death by burning. His crimes? Denying Christ in the sacrament, indulgences, and the pope, as well as propagating the doctrines of Luther and other errors, and continuing in the above with all obstinacy. It is good to know that the light once shone in this now-gloomy city. We should pray that it would prove true once more – post tenebras, lux! Reno’s promise that there would be open-air gospel preaching on this spot in the coming year was some consolation that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ would again beam forth. But who knows what price this and coming generations must pay for such faithfulness?
Sobered, we entered Catania and found some food at Fud, a delightful restaurant where options included horse and donkey. I opted for a more than bearable and not too risky buffalo, joined by Reno. Patricia Dunn, afflicted throughout the weekend by the presence of all the men, and having worked like a Trojan alongside the friends at Sola Grazia, opted for a ladylike salad. Alan had something fittingly but reliably cheesy, and Gordon got himself outside of a sandwich that may have involved a fairly safe chicken.
Our conversation over lunch centred on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the churches we love and serve. As ever, hard questions rarely produce easy answers. Still, they are better than empty questions carelessly shrugged off.
It was with joy and sorrow that we arrived at the airport. It had been sweet fellowship in Christ and his service, and there was more work for us all to do already looming. With mutually renewed promises of communication and prayer, information to exchange and promises to keep, I strolled through security. They drove off into the sunset, and I flew off into the darkness.
The Unquenchable Flame: Introducing the Reformation by Michael Reeves
IVP, 2009 (192pp, pbk)
A genuinely popular book on the Reformation doubtless involves many tensions. The style must be accessible without being careless; the substance must be accurate while the scope is broad; brevity is required, but historical carelessness cannot be countenanced.
In many ways, this author has succeeded: in a few pages, he carries us from the Reformation’s medieval beginnings, through Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the Reformation in Britain, and on to the Puritans before asking whether or not the Reformation is over. A helpful timeline and some valuable suggestions on further reading are furnished; occasional ‘break-out boxes’ deal with individuals and issues of interest. It is thoroughly orthodox in many respects: the author focuses repeatedly on a Scriptural grasp of justification by faith as one of the driving forces of the Reformation and a continuing issue in ongoing reform. In doing history accessibly and attractively, with wit and verve, the author has succeeded.
At the same time, its excellences are slightly marred by occasional excesses. That chatty and casual tone sometimes slips needlessly into breeziness and on into a racy brashness (perhaps aimed squarely at the intended student audience). Historical accuracy and nuance is sometimes sacrificed to speed of movement, or for the sake of a stark declaration or striking comparison. I suspect that the author’s Anglicanism has an impact on his assessment at points: while Bunyan gets a nod basically for being Bunyan, the Puritans are covered somewhat ambivalently, and the history peters out in the 17th century with little apparent sense of the character and momentum of healthy Dissent, leaping then to the 21st century and taking up again – with helpful clarity and urgency – the issue of justification by faith.
I hope that this book will succeed in stimulating a wider and deeper reading of church history. It deserves to do so. However, unless it does so, there is a danger of readers being left with the lack of balance and perspective that a wild ride can leave behind. If you put this book in the hands of a reader, make sure you are ready to follow up any interest with fuller and more nuanced material.
- Westminster Bookstore – not yet available (US edition in 2010)
- Monergism Books – not yet available (US edition in 2010)
In chapter 2 of Vintage Church we answer the question, “What Is the Christian Church?” We felt this important [sic] was incredibly important as there has not been a serious consideration of the issue since the days of the Protestant Reformation. Furthermore, in our age of churches of all kinds including multi-site churches with video preachers, and even online virtual churches it is imperative that church leaders, as well as the average Christian who wants to be part of a church, to have a biblical understanding of what is and what is not a church. [emphasis mine]
If the highlighted phrase is not utter pants, then kindly fax me an explanation of what is!
I appreciate the stimulating challenges that Mark often brings to my thinking, even if I am not finally persuaded by his exegesis or application. I value the fact that he is interacting with the issues raised by the world in which we live, and not the world we would like to live in or the world that our forefathers lived in. I have not yet read Vintage Church, and I look forward to doing so (I should be interested to see how/if Mark seeks Biblically to justify such things as multi-site churches and virtual churches).
However, to declare that no-one has seriously considered the issue of the church since the Protestant Reformation is such an historically myopic declaration that it deserves special notice. In fairness, it may be that Mark means that some or most of the fundamental assumptions laid down at the Reformation have not been challenged as he would wish in the centuries since then. However, if he is suggesting that no-one has engaged and interacted with the issues, wrestled with matters of Christian polity and practice, and advanced our Scriptural understanding of the identity, nature and purpose of God’s redeemed people in the world then he is sadly mistaken, and such one-eyed and seemingly arrogant statements will do nothing for his credibility.
This second period in Geneva lasted until Calvin’s death on 6 February 1564. Most biographers and historians view it in terms of years of struggle (1541-1555) and years of triumph (1555-1564). There is a Christlike and distinctly Christian pattern to his life in this respect. In his life there was never success without sorrow; for every child of God there is never glory without grief, never a crown without a cross.
In November 1541, Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances – his constitution setting out proposed church order – were accepted with some emendations by the Genevan authorities. However, despite the political decree, there was no plain sailing. The party opposed to Calvin was known as the Libertines, and their leader on the Council was Ami Perrin. The opposition was private and public, political and personal: children referred to him as ‘Cain’ rather than ‘Calvin’; a good number of Geneva’s dogs answered to his name; he was publicly abused whenever he went out, and called the second-ranked devil in hell. The Libertines declared that the “communion of the saints” allowed them to pursue sexual immorality and practice adultery with one another’s wives.
This wrestling with wickedness among the Genevan leaders eventually resulted in an open confrontation. A prominent Libertine called Philibert Berthelier, secretary to the Council of the Two Hundred, and known for his sexual promiscuity, was excommunicated by the consistory of the Church of Geneva in 1551, but absolved by the Little Council on 2 September 1553. The following day was Sunday, and communion was to be celebrated. These scenes are variously described, and it is difficult to know precisely what took place. In the most dramatic presentation – and bear in mind that this confrontation might have taken place more privately and before the Lord’s day in the presence of the Council – Calvin preached and at the close of the sermon declared that he would rather die on the spot than allow those who had been excommunicated to profane God’s ordinance. Some suggest that the Libertines were present, armed and with Berthelier and Ami Perrin among them. Calvin is said to have descended from the pulpit and stood before the table, and put his body between the people and the table: “These hands you may crush, these arms you may cut off, my life you may take, but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profane and dishonour the table of my God.” There was a stunned silence. Perrin ordered Berthelier not to approach the table. The Libertines withdrew, and the Lord’s table was celebrated in silence and with awe and reverence. Calvin stood for God before his and his Lord’s despisers: whether this occurred more in public or in private, this man of God put his life on the line for the purity of God’s worship. Expecting to be exiled once more for his resistance, Calvin preached that Sunday afternoon from Acts 20.31-32: “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” But God spared his servants, though further struggles and threats of violence followed for many months.
At the same time, one of the darkest acts of Calvin’s Geneva was hovering over the Reformer. A brilliant Spaniard called Michael Servetus had long caused trouble to all religious authorities, being a constitutionally unconventional thinker and aggressive blasphemer and heretic. He denied the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Condemned to death elsewhere by the Roman Catholics, he made his way to Geneva – one wonders why – where he was recognised. In 1553 he had attempted to answer Calvin’s Institutes with his own Restitutes (i.e. a restitution or restoration of Christianity), and he and Calvin had previously corresponded, and Calvin had given him some forthright warnings. Servetus was defended by the Libertines – they made him a champion of sorts against Calvin – and the heretic was himself appalled when the Little Council nevertheless confirmed a sentence of death by burning. This was not Calvin’s decision, and he in fact protested the harshness of the sentence. He did not deny that Servetus should die – that was a common enough punishment for heretics in every country – but he did resist the notion of burning, suggesting a swifter and more merciful death. Servetus, having previously rejected offers to be exiled, and after a temporary plunge into despair, resisted with a highhanded arrogance all efforts to have him recant. Servetus was burned in October of 1553. Even while we abhor the errors of Servetus, we do not defend the response of Geneva. What we must do is accept Calvin’s role as a man of his time (in which the sword of the magistrate and the sword of God’s word were too often confused and interchanged), and yet defend his honour against those who make of this something that it was not, and gleefully read into the political acts of the civil authority the designs and desires of Calvin himself.
Slowly, day by grinding day, Calvin and his associates pressed for the application of God’s word to the life of the church and to society at large. We cannot detail all the struggles, seen and unseen, known to men and known only to God, of these hard years. However, by 1555 the political opposition of the Libertines was essentially ended, and the consistory’s right to excommunicate conceded. This was the beginning of Calvin’s triumphant period, in which – it must be noted – he did not lord it as a despot in Geneva, but lived as simply, humbly, and diligently as before.
Here again, we are constrained as to how much detail can be provided, but there are several noteworthy spheres of labour which we must identify.
First of all, there is Calvin’s preaching. Not only during the years of struggle but also in the time of more complete success, Calvin was essentially, even primarily, a preacher of God’s word. On his return to Geneva from Strasbourg, he preached twice every Sunday, and then on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Later he preached only every second week (by which stage there were Tuesday and Thursday sermons also). The New Testament was his text on Sundays, the Old on weekdays, with the Psalms sometimes on a Sunday afternoon. This preaching effected a massive moral change in Geneva. We do not suggest that there was no mere social pressure, but the very nature of the change suggests that it was fundamentally a spiritual change as the church and then society found the Word of God brought to bear unflinchingly upon them. We have two thousand sermons still available, of perhaps more than four thousand preached.
His literary labours were immense. Perhaps most prominent in terms of his own production was the final edition, in 1559, of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Continually revised since its first appearance, the 1559 edition is Calvin’s magnum opus, and ought to be read in its entirety by far more so-called Calvinists than it has been. Grounded in certain declarations of the Apostle’s Creed, this magisterial treatment of the knowledge of God the Creator of heaven and earth; God the Redeemer, in Christ; the way in which we receive the grace of Christ; and, the external means or aids by which God invites us into the society of Christ, is a sweeping examination and systematisation of the Word of God. It is, fundamentally, an attempt to hear what the living God says to man, to see the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, to let God be God. At the same time, Calvin was writing commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, three catechisms, and theological treatises against all manner of errors and heresies. There are also 4271 letters (many of them lengthy) which have been collected. All this is in addition to the sermons, which a man called Denis Raguenier began taking down in his own private shorthand. This meticulously accurate scribe was soon employed to record and transcribe each one-hour, six-thousand-word sermon. Calvin, though, had no time to edit them. 1553 saw the publishing of the Geneva Bible, which became a blueprint for Protestant Europe – the English language editions with their explanatory notes were a founding text of the British reformation, and the seedbed of British Puritanism.
His international influence was vast, not only by means of correspondence, but also visitors. Exiles came from France, England and Scotland; refugees fled to Geneva from Germany and Italy – they came seeking both safety and instruction. Among them was John Knox, who declared the church which Calvin was reforming in Geneva as “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles.” In 1559 Calvin founded the Geneva Academy, the first Protestant ‘university’, if you like. Calvin was its professor of theology, and more than a thousand students from across Europe sat to hear him and Theodore Beza declare God’s truth. Again, we cannot list all the students who went on to give Calvin’s Biblicism increasingly rich and effective form. These men were often nothing less than missionaries. Many returned to France and martyrdom. Many exiles came and went as Christ’s kingdom in their own nations made its often slow and painful progress. The Academy was known as “Calvin’s school of death” because so many of its alumni were put to death as a result of their witness for Christ.
Calvin called his own bodily condition “a constant death struggle”: from his early thirties he had begun to suffer physically, and bore numerous afflictions during this whole period. He had become a chronic sufferer from ague, catarrh (inflammation of the mucous membrane in the nose which caused his nose to run continually), asthma, indigestion, and migraine headaches which sometimes kept him awake all night. In 1558 he suffered at length from quartan fever (an intermittent malarial fever) from which he never fully recovered. He also suffered from close-to-crippling arthritis, gout, kidney stones, ulcerated haemorrhoids, gum disease, chronic indigestion, and pleurisy that finally led to malignant pulmonary tuberculosis. For years, so afflicted, Calvin had often coughed up blood on account of his public speaking.
This constant pain – together with the fact that he was so often far beyond his more limited contemporaries, and the weight of work which he faced – was probably a source of much of the irritability of which he was sometimes accused. Beza writes:
His temperament was naturally choleric, and his active public life had tended greatly to increase this failing; but the Spirit of God had so taught him to moderate his anger, that no word ever escaped him unworthy of a righteous man. Still less did he ever commit aught unjust towards others. It was then only, indeed, when the question concerned religion, and when he had to contend against hardened sinners, that he allowed himself to be moved and excited beyond the bounds of moderation.
He was naturally timid, even fearful, which makes his courage all the more amazing. He was an affectionate and faithful friend, an intense man of deep feeling and penetrating thought. Worn out by his labours, Calvin preached his last sermon in Geneva on 6 February 1564. On Easter Sunday he went to church for the last time, singing with the rest of the congregation at the conclusion, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace . . . for my eyes have seen your salvation.” On 25 April he dictated his last will and testimony, which included the following declarations:
In the name of God, I, John Calvin, servant of the Word of God in the Church of Geneva, weakened by many illnesses . . . thank God that he has shown not only mercy toward me, his poor creature, and . . . has suffered me in all sins and weaknesses, but what is much more, that he has made me a partaker of his grace to serve him through my work . . . I confess to live and die in this faith which he has given me, inasmuch as I have no other hope or refuge than his predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded. I embrace the grace which he has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ and accept the merits of his suffering and dying, that through them all my sins are buried; and I humbly beg him to wash me and cleanse me with the blood of our great Redeemer, as it was shed for all poor sinners so that I, when I shall appear before his face, may bear his likeness. Moreover, I declare that I endeavoured to teach his Word undefiled and to expound Holy Scripture faithfully according to the measure of grace which he has given me. In all the disputations which I led against the enemies of the truth, I employed no cunning or any sophistry, but have fought his cause honestly. But, oh, my will, my zeal were so cold and sluggish that I know myself guilty in every respect; without his infinite goodness, all my passionate striving would only be smoke, indeed the grace itself which he gave me would make me even more guilty; thus my only confidence is that he is the Father of mercy who as such desires to reveal himself to such a miserable sinner.
On 28 April, he summoned the ministers of Geneva for a farewell address which well captures both the pungency of his personality and the tenor of his life:
When I first came to this church, I found almost nothing in it. There was preaching and that was all. They would look out for idols it is true, and they burned them. But there was no reformation. Everything was in disorder . . . I have lived here amid continual bickering. I have been from derision saluted of an evening before my door with forty or fifty shots of an arquebuse [musket]. . . . They set the dogs at my heels, crying, Here! here! and these snapped at my gown and legs. . . . though I am nothing, yet know I well that I have prevented three thousand tumults that would have broken out in Geneva. But take courage and fortify yourselves, for God will make use of this church and will maintain it, and assures you that he will protect it.
But he also said:
I have had many faults that you have had to tolerate, and all that I accomplished was of little significance. The evil-minded will take advantage of this confession, but I repeat that all that I have done is of little significance, and I am a poor creature. My faults have always displeased me and the root of the fear of the Lord has always been in my heart. As for my doctrine, I have taught faithfully, and God has given me grace to write, which I have done faithfully as I could; and I have not corrupted [mutilated] one single passage of Scripture nor twisted it as far as I know; and when in a position to arrive at an artificial meaning through subtlety, I have put all that under my feet, and have always aimed at being simple. I have written nothing out of hatred against anyone, but have always set before me what I thought was for the glory of God.
He entered his rest and reward on 27 May, being 54 years old. It is suggested that his last discernible words were, “How long, O Lord?” His body was buried with the normal ceremony of the church in a simple coffin at the common cemetery on Sunday 28 May, in accordance with his wishes. His grave was unmarked, and remains unknown. Thus the life and thus the death of John Calvin of Geneva.
We have no space for an extended evaluation of the man, except to warn against the very abuses that Calvin sought to avoid in his own dying days. There are those today who would venerate him, affording him the same sort of demi-divine status as can be seen in the Roman communion for the church fathers, putting his words on a par with Scripture. I say this not to denigrate Calvin but to defend him. No-one was more conscious of his imperfections and shortcomings than he was himself. We marvel at his life as a man of God, but he would have us marvel at the one who made him a man of God. We tend to point at him, but we should look and see him pointing away from himself to Jesus Christ. We bend our ears and minds to listen to him; we should hear him shout, “Listen to God!” John Calvin would not have had recommended that you unthinkingly and uncritically follow a mere man: it would have been repugnant to this eminently gifted and godly saint, utterly persuaded that he was what he was by the grace of God. He would call you to a noble-minded embrace of God’s truth and its rule of faith and life. If you would honour Calvin, honour his God and Saviour. If you would esteem Calvin, esteem Christ and his Word. His legacy is of a man subject to God in all his majesty, and constrained to live and die for his glory. His life and work reveal a man kneeling before God, subject to his Word, determined to know and to do his will, whatever the cost. The best response to Calvin, the greatest tribute you can pay the man, is to cultivate the same disposition and attitude to his God and ours. He was a Christlike man, and he would have had you see Jesus: imitate him, then, but only and just as he imitated Christ.
 Quoted by Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA: Hendriksen, 1996), 8:518.
 Quoted by David Steinmetz, Calvin in Context (Oxford: OUP, 1995), 20.
 Quoted by Robert Reymond, John Calvin: His Life and Influence (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2004), 129.
In Geneva was a Christian man named Guillaume Farel (anglicised, William Farel). He heard of the brilliant young scholar’s arrival in the city and sought him out. The fiery Farel was a powerful advocate for the gospel cause, and he set out to persuade Calvin to give his gifts and energies to that cause in Geneva. Calvin, by no means weak-willed himself, insisted that his heart was set on private study. Merle d’Aubigné, the great historian of the Reformation, records Calvin’s view of the altercation:
Finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.
The Elijah-like Farel had gained his end: Calvin felt that God himself had reached out and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. By September 1536, all necessary business addressed, Calvin took up residence in Geneva as a “Reader in Holy Scripture.” He received no pay until the following February, and was generally referred to in official papers as ille Gallus – “that Frenchman.” It was not the most auspicious of beginnings.
Nevertheless, Calvin quickly rose to prominence. One delightful story that illustrates his ability relates to a famous disputation that occurred in Lausanne. A debate was convened between the champions of the Protestant and Roman causes to help the citizens determine in which direction the city would move. The debate focused on ten theses proposed by Peter Viret, a Protestant. For the first three days (they did nothing by halves!) Calvin said nothing, but sat in silence, much to Farel’s frustration. On the fourth day, a Roman Catholic priest gave a lengthy speech on the third thesis concerning the bodily presence of Christ at the Mass, in which he sought to array the Church Fathers against the Reformers. Calvin, unprepared and without notes, suddenly rose to his feet. He swept – from memory – through various of the Fathers’ writings, quoting and summarising in support of the Protestant position, and then – with this great weight of evidence built up – thrust a charge of gross audacity at the Roman Catholic delegates for daring to accuse the Protestants of contrariness to the ancient doctors of divinity. There was absolute silence. Then a Franciscan friar stood, and on the spot denounced his own errors, renounced his monastic vows, and pronounced himself determined to follow Christ and his pure doctrine. Lausanne voted for Protestantism, and even the priest who had made the initial speech to which Calvin responded soon turned – in company with many others – to Protestantism.
I will not attempt to explain the complex political structures of Geneva during Calvin’s time, except to say that there was the powerful Little Council of twenty five men, a larger Council of the Two Hundred, and between them a somewhat pointless group called the Council of the Sixty. It was the Little Council who essentially wielded the sword of government in Geneva. Calvin’s relationship with these bodies was generally ambivalent, and often openly hostile.
Calvin and Farel sought to bring the whole city into conformity to Scripture; their commitment brought them into conflict with the civil authorities both politically and personally. Among other things, Calvin and his fellow-workers attempted to fence the Lord’s table by withholding the elements from those living in open sin. This was not acceptable to the Councils, and in April 1538 – without a hearing – the Reformers were simply banished from the city at short notice.
Calvin made his way to Strasbourg, in Germany, where he found a friend and mentor in Martin Bucer. He spent three years in that city, preaching, pastoring, writing, teaching, and learning. He also found “a good thing” – in 1540, at the age of 31, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow in his congregation. Though their married life was in many respects a great joy, it was tempered with profound griefs: Idelette miscarried once, lost a daughter at birth, and delivered a son who died after only two weeks. Idelette herself died on 29 March, 1549, at the age of 40, and Calvin never remarried. Letters written to friends after her death give the lie to those who accuse Calvin of inhumanity. To Farel:
I am trying as much as possible not to be completely overwhelmed by grief. . . . Besides, my friends surround me and do not fail to bring some comfort to my soul’s sadness. . . . I consume my grief in such a way that I have not interrupted my work. . . . May the Lord Jesus strengthen your spirit and mine in this great sadness, which would have broken me had he not extended his hand from on high; he whose service includes the relief of the broken, the strengthening of the weak, the renewal of those who are tired.
Though the death of my wife has been a very cruel thing for me, I try as much as possible to moderate my grief. And my friends fulfil their duty in a fine way. But I confess that for them and for me, the results are less than might be hoped for. However, the few results that I obtain help very little. Actually, you know the tenderness or rather the softness of my soul. . . . Of course, the reason for my sorrow is not an ordinary one. I am deprived of my excellent life companion, who, if misfortune had come, would have been my willing companion not only in exile and sorrow, but even in death.
As yet, in Strasbourg, many of these sorrows lay ahead. But he was not in Strasbourg for long. By 1540, the Genevan situation was awful: there seems to have been a widespread collapse of public morals and civil order. In desperation, the authorities turned to the man whom they had banished. Calvin faced the prospect of a return with great distress, writing to Farel that he would rather endure “a hundred deaths than that cross.” Farel’s response, it seems, was on a par with his first successful attempt to tie Calvin to Geneva, and the reluctant Reformer re-entered the city on 13 September, 1541, never again to relocate. When Calvin climbed back into the pulpit at the cathedral of St Pierre, he resumed his ministry at the precise point at which he had paused three years before, taking up the next verse of his systematic exposition of Scripture.
Martin Downes points us to a series of lectures on church history by David Calhoun. Thirty-seven lectures cover topics as diverse as Erasmus and the Humanists, Martin Luther and his “Theology of the Cross”, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, the English Reformation, the Anglicans and the Puritans, Calvinism in the New World, Protestant orthodoxy, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, the Evangelical Revival in Great Britain, the Great Awakening in America, Christianity and liberalism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Dive in and enjoy.
PS Oh, and read David Calhoun on Princeton Seminary.
PPS And, judging by David Calhoun on Princeton, read pretty much anything else he writes.