Monday, July 30, 2012

John Calvin, The Man and His Preaching

“The Divine Majesty of the Word: John Calvin, The Man and His Preaching” by John Piper, Senior Pastor of Ashland Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota and author of several books including, Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards. From: The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Volume 3, Summer, 1999. Available at Accessed 07/24/2012

     The absolute foundation of John Calvin’s theology, doctrine, and homiletics is not bound up in perseverance of the saints, predestination, or particular redemption. Instead, Calvin’s highest ideal was what he referred to as a “zeal to illustrate the glory of God.”

     This phrase was first used by Calvin to refute a letter sent to Geneva by Cardinal Sadolet, attempting to bring the early Reformers back into the Catholic fold. Calvin’s response was so grand that it brought praise from Martin Luther. His push back against Catholicism was not found in transubstantiation, papal authority, or priestly indulgences, but in their lack of understanding of the supremacy of God’s Sovereignty. This shows through in Calvin’s later writings, and especially in his Homiletical style.

     Piper’s article is written to show how the Reformer’s life and theology ultimately determined his homiletical style, which was, according to Piper, expositional. This is a natural flowing from Calvin’s sense of the Scriptures as being the ultimate authority, as opposed to any human authorship--such as the papacy. Coming from the Catholic church of the day, where the Scriptures were in flux and the Pope had equivalent authority, Calvin preached the authority of God's Word alone. When the Scriptures began to be made available to the hoi polloi, it became necessary to begin the process of exegeting the meaning, and delivering them through expository sermons instead of topical homilies.

     What Piper shows in this article is Calvin’s view of the majesty of God as seen in the Scriptures. This convinced him that the Scriptures were indeed the very Word of God. Calvin wrote, “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it.” From this Calvin wrote the great Institutes, many commentaries, gave lectures, and of course, preached regularly in Geneva and abroad. All of this was in expositional form.

     Calvin was so dedicated to the belief in expositional preaching that he carried it out in every sermon. In fact, one of the great stories about Calvin revolves around his dedication to verse-by-verse expositional preaching. In 1538, Calvin preached on Easter Sunday, and was banished by the church council the next day. When Calvin was allowed to return three years later in 1541, he picked up his preaching from the very next verse!

     Piper points to three things that led to Calvin’s affinity for expositional preaching. First, Calvin was convinced that the Word was given for the people, and to the people. Not for the clergy, or to the clergy. It was to be a lamp to light the people’s path and a guide to direct the people’s steps. By exposing the people to the Word, he was exposing them to God’s plan for their life.

     Second, Calvin was aghast at the thought of a preacher standing in the pulpit and proclaiming his own thoughts. Calvin believed in letting the Scriptures be the catalyst for understanding God’s will. He wrote, “When we enter the pulpit, it is not so that we may bring our own dreams and fancies with us.” It was imperative to Calvin that the preacher say what God intended to be said, and not what the preacher wanted to say. The third thing Piper brings out is that Calvin wanted so very much for the people to see the Word of God as the Word of GOD. This brings the article full circle, as Calvin wanted above all for God’s glory and sovereignty to shine from his pulpit into the people’s life

Piper’s article was brilliantly written and disseminated. He shows us the background and thought processes of one of the greatest theological minds from the Christian faith, and particularly how this history shaped his preaching.

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