John Calvin’s Theology and Practice of Preaching

Historical Context and Background

By the time John Calvin comes onto the European scene, the Reformation is already in full swing.  First generation reformers Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli had been at work for some time to implement ecclesial reform in Germany and Switzerland, respectively.  When Calvin begins his own work of reform in Geneva, the seeds of the Reformation are beginning to bloom, even if they were not to fully flower until much later.  Any analysis of Calvin’s theology or practice must take this historical background into account.

What made Calvin such a brilliant reformer?  Perhaps the ready answer is the lasting impact that his Institutes of the Christian Religion has had on Protestant thought to the present day.  But another case that should be made, and the one which will be made here, is that Calvin’s practice of preaching, complete with his theological understanding of it, made him imminently more effective in his own context than one might initially realize.  Day after day, year after year, Calvin patiently expounded the Word of God for his people, and this practice plays an important role in his overall theological program.  As T.H.L. Parker has observed, “the reason for the great weight that the Reformers laid on preaching was not educational or social but theological.”[1]

The thesis of this paper is that Calvin understood preaching to be the means by which God himself speaks to the corporate gathering of the covenant community, reminding them of the requirements of the Law and recalling to their minds the supreme value of the gospel.  Therefore, preaching is aimed at ordinary believers, that they might come to know, love, and serve God rightly in their own lives.  Following this analysis, a critical assessment section will argue that Calvin’s theology and practice of preaching has many more benefits than downfalls.  Finally, a concluding section will argue that contemporary evangelicalism should seek to apply Calvin’s theology and practice in at least two different ways.

Calvin’s Theology and Practice of Preaching

In order to rightly understand Calvin’s theology of preaching, one must first understand his theology of the Word of God.  Michael Horton is helpful here: “Calvin understands the word of God in three senses.  Only Jesus Christ is the eternal Word in his very essence.  Only Scripture is God’s inerrant and normative Word.  However, preaching is the ‘sacramental word.’”[2]  This means that preaching is “the means of God’s work of judging, justifying, renewing, and conforming us to Christ’s image.  Through his Word, God is truly present in the world.”[3]  What this means for Calvin is that God himself communicates to his people through the human minister by the preached Word.  For him, preaching is not a sacrament in the same sense as baptism or the Lord’s Supper; rather, preaching is that means God has instituted to commune with his people to confirm their faith and build up the body of Christ by his very own Word.  Put another way, “the power of binding and loosing is…the power of God’s Word in the preaching of the gospel, which God acknowledges and in which we hear God himself speaking with his Word of judgment and grace.”[4]

With this in mind, it is important to note that Calvin’s sermons were directed primarily at “ordinary Christians within a specific congregation, with the goal of expounding the intention or meaning of the author and of applying that meaning to their use, so that they might retain that meaning in their minds and hearts and put it into practice in their lives.”[5]  This “sacramental word” was aimed not at scholars or professional theologians, but at the common Christian, that they might come to know and enjoy God.  Thus, the purpose of preaching the Word, for Calvin, is imminently practical.  Ordinary Christians, upon encountering God by means of the preached Word, were to meditate upon the Word and put it into practice.  In the end, “the sermon only attains its objective if it brings the meaning contained in every word of Scripture to bear on the lives of the members of the congregation.”[6]

It is no surprise, then, that Calvin’s method of preaching was expositional.  Since God communicates to his people by the preached Word, and since the goal of preaching is that ordinary Christians might know and love God in their lives, it follows that the full counsel of God, verse by verse, ought to be preached. According to T.H.L. Parker, “almost all Calvin’s recorded sermons are connected series on books of the Bible.”[7]  This demonstrates that, at least in this particular practice, Calvin’s theology of preaching controlled his actual practice of preaching.  For Calvin, since “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:16), it is important to teach and apply all of Scripture to the congregation.  This is done by preaching through books of the Bible, verse by verse.

The preached Word is the central piece of corporate worship.  Everything in the liturgical practice of the church anticipates and flows from the preached Word.  In it, recall, God himself communicates with his people to confirm the faith of the saints.  Boulton argues, in the sermon, “God speaks to us, we hope and trust, and there we may learn to hear and see and believe the Great Sermon, creation itself, this symphonic, ongoing work of God’s providential love, even here, even now.”[8]  Calvin put it this way: “For by his Word, God rendered faith unambiguous forever, a faith that should be superior to all opinion.”[9]  In the immediate context, Calvin is speaking of the written Word, the Bible, but notice also that “since [man] has been placed in this most glorious theater to be a spectator of [God’s works], it is fitting that he prick up his ears to the Word, the better to profit.”[10]  Thus, with Paul, it seems to be the case that Calvin affirms that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  In the end, “the very fact that his ministry was to expound the Word of God filled [Calvin] with a profound reverence for the task before him.”[11]

Assessment of Calvin’s Theology and Practice

Having given a brief overview of Calvin’s theology of preaching, we can now begin to assess his understanding and practice of preaching.  As mentioned previously, Calvin preached expositionally through the Scriptures.  This he did almost certainly because of his understanding of the nature and task of preaching.  God himself, through the preached Word, spoke to the people.  Therefore, for Calvin, all of Scripture is to be preached in order to equip the saints.  To accomplish this task, “he preached on a New Testament book on Sunday mornings and afternoons…and on an Old Testament book on weekday mornings.”[12]

There are at least three things Calvin did well which should be pointed out here.  First, a strong case can be made for the fact that Calvin viewed himself as a minister of God’s Word on behalf of God’s people, and therefore he was bound to that Word in all of his preaching.  This means that he was, in a sense, held captive by the Word and could preach nothing but the Word.  Preaching was a sacred duty for Calvin, not merely a way to enlighten the minds of his hearers, but also to warm their hearts with the supremely good news of the gospel of God.  Bruce Gordon notes, “Calvin had an extremely high view of ministry – upon which the Church depended….He spoke of ‘true and faithful’ ministers as those who have a legitimate call, carry out their duties and preach the Word of God.”[13]  Notice that for Calvin, a true and faithful minister was one who preached not whatever came into his mind or something he might fancy, but one who preached the very Word of God.

Second, consider the tremendous patience it must have taken to preach through all these books of the Bible, verse by verse.  How easy it would have been, as is the case today, to float around the Scriptures and preach only on the texts or subjects which the people will be pleased to hear.  But this was not the case for Calvin.  He patiently guided his congregation through the whole counsel of God rather than avoiding the hard texts or finding passages that would suit his agenda.  In this way, Calvin demonstrated that the Word was his master and he its student.  Calvin always remained subject to Scripture rather than being its arbiter.  This fact is displayed by the very practice of preaching in which Calvin engaged.  He was bound to the Word of God and did not see fit to unshackle himself to expound his own ideas, for that is outside the bounds of faithfully proclaiming the Word of God.

Third, recall the very aim of preaching: to edify the ordinary saints.  Calvin’s sermons are not filled with such obscure or austere rhetoric so as to render the Word ineffectual.  On the contrary, “another gift of public speaking Calvin had in the highest degree was clarity of thought and expression.  He knew how to use the language.”[14]  And he used language to formulate messages which the people could remember, meditate upon, and apply into their own lives and contexts.  In this sense, Calvin’s work of preaching was quite successful in that it edified the saints.  He sought to keep the meaning of the text clear and devoid of any ambiguities.

Fourth, keep in mind the great theological weight that Calvin put on the practice of preaching.  Again, preaching is not merely for formal instruction, although it includes that; rather, in preaching the Word, God himself speaks to his people.  As Parker notes, “in the Holy Scriptures and in the proclamation that faithfully interprets the Holy Scriptures, God himself speaks, declaring his existence, his purpose, his will, redemptively revealing man to himself as the creature of God, as the sinner, as the redeemed.”[15]  Put even more provocatively, “God does not speak to man apart from the message of the Scriptures.”[16]  With all of this in the back of Calvin’s mind, it is no surprise that preaching held such great theological weight: to the extent that the preacher faithfully exposits the Word of God, it is as if God himself speaks to the people.

At this point one might reasonably ask whether Calvin made any mistakes in his practice or theology of preaching.  For all of his good work, surely he was not perfect and made some mistakes.  But one must also keep in mind that Calvin was very much a man of his own time.  It would be inappropriate to recast him as a twenty first century Reformed theologian who must measure up to contemporary standards.  It is here that many have failed to grasp the significance of Calvin’s life, mistakes included.  Even so, one might argue that Calvin made a great many mistakes, but the burden would be upon them to show how Calvin was mistaken in his theology and practice of preaching.

One difficulty in determining some problems in Calvin’s actual practice of preaching is noted by Parker: “There has come down to us…no contemporary description of Calvin while preaching, his demeanour, his expressions and gestures, his tones of voice.  All that we have is the written or printed word.”[17]  Of course, if there are no such descriptions of his practice, one cannot reasonably say one way or the other whether Calvin’s practice of preaching was effective or not.  His mannerisms apparently were not important enough to mention, or where they have been noted these have been lost.  Still, to concentrate on the preacher at all would be to misunderstand Calvin’s own theology behind preaching: it is never about the minister or his own words, it is always and everywhere about God and his Word.

It is possible that one could complain of the length of Calvin’s sermons.  However, one must remember that Calvin was a man of his own time; what was the norm then perhaps would not translate perfectly into contemporary society, yet this need not detract from its original effect and purpose.  That is to say, since Calvin understood preaching to be a means by which God communicates to the people, it is fitting that little, if any, attention should be paid to the actual minister through whom God speaks.  This means that the length of the sermons should be geared towards the audience, and since Calvin’s audience was quite different than a contemporary audience, a critique of the length of his sermons based on contemporary standards seems to fall short because it fails to grasp that very point.

Contemporary Applications

How, then, should we seek to apply Calvin’s theology and practice of preaching?  Let me suggest two ways that an evangelical church might be faithful to Calvin’s legacy.  First, I think a recovery of a robust understanding of the Word of God would go a long way to not only solving many of the problems we see in evangelicalism, but also would serve to build up the church and edify the saints.  Calvin had a tremendously high view of the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture which was demonstrated in his preaching, and perhaps we would be wise to consider following in his footsteps in that regard.

Second, with a high view of Scripture necessarily comes a high view of preaching.  No longer is preaching an entertainment-focused piece of an already overly produced worship setting.  Rather, with a high view of preaching, the people of God will come to see that God himself speaks to them through the Word, encouraging and exhorting them to live their lives coram Deo, before the face of God.  In this way, the saints will be built up to fulfill the tasks which God has given to them, that they might glorify him in all they do.

[1] T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1975), 116.

[2] Michael Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 121.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 190.

[5] Randall C. Zachman, John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 148.

[6] Ibid., 163.

[7] T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 80.

[8] Matthew Myer Boulton, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 213.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 1.6.2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 132.

[12] Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, 80.

[13] Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 130.

[14] Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 129.

[15] Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, 116-117.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, 131.

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