One of western civilization's most influential men, Calvin considered himself a pilgrim and pastor first. This book introduces his essential life and thought to modern readers.
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About the Author
W. Robert Godfrey (PhD, Stanford University) serves as the president and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California. Godfrey is a minister in the United Reformed Churches and the author of numerous articles and books.
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Calvin in Strassburg
On July 10, 1539 John Calvin reached his thirtieth birthday. In many ways his future did not seem very promising. He had shown his intelligence and scholarship in two books he had written, but his life had been very troubled. He had fled from his native France after his conversion to the Protestant faith and had ended up in the Swiss city of Geneva. After less than two years of pastoral service there, he was exiled from Geneva along with other ministers because of their insistence on moral discipline in the church. A discouraged and embittered Calvin traveled to Strassburg, an independent, German-speaking city-state in the Holy Roman Empire near the border with France. There he became the pastor of a small congregation of a few hundred French refugees. Calvin's years in Strassburg were a relief for him as he enjoyed a less conspicuous life than he'd had in Geneva, pastoring, studying, and writing. At the age of thirty, in his second exile, his body was beginning to show its tendency for weakness and illness. (In fact he had less than twenty-five years to live.) No one could have predicted that from these modest and uncertain circumstances Calvin would rise to be one of the most influential men of his age and of the modern era.
Yet 1539 was a turning point for Calvin. In that year he completed the first of his commentaries on books of the Bible, a commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans. He also published the first major revision of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, moving it from being an introduction to basic Christianity toward being a full systematic theology. Both of these works pointed to his developing interests and insights. But a third work that he wrote that year is the most important as an introduction to the life and thought of Calvin. This work is his famous treatise known as "Reply to Sadoleto."
Calvin's treatise was a response to a sharp attack on the Reformation written by Jacopo Sadoleto. Sadoleto was a bishop and cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and a distinguished scholar. After hearing of the exile of Calvin and other pastors, he wrote to the Genevans in 1538 urging them to return to the old church. While the Genevan authorities did not regard Sadoleto's letter as a real threat to the Protestant establishment in Geneva, they did want a strong and effective response written to it. After careful consideration they finally realized that their former pastor Calvin, whom they had exiled, was the best equipped to write the answer they wanted.
Calvin must have received their request with some amusement and satisfaction. Their recognition that they needed him surely made Calvin feel vindicated. He saw the importance of the task and quickly set to work writing his "Reply to Sadoleto." He completed the treatise in six days. Theodore Beza wrote that the work was full of "truth and eloquence." More recent scholars have evaluated the treatise as one of the most powerful defenses of the Reformation ever written.
Calvin's "Reply to Sadoleto" is important for more than its brilliant defense of Reformed Christianity. It is also a window into Calvin's soul. Calvin was usually very reticent to write much about himself, but in this work there is a remarkable personal quality that reveals a great deal about him.
By nature Calvin was a very private person. In few of his works does he write about himself. Even in his letters he does not become introspective or discuss the events of his personal life in much detail. But in "Reply to Sadoleto" he reveals indirectly a good deal of his own experience of the Reformation and the key motivations of his life. These experiences and convictions of his life are also key elements of the religion he taught as a pastor.
The character of Sadoleto's appeal to the Genevans provided several incentives for Calvin to show something of his own experience in his reply. First, Sadoleto made a very personal attack on Calvin and the other ministers, saying that they had been motivated in their reforming work only by a desire for fame and money. Second, Sadoleto argued that only the Roman Catholic Church possessed truth, certainty, and salvation — issues of deep personal significance for Calvin. Third, Sadoleto had created several prayers in his treatise that he had put in the mouths of an imagined person to illustrate some of the points he was making. These prayers written in the first person evoked from Calvin a response written in the same language. This literary device was well known to Calvin who was acquainted with it from the writings of Quintilian, the ancient teacher of rhetoric, and had been commented on by Calvin in his early commentary on Seneca:
... prosopopoeia, by which it is pretended that the emperor is talking with himself, and so to speak entering into meditation. ... And these words are more appealing through a pretended person, than if conceived as from the person of the author. So Quintilian [Institutes of Oratory, 9.2.29] teaches. For they are effective to arouse the reader, to stir feelings, to vary the discourse. Some call this figure not prosopopoeia but ethopoea, because the former invents persons who nowhere exist, whereas the latter fits these words to definite persons.
Calvin was not being intentionally autobiographical with these prayers, but they inevitably reflected something of his own personal experience of spiritual things.
Calvin's "Reply" began with a vigorous rejection of the idea that he was motivated by a desire for fame or money. He could more easily have found those in the Church of Rome. What motivated him, he insisted, above all was a concern for the glory of God. Where Sadoleto had declared that the Christian should first be concerned for his own salvation, Calvin maintained that the Christian must first be focused on God and his glory: "It is not very sound theology to confine a man's thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to show forth the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves." Calvin always intended his life and thought to be God-centered.
For Calvin, once the Christian saw the glory of God as central, then a proper discussion of salvation could follow. Only when we see God as truly glorious can we see the true nature of salvation and its importance. He wrote to Sadoleto, "... you have a theology that is too lazy, as is almost always the case with those who have had no experience in serious struggles of conscience." Laziness and self-indulgence are not the path to true theology. Calvin believed that such attitudes had dominated the old church in which he had been raised and produced a church life filled with formalism, indifference, and superstition.
Calvin's criticism of Sadoleto at this point certainly implied that he himself had had serious struggles of conscience. What kinds of struggles? We can see echoes of those experiences in Calvin's discussions of justification. He had struggled with the great question of how to be right with God. Calvin stressed that a correct understanding of justification was fundamental. He wrote to Sadoleto that justification was "the first and keenest subject of controversy between us."
Calvin presents his thought on justification in his "Reply" in terms of several steps. The first was self-examination. The sinner must come to recognize his own plight: "First, we tell a man to begin by examining himself. He must not do this in a superficial or perfunctory way, but must call his conscience before the judgment seat of God. When he is sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, then he must reflect on the strictness of the judgment pronounced on all sinners. When thus confronted and amazed at his misery, then he prostrates and humbles himself before God. He casts away all self-confidence and groans as if given up for final destruction." The conscience of the sinner must come to see profoundly his lostness and helplessness. Calvin made this same point in his Institutes: "... no man can descend into himself and seriously consider his own character, without perceiving that God is angry with him and hostile to him."
This theme of very serious and searching self-examination was not an incidental matter for Calvin. Rather it was absolutely central to Reformation theology and spirituality. In many ways the Reformation was born out of the sense of the hopelessness and spiritual powerlessness of sinners. For Calvin the complete lostness of man was not only a teaching of the Bible and of all sound theology since the days of the church father Augustine (354–430) — it was also part of his own experience. Scattered throughout the "Reply" are indications that Calvin had personally struggled with his own sin and the terrible judgment that awaited him apart from Christ.
Calvin preserved something of this struggle before coming to faith in his final edition of the Institutes in the very first section of the first chapter: "... every one, therefore, must be so impressed with a consciousness of his own unhappiness as to arrive at some knowledge of God. Thus a sense of our own ignorance, vanity, infirmity, depravity, and corruption, leads us to perceive and acknowledge that in the Lord alone are to be found true wisdom, solid strength, perfect goodness, and unspotted righteousness."
For example, in the "Reply" Calvin elaborates on this theme of struggle in one of the prayers he puts in the mouth of his average Christian: "I expected a future resurrection, but hated to think of it, since it would be a most dreadful event. And this feeling not only had dominion over me in private, but had its origin in the doctrine that was then everywhere delivered to the people by their Christian teachers." Further the prayer speaks of efforts to satisfy God with works of righteousness: "When, however, I had performed all these things, though I had some intervals of quiet, I was still far-off from true peace of conscience; for, whenever I descended into myself, or raised my mind to you, O God, extreme terror seized me — terror which no expiations or satisfactions could cure. And the more closely I examined myself, the sharper the stings with which my conscience was pricked, so that the only solace which remained to me was to delude myself by forgetfulness."
Although these prayers are not strictly autobiographical, they are so intense and personal that they must reflect something of Calvin's experiences in his own conversion only six or seven years earlier. He had come to see for himself his desperate condition and had come to see it as essential for all sound theology and religious experience.
To Sadoleto Calvin insisted that after this self-knowledge the next necessity was a knowledge of God's way of salvation. The sinner could hope only in God and his work since the work of man is utterly futile. Again Calvin puts words in the mouth of his representative Christian: "I was exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more alarmed at the eternal death that threatened me. As in duty bound, I made it my first business to find your way, condemning my past life, but with groans and tears." That way of God is the way of Christ. A knowledge of the work of Christ as God's way of salvation is the second step of justification. Calvin, writing as a pastor and teacher, said, "Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as shown in Christ. In him every part of our salvation is complete."
For Calvin, Christ displayed all the promises of God concerning the Savior who would fully bear the sins of his people on the cross and impute the saving benefits of his work to them. These promises brought salvation to the sinner when they were received through faith alone. Faith was the link between Christ and the sinner. "Paul, whenever he attributed to faith the power of justifying, restricted it to a free promise of the divine favor, and keeps it far removed from all works." Faith rests alone in the promise of salvation in Jesus.(Continues…)
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Copyright © 2009 W. Robert Godfrey.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Importance of Calvin,
1 Calvin in Strassburg,
2 The Young Calvin,
3 Calvin's First Ministry in Geneva,
4 Exiled to Strassburg,
5 The Call Back to Geneva,
6 The Church and Worship,
7 The Church and the Sacraments,
8 The Church and Predestination,
9 The Church, the City, and the Schools,
10 Calvin as Pastoral Counselor,
11 Calvin and the Institutes,
Conclusion: The Unmarked Grave,
What People are Saying About This
"This book is a masterful treatment of John Calvin by a masterful church historian. We see Calvin the theologian, Calvin the reformer, Calvin the man. His mind and heart are laid bare by Dr. Godfrey's work. A must read."
R. C. Sproul, President, Ligonier Ministries; Copastor, St. Andrew's Chapel, Sanford, Florida
"John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor will surely rank among the best introductions to the life and thought of one of the church's greatest theologians. It offers a rich tapestry woven from both Calvin's life-story and his profound biblical theology. Here we meet the real Calvin-strikingly apostolic in his constant preaching, his lecturing, his authorship of many erudite volumes and a vast correspondence, and his deep care for the many needs of his flock-while himself in constant physical sickness. It is a remarkable story. Dr. Robert Godfrey's mature scholarship, enthusiasm for his subject, and easy style bring Calvin to life for the twenty-first-century reader. Here is a rare work indeed, making it easy to see why the great Genevan Reformer was such an inspiration to those who knew and loved him."
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary; Teaching Fellow, Ligonier Ministries
"There are good books on Calvin's doctrine, his life, his piety, and his influence in the modern world. However, this book stands out as a marvelous integration of all three. More than accessible, this book is interesting even for those who know nothing about Calvin or his significant labors. It would be dishonest to deny that this book is written by an admirer of Calvin, but as a veteran church historian, Professor Godfrey places the reformer in his context and does not hide his blemishes. I owe a great deal of my own formative understanding of Calvin to Robert Godfrey and hope for a wide readership of this important book."
Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; author, Justification (New Studies in Dogmatics)
"Bob Godfrey has long been known as doing the unimaginable and has once again lived up to his reputation. His work on Calvin offers not only an accessible history of the man and his work, and an assessment of his influence, but also allows Calvin to be seen through his own words and offers an opportunity for another generation to appreciate the vastness of his genius. Combining excellent scholarship with an accessible style, Dr. Godfrey has once again placed the church in his debt as he resurrects the character from the caricature in which Calvin is so often buried."
Robert M. Norris, Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, Maryland
"This book is arguably the best introduction to the life and ministry of John Calvin by one of the Reformed world's best interpreters of the Reformation. For anyone wondering what the fuss is over the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, this is the place to start."
D. G. Hart,author of The Lost Soul of American Protestantism and Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Godfrey moves back and forth between Calvin's life and Calvin's theology with grace. A concise biography that covers the things students of Calvinist theology would find pertinent to contemporary discussions of Calvin himself.