Calvin’s Writings Impacted The World
In our first post in this series, we introduced John Calvin as one of the greatest heroes of the Reformation. We sketched his personal and professional life and told of his passion for God and his labor for the Church. In this next part, we will explore Calvin’s written work.
You may be thinking, “Why would you dedicate a whole post specifically to Calvin’s writings?” The answer is simple. Through his writings, we gain a much better insight into who Calvin was, his effect on the world, and his heart for Christ and fellow Christians. His writing has stood the test of time and contains many truths and gems to be unveiled. As we briefly walk through Calvin’s work, we may also learn something along the way.
It has been said that Calvin lived the life of forty men. He was so productive, that historians still haven’t been able to form a comprehensive list of all of the books, letters, tracts, and commentaries he wrote—never mind all of the countless other works authored by those he directly influenced.
Before surveying his works, however, it will be helpful to note that Calvin was not a lone man on an island. He believed that knowledge and truth were best learned within the community of faith. He was influenced and sharpened by the best minds around him. We know from his letters that he had direct contact with other Reformers of his day. He was also affected by the generation of Reformers that came before him including John Wycliffe, Desiderius Erasmus, and even Martin Luther himself.
More importantly, Calvin made sure to root his work in the history of the Church. He wanted to demonstrate that Reformed Theology was not just a new invention but rather a recovery of the true and original faith. Toward that end, Calvin made sure to incorporate the works of Christians from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries (these Christians are commonly referred to as the Church Fathers). He was particularly influenced by St. Augustine of Hippo (born in 354 AD). As the Roman Catholic Church of the day claimed that they were the true, original Church, Calvin stood against them with his extensive knowledge and use of Church history in his writings, proving that the Reformation recovered the Biblical faith.
Calvin’s most seminal work is easily the Institutes of Christian Religion. As we’ve said before, he began this work at the age of 26 and worked on it for his whole life. The work was first published in Latin in 1536 and was later published multiple times during Calvin’s lifetime in French. The book soon became a blueprint for the Protestant faith and the basis for governments and church denominations throughout the centuries. The Institutes have since been published in English and translated into many other languages and are lauded for being the most important work from the Reformation period.
In the original French version, Calvin wrote a preface to the French King, Francis I, explaining his intention for writing the book. Essentially, he says he wrote the book to convince the king and others in Europe to accept Reformed theology as the historic and scripturally accurate faith. However, as Calvin kept working on the Institutes, he realized a deeper reason for writing. He wanted a book that explained the Christian faith to people brand new to theology. In the new preface, he noted,
“Although Holy Scripture contains a perfect doctrine, to which one can add nothing, since in it our Lord has meant to display the infinite treasures of his wisdom, yet a person who has not much practice in it has good reason for some guidance and direction, to know what he ought to look for in it, in order not to wander hither and thither, but to hold to a sure path, that he may always be pressing toward the end to which the Holy Spirit calls him,” (Calvin, Institutes, French Edition 1560).
Calvin structured the book in four parts to mirror the parts of the Apostle’s Creed and the book of Romans. He began with the doctrines of God’s majesty and man’s sinfulness. Then, he moved to the doctrine of Christ’s coming to the world for the salvation of sinners. He then discusses the importance of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. And finally, he closed the Institutes with a defense of the institutional Church. Calvin was adamant that the Institutes be used as a reference source and guide for the overall sweep of Scripture not as an endpoint in itself. He taught that summaries of theology are important but that they should lead us to deeper Scriptural reading.
Commentaries & Sermons
Calvin tirelessly urged people to get into the text. Toward that end, Calvin spilled much ink explaining and illuminating the meanings of Scripture. He is often referred to as the best Reformed exegete (aka interpreter) of the Bible. He wrote many individual commentaries on most of the books in the Bible, including a verse-by-verse explanation of all 150 Psalms. Over 400 years after their publication, these commentaries remain in print and are of great value to Bible students around the world. His written explanations of Scripture are so vast that publishers cannot contain them even in a 46-volume set!
Calvin’s sermons are also in print and are too many to number. His work is timeless in that it speaks to the challenges of every new generation and has inspired countless Christians with its theological depth. When one is confused about a passage in the Bible, it is always useful to check if Calvin wrote about it (and he usually has), as he can clarify the meanings of a verse like no one else.
Tracts and Letters
In addition to his work on the Scriptures, Calvin wrote over 1,300 letters and even more tracts. He wrote to many types of people including kings, queens, governors, paupers, widows, imprisoned Christians, and more. His letters cover a broad range of topics ranging from the significant issues of the Church of the day, like the importance of the Lord’s Supper to the life of the Church, to more personal concerns, such as the comforting of a grieving congregant.
A great theme throughout his letters is an utmost concern for the glory of God. In his public letters, he is constantly defending the faith. In 1543, he wrote the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to explain the true meaning of the Protestant faith. In this letter, he explained that the Reformation was about reclaiming the faithful worship of God, more important than the salvation of man was the honoring of God according to His own revelation.
Likewise, in his personal letters, Calvin displayed deep concern for his brothers and sisters in the faith to hold fast to Christ. He writes a particularly poignant note to five Christians imprisoned and waiting for their execution:
“Even so, my brothers, be confident that you shall be strengthened, according to your need, by the Spirit of our Lord Jesus, so that you shall not faint under the load of temptations, however heavy it be, any more than he did who won so glorious a victory, that in the midst of our miseries it is an unfailing pledge of our triumph,” (Calvin, Letter To the Five Prisoners of Lyons).
Heart of a Pastor
More than anything, Calvin had a bleeding heart for his fellow believers. In his writings, he sought to teach ordinary people the Scriptures and encourage them to keep their faith amidst life’s difficulties. He taught on a variety of issues still relevant for us today. Consider this sermon on Job where Calvin discusses the desire to leave this life during difficult situations:
“… let us keep us within the compass of desiring to live and die at Gods pleasure, so as we may not be given to our own will, but so as we may make as a sacrifice of it in that behalf, that our living may not be to ourselves but to God, so as we may say, Lord, I know mine own frailty. Nevertheless it is thy will to hold me in this world, and here I am, and good reason it is that I should tarry here: But whosoever it shall please thee to call me hence, I make no great accompt of my life, it is always at thy commandment, to dispose of it at thine own pleasure,” (Calvin, 13thSermon on Job 3).
What an encouragement to hold steadfast to God’s will, knowing that He orders the course of life and death.
Calvin was so influential on Reformed theology that without his works it is impossible to imagine the Reformed faith passed down to us today. More than that his writings touch on all aspects of the Christian life and life in general that they are profitable for anyone.
If there is anything you should take away from this brief exploration of Calvin’s written work, it should be to read more Calvin. You would be doing yourself disservice if you didn’t. You can begin by reading his commentaries on the Psalms or his sermons on Ephesians. Or try reading the Institutes and see how Calvin would explain the faith to a beginner.