John Calvin (1509 – 1564) is well known as a theologian, biblical scholar and reformer. He is less well known as a preacher. Yet those who know something about Calvin’s life know that preaching occupied a significant portion of his time. Modern preachers who appreciate Calvin as a theologian and Bible commentator will therefore want to know what his preaching was like. Calvin’s Preaching by T. H. L. Parker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992) shines a great deal of light on this subject.
The author, T. H. L. Parker, served three parishes as an Anglican vicar and rector and then was a Lecturer and Reader in Theology at the University of Durham. He was recognized as a scholar both of Calvin and of Barth.
His first book on Calvin’s preaching was entitled The Oracles of God: An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin (Lutterworth, 1947 and James Clarke, 2002). In the preface to Calvin’s Preaching he explains that he decided to write this book because of advances made in Calvin scholarship since the publication of The Oracles of God and because of his own experience of preparing Calvin’s sermons on Isaiah 30-41 for publication.
Calvin’s Preaching has thirteen chapters and is divided into five parts.
In Part One, “The Theological Impulsion,” Parker deals with what impelled Calvin to preach. He uses quotations from Calvin’s Institutes to show that Calvin had a high view of Scripture and believed that the Bible alone is the Word of God. He then turns to Calvin’s sermon on 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to demonstrate Calvin’s belief that Scripture is profitable in the ministry of preaching. Parker argues that Calvin believed that when preaching conveys the message of Scripture, preaching itself is the Word of God.
In Part Two, “The Word in Action,” Parker helps us see the preacher and the congregation through Calvin’s eyes. Calvin sees the preacher as bringing teaching. The preacher must believe and trust the Bible, and know it well. He needs the humility to submit to God’s Word and the courage to proclaim it. The preacher has authority solely because he brings the authoritative Word. His purpose must be to honor God, to edify the people of God, and to witness to the truth.
The congregation, for its part, must understand that by preaching God rules his church. God’s people must hear the Word with submission, encourage the preacher to preach the truth, and seek to be edified.
Part Three is “An Account of Calvin’s Preaching.” Here Parker briefly describes Calvin’s preaching before 1541, his preaching in Geneva, and the transmission of the sermons. He notes that in Geneva after 1549, Calvin generally preached twice on Sunday and in the morning from Monday to Friday every other week. He also gave three theological lectures per week.
Starting in 1550, stenographer Denis Raguenier produced verbatim manuscripts of Calvin’s sermons. Some of these manuscript sermons were eventually lost, but about 680 survive. Parker lists some of the translations of the sermons into other languages, including English.
In Part Four, “From Exegesis to Application,” Parker focuses on the content of Calvin’s sermons. Calvin’s method was expository and he expounded books of the Bible sequentially. He preached without notes, but with the Bible in the original Hebrew or Greek in front of him. He translated and then explained and applied the text a few verses at a time. In his Old Testament sermons, he often says relatively little about Christ or the gospel. But he makes the application within the context of the Christian faith.
Parker notes that Calvin’s preaching is marked by a positive spirit. His primary message is the good news that the hidden God reveals himself in Christ for man’s temporal and eternal good. Our response is to believe this, rest in God, and call on him boldly in prayer. Calvin consistently directs his exhortations to himself as well as the congregation. While his tone is mild, he is not afraid to rebuke sin strongly. Yet his goal is always the edification of the congregation.
Part Five of the book concerns “Form and Style.” Here Parker gives us an idea of the flow of explanation and application in Calvin’s sermons. He describes the “familiar” style of his preaching. Calvin uses simple words and sentences. He makes use of question and answer, objection and reply, and dialogue. There are proverbs, similes, and simple, down-to-earth images. According to Parker, “he deliberately adapts his style to the grasp of the common people in his congregation.”
The book concludes with a chronological chart of Calvin’s preaching, some technical appendices, and extensive bibliographies.
Calvin’s Preaching is a helpful book for anyone interested in the Reformer’s preaching. It is relatively brief, yet scholarly and thorough, well-written and well-organized.
Parker was a Barth scholar, but for the most part I did not find Barthian theology in this book. At one point, however, Parker seems to be reflecting Barth rather than Calvin. He writes, “Scripture is not so much the collection of writings we call the ‘Holy Bible’ as the living activity of God, the voice of God speaking.”
If you want to learn more about Calvin’s preaching, I recommend that, in addition to reading this book, you read some of Calvin’s sermons. The website monergism.com has “Thirty Six Various Sermons” by Calvin. English translations from the sixteenth century can be accessed at archive.org.
To what extent is Calvin a model for preachers today? In his commitment to expository preaching, Calvin certainly is a model for us. His practice of working his way systematically through books of the Bible has been followed by modern expository preachers with great success.
Calvin shows little concern for rhetorical unity in his sermons, and I would consider that a weakness. In his preaching he almost exclusively uses the first person plural (“we”) rather than the second person plural (“you”). Some see this as a strength in that it shows humility. But without the use of the second person, sermon applications can lack directness.
In his book, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, Sidney Greidanus has a helpful section on Calvin’s theocentric interpretation of the Old Testament and his theocentric preaching. In describing shortcomings of Calvin’s method, Greidanus notes that at times, his preaching can be moralistic. Regarding Calvin’s Old Testament preaching, Greidanus writes,
“From our perspective Calvin did not sufficiently focus on producing explicitly Christ-centered sermons in the context of the whole of Scripture. For Calvin, as we have seen, is frequently satisfied with a God-centered centered sermon. Of course, Calvin preached in Christian Geneva, where he may have assumed that his hearers would make the connections to Christ, but this still leaves us with an inadequate model for preaching in our post-Christian culture.”
I agree with Greidanus on this point. Nevertheless, with Greidanus and Parker, we must acknowledge Calvin’s great strengths. In his commentaries and preaching, he pursued the grammatical-historical method of interpreting Scripture. He was also deeply committed to preaching that builds up the Body of Christ by explaining and applying the Bible. In that commitment, Calvin is worthy of imitation by all of us who stand behind the pulpit today.
This is similar to the teaching of the Second Helvetic Confession: “Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is preached, and received of the faithful.” Schaff, Philip. 3 The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1882. Appendix. ↑
Parker, T. H. L. Calvin’s Preaching. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992. 148. ↑
Ibid. 31. ↑
https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/calvin/calvin_36sermons.html, accessed 11/12/19. ↑
Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method. Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cambridge, U.K.” William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1999. Chapter 4. ↑