John Calvin: Apologist for the Reformation
(This took me a while to transcribe, but what follows is the content of my lecture at the International Calvin 500 Conference, held in Moscow, Russia, this past September)
I would like to begin simply by thanking you for the opportunity to speak this day. As I stand here and listen to some of the things that have been said and talked about thus far, I realize my own inability to stand before you.
Sometimes as we receive opportunities to speak we are truly humbled by those who have given us that opportunity. At the same time, as a Calvinist, I believe in God’s sovereignty, and as someone who believes in God’s sovereignty I believe that God has brought me here by his divine hand. If this is true then despite my weaknesses then I believe that God has a message to bring through me. This was mentioned yesterday as well, but I wanted to give this as a way of reminder. That as we meet on this anniversary of Calvin’s birth, we meet not to glorify the man, but we do so to glorify the God who raised up this man to serve his church. And I believe that we can honor that God by learning from the things that this man has taught us.
The second thing I would like to do by way of introduction is to introduce my agenda. It is a dangerous thing when the speaker actually tells you why he is speaking because all of us have motives behind what we want to talk about. Oftentimes those motives go unspoken, but in this case I want to set them on the table in front of us.
We live in a world that is more and more raising up and praising the supposed virtues of atheism. We live in a world where the Christian church is seen to be irrelevant and not essential to everyday life. Though I am new to Moscow, I have spent time in Ukraine and know the difficulties that the protestants face in dealing with the Orthodox Church. So part of my agenda in choosing the topics that I did was to help equip you to show the world that the church is not irrelevant. As pastors, part of our job is to teach the church how to stand for the truth and to live that truth relevant, living it out every day. We also have a responsibility to protect our church members from being wooed back to Orthodoxy or being lulled into atheism. And I do believe that Calvin is a great person to help us do both things. Thus, my goal this day, recognizing that we cannot exhaustively explore Calvin’s apologetics, my goal is to explore elements of Calvin’s apologetics with the aim of applying them both in the west and in the east.
To accomplish this goal, I would like to look at three elements of Calvin’s apologetic approach:
- I would like to look at his writings, with a primary focus on his Lausanne Discourses and his letter to Bishop Sadolet.
- I would like at the theology of Calvin’s Doctrine of Vocation.
- I would also like to look at his emphasis on a theologically educated laity.
I have a secondary goal as well: that is to encourage you, as pastors, to write for your congregations. Now, I recognize that many of Calvin’s writings were taken down by secretaries, but the principle is there in Calvin’s theology that his words were to be heard and applied to the lives of his people. At this point we must recognize the context that Calvin was writing in—he did not have a computer to type upon, but the writing was done with a quill pen or a stylus dipped in ink. Despite that, Calvin wrote more than many people will read in their lifetimes. Also Calvin understood the principle that a shepherd does not feed his sheep only once or twice a week. But a shepherd feeds his sheep everyday. Calvin had the luxury of having daily worship services in Geneva, but that is oftentimes not an option in our contexts. Yet, if you write daily Bible studies and theological things for your congregations to read, they will read them. And you will have a means to feed your flock on a daily basis.
There is another aspect of me wanting to encourage you to write. I have a vision for a change in the names of authors in Reformed literature. As you heard yesterday and this morning, you have an honorable Reformed heritage, but most of the most well-known names in Reformed Theology are western names. We have names like Boston, Owen, Calvin, Hodge, Lloyd-Jones—these are names that are dominant in Reformed literature, and while the translation of these texts from English into Russian is a valuable resource to you, I desire to see Russian names filling the bookshelves of our theologically Reformed seminaries. You heard the challenge to learn English so that you can read more of these resources; I long to see a time when people will be saying to people in the west, “Learn Russian!” so that you can read these new Reformed theological resources.
But for that to happen it needs to begin with someone like you—so there is my challenge to set before you as we begin—Write! And write for your people, for they will read it. It is a way that you will strengthen the church and it is a means by which Calvin did just that in Geneva.
I also want to make one other comment by way of introduction, and that is a note with respect to Calvin and his role as a man of the Church. Henry Beveridge, one of Calvin’s translators, wrote: “the whole of Calvin’s life shows that zeal for the interests of the church was his ruling passion.” Calvin did not set out to go through Geneva to be their pastor—his goal was Strasburg to be a scholar, yet God had other plans for Calvin and Calvin was willing to submit to God’s will. Many in our culture, especially in the west, have seen the failures of the church and have chosen as a result to reject the church altogether. Calvin saw the failure of the Roman Catholic church of his day, but he also recognized that the failure was in man’s failure as a fallen individual.
As a result, you do not simply let the church die or give up on her. But as pastors, you need to live for her and die for her, to pour yourself out for her and to suffer for her. If you do this you will honor not only John Calvin’s memory, but you will also honor our Lord’s memory—the one who died to lay his claim upon the church.
So let us begin and speak of Calvin’s apologetics. And I want to begin by raising the question, what is an Apologia. The word, Apologia simply means, “a reasoned defense.” It is a legal term used to refer to how one would defend a view or a client in a court case. Peter uses this and applies it to our Christian life. Peter writes, “In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense—an Apologia—to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Yet Peter continues, “do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience so that when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”
Too often, people who would defend the Christian faith in the world around us, do so with an arrogant and a haughty spirit. Sometimes, when you are right and you know that you are right, you find yourself in a dangerous position. I think that this is one of reasons that Calvin’s model is so valuable for us today. Because as you read Calvin’s writings against those who would challenge the Reformed faith, you do not see an arrogant man ranting and raving, but you see a man of humility speaking with grace.
Note too the reason that Peter emphasizes our apologia given with humility. He says that we are to do so that those who revile you may be put to shame. The implication that he is making here is that there are some that may be brought to Christ through our reasoned defense. But even in rebuking those that would attack the Christian faith, we do not chase them away or scare them away from the truth.
In October of 1536, about a month after Calvin had arrived in Geneva, having agreed to stay and help the city in its reforms, Farel and Viret to Calvin with them to Lausanne. Lausanne is a city about 60 Kilometers from Geneva on the other side of Lake Geneva. The purpose of this debate was to debate whether or not the Reformed teachings should be brought to Lausanne. Farel had invited representatives from the Roman Catholic Church to debate over 10 questions that Farel had drawn up.
These questions included the debate over justification, the role of Christ as sole mediator, the role of scripture as sole authority for the believer, and who would constitute the church. Calvin is there not to speak nor to debate, but simply as a witness. Yet there are two points during this discourse where Calvin found that he could not keep his peace. And at these points—October 5th and 7th, Calvin stood to speak.
On the 5th of October, they were discussing the 3rd of the 10 questions. The question was over the real presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. The Romanists would not only argue from the real presence, but would also accuse the Reformers of departing from the consistent teaching of the church through history.
At this point, Calvin stood and addressed the panel. He said, “I held myself absolved from speaking up until now and would have willingly abstained until the end seeing that my word is not very necessary of adding anything to the adequate replies which my brothers Farel and Viret give. And he went on the address the group of speakers. We don’t have time to explore the entirely the fullness of Calvin’s response, but let me outline some of the elements of Calvin’s defense.
Calvin begins by saying that any who would condemn the early church fathers are both arrogant and filled with contempt for God as God had raised those church fathers up to build his church. In other words, part of what he is doing is saying is that if he as the reformer is guilty of what the Romanists are accusing him of, he should be condemned.
He continues and assumes for the sake of argument that our primary obligation is to submit to scripture as those church fathers submitted to scripture. He says that this accusation that they are making is nothing more than their failure to understand the Reformation. He went on to say, in addition, if one would take time to examine the Church fathers, they would find that the Fathers would support the Reformation position and not the Roman Catholic position. One could even, by extension, take the argument to the next step that the church fathers did not support the Eastern Orthodox view of the real presence of Christ in the elements.
Calvin continued on to cite from memory passages from the church fathers. He cites Tertullian’s refutation of Marcion; Chrysostom’s unfinished commentary on Matthew; then he goes on to exhaustively cite Augustine and his writings. He cites from Augustine’s Epistle 23, from Against Adamantius the Manichee, Homily on the Gospel of John, and continues on from several other letters of Augustine.
Then he poses the question toward the Romanists, speaking to Dr. Blancherose, a leader of the Romanist position, and now you explain your position in light of the Scriptural teaching and of the Church fathers. Before he closes, Calvin goes on to defend the Protestant position of the spiritual presence of Christ in the elements. He does so by comparing Matthew and Mark’s recording of the Last Supper to Luke and Paul’s recording of the same. Where he sees in Matthew in Mark Jesus saying, “this is my blood”, Luke and Paul record Jesus as saying, “this is the new testament in my blood.” And then making the argument that even though Matthew and Mark are not recording it in the same way, that there is a clear understanding that this is to be symbolic, not a real presence in the Lord’s Supper.
Let’s make several observations from the way in which John Calvin refutes the Roman Catholic representatives. First is the gracious and humble nature with which Calvin approached the Roman criticism. The Romanists had been calling the reformers both apostate and ignorant of the Church Fathers. They were essentially saying that the Reformers had no idea what they were talking about and rather than getting upset and responding in anger, Calvin responds in grace and humility.
Calvin goes on to demonstrate not only his knowledge of scripture but also his knowledge of the church fathers. What he is essentially doing is taking the things that the Romanists are appealing to and using their own words to dismantle their arguments. Calvin was demonstrating that the church fathers were the allies of the Reformation and not of the Roman Catholic church.
That is something that is very important to recognize in our own ministries. Often our tendency is to read and study only those who agree with the positions we hold. But if we are going to make an effective apologetic for what we know to be true in the world around us, we need to be educated in the ideas and thoughts of those who will attack what we know to be true. At the same time, we need to do so from a position of having been educated on a foundation of truth.
Calvin demonstrates in his response that he is well read and well versed in the breadth of all of the teachings that are out there. And that is something that we need to do as pastors and as apologists for the church in this community. It is also worth noting that not only did Calvin impress those to whom he was addressing with his knowledge of the church fathers, but some of the bishops who had been accusing Calvin of not knowing the church fathers actually confessed that they had never read the church fathers in the first place, but their knowledge of the church fathers was only a secondhand knowledge taught to them by somebody else.
We will come back to this idea, but Calvin also expresses an apologetic that is grounded in solid and clear theology. One of the problems that we find in the west is that those who are our “apologists” are not necessary theologians. What Calvin is demonstrating is that to be an effective apologist, you must have a clear understanding of theology.
The second point in which Calvin stood up to speak (2 days later) is a much shorter response. Question number 8 in the discussion dealt with the power of the civil magistrate. But in the discussion the question of Hildebrand had come up. Oftentimes Hildebrand is giving credit for formalizing the doctrine of transubstantiation that the Roman Catholics hold. But if you look back at church history, one of the things you will find is that Hildebrand is one of the most corrupt and abusive Popes of history. Another element of Calvin’s apologetic comes out here in his response. Calvin poses the question as to whether one should trust a doctrine created by one who is personally morally corrupt. In other words, he is asking the question, “Do you separate the life of the man from his theology?” Calvin’s argument is, “no.” That as one looks at a man’s theology one must also be looking at their theology and if the lifestyle of the man is corrupt, his theology should be questioned.
How too that as pastors we need to demonstrate how we live our lives in our communities.
The second discourse I want to deal with is his letter with the Cardinal James Sadolet. In 1539, shortly after Calvin and Farel’s banishment from Geneva, the Roman Catholic Church sought to draw the church of Geneva back to Rome. The church itself did not quite know how to respond to Sadolet’s letter of invitation. Their first response was to send a letter to the churches in Bern to ask them to respond on their behalf. When Bern did not respond, Calvin was asked to write a letter of response.
I want to just highlight this for a moment because this is a man who has just been kicked out of his church and they are asking him to write a letter in their defense; I wonder how many pastors today would be willing to do just that. It is a demonstration not only of Calvin’s humble personality but also of his understanding of the role of the pastor. The pastor was pastor over his people even if he had been removed and exiled from his people and thus he chose to continue to serve those who had kicked him out of the city and he responded to Sadolet’s letter.
As we seek to understand the dialogue that goes back and forth, you have to understand part of Sadolet’s approach. He begins by using language of affection for the people of Geneva and setting forth the claim that Rome is the only source where they will find peace. Calvin sees through the ruse very quickly and points out that Sadolet had never had any interests in Geneva prior to this time. But Sadolet went on and accused Calvin and Farel of sedition and said that they were “assailing the authority of the church.”
This language of authority is the key concept in Sadolet’s letter. Essentially what Sadolet is arguing for is the authority of the church to interpret scripture and the authority of tradition to set forth truth in the lives of people. He even goes as far as to use reformational language, largely designed to disarm the Genevese senate. Sadolet speaks of having offered salvation through faith alone, but at the same time he speaks out of one side of his mouth sounding like a reformer, he speaks out of the other side of his mouth as well. He says that faith in Christ alone is essential for salvation, but why stop there, but faith is only a beginning and to be genuinely worthy of salvation, one must also have works.
There are numerous theologies today which try to do the same basic thing that Sadolet is suggesting, existing both in the east and in the west. They pay lip service on one side to salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ but they try and sneak in human works by the back door. Yet the Apostle Paul wrote that God did not permit works so that no man may boast. And these theologies that deviate from salvation by faith alone is something that we need to guard ourselves and our churches against.
But Sadolet goes on and portrays the church as the anchor of Christian faith and thus for the Reformers to separate themselves of Rome is portrayed as a deep and dreadful sin of preposterous false religion. In the end, they are separated both from God and the Anchor of their faith which is considered to be the church, not Jesus Christ.
He goes on to appeal to the majority of the people in history (as he says), who have held to this Roman Catholic interpretation of scripture. And he says that if all of these people have understood it one way before, how do you know that you can trust this Calvin and the Reformers who understand it differently. Essentially what he is saying is that the Bible is too difficult for people to understand on their own, but to understand the Bible you need to be trained, equipped, and learned to understand it. This is the same basic principle that kept the Bible out of the hands of the layman for centuries on end.
One of the things that the Reformers understood was that when you read Scripture yourself, the lies of the Roman Catholic Church became clear. Sadolet even goes as far in his argument to suggest that the church cannot err in its interpretation of Scripture and if there might be errors, those errors must be in scripture and not in the church’s interpretation of scripture.
After he goes continues on this long discourse, making many slanderous comments about Calvin, though not by name, he closes by saying that he will agree to mediate between them and God if they will return to Rome. In other words, he is saying that the individuals themselves have no ability to come before God’s throne in light of their sins but we need Bishops and the church to do that on our behalf.
Yet, scripture is very clear that Christ and Christ alone is the only mediator between God and man.
So it is to this letter that Calvin begins to respond. Some have argued that this response of Calvin was the greatest apologetic of the Reformation. In spite of personal criticism, Calvin maintains a humble approach to Sadolet. And he writes that it is the duty of the pastor to defend his flock even while in exile. He almost goes as far as to apologize for the letter he is about to write. Sadolet was a respected scholar of his day and Calvin understood that his response to Sadolet would demonstrate Sadolet’s own ignorance of the Reformation and would show that Sadolet neither understood scripture nor the church fathers.
Calvin writes that it is with great reluctance that I bring forward your name before the learned world and address to you the following postulation. He continues that though he apologizes for essentially defaming Sadolet, he refuses to apologize for the Reformation.
I think that it is important to stop here and make an observation. Too many people in the west are more concerned with their standing than with the truth. In turn they end up sacrificing a great deal of truth to preserve their unity and their fellowship. Calvin understood that when one sacrifices the truth one sacrifices and compromises the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That would also compromise his call as a pastor.
Thus, though he is very gracious in the way he addresses his letter back to Sadolet, he refuses to compromise the truth that he is about to write. Calvin also refuses to attack the character of Sadolet, only Sadolet’s ideas as being insidious. When you get into debates with people, the temptation is to attack the person and the person’s character—it is much more difficult to attack the person’s ideas. One of the things that Calvin demonstrates is not slandering but dealing with the ideas as they are printed on paper.
Calvin’s apologetic here essentially elevates Scripture as the authority over top of church tradition. What he ultimately says is that the Genevese movement away from the Roman Catholic church is simply a reflection of them having been faithfully taught the scriptures. Here he is giving credit not to himself but to Farel and those who led the way or paved the road for him in Geneva. It is also a reminder to us of how important Calvin viewed the role of preaching faithfully God’s word. There is a temptation that pastors faith—to want to be popular—to want to have people come and listen to them as they preach. And Calvin is saying that we need to forget this philosophy in our preaching because the only way to become a popular preacher is to seek not to offend. We cannot sacrifice faithfully preaching God’s word. At the same time, when we do not sacrifice the preaching of God’s word, change will come and God will bring reformation and revival in His own time. And this is what Calvin is looking back at as he looks at the city of Geneva as they have moved away from the Roman Catholic Church.
Calvin then works systematically through Sadolet’s letter and then illustrates the logical errors and inconsistencies in each of his arguments. It is interesting for us to note where Calvin begins because he begins with what we, in Presbyterian circles, call the Regulative Principle of Worship. In other words, scripture regulates everything that we do in worship.
I think that emphasizes some of the things that Calvin holds to be important to the life of the Church. Oftentimes Calvin is thought of as the theologian of the Reformation, and he indeed was, but he is a theologian of worship. He saw the role of worship of God’s people as essential an that if our theology does not lead us into worship and equip us to worship better, our theology is wrong.
He begins this section by posing the question—which is the true Church, the Roman Catholic Church or the Reformed church? As he looks at this Regulative principle of worship and at the marks of the true church, he concludes that it is the Reformed church that is the true church. And Calvin demonstrates that the Roman Catholic church has moved away from Scripture and the tradition of the church fathers. In other words, it is the Roman Catholic Church that has moved away from fellowship and the Reformers and the ones who are preserving the true faith.
Calvin also mentions how he mentions how he longs for a day of ecclesiastical unity, that the church may indeed may be once again be one body, but only under God’s word, and not under man made traditions that are followed by the church.
So Calvin demonstrates a lot about apologetics in the way he approaches his writings, but Calvin also does not end his apologetic method or approach with his writings themselves. Calvin also applies his apologetics to actions in life. We have already demonstrated how Calvin is a student of the early church fathers. And in his apologetic writings he is following in the tradition of those like Quadratus who wrote to Hadrian to end the persecution of the church. And also in the line of those like Tertullian who wrote that Christians are an asset to the empire and not a threat.
As I was listening to pastor Ten speak earlier this morning, I heard this language coming out; he is looking at the benefits that the Reformed people brought to Russia. He was lamenting the fact that we as the church are not given credit for that—in a sense giving a call to all of us and particularly to you as pastors to speak to those over you and to say to them that we are a benefit to you and to your communities.
One of the questions that I am constantly asking the Ruling Elders of my church is this: If the church closed its doors and disappeared tomorrow, would the community notice? All too often the answer that churches give is that the community would not notice their disappearance. My challenge to you is the same challenge I give to my Ruling Elders every time we meet as a session. Be intentional about way you live and the way you exist. Be a benefit to your community in such a way that they see you as relevant to what you are doing and even if they don’t agree with you or hold to the Christian faith, they should see your presence as beneficial to the community.
One of the churches that I preached in many years ago when I was in seminary was built by an unbeliever. Yet he had the honest belief that if his community that he was establishing would continue, it needed a Presbyterian church. My prayer is that your communities (even non-believers in your communities) would think the same way. Like these early church fathers, Calvin, too, said that Christians were an important part of their society.
And he went on to teach about how the church is to live faithfully within that society. This is what we sometimes call the doctrine of vocational calling. The Roman Catholics taught that the only ones who were called by God to serve were the priests. Calvin taught that regardless of your occupation and the work you do, you are called by God to do it. That if you are a farmer, God had called you to be that farmer. That if you were an officer in the church or in the city government, God had called you to that as well. That work in itself is good and it is given by God no matter how dignified nor how menial that calling. And if God has given you work to do, it is a holy calling to work out in our lives.
In a sense, part of this is not only to encourage us to work harder and to work to the glory of God, but part of this is also an apologetic in lifestyle. In the passage we read from in 1 Peter earlier this afternoon, Peter is talking about how we live out our lives in every context despite the persecution we may face and we are to live in a dignified and honorable way so that when we are reviled, others will be drawn to Christ. That they will look at is, with the hope that we have, despite our condition and they will scratch their heads and ask how that person can be happy despite what that person may be doing. Calvin understood that when Christians live out their faith in their work, that the communities around them will recognize the value of having Christians in their midst. And not only will they cease persecution but will also open up doors to practice faith more freely.
If you want to bring change in Russia, one of the ways that you will do so is by teaching your people to live out their holy callings in life. And if you teach them to live out their work to the Glory of God they will draw others to Christ and will open gateways for the church to grow and flourish. As Christians, we need to live to a higher standard because God is who we serve, not man. And that we are thankful and joyful at whatever provision that God gives us both for our provision and for our lives.
Think about it in the most basic of terms. What kind of people do you prefer to have around you during the day? Do you want cheerful people or grumpy ones? Cheerful people make work more pleasant no matter how dirty that work may be, and again the gospel is spread.
In the time I have left, I want to make one more observation about Calvin’s view on apologetics. That is the importance that Calvin placed on education. The Roman Catholic church kept theological education to a few, Calvin instead opened it up to the masses. The Roman Catholic church taught ritual whereas Calvin taught scripture. Calvin did so through his personal teachings on the Bible and through his writings.
In addition, in 1559, Calvin opened the Genevan Academy to train believers to do whatever they were called to do. This was a school not open only to those training for the ministry but to everyone in the city. By Calvin’s death, 5 years after the opening of the school, there were 1200 students in the college alone and an additional 300 were in the seminary training to be pastors. Of course, many of those pastors would go back to France to face the persecution that was taking place there. An interesting side note is that Thomas Jefferson, an early American president, actually tried to buy the college Calvin began and move it to America. Jefferson believed that such a university would benefit the new country called America.
And obviously the college was not moved, but a similarly designed college was established.
I am convinced that this is the kind of mindset that you want to nourish in your church. You do not want a congregation of people who will just come to speak to you every week. But you want a congregation like the Bereans, faithfully seeking out God’s word, digging into it to find out what is going on. You want a congregation that is hungry and eager to understand God’s word and learn God’s truth. Some pastors consider that a threat because as a pastor that means you need to be well versed and study yourself. But if you hold that mindset, shame on your…we need to be the teachers of God’s people and to nourish in them a spirit that wants to know God’s truth. And we want them asking difficult questions—that helps to teach us that they are drawing upon spiritual truth as well.
And you especially need to train up the men in your church. One of the weak parts of the church in America is that it is dominated by women. This is not to knock the faith or the prayers of the ladies who are in our churches, but we need men who are hungry for God’s word and theology who will lead and teach their families. And that will only happen if you teach and emphasized the teaching in terms of the lives of the men of your church.
There is a lot more that we could talk about in terms of Calvin’s Apologetics. We could talk about Calvin’s style of worship and how worship itself is an apologetic tool. But I set that into your lives and for your responsibility for further study; I simply want to set before you three basic goals:
1. Be prepared to defend your church as pastors; there are bears and their lions out there in the world that are seeking to devour and destroy.
2. As a shepherd of God’s fold you have a responsibility to protect them, but you have a responsibility to feed or teach them as well. Part of that is through educating them and through teaching them a lifestyle that will draw others to Christ and ease the persecution on the church.
3. We also have a responsibility to educate your people. Teach them from the pulpit every opportunity that you get. Teach them through your lifestyle every time they are looking at you. And write for them so that you will teach them when you are apart.