Theology and Preaching in Calvin’s Ministry
The Institutes were first published in March 1536. Calvin had been forced to flee Paris in 1533 because a friend of his, Nicholas Cop had preached a sermon which, whilst not thoroughly Protestant, certainly had enough evangelical content to get him into serious trouble with the extremely conservative theology faculty at the University of Paris, the Sorbonne.
In his writing of the first edition of the Institutes whilst in exile in Basel, Switzerland, Calvin was acutely conscious of the plight of his fellow evangelicals in France. The French king, Francis I, initially had been ambivalent towards the reform of the Church. He was sympathetic towards Erasmus and the Christian humanist reform programme, but deeply suspicious of Lutheranism. At this stage, however, it was far from clear where one ended and the other began. Francis’s hand was forced, however, in 1534 by the “Affair of the Placards”. On 18th October 1534 Parisians woke up to find Protestant placards or broadsheets posted around Paris which told them that the Mass was a priestly sham which “seduced” people and would ultimately destroy the world. Some placards had even found there way into the king’s chateau at Blois. Imagine how Francis I felt when he woke up one morning to find attacks on the doctrine of transubstantiation posted around his chateau! He was not amused to say the very least. This incident released a wave of repression across France. Francis urged all his subjects to denounce “heretics.” On 21st January 1535 six evangelicals were burnt at the stake and many more followed in the next six months.
It was the suffering of his fellow countrymen & women for the Gospel that spurred Calvin on in his publication of the Institutes. The Institutes were never cold, abstract theology. Calvin is often depicted in popular mythology as a cold hearted individual – perhaps because he was rather shy and reserved - but Calvin’s theology was rooted in his pastoral heart for God’s people, particularly his fellow Frenchmen.
But lo!, (Calvin writes), while I lay hidden in Basel, and known only to a few people, many faithful and holy persons were burnt alive in France… It appeared to me, that unless I opposed [the perpetrators] to the utmost of my ability, my silence could not be vindicated from the charge of cowardice and treachery. This was the consideration which induced me to publish my Institutes of the Christian Religion… It was published with no other design than that men might know what was the faith held by those whom I saw basely and wickedly defamed.
Calvin begins the 1536 Institutes with a preface to King Francis in which he defends the evangelical cause with deference and respect but, nonetheless, with passion and conviction. He refutes the charge of innovation. There is nothing “new” about evangelical doctrine – it is the authentic apostolic doctrine of Paul - that Christ “died for our sins and rose again for our justification.” He refutes any suggestion of hesitancy and uncertainty amongst evangelicals. They have faced death itself and eternal judgment without fear. Moreover, Calvin rejects the suggestion that evangelicals imply that the Church has been dead for a period. The Church can exist even when it has no visible form and that the Church exits not so much as an institution, but wherever the word of God is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.
Thus Calvin is beginning at the tender age of 27 to offer a depth and breadth of leadership to the fledgling evangelical Church in France which is out of all proportion to his age or experience. He was, at this stage, one of the least conspicuous French Protestants. It was the Institutes that established his reputation as one of the leading and, ultimately, the leading spokesman for French evangelicalism. When Calvin was passing through Geneva a few months after publication, intending to stay there for no more than 24 hours, it was because of his reputation as the author of the Institutes that Calvin had his arm twisted to stay and lead the Church in the city.
This post forms part 2 of the series Why I am a little bit Reformed.