"The Calvin Project": The Calvin We Tend to Forget

Most readers of these pages will be familiar not only with the name but also with the ministry of John Calvin. But "the Calvin we tend to forget"? What new revelations about the Genevan Reformer are we about to discover? Many of us handle his commentaries on an almost weekly basis. Forget Calvin? Not subscribers to The Expositor, surely? Perhaps not. But he has been forgotten before. As is well known, at one time there was such disinterest in his life and work that-alas-many of the manuscripts of his sermons, carefully taken down and collated by a team of diligent amanuenses, were sold for the paper to be recycled. No matter how much Calvin you have collected-even if you owned the set of Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia, a mere fifty-nine massive tomes, plus additions-you still would not have Calvin's complete works!

Despite this prodigious body of material to be found in so many university libraries, in the academic world, Calvin the great theologian and Reformer was all but forgotten a century or so ago. Were it not for the influence of Karl Barth's rediscovery of him, the five hundredth anniversary of his birth might have aroused little interest in the academy. Calvin was yesterday's man.

The same was true in the church. Were it not for an unexpected and unpredicted movement of the Spirit throughout the world in the last half century or so, which led to the rediscovery and republication of the works of the sixteenth century Reformers and the seventeenth century Puritans, few preachers today would ever read a word written by John Calvin. Indeed, when I was a student in Scotland, celebrating my twenty-first birthday with money my mother had given to me, I had to import a set of Calvin's commentaries from the U.S. They cost the equivalent of a week and a half of the average national wage. I knew no contemporaries who possessed a set, and few who wanted to. In sharp contrast, Calvin's writings are currently in abundant supply; a set of his commentaries can be had for the monetary equivalent of a few hours' work.

How, then, could we "forget" Calvin? We look back to him as a standard model of systematic expository preaching. Like him, many of us are resolutely committed to preaching consecutively through books of Scripture. We feel we are following in the path he blazed.

But are we? Certainly, we have seen a remarkable restoration of systematic expository preaching. What was rare fifty years ago is now commonplace,and indeed, is sometimes seen as the only proper way to preach-verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book-just like Calvin did.

We know he was neither alone nor original. Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) had recovered the pattern he saw in Augustine and Chrysostom in the early church. He had launched his career as People's Preacher at the Old Minster in Zurich in 1519 by the stunningly novel practice of preaching systematically through the New Testament, beginning with Matthew. Others followed. But none of his contemporaries rivalled Calvin in exegetical ability. He was a superbly gifted and highly trained literary exegete, and he brought those God-given gifts to bear on the task of gospel ministry. His rare autobiographical comments in the introduction to his Commentary on the Psalms gives us a clear hint that his insight into the meaning of Scripture was already evident within the first year after the "sudden [or perhaps unexpected] conversion" by which God subdued him. And later in life, he was without peer in his sheer dogged persistence in expounding and applying the text of Scripture over many years. The effect on Geneva and far beyond (especially France) was staggering-although the story of Calvin's ministry, and the Minutes of the Consistory of Geneva, make clear that by no means were all enthusiastic about his sermons.

But despite these gifts, Calvin had what would today be regarded as an excruciatingly difficult, perhaps even disastrous first pastorate. Humanly speaking, he was little prepared for the rough and tumble of pastoral ministry. He was, after all, a scholar, and still in his mid-twenties.

If it is still true that the average first pastorate in the U.S. lasts about two years, Calvin was, at first, a quintessentially average pastor. Within that period-accompanied by William Farel and other colleagues-he upset large and influential sections of the Genevan citizenry. A crisis point was reached on Easter weekend of 1538, and within a matter of days, Calvin was forced out of town. Famously, some three and a half years later, he was invited back. He saw his return as a fate worse than death. But he came, older, more mature, wiser, and-in addition-having already taken the first steps in initiating what we might call "The Calvin Project."

What was "The Calvin Project"? The idea was certainly his even if the description is ours. In essence, it was his answer to the question, "What should a genuinely biblical ministry look like in sixteenth-century Switzerland?"

We are all familiar with Calvin's answer. Expository preaching was its heart and backbone.. However much he might have preferred the life of secluded scholarship, Calvin had now become, for better or worse, a gospel preacher first and foremost.

The season Calvin spent in Strasbourg under the wise and watchful eye of Martin Bucer had matured him. It had also enlarged his view of what his ministry should be, and "The Calvin Project" was soon underway. "The Project" was comprised of a series of elements:

1. The Pen
While there, pastoring his own congregation, Calvin conceived an ambitious program for the benefit of the church. He would explain, expound, and apply the Scriptures in writing. He planned to write his way through the books of the New Testament (just as later he would lecture through much of the Old Testament). Despite the busyness of life and the pressures of his position, within a period of about twenty-five years he had commented on almost the whole of the New Testament. He did so out of the conviction that literate Christians needed to study Scripture for themselves, and his goal was to help them to do so.

Calvin did not set out to write technical critical commentaries of the modern genre, but ones that were marked by clarity and brevity and suffused with a genuine reverence for the details of the text, treating them as God's own words. The measure of his success here can be seen in this: a few preachers today might consult Luther on a passage-but largely to be gripped and inspired by his purple prose. Many, however, turn to Calvin for the clear exposition and application of the text. Had he done this alone, his contribution would have been immense.

"The Project" envisaged a fraternal relationship between the Commentaries and the Institutes of the Christian Religion. They were the two parts of a unified whole. And so The Institutes, which had been first published in 1536 as a six-chapter primer on the Reformed faith was now progressively reworked to become a handbook of evangelical theology, expounding Christian doctrine at length and in a biblical way. The Commentaries then exegeted the biblical text and, when necessary, redirected readers to the Institutes for the elucidation of points of doctrine. The combination of biblical exegesis and exposition with a coherent and warm-hearted exposition of a biblically informed theology thus became the supporting pillars for the rest of his work.

It is surprisingly easy to miss the point here. Calvin not only spoke the Word; he wrote the Word. He viewed writing as an integral part of his ministry.

Calvin was called to be a preacher and to be an author. Not all preachers are called to be authors. The spoken word and the written word are two very different modes of communication, even although both employ words. But most preachers will be writers. The existence of new social media has paradoxically created a whole new generation of writers. But there can be writing on social media by Christians, and by pastors, unfortunately, that is simply self-obsessed, and indeed self-promoting. The medium can become a means not of ministry, but of self-expression. But given the widespread use of communication technology, these media can also be wonderful tools to communicate the Word of God to our people-a mechanism by which we do for our own people what Calvin was doing for his. This requires that we first see writing as an aspect of our ministry of the Word, and that we do it under Paul's rubric: "for we do notproclaim ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor 4:5). Who would have thought that in a world of blogs and tweets and Facebook and the like, remembering Calvin's vision for his writing would transform what we write into a ministry of the Word?

That said, the spoken ministry clearly lay at the heart of Calvin's vision. In fact, it did so on a virtually daily basis from the day he returned to Geneva.

2. The Pulpit
The atmosphere in St. Peter's Church must have been electric in the fall of 1541 as the congregation crowded into the dark sanctuary to watch Calvin once again mount the pulpit steps. Three years ago they had exiled him. What would he say? What text would he use to excoriate them? What happened is well known. No doubt the memory of Calvin's last sermon, perhaps of his last sentences, had lingered long in the memories of these Genevans. They surely steeled themselves for a loud trumpet blast against their sins. Calvin turned the pages in his Bible until he found the place-and began to expound the passage he had been preaching on in the series that had ended so abruptly three years and more before. From that hour he continued, day after day, week after week, for more than two decades, in the consecutive exposition of Scripture-verse after verse, chapter after chapter, book after book after book.

What, however, we are liable to forget is that when Calvin had finished his sermon, the next time he preached was not a whole week but only a day later. For, although his schedule was adjusted at various times to make it workable for a man plagued with a catalogue of medical problems, Calvin preached on a daily, not a weekly basis. Eventually, the rotation that he found workable was, in addition to preaching at least twice every Sunday, preaching also on every weekday during every second week. In other words, his preaching pattern was not merely consecutive exposition in terms of biblical passages, but in chronological terms too. It was daily exposition (whether by him or by one of the other ministers). On average, then, Calvin preached six or seven sermons each week.

To many contemporary preachers this statistic is staggering. Only a genius could do this. By definition we see it as an idiosyncratic happenstance.

To think this way, however, is to misunderstand Calvin's the goal of "The Project" he had conceived. His vision was to pour the Word into the minds, affections, and souls of the Genevans, not merely to give them a biblical education. He had in view the transformation of their whole lives by the renewal of their minds through the ministry of the Word. Unlike so much contemporary evangelicalism, he placed great weight on the work the Word itself accomplished, not just on what we must accomplish in response to it. If the most important thing about preaching is what we do as a result of it, then a moderate-length sermon once a week is all most of us can handle. But if, as our Lord prayed, we are to be sanctified through the truth, then the more of that truth that is preached to us the better. If we really want to be Calvin's heirs and to see similar fruit, then we do well to explore how we can implement this aspect of "The Calvin Project" today, not now in Geneva Switzerland (unless we live there!), but in Smallsville, U.S.A., or wherever the Lord has placed us.

Calvin's question was: "What does genuinely apostolic ministry look like in this place (Geneva) and at this time (1541-1564)?" The guidelines he found in the New Testament included that it would produce a devotion to the apostles' teaching that involved very frequently gathering for their preaching. Not only does Luke say (i) "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42) but (ii) that in order to do so they gathered "day by day" (Acts 2:46, 47).

In a very different context, the "last of the apostles" applied this same pattern, now in Ephesus rather than Jerusalem. Paul hired the lecture hall of Tyrannus. There he could be found "reasoning daily" with the disciples, continuing to do so "for two years" (Acts 19:9-10). Our modern translations often include a footnote at this point. It comes from the so-called "Western" textual tradition of Acts 19:9 and is sufficiently well attested to be at least reckoned an accurate hypothesis. Paul taught the word daily "from the fifth hour to the tenth," or in our terms, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.-the period when the sun was at its zenith and every self-respecting student in Tyrannus' philosophy class was having a siesta in the shade. That amounts to five hours each day!

What Calvin was doing, therefore, was not underwritten by the conviction that he had unique skills and could sustain the workload or was a good enough preacher to be able to sustain the attendance. No, his vision was to immerse his people in Scripture until its teaching cleansed and transformed them into men and women in whom a biblical understanding and lifestyle was, as it were, instinctive to them-as if it were second nature. Not merely informed minds, but transformed lives that issue from the renewing of the mind was the goal in view.

Compare this to current patterns of ministry. Should it not make us ask whether the comparative impoverishment of Christian character, the low levels of biblical understanding, and the all-too-superficial impact made on society by the evangelical church are virtually inevitable given the comparative famine of the hearing of the Word of God that many churches endure? How can we hope to live a genuinely cutting-edge Christian life if we are on a subsistence diet? Our churches' leaderships need to look very closely at this issue and engage in the self-examination required to develop better patterns of church life. It is insufficient to say, "We live neither in sixteenth-century Geneva, nor even in SmallTown, U.S.A., and therefore this kind of vision is impractical to the point of impossibility." Rather we need to ask serious questions about our vision and our desire for spiritual growth and find creative answers. And perhaps ultimately we need to be asking questions about the shape, size, and even location of the church we attend to make greater exposure to the Word possible.

All this, of course, assumes-with Calvin-that the public and corporate ministry of the Word is foundational and fundamental, and not a merely individual matter. Granted this, how can we make it possible for our people to have a diet of the Word that is more than the approximately fifteen percent of the intake a believer in Geneva might have had? At the very least, it calls for more than one gathering on the Lord's Day and opportunity during the week for the exposition of Scripture.

Perhaps it is worth noting in passing that here is a difference between preaching consecutively through Bible books day by day and week by week. Seventy-eight sermons on Philippians, for example, is the work of a year and a half in contemporary church life. In Geneva, it was the work of about three months. There is an important psychological difference between the two experiences. Calvin could work his way through any book of Scripture in a fifth of the time we could, while still preaching the same number of sermons. We need to be careful lest following Calvin slavishly lead to lethargy in the congregation (not all of us have the gifts to sustain a series on a short book for eighteen months!). Doing so may also mean that, unless we genuinely have developed a "Calvin-Like Project" in our ministry, many months and even years may pass without us handling all kinds of important doctrines, emphases, and issues.

It is precisely here that the other dimensions of "The Calvin Project" become relevant. He understood that preaching the Word is not the whole of the ministry of the Word.

How, then, did he further develop "The Project"? In several ways. The first of these was catechetical teaching.

3. The Catechism
Calvin held the view that a catechism was of such importance that the church could not survive without it. For this reason, every Sunday there was a catechetical service for youngsters-to which, on occasion, the Consistory would also send adults lacking in their understanding of the basics of the Christian faith. Calvin himself wrote a catechism for children. Granted some of the questions are quite long-doctrinal statements with a question tagged on-but Calvin was not so obtuse that he did not provide simple answers-such as (my own favorite): "It is as you say"!

But why did he see this as so vital?

There are considerable intellectual benefits from learning a catechism. For one thing, it teaches us to think clearly and logically. It also teaches us that Scripture truth discloses itself to us only when right and appropriate questions are asked and we listen to what it actually says (a principle that in the Reformation context men of learning would apply with great effect in the scientific enterprise). But more than this it provides the believer's mind with categories of thought that make it possible for us to grasp and retain the content of the exposition of Scripture we are hearing. This, in turn, enables us to speak the gospel coherently, to see through the wisdom of the world so that we are not easily deceived children, and it saves us from being so doctrine-light that we are blown to and fro by every new wind of teaching in town. In addition, we learn to think great thoughts of God and so to grasp the wonder of all that He is and has done for us and given to us.

The result? The child or adult who knows his or her catechism is equipped to think biblically and clearly about God, themselves, the gospel, and the lifestyle to which we are called in Christ, and to speak coherently and persuasively about it to those who are not yet believers, so much so that a young teenager in Calvin's Geneva who had diligently attended the catechism service on Sunday afternoon knew and could articulate far more Christian doctrine than the vast majority of members of evangelical churches today.

I recall being told of an incident at a youth retreat in one of the congregations I served. Two mothers were helping the youth staff, and during some of the "down time," the youngsters were sitting around asking all kinds of theological questions. One of the mothers patiently provided lucid answer after lucid answer to them, with what seemed to the other to be a remarkable display of biblical knowledge and wisdom. Later, when they were talking privately, the second mother commented on this. "How do you know all that?" she asked; "Your answers were amazingly clear and helpful!" "Oh" said the other mother, almost casually, "it's all in The Shorter Catechism."  We may smile; but Calvin knew exactly what he was doing.

Catechizing carries a bad odor in many churches today. We have had the wool pulled over our eyes by educationalists and psychologists who tell us children neither want to know nor are able to understand Christian doctrine. Have they never listened to the questions young people actually ask? Or do they refused to listen to them because they were embarrassed they do not know the answer? We need to learn from "The Calvin Project" how important and wonderfully healthy it is to grow in the knowledge and understanding of God. And we need to find ways of reintroducing catechism-whether by returning to the old ones or employing some of the new and usually simpler ones, or by finding other ways of teaching the children in the church-and their parents-the riches of the gospel.

One illustration of such a re-introduction could be seen in Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, when James Montgomery Boice was minister. His express vision ran counter to what he perceived happening in American evangelicalism. "While many churches are encouraging adults to behave like youngsters in worship; here we want to see our children growing to be adults in worship." And this was many years before the publication of Thomas Bergler's 2012 study The Juvenilization of American Christianity.

Most guest preachers would easily recall one of the ways this vision was developed. The preacher would go to the children's Sunday School class and point out one or two things for them to listen out for in the sermon. Then, during a period of varied activities, each child would at some point leave his or her place and go to a wonderful and warm-hearted elder sitting on his own at the back of the room. There they would repeat the catechism question and answer for the week before returning to their place. The elder had been carefully chosen-a man universally respected, well-proven, trusted in every respect, and loved-a man with a big heart and a welcoming smile. It was obvious how much the children looked forward to their few minutes with him. And so they discovered the pleasures of learning and confessing. At the same time they learned how much their elders cared for them as well as for their parents.

Young boys grow into young men. "The Calvin Project" also encompassed them. Here we meet Calvin the professor of Old Testament.

4. The Lectern
The word "professor" suggests to us the ivory towers of the university or seminary. And it is true that Calvin served as a Bible professor specializing in the Old Testament. He gave three lectures each week-so appreciated that sometimes, in order to accommodate the numbers, they were held in the church sanctuary rather than in the lecture room. Many of those lectures remain in print, wonderfully concluding with his customary prayer at the end of the class.

This may be of interest to us as preachers-it certainly makes Calvin seem all the more impressive. But what relevance does it have to our ministry? Most of us do not possess the kind of gifts that seminary professors are expected to have. But we would be mistaken to conclude this. For what Calvin was essentially doing was preparing younger men for gospel ministry, investing his gifts in them out of a burden to send preachers of the gospel throughout Europe and beyond, but especially to the France in which he himself had become a persona non grata. The astonishing fact is that he prepared hundreds of such young men to become "church planters." Some of them would be martyred. His vision was that serious.

Simply put, then, the real Calvin was a man with a missionary zeal and a burden to invest all he could in the ministers of the future. They came to Geneva in droves, largely to sit under his teaching and to be near enough to feel the vibrations of ministry. They lived with members of the church and attended the various worship services. And with this combination of influences, they became some of the best fruit of "The Calvin Project."

What might we so easily forget about Calvin in this context? Perhaps we never expected that he would be like Moses, surrounded by Joshuas, or like Elijah, surrounded by Elishas, or like Paul, surrounded by Timothys. But he was. And we should be too.

There was yet more, however. Even many who know about Calvin's ministry forget about Les Congrégations-

5. The Congregations
But what were "The Congregations"? Each Friday pastors and others from Geneva and its environs met together for the study of Scripture and for mutual exhortation. It was a pattern that the Puritans would later follow in a less structured fashion by gathering in the market town on market day for preaching and then "combining" (taking a meal together and discussing not only the message preached but other matters). They would bring younger men with them to benefit from the ministry of the more seasoned ministers.  

In Geneva, the pastors studied the Scriptures together. It is not difficult to imagine what frequently happened. Whenever he was present, Calvin was looked to for a sure-footed understanding of the passage under consideration-and would therefore add a further impromptu exposition to those he was giving in public. These occasions must have felt like being in the workshop of the master exegete. Not only did they serve as continuing education opportunities (fifty-two times a year!), but they provided occasions when it was possible to observe at close quarters a model of handling Scripture accurately and pastorally.

This was not the typical pastors' fraternal where papers on topics of interest are read and coffee is drunk. For one thing, the mutual exhortation was much more serious; it was an occasion of mutual ministry. Men heard each other handle Scripture on a regular basis, learned from one another, and helped each other.

There is surely a pattern here that needs to be recovered. It long persisted in the communion season of past generations. Granted (in my own view) the Lord's Supper was celebrated far too infrequently (perhaps only twice a year), the pattern had two merits. The first was that the "season" lasted for perhaps five days. People arranged their lives so that they could be under the ministry of the Word, and in fellowship corporately and privately in a more intensive way than normal, for an extended period of time. Friends from elsewhere gathered. Frequently, great blessing was enjoyed by the congregation.

In addition to these blessings for the people, however, given the number of preaching occasions during the "season," the local pastor would invite two or three friends to share the ministry of the Word. In this way, brethren heard one another preach, spent time together in talking about the ministry they were receiving, and had the opportunity for mutual exhortation and encouragement. More was accomplished, therefore, than in our contemporary annual church conferences where we invite as well-known a preacher as we can (even if we do not know him!) to preach through a weekend. It is a pattern worth recovering-and around a communion season would be an ideal time to recover it. Apart from other benefits that might be listed, a congregation then gets to know their pastor in the context of other pastors who also know him well.

"The Calvin Project" was centered on the ongoing preaching of the Word, immersing the people in the truth of the gospel. It was further strengthened by the written word-Commentaries, Institutes, and other materials. Future ministry was carefully instructed and trained in an educational setting in which the students were intimately related to the life of the local church, and the present ministry was strengthened and challenged by the weekly congregations. It was a simple yet wonderfully effective plan.

But one further element was essential-prayer.

6. The Prayers
When he returned to Geneva in 1541, Calvin was able to see implemented a practice he saw as key to the whole project. Every Wednesday in Geneva was designated the Day of Prayer, and specific gatherings for prayer were held. Calvin realized that apostolic ministry cannot be revived without the basic apostolic pattern: "We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4).

Would it perhaps be this element of "The Calvin Project" that would meet with least enthusiastic response today? We are keen to learn-preaching, lectures, teaching, fraternals, conferences-these we can organize; but not prayer. Herein perhaps lies the greatest challenge for the leadership in our churches. Calvin knew that, but he was not daunted by it.

Occasionally, one encounters a church and/or a pastor that conveys the impression they "do things right" and are "really reformed" and "follow Calvin." Perhaps. But it is doubtful that we can claim to be following Calvin without seeking ways to do all that Calvin did. Sadly, such congregations sometimes mean no more than that they celebrate the Lord's Supper on a weekly basis (something Calvin desired but never attained). But there is so much more to "The Calvin Project" than that-preaching, communicating in writing, committing ourselves to the future preachers of the gospel, engaging with other preachers and sitting under each other's ministries-and much prayer.

Calvin was by no means perfect, nor did he perfectly accomplish his project. But he surely responded to the exhortation of the apostle Paul: "Brethren, join in following my example"-and the words that follow surely encourage us to follow in his footsteps: "Observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us" (Phil 3:17)

It is easy to forget some things about Calvin and his ministry. There was a good deal more to "The Calvin Project" than we may have thought. There is still much to learn from him.

This article originally appeared in Expositor Magazine, No. 17, May/June 2017.