ANY really adequate estimate of the work of a public man must be based upon a knowledge of the circumstances under which he worked and of the times in which he lived. It is hoped that a sufficiently clear view of the surroundings of Calvin’s life and of the principles that governed his labors has been set before the reader in the foregoing pages; so that it now only remains to gather up the facts of three-and-a-half centuries ago, and to focus them in the light of the present day.
If by “work” is meant the actual labor accomplished during the lifetime of a man, Calvin’s work was immense. It has been said of Samuel Rutherford that, reading his writings, it would appear as if he did nothing but write; hearing him preach, as if he did nothing else but preach. This may with equal point be said of John Calvin. The writing of his Institutes would nobly fill an ordinary lifetime; but when his Commentaries are added, covering the whole Bible with the exception of the Book of Revelation, it seems incredible that he could have accomplished both. Then his vast correspondence would seem to demand another lifetime. Above all this, his preaching, expounding, organizing, advising other men and other churches, and his defense of truth, must be taken into account.
But it will be helpful to the reader to have the various branches of the Reformer’s life spread out before him in their proper sequence. His work as an Author, as a Preacher, and as a Reformer, will in turn claim our attention.
The “Institutes of the Christian Religion” will stand for ages as a masterpiece of orderly exposition. Everything is explained with perfect precision. Whether in establishing holy doctrines, in refuting error, or stating truth, this work excels.
One leading excellence of this great “Body of Divinity” is that every doctrine is presented as a part of one undivided whole. A living unity of purpose pervades the entire work. In this the Reformer took up a position that had not been reached by any previous author. Luther and Melancthon had stated and defended truth, and had refuted error, with ability and success; but they had done so piecemeal, so to speak. Calvin’s more penetrating and more methodical mind seemed to take in the whole proportion and tendency of truth at one view.
Another leading excellence is the author’s universal appeal to the decisions of the Holy Spirit in Scripture. There is no selection of bits of truth out of the Bible to build up a system of his own. He takes the whole written Word as God’s one and indivisible declaration of truth, complete and harmonious. Those who think that Calvin invented what is called “Calvinism” are lamentably mistaken; and so long as the Institutes are accessible for a few shillings, they are wilfully deceiving themselves and speaking evil of things they do not understand.
A balanced judgment will also realize that, as there are diversities of gifts, so also are there differences in operation; the same Spirit dividing to each severally as He will. We must recognize the wisdom of the words of Luther: “I am born to be a rough controversialist. I clear the ground, pull up weeds, fill up ditches, and smooth the roads. But to build, to plant, to sow, to water, to adorn the country, belongs by the grace of God to Melancthon.”
The Commentaries on the books of Scripture have been often named in the preceding pages. It may be convenient to state here that a complete set of them consists of forty-eight octavo volumes, with the addition that the Commentary on Romans has been translated by two translators, so making forty-nine. These expositions of the Bible are justly esteemed for their excellency and dignity. There is a profound depth of wisdom, and yet the style is simple. Every word expresses a thought, and has its own place and weight.
The writer’s mind bows to the majesty of Scripture, as to the very Word of God; and never refuses to accept what it cannot fathom, on the simple ground that God is the Speaker. Some have thought Calvin inconsistent by reason of this his loyal consistency. While maintaining the absolute sovereignty of God in predestination and election, he at the same time allows Scripture to speak of the freeness of the gospel, of the universal outward call of the gospel, and of the sin of rejecting it: If this is to be inconsistent, then Scripture is inconsistent. His expositions are never cramped by the narrow restrictions of a party; and he never shrinks from giving the real sense of the sacred text. In a word, he called no man Master, but expounded what God has written; and our wisdom will be to imitate him in this.
As an expositor of Scripture, the Word of God was as sacred to him as if he heard it spoken by the lips of its Author. This principle shines in all that he wrote. His expositions stand unrivalled for depth and clearness.
The intense acuteness of his mind enabled him to grasp first principles and essential truths, and he was skillful to place these before his readers.
The letters written by John Calvin form another monument to his memory. There is this remarkable feature about them,—that they are written with the same precision, and with the same ability, as all his other writings. Even when he pleads lack of time in beginning a letter to a friend, he goes on to write with the same care and accuracy as if the whole day were before him. And the number of them is amazing, covering the whole ground from his leaving France to his death in 1564.
It was intended to publish all his available letters in four volumes, in which “at least six hundred” letters would be given. This was undertaken by Dr. Jules Bonnet, transcribing and editing them from the original manuscripts.
But only two of the four volumes were published (1855); and these contain three hundred and thirty-six letters. It is much to be lamented that this undertaking was not completed, as the later letters would have been those of the latest years of the Reformer’s life, and therefore the ripest and the best.
As a Preacher, our materials are not sufficient to form a judgment. We have few of his sermons, as such, on record. We can therefore only judge of the character of his preaching by that of his printed works, and by the effects produced by it in Geneva. We rest assured that it was eminently expository, and devoted to the “opening and alleging” (Acts 17:3) of all divine truth. It produced a revolution in Geneva. It is a very significant fact that the building which now stands on the site of the house occupied by Calvin bears over its door the inscription, Bureau de Salubrite; that is, Office of Public Health. The teaching of Calvin, even considered apart from its value to the godly, exerted a marvellous moral influence upon Geneva.
As a Reformer, the foregoing pages will have presented a sufficient portrait of Calvin. He stands second to none in the glorious Reformation movement of the sixteenth century. We have traced his influence in England and in other nations. That influence was instrumental in planting more than two thousand Reformed churches in France. But it was in Geneva especially that he unfolded the energies of his ardent spirit. He was there the light of the church, the strength of the laws, the restorer of morals, and the fountain of literature. To this day Switzerland is reaping what he sowed; so that Montesquieu remarks: “The Genevese ought to bless the moment of the birth of Calvin, and that of his arrival within their walls.”