Calvin fled to Basel in 1535 with his friend du Tillet to avoid persecution. Basel, a German language city in Switzerland, gave the French-speaking Calvin a reprieve from turmoil and unlimited time to pursue his religious quest. From Basel, we have the first verifiable indication of Calvin’s spiritual conversion to Evangelical faith. It appeared in Prefaces to a new French translation of the Bible. Olivétan, Calvin’s college friend, and family relation, had spent the years after grad school translating the Bible from original Hebrew and Greek texts. Olivétan was a Waldensian lay preacher who brought the Christian message to rural churches in their own language. Since translations of the Bible in the vernacular were uncommon (and illegal), Calvin provided a summary of the Bible to orient new readers to its themes. "The light shown forth in the darkness" motto on the cover is a reflection of Calvin’s own encounter with the Bible, which he addressed to those “faithful unto death.” He begins with a polemical explanation for the absence of a royal imprimatur. God’s Word needs no human commendation, he argued. The Preface shows Calvin identified completely with the Reformation cause insofar as he blamed the Pope and his prelates for suppression of the Bible. Ganoczy writes about the Preface, “One has the impression that Calvin used no other source than the Bible itself and—let us willingly add—the responses that his readings of the Scriptures inspired in his own heart”
Since the Preface is essentially the first outline of his Institutes, it is worth summarizing what Calvin found in the Bible.
Most noteworthy is the dialectical structure of his thought. The dialectical structure exists on two levels. The first level is a personal interchange with the glory of God on one side and self-centered human beings on the other. Between God and humans, the following tension exists right from the start of Calvin’s account:
God the Creator, the most perfect and excellent Maker of all things, who had already shown himself more than admirable in their creation, made man as his masterpiece, to surpass all other creatures. Man is endowed with a singular excellence, for God formed him in his own image and likeness, in such manner that the light of his glory shone brightly in him.
But the wretched man, wanting to be somebody in himself, began incontinently to forget and misunderstand from whence the good came to him, and in outrageous ingratitude attempted to exalt himself in pride against his Maker and the Author of all these benefits.
Neuser notes the striking way in which these two adjacent paragraphs differ from simple summaries of the creation account in Genesis 1 and the re-telling of that story by Paul in Romans 1:22. Calvin's paraphrase refers to ‘man’ rather than Adam and omits the Serpent’s temptation of Eve. Calvin makes the historic fall into a continuous inclination of the human condition because Calvin is that man. The once-promising lawyer–now a vagrant–is the man who was "confounded in his pride to constrain him to learn what he not voluntarily wanted to hear, namely that he was by himself nothing but vanity, and would never have been anything else except with the assistance of the Lord of strength." A second duality controls Calvin’s paraphrase of the Bible. God’s revelation to Gentiles through nature and to Jews through the Law of Moses contrast with the revelation of God’s glory through Jesus Christ. Both Gentile and Jew betrayed the glory of God for their own desires, according to Calvin, so it was necessary to have a Mediator, who would intercede between God and man, as well as fulfill the Law. This Mediator declared a new “Testament, by which Jesus Christ has made us his heirs in the Kingdom of God his Father, and declares to us his will (like a testator to his heirs) that it be put into execution.” Neuser again alerts us to a surprising emphasis in Calvin. The word “Testament” came from Luther’s pamphlet _The Babylonian Captivity of the Church_in which he demonstrated that the Mass was like an unalterable will and not a sacrifice.
From this Calvin concluded,
There is but one way to life and salvation, and that is faith and certainty in the promises of God which cannot be had without the gospel; for by hearing it and knowing it living faith is provided, together with sure hope, and perfect love for God and a lively love toward our neighbor.
The Preface discloses the character of Calvin’s conversion to Evangelical faith. It was "sudden" in the theological sense of repentance and reconciliation to the glory of God through the promise of the Gospel alone without the need for church absolution.
Within that same ten-month period in Basel, Calvin produced the first edition of the _Institutes of the Christian Religion,_which was published in 1536. The _Institutesreflect the same structure found in the Preface,_which remained essentially unchanged through five more editions. To the _Institutes_Calvin appended a letter to Francis 1, King of France. He at first confessed his hesitation to address the King of France, but then he advised Francis as follows:
It will then be for you, most serene King, not to close your ears or your mind to such just defense, especially when a very great question is at stake: how God’s glory may be kept safe on earth, how God’s truth may retain its place of honor, how Christ’s Kingdom may be kept in good repair among us. Worthy indeed is the matter of your hearing, worthy of your cognizance, worthy or your royal throne! Indeed, this consideration makes a true king: to recognize himself a minister of God in governing his kingdom. Now, that king who is ruling over his realm does not serve God’s glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage.
Power in the service of God’s glory was Calvin’s main motivation for his bold address. The glory of God distinguished between true and false church for Calvin, as well as true and false government. For example, against the charge from Rome that the Reformation produced no miracles, Calvin asserted, "[I]t is the characteristic of sound doctrine, given by Christ, that it tends to promote, not the glory of men, but the glory of God." Calvin had no controversy with the church, understood in biblical terms. The true church is not the visible church but the invisible church with Christ as its head, and its power on earth is the Gospel. Therefore wherever there is “the pure preaching of God’s word and the legitimate administration of the sacraments,” there is the true church. A false church claimed all power and glory for the visible church, according to Calvin. Calvin’s Christ-centered concern for the church shows that his conversion was more than a private encounter with the Christ. Calvin’s conversion was also a call to serve the church. Calvin was twenty-seven, had boldly advised the King of France to lighten up on Lutheran Reformers, but he was not yet a man of the church.
Calvin’s actual call to church service was no "accident." A brief respite in church persecution provided refugees a return to Paris if they renounced evangelical faith after six months. Calvin took advantage of this policy to settle his father’s estate and remove his siblings to the safety at the frontier in Strasbourg. It is indicative of the political and religious instability in Geneva that warfare between the Catholic Duchy of Savoy and Bernese Protestants forced Calvin to detour through Geneva. William Farel (1489-1565) and Pierre Viret (1511-1574) had been active at church reformation in Geneva since 1532. For Farel, Calvin was the right man at the right time. Farel convinced Calvin God had called him to Geneva, where Calvin spent the next two years. 10 We need to look more closely at two details from this period to round out our understanding of Calvin’s conversion. First, Calvin refused ordination by ecclesiastical authorities. 11
Secondly, out of zeal to reform the church, Calvin and Farel acted without accountability to bring rapid changes in the Church. Calvin wrote a Confession of Faith which all citizens and inhabitants of Geneva were required to uphold by oath. Naturally, his zeal for the immediate and total conversion of the city to evangelical faith gained him new enemies among the population. At the same time, a pastor from the neighboring city of Lausanne challenged Calvin’s Confession on spurious claims that it was anti-Trinitarian. Calvin treated this challenge by rashly refusing to publicly endorse ancient creeds, insisting his own Confession was sufficiently trinitarian. Extreme volatility in the political situation clashed with Calvin’s zeal, and he was expelled from Geneva along with Farel. Calvin’s call to ministry appeared to be over. He retreated to his study full of self-doubts. He confided to his friend du Tillet: “Above all, I fear taking on the responsibilities that have been given me, considering the great perplexity I had at the time that I was involved with them. For I once felt the call of God…, now, on the contrary, I am afraid to try God in taking up again such a burden which I realize I cannot carry.”
12 It took an exceptional conflict to bring Calvin back to Geneva.
The conflict was a Reformation debate carried on by letter between Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547) and Calvin. Sadoleto took advantage of Calvin’s absence to persuade Genevans back into the Roman Catholic fold. His "Letter to the Genevans" provoked an indignant reply from Calvin. Calvin’s indignation arose from Sadoleto’s implication that Calvin and Farel undertook their reforming activities to attain prestige and money otherwise denied to them. “Such is always the course of those who seek new honors and new powers for themselves, by assailing the authority of the church,” wrote Sadoleto. Whereas these seditious men aimed for worldly power, he, along with all others “have put their faith and hope in Christ … for this one reason, viz., that they may obtain salvation for themselves and for their souls.” Salvation is therefore proportional to self-regard. “For in proportion to the love each man bears to himself is his salvation dear to him.” Indeed, this salvation is obtained “by faith alone in God and in Jesus Christ,” but Sadoleto’s definition of faith showed he understood neither faith nor justification. By faith, Sadoleto meant an inner orientation towards God formed by love so that faith becomes “the true habit of divine justice.” The formative power of love meant something different to Sadoleto than an outward expression or end result. The formative power of God’s love is the efficient cause of faith. Love is infused by God who is love through the sacraments “so that in this very faith love is essentially comprehended as the chief and primary cause of our salvation.” Faith is little more than unity with the Roman Church in which the fullness of the Holy Spirit dwells. “You see dearest brethren,” wrote Sadoleto, “what it really is to be a Christian, since our faith toward God, and all the glory of God, both His with us, and ours with Him, consists solely in this unity.”
The glory of God at the end of Sadoleto’s summary of Christian faith comes at the beginning of Calvin’s. “It is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God,” asserted Calvin. For his glory alone, God offered gratuitous justification. Faith for Calvin was active trust in the promises of God apart from any human effort. Works of love were not the cause but the outcome of faith. “The end of gratuitous election, so also of gratuitous justification is, that we may lead pure and unpolluted lives before God.” Here we have the heart of Calvin’s conversion. His deliverance from a life of self-serving was at the same time a call to serve the church. Calvin could recover his self-confidence before God because his conversion was also his calling. “For though I am at the present relieved of the charge of the Church of Geneva, that circumstance ought not prevent me from embracing it with paternal affection—God, when He gave it to me in charge, having bound me to be faithful to it forever.” 14 Within a few months, he was called back to Geneva where he reformed the church along notably pastoral and collegial lines.
Three points from Calvin’s prophetic calling left their imprint on his theology:
- The Glory of God Alone. We have seen how prominent the glory of God was in Calvin’s conversion. God’s desire for his own glory is for Calvin the only reason for creation and reconciliation. Fallen human nature inevitably turns the glory of God into human self-glorification. The work of Jesus Christ in reconciliation is entirely from God so that humans cannot take glory for themselves. God’s glory is more than a reason for reconciliation. God’s glory is the goal of creation. By reconciling humankind for his glory, humans can desire God’s glory alone. Our purpose here is not to define divine glory, but to point out its pivotal point in Calvin’s thought. Calvin was different from Luther, who was propelled by a concern with God’s righteousness. The role of God’s glory at the beginning of Calvin’s thought can perhaps be illustrated by comparing it to the way glory is expressed on cornerstones at Catholic institutions which bear the inscription AMDG (ad majorem Dei gloriam, "to the greater glory of God") Greater invites comparison to lesser, and so it implies ascendant striving for glory. The glory of God alone meant for Calvin a descent from God to human beings which produces a humble receptivity called faith. The glory of God alone is at the same time a call to orient life to the love God above all else. We have seen how Calvin’s prophetic zeal for God’s glory sustained him through setbacks and disappointments.
- Christ Alone. Jesus Christ is above all the Mediator of God’s glory. We have seen how the Christocentrism of Calvin’s theology is evident in the reformation of the Lord’s supper. Jesus Christ’s new testament in his death and resurrection was the full expression of God’s glory. Repeated sacrifices in the Mass compromised the centrality of Jesus Christ and transferred the glory of God to the glory of human institutions. It is important to locate the full expression of God’s glory with the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus, for it is on the Cross that God was glorified even more than in the Incarnation.
- Word Alone. We have seen how Calvin was converted to evangelical faith through an intense engagement with the Bible over little less than a year at his refuge in Basel. In his shattered state he was brought face to face with the glory of God expressed in the sacrificial work of Christ as the central message of the whole Bible. His conversion was a three-sided encounter between the glory of God revealed in the Word of God, his own shattered desires for human glory and the Holy Spirit who ended all resistance against placing all hope and trust in the promises of the Word of God. His conversion through the Word of God differed from Roman Catholic penance with its four steps of contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution which involved a three-way relationship between God, a penitent and the Church in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt (in Catholic theology). The Bible-centered shape of his conversion gave direction to his entire career. He published commentaries on 48 of the 66 books in the Bible. His Institutes were always viewed as an introduction to reading the Bible. The Bible’s authority in Calvin’s theology was not a result of a belief in biblical inspiration, but the result of a belief Christ was the Word of God.
The "alone" in all the above does not mean “only,” exclusive of human involvement. Calvin’s exposition of divine glory included the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to humans, his teaching on the Lord’s Supper included real sacramental presence among human beings, and his preaching of the Word always presupposed the Holy Spirit’s work in the gift of faith and new birth in human hearts. The importance of the word ‘alone’ is connected with the doctrine of justification. Justification and Salvation are often confused. Justification is the gate into the path of salvation. Salvation is past, present and future of God’s ultimate authority over all creation. Love is the outcome of the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of Christian faith. Glorification is the future reward for a sanctified life. Justification, sanctification and glorification combined constitute salvation. Justification as the gateway into salvation is decisively and exclusively God’s work.
Calvin viewed himself as a prophet. Our sketch of Calvin’s conversion shows us a prophet is converted by a direct call of God to work within the church to bring it back to biblical foundations under the influence of new illumination from God’s Word. In the case of Calvin, it was a new insight to the way God’s desire for his own glory manifested itself prior to and distinct from the fading glories of this world. It was, therefore, a call to desire God’s glory in all things. For Calvin, this meant working as a unordained layperson in the Genevan Church. It meant sustaining blows as a result of his own overzealous actions and the intransigence or unfaithfulness of the church, yet going back to try again. Calvin’s example raises this question for us today. Who are the prophets in our church? How will God raise up prophets for a new generation? Calvin prophesied in a Christian culture. What does it mean to be a prophet in post-Christian America? We know that God will never fall silent because His Word is with us. Where His Word is, prophets will arise.
- Bruce McCallum, Equip, October 25, 2017
- John Calvin, Preface to Commentary on the Psalms(Christian Classics Ethereal Library) accessed 2017 at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.html, p 25.
- John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply(New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 85-6
- John Calvin, _Preface to Commentary on the Psalms,_p 25.
- Alexandre Ganoczy, The Young Calvin, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987) pp 64-6.
- Ibid. p. 82
- Ibid, p. 96
- A more thorough summary appears in W.H. Neuser, "The first outline of Calvin’s theology – the preface to the New Testament in the Olivétan Bible of 1535," Koers: Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 66(1 & 2) 2001:1-39. This work is cited in this paragraph unless otherwise noted.
- "Let this then stand as a first and infallible proposition—the mass or Sacrament of the Altar is Christ’s testament, which He left behind Him at His death to be distributed among his believers. For that is the meaning of His words: ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood.’…A testament, as everyone knows, is a promise made by one about to die, by which he designates his bequest and appoints his heirs. A testament, therefore, involves first, the death of the testator, and second, the promise of an inheritance, and the naming of an heir. Thus Paul discusses at length the nature of a testament in Rom. 4, Gal. 3 and 4, and Heb. 9. We see the same thing clearly also in these words of Christ. Christ testifies concerning his death when he says: ‘This is my body, which is given, this is my blood, which is poured out’ (Luke 22:19-20). He names and designates the bequest when he says ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt. 26.28). But he appoints the heirs when he says, ‘For you (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11.24) and for many' (Matt. 26.28; Mark 14:24), that is for those who accept and believe the promise of the testator. For here it is faith that makes men heirs…" (Martin Luther, Three Treatises[Fortress Press, 1966] pp. 154-5.
- John Calvin, "Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France," in _Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion,_John T. Mcneill, ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), vol 1, pp 11-12. Elsewhere here.
- Farel overcame Calvin’s resistance with hellfire. "He proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent." (Calvin, Introduction to Psalms, p 27).
- "Toward the end of the year 1536 the government of Geneva appointed him pastor of the city. We learn nothing of an ordination by the laying on of hands or the like." Dankbaar, _Calvin, sein Weg un sein Werk,_p. 49. Cited in Ganoczy, op cit., p.337, n 29.
- Letter of July 10, 1538, cited in Ganoczy, op cit., p. 122.
- John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply(New York: Harper and Row, 1966), passim pp. 29-48.
- Ibid, pp 49-94.