The Expository Genius of John Calvin – Steven Lawson

21 11 2008

Anyone that writes another biography about the 16th Century reformer better have a good reason to do so. I’ve lost count at how many of them are out there. So when I got a copy of Lawsons latests book I was a little unsure of what to expect. Its a short book weighing in at 139 pages so anyone expecting a full history of Calvin’s life will be dissappointed. It focuses exclusively on style of preaching known as “Expository” preaching, something Calvin did extremely well. Having read a few of Calvins sermons I can vouch for that. Clearly the man had a gift. Lawson is best know for his book “Foundations of Grace” which traces a long line of Godly men who have defended the doctrines of Grace.
It would be easy to underestimate the effect Calvin had on Christianity. He’s the next big figure in the reformation after to Martin Luther, at least in terms of influence. Some would say he was a lot less biased than Luther who tended to read Justification by faith into every part of scripture, and saw the Pharisees as a precusor to the Roman Catholic Church. Many today, including myself, still follow the system of theology Calvin laid out known as Calvinism. As Spurgeon said, its not called Calvinism to pay hommage to the man, but rather it is the Gospel full stop. Many seminaries still use his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” as a textbook, and many more still read his commentaries and sermons. It’s amazing to think his books are still read 500 years after his death.  

The book contains 32 headings that made John Calvins preaching distinct. But you could break the book down into three sections. Preparation, Content and Delivery. How did Calvin prepare beforehand? What made up the content of his sermons, and how did he deliver them? Lawson concludes the brief account of Calvins life by saying “The church is always looking for better methods to reach the world. But God is looking for men who will devote themselves to His Biblically mandated method for advancing his kingdom, namely, preaching- and not just any kind of preaching, but expository preaching.” (page 18) I know there are some out there who will disagree with this but this must be the mandate of every pastor. The Church is the last place on Earth where people can hear the Gospel truth. When we stop preaching the Gospel its like we cease to be a church.  

“[The Preachers] pulpit ministry is governed by what he believes scripture to be…” (page 23). Calvin had an extremely high view of scripture. He recognised that scripture alone is to have the final say in matters of faith. Calvin also believed that all of scripture was literally God breathed. At times perhaps too much as Lawson quotes him saying that it had nothing to do with Men, hinting at a form of docestism. Calvin There was much I didn’t know about Calvin that this book highlighted for me. For instance as prepared as he was to preach he never took any notes with him to the pulpit. He had a brilliant mind, and an ability to systematize his thoughts with great precision. This is clear when you read his sermons. But that isn’t the full picture. Calvin also relied heavily on the “inward efficacy of the Holy spirit” during his preaching. He was quick to realise that a brilliant mind and sound doctrine meant nothing if the Holy Spirit does not work on the hearts of those listening. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.

Calvin did not preach to rebut critics or other theologians but was primarily concerned with his congregations spiritual health. Although he he pulled no punches when it came to the Roman Catholic Church and its practices he spent much more time pastorally caring for his flock. When he preached he used the common idioms and expressions of the day to connect with his listeners. Calvin also saw himself as the first listener, and the toughest man in his audience to convince. His calls to personal examination were first directed at himself and then to the congregation. “We must therefore, examine our lives not against one of Gods precepts but against the whole law. Can anyone of us truly say that we are blameless?” (page 108). He called people to “search their lives carefully in light of the truth he had proclaimed” (page 109)

At times i was confronted with a portrait of a man who appeared to be super human. It reminded me of William Wallace who was said to be 7 feet tall…and could shoot bolts of lightning out his backside. He preached ten times every fortnight, and someimes three times on Sundays. He preached even when he was severely ill and had to be lead up to the pulpit in a stretcher. He preached in the face of opposition which at times boiled over to physical confrontation in the Church. He lectured students, and cared pastorally for his church. He faced political oppression, exile and harrassment. His wife died and he never remarried. He also suffered the death of some of his children. Yet in all this he never stopped preaching and proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. He was not perfect. He lacked warmth in his personality, and was found not to be a great orator. He was also described as stoic and trite, lacking in humour. Yet Inspite of all opposition and limitations he remains one of the most influential figures in history. Indeed when after returning from exile he returned to his church and continued to preach, picking up from where he left off. No really, from the very next verse! That tells you a lot his character.

On the back cover Lawson writes that this book intends to raise the bar for future expository preachers. For those interested in preaching, Lawson has given us a goldmine. In our day preaching is seen as irelevant, or unneccessary. But Calvin didn’t believe he needed to make the Bible relevant, he believed it was relevant (page 104). Man still suffers from the same condition of his forefather Adam. Man is still a sinner in need of saviour. Post modern man is no different from Pre-modern man in that respect. We may have more books to read, but many christians today are biblically illiterate. My hope is that God continues to raise men and women who are committed to proclaiming his word to people all over the world. My only criticism of this book is that it was a little too brief. The notes at the end of each chapter showed that Lawson had interacted with an enormous amount of primary and secondary literature surrounding Calvin. I would have liked a more indepth look at the events in Calvins life and ministry. The narrow focus of the book obviously lead to its brevity. But I was left feeling that there was a lot of untapped potential. But that said I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It makes a compelling case for the primacy of preaching and the need to get the Gospel right in word and deed. I highly reccomend it.




4 responses

24 11 2008

Thanks for the review. The Reformation is something that has been a focus for me as of late for a few reasons, especially Calvin and his theology, so I think reading Lawson’s book might definitely be worth my time.
I know it is focused on his preaching, but that can serve as a helpful corrective. The tendency I have seen is for people to treat Luther, Calvin, and the rest as primarily theologians. They were this of course, but they were not secluded to the academic world alone, but vitally engaged in preaching and the practicalities of tending God’s flock.
One thing that draws me to Calvin is exactly what you said…

“Some would say he was a lot less biased than Luther who tended to read Justification by faith into every part of scripture, and saw the Pharisees as a precursor to the Roman Catholic Church.”

I think Calvin had a much more nuanced understanding of justification, the law, and a number of other issues. In fact, I would agree with some of the New Perspective authors who insist that their theology may be in deep contrast to Luther but actually is not incompatible with Calvin at all. Both Wright and Dunn have stated that had the Reformed view of Justification been the dominant one and not the Lutheran, the New Perspective would likely have been unnecessary, or at least not in the same form (the renewal of seeing Jesus and Paul in their Jewish setting would still be needed, but one would think that would be seen as development and not division without the justification issues).

“In our day preaching is seen as irrelevant, or unnecessary. But Calvin didn’t believe he needed to make the Bible relevant, he believed it was relevant (page 104). Man still suffers from the same condition of his forefather”

True, preaching is vital, Biblical preaching. I think there are few things as important to the health and development of the Church. That Biblical preaching has waned in the West is a sad testament to what the Church has focused on over the years, namly consumerism and vague feel good philosophy.

My only concern about the book (and this may not hold true as I have not read it) would be that I would be pretty wary of making any one to one comparison between Calvin’s ‘expository’ preaching, and the modern form of preaching we have given the label ‘expository’ which has in my mind some drawbacks in its typical usage.

1 12 2008

Thanks Mason, yeah I’m starting to see that too. Expository preaching these days can mean something very different to what it did back then. Lately I’ve come to see that what New Zealand needs is not less expository preaching or more of the same, but a lift in the standard of preaching. We need preachers like Calvin who are not afraid to preach the text even if it doesn’t line up with their tradition. Calvin and Wright have a lot in common both academic and pastoral theologians and the more I read Wright the more I have come to enjoy his work. He certainly gives you a lot of food for thought. At first I was a little hesistant about him. But more and more people I talk to keep insisting that he is more in line with the reformers than those in the reformed tradition. Quite ironic I thought.

1 12 2008

I have heard people say that about Wright as well. I would agree, but it depends on how you look at it.

If you mean who is more in line with the theology of the Reformers, then well it depends on the issue. Wright may be closer in some important areas (I think he is), but overall the Reformed tradition would seem more faithful in holding to the exact forms of the theology of the Reformers.

However… if you mean who is more in line with the methodology and goals of the Reformers, that seems to swing the question dramatically toward Wright from my standpoint. Not that he is always correct by any means. At the same time though what he is doing is going back to the historical texts, the context, the culture, the history, and especially the Scriptures, and using them to challenge where the Church is right now or try to better articulate what the Church claims to believe.
It is highly ironic that those who call themselves the theological heirs of Luther and Calvin have too often done exactly what Luther and Calvin were fighting against, using their own tradition and the words of their founders as the measure of Biblical interpretation, instead of allowing their tradition to be subservient to the Biblical text even when (especially when) the text seems to challenge the tradition.

1 12 2008

Yeah thats the point I was making. Protestants tend to think of themselves as tradition-less, but in reality many who stand on the shoulders on Luther and Calvin are doing exactly what the reformers fought against. I like what Wright is doing, in that he is forcing people to go back and “do business with the text”. It something we always need to do. Our traditions need to be subservient to the text.

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