This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series: Preachers and their preaching
- Preachers and their preaching – John Calvin
- Preachers and their preaching – the Puritans
- Preachers and their preaching – Charles Simeon
- Preachers and their preaching – Phillips Brooks
- Preachers and their preaching – C.H. Spurgeon
- Preachers and their preaching – D.M. Lloyd-Jones
- Preachers and their preaching – J. Sidlow Baxter
- Preachers and their preaching – John Stott
- Preachers and their preaching – Fred Craddock
- Preachers and their preaching – Simon Ponsonby
I plan, in this series of posts, to explore different approaches to preaching taken by some of the leading figures (mainly) in the evangelical tradition.
First up, John Calvin (1509-1564).
The Reformers laid great weight on preaching, and the reason for this is found in their concept of the Word of God. When God’s word is faithfully preached, God himself is speaking. The preacher is an envoy, an ambassador, of God. He is called by God and he preaches only what God in Holy Scripture commands him to preach.
Accordingly, Calvin’s preaching consisted of consecutive exposition of whole books of the Bible. So committed was he to this approach, that when he returned to Geneva in 1541, he made a point of continuing from the exact place where he had stopped on Easter Day 1538!
In response to popular demand he usually preached twice on Sundays (from the New Testament) and on every day of alternate weeks (from the Old Testament).
Among the books he preached through were
- Acts (189 sermons)
- A Harmony of the Gospels (65)
- Ezekiel (174)
- Job (159)
- Deuteronomy (200)
- Isaiah (342)
- Genesis (123)
Each sermon was a 6,000 words, and would have lasted about an hour. The services of an professional scribe were secured so that the sermons could be recorded verbatim.
Calvin preached without notes, directly from his Hebrew Old Testament and his Greek New Testament. Although lacking time for immediate preparation, his wide learning and extraordinary memory served him well. As far as his knowledge of the Bible was concerned, he seemed to have the whole text available for ready recall. Moreover, he had written commentaries on many of the books he expounded. In these ways, his preparation was thorough and effective.
The basic form of a sermon was to explain a clause or sentence and apply it to the people. Then, with a simple, ‘So much for that point’, he would move on to the next clause.
His delivery was ‘lively, passionate, intimate, direct, and clear’. After the manner of the age, he could use course language of those with whom he disagreed. They are, for example, ‘like dogs and swine…like certain vile blackguards.’ But he could also be gentle and compassionate.
Sometimes, he would enact an imaginary debate between himself and an opponent:-
‘Ho! you can’t tell me what to do.’
‘My friend, what you are really saying is that you do not want God to reign over you, and you want to abolish the Law.’
It would be quite wrong to suppose Calvin, either as a preacher or as a commentator, was forever stressing those themes that are often associated with his name – the sovereignty of God, predestination, church discipline, and so on. Of course, these do feature in his sermons. But he is determined to let the Word of God speak for itself. He places himself to an extraordinary degree at the service of Scripture, steadfastly working to its agenda rather than vice versa.
Although his preaching made intellectual demands on his hearers, for Calvin the sermon was an integral part of the church’s worship. It was also training in godliness, and ‘those in Geneva who listened Sunday after Sunday, day after day, and didn’t shut their ears, but were “instructed, admonished, exhorted and censured”, received a training in Christianity such as had been given to few congregations in Europe since the days of the fathers.’
Adapted from T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 106-114.