Monday, July 13, 2009



Last Friday (July 10, 2009), was John Calvin's 500th birthday. He was born July 10, 1509 in a small town about 80 miles north of Paris called Noyon, in the Picardy region of France. The house where he was born is now the Calvin Museum. Originally trained as a humanist lawyer, he suddenly broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530 (He describes his conversion in the introduction of his commentary on Psalms). After religious tensions provoked a violent uprising against Protestants in France, Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland where in 1536 he published the first edition of his seminal work Institutes of the Christian Religion. He accomplished much in his short life of 55 years. He was regarded by some as a stern, proud man, yet he exhibited a humility that belies that theory. He died on May 27, 1564. At his own request, Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave in Geneva's common cemetery to avoid idolatry. My late friend, Ferrell Griswold, believed he personally found the grave in Geneva in the mid 1970's.

Calvin wrote many theological works and commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. These commentaries even today, almost 450 years later are still valuable for Bible study. If nothing else, Calvin was a "scholar first class" of the word of God. His books have been translated into many languages, and English versions of all his commentaries are available free online. One good site for these is which features the complete Calvin Translation Society edition. There are other online sources as well. If you are studying a particular book of the Bible, don't overlook consulting Calvin. Over the years I have found him very helpful. Here are two samples of his work:


(Concerning the inscription in three languages that Pilate placed on the cross of Jesus Christ, not knowing he was fulfilling the divine purpose).
"The providence of God, which guided the pen of Pilate, had a higher object in view. It did not, indeed, occur to Pilate to celebrate Christ as the Author of salvation, and the Nazarene of God, and the King of a chosen people, but God dictated to him the commendation of the Gospel, though he knew not the meaning of what he wrote. It was the same secret guidance of the Spirit that caused the title to be published in three languages; for it is not probable that this was an ordinary practice, but the Lord showed, by this preparatory arrangement, that the time was now at hand, when the name of his Son should be made known throughout the whole earth...Pilate's firmness must be ascribed to the providence of God...Let us know, therefore, that he was held by a Divine hand, so that he remained unmoved...Pilate, though he was a reprobate man, and, in other respects, an instrument of Satan, was nevertheless, by a secret guidance, appointed to be a herald of the Gospel, that he might publish a short summary of it in three languages."


"The duty of a theologian is, not to please the ear with empty sounds, but to confirm the conscience by teaching things which are true, certain and profitable.”--John Calvin


In his introduction to his commentary on the Psalms written in July, 1557, Calvin gives a brief account of his conversion. He begins the account by speaking of the psalmist David:

“But as he (David), was taken from the sheepfold, and elevated to the rank of supreme authority; so God having taken me from my originally obscure and humble condition, has reckoned me worthy of being invested with the honorable office of a preacher and minister of the gospel. When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of law. To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course.”

“And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor. I was quite surprised to find that before a year had elapsed, all who had any desire after purer doctrine were continually coming to me to learn, although I myself was as yet but a mere novice and tyro. Being of a disposition somewhat unpolished and bashful, which led me always to love the shade and retirement, I then began to seek some secluded corner where I might be withdrawn from the public view; but so far from being able to accomplish the object of my be desire, all my retreats were like public schools. In short, whilst my one great object was to live in seclusion without being known, God so led me about through different turnings and changes, that he never permitted me to rest in any place, until, in spite of my natural disposition, he brought me forth to public notice.”


Once again in his introduction to the Psalms, Calvin relates some events as he left Basel and settled in Geneva where he became the spiritual and political leader. Much of the misunderstanding of John Calvin was related to his strong views of God’s sovereignty.

“The trial of these five years was grievous and hard to bear; but I experienced not less excruciating pain from the malignity of those who ceased not to assail myself and my ministry with their envenomed calumnies. A great proportion of them, it is true, are so blinded by a passion for slander and detraction, that to their great disgrace they betray at once their impudence, while others, however crafty and cunning, cannot so cover or disguise themselves as to escape being shamefully convicted and disgraced; yet when a man has been a hundred times found innocent of a charge brought against him, and when the charge is again repeated without any cause or occasion, it is an indignity hard to bear. Because I affirm and maintain that the world is managed and governed by the secret providence of God, a multitude of presumptuous men rise lip against me, and allege that I represent God as the author of sin. This is so foolish a calumny, that it would of itself quickly come to nothing, did it not meet with persons who have tickled ears, and who take pleasure in feeding upon such discourse. But there are many whose minds are so filled with envy and spleen, or ingratitude, or malignity, that there is no falsehood, however preposterous, yea, even monstrous, which they do not receive, if it is spoken to them. Others endeavor to overthrow God’s eternal purpose of predestination, by which he distinguishes between the reprobate and the elect; others take upon them to defend free will; and forthwith many throw themselves into their ranks, not so much through ignorance as by a perversity of zeal which I know not how to characterise. If they were open and avowed enemies who brought these troubles upon me, the thing might in some way be borne. But that those who shroud themselves under the name of brethren, and not only eat Christ’s sacred bread, but also administer it to others, that those, in short, who loudly boast of being preachers of the gospel, should wage such nefarious war against me, how detestable is it? In this matter I may very justly complain with David,

“Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, who did eat of my bread,
hath lifted up his heel against me,” (Psalm 41:9).

“For it was not an enemy that reproached me;
but it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance.
We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company,”
(Psalm 55:12, 13, 14).


John Calvin as a bible commentator is respected and still consulted by a host of preachers after all these years. You may not always agree with his exposition, but you can readily see that he is a deep scholar of God’s word, thoroughly trained in Hebrew, Greek, Latin in addition to his native French. It is said that never twists the scripture to make it fit something he believes. He did not change his views in the 35 years or so of ministry after his conversion. Charles Spurgeon said this regarding Calvin’s commentaries:

It would not be possible for me too earnestly to press upon you the importance of reading the expositions of that prince among men, JOHN CALVIN! I am afraid that scant purses may debar you from their purchase, but if it be possible procure them, and meanwhile, since they are in the College library, use them diligently. I have often felt inclined to cry out with Father Simon, a Roman Catholic, "Calvin possessed a sublime genius", and with Scaliger, "Oh! how well has Calvin reached the meaning of the prophets—no one better." You will find forty two or more goodly volumes worth their weight in gold. Of all commentators I believe John Calvin to be the most candid. In his expositions he is not always what moderns would call Calvinistic; that is to say, where Scripture maintains the doctrine of predestination and grace he flinches in no degree, but inasmuch as some Scriptures bear the impress of human free action and responsibility, he does not shun to expound their meaning in all fairness and integrity. He was no trimmer and pruner of texts. He gave their meaning as far as he knew it. His honest intention was to translate the Hebrew and the Greek originals as accurately as he possibly could, and then to give the meaning which would naturally be conveyed by such Greek and Hebrew words: he laboured, in fact, to declare, not his own mind upon the Spirit's words, but the mind of the Spirit as couched in those words. Dr. King very truly says of him, "No writer ever dealt more fairly and honestly by the Word of God. He is scrupulously careful to let it speak for itself, and to guard against every tendency of his own mind to put upon it a questionable meaning for the sake of establishing some doctrine which he feels to be important, or some theory which he is anxious to uphold. This is one of his prime excellences. He will not maintain any doctrine, however orthodox and essential, by a text of Scripture which to him appears of doubtful application, or of inadequate force. For instance, firmly as he believed the doctrine of the Trinity, he refuses to derive an argument in its favour from the plural form of the name of God in the first chapter of Genesis. It were easy to multiply examples of this kind, which, whether we agree in his conclusion or not, cannot fail to produce the conviction that he is at least an honest commentator, and will not make any passage of Scripture speak more or less than, according to his view, its divine Author intended it to speak."
    The edition of John Calvin's works which was issued by the Calvin Translation Society, is greatly enriched by the remarks of the editors, consisting not merely of notes on the Latin of Calvin, and the French translation, or on the text of the original Scriptures, but also of weighty opinions of eminent critics, illustrative manners and customs, and observations of travellers. By the way, gentlemen, what a pity it is that people do not, as a rule, read the notes in the old Puritan books! If you purchase old copies of such writers as Brooks, you will find that the notes in the margin are almost as rich as the books themselves. They are dust of gold, of the same metal as the ingots in the centre of the page. But to return to Calvin. If you needed any confirmatory evidence as to the value of his writings, I might summon a cloud of witnesses, but it will suffice to quote one or two. Here is the opinion of one who is looked upon as his great enemy, namely, Arminius: "Next to the perusal of the Scriptures, which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse CALVIN'S commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself; for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the Library of the Fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent gift of prophecy."
    Quaint Robert Robinson said of him, "There is no abridging this sententious commentator, and the more I read him, the more does he become a favourite expositor with me." Holy Baxter wrote, "I know no man since the apostles' days, whom I value and honour more than Calvin, and whose judgment in all things, one with another, I more esteem and come nearer to."

(Commenting and Commentaries by Charles Spurgeon; London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1876)


"There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.”

Editor’s note: There is much more history online concerning this great reformer, so I won't tarry too much here. I will say that John Piper at Desiring God is offering an excellent small biography of John Calvin by THL Parker for $5.00. If you want to simply download it on PDF and save to your files you can do that. The address is: Just type in the search "Portrait of Calvin- THL Parker"

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