by Rev. Marcus J. Serven

Introduction:

Why take time to consider the pastoral theology of the well-known reformer of Geneva, John Calvin (1509-1564)? People might reason, “Surely any distinguishing mark that Calvin has made on the Protestant church has diminished long ago!” Although John Calvin may have been relegated to the annals of Reformation history in the minds of many, the sobering fact is that he has made a significant impact on the modern-day church. It is to Calvin that the church owes a huge debt of gratitude for developing with precision both theological doctrines and ecclesiastical practices. Traceable to Calvin and the church in Geneva are several unique and distinguishing aspects of Protestant worship, the development and popularization of expository preaching, the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper, the practice of home visitation by the Elders, an extensive organization of social welfare, a comprehensive pattern of church discipline, and representative church government. Reflecting back on his pattern of ministry can bring forth numerous “helps” for the pastor of the present day. Despite the fact that Calvin is best known as an eminent theologian, it must be remembered that he was first and foremost a pastor to the congregation of believers at Geneva. The esteemed Calvin scholar Jean-Daniel Benoit had the following to say about Calvin’s pastoral ministry,

The work of Calvin is immense and varied. Theologian, churchman, organizer of Protestantism in France, founder of the Academy of Geneva, public lecturer, Bible commentator, preacher at Saint Peter’s – Calvin was all of these. But to forget or to neglect the fact that Calvin was essentially and above all a pastor would be to misunderstand precisely that aspect of his personality which discloses the essential unity of his work, and to overlook the deep source of those waters which fecundate the entire field of his activity. In fact, theologian though he was, Calvin was even more a pastor of souls. More exactly, theology was for him the servant of piety and never a science sufficient unto itself. His thought is always directed towards life; always he descends from principles to the practical application; always his pastoral concern occurs.

It was due to the depth and success of his ministry in Geneva that the doctrines and practices of that particular church have become the basis for all Protestant ministry in one fashion or another. Below are listed, in outline form, the essential elements of Calvin’s pastoral theology. Although he never wrote a single dedicated volume on the theme of pastoral theology, these elements are gathered from a variety of his writings—the Institutes, his sermons, his letters, the Commentaries, and his many tracts. Learn from the “Master of Geneva” and recognize the biblical wisdom of his ways. These time-proven truths will protect the cautious pastor from untested and novel practices that may lead his church to ruin.

His Personal Character

John Calvin’s lifetime motto was prompte et sincere in opere domini (or translated, “prompt and sincere in the work of the Lord”). From his youth he was a quiet scholarly man who did not seek the stage of public approval. This characteristic was in sharp contrast to his close associate in Geneva, the flamboyant William Farel (1489-1565) who was frequently in the midst of turmoil. Calvin excelled in his studies, especially in the languages (e.g. Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), in law, in logical thinking, and in biblical studies. By the providence of God, however, Calvin was thrust into the midst of a great religious revolution in the city of Geneva. He brought to this enormous task his legal training and his passion for the Word of God. At the beginning of his ministry in Geneva he was content to be known as a “Professor of Sacred Literature”, yet his intellectual skills and love for the truth led to his appointment as a Pastor of the Church in Geneva. Early in Calvin’s life he developed a strong sense of orderliness and proper behavior. This characteristic influenced both his writings and his preaching. Despite his tendency to be reserved in public, he often was forced to marshal his formidable intellectual capacities in public debate. He excelled in this area and often astonished his opponents with his ability to quote extensive passages from the Bible and the early Church Fathers from memory. Despite his natural shyness, Calvin could, at times, be courageous and forthright. He was not one to ordinarily hold a grudge, so that it turned into bitterness. Nor did he “lord it over” those in his charge, although he has been accused of such behavior. He was forgiving to those who had scandalized him and compassionate to those who suffered. On a more personal note, Calvin’s home was always open to all. He frequently hosted visitors at his own expense, and had guests stay for extended periods of time.

Pastoral Care & Church Discipline

Calvin’s overall plan for pastoral care is contained in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, initially drafted in 1537 and finally approved by the City Council upon Calvin’s return to Geneva in 1541. The actual enforcement of these biblical principles formed the main area of difficulty in Calvin’s pastoral ministry until 1555. Although the people may have approved these ordinances in theory, they had not reckoned with the application of them to all areas of life. One other key area of controversy was the subject of excommunication and upon whose authority it was to be exercised. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances gave that authority to the Company of Pastors (known as the Presbytery), which was then enforced by the civil government. This disciplinary practice became an area of great controversy in Geneva, with the City Council challenging the authority of the Presbytery more than once.

The Priesthood of Every Believer

Calvin strongly held to the priesthood of every believer (communio sanctorum). This prominent Reformation doctrine was popularized by Martin Luther (1483-1546). Calvin especially contributed the idea that each believer is to live out the Christian life as a “holy venture” that pleases God. In addition, Calvin rejected any artificial distinction between those who are “spiritual” versus those who are considered to be “common”. The truth that “every believer is a priest” was widely promoted in Geneva and became a model for Christians throughout the world. Therefore, the forgiveness of sins and personal assurance of salvation are based solely upon the finished work of Christ on the Cross, and not upon the absolution of sins by an ordained priest. The Roman Catholic practices of contritio, confessio, abolutio, and satisfactio are firmly denied; as well as the power of the priest (sacerdotalism). This doctrine was not a rejection of offices within the Church, or a rejection of the authority of the Church (see “Offices of the Church” below), but of the excessive separation in the Roman Catholic Church between the clergy and lay people. Moreover, the pastors in Geneva protested the use of ornate vestments in the worship service and preferred a simple black gown (known as a “Genevan Gown”) for everyday clothing and for use in the pulpit.

The Marks of the Church

Calvin taught that the first mark of the church (notae ecclesia) is the fervent preaching of the Word of God, which is why most Reformed Churches have a single pulpit in the front of the church assembly. The second mark is the proper observance of the sacraments (i.e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Some believe that Calvin also implied a third mark of the church—the discipline of the believer. However, this “third” mark is a logical extension of the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper. In other words, the Church has the authority to suspend an erring believer from the Lord’s Supper when they prove to be unrepentant. This behavior could result in a temporary suspension from the Lord’s Supper or excommunication.

The Offices of the Church

Four offices were recognized in Geneva: Pastors, Teachers (Doctors of the Word of God), Elders, and Deacons. This structure implies a Presbyterian form of government, rather than a hierarchical or congregational form of government. Moreover, a firm distinction is made between ecclesiastical discipline (the power of the “keys”) and civil discipline (the power of the “sword”). The Pastors and the Elders of the church served as the “overseers” (episkopos) as spoken of in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In many respects, the Presbytery serves as the episkopos over a group of churches in a specific region, and is made up of the all the elders. Rather than investing authority in a single individual to serve as a Bishop, the collective wisdom of a plurality of godly elders is emphasized in decision-making for the whole church. The practice of the Roman Catholic Church to invest ecclesiastical power in one man was thoroughly rejected by Calvin and most other Protestant Reformers, except the Anglicans who accepted the rule of Bishops (Episcopalian Church government).

Relation to Civil Government

Calvin’s pastoral theology was also very concerned with how the church related to the civil government. Some have accused Calvin’s Geneva of becoming a “dictatorship”. Nothing could be further from the truth! The two spheres of ecclesiastical and civil authority remained distinct and separate in Geneva with only minor overlaps. The following examples show this to be true: (1) the forced removal of Calvin, Farel, and Couralt from Geneva in 1538; (2) the ongoing struggle between the Church and the City Council over who had the authority to excommunicate unrepentant sinners from the Lord’s Supper; and (3) the right of execution remaining with the civil authorities. There is no question that Calvin actively participated in the civil sphere, but he never became a member of any of the governing councils of the city of Geneva, nor did he become a citizen of Geneva until 1559; and this was not due to his efforts, but as a reward from the grateful citizens of the city. Calvin’s role was that of an “advocate” for the Christian faith, and by extension, its application to every area of life.

Worship of God

The central element in Calvin’s mind concerning worship is that it be focused on the glory of God (Soli Deo Gloria). He also insisted that all true worship is regulated by the Scriptures and not by personal preferences or by human traditions. Therefore, the content of the worship service should be determined only by the “regulative principle of worship”, or, by the express teachings of the Bible. The three churches in Geneva conducted services every Sunday morning and afternoon. Oftentimes, special mid-week preaching services were held for the common good of the people (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). These services were usually conducted early in the mornings before work. Calvin and the other pastors were not inflexible in regards to the specific aspects of worship. Some regional worship practices were considered to be “indifferent things” (adiaphora), and therefore were not rejected (e.g. the use of leavened bread vs. unleavened bread at the Lord’s Supper). Other practices, which were specifically prohibited in the Bible, or were too closely related to Roman Catholic practices, were simply not tolerated (e.g. the adoration of images, prayers to saints, veneration of the host, etc.).

The Sacraments

In regards to the Sacraments, Calvin rejected the Roman Catholic concept that grace is conferred by the sacrament itself (ex opere operato, “from the work done”). He also firmly repudiated the authority of the Priest to transform the elements into the actual body and blood of the Lord (transubstantiation), and the power of the Priest to give pardon from sins (sacerdotalism and absolution). Thus, Calvin sought to remove the sense of “divine mystery” in the Sacraments by identifying them as “signs” and “seals”; but not just “bare signs” (cf. Romans 4:11). In other words, the Sacraments signified and sealed the greater reality of one’s ongoing relationship with Christ, instead of just a future hope of knowing Him. Calvin’s teaching of the Lord’s Supper differs significantly from other Reformers, such as the Lutherans, because he taught the spiritual presence of Christ. As a result, Calvin distanced himself from Zwingli’s view of the Lord’s Supper (as simply a memorial feast), and Luther’s view (as consubstantiation) where Jesus Christ was present in, by, and under the elements. Calvin preferred the frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper, even weekly, but was never able to realize this goal in Geneva. Children were received to the Lord’s Supper on the basis of a credible Profession of Faith. Preparation for this examination involved learning the questions and answers of the Genevan Catechism. A class was held for children every Sunday at noon to help prepare them to make their Profession of Faith. Calvin argued that Baptism is performed out of obedience to Christ’s commission in Mathew 28:18-20. Moreover, Calvin believed that the most appropriate mode of baptism was “sprinkling”, as symbolized by the sprinkling of water upon the Israelites for the cleansing of sin (cf. Psalm 51:7Ezekiel 36:25). Baptismal regeneration was thoroughly rejected by Calvin, for regeneration is solely the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 3:1-8;Titus 3:4-7). The proper subjects of baptism are twofold: believing adults, and the children of believers; otherwise known as “covenant children” (paedobaptism).

Church Music

Rather than the use of specialized choirs and hymns, the Genevan church emphasized congregational singing that was based upon the Psalms. Since these were the actual words of God, they reasoned that it was fitting for the Psalms to be sung in the worship of God. Calvin regarded music as one of the best gifts to humanity that God had given for our enjoyment. Musical instruments, generally, were not used and in their place metrical tunes for Psalms were composed. Whereas the Lutheran churches of Germany encouraged a rich tradition of choral music and organ composition, the Swiss Reformers sought to distance themselves from instruments which were associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Clement Marot, the French poet who fled Paris after his conversion, was recruited by Calvin to write metrical Psalms. After Marot’s untimely death in 1544, this work was picked up by Theodore Beza and the first full Psalter (with 101 psalms by Beza and 49 by Marot) was published in Geneva (1562).

Preaching the Word

The preaching of the Bible had a high priority for John Calvin and the Genevan church. Rarely, did Calvin interrupt the orderly exposition of Scripture from one passage to the next even for special holidays (lectio continuo). It was his pattern to preach verse by verse in short, crisp sentences making use of the French which he knew so well. He normally read directly from the Hebrew and Greek passages and had a running translation of this into French. Preaching took place on Sunday mornings and afternoons. Also, during the week people would gather for early morning sermons. The preacher had the high calling of interpreting the Word of God to the people, and therefore, had the obligation to live out the truths he was preaching. Later in Calvin’s life many of his sermons were transcribed for printing and published in books. These sermons are gradually becoming available as they are translated from French and Latin. They are currently being reprinted in the Supplementa Calviniana.

Teaching the Word

Teachers were distinguished from preachers by not having the privilege of serving the Lord’s Supper nor being put in charge of church discipline. It was their task to interpret the Scriptures for the benefit of the common man. Weekday lectures on the Bible were given by John Calvin and several other teachers in Geneva to overflowing crowds of students (praelectiones). Many of these lectures were written down and became the basis for future commentaries and theological books published by Calvin. In addition, the publication of the Geneva Bible (1559), with copious study notes written under Calvin’s personal supervision, made a significant positive impact on all of Protestantism—but especially in English-speaking countries.

Theological Writing

Throughout Calvin’s ministry he wrote a great number of tracts and theological treatises. Each manuscript had a pastoral concern in mind, where he sought to correct error, instruct in the truth, provide Scriptural exposition, and condemn heretics. His Commentaries on the Bible were written following the weekly preaching of these books of Scripture, and were also compiled from the notes from public lectures on Scripture he would give every other week. Calvin’s most significant achievement was the Institutes of the Christian Religion. This short treatise, which he called his “little book”, was first published in Basle (1536) and went through five successive editions during Calvin’s lifetime expanding into its final form, four massive books, by 1559. Calvin devoted his life to editing and adding to the information contained in this book; he felt it was his most important work. In the Preface, Calvin dedicated his treatise to King Francis I (1494-1547) with the hope that the persecution of the Protestants would soon be eased. This was not to be and it is doubtful that Francis ever read even a single line from the Institutes. It is interesting to note that all of Calvin’s theological works were written in the context of pastoral ministry. He constantly mentions names of opponents and supporters in his works, so that reading the Institutes requires some understanding of the historical context in Reformation Europe.

Pastoral Counseling

John Calvin experienced most of the typical pastoral counseling situations throughout his career as would the modern pastor. He administered believer and covenant baptisms, he helped parents prepare their children to make a profession of faith, he worked with young couples for marriage, he performed funerals and consoled people dealing with grief and discouragement. The Reformers in Geneva did not have a specialized counseling ministry with pastors trained to perform only this aspect of ministry. Instead, all pastors saw it as part of their pastoral duty to counsel any whom the Lord might bring to them. Their text and handbook was the Bible alone (Sola Scriptura). Their counsel to each person was by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and their own experiences of personal growth, suffering, and grief. The special responsibility of the Pastor, Calvin firmly believed, was “the cure of souls”. This meant that godly counsel was to address all areas of human concern—assurance, anxiety, despair, fear, worry, etc.

The Christian Life

Calvin taught that each Christian, when in the midst of trouble, should be encouraged to look away from himself and to look only to God. In the Institutes he noted, “We have taught that the sinner does not dwell upon his own compunction or tears, but fixes both eyes upon the Lord’s mercy alone.” Thus, in Calvin’s pastoral theology repentance and God’s grace are emphasized as key marks of the Christian life. Moreover, the “mystical union” one experiences with Christ is the firm foundation upon which one finds assurance and comfort in time of trial. Calvin felt that the individual Christian’s greatest strength was to be found in the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit” which assured the Believer that the Lord truly loved each one with an “everlasting love”.

Calvin’s Letters

Calvin wrote an amazing variety of letters to people through out his entire ministry. He wrote those who were seeking advice, giving them counsel from the Bible. He wrote to those who were troubled, offering them compassion and encouragement. He wrote to those who were in positions of civil authority exhorting them to godliness, and some of his letters were completely unsolicited. The reason he wrote them was because he felt compelled to write to those in prominence in the hopes that he might influence their personal attitudes and decisions for the kingdom of God.

Visitation of the Sick

One of the central duties of the Pastors, Elders, and Deacons was to visit the sick. During the plague of 1543 Calvin strongly encouraged a ministry to the dying. He was forbidden, however, by the City Council to participate in this visiting because of his great value to the city. Nevertheless, he promoted this ministry and was instrumental in founding and supporting a hospital in Geneva. During the course of his pastoral duties he regularly visited the sick within his own parish.

Visitation of Prisoners

A regular visitation of those imprisoned was conducted by the ministers of the Presbytery. Both preaching the Scriptures and godly counsel were to be given. Special care was to be given to condemned criminals who were facing execution. Calvin, himself, gave this care many times over the years of his ministry to condemned criminals. He made particular efforts to preach the gospel of grace to Michael Servetus, a most difficult and hardened heretic, before his execution in 1553.

Visitation of Families and Rural Churches

The New Testament records the ministerial practice of the Apostle Paul as “…teaching you in public and from house to house” (cf. Acts 20:20). This same pattern was regularly performed at Geneva, and has come down through the centuries as a distinct practice of pastors and elders in those churches that are Reformed in theology. The visitation of the rural churches by the leading pastors of Geneva was also strongly encouraged. Calvin and several other pastors were actually chastened in the minutes of the Company of Pastors for failing to carry out this duty in a timely manner.

Evangelism & Missionary Activities

The preaching and teaching of the Word of God featured prominently in Reformed efforts at evangelism. Beyond this, Calvin and many other Reformers often engaged in “public debates” for the purpose of winning a whole city or region to the Reformation. Moreover, a prominent feature of Reformed evangelistic activity is the belief that God alone changes human hearts and brings people to faith in the gospel (cf. John 1:12-136:44). The Genevan church trained and sent numerous pastors and evangelists throughout the nearby Swiss cantons and the nations of Europe. There was particular emphasis placed upon France, however trained men were also sent to England, Germany, Holland, Scotland, and Poland. One missionary effort in 1556 focused on sending missionaries to establish a Protestant colony on an island off the coast of Brazil, but this effort failed.

Discipleship

Calvin was particularly concerned with the discipleship of new Believers and children. With them in mind he wrote the Genevan Catechism in 1538. It was not, however, until his return to Geneva in 1541 that the Catechism was revised and put into regular use. The question and answer format was designed to be taught and memorized over the space of fifty-five Sundays. Besides the Catechism the weekly preaching and teaching of the Word of God was the foremost means of discipleship in Geneva. And beyond that, for more able students, the Institutes of the Christian Religion was readily available—as well as its scholarly author.

Education & Higher Education

In 1559 the “Genevan Academy” was formally established for the purpose of training pastors and missionaries. This school was a stunning achievement for a town of approximately 20,000 people with little resources beyond the local town treasury. The usual practice of the day was that a University was established with the help of a rich patron who would fund the starting of the school. The Genevan citizenry contributed out of their own personal resources to establish this school hiring the best professors that could be found throughout Europe to make up the faculty. Later the Academy expanded its course offerings and became known as the University of Geneva.

In Conclusion

I intended in this brief outline of John Calvin’s pastoral theology to put forth sufficient evidence to show how deeply his ministry is rooted in the Bible. In essence, it is a biblical theology extended to the practical affairs of Christ’s Church. I truly hope that the case has been made, and that each church leader will consider my earnest proposal: rather than finding answers to your pastoral questions through the sociological and psychological methodologies of this current age, I would urge you, instead, to take “a backwards glance” to an example that has proven itself over the past four hundred and fifty years. All Protestants would do well to rediscover their Reformation heritage and build upon the lessons of the past (cf. Jeremiah 6:16). I do not believe that this approach promotes an unthinking allegiance to John Calvin, or encourages pastors to slavishly imitate every one of the practices of the Genevan Church. Surely, everything that worked so well in Geneva wouldn’t necessarily work in your situation! But, there are essential ministry principles that can be put into practice in your own church. And so, you can glean from Calvin’s successes and avoid his mistakes.

What was the overall impact of Calvin’s ministry; did it bear good fruit? Calvin scholar and long-time pastor, Ronald S. Wallace, suggests a much wider achievement for Calvin’s ministry than just with Geneva: its people, its church, its culture, and its local environs. Wallace asserts an influence that continues to this very day through the legacy of Calvin’s theology and his city. He perceptively writes,

Calvin’s influence in the sixteenth century however was due not only to his writing, counsel and teaching but also to what Geneva itself became under his influence. The perplexed pastor of today finds much of what is written by experts, and given as advice even at heart-warming church conferences, does not really fit into his own actual situation in the parish ministry. Calvin, however, instead of writing a “Utopia”, actually produced it in Geneva. He translated his ideas into ecclesiastical and even political institutions. He influenced the kind of individual people could meet as they went about the city. Geneva itself therefore became a fact of great importance. It attracted people. They sent their children so that they could come under the influence of the place. They came to believe it was possible for them to have something like it where they themselves lived and worked.

In this way we see the faithfulness of Calvin as pastor and shepherd to the church of Jesus Christ. He demonstrated this faithfulness in three ways: (1) by an entire city that was transformed by the gospel, (2) by a church which established patterns for ministry that are still being imitated today, and (3) by a movement that became known in time as the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, John Calvin was a faithful pastor. His closest associate and personal successor, Theodore Beza, gives us a fitting tribute to Calvin’s life with these stirring words,

Having been a spectator of his conduct for sixteen years, I have given a faithful account both of his life and of his death, and I now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate.

In response to this tribute, I can only enthusiastically proclaim, Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the glory!

Rev. Marcus J. Serven
Covenant Family Church (RPCGA)
Troy, Missouri

Select Bibliography

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