Pastoring like a Theologian: Six Lessons from John Calvin

This is part two in a series of posts that considers the life and vocational practices of historic pastor theologians. Part one on Martin Luther can be found here.


The name ‘John Calvin’ is synonymous with many things, depending on who you ask. A straw poll of Western Christians would probably reveal labels like ‘great theologian’ and ‘totally biblical’ being neck-and-neck with a descriptor like ‘theologically misguided’ and other terms not suitable for publication. There are few more polarizing figures in the church than this sixteenth-century reformer. But I’m prone to think that the commotion is less the responsibility of Calvin himself and more the product of his interpreters. I can recall the first time that I picked up Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, and was surprised to find that the first pages—even the vast majority of the book—say little about predestination. It’s there, but it’s not the focal point envisioned by endless contemporary debates about soteriology.

In other words, a barrier to appreciating Calvin as a pastor theologian is the distinction, or lack thereof, between the man and his movement. Calvin and Calvinism are not always the same, and it’s sometimes the case that the man himself is more humane and conscientious than his followers. To be sure, the historic Calvinist position, including the modern Neo-Reformed movement (Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, et al.), allows Calvin’s key tenets to blossom into full display: grace, God’s providence, and the centrality and sufficiency of Christ. But where Calvinists spill ink discussing the internal logic of their theology (e.g. Francis Turretin, John Owen), Calvin himself was immersed in thinkers that sometimes differed from him, including Augustine and Aquinas; where Calvinism is fundamentally a theological movement, Calvin was a humanist scholar who was as well-versed in Seneca and Cicero as he was in Anselm and Abelard.

As one thinks about Calvin’s relevance to ministry, what can’t be overlooked is his maxim that “true wisdom” consists of “two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[1] This statement affirms those who understand Calvin’s theology to be Godward in orientation: the point of life is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”[2] But it also gives one’s self a place of prominence—a fact that makes some Calvinists uncomfortable. While Calvin’s meditation can be abused, it is simply a summary of the Western theological tradition, what Eric Johnson calls “theocentric subjectivity” (i.e. the project of bringing the objective knowledge of God into the subjective depths of the soul).[3] This seems to me to be at the heart of any good pastoral ministry. Although pastors labor for God, they are not ministering to him; rather, they are contextualizing the truths of the gospel for their community in an effort to see those people and all of creation reflect God’s glory.

So, in the spirit of Calvin’s maxim on God and humanity, I offer six lessons from his life and work—taking objective realities and applying them to our contexts—that we might gain some wisdom for the task of being a pastor theologian.

1.     Listen to the advice of others. Calvin always intended to be a scholar. His considerable intellect suggests that, had he not become a pastor, history would have still remembered him as a great scholar. But the decisive moment of his life pulled him away from the ivory tower and into the church. As he was lodging overnight in Geneva, a local reformer named William Farel challenged Calvin to stay and aid the young Reformation. Calvin recounts:

Then Farel, who was working with incredible zeal to promote the gospel, bent all his efforts to keep me in the city. And when he realized that I was determined to study in privacy in some obscure place, and saw that he gained nothing by entreaty, he descended to cursing, and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back from giving help at a time of such great need.[4] 

It is no wonder that the themes of grace and providence permeate Calvin’s work. Like Paul before him (cf. Acts 9), he experienced an intrusive work of God through Farel’s challenge (and accepted it, living in Geneva as a pastor for much of his life). While Farel’s courage stands out, it’s Calvin’s humility that is most instructive for budding pastor theologians. Calvin was more educated than Farel and owed him nothing. Yet he listened to his pastoral colleague, and because he did, he would give Protestantism a systematic theology that it otherwise may never have had.  

2.     Study other disciplines. One of the criticisms of Protestantism that falls short for me is the allegation that it is historically nearsighted. This is true in some denominations, but it is certainly not true of Calvin. His Institutes is a curated conversation between the church’s oldest theologians and Calvin’s own exegesis of Scripture. But Calvin also spends a great deal of time quoting figures in the classical tradition like Seneca, Demosthenes, and Cicero. In fact, Calvin’s first book—prior to Farel’s intervention—was a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. All of this is vital to Calvin’s work, lending not only intellectual breadth but a real understanding of human nature and an ability to articulate truth in the ad fontes (‘back to the sources’) spirit of the Renaissance.

In our age, where a seminary education is mainly, if not wholly, in the theological disciplines, Calvin reminds us that a good pastor theologian gains command of other disciplines too. Today this might include developments in science, bioethics, psychology and technology, to name a few. 

3.     Persevere in your vocation. Calvin was nothing if not intense. You can criticize him as a workaholic, but it’s hard to argue with his level of commitment to his ministry. It’s said that Calvin would actually work at his desk late at night with his feet resting in buckets of ice water to stave off sleep! In a world of digital distraction, Calvin reminds us of the goodness of work and the need for focus amidst a busy schedule if one is to produce theological scholarship in the context of pastoral ministry.

4.     Be aware of your theological hang-ups. Anyone familiar with Calvin’s story knows that it was not always pretty. Arguably the darkest chapter comes with the execution of Michael Servetus in 1553 at the hands of the Geneva city council (which Calvin heavily influenced). Servetus was a heretic who was denounced by Catholics and Protestants alike. But he especially bothered Calvin, as the two shared a correspondence that ended with Servetus’s decision to send Calvin a copy of his Institutes with annotated criticisms attached. Calvin wrote to William Farel that should Servetus ever set foot in Geneva “as far as my authority goes, I would not let him leave alive.”[5] While Servetus may have met the same end elsewhere, it is hard to not see Calvin’s revenge in the death of Servetus.

Calvinists—and the church at-large—have softened in the last few centuries, but movements still embody the virtues and vices of their leader. So it’s not entirely undeserved that Calvinists are painted as proud and divisive. As someone with sympathies for Calvinism, I have had encounters with other Christians—including in job interviews—where upon simply learning that I identify with Calvinism, I have had to offer reassurance that I can be kind to those with whom I disagree. This is a reminder for ministers and seminary students to be aware of their theological pet peeves. The last thing a congregation needs is to be dragged into a theological controversy that is as much about the insecurities of their leader as it is about contending for the truth.

5.     Consider using your gifts in areas that are ‘unconventional’ for your personality. Calvin often struggled with physical illness and what little energy he did have was typically spent in the study. By the end of his short life, his friends had to carry him into the church where he preached. Not only was Calvin often a low energy individual, he was also introverted and had trouble finding a spouse. None of these realities affirm modern sensibilities of what it takes to be a pastor. Yet there Calvin was, being appointed a pastor of the church in Geneva and having by all accounts a fruitful pastoral ministry.

Unlike Calvin, too many leaders today—including Christians generally—find their identity in cultural stereotypes about our personalities. Afraid of shedding the label of being ‘the thinker’ or ‘the energy guy’, we shy away from being more than that. A key part of being a pastor theologian is believing, in the tradition of Calvin, Martin Luther, or Augustine, that introverted yet thoughtful individuals with a passion for the church can be effective leaders.

6.     Resist using your ministry to gain celebrity status. Calvin sensed within his lifetime that he was becoming too famous and risked creating a cult of personality. Lest his burial site become an object of pilgrimage, he chose to be buried in an unmarked grave to encourage his followers to give their allegiance totally to Jesus rather than to him. 

Likewise, in the quest to attain a more intellectually-robust pastorate, it is easy to be caught up in the business of saying great things about God and forgetting that the point of the Christian life is to sit docile before the Word and thus to know God rather than to become well-known. Calvin’s graveside decision should be a source of sober reflection in an age of celebrities and celebrity pastors, where the vices of ambition can cloud the judgment of talented ministry leaders.

Once again Calvin re-surfaces as inspiration for sensible and thoughtful leadership. In this post I have tried to present Calvin as he was, but perhaps in a vein that is less well-known in the theological world. More than a theologian, he was a humanist in the Renaissance tradition; more than a talented intellectual, he was a humble leader; perceived as a dour disciplinarian, he also knew the power of God’s grace. So it is with some sadness that I read criticisms of Calvin from literary giants like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. I’m convinced that they’re interacting with caricatures of Calvin—whether by Calvinists or otherwise—rather than the man and his ministry.


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B.G. White is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The King’s College in New York City. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Durham University and has served as a Pastoral Tutor at St. John’s College, Durham. Prior to his doctoral studies, he worked in pastoral ministry in Cambridge, Ontario. He is a fellow of the St. Augustine Fellowship at the CPT. You can follow him on Twitter @bg__white.


NOTES:

[1] Institutes I.1.i

[2] These words are taken from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), a well-known Calvinist document.

[3] Eric J. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 433.

[4] Calvin: Commentaries, Library of Christian Classics (London: SCM Press, 1958), 53. 

[5] Jules Bonnet, ed. Letters of John Calvin, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858), 20.