As I prepare to preach on St. Patrick next weekend, I have been listening to some biographical sermons by other preachers. Today I listened to John Piper preach about John Calvin, and I learned something about Calvin I never knew.
I wrote last Sunday that “one of my ulterior motives is to exonerate Calvin from some of the injustices that have been done to him by obnoxious, prideful theological neat-niks who claim Calvin’s name without emulating his missionary heart.” Little did I know then the impetus behind his major work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, written when he was 26 years old, and still one of the most important works of theology in the history of the Christian church.
Calvin wrote the Institutes while living in Basel, Switzerland, having been driven from his home country (France) due to religious persecution. Here is what he says about his motivation in writing:
…While I lay hidden at Basel, and known only to few people, many faithful and holy persons were burnt alive in France. . . . It appeared to me, that unless I opposed [the perpetrators] to the utmost of my ability, my silence could not be vindicated from the charge of cowardice and treachery. This was the consideration which induced me to publish my Institutes of the Christian Religion. . . . It was published with no other design than that men might know what was the faith held by those whom I saw basely and wickedly defamed.
The “consideration” which moved Calvin to write was the burning flesh of hundreds of young French pastors who died preaching the gospel. This fact gives an entirely different flavor to the strength and precision of his writing. Calvin is not a man who knew theology for the sake of knowing theology, but a man who was moved to expound the truth of Scripture after seeing his friends suffer and die for it. Surmises Piper: “I think we would, perhaps, do our theology better today if more were at stake in what we said.”