Calvin’s Preaching: Studied Simplicity

Calvin’s preaching was expository, but not necessarily verse-by-verse in the sense that he only preached one verse at a time. Instead, he usually preached two to four verses at a time although he did at times preach several sermons from one verse or preach one sermon from as many as ten or twelve verses. Quite frequently, at least in his New Testament preaching, his homiletical units correspond to the text divisions found in his commentaries.

In explaining the meaning of words, he rarely if ever (Parker says never) gives the Hebrew or Greek original. He would simply say something like, “The word that Job uses signifies…” or “we must examine more carefully what Paul meant when he said…” followed by the French translation, not the Greek word.[1]

This demonstrates that despite Calvin’s extraordinary learning, he refused to parade his learning in front of his congregation. Calvin is supposed to have said near the time of his death that he “always studied to stay simple.” This is likely very true. Many modern preachers reveal too much of the work from their study in their sermons. The pulpit is not the place to discuss minor technical details of a passage; it is the place to reveal the meaning of the Scriptures to the flock.

In addition, Calvin often, in an effort to help explain his text, quoted the many authors he had read. He would, however, refer to them in ambiguous terms. He would use words like “some.” For example, “Some take these words in this manner…” To read a modern translation with editor’s footnotes can be misleading since he often did not read these authors in preparation for each sermon. He was already widely read and, especially if he had already written a commentary on the book he was preaching, he was able to from memory bring out the quotes that lay behind his understanding of the Scriptures. He rarely mentions another author by name.

[1] Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, 86-87.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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