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John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor

Gregory E. Reynolds

John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, by W. Robert Godfrey. Wheaton: Crossway, 2009, 207 pages, $15.99, paper.

There is no better introduction to Calvin's ministry and thought in print. Here's why. Godfrey summarizes the early life of Calvin up to the end of his ministry in Strassburg in the first quarter of the book under the heading "Pilgrim." The bulk of the book is taken up with Calvin, the "Pastor," in his Genevan ministry, which lasted to the end of his life. After describing his return from exile to Geneva, Godfrey unpacks the work of Calvin as pastor theologian. The theological content of Calvin's preaching, teaching, and writing is skillfully woven in the biographical fabric of Calvin's life.

This book is a valuable introduction not only to Calvin's life and faith, but to the Reformed faith itself, since it outlines the main themes of Calvin's theology and thus the theological tradition named after him. Godfrey signals his method by skillfully introducing Calvin's first great polemical work, "Reply to Sadoleto." Not only did this treatise successfully ward off the would-be interloper Cardinal Sadoleto, but it earned Calvin a ticket out of exile in Strassburg—an exile he was loathe to leave. Calvin's reply, written in 1539, proved to be a turning point in his ministry and writing. Godfrey is more than equal to the task of providing a cogent summary of Calvin's brilliant letter in nine pages.

Then, after exploring the young Calvin's intellectual and spiritual roots, Godfrey describes his first ministry in Geneva and his ministry in exile in Strassburg. All the while the character of the pastor-preacher is revealed: brilliant, determined, faithful, and caring. Above all he is captive to God's revealed Word and his calling to preach and teach it to the emerging Reformed church. All of his energies were poured out on the edification of the church. His sermons, commentaries, letters, and treatises were aimed either at instructing the people or the leaders of the church. The last six chapters—making up three quarters of the book—explicate the main themes of Calvin's theology in relationship to the church. It is clear that Godfrey's own writing is aimed at helping the church today—or should I say recalling the church to its Reformation heritage.

"One of the most important tasks that Calvin took upon himself was the reform of public worship in Geneva" (69). Thus, chapter six, "The Church and Worship," covers the liturgy, congregational singing, the regulative principle, and the theology underlying these. Godfrey sums up the salient principles of Calvin's theology of worship (80–86): 1) the centrality of the Word; 2) liturgical simplicity; 3) spiritual ascent to the heavenly reality of communion with the ascended Christ by faith; 4) reverence before God.

Chapter seven, "The Church and the Sacraments," begins by identifying the doctrine and practice of the sacraments as "one of the most important issues of the Reformation" (87). This doctrine is barely on the radar of Evangelicalism. It was at the center of Calvin's concern, perhaps because it was the visible center of Roman Catholic corruption of Scripture, not only in the doctrine of transubstantiation but in adding five unbiblical sacraments, since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). The two biblical sacraments are given to raise our minds to heaven (94) in order to embrace the promises of God in Christ by faith (91). Godfrey presents this material in the context of the various debates of the day.

Chapter eight, "The Church and Predestination," presents this controversial doctrine in the proper context of Calvin's theology and pastoral care as a "vital and comforting doctrine" (113). At the heart of Calvin's concern was the sovereignty of God's grace (116). For Calvin the final decision on this doctrine was found in the Bible's clear teaching. That is what we must submit to (119). In the end it is through preaching the gospel that the elect are effectually called into union with Christ and his church (121). Christ is at the center of this doctrine (123). A brief discussion of Calvin's "two covenant theology," at the end of this chapter, is helpful (124–27).

Chapter nine, "The Church, the City, and the Schools," addresses the Constantinian confusion Calvin inherited from medieval theology. It is in this context that Godfrey ably covers the infamous Servetus incident (132–35).

Chapter ten, "Calvin as Pastoral Counselor," the longest chapter in the book, emphasizes a little-appreciated aspect of Calvin's work. Calvin's extensive counseling ministry—much of it through correspondence throughout Europe—is rooted, according to Godfrey, in his doctrine of Providence. Calvin was especially fond of using the Psalms in his counseling (142–46). As the governor of the world, God exercises his Fatherly care over his children. This knowledge builds the believer in faith and the practice of prayer (145), especially in facing suffering. Calvin's pastoral care was often directed toward the sick, grieving, and persecuted. An essential part of the pastor's work is being an example of "modesty and moderation" (162) in the face of opposition and of things of which they do not approve—counsel we could sorely use in our day.

Chapter eleven, "Calvin and the Institutes," explores the development and genius of this profound work of systematic theology. The knowledge of God and self through Scripture is foundational to Christian faith. This twofold knowledge of God and self is absolutely reliable and perspicuous (170–77). The testimony of the Spirit convinces people of the veracity of the Word (180). The Bible is self-authenticating (181). Finally, Calvin develops the doctrine of Christ for the first time in terms of the offices of prophet, priest, and king in the Institutes (189). Godfrey concludes this chapter by showing that Calvin taught the active obedience of Christ in the Institutes as foundational to the doctrine of justification (190–92).

Godfrey's poignant "Conclusion: The Unmarked Grave," accents the remarkable humility of one of the greatest intellects in church history. In the end Calvin depended utterly on the grace of God in Christ. His much maligned character has endured the test of time.

The indexes and layout of the book are excellent. The typography of the chapter subheadings, however, leaves something to be desired. A select bibliography of Calvin biographies and theological analysis would have been helpful.

One lays down this book inspired to take up reading or rereading the great reformer's works, many of which are still being discovered, translated, and published today. This book should motivate a new generation to do just that.

Gregory Reynolds is the editor of Ordained Servant and serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Ordained Servant November 2009.

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