The Genius of Geneva
By John Piper
In the fall of 1539, John Calvin wrote to Sadoleto, an Italian cardinal seeking to win Geneva back to the Roman Catholic Church: “[Your] zeal for heavenly life [is] a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God.” He goes on to say that Sadoleto should “set before [man], as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God” (Selections from His Writings, 89).
This would be a fitting banner over all of Calvin’s life and work — zeal to illustrate the glory of God. The essential meaning of Calvin’s life and preaching is that he recovered and embodied a passion for the absolute reality and majesty of God.
Mastered by Majesty
Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, when Martin Luther was 25 years old and had just begun to teach the Bible in Wittenberg. The message and spirit of the Reformation would not reach Calvin for twenty years, and in the meantime he devoted his young adult years to the study of Medieval theology, law, and the classics.
But by 1533, something dramatic had happened in his life through the influence of Reformation teaching. Calvin recounts how he had been struggling to live out the Catholic faith with zeal when “God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame. . . . Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with [an] intense desire to make progress” (Selections from His Writings, 26).
Suddenly, Calvin saw and tasted in Scripture the majesty of God. And in that moment, both God and the word of God were so powerfully authenticated to his soul that he became the loving servant of God and his word the rest of his life.
Calvin knew what sort of ministry he wanted. He wanted the enjoyment of literary ease so he could promote the Reformed faith as a scholar. But God had radically different plans.
After escaping from Paris and finally leaving France entirely, Calvin intended to go to Strasbourg for a life of peaceful literary production. But while Calvin was staying the night in Geneva, William Farel, the fiery leader of the Reformation in that city, found out he was there and sought him out. It was a meeting that changed the course of history, not just for Geneva, but for the world. Calvin remembers,
Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, . . . and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.
The course of his life was irrevocably changed. Never again would Calvin work in what he called the “tranquillity of studies.” From now on, every page of the 48 volumes of books and tracts and sermons and commentaries and letters that he wrote would be hammered out on the anvil of pastoral responsibility. For the next 28 years (apart from a two-year hiatus), Calvin gave himself to expositing the word — to displaying the majesty of God in Scripture to his Genevan flock.
The need for the Reformation was fundamentally this: Rome had “destroyed the glory of Christ in many ways” (Portrait of Calvin, 113). The reason, according to Calvin, the church was “carried about with so many strange doctrines” was “because the excellence of Christ is not perceived by us” (Portrait of Calvin, 66). In other words, the great guardian of biblical orthodoxy throughout the centuries is a passion for the glory and the excellency of God in Christ.
The issue is not, first, the well-known sticking points of the Reformation: justification, priestly abuses, transubstantiation, prayers to saints, and papal authority. Beneath all of them — at stake in them all for Calvin — was the fundamental issue of whether the glory of God was shining in its fullness, or was somehow being diminished. From the beginning of his ministry to the end of his life, his guiding star in vision was the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God.
Unlocking the Treasures of Scripture
Geerhardus Vos has argued that this focus on the glory of God is the reason the Reformed tradition succeeded more fully than the Lutheran tradition in “mastering the rich content of the Scriptures.” Both had “cast themselves on the Scriptures.” But there was a difference:
Because Reformed theology took hold of the Scriptures in their deepest root idea, it was in a position to work through them more fully from this central point and to let each part of their content come to its own. This root idea which served as the key to unlock the rich treasures of the Scriptures was the preeminence of God’s glory in the consideration of all that has been created. (Shorter Writings, 243)
The true genius of Geneva was not the mind of John Calvin, but passion for the glory of God. Every generation needs to unlock the treasures of Scripture for the peculiar perils and possibilities of its own time. Our generation no less than any. I think we will only do this well if we have been profoundly and joyfully mastered by the greatest reality the Scriptures reveal — the majesty of God’s glory.