The art of John Calvin

August 02, 2017

The art of John Calvin

Michael Jensen

John Calvin, the great Genevan reformer, certainly had a lot to say.

But what is often overlooked is how he went about saying it. Calvin was not just an exegetical and theological thinker of the highest order. He was a master of rhetoric. The thoughts that pour forth from his pen are put together with a genuine artistry. There is beauty in the pages of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Calvin’s deliberate strategy in writing his theological and expositional thoughts was to aim for ‘lucid brevity’, as he put it. This was in direct contrast to the impenetrable thickets of thought that characterised medieval theology. Calvin wanted to edify his readers, whom he assumed would not be theological specialists. He saw theology as a pastoral and practical discipline, addressing the real lives of lay Christians who lived and worked outside of the cloisters.

In this his models were the great writers of the Renaissance. Calvin was trained as a humanist lawyer, and wrote his first book on the Roman writer Seneca. He knew well the classical traditions of rhetoric. In the hands of a skilled writer like Erasmus of Rotterdam, all the literary devices of the classical world could be deployed to urge Christians to live more faithfully. Erasmus’s Enchiridion, for example, was an extremely popular handbook for Christian discipleship.

Calvin’s background in the humanist tradition taught him to write by expounding the source texts of the Christian faith from their original languages, and to only use secondary literature sparingly. Augustine and Bernard make appearances in his work as trusted advisors, but he wasn’t interested in hosting a debate with a comprehensive list of secondary authors. That would be too distracting and dull.

He also learnt to organise his thoughts in a systematic way, rather than to just list his thoughts under one heading. Calvin’s theological thinking is beautifully organised and integrated.

But he also learnt to make use of imagery—a technique that makes his work unforgettable. As you read the Institutes, you notice carefully chosen similes in particular. For example, he talks about Scripture as a pair of spectacles:

Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognise it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. (Institutes,

Without the aid of Scripture, we can have knowledge that God exists, but scarcely more. We have confused knowledge. But Scripture clarifies our knowledge of God—putting the image in sharp definition, as it were.

Another famous image Calvin uses is that of the nurse-maid:

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.  (Institutes, I.xiii.1)

God speaks to us in a way we can understand, because the problem is with our lack of capacity. We are like babies. The Word of God describes God as having ears, a nose and hands and so on—but of course, he doesn’t have these. It’s just that we need to understand him by means of these images.

Calvin’s choice of simile as his rhetorical device is not an accident. His similes teach us by form as well as through content: even divinely-given human speech about God is analogical rather than univocal. The God revealed in the Bible is truly revealed there, but he is not contained by or reducible to those expressions. Divine realities are beyond us; we can only access them as God himself accommodates himself to our limited minds.

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