John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet

Paul Helm Articles
Jon Balserak, John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xiv + 208pp.

Jon Balserak's new monograph on Calvin as a prophet, a sequel to his Establishing the Remnant Church, Calvin's Lectures on the Minor Prophets, 1556-1559, (Brill, 2011) is a very good read. The title is unassuming, the thesis of the book both gripping and alarming. Few who read Calvin sympathetically would demur at him being called a 'prophet', but it is the connotations of that term that alarm, as we shall see.

Balserak begins his study with reflections on Calvin's self-understanding. The materials for the study of Calvin the man by the present-day student appear scanty; the well-known remarks in his Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, scattered, short personal references in his introductions to successive editions of the Institutes, and in his correspondence. Must we resort largely to speculation? Balserak demurs. There is Calvin at work, and in death. Beza recalls that at Calvin's funeral the city mourned 'the prophet of the Lord' (p.6). 

The second chapter is devoted to prophetism in church history, particularly in the medieval world, the later phase of which of course Calvin inhabited. Explanations of the nature of prophecy has two strands to it; a prophet is a recipient of knowledge of the future, and he is one who expounds God's word and applies it to some aspect of the life of God's people. And occasionally as both, foretelling and forthtelling. By the Reformation the second sense dominated due to reasons partly to do with the belief in the cessation of supernatural gifts with the passing of the Apostles, and partly with the choking effect of Anabaptist prophecy due to its marked tendency to disorderliness.  Balserak gives the reader this material with a good deal of scholarship in deft, clear paragraphs.

The opening orientation to Calvin, and then the survey of the theological background to prophetism in the West, are followed by three chapters on Calvin in which the focus narrows onto the later years of Calvin's life, the middle 1550's until his death. These were years of political struggle, of plots, of iconoclasm and of popular unrest between the Huguenots and the French authorities. Some scholars have taken this up, and Balserak joins them, but thinks that scholarship has not so far been thorough enough. For Calvin's awareness of what a prophet is is varied, sometimes seeming to allow that there are prophets still, at other times that prophecy has ceased, and sometimes in a state of indecision over the question. Solution? Calvin is thought to hold to what he occasionally says, that the prophets' multi-tasked activities arise from their central  task of proclaiming the will of God (pp.12-13) Prophets do A, B and C. Calvin sees himself doing A, B and C; therefore Calvin sees himself as a prophet. By and large he saw A, B and C not as autonomously prophetic activities but derivatively so, via the word of God. (Balserak sees some evidence that Calvin believed in his own prophetic foretelling. But I am not persuaded. Being confident that one has prophetic certainty, which is what Calvin may well have been, is not the same thing as believing one has a prophetic gift.) 

In these years Calvin offers praelectiones (and preaching) on the Old Testament prophets, Hosea (1556), The Minor Prophets (1559), Daniel (1561) Jeremiah and Lamentations (1563). He was lecturing on Ezekiel at the time of his death in 1564, getting as far as Chapter 20. We may be inclined to think of these as written commentaries, like his Romans, or the Gospel of John. But they were a different genre, delivered extempore and taken down in shorthand, more like his sermons. Who were they delivered to? Balserak tells us they were lectures to refugee French ministerial students whose aim was to be sent back to France in these years of struggle, and who also were to be prophets, speaking forth the word of God. They were to go not as soldiers or spies, but to raise the expectations of often struggling Reformed congregations, to console and to harden their resolve,  arguing from the word of God that God was on their side in the Holy War that would surely come.

In chapters four and then five, the main (and longest) chapter of the book, the author fills out Calvin's self-understanding as the prophet of God in the context of what was going on in France. He shows that in his lectures Calvin discusses in concrete terms the waging of a war in France against the 'papists'. The lectures portray them as unrelievedly diabolical, as idolators full of immorality and wickedness, and so implacably opposed to the people of God. Calvin dismissed the Nicodemites in similar terms. At the same time he promoted a search for a Prince of the Blood who would head up the Reformed in France, as according to the Institutes was the correct thing to do in the case of tyranny. In each edition of that work from 1536 Calvin writes about the nobility in connection with tyranny as follows:
For if there are any magistrates of the people,  appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings..... I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, for by it they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know they have been appointed protectors by God's ordinance.
That is one thing. Nobles, as magistrates, are to withstand in the name of the people the king's tyrannical tendencies. It is another thing entirely to seek out a Prince of the Blood to lead a civil war, a war of religion, a holy war. Calvin failed to attract Antoine of Navarre to the leadership of the Huguenots, but had success with his brother Louis de Condė, each being recent converts to the Reformed cause. 

So with one hand he was working to find a leader for the Huguenots. With his other hand he was preparing a band of prophets who, on returning to France, would fortify the Huguenots against any tendency to compromise or temporise. From 1556 onwards he foretold that this was to be a war to the death, and that God was assuredly on their side. Calvin was not so much lecturing on the prophets as regarding the prophetic books as manuals to help himself and his hearers to be prophets in Jeremiah's and Daniel's line. He speaks of overthrowing the entire papacy, of 'the enemy' (p.132) and prays to the Lord (at the close of each Lecture) for his promised success. So a part at least of Calvin's self-understanding was seeing himself in a fairly unqualified way as a prophet of the Lord. The papists are superstitious, covenant breakers, bastards, possessed of the madness of idolators, frenzied and delirious, driven and possessed by Satan. (pp.133-34) The black are unremittingly black, while the white need toning up by the graduates of the prophets' school.  The final chapter is a brief resumė

Jon Balserak writes plainly and modestly, as if rather stunned by what he has uncovered. His style is adorned with scholarly detail of work on this theme, by such as Robert Kingdon and Harro Höpfl, who have pondered the Protestant wars and Calvin's place in them. He doubts that they have gone far enough. But he does not claim that this is Calvin's only role, or even the only strand in his self-definition. After all, during the period when he was lecturing to the school of the prophets, Calvin was also working steadily at the final, definitive edition of his Institutes, in this work presumably fulfilling the role of a contemporary church theologian. Truly, a man of many parts. Nor does he ponder how what is taught in the prophets' school measured up against other things Calvin wrote in the Institutes, even in the very section quoted from above, about the two kingdoms. Neverthless, Balserak shows us a distinctive, almost manic, side of Calvin.

One further thing his book throws light on is Calvin's behaviour in theological controversy.  Despite championing the gospel of sovereign grace for sinners, Calvin frequently treated his opponents as if they were beyond God's reach. In the lectures on the prophets it was the papacy, fit only for destruction. In the case of an individual such as Sebastian Castellio, who was once a friend, then a disappointment and finally a pest. In controversy with him his attitude was similarly flinty and implacable. Calvin wrote to him in a way that never entertained the thought that the grace of God could reach him, that Christ's 'blood can make the foulest clean', that Castellio could undergo a change of mind. Instead he treated him like dirt. As a prophet, did John Calvin think that he knew who the reprobate were?

Jon Balserak's new book is a must-read for anyone interested in Calvin's self-understanding.

Paul Helm was Professor of History and Philosophy of Religion, King's College, London, 1993-2000