Sermons on the Beatitudes

Paul Helm Articles

Calvin's sermons were delivered extempore, taken down by the remarkable Denis Raguenier, published by the diaconate of Geneva, and the proceeds used to support refugees. Initially, Calvin was not keen on them being published, but when he saw the level of competence of Raguenier and the copyists, realised the clamour of the printers and his public for them, he relented. Hundreds of them survive, many of them still unpublished, though they are gradually appearing. As Robert White, the translator and editor of these five sermons says, 'it was the Word preached and applied from the pulpit which above all fashioned Geneva's evangelical culture and made it the nerve-centre of Reformed Protestantism'. Not only that, but certainly that.

The preacher usually never saw the written results before they appeared. An exception to this rule was those collected as 65 Sermons on the Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels, published in Geneva in 1562, two years before Calvin's death, to which he wrote an Introduction. Each sermon is thus an extended exposition and comment not on one text, but on parallel texts, where there are such. Calvin's style is to comment on the meaning of the text and to apply it as he goes along. He seems to have held that the Beatitudes were not single sayings of Jesus, but summaries of his teaching, which accounts for the differences of wording in the Gospels. Seems reasonable. The text determines the form of the sermon. Calvin was still going through the Harmony in this way when he died.

These sermons on the Beatitudes, taken from the 65, were thus among the last that Calvin preached. They were the very last that Raguenier took down. As Richard White puts it, 'Raguenier laid aside his pen and prepared himself for death, which came in the winter of 1560-1.'

'Meekness and Mercy' (not JC's title, you understand) is a sustained call to compassion. If for you the name 'Calvin' suggests only 'Geneva', or 'predestination' or 'Servetus', then the sermons convey another side to Calvin, and will be something of an eye-opener: 'Calvin the compassionate'. And if you are inclined to interpret 'the poor', 'the merciful' and so forth of the Beatitudes in a 'spiritual sense', Calvin thinks that this line is 'too clever'. Here are some sharp words from the sermon.

It is all the more important, therefore, to understand that helping others amounts to nothing unless we are moved by a love which comes from the heart, and which bids us bear our share of the misfortune we see around us. And because God has bound us all together, no one can turn away and live only for himself. There is no room here for the indifference which promises tranquillity and the pleasures of a comfortable life: we must enlarge our affections as the law of love requires. (43)

We can proclaim our pity for those who suffer time without number; but unless we actually assist them, our claims will be worthless. There are plenty of people who will say, 'Oh dear! How terrible to be like that poor man!' Yet they simply brush it all aside, making no attempt to help. Expressions of pity stir no one into action. In short, the world is full of mercy if words are to be believed; in reality it is all pretence. (43)

Because of the way in which Geneva was organised the community is treated, more or less, as the body of Christ. But this ought not to blunt the force of Calvin's words as we read them.

It goes without saying that these sermons bear little or no resemblance to the After Dinner Speeches that nowadays often pass for sermons. No opening jokes to settle the refugees and the Genevois, to put them at their ease. Somehow, putting people at ease was not Calvin's style. Did Jesus do that?

It is interesting to reflect on the Christian ethic that Calvin seeks to impart through these sermons, with their emphasis on trial, suffering, hardship, pilgrimage, patient endurance and contentment. He was preparing his troops for battle. Calvin prayed before and after each Sermon, as the liturgy required. The editor has provided us with some examples. The closing prayer of the last sermon is magnificent - clear, reverent, impassioned. Not everything is bad about the French.

Richard White is to be congratulated not only for the translation but for the helpful end notes. This is a gem of a book, an excellent introduction to Calvin the preacher and Calvin the man.

John Calvin / Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006
Review by Paul Helm, Professor Emeritus of the University of London