Calvin, Sermons on Genesis (Review)

Published: RTR 71, no. 3, 2012

Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 11–20

John Calvin, trans Rob Roy McGregor, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2012. pp xiv + 906

Banner of Truth has released another newly translated volume of Calvin’s sermons. A full review of the nature of Calvin’s preaching does not need to be undertaken here, but it is observed that his sermons are no mere exegesis pieces with occasional application. It is true that there is something commentary-like about them, and many a modern congregation might find them hard to imbibe, but they are pastorally oriented not only in places, but in their whole focus. Thus, Calvin’s sermons are undergirded by exegesis and biblical theology, but he also undertakes what some today would call ‘moral’ preaching. For example, Abraham is primarily treated as an example of a godly life.

The application he makes is not facile, but reveals Calvin as the student of the human condition and a physician of the soul. ‘Now humility is not, as many think, presenting an innocent and pleasant face before God, but it is being so empty of any good that the only thing left for us is to cast ourselves at God’s feet…’ (p. 332). Calvin knows our propensity to pretence.

It is inevitable that Calvin’s sermons will be mined for their theological value. This volume will be of significance especially to those interested in the emergence of covenant theology in the 16th century. In Bullingerian fashion, Genesis 17:1–8 is considered foundational. Abraham was being offered ‘eternal salvation’ (p. 553). Reflecting on v. 4, Calvin writes that Abraham became the father of many nations ‘when the dividing wall was broken down’. ‘We [Gentiles] cannot enter the church…if we are not made one with this ancient people’ (p. 545).

The covenant is seen as being bi-lateral, for there is a ‘swap’ (p. 553). He otherwise puts it that ‘he contracts with us’ (p. 564). Lest the point be missed, he adds the following: ‘If we do not view this as a mutual agreement between God and us, it is certain the word ‘covenant’ ceases to have meaning’ (p. 564–565). Compare this with 20th century antipathy to the concept of contract, which concept is said to have been brought in by the Federalists.

Contract is not contrary to the theme of union with God, for the exchange is explained in personal or relational terms. God wants to ‘possess us’, just as he also gives himself to us’ (p. 553). Still, there are obligations placed upon us. Thus, ‘let us not break that covenant…’ (p. 553). ‘As for us, we must accept and receive what he offers us’ (p. 564). With regard to the theory that Beza was the one who introduced introspection in the quest for assurance, Calvin’s comments here should be noted carefully. ‘And do we think that we will be spared? But let us walk in fear and concern… not that we have to be in doubt of our salvation, but so we will correct every presumption… let us persevere until the end with a rigorous constancy of faith…’ (p. 552).

Calvin also explores whether the ‘swap’ is of things of equal value or between equal parties. ‘And what does he [God] gain by that?’ (p. 553). As to whether we place God in our debt, Calvin answers adamantly in the negative. To be sure, the covenant does mean that God is obligated to us (‘…we know that every covenant carries with it obligation’, p. 565). However, ‘God condescends to obligate himself willingly to us, even though it is impossible for him to owe us anything, but he nonetheless submits to that condition’ (p. 565). Calvin clearly does not see the idea of contract as requiring equality between the two parties, as returning to the medieval (and intrinsically human) concept of condign merit, or as undermining the doctrines of total depravity and justification by grace. ‘Now the obligation is only through the promise’ (p. 565). The binding of God is not coerced. The voluntarist influence is patent: an obligation ‘must be voluntary on God’s part’ (p. 565).

As would be expected, the sermon on Genesis 17:9–13 connects circumcision and baptism. It also provides a pleasant argument against the so-called Zwinglian view of the sacraments (p. 564). Since this is in sermonic form, some might find this more accessible and engaging than reading the Institutes on this topic.

Calvin is always highly quotable, and this volume is no different. Preachers would be well advised to read this volume slowly and carefully, although, rather like this review itself, they may find it hard to resist the temptation to break out in repeated strains of, ‘As Calvin says’.