Wrenched from the Academic Path
John Calvin as an academic animal would rather spend his time quietly in a library. Naturally, he declined an offer to teach and minister at Geneva in 1536. It was clear to him that hard days lie ahead for anyone seeking to teach and reform a city that was recalcitrant in its moral waywardness and rebellious towards teaching authority.
One night in that unruly city of Geneva was enough. Time for Calvin to pack and proceed to Strasbourg to pursue his academic dreams and ambitions. Alas, his departure was blocked by William Farel who thundered at the young scholar:
Farel waxed eloquent as he described the miraculous work of God in the city of Geneva stressed that the City needed a man of Calvin’s stature and skill. Calvin protested, expressing his desire to spend his time writing in the safety of some remote city.
“Leisure, learning – when it is a matter of acting!” shouted Farel in indignation. “Do you want to desert the Reformation of this city? I am at the point of breaking down under the load and you will deny me your assistance!”
“Don’t take it as ill-will,” said Calvin. “My health is not the best; I need a rest.”
“What rest!” cried Farel. “Nothing except death brings rest to the servants of Christ! Do you dare put your personal interests ahead of the kingdom of God?”
Farel chastised Calvin. “You are concerned about your rest and your personal interests. Therefore, I proclaim to you in the name of Almighty God whose command you defy: Upon your work there shall rest no blessing! Therefore, let God damn your rest, let God damn your work!”
Faced with such a curse, Calvin felt wrenched from the academic path that he wanted to pursue. His resistance melted and with a cry he caved in to Farel’s demand. “I obey God!” was his cry.
However, Calvin’s anxieties about the recalcitrance of Geneva proved to be true as he was forced into exile from the city when its citizens rejected his program of religious and moral reforms. Not that it mattered to Calvin who then happily pursued his academic ambition in Strasbourg where he taught ministry candidates, wrote a commentary on the book of Romans and revised his classic theological text, Institutes of the Christian Religion. After all, he was still contributing to the Reformation as he wrote at the request of Geneva itself, a masterful treatise in defense of the Reformation, Reply to Sadoleto.
Unfortunately, for the ambitious scholar, the City of Geneva continued to descend into moral and spiritual chaos in Calvin’s absence. Finally, the proud Genevans swallowed their pride and petitioned to the scholar whom they had earlier sent packing into exile, pleading for him to return and reform the city.
An Integrated Theology for Reform
Interestingly, Calvin’s reply shows his spiritual priority at a time of moral chaos and political instability. For him, the existential threat to the well-being of God’s church comes not from the powerful political forces arraigned against it, but from the inward moral and spiritual corruption that has infected the church. He challenged the Genevans,
If you desire to have me for your pastor, correct the disorder of your lives. If you have with sincerity recalled me from my exile, banish the crimes and debaucheries which prevail among you. I cannot behold without the most painful displeasure…discipline trodden under foot and crimes committed with impunity. I cannot possibly live in a place so grossly immoral…I consider the principal enemies of the Gospel to be, not the pontiff of Rome, nor heretics, nor seducers, nor tyrants, but bad Christians [emphasis added]…I dread abundantly more those carnal covetousness, those debaucheries of the tavern, of the brothel, and of gaming…Of what use is a dead faith without good works? Of what importance is even truth itself, where a wicked life belies it and actions make words blush? Either command me to abandon a second time your town and let me go and soften the bitterness of my afflictions in a new exile, or let the severity of the laws reign in the church. Re-establish there pure discipline.
Calvin was truly a scholar who integrated his theology and practice. More importantly, he serves as model for scholars who write not to impress fellow professionals in the theological guild, but to inform and instruct the church in spiritual renewal and godly living. For Calvin, only a spiritually disciplined church is robust enough to withstand the forces of materialism, moral permissiveness and intimidation from hostile political forces.
Reference: Sam Storms, Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election (Crossway, 2007).