EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from
John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey (Crossway).

Introduction: The Importance of Calvin

July 10, 2009 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (1509–1564). Today for many people the name of Calvin is known only in a vague sense and has become a label for attitudes that are negative, judgmental, and joyless. Historians, by contrast, know that John Calvin was one of the most remarkable men who lived in the last five hundred years and that his influence on the development of the modern western world has been immense. Calvin and Calvinism have been linked to the rise of such diverse phenomena as democracy, capitalism, and modern science. Theologians and biblical scholars know him as a writer in theology and biblical studies whose work must still be carefully considered today. Church historians remember him as the principal theologian of Reformed Christianity—an expression of the Christian faith that over four and a half centuries has attracted millions of adherents in countries throughout the world. He was indeed a leader and writer whose work affected the life and worship of countless congregations and has inspired thousands of pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars.

The life and work of John Calvin have always been controversial as well as influential. Some have loved him, and some have hated him. All would agree that he was a man with a brilliant mind and a powerful will who had a profound impact on the development of western civilization. But was that impact positive or negative?

His critics have been many. In his own day they sometimes railed at him—naming their dogs after him—and sometimes laughed at him, some suggesting that his wife died of boredom. Some modern critics have been savage. Will Durant wrote, “. . . we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.”1

On the positive side, Calvin’s friend and colleague Theodore Beza (1519–1605) wrote a brief biography of Calvin to answer the critics of his day. Beza’s admiring work breathes a spirit of affection and warmth, observing that “in the common intercourse of life, there was no man who was more pleasant.”2 He concluded his biography, “Having been a spectator of his conduct for sixteen years . . . I can now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate.”3

The real Calvin was not in the first place a man who lived to influence future generations. Rather he was a spiritual pilgrim finding anew the apostolic Christianity expressed in the Bible and serving as a faithful minister of that Word in the church of his day. The influence that Calvin would have regarded as most important was as a purifier of the Christian religion and a reformer of the church for his day. The essential Calvin was a pilgrim and pastor. From that reality all his influence flowed.

Calvin saw the importance of his life as a pastor in his own day and did not focus on his influence in years to come. When his friend William Farel urged him to publish his study of Genesis, he replied, “As to my observations on Genesis, if the Lord shall grant me longer life and leisure, perhaps I will set myself about that work, although I do not expect to have many hearers. This is my especial end and aim, to serve my generation; and for the rest, if, in my present calling, an occasional opportunity offers itself, I shall endeavor to improve it for those who come after us. I have a mind to set about writing several things, but as my wife is now in ill health, not without danger, my attention is otherwise engaged.”4