13 March 2009

The Expository Preaching of John Calvin, Steven Lawson (PCRT 2009 Sacramento)

by Dan Phillips

This is the 11:00am session. Lawson (who does not even own a computer, btw) is addressing a subject clearly dear to his heart. You can see a video of Dr. Lawson talking about Calvin as the exaltational, expository genius here.

Calvin was one of the few in Europe who knew Hebrew. He preached from Hebrew and Greek. Preaching was Calvin's "Job #1." The pulpit was his primary duty, and he was an expositor par excellence. Boice said that "Calvin had no weapon but the Bible," and wielding that weapon produced reformation. His preaching had ten distinguishing marks.

First: Calvin's pulpit was Biblical in content. Calvin was "the poster child for sola Scriptura!" Calvin had nothing to say, apart from the Word of God. D'Aubigne said that, to Calvin, if anything didn't have the Word for its foundation, it was futile, and those who'd advocate such should be thrown out of the pulpit. None should use it for his dreams and fancies. Parker said that the message of Scripture was sovereign to Calvin; humility is shown by submitting to its authority. To Calvin, when the Bible speaks, God speaks. There is no separating God from His Word.

Second: Calvin's preaching was sequential in exposition. He preached from start to finish, verse by verse. Not merely sola, but tota Scriptura. No skipping hard sayings and difficult doctrines. There was no hopping around. For instance, Acts was 189 consecutive sermons; Galatians 43, Ephesians 48, 1-2 Thessalonians 46. Genesis was 123 sermons, Deuteronomy 201 (— Lawlor said Mrs. Lawlor would have intervened at some point in that series!), Job 159, Isaiah 353 sequential sermons, Ezekiel 175, Daniel 47, and so forth. Almost all of his sermons were from series on books. Many of these series were going on at the same time, on different days.

Third: direct in beginning.
There was no fluff, no fancy introduction. Calgin just dug in. Beza said Calvin's "every word weighed a ton." No opening joke or illustration. Lawlor read some random opening sentences; they all hit the ground running and hit hard. It established the context and stated the theme.

Fourth: extemporaneous in delivery.
He brought no notes into the pulpit! Did not even have a translation with him: just the Hebrew OT or Greek NT. For years, scholars tried to figure out what translation he was using. He wasn't. He was translating on the fly. Calvin said "It appears to me that there is very little lively preaching," but instead reading from a manuscript. So Calvin preached extemporaneously, to engage his hearers.

Calvin was not dramatic nor personable nor charismatic, yet God used his preaching to effect reform to an unprecedented degree. He had depth of knowledge of Scripture, and blood-earnestness in preaching and teaching it.

Fifth: Calvin's preaching was exegetical in depth. That is, Calvin excavated the authorial intent from the text itself. John Murray put Calvin in the first rank of exegetes of all time. Philip Schaff says Calvin was the founder of grammatico-historical exegesis. Calvin himself said that the author's meaning was chief, and the expositor who strays from that, strays. "Means to me" would not have worked with Calvin. The natural and obvious meaning was the true meaning - that is, the literal meaning (in contrast to the allegorization that characterized pre-Reformation "interpretation"). Substance over style, steak over sizzle, was Calvin's belief. Said nothing was of more importance than "a literal interpretation of the Biblical text."

Sixth: Calvin's preaching was familiar in language.
Calvin's words were straightforward and his sentences simple. That's why we have so much of his material: he was simple to understand. His goal was to make the Biblical text as clear as possible to his hearers. If you really understand it, you can make the text understood. Calvin said preacher was like a father, dividing up the bread so the little children could eat it. He did not parade his intellect and estrange his hearers. Calvin employed metaphors, images, proverbial and colloquial expressions.

Seventh: Calvin's preaching was pastoral in tone.
Calvin never lost sight of fact that his hearers were, many of them, exiles. It was "we" and "us," not merely "you." Calvin would also confront and rebuke from the pulpit, in a fatherly tone. Once, he rebuked the Huguenots, even, saying it would have been better had they remained in France under popery, than to come under the sound preaching of the Word and live as if Scripture does not speak to them. He knew when to thunder.

Eighth: Calvin's preaching was polemic in confrontation.
He preached in times when the truth had to be fought for and defended in sound words. Calvin said the preacher should have two voices: one for gathering the sheep, and one for fending off the wolves. So Calvin would rain fire on Rome as being little different from heathens, but for the names of the idols.

Ninth: Calvin's preaching was evangelistic in passion.
The stereotype of Calvin and Calvinism as killing missions is false and slanderous. "Would to God [that Calvinism] would 'kill missions' as it did in Calvin's day," Lawson quipped pointedly. He proclaimed his hearers all under condemnation, and bid them have no rest until they found rest in Christ alone.

Tenth: Calvin's preaching was God-centered in conclusion.
Virtually every sermon ends with the exact same last paragraph. "Now let us fall before the majesty of our great God, acknowledging our sins, and asking that He would make us increasingly aware of them," that we should shun them and be overwhelmed with the greatness of Christ, and place our trust in Him, and grow in that trust and grace. He lifted the whole congregation coram Deo, before the face of God, leaving them before God to do business with God.

Then Calvin would pray.

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John said...

Dan - thanks for blogging! I am so sick that I have been too sick to attend so it's a real blessing being able to sort of attend - via your eyes and ears. Steve is such a great speaker and I've heard him do 1.5 hours on John Calvin at Shepherd's one year so to be missing this pains me.

Eddie Eddings said...

So Brother Lawson doesn't own a computer heh, no wonder my e-mails keep coming back! Thanks for the coverage! Much appreciated!

Stefan Ewing said...

The sixth and seventh points—that Calvin's preaching was familiar in language and pastoral in tone—are noteworthy.

Kristine said...

"that we should shun them [our sins] and be overwhelmed with the greatness of Christ, and place our trust in Him, and grow in that trust and grace."

I loved this line...

Thanks for sharing all this with the rest of us!