IV. Consolation Preached
In part one of this series we considered Calvin’s interpretation of several biblical passages on consolation. In part two we looked at how he harvested a theology of consolation from his exegetical work. In part three we examined what he wrote in his Institutes on consolation, and in part four we focus on consolation in pastoral ministry. In this section we will analyze how Calvin preached the biblical doctrine of consolation to his congregation.
Calvin was a preacher. All his work in his biblical commentaries and theological treatises came to expression in his preaching on the Lord’s Days in in the mid-week sermons on the Old Testament. We can see briefly a little bit of Calvin’s pastoral wisdom in his approach to the matter of Job’s friends in his 1554 sermons on Job 2:11. He preached:
It is a good likelihood at the first blush that God meant to relieve his servant Job, when he sent men unto him that pretended to have pity upon his miseries, and were skillful and wise to console him, as we shall see by their discourses anon after, how they were exquisite persons. And so a man might suppose, that God would henceforth stretch out his hand unto Job to deliver him from miseries that that he had sent him. But we see that this visitation of his friends was to increase his misery and to plunge him even into the bottom of endless waves.
The first thing that strikes one is his bold language about God’s intention, and second, how deeply Calvin had entered into the narrative, how much he identified with Job and how he expected his congregation to identify with Job.
We should remember that such identification might have been a little easier in the 16th century. We recall how much Calvin suffered physically and emotionally through his adult life, and especially in Geneva where he faced constant and often vicious opposition for decades.
Whereby we be admonished, that if at any time we be in hope to be drawn out of our afflictions: we must not think it strange though the matter fall not out as we have conceived. For we see how Job was disappointed of his hope which he had when he saw his friends, and how they became as devils to torment him more than he had been tormented before.
Calvin was quite conscious of the fallenness and frailty of humanity. There is a profoundly realistic quality to his comments throughout this section on Job. Thus he did not attack Job’s counselors as some have done. He said,
Yet notwithstanding, their mind was not to do so, neither came they to mock Job: they brought no malicious purpose nor wicked intent with them: but they had a right and hearty good will and love toward him. For it is said that their meaning was to have compassion on him, i.e. to say, to make themselves part of his misery, so far as was possible for them to bear such a grief, as if they had been joined and knit together in this person.
These are the words of a man who had not only suffered physically and emotionally but also faced the inappropriate comments of well-intended but bungling friends and acquaintances.
...Let us take warning by such example, that although we be well minded toward our neighbors and be desirous to console them in their miseries, yet God must guide us or else our said good intent will avail us nothing. Therefore when we see our neighbors in any danger or necessity truly we ought beseech God to give us the grace to have compassion on them and to help them, but yet that is not all.
The medieval theologians and Rome had made a great deal about “good intentions.” There were indulgences for those who had good intentions. For Calvin, however, real love is more than good intentions. Would-be comforters need the grace of a genuine feeling for others and wisdom.
We see how there be many zealous persons which are very earnest and desirous to show themselves charitable toward those whom they are able to help, but what for that there is not handsomeness nor good fashion. When they come to a poor creature that is already afflicted they bring him a new torment.
According to Calvin, before (and as) we offer consolation to the hurting we should pray that God would give us the “intended and right use” of consolation at the moment. That we would be of genuine use and that we would have “skill to handle folk as shall be convenient and agreeable to their nature.”
He was a skilled and patient student of Scripture and preacher but he was also a pastor who had suffered significant losses. He knew the difference between genuine and false consolation, that which directs us to Christ and his mercies and that which calls attention to the would-be comforter.
Though it does not fit the old modernist view of Calvin, he had genuine compassion for those whom today we call “the hurting.” He was not, however, a subjectivist, i.e., his first reflex was not to turn inward. He consistently grounded the Christian’s consolation in the objective facts of redemption in Christ, in the person of Christ, and in the promises of Christ. Nevertheless, he valued highly the Christians’ subjective experience of and appropriation of grace. When wrote and preached about consolation he evidenced a strong concern that ministers particularly understand, offer, and preach to their congregations the consolation of Christ.
At the center of Calvin’s doctrine of consolation is the gospel of the obedience, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and the doctrine justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The old medieval and Roman doctrine of progressive justification through sanctification was, for Calvin, no basis for consolation or assurance or confidence but only a basis for doubt and fear.
For Calvin, Christian consolation is an essential aspect of faith. Its opposite is despair, a refusal to trust in the goodness, kindness, and mercy of God. The consolation of the Christian faith is an essential part of sanctity and all these are grounded in the gospel.
In contrast to some contemporary approaches to pastoral care, Calvin was what we might call a “supernaturalist.“ He was also a Trinitarian in his theology of pastoral care. As B. B. Warfield noted, Calvin was the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Arguably half of his Institutes were devoted to the person and work of the Spirit and according to Calvin, it is the Spirit who consoles grieving Christians. Nevertheless, in contrast to those whom we might call ”hyper-supernaturalists,” Calvin did not set the work of the Spirit in the believer over against the means ordained by God: the churchly ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer. The Spirit brings consolation but he does so through the means he gave to his church. Thus, when we confess the “due use of ordinary means” we are following in Calvin’s footsteps.
John Calvin was a scholar and recipient of the consolation that God gives to his suffering people. For him, consolation was not, as we might think, a second prize, a replacement for what we really want but rather, he thought it as bringing us the most important thing: Christ, his grace, and his mercy.