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Calvin as Theologian of Consolation, Part 1
R. Scott Clark
Calvin as Theologian of Consolation, Part 1

Wikipedia, that ubiquitous source of unimpeachable scholarship, defines “consolation” as “something of value, when one fails to get something of higher value....” That is precisely the opposite of what John Calvin (1509–64) meant by “consolation.”For Calvin, the consolation that Christ gives to his people, by the gospel, through the Spirit, is not second prize but to be valued above that which we lost. When we consider Calvin, “consolation” might not be the thing we first associate with him. The dominant perception of Calvin in our culture is that of a tyrannical, dyspeptic fellow, who delighted in nothing more than to dispatch a few heretics to the flames before breakfast. That caricature, however, was one drawn by his enemies during his lifetime and sadly, despite the facts, it has stuck for a variety of reasons.

First, the modern picture of Calvin has been skewed badly by the uncritical acceptance by earlier modern historians of partisan caricatures of Calvin and thus, he has been a useful foil for advocates of the modernist religion. Just as the Renaissance scholars juxtaposed themselves as enlightened, in contrast to the allegedly benighted middle ages, so in the various European and British Enlightenments of the 18th and 19th centuries scholars capitalized on sixteenth-century caricatures of Calvin to create a useful whipping boy with which to contrast their own view of the world.

Second, enlightened Modernity went to war against Christian theism, against its doctrines of the Trinity, of God as Creator, of Adam as federal head of humanity, of sin, of grace, of salvation through faith in Christ, and of a divinely instituted church. In short, enlightened Modernity rejected the historic catholic faith and Calvin became a symbol of repressive Christian theism. In place of Christianity, Modernity advocated a religion of a unitarian, unknowable God, of human perfectibility, of the universal fatherhood of God, of the universal fraternity of man, and of human autonomy with respect to all external authorities (e.g., Scripture or the church). For Modernity, nothing was more antithetical to the religion of the Enlightenment than the doctrine of unconditional predestination and thus, in the modern period, Calvin became the theologian of the decree from which writers began to draw inferences about what he must have done in Geneva. The one thing every modern, enlightened person thinks he knows about Calvin is that he killed Servetus. Of course the story was much more complicated and most of what people think they know is false.

The result of the modernist, Enlightenment polemic against Calvin has been what P. E. Hughes called a “popular fantasy” of Calvin as the tyrant of Geneva. Consider a January 2009 article in the New York Times Magazine, which discusses the resurgence of aspects of Reformed theology among evangelicals. To buttress the author's contention that Calvinism is inherently oppressive she appeals to an unhappy episode in Calvin’s life, suggesting, in effect, that Calvin was a tyrant and thus it is not surprising that his modern followers have similar impulses. To be sure Calvin could be severe with enemies and even friends. As a school boy some referred to him as “The Accusative Case,” but he was also a theologian of consolation.

Yes, Calvin was a sinner, but he was more a suffering pilgrim in Geneva than he was a conquering, jack-booted tyrant. He endured regular insults that today would drive most ministers from their pulpits. His opponents discharged firearms outside his house. Some named their dogs after him and threatened him. People made rude comments during sermons and when that was forbidden, they made rude noises in their attempt to thwart his preaching. He was summarily and unjustly fired from his position as minister in the church in Geneva because he dared oppose some of the leading families in Geneva. When, three years later, he was called to return, ostensibly for a short period that turned into 23 years, he obeyed more out of duty than joy. 

He married Idelette de Bure in 1540. They were married for nine years. In that time she bore him a son, Jacques, who died in infancy, in August of 1542. Idellete herself died in 1549 leaving Calvin a widower. We do not often think of Calvin as a widower and father who lost an infant child, and Calvin did not encourage others to pity him. He recorded very little about his interior, emotional life and there was no sixteenth-century equivalent of Oprah in Geneva. Nevertheless, Idellette’s suffering and death and the loss of his son “left a mark,” as we say. These aspects of Calvin’s life, however, did not make it into the New York Times Magazine.

It is those who know their sins, who know their need for a Savior, who look to Christ for consolation. John Calvin was just such a one. He found comfort in the good news of Christ’s incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension, in justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. He found consolation in his union with Christ, in the sacraments, in corporate and private prayer, in friendship, and in the support of fellow ministers in and around Geneva. Calvin was, as Herman Selderhuis has reminded us, a theologian of the cross. 

The Calvin of history, however, was, as Bob Godfrey reminds us, a pilgrim and a pastor, who needed and found consolation in the midst of suffering, in Christ and his work for us, through the work of his Spirit in us, and who ministered that comfort to others. In the following parts of this series we will see how he was an exegete, theologian, and pastor of consolation.