Westminster Seminary California
Doctrine Considered and Applied: Calvin and Providence, pt. 4
Doctrine Considered and Applied: Calvin and Providence, pt. 4

Doctrine Applied

Now, many people might balk at these Scriptural reflections and balk at Calvin’s conclusions. Why?  Because, it’s easy to say these things but to live them out is a completely different thing. In fact, some might think Calvin’s comments to be crass and uncaring because he simply couldn’t know the suffering that they have gone through. On the contrary, what makes Calvin’s doctrine of providence amazing is not so much his theological reflections but rather the application of this doctrine in his life. Calvin practiced what he preached.

His Physical Condition

Calvin was plagued with illness all of his life; read the following excerpt from a letter where he describes his physical condition:

As soon as I recovered from [malaria], I was seized with severe and acute pains in the calves of my legs, which after being partially relieved returned a second and third time.  At last they degenerated into a disease in my joints, which spread from my feet to my knees.  An ulcer . . . long caused me excruciating sufferings, and intestinal parasites subjected me to great pain, though I am now relieved from this parasitic infection, but immediately after in the course of last summer I had an attack of the kidneys.  As I could not endure the jolting motion of horseback, I was transported into the country on a stretcher.  On my return I wished to accomplish a part of the journey on foot.  I had scarcely proceeded a mile when I was obliged to rest, due to great fatigue. . . . As soon as I got home I took to bed.  My kidneys gave me great pain from which I only obtained a partial relief by the application of remedies. . . . My sedentary way of life to which I am condemned by the gout in my feet precludes all hopes of a cure.  I am also prevented from taking exercise on horseback because of my ulcers.  Add to my other complaints that whatever nourishment I take imperfectly digested turns into phlegm, which by its density sticks like paste to my stomach.  But I am thoughtlessly tasking your patience, giving you double labor as the reward of your previous kindness, not indeed in consulting you, but in giving you the trouble to read over my vain complaints (Tracts & Letters, p. 7.359).

In fact, this was not the only way in which Calvin had physical challenges. He suffered from frequent migraine headaches; at one point he was blinded by a headache in the middle of a lecture, but continued lecturing. He was debilitated to the point of having to be carried from his bed to the pulpit at St. Peter’s Cathedral to preach; then, after delivering the sermon, being carried back to his bed. From his bed, because of his poor physical condition, he dictated much of his writings, including the final edition of the Institutes. People told him to slow down and rest to which he responded, “What? And have my Savior find me idle upon His return?”

Tragedy in His Life

Calvin’s mother died when he was a child. Calvin’s father was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin’s brother was hanged as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church. When Calvin first came to Geneva as a Reformer, a short 18 months later he was thrown out of the city by the citizens and the leaders of Geneva because they were unhappy with his theological views. When Calvin married, he and his wife only had one child. His only son died at the age of two. A year later, Calvin’s wife died unexpectedly. Calvin frequently faced death threats from citizens in Geneva. It is recorded that on one occasion there was a riot in Geneva and Calvin, as frail as he was, threw himself in the midst of it to still the crowd. There were also the countless theological debates that he was involved in which undoubtedly did not help him have restful nights.

Part 5 appears next week!