Calvin As Theologian Of Comfort


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 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.

I. Calvin’s Exegesis of Consolation (in Paul)
In the first part we saw that Calvin was a pilgrim who himself needed the consolation of the gospel, given by the Spirit, through the ministry of Word, sacrament, and prayer. He was also a careful, thoughtful, and sophisticated reader of texts and principally Scripture. It is well known that Calvin was deeply influenced by Renaissance humanism. We all know about the Renaissance concern to get back to original sources (ad fontes) and to read them in their original context, according to the original intent of the author. A less well-known aspect of the humanism in which Calvin was trained was concern for the well-being of humans as God’s image bearers.

In his 1539 commentary on Romans we get a picture of how he understood Paul’s doctrine of paraklesis (consolation or comfort). Commenting on Romans 15:4, on the phrase, “through the patience and the consolation of the Scriptures we might have hope,” he recognized that the noun paraklesis might be translated a couple of different ways. He wrote:

The word consolation some render exhortation; and of this I do not disapprove, only that consolation is more suitable to patience, for this arises from it; because then only we are prepared to bear adversities with patience, when God blends them with consolation.

There were two reasons for not translating “paraklesis” as “exhortation,” the first is because “consolation” or “comfort” fit the context better, but the second reason is pastoral, because it is better pastoral theology. One of the chief purposes of Scripture is to “to raise up those who are prepared by patience, and strengthened by consolations, to the hope of eternal life, and to keep them in the contemplation of it.” He made the same choice in his interpretation of paraklesis in his 1548 commentary on Philippians 2:1.

No Pauline epistle focuses more on consolation than 2 Corinthians. In his 1546 commentary on 2 Corinthians Calvin had opportunity to consider the biblical doctrine of consolation at length. On 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “The God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our tribulation.” Calvin argued that Paul was able to endure “his tribulations with fortitude and alacrity” because of the “support derived from his consolation….” The source of our consolation is the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” who is the source of blessings, “for where Christ is not, there the beneficence of God is not.”

On verse 4, he noted that the consolation that Paul had received was not for his own benefit but for that of the Corinthians, because “whatever favors God conferred upon him, were not given for his own sake merely, but in order that he might have more in his power for helping others. And, unquestionably, when the Lord confers upon us any favor, he in a manner invites us by his example to be generous to our neighbors.” This he said is particularly true for pastors.

In his comment on 2 Corinthians 2:15 he argued that the comfort spoken of there should not be taken “actively” but “passively,” to mean “that God multiplied his consolations according to the measure of his tribulations.” The troubles of this life are “common to good and bad alike,” but when they happen to “the wicked” there is nothing redemptive in them. When they happen to believers, those Christians “are conformed to Christ, and bear about with them in their body his dying, that the life of Christ may one day be manifested in them.” Because our sufferings are in union with Christ, part of our identity with his sufferings, we are “sustained by the consolations of Christ, so as to prevent him from being overwhelmed with calamities.”

The ground of comfort is extrinsic, it is the promise of God in Christ. It has subjective consequences, however, just as the afflictions of which Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 1:6 refers to our personal experience of misery. Comfort or consolation is the antidote, as it were, for our experience of being “pressed down with anxiety from a feeling of misery.” Consolation refers to the lightening of the mind of grief.

For Calvin, Paul’s sufferings and experience of consolation “flowed out to the whole Church” and served as an encouragement to them that, “inasmuch as they concluded, that God who had sustained and refreshed him in his emergency, would, in like manner, not be wanting to them.” Paul’s sufferings were for the salvation of the Corinthians, not that they were “expiations or sacrifices for sins, but as edifying them by confirming them.” Salvation and comfort were joined “with the view of pointing out the way in which their salvation was to be accomplished.”

Why does God permit us to suffer? On 2 Corinthians 1:9 Calvin argued that we don’t appreciate how “how displeasing to God confidence in ourselves must be” so that, as a corrective, “it is necessary that we should be condemned to death.” The good news is that “God raises the dead. As we must first die, in order that, renouncing confidence in ourselves….” We must begin with despair, but “with the view of placing our hope in God.” He returned to that theme on 2 Corinthians 7:6. The Lord “comforts the lowly.” “Hence a most profitable doctrine may be inferred—that the more we have been afflicted, so much the greater consolation has been prepared for us by God.”

Though he is often pictured as a systematic theologian and though most people give most of their attention to Calvin’s Institutes, in fact Calvin was a preacher and a student of Scripture. His Institutes were harvested out of his biblical commentaries and preaching. So, his conception of the necessity, nature, and source of consolation, for the Christian, was shaped by the way he encountered the biblical teaching about consolation and particularly from his work in the Pauline epistles.

II. His Theology of Consolation (1559 Institutes)
In the previous installment we looked at the way Calvin read Paul’s epistles and how he drew from them a doctrine of consolation, of God’s presence with his people in Christ, by the Spirit, in the gospel, in the sacraments, and in prayer. In this (third) part of this series we consider Calvin as a theologian of consolation.

We think of Calvin’s Institutes as a summary of doctrine and it is that, but it is more than that. It is a harvest of his biblical exegesis and a rich collection of pastoral and spiritual reflection that brings help and relief to Christ’s people. In Institutes 2.15.12 on the clause in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell” Calvin insisted on the true humanity of Jesus. In order to be our Mediator and our helper Jesus must be like us in every way, sin excepted. Of course, this is the teaching of Scripture (Hebrews 4:15) and it permeated Calvin’s understanding of Christ’s person and work for us and in us. He wrote, “Mediator has experienced our weaknesses the better to help us in our miseries.” According to Calvin, Christ submitted to “weakness” “purely by his love for us.” Calvin’s opponents, he said, don’t appreciate what Christ has done for us because “they have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.”

Because Christ suffered the pangs of death, we know that he experienced “the feeling of pain and fear was not contrary to faith.” He himself felt that he was “forsaken by God.” Even so, Jesus did not waver in the least from trust in the goodness of God. This is a frequent theme with Calvin. Even in the cry from the cross, Calvin noted that Jesus “did not cease to call him his God….”

The focus on consolation was most intense in book 3. He observed that “there are very many who so conceive God’s mercy that they receive almost no consolation from it.” They are full of anxiety because they are full of doubt. They lack assurance because they doubt that the promises of God apply to them in particular. They are guilty of poor reasoning and they misunderstand the true nature of faith. “But there is a far different feeling of full assurance that in the Scriptures is always attributed to faith. It is this which puts beyond doubt God’s goodness clearly manifested for us But that cannot happen without our truly feeling its sweetness and experiencing it in ourselves” (Institutes, 3.2.15).

True faith produces confidence (fiducia). The very boldness or confidence which the Council of Trent damned as “presumption,” Calvin said is “right faith” which dares “with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word ‘faith’ is very often used for confidence” (fiducia).

He called this “confidence” the “axis” (cardo) “on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.” (Institutes, 3.2.16).

He recognized that the subjective experience of believers does not always match the definition of faith considered in itself. He was not only a theologian, he was also a pastor and counselor. He understood that Christians are “‘…repeatedly shaken by gravest terrors. For so violent are the temptations that trouble their minds as not to seem quite compatible with that certainty of faith.’” It’s impossible to “imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety” (Institutes, 3.17.1).

The source of consolation is faith and the object of faith is the promises of God in Christ. The first thing that faith apprehends is Christ and the first benefit of Christ is justification sola gratia, sola fide (by grace alone, through faith alone). He called this benefit the “axis of religion” (religionis cardinem) or the thing on which the Christian faith pivots.

For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God. But the need to know this will better appear from the knowledge itself (Institutes, 3.11.1).

On the connection between justification through faith resting in and receiving Christ alone and consolation he wrote: “This is our whole confidence, this is our only consolation, this is the whole ground of our hope (Institutes 3.13.4). Here he invoked a series of crucial biblical, evangelical, and Reformed ideas. He equated consolation with confidence. They are two sides of the same coin. We have consolation because we have confidence in the gospel and we have confidence because we have consolation.

III. Consolation and Pastoral Ministry
For Calvin, christian consolation is not only a theological reality but it is also the result of good pastoral practice. Christians often fail to appropriate the consolation they might because they don’t humble themselves to confess their sins to one another.

Let us take the apostle’s view, which is simple and open: namely, that we should lay our infirmities on one another’s breasts, to receive among ourselves mutual counsel, mutual compassion, and mutual consolation. Then, as we are aware of our brothers’ infirmities, let us pray to God for these (Institutes, 3.4.6).

He recognized that all Christians have a duty to admonish and rebuke one another, but ministers have a special responsibility here. They “have been ordained witnesses and sponsors of it to assure our consciences of forgiveness of sins, to the extent that they are said to forgive sins and to loose souls.” The Christian should “use private confession to his own pastor; and for his solace, he should beg the private help of him whose duty it is, both publicly and privately, to console the people of God by the gospel teaching” (Institutes, 3.4.12).

Another great source of consolation for believers is heaven. Despite the frequent portrayal of Calvin as a theologian of glory and triumph, it is simply untrue. He was a theologian of the cross. He understood that the lot of “the entire company of believers, so long as they dwell on earth, must be “as sheep destined for the slaughter” [Romans 8:36] to be conformed to Christ their Head.” When this happens, it causes us to lift our “heads above everything earthly….” To appropriate consolation in this vale of tears, we have to learn to seek the heavenly existence, where the Lord “will clothe them with “a robe of glory… and rejoicing” [Ecclus. 6:31, EV], will feed them with the unspeakable sweetness of his delights, will elevate them to his sublime fellowship—in fine, will deign to make them sharers in his happiness.”

We also experience Christian consolation when we pray the Lord’s Prayer because, in it, Christ has “prescribed a form for us in which he set forth as in a table all that he allows us to seek of him, all that is of benefit to us, all that we need ask. From this kindness of his we receive great fruit of consolation: that we know we are requesting nothing absurd, nothing strange or unseemly—in short, nothing unacceptable to him—since we are asking almost in his own words” (2.20.34).

As we pray and make use of Word and sacrament ministry, we learn to think about our election properly and that strengthens our consolation. We are all tempted to doubt, to wonder if the promises are really true. We learn not to try to make our election “more certain” by attempting to “investigate God’s eternal plan apart from his Word.” To do that is to “engulf” oneself “in a deadly abyss.” When we approach the question of election “as it is contained in his Word” we “reap the inestimable fruit of consolation. Let this, therefore, be the way of our inquiry: to begin with God’s call, and to end with it” (Institutes, 3.24.4).

He explained,

First, if we seek God’s fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God’s Spirit rests…But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election (Institutes, 3.13.5).

Calvin, we should not ask the question, “Am I elect?” but rather, “Do I believe?” Only the elect come to faith and thereby enjoy union with Christ. Contrary to what some would have us expect, for Calvin, the choices we make in this life are both real, free from compulsion, and encompassed in God’s secret providence. Our business is not to guess God’s providence ahead of time but to respond appropriately to God’s Word (Deut 29:29).

For Calvin, the first thing we must know is our need of a Savior, and this we learn from God’s holy, unyeilding law. This is because, for sinners, the requirements of the law are “far above human capacity” such that, relative to acceptance with God, apart from Christ, sinners can only see in them “the most immediate death.” (Institutes 2.7.3). Apart from God’s law we are tempted to think that we are well but, in its light, the sinner begins to feel that he is “panting under so heavy a weight as to stagger and totter, and finally even to fall down and faint away.” The law strips us of our blinding arrogance (Institutes, 2.7.6).

The good news for sinners is that, for those who trust that Christ died and rose again for them, in their place (Institutes, 3.11.14), who with “confidence…embrace the mercy of God as forgiving sin for Christ’s sake” (Antidote to Trent), who come to God “independent of, nay, in the absence of the merit of [ones own] works, because faith receives that righteousness which the Gospel bestows” (Institutes, 3.11.18), have what the gospel offers: a right standing with God, in Christ, grounded not on what is happening in them (Rome) but upon what Christ has done for them and promised to them in the good news.

Calvin did not set the objective (“for us”) against the subjective (“in us”). Both are essential. The same Triune God who created us, who redeemed us, is also sanctifying us. God the Spirit is at work in us, making us alive, giving us faith and union with Christ. Through those benefits the Spirit is working an abiding assurance and confidence that whatever hard providences we may endure, we do so under the Father’s gentle hand, with Christ our Savior, the Spirit helping, assuring, and renewing us in Christ’s image.

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 focused 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.

He continued:

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.

n 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.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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