Short of the Lord’s return, or of some unforeseen event, Monday will see me deliver a paper on ‘John Calvin: Servant of the Word’ at the Calvin Rediscovered conference in Dunedin. Here’s my opening paragraph, and if you’re around consider coming along to hear the rest. It really does look like it’ll be a worthwhile gig.
While the Church had known schism before, its program of reform in the sixteenth century led to its fragmentation the likes of which it had not known since the ‘Great Schism’ some five centuries earlier. The magisterial reformers were understandably concerned about the centrifugal force that their program encouraged, and they did not dismiss lightly Rome’s sharp indictment that disunity indicated defect. This concern is evident in one of the more ‘catholic’ of the Reformed confessions, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) penned by Huldrych Zwingli’s student Heinrich Bullinger: ‘We are reproached because there have been manifold dissensions and strife in our churches since they departed themselves from the Church of Rome, and therefore cannot be true churches’. In response, and by way of marking some distance from more radical wings of the reformation, the magisterial reformers reminded Rome of her own history of conflict and fragmentation, and, more substantively, addressed the question of what constitutes ‘true church’. Their conclusion, précised by John Calvin, is well known: ‘Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists’. These two ‘marks’ function not as boundaries so much as ‘directional signs that point to the core of faithful church life’. And they recall that no matter how frequently or intentionally the Church may engage in additional practices or activities, the most basic, indispensable and controlling hub of its life remains its witness to the one Word of God from pulpit, font and table. This paper will mainly be concerned to attend to the place that the former occupied in Calvin’s ministry and thought, and it asks what remains serviceable about Calvin’s homiletic for those who preach – and for those who hear and taste – the Word of God today.