The ‘calm, gentle, reasonable Calvin’

In his In the Beauty of the Lilies, John Updike wrote of the ‘calm, gentle, reasonable Calvin’, an image reinforced by THL Parker:

The reader [of Calvin’s sermons] will have noted the low key in which he speaks. There is no threshing himself into a fever of impatience or frustration, no holier-than-thou rebuking of the people, no begging them in terms of hyperbole to give some physical sign that the message has been accepted. It is simply one man, conscious of his sins, aware how little progress he makes and how hard it is to be a doer of the Word, sympathetically passing on to his people (whom he knows to have the same sort of problems as himself) what God has said to them and to him. We even notice that … there is not one direct imperative in the second person. He is content to pass on the message, to declare how unwilling ‘we’ are to accept it and how weak ‘we’ are in general, how slack and rebellious, and then to use the firm but gentle first person plural imperative, ‘let us …’. Yet he is never weak. Sin is never condoned, never treated lightly. Its gravity in the sight of God, the eternal curse that lies upon every departure from the Law, every falling short of God’s standard, are continually and relentlessly driven home. But because he is always aware of his solidarity in sin with all his hearers, there is no moral brutality of the strong Christian bullying the weak. Nevertheless, we must certainly not give the impression that butter would not melt in his mouth. There are some things that rouse his anger. One is injustice, and especially injustice under the cloak of legality. Another is deliberate and flagrant opposition to the Gospel by those who had sworn to uphold it’ – THL Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), 118–9.

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