A wee note on Calvin’s (wordy) sermons

Lest we hastily accuse Calvin of extraneous verbiage, we would do well to recall the distance between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. In her extraordinary collection of essays The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Marilynne Robinson notes that ‘Cauvin and his supporters seem to have been intent on consolidating a revolution, one in which religion was as central to the imagination of the project as political liberty would be in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and economics and nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth. Traditionally European societies instructed their members in approved beliefs through rituals, processions, feasts, fasts, pilgrimages, and iconography. Geneva replaced all that with hour upon hour of sermons and lectures, and a system of education that was compulsory for all children and free for the poor … If all these lectures and sermons seem a poor exchange for pageants and altarpieces, it is well to remember the Renaissance passion for books, and for the languages and literatures of antiquity, first of all the Bible. Cauvin’s virtuosic scholarship could be thought of as monumental public art, by analogy with the work of contemporaries like Michelangelo’ (pp. 199–200). And Bernard Cottret, in Calvin: A Biography, recalls that ‘Calvin was never so much a man in his time and of his time as in his sermons’ (p. 289).

This spoken proclamation – which was, in Calvin’s mind, the prime purpose of his preaching – was then transposed into written form as a result of the ‘company of strangers’ who, from 29 September 1549, arranged for Calvin’s sermons to be recorded in shorthand by Denis Raguenier, then transcribed, printed and published. A basic list of Calvin’s sermons is available in Appendix 7 of Cottret’s volume (pp. 354–5). Between 1549 and 1564, Calvin preached verse-by-verse through Psalms, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Micah, Zephaniah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Job, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Galatians, Ephesians, Harmony of the Gospels (during his last five years), Acts, Genesis, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings. Some ignorant librarians sold many of the volumes for the weight of the paper. A search of the lost sermons means that we now possess about 1500 of them. Cottret recalls that the Opera Calvini includes 872 sermons, while a further 680 are in the process of being published elsewhere, particularly in the Supplementa Calviniana. The manuscripts are held in the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire in Geneva, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Lambeth Palace in London. (See Cottret, Calvin, 289n5).

Those wishing to read more on Calvin’s preaching might consult the following:

By the way, those interested in Calvin’s view of Scripture might check out:

One comment

  1. What began as a very dim thought has grown into a very strong conviction, namely, that calvinism for all of its goofs might well be the real source of a truly liberal and moral spirit, that the nature of its contructions of doctrines could most assuredly be the real intellectual spring for the renewal of civilization. In fact, it is my prayer and hope that we shall have a Third Great Awakening (like the First and Second and the launching of th Great Century of Missions) that will be again the flowering of an understanding of the nature of revealed theology, biblical theology, and how it could create a civilization and culture so winsome that it will converted all of mankind for a 1000 generations. After all, a seed as innumerable as the stars of Heaven, the sand of the sea, and the dust of the earth is such a humongous number as to call for some 20,000 or more years and the spread of mankind to the stars. If believers in Sovereign Grace could just get it straight that such love compels with an open, winsome hand, a salvation os wonderful that one can’t resist it.


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