By John Mason Lock
As part of a broader study of the Book of Job, I’ve been making my way through John Calvin’s Sermons on Job. Calvin preached his 159 sermons on the Book of Job on weekdays during a two-year period in 1554-55. In expository fashion, he preaches verse-by-verse through the entire text. A number of years ago, Banner of Truth produced a facsimile of the only complete English translation of the sermons by Arthur Golding, first published in 1574. The book measures 8 inches wide and 13 inches high and extends to 753 double-columned pages! Today, I will give an introduction to those who are interested in reading some or all of these sermons, along with giving those who may never read them an overall sense of their contents and major themes.
I feel obliged, however, to start with an apology. John Calvin has perhaps the worst reputation of any major theologian in Christendom. When the head of the Orthodox Church in America, Metropolitan Jonah, made a speech at the 2009 inaugural assembly of the Anglican Church in North America, brimming with optimism for an ecumenical cooperation between the OCA and ACNA, he told the assembly that, for the sake of greater communion, Anglicans would have to dispose of the filioque, women in the priesthood, and the heresy of Calvinism. It is reported that he was cheered for this latter remark. This appears to be a representative attitude toward Calvin rather than an isolated incident.
The trouble is that Calvin is more often dismissed than read. Perhaps this is due to his latter-day followers — Puritans, Pilgrims, and other religious enthusiasts? But it seems decidedly unfair to hold him responsible for every religious movement or theologian that has claimed to be his follower. After all, the distinctive doctrines of Calvin — total depravity, salvation by grace alone through faith, the predestination of the saints — are rooted in the thought and work of St. Augustine. It often seems that repudiations of Calvin and Calvinism have a wider scope that their authors realize, and they end up, unconsciously or not, repudiating much of the Western Christian tradition. All I would plead for is that Calvin be given a fair reading, even if, in the end, the reader may not wish to accept his whole theological system uncritically. Richard Hooker is quite critical of Calvin for his use of Church discipline and order in the preface to the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, but of his doctrine, he writes,
Two things of principal moment there are which have deservedly procured [Calvin] honour throughout the world: the one his exceeding pains in composing the Institutions of Christian religion; the other his no less industrious travails for exposition of holy Scripture according unto the same Institutions.
The Sermons on Job are somewhat less polished than his commentaries, and were written down by a professional scribe as Calvin delivered them. Having read some of Calvin’s commentaries, I would describe the sermons, or at least the English translation of them, as folksy. They contain colorful words and phrases, like topsy-turvy, not for naught, and gew-gaw (which the OED defines as “a gaudy trifle, plaything, or ornament, a pretty thing of little value”).
One of the refreshing parts of these sermons and Calvin’s approach to Scripture in general is his existential realism — he has a thorough appreciation of the Pauline doctrine that all are sinners, and so he is not afraid to see the heroes of the Bible as alloyed with sin and weakness alongside their better qualities. One of the central “problems” of Job is how to understand the apparent contradiction between the revelation in the prologue that Job is a righteous and upright man and the rather unorthodox-sounding things Job says in the dialogue with his friends. The modern critical explanation to this problem is to theorize that the prologue and dialogue represent different stages of the book’s formation by various authors and editors. While such textual “archaeology” can sometimes be illuminating, it can also come across as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the “canonical” shape of the book. Furthermore, it assumes that the final editors were either careless or oblivious of textual difficulties within their compositions.
In pre-modern commentaries on Job, we see a variety of approaches to this problem. Gregory the Great, for example, tends to whitewash Job’s words so that there is less dissonance between the Job of the prologue and the Job of the dialogue. Calvin, on the other hand, takes in faith the claim that Job is a righteous man, but he also recognizes that in the excitement of his passions and the great suffering he endures, Job often speaks out of measure and says things that are extreme. This portrait of Job strikes me as a very pastorally relevant: if such weakness could overcome Job, the upright man of great patience, ordinary Christians ought to guard against speaking or acting out of measure whenever they are subject to trials and temptations.
Because Calvin includes this very human portrait of Job, he ends up saying something ironic about the dialogues, namely, that Job’s friends are outwardly more orthodox than Job. Job is a man beset with great afflictions and as a result great passions. Occasionally these push him beyond the bounds of reason. Job’s friends, on the other hand, are correct in their affirmation of God’s justice. The problem is not with the content of what they say, but with the misapplication of the notion that God is afflicting Job because of his wickedness. Theirs is correct knowledge, but incorrect application.
Given the proliferation of anti-Roman rhetoric among Protestant writers, we might have expected Calvin to make an analogy between Job’s friends and the papacy — the friends are easy stand-ins, allowing any expositor of Job to pick on a disfavored group or ideology. For example, in Gregory the Great’s Moralia, the friends are equated with heretics. Although Calvin has some hard words for the Roman Church, in other places he sounds relatively irenic: “there is in the papacy no doctrine that were [sic] wicked and fully false in itself, yet nevertheless … they have perverted the true and natural use of God’s word” by the sophistry of the schoolmen (267).
Calvin makes some important theological points through the course of these sermons, such as the doctrine of the double righteousness of God: that is, the idea that a distinction can be made between God’s revealed righteousness in the law and his hidden righteousness by which, even if a man could fully keep the revealed law, he could be indicted as unclean and impure. But doctrinal points like this one are not the center of the sermons. Rather, the sermons reflect Calvin the pastor, not Calvin the systematic theologian or even Calvin the Hebrew and Greek exegete. Calvin’s apparent goal is how the words of Job can move his hearers to greater faith and trust in God and deeper surrender to his holy will. The following passage is representative of this pervasive trend through the sermons:
Then let us learn hereby, not to desire the felicity that lasteth not past a day or very little time. But let us learn to be thoroughly happy as our Lord would have us to be: which is, to be well settled in Him, and to assure ourselves that if we be blest of God, the same shall make us to prosper not only for a day or twain, but also both in life and death. True it is that much adversity may befall us in the meanwhile: but what a privilege have we when we may betake ourselves unto God, and in that we know He will not lay more upon us than we be able to bear, and specially that He will turn all our adversities to our welfare and salvation. (287)