Wednesday, April 22, 2009

John Calvin in England

At our Ministers' Fraternal in Bradford on Avon, Robert Oliver spoke on the influence of John Calvin on the Reformation in England. Not that the Reformer ever visited these fair shores. But his ministry and writings had a powerful impact on the course of the English Reformation. After giving us a brief sketch of the Reformer's life, Robert began to show the way in which the Calvin helped to shape the course of the Reformation in England.
In a sense there were two Reformations in England; a political Reformation triggered by Henry VIII's break with Rome over his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, and a grassroots religious Reformation powered by the new Protestant teaching. Although Henry split from the Pope and made himself head of the Church of England, he was no Protestant. He harboured political suspicions against Catholics, regarding them as potential traitors. Yet the king disliked Protestant doctrine. It is said that on one day he had three Roman Catholics beheaded for treason and six Protestants burned for heresy.
Henry VIII was succeeded by Edward VI, who, under the influence of Protestant counsellors sought to advance the cause of the Reformation in England. The Church was made Protestant in doctrine and forms of worship. Protestant preaching was encouraged. But Edward died at the age of 16. He was followed by his Roman Catholic half sister, Mary. Some have suggested that the Reformation under the boy king was rather superficial. But the fact that 300 men and women, including leading churchmen like Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were willing to die for their Protestant faith under Mary's reign of terror suggests that Reformed teaching was beginning to take a hold upon the populace.
But Mary's attempt to re-Catholicise England was a failure. Indeed, by the end of the reign in Elizabeth I in 1603, Protestantism was the dominant form of Christianity in the country. John Calvin had a very important role to play in the advance of the Protestant faith in England. Many leading English Protestants fled from their homeland during the Marian persecution and found refuge in Geneva. A church was founded for the English exiles, complete with its own confession of faith, psalter and a copy of the New Testament all in their own tongue.
Men who would later take Reformed teaching back to England came under the influence of John Calvin. Above all he gave them a model of reverent and accurate biblical exegesis. Calvin exemplified his careful approach to the biblical text in his own preaching ministry. It could also be seen in his many commentaries on books of the Bible. Gone was the fanciful method of exegesis favoured by the medievals. Calvin's aim was to discover the mind and intention of the biblical authors and set forth the plain sense of Scripture. He employed grammatico-historical exegesis, interpreting Scripture by Scripture in the light of the analogy of faith. The Roman Catholic Church claimed that she alone could interpret the Bible and argued that Protestantism would lead to theological anarchy. Calvin countered that through the witness of the Spirit and careful exegesis, it is possible to arrive at an accurate understanding of Scripture. His Institutes of the Christian Religion was written to aid Protestants in their reading of the Bible .
But Calvin provided more than a model of biblical scholarship for the English exiles. He was also an exemplary preacher. The Reformer would preach every day of alternate weeks, and up to three times each Sunday. He preached straight from the original Hebrew or Greek. His sermons were plain and simple as he explained the text of Scripture and showed how God's Word applied to the people of 16th century Geneva. In order to maintain eye contact with his congregation, Calvin preached without notes. This also helped to ensure that his ministry was lively, direct and punchy.
All this did not go unobserved by the English refugees in Geneva. When Mary died, Elizabeth I ascended the throne. She made the Church of England Protestant once more. But when the English Protestants returned home, they found that their queen was in no mood to sanction further reform of the Church. The Protestant leaders turned their all attention to preaching after the model of John Calvin. By this means, the hearts and minds of the English people were won for the Reformed cause. Powerful Puritan preachers like Henry "Silvertongue" Smith proclaimed the message of the Bible to their fellow countrymen. Elizabeth didn't much like preaching and did all she could to discourage "prophesyings". But by the 1570's is was evident that Protestant preaching had won the day. The English had become a "People of the Book."
Another big factor in the advance of English Reformation was the publication in 1560 of the Geneva Bible. This translation of Scripture was started by English Protestants in Geneva during the reign of queen Mary. By 1644, 100 editions had been printed. The Bible had several distinguishing features. It was printed in clear Roman type and verses were added to the biblical text for ease of reference. Although a hefty tome by today's standards at 24.1 x 18.8 x 6.6 cm, the Geneva Bible was much more portable than the old Great Bible, which was described as being "as portable as Stone Henge." The Bible contained a concordance, maps and diagrams of things like the tabernacle and garments worn by the Old Testament priests. But above all, the Geneva Bible was a study Bible with marginal notes that explained and applied the text. The notes were written after the model of John Calvin's lucid, brief and telling comments on Scripture. With the Geneva Bible in hand, any Christian man could now read Scripture with understanding and expound its message to his family with accuracy and conviction. Biblical literacy rates rocketed as this new version of the Scriptures became readily available. Ordinary believers demanded that their parish priest gave them Bible-based preaching. Like the Bereans of Acts 17:11, English Christians were in a position to scrutinise preaching against the standard of Scripture. People would travel many miles to hear God's Word preached by a godly, gifted and Spirit empowered Puritan Minister. It is said that the Puritan pulpit had more influence on the Elizabethan populace than the plays of Shakespeare or Marlowe. If the English had become a "People of the Book", that book was the Geneva Bible. And that Gevena was Calvin's Geneva.
So, John Calvin, though his expository labours and preaching ministry had a profound effect on the progress of the Reformation in England. With the Reformer's life and work receiving renewed attention in this, the 500th anniversary of his birth, let us pray that his vision of Bible-based gospel preaching may once again take hold of the pulpits of this land.
Bibliography: Robert Oliver mentioned several books

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