7th Printing, 1975.
John Calvin (1509-1564) was a prolific writer. He said of himself, quoting St. Augustine, “I count myself one of the number who write as they learn and learn as they write” (Letters, cxliii). It is not that Calvin wrote so much or that he wrote one of those books (Institutes) that significantly impacted the course of history that should be remembered here, it is how and why he wrote. Few people possess his genius or calling. But all of us possess the ability to emulate his style.
What is unique about his style?
First of all, Calvin was humble. He began with a listening posture. His writing originated from his own personal struggles. He addressed the deepest questions. He realized that he wasn’t the teacher, but that he was the student. “‘God subdued my heart to teachableness'” (p. li). He wrote to learn.
Second, Calvin rejected the idea that knowledge could be learned at arm’s length. I see what Calvin is trying to say echoing in Parker Palmer’s To Know As We Are Known. The academy has a hidden curriculum: “We know that students learn as much from the ‘hidden curriculum’ of institutional patterns and practices as from the formal curriculum of concepts and facts, so education would be more truthful if our schools themselves became more reflective of the communal nature of realities we teach in school” (Palmer, p. xiv).
In truth, we learn in community and in relationship: “Real learning does not happen until students are brought into relationship with the teacher, with other, and with the subject” (Palmer, p. xvi).
Calvin saw this 500 years ago. He believed that we can’t learn without a relationship with god. Calvin rejected “the intellectual indulgence of detached speculation” (p. li). “He never adopts the attitude of the impersonal inquirer. It is not what God is in Himself…that concerns his mind, but what God is in relation to His world and to us. God…makes himself known to those who in worship, love, and obedience consent to learn his will from his Holy Word” (p. li).
Thus, when Calvin writes, “The whole work is suffused with an awed sense of God’s ineffable majesty, sovereign power, and immediate presence…” (p. li). “The discerning reader soon realizes that not the author’s intellect alone but his whole spiritual and emotional being is enlisted in his work” (p. li).
The point is this. Academic writing in and of itself is limited in its meaningfulness. On the other hand, academic writing that is motivated by love of God and neighbor and reflects one’s heart and mind as well as one’s soul will be far more educational.
Third, Calvin’s writing was pious. Before we explore what that means, let’s clarify what Calvin meant by piety. Piousness is “praiseworthy dutifulness or faithful devotion…” (p. lii). “It exists when men ‘recognize’ that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good” (p. lii). Piousness is the opposite of both a sanctimonious or hypocritical display of virtue.
Piety is as important today as it was 500 years ago. “‘Today,’ Calvin once wrote, ‘all sorts of subjects are eagerly pursued; but the knowledge of God is neglected….Yet to know God is man’s chief end, and justifies his existence'” (p. lxxi). Thus “the word pietas occurs with great frequency in Calvin’s writings, and in the Institutes it keeps recurring like the ringing of a bell to call us back from the allurements of a secular intellectualism” (p. lii). To put it another way, secular intellectualism makes knowledge or power our god. Calvin wishes to transcend that practice.
Fourth, Calvin connects with the reader at a spiritual level. His struggles are our struggles. “Since we ‘owe everything to God,’ in Calvin’s pages we are everywhere confronting God, not toying with ideas or balancing opinions about him. As a result of this, regardless of detailed agreement with the author, the reader finds him the companion of his own religious struggles” (p. liii).
Finally, Calvin recognizes that our every good comes from God. In his humbleness he invites the Spirit into the conversation with the reader, especially when it comes to understanding the written Word. “Thus Christ, the Word, by whom all things were created (John 1:1), is the Author of the written Word, by which the eternal Word is known” (p. liv).
By extension then, because all the world reflects its Creator, the Word, through us all is reflected a message that says something about God. The biblical writers, then, are not automatons but “persons whose minds and hearts have embraced the truth of what they write” (p. liv). They wrote under the direction of the Spirit and their message must also be interpreted under the direction of the Spirit. Likewise, we are not automatons. When we write and when we read we should also ask for the direction of the Spirit.
If we are going to write, let’s write like Calvin.