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John Calvin in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Category Articles
Date September 25, 2009

I have betrayed John Calvin1. We all have. We betray Calvin every time we talk about him, because Calvin did a lot to stop people talking about him. He once commented, ‘I am unwilling to speak of myself, but since you do not permit me to be altogether silent, I will say what I can consistent with modesty.’2 He was buried, at his own request, in an unmarked grave. Nonetheless, on this count (if on few others!) it is in our best interests to betray him.

The images that we know of Calvin suggest a certain austerity. The contrast with Luther is telling. Here is Martin Luther: large, bullish, full of life, quite possibly full of German beer. And there is Calvin: long, thin, precise, reserved, unflinching. He can also appear in our minds as an essentially successful man, a colossus. We remember his Works, the Institutes, the treatises, the commentaries. We recall Geneva itself under his reforms, the ‘most perfect school of Christ’. And then there are France, Scotland, Poland, Germany, even England, all influenced in significant ways by Calvin’s work. He is – is he not? – a giant striding over the stage of Europe.

Perhaps it is just me. Perhaps it is just a side-effect of being a church historian. But do you ever dream about being in Geneva? To go, to be involved, to join the Compagnie des pasteurs? What would Calvin say to such a fantasy? I think we know. He would say a loud and clear ‘Non’! He would say: ‘Whatever you do, do not come here. This is the last place on earth you should come. Choose a hundred other afflictions, but do not come here.’ Because Calvin was not the unflustered Reformer we are tempted to imagine, effortlessly master-minding the evangelization of Europe. No, he was the suffering Reformer. I want here to consider the extent of Calvin’s sufferings, and to encourage you with an account of how he endured.

In some respects Calvin was like Job. Recall how Satan claims that Job only fears God because God has hedged him in, has protected him: ‘Does Job fear God for nothing? . . . Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?’ (1:10). In the following verses Job’s hedge is torn down, piece by piece: his oxen and donkeys, his sheep, his camels, and his servants. Finally, even his precious children and his own body. Then he suffers his wife’s hopeless advice and the relentless counsel of his unhelpful friends.

It is striking that Job himself then uses the language of being hedged in: ‘Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?’ (3:23). For Job it is not the hedge of protection that has been taken away. It is the hedge of trouble that now surrounds him. From every side he is hemmed in by Satan’s attacks. This is the point of comparison with Calvin. Like Job, Calvin faced hostility on every side, in both his public and his personal life. Here is his testimony:

I say nothing of fire and sword and exiles and all the furious attacks of our enemies. I say nothing of slanders and other such vexations. How many things there are within that are far worse! Ambitious men openly attack us. Epicureans and Lucianists mock at us, impudent men insult us, hypocrites rage against us, those who are wise after the flesh do us harm, indirectly, and we are harassed in many different ways on every side. It is in short a great miracle that, weighed down by the burden of such a heavy and dangerous office, any one of us should persevere.3

‘. . . in many different ways on every side’. What were the hedges that surrounded John Calvin?


First of all, death. It is obvious that in Calvin’s times there was a greater and more immediate awareness of death than there is today. This meant that Christian spirituality was more markedly shaped by death. Calvin is an example of this. He lived with a constant and acute awareness of the vulnerability of the human condition. He writes this in the Institutes:

Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases – in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases – a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperilled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?4

For Geneva the threat of military attack was real. In a letter in 1559 following the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis between France and Spain, Calvin expressed his own sense of coming trouble: ‘It is true that at this time I speak from outside the battle, but not very far, and I do not know for how long, since as far as one can judge our turn is indeed near.’5 There was also physical danger closer to home, including politico-theologically motivated murder within Geneva itself. For Calvin, death pressed in on many sides.

Second, there was the fact that Calvin was a refugee. He had of course fled from his beloved France. As he put it, ‘His native soil is sweet to everyone, and it is sweet to dwell among one’s own people.’6 This, from 1534 in his mid-twenties, Calvin could never do. He felt the loss acutely, commenting that it is ‘a wretched safety when men cannot otherwise make provision for it than by inflicting a voluntary exile on themselves’7. As one French historian put it, ‘Calvin in Geneva was a Frenchman who dreamed of his country.’8

Calvin was not only an unwilling refugee, he was also an unwilling settler. Here is the story of his attempt to pass quietly by the city of Geneva in pursuit of a quiet life of ‘privacy and obscurity’, found in one of his rare autobiographical passages:

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.9

Having settled under duress in Geneva, Calvin then suffered another exile following a dispute with the city authorities. This time he ended up in Strasbourg where he was greatly influenced by Martin Bucer. When in 1540 the possibility of his return to Geneva emerged, Calvin again came unwillingly: ‘Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one had to perish daily a thousand times over.’10 We find a double-exiled Calvin with a double settlement in Geneva, both times not wanting to be there.

Third, there were the sheer demands of his ministry. Within just six weeks of returning to the city he could write: ‘I am entangled in so many employments that I am almost beside myself.’11 But even without the additional controversies and conflicts that beset him, the ordinary duties of Calvin’s ministry were extraordinary by any normal measure. At the simplest level there were the demands of the job. Like Luther, Calvin had a phenomenal capacity for work. He preached twice on the Lord’s day; every other week he preached each morning at 6 or 7am on the Old Testament, often delivering eight sermons in a week. He preached in all around 4,000 sermons after his return, averaging over 170 sermons each year. Then there were other services; in the 1550s, for example, there were 270 weddings and 50 baptisms.12 Alongside this Beza tells us in his Life of Calvin that the Reformer lectured every third day on theology, met with the presbytery, and taught in the conference on Scripture that met every Friday.13 If a man was ever hemmed in by sheer activity, it was John Calvin. Nor were his colleagues any help after his return from Strasbourg. One was ‘of a touchy, or rather savage, character’, the other ‘wily and sly’: ‘they had not thought, even in dreams, about what it means to direct a church’.14
Fourth, there was trouble from enemies within the city. There was trouble from among the refugees and visitors who came to the city, and from the Libertines. In a way striking for our own times, Geneva was largely a city of refugees and asylum seekers. An anonymous writer in 1584 criticized the city, saying that people came to it from all parts of the world:

as to an asylum and place of safety, all the criminals and evildoers, lost and abandoned people, thieves, robbers, brigands, homicides, murderers, assassins, sorcerers, enchanters, poisoners, arsonists, counterfeiters, and the whole band of outlaws and pillagers, because no other country has been willing to endure them, either among the Christians or even among the Turks.15

In his bleaker moments one suspects that Calvin would have agreed with this verdict.

As a place of safety from Rome, Geneva attracted not only mainstream supporters of the magisterial Reformation from elsewhere, but also radical reformers from different countries, men like Michael Servetus. Calvin was repeatedly opposed by Protestant deniers of God’s sovereign grace like Jerome Bolsec. Such visitors meant that Calvin faced constant doctrinal battles from within. And then of course there were enemies without, such as the Roman Catholic theologian Albertus Pighius. Calvin even found himself in lengthy and painful disputes with Lutherans, both the more orthodox over the Lord’s Supper, and the less such as Andreas Osiander over justification. The list goes on. It was Luther himself who commented that it is vital to fight where the battle is, and this Calvin certainly did. As Beza put it: ‘There will be found no heresy ancient or revived, or newly founded in our time, which he did not destroy down to its foundations.’16

The Libertines were the old Genevan leaders of the city who hated the way in which Calvin was reforming their home. Their opposition was ongoing, but it reached a peak when in 1552 Ami Perrin became first Syndic, the senior leader of the city. Calvin wrote to Bullinger on 7 September 1553 that the Council in Geneva ‘have reached such a pitch of folly and madness, that they regard with suspicion whatever we say to them. So much so, that were I to allege that it is clear at mid-day, they would forthwith begin to doubt of it.’17 The tensions reached a height when the Consistory excommunicated an assistant judge from an old Genevan family, Philibert Berthelier, but the Council authorized him to participate in the Supper. In the midst of the crisis Calvin asked to be allowed to resign but was refused permission. Even as he preached on 3 September, he expected Berthelier to force the issue by presenting himself. Calvin was determined not to compromise whatever the cost: ‘If anyone wants to intrude at this holy table to whom it has been forbidden by the consistory, it is certain that I will show myself, at the risk of my life, what I should be.’ He explained his resolve: ‘I would rather have been killed than have offered the holy things of God with this hand to those declared guilty as scorners.’18 As it happened Berthelier had been counselled not to appear on that occasion, but the trouble continued. Calvin commented in a sermon in December 1554: ‘If it were up to me, I would want God to remove me from this world, and that I should not have to live here three days in such disorder as there is here.’19 The great conflict with the Libertines was only finally resolved in the elections of February 1555 when all four syndics elected were supporters of Calvin. The syndics were then able to push through further changes to the city’s councils. This was possible because a large number of French refugees had become citizens and were permitted to hold office on the Council of Sixty and the Council of Two Hundred. In frustration some of the Libertines took up arms against a house full of Frenchmen, and Perrin seized the baton of office from one Syndic. As a result of the insurrection the leaders of the Libertines either fled or were executed.

Perhaps the streets of Geneva were places of trouble, but Calvin’s home was an oasis? No, for here we find the fifth side of the hedge that surrounded him. In fact even as the political troubles ended in 1555, so the domestic troubles intensified. Calvin was deeply affected when his brother’s wife committed adultery, all the more because the family all lived in the same house. She had previously been accused in 1548 but acquitted. Then in 1557 she was caught with Calvin’s servant Pierre Daguet, and it was soon after discovered that Daguet had been stealing from his master. In February Calvin wrote to Farel:

Besides open contentions, you can have no idea, my dear Farel, with how many ambushes and clandestine machinations Satan daily assails us. So then, though the state of public affairs be tranquil, it is not allowed, for all that, to every body to enjoy repose . . . we are weighed down by a load of domestic affliction. Of the city I say nothing, for our private calamity almost completely absorbs us. The judges find no way of disengaging my brother. I interpret their blindness as a just punishment for our own, because for upwards of two years though I was pillaged by a thief, I saw nothing. My brother perceived neither the thief nor the adulterer.20

What about his immediate family? Calvin married Idelette de Bure in 1540 and from the little we know they appear to have been very happily married. Yet their only son Jacques died shortly after he was born on 28 July 1542. Calvin expressed his grief to Pierre Viret: ‘The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son. But he is himself a Father, and knows best what is good for his children.’21 In 1545 Idelette herself became ill, and in March 1549, after just nine years of marriage and with Calvin still under forty, she died. Calvin expressed his grief in a letter to Viret just over a week later:

Truly mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it been so ordered, would not only have been the willing sharer of my indigence, but even of my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance. She was never troublesome to me throughout the entire course of her illness; she was more anxious about her children than about herself.22

A few days later he wrote to Farel: ‘I do what I can to keep myself from being overwhelmed with grief.’23

Sixth, Calvin suffered from ill health. Throughout his life he had terrible migraines; he probably had pleurisy in the mid 1550s; he was room-bound in 1558 for several months; in 1559 he could hardly speak and spat blood; he suffered also from haemorrhoids, gout, and in later years kidney stones. In February 1564 he wrote graphically to the physicians of Montpellier about his struggle to pass a kidney stone that lacerated his urinary canal. Having listed some of his illnesses he noted how ‘at present all these ailments as it were in troops assail me’24.

In sum then: Calvin was often ill; he lived through the death of his son and his wife; he was opposed by natives and strangers to Geneva alike; at the start his colleagues were incompetent; he had an extraordinary workload, and he lived under shadow of death. On every front he was a man hedged in. What kept him going in the face of such encompassing hardship?


Here we are reminded of the theologically and pastorally obvious, but we need to be reminded. In short, Calvin was a ‘Calvinist’, but not just theologically. His was a lived Calvinism. His convictions concerning the sovereign purposes of God wrought within him a number of dispositions that allowed him to see his situations differently. Calvin is a good example of how there is no necessary causal link between affliction and a response of unbelief. Many of the so-called ‘new atheists’ speak as if an awareness of suffering compels unbelief. I suspect that many young Christians who have not endured hardship of any kind can fear it too. But there is no necessary link. Calvin viewed the world through biblical eyes, and he therefore reacted in godly ways.

First of all, he expected suffering. In November 1559 he wrote to the French brethren following the accession of the young Francis II who was under the influence of the anti-Huguenot Guise family. He explains in the letter that suffering is a consequence of union with Christ. If we are united to Christ, then we must be united to him in his death. This is the will of the Father: ‘Above all by sufferings he wishes us to be conformed to the image of his Son, as it is fitting that there should be conformity between the head and the members.’25 This is obvious for Calvin, and he finds refusal of it hard to comprehend: ‘It is horrible that those who call themselves Christians should be so stupid, or rather brutalized, as to renounce Jesus Christ as soon as he displays his cross.’26 How can you be a Christian, Calvin asks, and not expect a cross?

Second, in the face of suffering Calvin is encouraged by God’s providence. The long passage about death waiting around every corner that I cited above occurs in his discussion of divine providence in the Institutes. Calvin is considering the uses of that doctrine. Immediately after expressing his anxieties he counters them:

Yet, when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God.27

Calvin constantly drew strength from the providential rule of God. As he put it to Farel in 1553 during the proceedings against Servetus:

Although we may be severely buffeted hither and thither by many tempests, yet, seeing that a pilot steers the ship in which we sail, who will never allow us to perish even in the midst of shipwrecks, there is no reason why our minds should be overwhelmed with fear and overcome with weariness.28

We may reinforce the significance of this confidence by contrasting Calvin’s convictions with those of contemporary open theists who deny the exhaustive sovereignty of God. It is clear that open theists think they are helping people pastorally by saying that in a time of suffering God regrets his actions and leading, but that they seemed good at the time, given that he did not know what was going to happen. Gregory Boyd, a popular open theist writer, recounts the tragic story of Suzanne, a young woman who took extensive counsel and concluded that the Lord wanted her to marry a particular man. She married, but then her husband committed adultery. Eventually he left her, only for her to discover that she was expecting a child. Boyd records that he began by trying to emphasize to Suzanne that the outcome was her ex-husband’s fault. But she argued that God knew exactly what would happen, and so was responsible. Boyd then suggested instead that God had led her into the marriage, but that the outcome was unknown to him at the time because of human liberty: ‘Because her ex-husband was a free agent, however, even the best decisions can have sad results.’ Boyd believes that this helped Suzanne:

By framing the ordeal within the context of an open future, Suzanne was able to understand the tragedy of her life in a new way. She didn’t have to abandon all confidence in her ability to hear God and didn’t have to accept that somehow God intended this ordeal ‘for her own good’. Her faith in God’s character and her love toward God were eventually restored and she was finally able to move on with her life.29

Here we have a picture of God not knowing what will happen, acting on his ignorance, and making terrible (albeit well-meaning) mistakes. And as evil happens he does not intend it for good. This is not the God of Joseph, and it is not the Father of comfort.

Witness Calvin’s contrary position and its pastoral power in his own life. What did he say following the death of Jacques? Not ‘It was beyond God’s control’. Rather: ‘The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son.’ The Lord who inflicts is not an out-of-control Satan or human free agent surprising an ignorant God with suffering. No, the Lord who inflicts is the Lord God himself. But, vitally, the Lord God who inflicts is also, as Calvin says, ‘a Father himself’, our Father, who ‘knows best what is good for his children’. Lord and Father: Calvin often conjoins these two titles for God. He knows the pastoral power of this combined description. We see him using it here with himself, and elsewhere with others too. In the Institutes we read that the believer’s solace ‘is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it.’30 See the pairing again: ‘Father’ with terms expressing sovereignty. Our Father has total power over everything, to order all to our good. It is awareness of God as our Father that keeps us from thinking that we are victims of a cruel tyrant, ‘as if God were making sport of men by throwing them about like balls’.31> Calvin therefore holds together knowledge of God as Lord and as Father. He wrote to the French brethren:

Since it is our duty to suffer, we ought humbly to submit; as it is the will of God that his church be subjected to such conditions that even as the plough passes over the field, so should the ungodly have leave to pass their sword over us all from the least to the greatest. According then to what is said in the psalm, we should prepare our back for stripes. If that condition is hard and painful, let us be satisfied that our heavenly Father in exposing us to death, turns it to our eternal welfare. And indeed it is better for us to suffer for his name, without flinching, than to possess his word without being visited by affliction. For in prosperity we do not experience the worth of his assistance and the power of his Spirit, as when we are oppressed by men. That seems strange to us; but he who sees more clearly than we, knows far better what is advantageous for us. Now when he permits his children to be afflicted, there is no doubt but that it is for their good. Thus we are forced to conclude that whatever he orders, is the best thing we could desire.32

This is astonishing when we consider some of the suffering that Calvin endured. It is a conviction only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit. And it is true: ‘We are forced to conclude that whatever he orders, is the best thing we could desire.’ We have a kind Father and a sovereign Lord, so that we submit because he is sovereign, and we trust because he is our loving Father working for our good. Losing this, as the open theists have, is a pastoral disaster. As Calvin puts it: ‘Ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.’33

Third, Calvin knew that Christians never lose, are never defeated, and are never poor. We are always rich because we have the Lord Jesus Christ. He wrote in September 1545 to one Monsieur de Falais who was suffering imperial displeasure:

If the whole should be taken away from you, there would yet remain the consolation to which we must chiefly betake ourselves, namely, to yield ourselves up entirely. It is certain, that having the Son of God, we suffer no injury in being deprived of all else: for thus highly ought we indeed to prize Him.34

Having the Son of God, the Christian has an immeasurable inheritance:

I pray our good Lord that he would so work in you now more powerfully than ever, to make you despise all that is in the world, and to make you breathe upwards direct to him with your whole heart, without being turned aside by anything whatsoever, making you taste what is the worth of the hope which he reserves for us in heaven.35

Calvin does not mean by any of this that it is wrong for the Christian to fear, since fear is a part of knowing our own weakness. He means that we must never stop with fear, but must add to it confidence and hope in God. Hope, Calvin says when commenting on Psalm 56:4, only comes out of our fear:

Experience shows that hope truly reigns where fear occupies part of the heart. For hope does not operate in a tranquil mind, nay it is almost dormant. But it exerts its power where it uplifts a spirit worn down by cares, soothes it when troubled by grief, and supports it when it is stricken by terror.36


Will we follow Calvin’s example? We must remember that we will suffer because we are one with the Lord Jesus Christ. As we suffer, we need to recall that, astonishing as it is, whatever the Lord orders, is the best thing for us from our Father. And we should pray that as fear occupies part of our hearts, hope will reign.


  1. This article is the substance of an address given by Dr Garry Williams at the Leicester Conference, 2009, and appeared in the Aug/Sept 2009 issue of The Banner of Truth magazine.
  2. John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, 7 vols., ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 1:30.
  3. Cited in William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988; repr. 1989), pp. 25-26.
  4. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols, The Library of Christian Classics, 20-21 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), I. xvii. 10, 1:223.
  5. Cited in Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans/Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000), p. 246.
  6. Portrait, p. 16.
  7. Portrait, p. 16.
  8. J. Vi not cited by Cottret in Biography, p. 157.
  9. Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. by James Anderson, in Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993), preface, pp. xlii-xliii.
  10. Tracts and Letters, 4:175.
  11. Tracts and Letters, 4:294.
  12. For these details see Portrait, p. 29.
  13. Tracts and Letters, 1:xxxix.
  14. Cited in Biography, p. 158.
  15. Cited in Biography, p. 108.
  16. Cited in Biography, p. 3.
  17. Tracts and Letters, 5:427.
  18. Cited in Biography, p. 196.
  19. Cited in Biography, p. 194.
  20. Tracts and Letters, 6:314-15.
  21. Tracts and Letters, 4:344.
  22. Tracts and Letters, 5:216.
  23. Tracts and Letters, 5:217.
  24. Tracts and Letters, 7:358-59.
  25. Tracts and Letters, 7:84-85.
  26. Tracts and Letters, 7:86.
  27. Institutes, I. xvii. 11; 1:224.
  28. Tracts and Letters, 5:416-17.
  29. God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), p. 106.
  30. Institutes, I. xvii. 11; 1:224.
  31. Institutes, I. xvii. 1; 1:211.
  32. Tracts and Letters, 7:84.
  33. Institutes, I. xvii. 11; 1:225.
  34. Tracts and Letters, 5:18.
  35. Tracts and Letters, 5:18.
  36. Cited in Portrait, p. 44.

Copyright Garry Williams, used gratefully with permission. Dr Garry Williams is Director of the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary.

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