Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis 1-11 – A Review by Wilfred Weale
These sermons1 were preached in St Peter’s Church, Geneva, to the citizens there between 4 September 1559 and 23 January 1560. They are numbered 1-49 (though number 27 is missing) and they are here translated into English for the first time by Dr Rob Roy MacGregor.
Calvin’s custom apparently was to expound the Old Testament on weekdays and the New Testament on the Sabbath. In his introduction, John R de Witt tells us that the sermons, ‘were taken down in shorthand and then transcribed by the indefatigable Dennis Raguenier and several scribes under his supervision. What this means is that the preacher himself never had the leisure to edit them with an eye to publication.’ As well as this, the reader must bear in mind that, while Calvin ‘had a clear idea in his mind what he intended to say, a plan drawn from the text for the day, he spoke without a manuscript, expanding upon and carefully applying the various aspects of truth found in the passage’. The result of this is that ‘on one level the sermons can hardly be compared with the exact and carefully formed prose of the Institutes or the commentaries. On the other level . . . they enable us to see and hear a man aflame with love for the Lord and his Word, a preacher who spent himself utterly in the work of summoning his people to repentance, faith and holiness.’
There can be no doubt that all this made Dr MacGregor’s task more difficult, and it makes the reading of the sermons at times somewhat difficult, for, while there is a simplicity of language, it takes some effort in places to work out what Calvin is really saying. However, any such effort is amply rewarded.
The sermons take us through the early chapters of Genesis up to verse 4 of chapter 11; so they cover the vital doctrines of the Creation, the Fall and the Flood. Speaking in Sermon 6 of the honour bestowed upon man by being made in God’s image, Calvin says,
Now man is a creature noble above all others and has in himself worth that exceeds all visible creatures. That is why God deliberates when he prepares to create him . . . It is noteworthy then that God begins to consult at this point, not that he encounters problems, but he does so in order to express better the infinite kindness he wanted to extend to us.
Later in that same sermon Calvin says:
Now by [the] wretched Fall, we have been stripped of that image. How is it that we are so dense and ignorant? How is it that all our senses are darkened, indeed completely depraved, our affections corrupt and filled with evil? How is it that instead of truth there is only falsehood in us, and instead of being upright we are twisted and counterfeit? What is the origin of all that? Our father Adam, being alienated from his Creator, was given over to shame and ignominy, and God stripped him of his excellent gifts with which he had previously adorned him.
After dealing with the Fall, Calvin goes on to the murder of Abel and Cain’s subsequent punishment (Sermon 26). Referring to Cain going to the land of Nod, or trembling, Calvin claims that the land took its name from Cain’s trembling, which was the mark God put on him, and that while he went out from God’s presence, he was in that land like a criminal in chains, ‘unable to move without being forced to look his Judge square in the face’.
In drawing lessons from this, which Calvin constantly does in these sermons, he says,
That was not written for him but for our instruction. We see then in the first place, that that detestable man was not touched so deeply that he repented of his evil and the enormity of his crime. He became hardened like a desperado and no longer thought about God, who had previously been his judge. Now, as I said, this applies to us so that we will know that true repentance is not in some sudden fright which will strike us, but it will take root in our hearts so that the evil will distress us the rest of our lives as we think about our past sins and recall them every day.
In speaking of the effect of the Flood on Noah and the application of this to the believer, Calvin comments: ‘It is very certain that Noah, seeing such a sight, was deeply distressed in his heart. He was not a log or a stone, and although he detested men’s sins, there is no doubt he still loved them as God’s creatures.’ Calvin goes on to say that Noah ‘experienced great anguish’ and ‘was not glad and delighted in the ark, but . . . he groaned and sighed. In fact, that is how God’s children rejoice in the good he has done for them. Sadness, regrets, anxieties and fears must be mixed with the joy of the Holy Spirit, whom God gives them’ (Sermon 38).
In this manner of exposition and application Calvin continues throughout these sermons. So the reviewer was sorry when he reached the last sermon, on Genesis 11:1-4, about the building of Babel, and entitled, ‘Ambition, Its Consequences and Cure’. This volume of sermons is highly recommended and will bring home to any serious reader how vitally important these early chapters in Genesis are and the numerous lessons they contain for every age and generation.
Chapters 1 - 11
These sermons1 were preached in St Peter’s Church, Geneva, to the citizens there between 4 September 1559 and 23 January 1560. They are numbered 1-49 (though number 27 is missing) and they are here translated into English for the first time by Dr Rob Roy MacGregor. Calvin’s custom apparently was to expound the Old Testament […]
Rev W A Weale ministers in Staffin on the Isle of Skye. This review is taken with permission from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, January 2010.
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