Calvin on the Beatitudes

Sermons on the Beatitudes     John Calvin

Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006

114 pages     h/b     £9     ISBN: 0-85151-934-2

This short but handsomely presented book contains Calvin’s five sermons on the Beatitudes, newly translated by Robert White from the original French. They were preached in 1560, just a few years before the Reformer died, as part of a long series on a harmony of the synoptic Gospels.

The beatitudes are about true happiness, how to find it and what it consists of, something which even the Government has now begun to take an interest in and has started ‘measuring’ in recent years. Calvin clearly demonstrates how the Lord Jesus’ idea of what happiness is contrasts sharply with the things valued by the world (and modern Government statisticians). ‘We cannot reconcile the blessedness we seek with the idea of shame, poverty, hunger, thirst and other such afflictions,’ he says, but Jesus, ‘bids each of us renounce self, and take up our cross… To do that we have to give up our comforts!’ Indeed, ‘all who are rich in spirit, who are wrapped in self-esteem, who love earthly pleasures and social recognition, who claim merit on the grounds of birth or property, prestige or reputation – all such are accursed and rejected by Christ.’  On the other hand, Calvin affirms, ‘our happiness is always secure as long as we look to the kingdom of heaven.’

Here we have Calvin’s characteristically evocative and arresting use of language, which illustrates and applies the text better than any modern anecdote or funny story could hope to, although he is not incapable of conjuring up a scene to help us visualize how to apply Christ’s teaching. We also hear the wisdom of a leader who has worked through ecclesiastical divisions, and these inform his understanding of the text. So, commenting on ‘blessed are the peacemakers,’ he writes, ‘but we cannot avoid making many enemies. Satan has many allies in this world: possessed by his spirit, they cannot endure the light of the gospel or allow God to rule over them… We must therefore defend the cause of the gospel and bear witness to the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ, even if it means unremitting struggle with a large number of people, including those who pretend to be believers and who claim to be of the same religion.’ In such circumstances, ‘ to be at peace with everybody we would have to turn our backs on God.’ Obviously he has what he calls ‘the Pope and his crew’ in mind, but this application continues to resonate on other fronts too.

Calvin is not afraid to reject other interpretations of the text which are overly subtle or deep, or those which although they may be ‘good and wholesome’ do not, however, ‘fit the context.’ The translation reads well, and Calvin’s distinctive voice is as perceptible here as in the other English translations we have of his sermons.  Unusually, there are even one or two ‘notices’ preserved in the text, with brief notes about events in Geneva. Although the temptation might have been to edit these brief paragraphs out, they do bring an air of authenticity to the sermons.  The endnotes include a two-page summary of each sermon, which is a little odd, and although the historical and linguistic notes are useful (e.g. a couple of times Calvin may sound like an Arminian, but the notes put his comments into the correct historical and theological context, without twisting his words), I would have preferred them to appear as footnotes rather than endnotes. In my view a bigger volume or two containing all the Gospel Harmony sermons would be desirable, but this slim volume is a great start and would be an easy place for those unfamiliar with Calvin’s preaching to experience its challenges and joys for the first time.

This review first appeared in Churchman 126.3 (2012).

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