Reflections on History and Theology

Category: Reformation

John Calvin on “True Happiness”

Doesn’t it seem like we are always chasing happiness? We desire fulfilling and lucrative work. We want not only comfortable but also pleasant accommodations. We expect to have discretionary income to enjoy Friday night pizza and trips to the beach and the symphony. We believe these things make us happy. 

John Calvin considers a similar mindset in his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where he discusses the Sermon on the Mount:

We know that not only the great body of the people, but even the learned themselves, hold this error, that he is the happy man who is free from annoyance, attains all his wishes, and leads a joyful and easy life. At least it is the general opinion, that happiness ought to be estimated from the present state.

HEL219079 Portrait of John Calvin (1509–64) (oil on panel) by Swiss School, (16th century) oil on panel 41.5×28 Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva, Switzerland © Held Collection Swiss, out of copyright

The American dream seems to promise such a way of life, and it is easy to buy into this thinking, being submerged so deeply in the culture we live in. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to confess that these are the very things that I believe I should enjoy and that the lack of them makes me feel as if I am missing something. 

Calvin points to Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as a foil to the perennial human desires to find happiness in this life, and there he addresses what Christ taught his disciples about “true happiness.” Far from leading “an easy and prosperous life according to the flesh” as the way to happiness, Christ offers the way of the cross. He wants “to accustom his own people to bear the cross.” As Calvin notes, 

It is impossible that men should mildly bend the neck to bear calamities and reproaches, so long as they think that patience is at variance with a happy life. The only consolation which mitigates and even sweetens the bitterness of the cross and of all afflictions, is the conviction, that we are happy in the midst of miseries: for our patience is blessed by the Lord, and will soon be followed by a happy result.

Happiness is found in patience. This is the counterintuitive message of Calvin—or, as he would say, of Christ. Patience tempers our hopes for what can be achieved or secured in this world and drives us to find God’s greater blessing in a world beyond our own. Such thinking goes against “the common opinion,” for “carnal reason will never admit what is here taught by Christ.” But those who would follow Christ, Calvin warns, “must learn the philosophy of placing their happiness beyond the world, and above the affections of the flesh.”

As Calvin puts it, what Christ teaches is not “imaginary”—though we are certainly tempted to think it is, since it is not tangible in our temporal experience. Rather, it is a “fact,” a fact “that those persons are truly happy whose condition is supposed to be miserable.” Thus, in the Beatitudes, the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, 

not only does Christ prove that they are in the wrong, who measure the happiness of man by the present state, because the distresses of the godly will soon be changed for the better; but he also exhorts his own people to patience, by holding out the hope of a reward.

As we feel pulled and pushed always to pursue greater happiness in this world, the Christian expectation is to be marked by patience. We are to expect disappointment and trouble and opposition. We are not to be surprised by bad news (cf. Ps. 112:7). But we are to patiently wait on the Lord and look ahead to the “true happiness” that Christ preached about and that Calvin here reminds us of. Though it goes against the grain of our culture—and of our own inner appetites—patience is the path to “true happiness.”

Jane Dawson’s John Knox

Jane Dawson, "John Knox"Of the sixteenth-century Reformers, John Knox (1514/1515–1572) is known as a fiery soul. Though he called John Calvin’s Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ,” he and Calvin were quite different in terms of dispositions, gifts, and callings. Despite a number of differences, they saw themselves as colaborers in the Reformation, and while Calvin is the better known Reformer, largely owing to his voluminous writings, Knox nonetheless made his own lasting impact on the Reformation as it developed in Scotland and England and beyond.

Jane Dawson offers a critical biography of Knox in her book simply titled John Knox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015). A professor of Reformation history at the University of Edinburgh, Dawson aims to dispel the notion of Knox as “the dour Scottish Reformer” and reveal, partly through the use of some more recently discovered sources, “the many different shades within Knox’s character that make this complex man such a fascinating subject” (4). Dawson also seeks not only to give a “fresh and more nuanced account of Knox’s life” but also to illuminate readers on the Reformation in Scotland, England, and parts of Europe as it intersected with his journeys. What follows are some key themes and insights from Dawson’s book about Knox.

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Martin Luther, Christian Freedom, and the Reformation

Martin Luther, ca. 1520 (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

Martin Luther, ca. 1520 (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

October 31, 2017, marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Historians debate whether Luther nailed the theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, whether he had a university beadle do the deed, or whether he simply mailed them to the archbishop of Mainz. Regardless, the date nonetheless stands as a pivotal point in church history—and indeed, in the history of the world. The Reformation had begun.

Reform, of course, wasn’t new. Many had called for all kinds of reform in the Middle Ages. But the reform of the sixteenth century took on new overtones; it struck deeper into the heart of Christendom. And one of the best places to see the nature of the new calls for reform is to read Luther’s Freedom of a Christian.

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Martin Luther on the Lord’s Prayer

Luther's Prayers The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most recited prayer in all human history. Many churches recite it every week in their liturgy. Catechisms often devote a question and answer to each line of the prayer. Pastors preach sermon series on it. And countless families and individual Christians pray it regularly, even daily.

Martin Luther captures both the benefit of regularly feasting on the Lord’s Prayer and the danger of repeating it with a disengaged spirit:

To this day I suckle at the Lord’s Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer, even better than the psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it. What a great pity that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world! How many pray the Lord’s Prayer several thousand times in the course of a year, and if they were to keep on doing so for a thousand years they would not have tasted nor prayed one iota, one dot, of it! In a word, the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth (as are the name and word of God). Everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use.[1]

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Scott Manetsch on Pastoral Ministry in John Calvin’s Geneva

calvin-company-of-pastors-manetsch-789x444Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Scott Manetsch, Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (and one of my former profs), give a lecture on “Pastoral Collegiality and Accountability in Calvin’s Geneva.” This lecture is part of the “Scripture and Ministry” lecture series at the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding.

In the lecture, Manetsch made good on years of painstaking research on John Calvin and his associates and successors by discussing some of the takeaways for the church today. Avoiding both antiquarianism and presentism, he first gave listeners a rich description of pastoral ministry in Geneva as molded by Calvin and his fellow pastors and then discussed ways we can learn from them—positively and negatively—for today.

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