When hearing the word “prophet,” there are a wide range of responses. What may come to mind are images of a spiritual leader with the gift to see into the future. Another common reaction may be to think of the Old Testament prophets who condemned the wrong-doings of ancient Israel and exhorted them to follow after God. In a different direction, the term may be taken negatively, as charlatans who deceive others with their claims of supernatural power.
Jon Balserak approaches the subject of prophet in conjunction with John Calvin in John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet (Oxford University Press, 2014; source: publisher). I looked forward to reviewing the work after benefiting greatly from Balserak’s earlier work Divinity Compromised: A Study of Divine Accommodation in the Thought of John Calvin, a comprehensive assessment of Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation. In the present volume, Balserak addresses Calvin in the role of a prophet, particularly, Calvin’s own self-identification as a prophet.
Balserak is not alone in his claim that Calvin thought of himself as a prophet. He lists the relevant historiography, including such scholars as Richard Stauffer, Rodolphe Peter, Peter Opitz, and Olivier Millet (6). In agreement with these scholars, Balserak establishes his case on passages such as Calvin’s comments regarding Romans 12:6 and a sermon on Deuteronomy 18:14-22.
There are statements attributed to Calvin which would seem to negate the continuation of the prophetic office (consult Calvin’s commentary on Daniel 9:24). However, Calvin’s sermons relay a belief that the prophets were not only given to ancient Israel, but to the New Testament church as well. Without a specific treatise or work on the office of prophet, we are left with an ambiguous position. The exact nature of the prophet is unclear, whether there is a continuation of the office, and if there is, whether all functions of the prophet found in the Old Testament remain in the New Testament prophet.
The responsibilities of the prophet varies as well. Within Calvin’s definition of a prophet is the inclusion of prognostication, interpretation of God’s will and word, admonishment, warning, and comforting. In deciphering these various understandings of a prophet, Balserak identifies two non-mutually exclusive traditions. Tradition 1 acknowledges a supernatural character, which often manifests in an ability to foretell the future. Traditional 2 emphasizes the interpretative role of the prophet.
Tracing these traditions from the early church to the Reformation, Balserak discusses the “confusion” caused by the Anabaptists. Calvin and many of his fellow reformers would perceive the Anabaptist claim, that one can speak for God, as an abuse of the prophetic vocation. In opposition to the Anabaptist and in conjunction with fellow reformers Ulrich Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadius, Heinrich Bullinger, Conrad Pellican, Martin Bucer, and Peter Martyr Vermigli, Calvin formulates an understanding that the prophetic role of admonishment against idolatry and a call for renewal, specifically through a dedication to scripture, continued to his day.
Balserak argues that Calvin lacked the apocalyptic element found in other understandings of the prophet, such as found in the Hussites. Rather, Calvin’s prophetic focus was on the present, and how the prophet was to work within the current society without a particular eschatological emphasis. This claim is specific to Calvin’s depiction of the present day prophet and not reflective of his entire theology, which does include eschatological thinking.
Calvin’s efforts as a prophet, and the training of other prophets, had a specific purpose for Calvin’s day. Calvin’s call as a prophet and to train prophets, was intentionally related to the Catholic church in France. The prophet, as one equipped with the authority of God, was to condemn the idolatry of Catholicism and take back the French church from the papacy. Though Calvin did address the French laity, it was the priests who received the brunt of his prophetic condemnation.
Calvin’s training of ministers was more than a charge to be imitators of prophets or to take the moral standard of the prophet for personal application. Balserak claims that this training was intended to equip his students to become prophets themselves (143). As prophets, they were to enter France as non-combatant soldiers for God. Though the possibility of military measures was an urgent reality, these efforts were to be left to political forces and not the office of prophets. The latter’s effectiveness derived from a proclamation of the divine Word. Though they prepare for war and serve as the catalytic for the possibility of war, the physical overtaking of others would come from noblemen with armed forces (seen in Calvin’s efforts to raise funds for Antoine of Navarre, brother of Louis of Condѐ, in exchange for military aid to the Huguenots).
Naturally, this understanding of prophets created tension between the obedience of political order and upholding God’s truth. Though Balserak moves away from an older understanding, pitting the reformer in a conservative light, he is careful to not depict Calvin as a radical. In Balserak’s estimation, Calvin does balance the Bible’s call to honor governments with the Christian’s responsibility of uncompromising adherence to God. However, it is not a perfect balance, but one which tends to be anti-monarchical, characterizing kings as extensions of the papacy (160-165).
The formulation of Calvin’s training of future prophets can be seen after 1555 and culminating in the religious wars of 1562. Of particular importance are the prayers after each lecture. Though not included in the Calvini Opera, they are found in other editions of these lectures. At least three ideas can be seen in these prayers. First, the urgency and ethos of the lectures is made vivid through the prayers. Second, they often convey a message of “covenantal continuity” between God and the Huguenots. Third, even in the personal nature of the prayers, there is a lack of pro-war desire or language.
Balserak records one such prayer found at the end of Calvin’s lecture on Zephaniah 2:15.
Grant, almighty God, as you test us in the warfare of the cross (sub militia crucis) and arouse the most powerful enemies whose ferociousness might justly terrify and greatly alarm us if we did not depend on your aid–grant, that they we may call to mind how wonderfully you delivered your chosen people in the past (olim), and how promptly you brought them help, when they were oppressed and completely overwhelmed, so that we may learn today to flee to your protection, and not to doubt that when you show your favor to us, there is in you sufficient power to preserve us and to overthrow our enemies (hostes nostros), no matter how much they may now exult and think that they triumph above the heavens, in order that they may, ultimately, understand by experience that they are earthly and frail, whose life and condition is like the mist which soon vanishes; and may we learn to long for that blessed eternity, which is laid up for us in heaven by Christ our Lord. Amen (168).
One question left unanswered is, how do we understand the unsuccessful prophet? For the prophet who foretells the future, if a foretelling is shown to be false, we can question the validity of that prophet. Now, an unsuccessful prophet of the proclamation of God’s word and admonisher of wrong-doer variety is not the same as willful deception or unconscious delusion. But we are still left wondering what Calvin’s thoughts are of the prophets who did not complete their mission in France. The Edict of Nantes (1598) did result in significant rights for the Huguenots but cannot be seen as a retaking back of the French church and the dispelling of Catholicism.
John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet introduces a provocative argument in our understanding of Calvin. Beyond our modern conventions and sentiments, Balserak encourages a re-examination of Calvin in a way unpopular today. By examining the issue of the prophet, we see how Calvin understood the continuation of this office for his day. Though the issue of prophecy is not a topic which garnishes much attention today, especially in reformed studies, Balserak conveys the significance of prophecy for Calvin. Not only did Calvin hold to the continuation of this office, but identified himself as a prophet and trained others to become prophets.
John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet is also an attempt to better understand Calvin in his day. The thought and theology of Calvin is often separated from the life of Calvin. Calvin was not a theologian conducting his work from an ivory tower. Rather, he served as a pastor, training other pastors, always paying attention to the world’s on-goings. Balserak’s study illustrates this pastoral heart, which was committed to the training of others, who would then minister directly to the immediate needs of their congregations.