John Calvin’s authority as a prophet
By Jon Balserak
For some, it was no surprise to see a book claiming that John Calvin believed he was a prophet. This reaction arose from the fact that they had already thought he was crazy and this just served to further prove the point. One thing to say in favor of their reaction is that at least they are taking the claim seriously; they perceive correctly its gravity: Calvin believed that he spoke for God; that to disagree with him was to disagree with the Almighty ipso facto.
The belief may, of course, appear utterly astonishing and bizarre to us today. While I’m sympathetic with such astonishment, I don’t share it. This is not necessarily because I believe Calvin was a prophet. It’s rather because I know him well enough to know that such a belief is entirely in keeping with his character and I suppose I’ve grown accustomed to it. Most of what comes out of his mouth or flows from his pen carries with it, it seems patently clear to me, a prophetic tone and energy. There’s no question in my mind that he held that the heavens themselves opened when he opened his mouth.
I have friends who ask with some chagrin: “didn’t Calvin feel the same sense of utter uncertainty, confusion, and awkwardness with respect to his own place in the universe that people in the twenty-first century do? Wasn’t he aware of his own weaknesses?” If so, the logic follows, how could he have become convinced that he was a divine messenger since this assumes a certain sense of faultlessness? For one of us to believe ourselves a prophet seems impossible, so, what of Calvin? Didn’t his inner reservations and neuroses weigh on his self-conception and convince him that he couldn’t possibly be the mouthpiece of the Divine? My answer is a simple “no.” I don’t think he believed that he erred in his service of God. Ever.
Let us recall that it’s Calvin who indicted the greatest theologians with the charge that they had mixed hay with gold, stubble with silver, and wood with precious stones (a reference to the Apostle Paul’s warning to those who had corrupted their labors in God’s service in 1 Corinthians 3: 15). He indicted Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, and some from what he referred to as more recent times, such as Gregory and Bernard. He said of these individuals that they could only be saved on the condition that God wipe away their ignorance and the stain which corrupted their work. They could only be saved as through fire. He even said this of Augustine, the Theologian par excellence for everyone in Early Modern Europe. Let us recall as well that Calvin could write in 1562, just two years before he died, that if anyone were his enemy, then they were the enemies of Christ. He goes on in this writing, entitled Responsio ad Balduini Convicia, to say that he had never taken up a position out of a hostile personal motive or being prompted by spite. He insists, in fact, in language that is astounding to read that anyone who is his enemy feels this way about him because they oppose the good of the church and they hate godly teaching. This is Calvin. This is the prophet; the one to whom the mantle of Elijah had been passed.
The natural question to ask at this point is whether Calvin believed that his writings should be added to the canon of Scripture? It might seem only logical, according to what I’m arguing, that he did. However it would, of course, be extremely difficult to justify such a claim. But I don’t think that’s all that can be said on the question. For there is a logic to the idea that not only Calvin but also Zwingli, Luther, Knox, and others who believed themselves raised up as prophets might have thought this. There are, moreover, numerous vocational, temperamental, theological, strategic, psychological, doctrinal, and relational reasons that would need to be taken into account before drawing a conclusion one way or the other on the question. I don’t put it out of the realm of possibility that Calvin could have believed this, at least at some level. He did, after all, tell his fellow ministers on his death bed that they were to “change nothing,” suggesting that the foundation he had laid was perfect and, thus, that the repository representing that foundation—namely, his biblical commentaries, lectures, theological treatises, and magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion—should serve as the origin from which the Christian church was to be rebuilt. So I would not be utterly shocked if he did, in fact, believe that his oeuvre should be made part of the canon of Scripture. Unfortunately, we will never know.
Jon Balserak is currently Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Bristol. He is an historian of Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, particularly France and the Swiss Confederation. He also works on textual scholarship, electronic editing and digital editions. His latest book is John Calvin as Sixteenth Century Prophet (OUP, 2014).