Review: The Expository Genius of John CalvinMay 31, 2007
I love receiving books. But when someone sends me a book entitled “The Expository Genius of John Calvin” I’m verging on cartwheels. I am glad to say that having now read the book, I am no less enthusiastic.
So what has me so enthused about Steve Lawson’s latest offering? For the full answer, I’ll organize my reflections into four sections: i) the content, ii) the book’s commendable aspects, iii) some minor criticisms, before finally iv) my recommendation.
The book itself is the first installment of the proposed series: “A Long Line of Godly Men.” In due course, the plan is to cover other Christian worthies such as Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards and Charles H. Spurgeon. But here the focus is John Calvin.
While we associate this Reformer most closely with the city of Geneva and his massive tome “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”, here the spotlight falls upon Calvin’s preaching. Lawson’s goal is to consider “the distinguishing marks of his [Calvin's] pulpit ministry… the core presuppositions that undergirded his biblical preaching, and …his personal preparation for preaching. In short, we will explore the distinguishing marks of Calvin’s expository genius.” (xiii)
In order to do this, Lawson begins with a helpful historical sketch of Calvin’s life and ministry. Next, he covers six broad sections that describe the Reformer’s preaching: Approaching the Pulpit (ch 2) deals with Calvin’s key theological pre-commitments, whilst Preparing the Preacher (ch 3) touches on his broader spiritual development, which inevitably enriched his preaching. The chapters Launching the Sermon (ch 4), Expounding the Text (ch 5), Crafting the Delivery (ch 6), Applying the Truth (ch7) and Concluding the Exposition (ch 8), then walk us chronologically through some specific aspects of Calvin’s preaching style.
Within these six chapters, Lawson pulls out thirty two distinctives of Calvin’s preaching. To give but a few examples: Calvin’s “sequential exposition” (#4), “direct beginnings” (#8), “literal interpretation” (#14), “provocative questions” (#20), and “succinct summation” (#30). Coverage of these distinctives vary somewhat in length, but are all relatively short summaries. Helpfully, they are replete with specific illustrations of the given point, drawn from Calvin’s sermons.
The closing chapter is both a passionate call to the church and a prayerful plea to God. May preachers of the Calvin variety once again arise in our day. No preacher could read these three short pages without getting tingles down their spine!
ii) Commendable Aspects
There are many positives about this book, but I’ll limit myself to three. First, Lawson’s style will be an easy read for historians, pastors and layman alike. Lawson has aimed for an eminently readable treatment of the subject and he has certainly achieved it. Added to this, the brevity of the book (136 pages) means that it can be easily read at two or three sittings.
Second, the book balances well both the presuppositions that underpinned Calvin’s preaching (eg. his commitment to the sole authority of Scripture), and the methodology of his preaching method. It is quite common to read a book on preaching full of practical insights into sermon prep, with nothing said about the preacher’s view of the bible. But if the latter is wrong, arguably the former is inconsequential. On the other hand, it is possible to deal with a preachers theological pre-commitments, to the virtual exclusion of discussing his practical method. Lawson steers a middle course. Calvin’s preaching is presented in practical terms, but not as a shallow pragmatism rooted in the thin topsoil of theological error.
Thirdly, the very nature of the book (with 32 distinctives) means that it can easily be used as regularly consulted text book. One thought I had for future use was that this could read by a preaching pastor – or his team -over 32 weeks. What value there would be in considering one distinctive every week as a spur to discussing one’s own preaching.
There’s very little about this book of which one could speak critically. In fact, any minor quibble that I have relates only to the chosen genre, and so can hardly be classed as a legitimate gripe. For example, one could suggest that the book has something of an ‘introductory feel’, that it covers many aspects of Calvin’s preaching but to a fairly shallow degree. But Lawson’s work was never intended to be such a penetrating volume. This does mean however that there are places where you wish more had been said than the one tantalizing page before you!
In a similar fashion, there were places were I longed for a more critical interaction with some of Calvin’s methods, but didn’t find it forthcoming. One instance of this is the author’s treatment of Distinctive No.23: Unspoken outline. This made the point that Calvin did not fashion his sermons according to a logical outline .i.e. he did not use first, second, third points, nor alliterative headings. Knowing that Lawson himself uses a very structured approach when preaching (including alliterative headings!) I expected some comment on the relative merits of this. But Lawson simply comments that despite his lack of obvious structure Calvin was “hardly unprepared” and his “message was organized with great detail in his brilliant mind.” Probably, however, such engagement was beyond the scope of this short volume.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give to this book is that by the end of it, I understood a great deal more of Calvin’s preaching style, and was left hungry to learn more. I think this was precisely Lawson’s intention.
However, this book achieves much more than introducing us to Calvin’s preaching. In many ways, it commends the expository approach to preaching which we should all broadly welcome. Moreover, through John Calvin, Lawson displays a living, breathing embodiment of the approach that we should aspire to, even if we will not reach always reach it.
It is Lawson’s passionate intention to promote expository preaching today that transforms this historical study into an inspiring contemporary call to modern preachers. The book’s final sentences convey that passion:
“We do want Calvin’s again. We must have Calvin’s again. And, by God’s grace, we shall see them raised up again in this hour. May the head of the church give us again an army of biblical expositors, men of God sold out for new Reformation. Soli Deo Gloria.”
Amen, we say.