Calvin’s Theology of Pastoral Care

How did Calvin understand pastoral care?

How did Calvin understand pastoral care?1 There are different ways to approach this question.2 I shall take the following text as representative of his understanding. It is from Calvin’s commentary on John 10, which he takes to be dealing with the office of pastor.

Christ had earlier called himself the door, and said that those who bring sheep to this door are true shepherds. Now he himself assumes the role of shepherd, and indeed affirms that he is the only shepherd, for unto no one else does this honor and title properly belong. Because it is he who raises up faithful shepherds for the church, equips them with the necessary gifts, governs them by his spirit and works by them, they do not stop him from being the only governor of his church or from ruling as the only shepherd. For although he makes use of their ministry, he does not cease to fulfill and discharge the office of a shepherd by his own power. And they are masters and teachers in such a way as not to derogate from his mastership. In short, when the word shepherd is applied to men, it is used, as they say, in a subordinate sense; and Christ so communicates his honor to his ministers that he still remains the only shepherd of them and of the whole flock.3

This text contains the main elements of Calvin’s theology of pastoral care. That theology can be succinctly stated and is starkly obvious—though its implications were extensive in his day and are today. Calvin’s theology of pastoral care is what the church must teach and do about these facts: (a) that Christ is the pastor who cares for those whom he joins to himself by the bond of the Spirit, (b) that this one pastor accommodates himself to govern through humans who are called pastors in so far as they are servants of his Word, and (c) that the wholeness which is the scope of this pastoral care is the freedom of those whom Christ more and more unites to himself until he is finally one with them.

Accordingly, let us consider, first, Calvin’s view of Christ as pastor, second, Calvin’s view of how Christ exercises his office though humans, and, third, Calvin’s view of what constitutes the wholeness which is the aim of Christ’s pastoral care through his agents. Finally, I will suggest some implications of Calvin’s theology for defining and practicing pastoral care today.

The One Pastor

One of Calvin’s most explicit definitions of what, strictly speaking, is meant by pastoral care comes from his commentary on John 10 and 21. Both passages were and are loaded with freight in the history of interpretation that focuses on the right exercise of authority in the church and therefore on the identity of the true church. This is no minor point when it comes to Calvin’s theology of pastoral care, for as we shall see, it is ultimately impossible to speak of the wholeness which is the aim of pastoral care apart from the content of life together in the body of believers though there may be many penultimate and extra ecclesial anticipations of this wholeness. Moreover, it is no minor point that the voice of Christ, the only shepherd, is heard and learned and recognized and followed within the company of others who by grace hear and follow that voice and resist following other voices. This ecclesiological context of the Christological specificity of Calvin’s theology of pastoral care is succinctly put in his commentary on John 10:1:

In my opinion, those who scrutinize every part of this parable very closely are wasting their time. Let us be content with the general view that Christ likens the Church to a sheepfold in which God assembles his people, and compares himself to the door, since he is the only entrance way into the Church. It follows from this that they alone are good shepherds who lead men straight to Christ; and that they are truly gathered into God’s fold and reckoned his flock who give themselves to Christ alone. … If the so-called shepherds try to lead us away from Christ, we should flee from them, as Christ tells us, as if they were wolves or thieves; and we ought not to join or to stay in any society save that which is agreed in the pure faith of the gospel.4

It is striking that Calvin sums up the office of pastor under the function of governing.5 Governance is what a shepherd is about,6 and there are three aspects of it: (1) leading the flock in the right direction, (2) defending the flock from the wolves and false shepherds, and (3) nourishing the flock. That person alone is able to fulfill the office of shepherd who is willing to risk his or her life for the flock. It is because of the love which the shepherd has for the flock that this governance in all its forms takes place. The shepherd’s love is such that the sheep recognize they are loved by this one; that causes them to trust the shepherd to lead, protect, and feed them. That is what it means to hear and know the shepherd’s voice, to be governed by him or her because the flock knows that it is to that one that they belong. Calvin’s warning against pushing the imagery too far is well taken. At least, however, there is a realism to his way of understanding the pastor’s office which contrasts sharply with bucolic tapestries of fields where sheep always safely graze. We shall say more about this later. Here, however, we need to note the significance of making governance the summary office of the pastor.

Whatever else pastoral care may be, it is centrally a matter of Christ’s making his voice to be heard so that persons are led, protected, and fed by the one to whom they already belong. This has far-reaching implications for what is meant by the wholeness which is the aim of such pastoral care. Health is a matter of growth in the assurance that we already belong to the one whose love constrains us and frees us. Growth is the joyful discipline of more and more hearing the voice which alone is to be trusted and obeyed in life and death; and that includes paying less and less attention to other voices which are nothing more than stubborn hallucinations about oneself, about others, and about God.

Men and women engage in pastoral care when they enable men and women to hear and trust Christ’s voice and not their own voices or the voices of others as saying the first or last word to or about themselves. The techniques, skills, pharmacology, social work, economic and political betterment, diagnostic expertise, individual and group therapy, trans-generational mapping, as well as theological reflection, all are goods of this world,7 which, when rightly used, are instruments for helping persons discern which voices are being heard and lived by and how that effects their lives.

What makes their use in pastoral care remains the same as what Calvin discerned it to be without any knowledge of the providential development of these disciplines, namely, that of freeing persons in Christ’s own governance of leading, protecting, and feeding. That is why the assertion, “outside the church there is no salvation” is not a warning but a tautology. Church is exactly the context in which the true Shepherd’s voice is heard above all other voices, and salvation is growth in the life together of those who are freed for service by hearing that singular voice above all others.

The Subaltern Shepherds

The connection between the one pastor of the church and the many pastors is an instrumental one, not the juxtaposition of the one and the many. There is one who is pastor and he exercises that office by accommodating himself to use men and women who thereby become––in usu, in the actions of proclamation and teaching in their various forms8––nothing less that spokespersons of Christ, oracles of Christ, mouthpieces of Christ.9 Calvin is full of woes for those who make being a pastor something other than this, and he is even more so full of encouragement for those who carry on their work of attending to and re-speaking as faithfully and clearly and persuasively as possible the Word of the singular Pastor.

John’s Gospel abounds with mixed metaphors, like Christ being the door to the sheepfold and being the Shepherd. There is another mixed metaphor which Calvin notes and which he says is inherent in identifying Christ as the sole Pastor. It is that he is both the Shepherd who leads the sheep to food and the food––the pastor and the pasturage––on which they feed and grow. It is an interesting question how much this is intended by the writer of the Gospel of John and how much is supplied by the history of interpretation in which Calvin stood. At any rate, Calvin carries over what Christ says in John 6 about being the bread of the world to what Christ says in John 21 about feeding his sheep through true pastors. According to Calvin, chapter 10 of John shows us why properly speaking Christ is the only pastor of the church.

It is because he governs his sheep by the teaching of salvation and so feeds them, for he is the only true food of the soul. But since he uses men’s own work in preaching the gospel, he gives them also his own name, or at least, shares it with them. Therefore, they only are regarded as pastors in the sight of God who, under Christ their head, preside over the church by the ministry of the Word.10

What finally motivates––motivates, not equips––those whom Christ uses as pastors is the love of Christ. By the love of Christ, Calvin means Christ’s love of his people, and the resultant love which his people have for Christ and for each other.11 That is one thing which may be so presupposed as to be neglected: it is fundamentally because of their love of Christ that persons they function as good pastors.

Those called to govern the church should therefore remember that if they want to discharge their office truly and properly, they must start off from the love of Christ. Meanwhile, Christ testifies clearly how highly he places our salvation when he commends it so carefully to pastors. And he asserts that he will be greatly loved by them if they seriously care for it. Indeed, nothing more efficacious could have been said for encouraging ministers of the gospel, than when they hear that the service most agreeable to Christ is that which is expended on feeding his flock. All the godly should receive no ordinary consolation when they hear that they are so dear and precious to the Son of God that he substitutes the pastors as if it were in his place. But the same doctrine should also greatly frighten false teachers, who pervert the government of the church. For Christ declares that he is dishonored by them and will give them a dreadful punishment.12 The Benefits of Pastoral Care

Here the focus is not on what the results would be if people should receive proper pastoral care, and surely the focus is not on what their condition would be without it. For Calvin both these questions are too hypothetical to dwell on, though he says something about each. The focus is on the condition in which those are growing whom Christ has already, actually, really united to himself and really already, actually leads, protects and feeds. The reason for this is that hearing and following the one Pastor’s voice is what it means to have faith, faith which itself is a response to that voice. The one whose voice is heard and obeyed in faith is the one united to us. The wholeness which results from pastoral care is the assurance that this is surely so. Growth in the active practice of the assurance of our salvation is the aim of pastoral care.

Central to Calvin’s theology of pastoral care is his understanding of the mystical union of Christ. It is, of course, central not just to Calvin’s theology of pastoral care, but is a doctrine one cannot ignore if one is to understand fully other aspects of Calvin’s theology.13 Obviously there was a rich tradition which spoke of the mystical union of Christ, and meant quite a wide range of things by that. It is worth reminding ourselves, therefore, of the characteristic way Calvin speaks of it in the familiar passage of the Institutes 2.2.24.

The assurance of salvation is not derived from considering our works or our faith: that is clear. When it comes to that assurance we are to look to Christ and the truth of his promises. However, for Calvin looking to Christ also includes seeing ourselves united to Christ, also includes knowing ourselves members of his body, also includes considering ourselves as those to whom Christ is daily growing more and more one with. On this point Calvin differs from those whose position at first sounds like his own:

They so place the conscience between hope and fear that now it moves in one direction and now another. They see hope and fear related in such a way that when the one is up, it completely extinguishes the other, and when it is the other’s turn it does the same. … Their contention is, if you look upon Christ there is sure salvation, if you turn back to yourself there is sure damnation. As indeed we ought to consider Christ remaining apart from us instead of living within us!

It is entirely hypothetical for those who have already been united to Christ to consider first Christ and then themselves, and so to swing back and forth between hope and fear.

The reason we hope for salvation from him [Christ] is not because he appears afar off, but because, having engrafted us into his body, he makes us participants not only in his benefits but also in himself. … Since Christ has been communicated to us with all his benefits, so that what is his has been made ours and we are made members of him and made one with him, his justice covers our sins, his salvation wipes out our damnation, his worthiness interposes itself so that our unworthiness does not come before the face of God. This is for sure: we ought neither to separate Christ from ourselves nor ourselves from him, but with both hands hold fast to that fellowship by which he has bound us to himself. … Not only by an inseparable bond of fellowship does he hold fast to us, by a certain marvelous communion he daily grows more and more with us into one body, until he finally makes himself one with us.14

Faith does not create that union but grasps it and practices its benefits. The voice of the one Pastor through several pastors leads, feeds, and protects those who already belong to and participate in Christ as members of his body by the freeing bond of the Holy Spirit. What pastoral care does is to reinforce persons in that already established, ultimately irreversible identity by continually calling them to repentance and assuring them of pardon and empowering them thereby to walk in newness of life by focusing on the truth of the freely given promises given in Christ. The active knowledge in which they grow is that of God’s benevolence, not just God’s benevolence to other creatures and other persons but God’s benevolence to themselves.

That saving knowledge is the same as having the conscience freed by the gospel, or to put it another way, it is knowing God and self with a good conscience. The pastor’s voice is what is heard in the forum of the conscience, and it displaces, drowns out, both the complacent silence of the hardened conscience and the strident condemnation of the bad conscience.15

This entails as perpetual correction, daily mortification and vivification, away from a cold or speculative knowing something about God and it involves a daily shift, a daily mortification and vivification, away from an affective, fervent but false conviction that God is not benevolent to one’s self. The saving knowledge of God entails, inherently contains, a corrected self-knowledge. It involves a daily shift away from complacent ignorance about the extent of one’s sinful condition and sins. But it also involves a daily shift away from becoming fixated on the conviction of one’s sin and speculation about whether or not one is forgiven. That shift away is a shift to the good news which displaces the bad news. This positive shift is the sana cognition––the healthy, whole, healed knowledge––of self as freed for the new life together in Christ and therefore from the bondage of sin and death and the devil. The particular form of health which is the special focus of pastoral care is this active, affective, inclusive, converted knowledge of God and of self. It is health as the active comfort,16 in the midst of the most devastating external and internal crises, of belonging not to oneself but to Christ. It is the comfort of the fact that one belongs to Christ, from which fact is derived the comfort of knowing that one belongs to Christ. The comfort includes knowing; but what we know to be true is a prior, irreversible fact. When we forget, when we distrust, when we despair of our primary belonging, we do not thereby cease to belong to the one who has claimed us and will not let us go. Our salvation is not like Auden’s “kitchen table which exists because I scrub it!”17

Faith is informed trust which practices the wholeness of Christian freedom in all its parts, in every area of life. Faith is not a substitute for wholeness of soul and body, not a substitute for the restoration of right relationships and growth in them. Nor is wholeness a finished product in this life; wholeness is exactly the growth in life together in Christ in the midst of the most pressing difficulties, the most appalling failures, the most crushing melancholy, the greatest temptations to despair ––and in the midst of the most joyous, victorious, patent enjoyment of the goodness of creation and redemption.

Calvin’s treatment of Christian freedom, in the Institutes 3.19, has rather evident, pastoral significance on this point. One of the benefits of pastoral care is that people grow in the realization that their righteousness is completely freely given, and they do not live under the servile fear of doing works in order to earn acceptance or to avoid alternative dire consequences. Another benefit is that people grow in distinguishing between the few things which are essential and the vast number of things which are matters of indifference. And a third benefit of pastoral care which continually frees the conscience by the assurance of pardon is that people are enabled to grow in the practice of the law.

A further word about the third use of the law in relation to Calvin’s theology of pastoral care is necessary if we are not miss one of the strongest and most relevant parts of his insight. Christian freedom in all its parts is indeed a summary of the wholeness which is the aim of pastoral care. But it is more: Christian freedom is also the way the humans chosen to be pastors do their work. The several pastors’ care becomes otherwise works righteousness, they begin to take their own gifts and personalities and moods as essentials rather than as indifferent things, and they suffer from shrinking pastoral care to inter- and intra-personal adjustment. That is really the issue of the third use of the law: not just that individuals are freed by grace to be better obeyers of the decalogue (which is also true), but that the wholeness which forgiven sinners are freed to grow in is social both in its nurturing context and in the extent of its transforming range.18

Pastoral care is governance by attending to Christ’s voice which governs by leading, protecting and feeding on himself––those whom Christ has united to himself. It belongs to the humanly office of pastoral care, which, remember, is one of governing in response to and by the Word of Christ, to grow in the practice of the decalogue. That is why social reform is not an addition to pastoral care but integral to it. It is part of the governance for wholeness which is the pastor’s office.19 That, inci-dentally, is why Calvin’s own international leadership to an increasing refugee movement20 and his own local social humanism are of a whole cloth with his own functioning in the explicit, direct offices of teacher and preacher and minister of the sacraments. To say that social reform belongs to pastoral care may sound strange to modern ears. But that is mainly because of a wider development which is individual centered.

We have become accustomed to thinking of pastoral care as focusing on one aspect of the total ministry, that aspect which mainly has to do with the individual’s condition (whether defined in terms primarily borrowed from the behavioral sciences, or whether defined in terms of confession and regeneration). That aspect is of course included in Calvin’s theology of pastoral care, as we have just seen. But for Calvin, that aspect is part of the larger whole of the life together of believers who are co-members of the body of Christ whose wholeness is blessedness and whose blessedness includes costly discipleship in this world. Blessedness includes profound joy. Blessedness even sometimes includes happiness as the world recognizes it––but often it does not. Blessedness is not a sub-category of happiness or pragmatic adjustment or success.

Some Implications for Pastoral Care Today

There are some discernible vectors to Calvin’s theology of pastoral care for the contemporary discussion and practice of pastoral care.

First, it recalls us to the fact that pastoral care is first and foremost a matter of life together in the body of Christ over which and through which Christ himself is the active agent by his Word and Spirit. What goes on in the dynamics of pastoral care is ultimately Christ at work through those chosen, equipped, and used as his subordinate, vicarious agents.

Second, it recalls us to a correlative fact: that the single, focused office of the pastor is to hear and re-speak the voice of Christ. That office is immensely complex and demanding, and obviously quite impossible except by, and exclusively by, trusting in the promises of Christ. Such focused trust includes the confidence and boldness of being assured that the voice of the one pastor, Christ, will in fact be heard and obeyed in life and in death.

Third, Calvin’s theology reminds us that pastoral care is a matter of welcoming others as Christ has welcomed us. Pastoral care is exercised by communicating, through preaching and sacraments and discipline, the voice of the one pastor, which a person has himself or herself heard and so can re-announce. Jung observed the closest possible connection between accepting forgiveness and conveying it; that means pastors must also proclaim the gospel to those nearest neighbors who are most resistant to hearing it, namely themselves.21

Pastoral care is doing what comes naturally to those who extend to others the demands and the assurance of the gospel. It involves more than a good heart and laudable intention. It entails expertise, skill in diagnosis and treatment, whose acquisition and practice are expressions of one’s Christian freedom. We are committed to expert care for others, and we allow ourselves to be expertly cared for by others, because we are freed to actualize Christ’s wholeness in every area of life. In pastoral care, one practices what it means to be freed from status based on the mountain of one’s (or one’s family’s or social class’s or nation’s or gender’s, etc.) accomplishments or failures, freed to consider the wholeness of life envisioned in the decalogue, and freed to be indifferent about nonessentials.

Fourth, pastoral care is a contextual discipline of co-membership in the body of Christ. The pastor and the persons being cared for engage in a reciprocal ministry enabled by the way the gospel’s demands and assurances are heard and lived in successive contexts. This contextualization is really a matter of the fidelity of Christ’s promises. Christ, the one pastor, accommodates himself so that it remains his voice that is heard, trusted and obeyed. This is another way of saying that the Word and the Spirit are never separated. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel takes root in people’s lives with healing particularity, becomes vital for them with person-by-person and season-by-season and institution-by-institution specificity.

Fifth, the actions of pastoral care through the ordinary means of grace––preaching, sacraments, prayer––are not to be divorced from other ways the pastor responds to and communicates the gospel, including social reform and church administration. Pastoral care as governance by the Word through guidance, protection and nourishment cannot be separated from the commonweal for which the pastor also has a responsibility as part of his and her exercise of Christian freedom. The wholeness that comes about through pastoral care (and remember, that means Christ’s care through those whom he chooses and equips) includes people’s social, economic, political, medical, and aesthetic well-being, and so forth. The wholeness of the people of God entails all the areas of life covered by the decalogue.

Sixth, it means that the called and equipped vicarious pastors are those whose Christian life includes the right use of the goods of this world and deployment of resources according to the imagery of the body whose various parts are mutually helpful to the health of the whole. This means that the God whom we know from the gospel to trust is the one who also works through other than ecclesial structures and through other than believers. The reality rightly understood and made explicit by the gospel is often previously experienced penultimately, partially, and indirectly. Advances in research, skills, technical equipment, specializations, pharmaceutics, and so on, are to be critically (n.b., critically) and gratefully welcomed as ways God is also at work healing persons.

The specific office of pastoral care does not presume to duplicate these, much less engage in them with religious intent but dilettante incompetence. Clearly God also works through psychological counseling and through psychiatry. While a pastor is grateful for the insights and skills these make available for the pastoral contextualiza-tion of the gospel, he or she does not confuse pastoral care with psychological counseling much less with psychiatric treatment. There is a difference between pastoral care, and psychological counseling done by clergy or done with the use of religious categories; both are needed, but they are not the same thing.

The distinctive feature of pastoral care is its focus on the wholeness that comes about through the forgiveness of sins how that fundamental reorientation affects every area of life. Pastoral care has explicitly to do with sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection so we may walk in newness of life. There is timing and variety to pastoral care as there is to every skilled caring; but eventually, sooner or later, in pastoral care the participants get around to the freely offered new being which is co-membership in the body of Christ.

This is a slightly revised version of an address delivered at the Sixth Colloquium on Calvin Studies at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, Davidson, North Carolina, on Jan. 17, 1992, and printed in Calvin Studies VI, ed. John Leith, 137–146.


Dr David E. Willis was the Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and a premier Calvin scholar. He died on Nov. 23, 2014.


1 At one level this seems an obvious topic which should pose little problem for method of study. There lurks behind this seemingly obvious topic, however, a perilous anachronism.

2 E.g., W. Kolfhaus, Die Seelsorge Johannes Calvins, Neukirchen, B. V. Erziehungsvereins, 1941; J.-D. Benoit, Calvin, Directeur d’Ames (Strasbourg: Oberlin, 1947); L. Schummer, Le ministere pastoral dans l’Institution Chretienne de Calvin a la lumiere du troisieme sacrament (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1965); B. Armstrong, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Calvin’s Teaching on the Ministry,” in P. de Klerk, ed., Calvin and the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1989), 99-111) and “The Pastoral Office in Calvin and Pierre du Moulin,” in W. van’t Spijker, Calvin: Erbe und Auftrag (Kampen: Kok, 1991), 157-167; Han Chul-Ha, “Theology of Ministry in John Calvin,” op. cit. van’t Spijker, 95-105; A. Ganoczy, Calvin, thologien de l’eglise et du ministere (Paris, 1964); W. Dankbaar, “L’Office des docteurs chez Calvin,” in Regards contemporains sur Jean Calvin (Strasbourg Colloque sur Calvin, 1964), Paris, 1965; R. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament (Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1953).

3 Comm. on John 10:10. John Calvin, The Gospel According to St. John, trans. T.H.L. Parker (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), 263.

4 Comm. John 10:1. Parker trans., 259; OS, 47:236–237.

5 On this also see B. Armstrong, “Pastoral Office” in van’t Spijker, op. cit., 162.

6 The relation between governance and being a shepherd is reciprocal, mutually defining and mutually correcting, as Calvin increasingly uses those terms. He prophetically reinterprets the title of king, largely through his, Calvin’s, manner of interpreting the Psalms and 1 and 2 Samuel, See D. Willis, “Calvin’s Prophetic Reinterpretation of Kingship,” in E. McKee and B. Armstrong, eds., Probing the Reformed Tradition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1989), 116–134. Although in commenting on John 10 and John 21, Calvin is speaking of the governance of the church, the criteria he discerns for Christian magistrates are also set forth in the ideal of the Shepherd ruler.

7 Cf. Calvin’s treatment of that part of the Christian life which is the right use of the goods of this world, Institutes 3.10. See J. Leith, ch. 5 of From Generation to Generation op. cit., and J. de Gruchy, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987). The resources available for the contemporary exercise of this office are plentiful.

8 Especially the ordinary means of grace, preaching, sacraments and prayer, for which see R. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament, op. cit. Compare chapter 13 of the Tetrapolitan Confession of 1530, in A.C. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 69-70.

9 Cf. Institutes 4.1.5, and Comm. on 2 Cor. 4:5.

10 Comm. John 21:15. Trans. T.H.L. Parker, vol. 2, 219; OC 47:252.

11 “For though he [Paul, in 2 Cor. 5:14] means that love with which Christ has loved us and of which he has given us a proof by his death, yet he connects with us that mutual love which springs from the conviction of having received so great a blessing.” Comm, on John 10:15.

12 Comm. John 21:15. Trans. T.H.L. Parker, vol. 2, 219; OS 47: 452.

13 See W. Kolfhaus, Christusgemeinschaft bei Johannes Calvin, Neukirchen, Kr. Moers, 1939; W. Niesel, The Theology of Calvin (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), esp. ch. 9; F, Wendel, Calvin (New York: Harper, 1963), 234-242; W. Krusche, Das Wirken des Heiligen Geistes nach Calvin (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1957), esp. 265-272; David Willis, “The Unio Mystica and the Assurance of Faith According to Calvin,” in van’t Spijker, Calvin: Erbe und Auftrag (Kampen: Koch, 1991), 77-84; W. van’t Spijker, “Extra nos’ and ‘in nobisby Calvin in a Pneumatological Light,” in P. de Klerk, ed., Calvin and the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Calvin Study Society, 1987); C. Partee, “Calvin’s Central Dogma Again,” in J. Leith, ed., Calvin Studies: Papers of the 1986 Davidson Colloquium, Richmond, 39-46.

14 0S 4, 35; CIB 3, 42-43. Cf. CIM, 570-571.

15 Cf. Institutes 1.3.2; 2.2.22–24; 3.19.16; et passim, including Comm. on Rom 2:14.

16 Cf. the way the opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism deals with this active trust.

17 From Auden’s “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.”

18 The third use of the law is part of Christian freedom because of the all-important preface to the decalogue. The people are granted an identity because of the identity of the God who claims them. Were it not for this preface, the third use of the law would simply become a particularly disastrous new form of legalism, guiltocracy, and schismatic works-righteousness. Indeed, there were times in the history of the Reformed churches when the third use of the law malfunctioned in the form of a syllogismus practicus bereft of Christological focus and content. The point, however, is that the life of those who belong to this God takes place in concrete, specific acts and structures which exist for the sake of the well-being of all the whole people (and not just for people, for there are elaborate provisions also made for other creatures). Hence the weight Calvin––and Reformed catechisms and confessions––give to the positive end for which each commandment is given. Think, for example, of the emphases these documents place on the positive provisions intended by the commandments not to steal, not to bear false witness, not to commit adultery, not to covet.

19 See J. de Gruchy, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis, op. cit., esp. chs. 2 and 3; J. Leith, From Generation to Generation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), esp. ch. 5, “Pastoral Care,” and Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (Atlanta: John Knox, 1977), 137–162; W. Bouwsma, John Calvin (New York: Oxford, 1988), ch. 13; W. F. Graham, The Constructive Revolutionary (Richmond: John Knox, 1972), chs. 6-8; E. McKee, John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving (Geneva: Droz, 1984), R. Kingdon, “Calvin and the Government of Geneva,” in W. Neuser, ed., Calvinus Ecclesiae Genevensis Custos (Frankfort: Lang, 1984), 49-67; H. Hoepfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge: University Press, 1982).

20 See Benoit, Calvin, Directeur d’ Ames, chs. 2,5, and 8; R. Wallace, Calvin, Geneva and the Reformation (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1988).

21 “What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the offenders, the very enemy himself-that these all are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness that I myself is the enemy that must be loved— what then?” Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1933), 271–272, cited in M. France, The Paradox of Guilt (Philadelphia: United Church, 1967), 22.   

Avatar
David E. Willis
Dr David E. Willis was the Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and a premier Calvin scholar. He died on Nov. 23, 2014.

BE INFORMED. STAY UP TO DATE.

Don't miss out on the latest articles and opportunities from Theology Matters.

Related Articles

Two Views of Marriage

The church’s historic understanding of marriage may be the foremost doctrine under fire at the 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian...

Suffering Redeemed: A Reformed Argument Against Physician Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia

Through the despair and agony of life’s final moments, God’s command, “Thou may live,” resounds in the mind and heart of those flirting with ending their own lives. “The suicidal person hears this command as a light piercing the darkness, not as a command that she must live but as the good news that she is permitted, enabled, to live by God’s grace.”

Falling Short of the Solas

Almost five hundred years ago, Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms and declared, “Here I stand, I can do no...

A Reforming Recommendation

The year 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Half a millennium has passed since Luther nailed his 95 Theses...

Returning to the Basics

Sixty miles or so from where I live there is a mountain popular among rock climbers––Stalamus Chief. It presents itself as a...

HAS OUR CONTENT MADE AN IMPACT ON YOU?

Please consider making a tax-free donation to Theology Matters so we can continue our mission to equip the Christian community.