John Calvin: Christian Scholar and Reluctant, yet Faithful, Pastor

John Calvin recognized early on in his Christian life that his gifts and skills were that of a scholar and author rather than an active reformation leader or pastor. Thus, one of the most significant aspects about his life was his ability to systematize protestant theology through writing. His Institutes of the Christian Religion played a major role in the furtherance of protestant theology during the reformation.

Another significant aspect of Calvin’s life was his availability for kingdom ministry. Calvin knew that he was more equipped to be a scholar and author and was reluctant to take on any ministerial roles. In fact, he declined such roles on numerous occasions, but when he experienced the Holy Spirit’s call to certain ministerial work, he submitted and served the church as a pastor. On one such occasion he was on his way to a comfortable life as a writer in Strasbourg, but he was detoured on his trip and landed in Geneva. He had planned on staying in Geneva for a day and then continue on to Strasbourg; however, after he had an encounter with a leader named Farel, who challenged Calvin to stay and pastor those in Geneva, Calvin had a change of heart and decided to stay in Geneva and help the protestant movement. Eventually he left Geneva and made it Strasbourg where he planned on fulfilling his original intentions to settle as a writer, but once again, a leader, named Bucer, recruited Calvin to the pastorate, and Calvin agreed and became the pastor in Strasbourg.[1]

This aspect of Calvin’s life should be emphasized because Calvin could have stuck his heels in the ground and refused to do anything other than scholarly writing, but he had an available heart before the Lord when things were coming together for him to step into pastoral ministry. It was not easy for Calvin to detour from his plan of a quiet life as a writer, but I imagine that he recognized that God was leading him in different directions, and so he needed to follow God rather than pursue his own ambitious plans.  

[1] Justo L.González, The Story of Christianity: Vol.2 Reformation to the Present Day, Rev. and Updated, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), EPUB edition, pt. 1, ch. 7, “The Reformer of Geneva.” 

Luther and His Confessor

A significant element in Martin Luther’s life was his relationship with his confessor and priestly superior. As a spiritual advisor, Luther’s confessor had helped him during his spiritual and theological struggles by suggesting that Luther read the writings of the medieval mystics. Through the reading of the mystics, Luther experienced some liberation by adopting the mystic ethos of loving God. This enabled Luther to focus less on his internal struggles with sin and more on experiencing and reciprocating God’s love.

When Luther’s experience with the writings of the mystics had ran its course due to the re-emergence of his internal struggles with his past and with sin, his confessor did not give up on him but gave him further counsel. The confessor boldly and wisely ordered Luther to begin teaching the Scriptures at University of Wittenberg. The purpose of such an order was attached to the hope that if Luther began teaching and pastoring others, then he would be able to break away from his internal struggles. Thus, Luther began to teach the scriptures which eventually led him to lecture on the Epistle of Romans. At this point, the Holy Spirit pressed upon Luther Romans 1:17 which changed his perspective and life. He was set free by the truth of the redeeming gospel that “justification by faith” is a free gift from God to sinners. With his new perspective on the gospel and his new experience of God, Luther subtly began his new reforming mission.

This part of Luther’s life should be reflected on because it is an incredible picture of the drama of redemption and the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of God’s storied people. God has acted through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit ministers and leads people to enter into the redemptive drama where people are liberated from sin, torment and death. The Holy Spirit opens people’s hearts and minds in order to understand God’s salvation. As the Holy Spirit leads the body of Christ in their performance of the drama of redemption through loving and ministering to one another, people will experience the grace, mercy and peace of Jesus Christ.

The Rule of St. Benedict

The Rule of St. Benedict emphasized the Lord’s service by means of a cenobite monastic lifestyle which was lived within a community under the direction and rule of the Abbot.[1] Benedictine Monasticism was considered a western expression of the monastic movement and differed from its eastern counterpart in that people were formed within community with a practical mission in the world.[2] The Rule emphasized discipline, obedience, humility, stability and prayer “for the purpose of amending vices or preserving charity” in order that  “the heart becomes broadened, and, with the unutterable sweetness of love, the way of the mandates of the Lord is traversed.”[3] Furthermore, The Rule emphasized physical labor which not only sustained the monasteries but also produced goods that were used to help the poor or sick. The main elements of the Rule were communal structured prayer times, two communal meals per day, manual labor, sacred reading, community councils and communal sleeping corridors with designated sleeping times. Material items were for communal use, and so  Monks did not own anything and did not keep personal items. There was an initiation period that people had to undergo to become a monk, and once they were accepted as a monk they were committed for the remainder of their life. They were not free to leave the monastery or transition to another monastery.[4]

Benedictine Monasticism was an internally focused community with little contact with external society. They lived an extremely devoted, disciplined, structured and minimalist lifestyle for the sake of the kingdom of God. The Rule of St. Benedict developed monks that followed the spiritual rhythms of a less distracted life. Following Christ within a focused, committed and stable community was the emphasis. Prayers and intercessions for the world were continually lifted up to God. Love for one another was daily expressed, cultivated and matured. Gifts, skills and talents were used to serve the monastic community or the poor or the sick of society. People from the cities visited the monasteries to learn how to live a different life marked by love and devotion within community.


[2] Justo L.González, The Story of Christianity, Rev. and Updated, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), EPUB edition, pt. 3, ch. 27, “Benedictine Monasticism. 



The Early Monastic Movement

The early monastic movement was mostly a response to the drastic changes taking place within the Christian church due to the rise of Constantine and the implementation of his new religious policies. The new position of the Christian church under Constantine was that of power and prestige. People were greedy for monetary riches with the expectation of gaining more influence and position within the church. This type of aggressive reach for riches was the exact opposite of Jesus’ teachings about worldly treasures.

Moreover, as Christianity developed an elevated status of priority over the Greco-Roman religions within the Empire, people by the thousands were pursuing entrance into the newly advantaged Christian faith. Throughout the past, becoming a Christian was an extremely costly decision with life and death implications, but in the new Empire supported Christianity, there was a sense of easiness or shallowness to becoming a Christian. In a way, Christianity became the new Empire supported socio-religious program rather than a “Jesus is Lord” discipleship movement.

In view of these changes, many Christians believed that the church had been seduced with security and comfort and was caught in the snare of Satan. Many recognized the unfaithfulness and sinfulness of the church, and so they decided ‘to flee from human society, to leave everything behind, to dominate the body and its passions, which gave way to temptations.”[1] The monstatic movement established itself in the desert where people lived in solitude in caves or other natural structures, and their lives were defined by silence, solitude, minimalism, simplicity, prayer, celibacy and purity. They pursued a distraction free life with the hope of experiencing more deeply the presence and holiness of Jesus.

A positive and strength of this movement was that it became a strong spiritual voice from the desert against the sin and corruption of the Imperial church. They were performing their part of the drama of redemption as witnesses to the gospel’s redeeming power from sin and corruption. The monastic communities taught a powerful lesson of laying aside every sin and hindrance that so easily ensnares people and of fixing their eyes on Jesus the source and perfecter of their faith (Heb 12:1-2).

A negative and weakness of this movement was that it became a form of escapism for some. Rather than stay within the Empire and minister within their everyday context, some may have given up and ran away to the desert communities. This would have been more of a self-preservation and self-focused decision rather than a calling by God. The church would have needed many of these Christians to stick around and become catechists to the new people coming into the church.   

[1] Justo L.González, The Story of Christianity, Rev. and Updated, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), EPUB edition, pt.2, ch. 15, “The Monastic Reaction.”

The Cappadocian Siblings and A Personal Reflection

During the Early Church period, an influential group was the Cappadocian siblings which included Macrina, Basil and Gregory (of Nyssa). Growing up, these three siblings had a strong Christian family foundation reaching back to their grandparents who endured under the Decian persecution. The siblings grew up to have significant ministry roles in the eastern church. Macrina played a major role in teaching and theologically influencing her brothers and others. Basil devoted himself to a monastic lifestyle and became the Father of Eastern monasticism because of his teachings and development of monastic orders and rules. He spent his life serving and advocating for the poor. Later in his life, he became a strong and influential bishop, even confronting powerful Roman officials. Gregory was known for the inner fire of his spirit which was evident through his writing. He played a significant role as a hesitant (preferring a contemplative lifestyle) bishop in the Council of Nicea and the Council of Constantinople.

While reflecting on this family, I began to compare Macrina with my little sister when I began my walk with Jesus. My sister was well grounded in her Christian school and in her youth group at church. She had a vibrant faith and a ‘joy of the Lord’ filled heart. At my first birthday after my conversion, my sister smiled when she and my parents gave me my first meaningful and engraved Bible. She was there at my baptism (and I am certain it was her idea to go cliff diving afterwards. She had a way of showing me how to live the new and abundant life). She was there at my first sermon to her youth group and at my first public testimony about God’s radical work in my life. This was probably a little embarrassing for her because I can attest that my public speaking skills needed some work, but she was always there with her spirit-filled eyes and smile offering encouragement and support. There were times when we and others would go out on the streets talking to people about Jesus and giving out warm clothes. We worshipped together, prayed together and maybe even did a biblical word study or two together. When I got serious about academics and theology, she was my inspiration because she was a high school scholar at the top of her class and a science olympian who was kicking butt. My sister has gone on to a very impactful neonatal nursing career, and so she continues to be an inspiration while using her life and gifts to serve and support others.

Like Basil and Gregory who received the encouragement and ministry from Macrina, I have received the blessings, inspiration and support from my little sister. God used the Cappadocian siblings in a powerful way for the furtherance of the gospel and the kingdom of God. Similarly, I boast in the Lord that in his compassion and grace he has used my sister and I for his glorious purposes.

Constantine and the Church

Prior to Constantine, the Roman Empire had a well established social and religious pecking order. The traditional Greco-Roman citizens and Greco-Roman religions were at the top and the Christians, who were traditionally viewed as annoying and deviant, were at the bottom. This socio-religious positioning led to the disdain and persecution of Christians throughout the centuries. However, as Constantine gained sole control of the Roman Empire, the socio-religious landscape began to drastically change. Constantine believed that the best move for restoring the Roman Empire to its ancient glory was by acknowledging the power of the Christian God and giving Christianity superior status.[1] Thus, Christians were no longer persecuted, and they became legitimate and advantaged citizens. This new positioning of Christianity did not abolish the traditional Greco-Roman religions, but it lessened their influence and relevance within the empire which contributed to the expansion of the gospel and of the Christian church.

This new order and relationship between the Roman Empire and the church had both positive and negative aspects. As for the positives, the Christian church had a chance to breathe and regroup from the centuries of persecution. This certainly would have given the Christians a chance to experience the joy of the Lord apart from the fear of persecution and death. They would have been able to reimagine hope and peace in Christ. Another positive is that the church had a chance to focus on other doctrinal issues that needed to be addressed. With more freedom to move within the empire, Christian leaders were able to meet at church councils in order to debate theological ideas and establish orthodoxy. Furthermore, Christians were able to establish themselves in physical churches which would enable them to better organize gospel ministry and establish kingdom of God beacons within the Empire.[2]

As for the negatives, the new “privileges, prestige and power now granted to church leaders soon led to acts of arrogance and even to corruption”[3] which initiated a slow compromise of and shift away from earlier Christian values and ethics. Moreover, Christians were seduced by the power of the Empire rather than focusing on a kingdom of God ethos. There was a distorted understanding of the relationship between worldly power and heavenly power. They falsely equated a worldly conquering empire with the rule and reign of the crucified, suffering servant. The new Christian emphasis on power, riches, prestige and comfort was antithetical to the life and ministry of Christ the King.

While I believe that Constantine played a major role in God’s sovereign plan to benefit the Christian Church during this era, I do think that many of the changes were detrimental to the development of the church throughout the following centuries and even into the present day. I believe that the detrimental aspects are due to the sin corruption of human hearts, but despite the human proclivity to mess things up, God still moved and worked all things together for the benefit of his church (Rom 8:28).      

[1] Justo L.González, The Story of Christianity, Rev. and Updated, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), EPUB edition, pt.2, ch. 13, “From Rome To Constantinople.” [2] González, The Story, EPUB edition, pt.2, ch. 13, “The Impact of the New Order.” [3] González, The Story, EPUB edition, pt.2, ch. 13, “The Impact of the New Order.”

Early Church Eschatology

Similar to the New Testament writers (a post for another day), the Early Church understood that they were living in the last days. For example, Ignatius wrote “these last times” (Gr. έσχατοι καιροί, Ign. Eph. 11.1) and that Jesus Christ “at the end appeared” (Gr. ἐν τέλει ἐφάνη, Ign. Magn. 6.1). Clement and Barnabas describe their present moment as “the last days” (Gr. ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμέρῶν, 2 Clem 14:2; Barn. 12:9; 16:5) and that Christians through Jesus have been given the firstfruits of the taste of things future (Gr. τῶν μελλόντων δοuς  ἀπαρχaς ἡμῖν γεύσεως, Barn. 1.7). Thus, the Apostolic Fathers followed the NT writers in the inaugurated aspect of the end times. In fact, some writers had such a heightened notion of inaugurated eschatology that they compared their present Christian experience to the blessings of the Garden of Eden (Diogn. 12), and possibly with this view, the “seer” in the Shepherd of Hermas even asks the question of whether “the consummation had already arrived” (Herm. Vis. 3.8.9).[1]

Also following the NT writers, the Early Church connected the latter-day new creation theme with their present Christian experience. Ignatius explained that Christ introduced “the newness of eternal life” (Ign. Eph. 19.3) by himself becoming a “new man” (Ign. Eph. 20.1) as a result of his resurrection.[2] According to the Early Church, resurrection occurs first spiritually in the present and is the means by which people enter into the new creation. This inaugurated resurrection of Christians is due to their participation with Christ’s resurrection (Ign. Magn. 9; Ign. Trall. 9.2. Cf. 1 Clem. 24.1; Pol. Phil. 2.2; Barn. 5.6-7).[3]

Furthermore, the Early Church had similar views as the NT writers regarding their present tribulation as a sign of the inaugurated last days. Barnabas refers to “the deception of the present age” (Gr. τnν πλάνην τοῦ νῦν καιροῦ, Barn. 4.1) and understands that the present vantage point is that people are living “in the age of lawlessness” (Gr. ἐν τῷ ἀνόμῳ καιρῷ, Barn, 4.9). The Shepherd of Hermas mentions that “great tribulations” (Gr. μεγάλας θλίψεις, Herm. Vis. 2.7.1) have already been endured which apparently prepares Christians to “endure the coming great tribulation” (Gr. ὑπομένετε τnν θλῖψιν τnν ἐρχομένην τnν μεγάλην, Herm. Vis. 2.7.1).[4]

While believing in the present inaugurated latter days, early christian writers believed in the “age to come” (Gr. o αἰων o ἐπερχόμεός, Herm. Vis. 4.3.5).[5] Early Christian writers and teachers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian followed the NT writers in their belief of the future consummated resurrection of the body when Christ’s returns in his resurrected body.[6] Similar to the NT writers, early Christian writers believed that other events (i.e. great tribulation, appearance of the antichrist, judgement) would be linked with Christ’s return. Hippolytus wrote, “When he [antichrist] makes war against the saints, and persecutes them, then we may expect the manifestation of the Lord from heaven.”[7] Justin Martyr wrote, “He [Jesus] shall come from heaven with glory, when the man of apostasy, who speaks strange things against the most High, shall venture to do unlawful deeds on the earth against Christians.”[8] Thus, the Early Church mostly agreed that the return of Christ would come after the period of great tribulation and would involve the resurrection of believers.[9]

The Early Church emphasized the literal interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6 which describes the reign of Christ upon the earth for one thousand years (millennium). Papias wrote, “there will be a period of a thousand years after the resurrection from the dead when the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this earth.”[10] Justin Martyr wrote, “I and others who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned and enlarged.”[11] Irenaeus and Tertullian held similar views concerning the millennium; thus, suffice it to say, many influential Early Church writers held to what has been called the “historic premillennialism” view—Christ returns, Christians bodily resurrected, Christians reign with Christ on earth for one thousand years.[12]

Like the NT writers, the Early Church believed in a future final judgement after Christ’s return. The Athanasian Creed summarized this belief by explaining that Christ “will come to judge the living and the dead. At his coming all people will rise again with their bodies and will give account for their own works. Those who have done good will go into eternal life, and those who have done evil will go into eternal fire.”[13] Athenagoras and Hippolytus further explained that the “eternal fire” for those who have done evil does not equate to annihilationism—that people would cease to exist, but rather the final state for them is that of a conscious eternal punishment.[14]

Lastly, the Early Church followed the NT writers hope of the new heavens and the new earth in the future. However, there was some disagreement within the Early Church about how this would take place. Irenaeus believed that a divine renewal of the existing heavens and earth would occur, whereas, Tertullian and Melito of Sardis believed in a total annihilation of the current heavens and earth before the creation of the new.[15] Therefore, along with their “historic premillennialism” views, the Early Church believed that unbelievers will be resurrected after the one thousand year reign, followed by final judgment and then God establishes the eternal state of heaven and hell.[16]

[1] G.K. Beale, “Eschatology,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (DLNT), edited by R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 341. [2] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 341. [3] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 341. [4] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 342. [5] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 342 [6] T.A. Noble, “Eschatology,” in New Dictionary of Theology (NDT): Historical and Systematic, edited by Martin Davie et al. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), EPUB edition[7] Hippolytus, Fragments from Commentaries: Daniel, 2.7, in ANF, 5:179 quoted by Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology : An Introduction to Christian Doctrine : A Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [8] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 110, in ANF, 1:253-54 quoted by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [9] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [10] Fragments of Papias 3.12 quoted by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [11] Justin Martyr, Diaologue with Trypho, 80, in ANF, 1:239 quoted by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [12] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church” citing Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.32-36, in ANF, 1:561-67. [13] Athanasian Creed, 40-43, in Schaff, 2:69-70 cited by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 32 “Judgment and Punishment in the Early Church.” [14]Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 32 “Judgment and Punishment in the Early Church.” [15]Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 33, “The Idea of the Eternal State in the Early Church.” [16] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church” citing Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.32-36, in ANF, 1:561-67.