John Calvin was one of the most influential leaders of the Protestant Reformation. In 1536, he published his most significant work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. He continued to revise and expand this work over the course of his life.
However, a year before publishing this influential work, Calvin wrote a concise statement about Christ and the Scriptures. This work appeared as a preface in the French Bible produced by his cousin, Robert Pierre Olivétan.
In this article, we examine this early writing and Calvin’s view of the central place of Christ in the Scriptures and in the life of Christians. We will see from this brief study that Calvin’s high view of Christ and the Scriptures led to a high view of the translation of the Scriptures for the sake of the Church.
The French Bible of Olivétan
Robert Pierre Olivétan was a French reformer and cousin of John Calvin. He studied in Paris and embraced the Reformation before his younger cousin. He then fled France and joined the Reformation movement in Switzerland.
In 1532, he was asked to translate the Bible into French on behalf of the Waldenses churches. He worked in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and his work has been referred to as the Neuchâtel Bible or the Olivétan Bible.
As was customary at the time, Olivétan wrote a preface to his translation. He dedicated his work to “the poor Church to whom nothing is given,” a reference to the Waldenses churches and the countless French-speaking Christians who had no access to the Scriptures in their own language. He also discussed some of the issues he faced as he struggled to bring the beauty of Hebrew and Greek into his French translation.
The most intriguing aspect of his work is that his young cousin, John Calvin, wrote two prefaces for the Bible. It is noteworthy that John Calvin had only joined the Reformation movement a year before working with his cousin. Furthermore, Calvin was still moving around the region, looking for a place to minister and write. He was probably working on the Institutes in Basel, Switzerland, when Olivétan asked him to write the prefaces.
Calvin wrote the first preface in Latin, and it appears at the beginning of the Bible. He wrote the second preface in French, and it serves as an introduction to the New Testament. This second preface will be the focus of our discussion.
John Calvin’s Preface to the New Testament
John Calvin’s preface is a carefully reasoned overview of the Scriptures that focuses on Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament and center of the New Testament. Calvin writes with theological precision but also regularly exhorts his reader to embrace the truths of Scripture with a pastor’s heart.
From Creation to Christ
After Calvin greets those who love Christ and his Gospel, he immediately takes the reader to Genesis and the creation of mankind. He noted that God the Creator created mankind, yet Adam exalted himself in pride and lost all that God had given him. Humanity became displeasing to God, yet God did not stop showing his common grace. God places witnesses to his glory in creation that draw us to seek Him.
Calvin notes that God desired to show his goodness and kindness more fully, and so he revealed himself to Abraham and established a covenant with the people of Israel. Nonetheless, the disobedience of Israel revealed the need for a new covenant and a new mediator. Calvin concludes that only our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ could be such a mediator.
Calvin then pauses in his progression across redemptive history and returns to Genesis. He begins to explain that from the beginning, there was a promise of a deliverer who would undo the work of Satan. He seems to want to make clear in the reader’s mind that Christ the mediator was not a response to Israel’s failure and, in a way, a change in God’s plan. Jesus was not an alternate plan. Rather, Calvin demonstrates that God’s plan from the beginning has been to provide a deliverer. Calvin begins with the promise to Eve of one who will crush the head of Satan. He notes the promise to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through his seed. He also surveys the prophecies of a coming Messiah found in the prophets.
Calvin then explains to the reader that at the perfect time, established by God, Jesus Christ came as the fulfillment of the promised Messiah and Mediator, to redeem and save us. Calvin finally draws the reader’s attention to the book in their hands. He states that the New Testament clearly sets forth all these truths about Jesus Christ.
Calvin pauses briefly to note that the New Testament was translated faithfully from Greek into French so that all Christians might read it and understand and affirm “the law they ought to obey and the faith they ought to follow.”
Christ our Savior and the New Testament
Calvin then focuses the reader’s attention on Jesus Christ, our only Savior. He is the Mediator of the New Testament, which is new and eternal, ratified and confirmed by Jesus’ death. He also notes that the Gospel is new and joyful news.
Calvin then explains how the events of Jesus’ life illustrate that he was the promised Messiah. Furthermore, the testimony of the angels at his birth, of John the Baptist, and of the apostles all confirm him as the promised Messiah. Calvin summarizes this section by noting that there is nothing in heaven or earth that hasn’t witnessed to Jesus Christ as God, Lord, Master, and Savior, who the Father sent to us to accomplish the salvation of humanity.
Calvin again draws the reader’s attention to the New Testament before them. He notes that all these truths about Jesus Christ are “announced, manifested, written, and signed” in the New Testament.
Calvin reminds the reader that Jesus Christ has made us his heirs and declared to us his will, and, consequently, we are all called to this inheritance. We are all called to Christ “without respect for persons.” He then exhorts them to not dishonor or conceal this new covenant.
Calvin explains that without this redemptive relationship to God through Christ, we could not know God, what he commands, or what the Gospel is. Furthermore, without the Gospel, “everything is useless and vain.” Calvin sets out a series of concise yet profound statements about the Gospel, culminating in a blessing on those who hear and keep the Gospel and a curse on those who reject it.
Seek Christ in the Scriptures
Calvin then shifts to the final section of the preface, where he addresses three specific groups—the Christian population in general, the secular authorities, and the religious authorities.
Calvin exhorts the Christians in the broadest sense, both “men and women,” to listen and learn. He writes that they have no hope apart from the Gospel and, as result, they should listen to the Gospel, read the Scriptures, and retain these truths.
He then encourages the readers not to be concerned about harm, curses, or disgrace that might follow reading the Scriptures. He reminds them that Jesus left an example of suffering as the way to glory. He also tells them that they cannot experience anything so accursed that Jesus Christ can’t turn it into a blessing. Finally, he reminds the reader that there will be a final judgment at which all wrongs will be set right. Those who are despised and condemned before men for the sake of Christ, will be crowned with Christ in eternity.
Calvin then presses again the value of knowing Christ and the great spiritual riches that believers have through Him, including eternal life. Calvin then compares Christ to different figures in the Old Testament, including Isaac, Melchizedek, David, and Solomon. Each person, in their very best qualities and accomplishments, picture what Christ is for believers of the new covenant.
Calvin then elevates Christ Jesus even higher in praise. He states that every good thing we could think of or even desire is found only in Jesus Christ. He then gives a lengthy list of things that Christ did on our behalf, including being sold to buy us back, being marred that we may be made fair, and dying that we may have life. He reminds the reader that Jesus Christ is our boast. We live in Christ, and so we are content in all things and comforted in all tribulations.
Reaching this peak of praise of Christ, Calvin ends with a cautionary note. He reminds the reader not to seek other wisdom in the Scripture or mix anything else with the Gospel. He warns that those who teach one syllable beyond what is in the Scriptures are cursed before God.
Publish and Teach This Sacred Doctrine
After his lengthy and pastoral appeal to a broad, Christian audience, Calvin turns his attention to the secular authorities. He does not offer any gracious words but simply reminds them that God has ordained them to uphold the good and punish the wicked.
He then asserts in a clear and direct manner that it is the responsibility of the secular authorities to have “this sacred doctrine” published and taught throughout their jurisdictions, so that all many understand it.
Calvin believes that the secular authorities have an obligation to magnify God by ruling in humility and seeking to advance his glory. It follows that they should make the Scriptures freely available to all under their rule.
Feed the Sheep of Jesus Christ
Finally, Calvin addresses the religious authorities. As with the secular authorities, Calvin has no pleasantries to offer. He begins by appealing to them to feed the sheep of Jesus Christ with their proper pasture, referring to the Word of God. He then asks them to ensure that the Scriptures in French are allowed to be freely read, discussed, and interpreted by any Christian.
Knowing that the Roman Catholic Church has no interest in the Scriptures being translated for the laity, Calvin strengthens his appeals by stating that it is the will of God and the command of Jesus Christ that French-speaking believers have the Scriptures in their own language.
Calvin expands on Christ’s command by noting that Jesus sent his apostles and followers to the whole world. Furthermore, they received grace to speak in all languages so that they might “in every language preach to every creature.” Calvin then exhorts the church leaders to follow the example of the apostles and seek to instruct everyone with the Word of God “by every possible means,” a reference to using the French Bible to instruct the French-speaking laity.
Calvin’s line of argumentation reveals that he thought that the command to preach the Gospel to all nations provides sufficient justification to preach to the French in the French language. Furthermore, preaching in French validates teaching, studying, and even translating the Scriptures in French.
Calvin sees no justifiable alternative to reading, preaching, and teaching in French. He writes that those church leaders who refuse to use the French Bible will be guilty before God for the fate of the sheep in their care, that is, for the sheep who will starve because they are denied their proper pasture.
For John Calvin, the Scriptures are all about Christ, and Christ is all that we need from the Scriptures. Furthermore, Christ’s command to preach to the nations implies that preaching, teaching, and even the study of the Scriptures is necessary in the languages of the nations so that everyone, regardless of their language, might know him and grow in their faith. Calvin phrases the point in terms of all of Christ’s sheep needing good pasture.
With these convictions, it should not be surprising that Calvin wrote two prefaces in support of his cousin’s work. Calvin’s involvement with the French Bible increased over the decades. With the untimely death of Olivétan, Calvin took responsibility for ensuring that his cousin’s work was revised and expanded. In fact, Geneva became a center of biblical scholarship and Bible translation in the decades that followed.
May the Lord continue to bless the Church with servants of Christ and his Word like Robert Pierre Olivétan and John Calvin, who are committed to equip “the poor Church to whom nothing is given” with the Scriptures in their own language.