John Calvin described Adam and Eve as both the “masterpiece of creation” and, in the same breath, “wretched.” Both stood out in Calvin’s mind as he penned his first theological work in French.
In 1535, a young, 25-year-old John Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland. He met his older cousin and biblical scholar, Pierre Robert Olivétan, who was translating the Bible into French.
Olivétan apparently asked his younger cousin to write a general preface to the entire French Bible and then a second preface specifically for the New Testament. The second preface was in French and would be Calvin’s first theological publication written for the French-speaking laity, the “poor church” who had nothing.
Calvin opens his preface with creation and then follows redemptive history, showing the readers how the Old Testament culminates in Christ.
Below are some highlights from the first few paragraphs of Calvin’s preface, newly translated from French.
God the Creator, the most perfect and excellent Maker of all things, made man as His masterpiece of creation. An unequaled excellence was discernable in mankind, for God formed them in His own image and likeness, such that the light of His glory shone brightly in them. They surpassed all other creatures, whose creation had already shown God to be more than marvelous.
Now Adam and Eve would have been able to remain in the state in which they were created if they had bowed themselves lowly, in humility, before the majesty of God. They should have magnified God with thanksgiving and not sought glory in themselves. They should have looked solely above and glorified the one and only God to whom belongs praise, recognizing that all good comes from above.
But the wretched Adam and Eve wanted to make themselves somebody and without careful consideration stopped thinking about and appreciating where their blessings came from. With an outrageous attitude of ingratitude, they attempted to exalt themselves in their own pride above their Maker and the Author of all blessings.
Because of their pride, they plunged themselves to their ruin, losing all their dignity and the supremacy they first had at their creation. They were stripped of all their glory and separated from all the gifts which were entrusted to them.
God did this to confuse them in their pride and force them to recognize what they would not accept by themselves—that they were nothing in themselves but vanity and that they would never be anything else without the sustaining support of his Creator.
At first God had commissioned them to go forth and had ordained to take pleasure and delight in them, as a father would take pleasure in His well-beloved children. But after their fall, the opposite took place—God despised them and found them abominable. All which had been pleasing to God now gave Him displeasure; everything in which He had taken delight, angered Him; everything that He had contemplated with kind and parental thoughts, He now detested and considered with regret.
In short, mankind in every respect was completely displeasing to God—their deeds, thoughts, words, life, and all that was associated with them. It was as though they were a special enemy and adversary of God, and so God repented of having made them.
After Adam and Eve were cast down into such confusion, they were fruitful and gave birth to a cursed seed, descendants like themselves. They were vicious, perverse, corrupt, and empty of any good yet rich and abounding in evil.
Nevertheless, the Lord of mercy, who not only loves but is Himself love and pity, was ready in His infinite kindness to love them who deserved no love.
He did not entirely expel, consume, and destroy mankind, as their iniquity demanded. Rather, He sustained and supported them in kindness and patience, giving them time and opportunity to return to Him and try again to live in obedience to Him, which they had earlier rejected. He withdrew from them and kept silent, as though He sought to hide Himself from them, leaving them to go after their own desires and lustful yearnings, without law or order, without any correction from his word.
However, He had given them enough signs in creation which should have moved them to seek Him, to even reach out to Him and find Him, with a desire to know Him and honor Him as He deserved.
John Calvin moves from creation and the fall to the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies in Jesus Christ. He conveys the grandeur of God’s glory and the wonderful redemptive plan for the race of Adam, His “masterpiece” and yet the “wretched” seed of Adam and Eve.
Calvin introduces Jesus Christ as the long-awaited Mediator and Savior. He exhorts his readers to praise Christ and acknowledge him as their Lord and Savior, who has accomplished more for them than they could ever imagine.
May we join Calvin in recognizing our wretchedness and, from that humble position, see the glory of Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior, in ever sharper relief.