The Story of John Calvin and Martin Bucer
The story is familiar: A bright young theologian agrees to pastor a church torn by factions and needing reform. Before long, however, he’s plunged into controversy and conflict as he seeks to implement change. The congregation appreciates his preaching, at times, but his call to discipleship seems too zealous and even extreme. His attempts to re-organize the church for better pastoral care are met with opposition, and theological controversy arises as he responds to false teaching harshly, raising concern from the other leaders.
In the second year, the young pastor pushes for the practice of church discipline—and this proves to be too much. And so the young pastor is fired, and the church is left worse off than before.
Is this the story of some young, restless, and reformed guy? Perhaps a zealous seminary graduate who came across some 9Marks materials and quickly sought to implement them in his church?
Actually, this is the story of John Calvin.[i]
WHEN CALVIN GOT FIRED
Persuaded by the fiery Farel to remain in Geneva, Calvin began lecturing and preaching there in September 1536. We know little about his activities during his first stay at Geneva, but his teaching from that time shows his zeal against non-Reformed teaching (73) and his uncompromising call for all Christians to leave the Roman Catholic Church (78). In February 1538, Calvin and Farel appeared before the Genevan council to push for the right to practice excommunication. Their request was rejected. Disappointed, Calvin wrote to Bullinger, “We have not been able to ensure that the faithful and holy exercise of ecclesiastical excommunication is rescued from the oblivion into which it has fallen” (79).
Not long afterward, Calvin’s relationship with the council had so deteriorated that he denounced them from the pulpit as the “council of the devil” (80). Rejecting the liturgy of the council, Calvin refused to administer communion to the whole city. By April 1538, Calvin (not Farel) was identified as the chief troublemaker, deprived of his ministry, and ordered to leave Geneva.
Calvin’s reputation was shot. His friend du Tillet, who originally had recommended Calvin to Farel, wrote to him in September 1538, “I doubt that you have had your vocation from God, having been called there only by men . . . who have driven you away from there, just as they received you by their sole authority.” (93)
These and many other accusations wounded Calvin deeply. His confidence in his calling had been shaken and he wandered for a period without a clear sense of direction of purpose (84). Would he ever pastor again?
BUCER & STRASBOURG
Yet in God’s kind providence, by the summer of 1538, Calvin arrived in Strasbourg and there he found a mentor in Martin Bucer. Bucer immediately recognized what had gone wrong: “His uncompromising conduct had created needless discord. To declare the absolute demands of the Gospel was imperative, on that there was no disagreement, but the seasoned reformers also understood something further that Calvin had yet to grasp: building a church required flexibility and patience” (92).
But Calvin wasn’t really needed in Strasbourg, so Bucer immediately took him under his wing to teach him how to be a pastor (86). Under Bucer’s discipleship, Calvin agreed to pastor a congregation of French refugees, and there he implemented Bucer’s liturgy, preached, and learned from his example as he interacted with other magistrates. Under this influence, Calvin’s theology deepened and broadened, and he embraced Bucer’s understanding of the early church as a model for the organization of the church (89).
But Bucer’s discipling of Calvin wasn’t merely intellectual or academic. It involved his entire life: “Bucer put himself out for Calvin in every respect: he provided accommodation in his own home, introduced him to his circle of friends, and finally found a house with a shared garden where they might easily meet and converse. . . . Bucer was truly a father figure” (89). Bucer would even encourage Calvin to get married—and he helped find him his wife (87)!
Through their friendship, Calvin learned not only how to be a better pastor, but he also grew as a Christian in patience and humility. God would use these three years in Strasbourg to change Calvin and prepare him for what was to come.
HIS RETURN TO GENEVA
In 1541, the council in Geneva voted to call Calvin back to be their pastor, and though Calvin was mortified at the thought, he listened to Bucer’s encouragement and agreed to return. For the next 23 years, Calvin gave himself to the church in Geneva, and in spite of constant opposition and suffering, his faithful ministry would go on to shape Protestantism down to our present day.
Calvin’s relationship with Bucer provides us an helpful example of pastoral formation. Simply put, the classroom isn’t sufficient to train up pastors. So, if you’re a young man who aspires to the ministry, then more important than choosing a seminary is finding a church where you can serve under a pastor who will invest in you.
And if you’ve already finished seminary, then before jumping straight into a lead pastorate, perhaps look for an assistant or associate pastor position under a more experienced pastor who will teach you how to be a pastor. To supplement your theological training, consider a pastoral residency or internship that’s rooted in the local church.
And finally, if you’re an experienced pastor, then Bucer should be a model for you. Are there other young pastors in your city that you can begin mentoring as they start out in the ministry? Are you looking for gifted and aspiring young men to bring under your wing, to encourage them and equip them for ministry? How can you use your experience to serve other pastors in order that the wider church of Jesus Christ may be blessed?
Training up pastors isn’t something we can relegate to seminaries. In fact, according to the New Testament, it’s built into to the pastoral job description (2 Tim. 2:1–2).
Calvin never forgot Bucer’s impact on his life. In 1551, upon hearing of Bucer’s death, Calvin wrote to Farel, “I have received pious Bucer’s last letter. What a heart! What a man has gone! We must rejoice in our sorrow that a man so fond of us has journeyed to God” (89–90). May that be said of all pastors who give of themselves to equipping the next generation of pastors.
[i] All references are taken from Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
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Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on historicaltheology.org.