The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Calvin’s Chair

St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland was the work of Arducius de Faucigny, the prince-bishop of the Diocese of Geneva. The building’s earliest construction dates from the 12th century, but wars, fires, renovations, and additions have often changed its look and shape. Though today it is the home of a congregation of the Swiss Reformed Church, it will always be known as John Calvin’s church, for it was here that the great Reformer preached day-after-day and year-after-year. And there within St. Pierre’s is John Calvin’s chair, the next of the twenty-five objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity.

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In 1517, Martin Luther had sparked the Reformation with his Ninety-Five Theses. In the years that followed, his seditious new teachings quickly spread throughout Europe so that Christianity was now split into two broad streams: Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The work Luther began was to be carried on by others and none would play so crucial a role in defending and systematizing Protestantism as John Calvin. As Mark Noll says, “If Luther sounded the trumpet for reform, Calvin orchestrated the score by which the Reformation became a part of Western civilization.”

St Pierre Geneva
John Calvin was a Frenchman, born at Noyon, Picardy in 1509. From an early age he had an interest in church matters. He intended to become a priest, but his father believed his son’s prospects were better as a lawyer and for that reason enrolled him in the University of Orleans to study law. Along the way Calvin became intrigued by humanism and began to study the methods of humanism; he also studied and mastered Greek, a skill that would serve him well later in life.

In 1533 a young Calvin encountered Luther’s teachings and was converted both suddenly and unexpectedly. Later he would say, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected in such a young man.” He soon broke with the Roman Catholic Church and became known as a leader within the Parisian Protestant movement. His role as leader made him a marked man and he soon had to flee his native France, first going to Germany and then to Switzerland. He settled in Basel wanting to lead the quiet life of a scholar, but reports of Protestant persecution in France aroused his passion.

In 1536 Calvin published the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion and it immediately sold well, thrusting him again into the limelight. He determined to travel to Strasbourg where he could once more go into hiding, but on the journey he passed through Geneva where William Farel awaited him. Farel was a fellow Frechman and preacher who had determined to settle in Switzerland. With all the force of a prophet, he pleaded with Calvin to remain in Geneva and there to preach as a means of provoking reform within the city. But for a short interval during which both men were forced out of Geneva, Calvin was to remain in the city until his death in 1564.

While we primarily remember Calvin as a theologian, a Reformer, and the original Calvinist, he was also a preacher and this preaching ministry was one of his great passions. For as long as Calvin preached in Geneva, he preached at St. Pierre’s Cathedral. His preaching was marked by a deep belief in the authority of Scripture, by faith in the presence and power of God in the proclamation of the Word, by an understanding that preaching is to be the great priority in Christian worship, and by a commitment to sequential, verse-by-verse exposition of God’s Word. Steve Lawson aptly captures some of the power of Calvin’s preaching:

For one small group of French Huguenots, newly arrived in Geneva, this is a momentous occasion. Their previous worship experience was an isolated gathering with a few fellow believers, huddled behind a barn in France. Hunted like prey, they hid from the royal dragoon guards of the king of France. Having eluded these specially trained and armed soldiers at the border, they made their way to Geneva. As they approached the city, they could see the soaring spires of Saint Pierre, a welcome sight. They wound their way through the cobbled streets upward to the towering church. People of all sorts were streaming to the cathedral. The tall front doors leading into the sanctuary swung open, and they entered with the flow of worshipers. Never had they been seated in such an impressive edifice.

As the worshipers gather, their eyes are drawn to the great pulpit elevated far above the stone floor of the sanctuary. There it hangs, suspended on a massive column. Wrapping around this column is a spiral staircase that leads up to the wooden platform upon which the famed pulpit rests. John Calvin regularly stands here to expound the Word of God.

Following the congregational singing, the much-anticipated time comes. Calvin rises to expound the biblical text. Hearts are astounded; souls are arrested. Under the conviction and challenge of his expository preaching, the Huguenots are galvanized in their faith. Some of them are so stirred that, amazingly, they choose to return to their native France and face the wrath of the royal guards in order to plant Protestant churches there. The preaching is that commanding. The truth Calvin proclaims is that forceful. Never before have these French Protestants heard preaching like this.

Calvins ChairCalvin’s original pulpit is no longer there within St. Pierre’s, though a similar one has been built on the spot he preached. Not many relics can survive nearly 500 years of history, but one remains: his chair. And I love the fact that the chair remains, for it reminds us that the power of his words, whether written or spoken, were derived from his long hours of study. For every hour he stood in the pulpit, he spent many more sitting, studying, praying, and seeking to understand God’s Word. For every word of his Institutes, there were many hours of study and contemplation. His preaching ministry, his work as a systematic theologian, and his scholarship all went hand-in-hand. He was utterly committed to understanding the Bible so he could obey it and so he could teach others to do the same.

Calvin’s sermons and letters, his commentaries and Institutes, continue to influence generations of Christians. Calvin lived and died, his pulpit rose and fell, but the gospel he preached and the theology he helped define carry on.

More in The History of Christianity in 25 Objects:

  1. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Introduction
  2. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Augustus of Prima Porta
  3. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
  4. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito
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