/ John Calvin / Joel Hart

Wisdom from John Calvin on COVID-19

My mind raced, as I suppose most minds did. It was that first week of realization (March 8-14) that COVID-19 had arrived unwelcome at the door of our society. My mind raced in many directions. I suppose most minds are still racing.

I found often, though, that my mind raced to perhaps a curious place: John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the opening book of the Institutes, Calvin, not unfamiliar with a world of plague and pestilence and calamity, wrote a remarkable meditation on God’s providence.

His words speak so profoundly to our world now, almost five centuries later.

Allow me to quote at length and intersperse a few comments. It’s helped me to read these words out loud and hear them more as preached words of wisdom from Pastor Calvin than as theological analysis from Theologian Calvin. Calvin writes, beginning with a reflection on human disease:

“Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases – in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases – a man cannot go about unburdened by forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death.”[1]

A few months ago, Calvin’s words may have seemed sensational. But, now we understand. Yes, even our sweat has been deemed dangerous, as the gyms all around are closed!

Calvin moves on, with a remarkable list of dangers faced in this world:[2]

Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death.
Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled.
Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs.
If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s hand, harm awaits.
All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction.
But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden.
Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you.
Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, and drought, and other calamites, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine.
I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad.
Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck.

Who has not felt Calvin’s observation in recent weeks? Who has not more than ever recognized the fragility of life, health, economies, and more?

Calvin offers, then, these somber reflections:

“We cannot but be frightened and terrified as if such events were about to happen to us.
… But here I propose to speak only of that misery which man will feel if he is brought under the sway of fortune.”

How true Calvin’s somber observation: life is frightening, particularly if all we see around us is “fortune”. It is then, though, that Calvin turns a corner in his meditations. He writes:

Yet, when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it.[3]

What a statement! In the face of all this, we fearlessly dare to commit ourselves to God. Can this be our testimony, our fearless dare, our confident solace in these times? If it seems too difficult to fearlessly dare, we must turn to Scripture. Calvin recognizes this, and from there, Calvin quotes from Psalms 91, 118, 56, 27, and 22. These Psalms provide particular comfort in these days. Perhaps these would serve as Calvin’s “family worship guide" for the time of COVID-19.

I must conclude with one more observation. The Institutes were written, or expanded, over a series of editions. The portion I’ve quoted from here comes from the 1539 edition. This would be quite early in Calvin’s career in Geneva, and before some of his greatest sorrows.

The following years were ones with joy – and sorrow – for Calvin. In 1542, plague broke out in Geneva and caused great calamity. Conflicts confronted Calvin at home and abroad.

More personally, just a year after those sober yet confident words of 1539, Calvin married Idelette de Bure. In the next nine years, Idelette was a source of joy to Calvin. At the same time, all three children she bore to him died in infancy. And in 1549, Idelette passed away after a lengthy illness.

Calvin experienced firsthand the reality of the world he wrote about so clearly in 1539. And yet in later editions of the Institutes, written after these calamities struck Calvin, we find the same words of confidence. The same truths that prepared him for calamity now sustained him. And we even find that in that same chapter, Calvin added one final articulation of confidence:

“David, on account of the various changes by which the life of men is continually turned, and as it were, whirled about, betakes himself to this refuge: that his “times are in God’s hand” (Ps. 31:15). He could have put here either “course of life” or “time” in the singular, but he chose to express by using the plural “times” that however unstable the condition of men may be, whatever changes take place from time to time, they are governed by God.”

May it be so of us. Whatever changes take place, may we take refuge that our times are in God’s hand.

[1]All quotations come from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1:223-224. I recognize that at least portions of these quotations have been used in a few other reflections on the pandemic. One example is Brian Tabb’s article, noted here: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/theological-reflections-pandemic/

[2] In the original form of this, this list appears in single-paragraph form. For this format, I’ve chosen to break them out for ease of reading.

[3]Emphasis added.

Joel Hart

Joel Hart

Associate pastor at Second RPC (Indianapolis). Husband of Orlena. Father of 4 (David, Jenny, Elisha, Esther). Proclaiming the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

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