Wisdom from John Calvin on COVID-19

What would John Calvin say to the likes of us about facing COVID-19?

One of the newer blogs I recently started following had a fine post yesterday (April 28) about insights from Calvin’s Institutes on our present pandemic catastrophe. It is in one of the places where Calvin is treating the sovereign providence of God – not as an abstract doctrine, but as the pastoral truth that it is, especially in times of affliction and trouble.

Be sure to read the beginning of the post where Calvin sets the stage for the entrance of the divine hand, but here is how Joel Hart (the author) ends his post. You will discern the relevance of the doctrine and its comfort for us now.

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.

Source: Wisdom from John Calvin on COVID-19

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