It goes without saying that these sermons bear little or no resemblance to the After Dinner Speeches that nowadays often pass for sermons. No opening jokes to settle the refugees and the Genevois, to put them at their ease. Somehow, putting people at ease was not Calvin’s style. Did Jesus do that? It is interesting to reflect on the Christian ethic that Calvin seeks to impart through these sermons, with their emphasis on trial, suffering, hardship, pilgrimage, patient endurance and contentment. He was preparing his troops for battle.
Calvin’s sermons were delivered extempore, taken down by the remarkable Denis Raguenier, published by the diaconate of Geneva, and the proceeds used to support refugees. Initially, Calvin was not keen on them being published, but when he saw the level of competence of Raguenier and the copyists, realised the clamour of the printers and his public for them, he relented. Hundreds of them survive, many of them still unpublished, though they are gradually appearing. As Robert White, the translator and editor of these five sermons says, ‘it was the Word preached and applied from the pulpit which above all fashioned Geneva’s evangelical culture and made it the nerve-centre of Reformed Protestantism’. Not only that, but certainly that.
The preacher usually never saw the written results before they appeared. An exception to this rule was those collected as 65 Sermons on the Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels, published in Geneva in 1562, two years before Calvin’s death, to which he wrote an Introduction. Each sermon is thus an extended exposition and comment not on one text, but on parallel texts, where there are such. Calvin’s style is to comment on the meaning of the text and to apply it as he goes along. He seems to have held that the Beatitudes were not single sayings of Jesus, but summaries of his teaching, which accounts for the differences of wording in the Gospels. Seems reasonable. The text determines the form of the sermon. Calvin was still going through the Harmony in this way when he died.
These sermons on the Beatitudes, taken from the 65, were thus among the last that Calvin preached. They were the very last that Raguenier took down. As Robert White puts it, ‘Raguenier laid aside his pen and prepared himself for death, which came in the winter of 1560-1.’