Lessons from Geneva: The Centrality of the Scriptures

Pulpit BibleHere is Scott Manetsch’s third lesson from his study of the pastors in Geneva from 1536-1609. The first lesson was pastoral ministry is hard. The second lesson was the need for pastors to learn from and be accountable to other pastors.

Third, this study has shown the leading role that the Scriptures played in Calvin’s Reformation, suggesting the central importance of God’s Word for Christian renewal in our own day.  In one of his first Protestant writings, Calvin summarized his central religious purpose with this concise statement: “I demand only this, that faithful people be allowed to hear their God speaking and to learn from his teaching.” Calvin devoted most of his career to making this religious vision a reality. As we have seen, between 1536 and 1609 the language and message of the Bible was nearly omnipresent in Geneva’s religious life as it was proclaimed in sermons recited in catechism, sung in the Psalter, studied in the Congregation, discussed in the marketplace, and read devotionally in households. At the same time, Geneva’s pastors produced a virtual tsunami of Bible translations, Psalters, commentaries, exegetical aids, and devotional writings that equipped preachers for the pulpit ministries and provided instruction and spiritual comfort for their parishioners. Calvin and his reformed colleagues believed that where God’s Word was faithfully proclaimed and gladly received, there the Holy Spirit was at work in power to effect moral transformation in the lives of men and women. Spiritual reformation and scriptural proclamation went hand in hand. It seems plausible that Geneva’s distinctive religious culture in the sixteenth century-described by one English visitor as a “model of true religion and true piety”-was in large part the result of this extensive engagement with Scripture. So too, one suspects that the path to spiritual renewal for moribund churches and tired saints in the twenty-first century involves, at least in part, recovering the central place of Scripture in the church’s ministry.

Christians today are woefully ignorant of the Scriptures. They may know a verse here or there. But they rarely know the scope of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Aside from this, pastors are not very good at applying Scripture wisely and pointedly. We are afraid of being accused of legalism so we leave the Scriptures impotent. One of the great needs of the hour in order to bring reformation is to believe that the Bible is sufficient for the needs of the God’s people.  The Scriptures must not be just a band-aid we slap on when there is a cut. It must be the lifeblood of God’s people. Pastors must be devoted to it. They must preach, read it, sing it, pray it, memorize it, and above all believe it and obey it. And they must teach their people to do the same. Until the Scriptures are once again placed at the center of the church and once again proclaimed with power from the pulpits reformation is an impossibility.

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