Sunday, November 22, 2009
Death of John Calvin by Alister E. McGrath
By the early spring of 1564, it was obvious that Calvin was seriously ill. His attendance at the weekly Consistory meeting had become increasingly infrequent in the winter of 1563-4, reflecting the decline of his health. From the list of symptoms which he described to a group of physicians at Montpelier that year, it is possible to infer that Calvin suffered from the symptoms consistent with migraine, gout, pulmonary tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, thrombosed haemorrhoids and irritated bowel syndrome. He preached for the last time from the pulpit at Saint Pierre on the morning of Sunday 6 February. By April, it was clear that he had not much longer to live. He found breathing difficult, and was chronically short of breath. Despite this, he managed to bid farewell to the ministers of Geneva on Friday 28 April.
The Discours d'adieu aux ministres is a moving document, at times verging on the pathetic. Calvin confessed that he was, and always had been, little more than a poor and timid scholar, who had been pressed into the service of the Christian gospel. One section of the document is of especial interest; in what might at first seem little more than rambling digressions, he catalogued some of the various disasters which had befallen him during his period in Geneva. People had fired their arquebuses in front of his door, and set their dogs on him. The significance of this portion of Discours d'adieu has not been fully appreciated; Calvin is clearly influenced by the 'catalogues of hardships' found in the writings of the classical period. He would have known this literary genre through two sources; the Corinthian correspondence in the New Testament- Rudolf Bultmann characterized 1 Corinthians 4:9-13 and 2 Corinthians 4: 8-9, 6: 4-10 as Peristasenkatalogen (catalogues of difficult circumstances)- and the writings of classical moralists, such as Seneca. Hardship seems to have been a constitutive element in Calvin's concept of his calling.
Calvin died at eight o'clock on the evening of 27 May. At his own request, he was buried in a common grave, with no stone to mark his own. There was to be no personality cult based upon him at Geneva. In death, as in life, Calvin proved self-effacing. Yet with his death, his influence upon the world proved to have only begun.