God Gives the Growth (Or, Unexpected English Fruit)

vineI’ve never been a farmer, nor have I ever planted a tree. I think the closest I’ve come to sustained attempts at horticulture was a 3rd-grade science experiment involving a lima bean. Even from that limited experience, though, I suspect I’d be a terrible farmer, especially if I had to work with crops that yield fruit only with great lengths of time and enormous amounts of cultivation. I can just imagine myself, planting a seed, covering it, pouring water on it, and then just staring, waiting for something to happen.

Planting. Watering. Staring. Waiting. Planting. Watering. Staring. Waiting…

Of course, the terrible thing about a realization like that is that, as a pastor, that’s essentially my job. Yes, the shepherding metaphor is prominent, but cultivation metaphors for ministry abound in scripture as well (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Being young, impatient, and foolish is terrible sometimes. Actually, impatience and foolishness are always terrible.

In any case, my horticultural reflections on ministry were sparked by a little section in Bruce Gordon’s biography of John Calvin where he details the Genevan Reformer’s efforts in England. While Calvin never personally travelled to the Isles, for many years he followed the Reform efforts there with great interest. Through an extensive letter-writing ministry, he corresponded with men like Cranmer, the Duke of Somerset, and others in the later Elizabethan period trying to encourage the Reform efforts and goad them in more “pure” direction.

While his name and theology carried some definite influence in England, he never really had the effect he hoped for, especially in the reform under Elizabeth, in his lifetime. Due to his association with John Knox and Knox’s ill-advised publications on female rulers (written in the reign of Mary but known and hated by Elizabeth), Calvin was persona non grata in Elizabeth’s court and therefore any advice he might give would fall on deaf ears. The widespread reform of the Church of England and unification with the continental churches was not to be.

And yet, that’s not the whole of the story by a long shot. Gordon is worth quoting here at length:

Calvin and England is a curiously enigmatic subject. He died only six years after the accession of the Protestant queen. Their relationship had begun disastrously and never recovered, yet that was only part of the story. Through the stranger churches, French and Dutch, Geneva continued to be a major presence in England, and Calvin’s name most prominent. He and Heinrich Bullinger were the continental patriarchs of the British reformations. Those who had been in exile in Calvin’s city never forgot the experience: in marked them for life. They remained committed to what they had been taught there and never felt comfortable in the compromised world of the Elizabethan settlement. Many of these ‘Genevans’ kept themselves apart from English churches in order to preserve discipline, preferring to attend the services of the Dutch and French churches in London with their Geneva-style discipline rather than their own parishes. They belonged to the generation that had been shaped by the experiences of exile and through their contacts with Geneva and Zurich they became part of the Reformed church, which had been rejected by the Lutherans. When they died, the legacy remained. The stranger churches were the principal line of contact to Geneva, the practical means by which correspondence was exchanged. And Puritanism took from those churches Calvin’s theology, which it made its own. We are now aware of the astonishing quantity of Calvin’s works translated into English during the sixteenth century, far outstripping his contemporaries, even Bullinger. The 1559 Institutes was printed in translation in 1561, but that was just the tip of the iceberg, for it was soon followed by the biblical commentaries particularly during the 1570s. Calvin was long dead, but in England he was now reaching the lay audience he had so vigorously pursued.

–Bruce Gordon, Calvin, pg. 266

It wasn’t so much through all of his direct efforts to influence Reform from the top down in the English church, but in the slower, smaller, long-range work that he had his effect. It was in his efforts to find places for exiles in other communities, especially his personal hospitality towards exiled ministers, to secure properly trained pastors for churches in other nations, and the slow, steady stream of scholarship that ended up exerting the widespread reach he ended up having. In other words, the growth of English fruit was slow, indirect, and not the sort that it seems Calvin had hoped for most.

I don’t know that there are any easy moral lessons here, except to wonder at the odd, providential ways that our work bears fruit. I don’t think it’s a matter of saying “See, look, it’s the grass-roots stuff that works! Not that top-down Constantinianism!” I don’t particularly think it was a bad thing for Calvin to occupy himself writing the top leaders of the Reformation, or dedicating a commentary to Queen Elizabeth in order to gain her ear. It didn’t work, but I don’t think it would have been an insignificant or bad thing if he had. It had certainly had an impact in other situations.

All I will say is that it’s worth reflecting on the fact that we cannot predict what impact our faithful labors. Remember that it is “God who gives the growth.” Ours is only to obediently plant, water, and wait–maybe with a little less staring, as that tends to keep us from more planting and watering.

Soli Deo Gloria

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