Theodore Beza carried on the work of the church and academy in Geneva after John Calvin went to be with the Lord. Only three months after Calvin’s death in 1564, Beza published the first edition of his biography of John Calvin, The Life of John Calvin. The following section of Beza’s work stood out to me. No longer do we read providence the way our Reformed fathers in the faith did. These are the same men who taught us to see God’s Word as the only infallible revelation, yet they were willing to read God’s providence through means in His creation in a manner that many of us would refuse and rebuke. Here’s the passage I’m speaking of…
The following month, Calvin suffered an attack of gout which lasted several days. This was so severe that on the 18th, which was the day set for the examination of pastors in preparation for the Christmas communion service, they gathered in his room while he stayed in bed.
There had been a fierce gale blowing all night long and it continued to increase in fury as the day went on. The wind continued to rage all the next day, which was a Saturday, before dying down on the Sunday. In the presence of the assembled ministers, Calvin remarked on the force of the wind and uttered words which were to prove true in the days that followed. ‘I do not know what it is,’ he said, ‘but all last night, as I listened to this wind, it seemed to me as if I could hear God’s beating a drum in the breezes. I cannot get the thought out of my mind that something important is happening.’ Now, ten or twelve days later, the news reached us that the battle of Dreux had been fought on Saturday, 19 March and, whatever else one may say about it, there is no question that in that battle God rose up against the enemies of his church.
Calvin is guarded about the way he speaks of his impressions, his reading of God’s providence in the storm that raged outside his bedroom windows, but he nonetheless concludes that the fierceness of the unrelenting winds meant something. Beza goes on to say that those impressions Calvin received by his reading of the winds were confirmed.
Now, of course, there could be all kinds of abuses of this kind of reading of God’s creation. If you are inclined to need a sign from God for each, for some, for even one of your decisions, serious or mundane (Mark 8:12)—should I turn right or should I turn left?—you are prone to read too much into a lightning bolt, a friend’s words, or the color of the sunset. You should get back to the Word.
Yet, I think Presbyterians are inclined to the opposite extreme. We are inclined to think that the lightening which frightened Luther was happenstance, delightful coincidence. Or the circumstances that detoured Calvin to Geneva into the merciless counsel of William Farel were, again, wonderful coincidence. Luther had no right, we reason, to believe God was speaking to him through a means outside of His Word. Luther would beg to differ. And Calvin, as we read this history in Beza’s Life, would too. He is willing to give a place to God speaking through His providence in His creation. This speech is not specific or infallible or authoritative, as is God’s Word, but it does comport with a wholesome doctrine of God’s providence—that all things come to pass according to the free and immutable counsel of His own will. God was speaking, at least to Calvin, by means of a fierce gale of wind on that day in 1562. Calvin heard God’s drum beating in those winds. The details were hidden, the specifics were not manufactured by Calvin, but he was confident enough to believe the winds indicated something of God’s work…so confident that he spoke of this impression before the gathering of Geneva’s pastors, after having spent the whole night wondering about it.
I wonder at the response if we said something similar in a session meeting or on the floor of a presbytery meeting?
Would that we had a similar awe in God’s providence—that “the heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1).