August 21, 2013

Lost Letter to the Corinthians

Stephen Nichols
Lost Letter to the Corinthians


A little known book on Calvin, John Calvin and the Printed Book by Jean Francios Gilmont, tells a rather intriguing story. But first, we need some background.

Calvin, after he was kicked out of Geneva in 1538, went to Strasbourg. While there, he published his first commentary, on the Epistle to the Romans. It rolled off the press in 1540. The next year, 1541, the city of Geneva begged Calvin to come back. He wrote to a friend, "There is no place on earth I am more afraid of." But, he felt called by God, and so he went.

When he published his Romans commentary he was determined to keep going through Paul's Epistles. But, a roadblock got in the way, a roadblock named Geneva. The church needed Calvin's full attention, and he gave it to them. So these early years of the 1540s were much consumed by church work. The commentary writing went to the back burner. Calvin eventually managed to find some equilibrium, and started writing again. His commentary on 1 Corinthians came out in 1546.

And now we get to our story. After he sent off 1 Corinthians to the printer in Strasbourg, Calvin set to work on 2 Corinthians. He finished it in a flurry. From what we can tell, Calvin's record was 17,000 words in about three days. That's 100 pages.

So he finished 2 Corinthians. In late July 1546, he sent the manuscript—the only copy of the manuscript—by way of a courier to Strasbourg. It was hand-written. No back-up. It went missing for over a month. Another roadblock.

Back in Geneva was a very anxious Calvin. He wrote, "If I find that my commentary is lost, I have decided to never return to Paul again." His friends weren't of much help. Rather than console him, Farel wrote to him, "Given that mothers do not neglect their children, you too should have sent out this fruit of the Lord with greater care." Ouch. Apparently, Farel was reading the account of Job's friends and mistakenly thought it was a command.

But, on September 15, 1546, the word reached Calvin that the manuscript was found safely at Strasbourg and being set to print. No explanations have come down through history, so we're not sure what the manuscript was doing. It might have had something to do with the Shmalkaldic Wars—wars between the Holy Roman Empire—or what was left of it—and the league of German and Swiss princes known as the Schmalkaldic League. We don't know. What we do know is that it caused Calvin a month-load of grief.

I like this story because it shows us a Calvin we can relate to. One who frets and worries. One who says desperate things—"I'll never touch Paul again." I don't know what image you have of Calvin. I hope it's not the wrong-headed caricature of a dour and mean prophet of gloom. I suspect we tend to think of him as living a somewhat ivory tower life, immune from the challenges we all face in life. Immune from disappointments and roadblocks, frustrations and anxieties. He was not.

Maybe we think of him as a Super Christian, always living out the commands of Christ. No, he wasn't that, either. Yet, it is precisely in his humanity that we not only need to see him, but we see him as an example for us. I like stories like this because I lose everything. Keys. I misplace my wallet at least three times a week. I don't like gift cards because, well, I lose them. And I get anxious.

If Calvin is known for anything, it's reminding the church of a bedrock faith, God is sovereign over his universe. God is even sovereign over so-called lost manuscripts. We fret and worry and get anxious. We even say desperate things. All the while, we need to rest in God. To trust him through the roadblocks.

As Paul says in the opening lines of 2 Corinthians, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort."