June 15, 2023

Derek Thomas on Calvin’s Sermons on Job

Stephen Nichols & Derek Thomas
Derek Thomas on Calvin’s Sermons on Job

Preaching from the book of Job, John Calvin said, “It is a great thing to be subject to the majesty of God.” Today on the Open Book podcast, Derek Thomas tells Stephen Nichols about the collection of sermons that captivated him for seven years.


Dr. Stephen Nichols: Welcome back to another episode of Open Book. Now, Dr. Thomas, it’s good to see you again.

Dr. Derek Thomas: Good to see you too.

Nichols: I just had my breath taken away for a little bit here because this is a very heavy book.

Thomas: It is—in more ways than one.

Nichols: In more ways than one. It has a lot of gravitas. It’s also an oddly shaped book. It’s thin, but very long pages, so I don’t know what the full dimensions are here. It’s also double column, and it is a facsimile edition.

Thomas: In Elizabethan English.

Nichols: In Elizabethan English. We are actually pre-King James with this book. We are right in the heart . . .

Thomas: This is 1574.

Nichols: . . . of Elizabethan English, published in London.

Thomas: And the translator here—and we should say the book is Calvin.

Nichols: We are talking about Calvin.

Thomas: And they’re sermons of Calvin, so they were originally in French, but Arthur Golding is the translator, a very well-known person in the sixteenth century.

Nichols: Have you ever tried to track down an original of this?

Thomas: Yes, I have.

Nichols: Were you successful?

Thomas: Yes, but it’s at home.

Nichols: Why aren’t we there?

Thomas: I do actually have an original.

Nichols: Okay. I could see why you would keep that home and keep the facsimile in the office.

Thomas: Yes.

Nichols: So, this is Sermons of the Master John Calvin upon the Book of Job.

Thomas: Well, actually I tell a lie because as I stand up . . .

Nichols: You see it.

Thomas: . . . I suddenly remember it is here.

Nichols: It is here. Okay, let’s take a look at this.

Thomas: So, this is not the original cover, but the contents are the original.

Nichols: Oh, this has had a new book binding put on it. It’s got a spine label with John Calvin, but the French, Jean Calvin: Sermons upon—not Sermons onSermons upon the Book of Job. And this is it? This is an original?

Thomas: Yes. Now you’re in the original part.

Nichols: OK.

Thomas: And it’s not in great condition.

Nichols: No, but, I don’t know—people don’t look this good this old.

Thomas: Well, that’s true.

Nichols: So we can give the book a little bit of a break. So, this is delightful. I mean, this is absolutely delightful. I’m grateful you let me see this and hold this. This is beautiful. This book is very important to you, Calvin’s sermons on Job. You want to tell us?

Thomas: Right. So the copy that you have, not the original one here, which I’m going to hold onto . . .

Nichols: I’ll make sure you get that back.

Thomas: . . . but the copy that you have was published by the Banner of Truth in 1993. And I was a pastor in Belfast, but I was also the editor of the denominational magazine called the Evangelical Presbyterian. And one of the reasons I agreed to be the editor of this magazine was because publishers would send you books.

Nichols: You get free books.

Thomas: And the Banner, especially, sent every book that they published.

Nichols: And they’re expensive.

Thomas: And so this arrived at my door one day, and it’s sitting on my desk and I look at it. And if you open it anywhere really, you say to yourself, “Who’s going to read this?” Because f’s look like s’s.

Nichols: It’s going to take you a while to just get your footing, sure.

Thomas: Right. So it’s very difficult to read, and I thought, “No one’s going to read this.” And a few weeks later, Sinclair Ferguson is staying in my house. He’s preaching a series of sermons for me. And I point out this book. And he was of course on the board of Banner.

Nichols: He was, that’s right. He still is.

Thomas: And I said to him, “What in the world possessed you to republish this book?”

Nichols: Yes.

Thomas: And he said, “Well, you should read it.” Actually, he said, “You should do a Ph.D. on it,” and I laughed, and . . . 

Nichols: This is like Abraham and Sarah, is what this is.

Thomas: . . . a week or two later, I began to read the sermons.

Nichols: Yes.

Thomas: And by about sermon five or six, this issue arises that Calvin says, “There is a righteousness in God that exceeds the righteousness that is of the law.” And I thought, “What is this, that you can obey the law and still not be righteous?”

And he’s basing it on a text in Job 4:18, and this completely intrigues me to the point of almost obsession. And then I was having coffee with another colleague of mine who was also doing a Ph.D. on Calvin, and I mentioned it to him and he said, “Oh yes,” he said, “You should do a Ph.D. on that.” And I said, “What?”

Nichols: It’s a conspiracy.

Thomas: It is a conspiracy. So, I ended up spending the next seven years or so . . .

Nichols: With Calvin’s sermons on Job.

Thomas: . . . on Job. And I have at least three copies of the one that you have with underlinings.

Nichols: So, three copies because you needed one at all the locations you were at the time?

Thomas: Yes, and then I bought this original one after the fact.

Nichols: Sure. You had to.

Thomas: So, these are sermons that Calvin preached in 1554 and 1555. And they were weekday sermons beginning in February of 1554.

Nichols: Were these preached in St. Pierre’s or would these be in the auditoire next door?

Thomas: In the cathedral.

Nichols: In the cathedral. OK, so these were preached from the cathedral.

Thomas: And they appear to be about forty-five, fifty minutes long if you read the French in a sort of standard style.

Nichols: Yes. You’ve got all sorts of margin notes in here. So, again, you have your nice, precise—because it’s such a lovely volume—you have your precise margin notes. You’re noting that Calvin is talking about the image of God.

Thomas: And then at some point, a TA went through all of my underlinings and typed them all up for me.

Nichols: So the quotes—pulled out the quotes?

Thomas: So, they become quotes that I can use much more conveniently than . . .

Nichols: Yes, trying to find them later.

Thomas: And I never learned to type in school. Only the girls did typing. It was regarded as something very girly to learn to type, and boys did woodwork and metalwork.

Nichols: Yes.

Thomas: And girls did typing.

Nichols: Especially in Wales.

Thomas: We’re talking the 1960s. And so, I still find typing cumbersome.

Nichols: Well, that’s why it’s nice to have the TA. So, you did the dissertation. It’s been published. It’s its own book.

Thomas: Yes, on the incomprehensibility of God. It’s a word that Calvin uses in this book hundreds of times.

Nichols: It wasn’t too long ago we were together, we were talking about Charnock and knowing God, and we’re seeing the same emphasis here in Calvin. There’s something about this; I’ve noticed this more and more: you have these Mount Everests in church history, and somewhere along the line, they all are very much focused on the doctrine of God.

Thomas: In the very opening sermon—I think it’s on the first or second page—Calvin says, “It is a great thing to be subject to the majesty of God.” And you are caught from the very first sermon in what, for Calvin, is the essential message of the book: that God is majestic and incomprehensible. And the book isn’t really about the problem of pain; it’s about being subject to God’s sovereignty.

Nichols: And finally, Job puts his hand over his mouth, and he is silent as God out of the whirlwind speaks to him. It’s beautiful.

Well, thank you for sharing both this facsimile and thank you for coming clean that you actually had the original here in your office.

Thomas: I forgot it was in my office.

Nichols: And you let me share that with you. Very grateful for that. Thank you, Dr. Thomas.

Thomas: Thank you.

Nichols: I’m Steve Nichols and thank you for listening to Open Book, a podcast about the power of books and the people they’ve shaped. Want more of Open Book? Listen to past episodes at openbookpodcast.com or find the show in any podcast app. Open Book is a listener-supported outreach of Ligonier Ministries. We’ll be back in the library next week, so please join us again for another episode of Open Book.