Calvin As Exegetical Moderate

Understood in his own context, as he saw himself, John Calvin (1509–64) was before anything else an interpreter of texts. This is the task for which his humanist education prepared him. Thus, his first published work was a 1532 commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia.1 He published biblical commentaries covering vast portions of Scripture.2 The books on which he did not publish commentaries are notable for that fact (e.g., The Revelation). To call attention to the importance of his work as an interpreter of texts is not to deny his other roles. He was also a pastor, counselor, friend, and a leader of a movement. He was all these things simultaneously.

The Value of Calvin’s Commentaries

We ought to consider Calvin as an interpreter because, remarkably, we are still reading his commentaries. There are not very many sixteenth-century biblical commentaries that have been as widely read as Calvin’s. One reason for this is his commitment to being lucid and brief in his comments. Contrast his 1540 commentary on Romans to those of Martin Bucer (1491–1551), with whom he served in Strasbourg during his exile from Geneva (1538–41), and that of his student, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87). Theodore Beza (1519–1605), commenting on Bucer’s Romans commentary, called him a “great athlete.”3 Beza spoke that way because Bucer went on at great length in his commentary. The same is true of Olevianus, who thought nothing of taking the opportunity from a single word in a passage to go on a twenty-page doctrinal digression. Calvin, however, had a different system. Instead of including lengthy doctrinal digressions in his biblical commentaries, he harvested them and published them separately in his Institutes, which grew steadily between 1536 and 1559. To this day, Calvin’s commentaries remain useful to biblical interpreters precisely because he paid attention to the original context and grammar, and to the broader context of the book and the canon of Scripture, while never losing focus on the particular passage before him.

This is not to say he had no critics. In his own time, he was accused by some of his Lutheran critics of being a Judaizer—that is, of failing to account for the progress of redemptive history.4

“If Anyone Prefers”

One facet of his work, however, that has not received sufficient attention, but which has long fascinated me, is his willingness to consider exegetical options, opinions, and conclusions other than his own. Calvin’s relative open-mindedness when it comes to interpreting a given passage acts as a counterpoint to the lazy narrative of Calvin as tyrant (exegetical or otherwise).5

There are certain repeated phrases in Calvin’s commentaries that stand out. One of them is typically translated with something like the words, “if anyone prefers,” as in his comments on the sense of “law” in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:38): “If anyone prefers to interpret ‘living’ as efficacious and full of power, I shall not object too strenuously.”6 Commenting on the difficulties associated with Matthew’s language in Matthew 2:23 (i.e., “He shall be called a Nazarene”), Calvin wrote,

I think Bucer’s judgment with regard to this matter is the best. He thinks we find the reference we need in Judg. 13:5. This verse has to do with Samson, who is called deliverer in so far as he prefigured Christ; and the salvation which came by his hand and ministry was a shadowy prelude to the fullness of salvation which was exhibited to the world in the Son of God. Anything good said about Samson in Scripture must by right be transferred to Christ. If anyone prefers it that way, Christ is the original exemplar, and Samson is the inferior copy (antitype). We must understand that when Samson was invested with the honors due to the person of the Savior, the titles which adorn that high and truly divine office were intended not for him but for Christ. The fathers had only a taste of that grace of redemption which we who are in Christ have received in full.7

On Romans 8:28–30, Calvin wrote,

He has a wonderful way of turning the hardship they experience into a means of their salvation. If anyone prefers to read this sentence by itself, as a new argument, taking Paul to mean that we must not be troubled and bitter about hardships which in fact are helps toward our salvation, I do not object. However, there is nothing obscure about Paul’s meaning. Even though the elect and the reprobate are liable without distinction to the same evils, there is a great difference between the sufferings of the two; for, by means of afflictions, God trains the faithful and oversees their salvation.8

We see him taking a similar approach regarding the doctrine of predestination in his comments on Titus 1:2:

If anyone prefers, in short, the times of the ages may be taken to mean the ages themselves. Since salvation was given by the eternal election of God before it was promised, in the passage in Timothy it is said to have been given before all ages; there the word “all” is implicit. But here, “the times of the ages” means nothing but that the promise is older than the long succession of the ages, because it began forthwith at the creation of the world.9

“I Do Not Object”

In the Calvin Translation Society edition of his commentaries, the expression, “I do not object,” occurs fifty-six times. For example, on 2 Peter 1:10, regarding being diligent to make one’s calling and election sure, Calvin wrote,

He mentions calling first, though the last in order. The reason is, because election is of greater weight or importance; and it is a right arrangement of a sentence to subjoin what preponderates. The meaning then is, labor that you may have it really proved that you have not been called nor elected in vain. At the same time he speaks here of calling as the effect and evidence of election. If any one prefers to regard the two words as meaning the same thing, I do not object; for the Scripture sometimes merges the difference which exists between two terms. I have, however, stated what seems to me more probable.10

Here we see Calvin expressing an exegetical opinion and explaining that he regards his view as “more probable.” For those of us who have been long exposed to the older reading of Calvin as the inflexible and dogmatic theologian of Geneva (a variant on the Calvin as tyrant theme), this sort of language is both refreshing and possibly unexpected.

On the object of the doxology in Hebrews 13:21, Calvin wrote,

To whom be glory, etc. This I refer to Christ. And as he here ascribes to Christ what peculiarly belongs to God alone, he thus bears a clear testimony to his divinity; but still if any one prefers to explain this of the Father, I do not object; though I embrace the other sense, as being the most obvious.11

Again, we see Calvin appealing to probabilities. This pattern occurs throughout Calvin’s theological writing and especially in his biblical commentaries.

What should we make of his use of this sort of language and of his relatively tolerant approach to a diversity of exegetical opinion? First, no one should think that Calvin was an exegetical latitudinarian. He was not. His understanding of Scripture was controlled by the analogy of Scripture (comparing the clearer with the less clear) and the analogy of faith (analogy fidei). He was no proto-Socinian biblicist, content to read the Scripture in isolation from the church or other biblical interpreters. Indeed, his commentaries show a wide range of reading in the fathers and among other sixteenth-century interpreters. He was an intelligent and thoughtful reader of Scripture, but he was not a bigoted or narrow-minded reader of Scripture. He did not think of his interpretations of Scripture as themselves inspired. He was not a cult leader or even particularly domineering in his interpretation of Holy Scripture. He was open to exegetical arguments, grounded in the text, the context, and the history of redemption as recorded in Scripture. He was devoted to interpreting texts, in their context, as they were intended by the human author—he was not called a humanist for no reason—as distinct from those older approaches which more or less ignored the human author and the original context in favor of the theological sense (sensus allegoricus), or the moral sense (sensus tropologicus), or the eschatological sense (sensus anagogicus).12 It is not that he was insensitive to what J. I. Packer called the sensus plenior (the fuller sense), which some evangelicals are rediscovering; but his first allegiance was to get right the sense intended by the human author of Scripture.

Notes

  1. Wulfert de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin, Expanded Edition: An Introductory Guide, trans. Lyle D. Bierma (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 233; Jean Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Seneca’s de Clementia, ed. Ford Lewis Battles and André Malan Hugo (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1969).
  2. “Calvin’s Commentaries and sermons fill volumes 23–55 of his Works (in Corpus Reformatorum); and the Commentaries by themselves fill forty-five volumes in English: thirty on the Old Testament, fifteen on the New Testament (in the series of the Calvin Translation Society).” Joseph Haroutunian and Louise Pettibone Smith, Calvin: Commentaries (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 16.
  3. R. Scott Clark, “The Reception of Paul in Heidelberg: The Pauline Commentaries of Caspar Olevianus,” in ed. R. Ward Holder, A Companion to Paul in the Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 297–318.
  4. G. Sujin Pak, The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  5. See R. Scott Clark, “The ‘Calvin As Tyrant Meme.’
  6. Haroutunian and Smith, ed., Calvin: Commentaries, 103.
  7. Calvin was referring to Bucer, In sacra quatuor evangelia, enarrationes perpetua (1536), Haroutunian and Smith, Calvin: Commentaries, 118.
  8. Haroutunian and Smith, Calvin: Commentaries, 307.
  9. Haroutunian and Smith, Calvin: Commentaries, 311–12.
  10. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 376. NB: The John Owen who translated these commentaries was an Anglican minister, not the great Congregational English theologian of the seventeenth century.
  11. John Calvin, Epistle of Paul, 357.
  12. See R. Scott Clark, “The Quadriga.”

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. “Theodore Beza (1519–1605), commenting on Bucer’s Romans commentary, called him a “great athlete.” Beza spoke that way because Bucer went on at great length in his commentary.”

    My new favorite descriptor for a certain kind of sermon: athletic.

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