A Summary of Calvinâ€™s Interpretation of Scripture
A Summary of Calvinâ€™s Interpretation of Scripture
Compiled by Charles R. Biggs
We can learn so much from our fathers (and mothers!) in the faith. Today's blog is on Calvin's Hermeneutical Method. I would encourage you to read and ponder how John Calvin interpreted his Bible.
The Bible is God's Word; it is inspired and inerrant, yet it needs to be interpreted. We would all wish sometimes that God would have been pleased to give us an inspired interpretation of the Bible, but he gave us His Church.
God in his goodness, gave to us His complete Word, and in his wisdom saw fit to gift and call imperfect people to be about the hard work of rightly interpreting it (Nehemiah 8:1ff; Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). John Calvin is one of the ablest and finest interpreters of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word in the history of Christ's church. He was very careful to seek what God was saying to His Church, and to declare it in a way that is exemplary to us today.
This short summary of Calvin's eight exegetical principles (with quotations from Calvin's other writings) is offered to you with hopes that you too can continue to learn not only the science, but also the art of interpreting God's Word. I have compiled the following short study from Sydney Greidanus' book 'Preaching Christ from the Old Testament', Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1999 (Highly recommended book!!), John Calvin's 'Institutes of the Christian Religion' (also highly recommended), Calvinâ€™s Commentaries (a must have!).
God's Word is the only rule of faith and practice for the Christian. His people long to hear it rightly interpreted, so that they can better understand their faith and their life.
May God grant a new reformation leading to great revival because men and women again will hear the Word of God rightly handled, and that God in His Spirit would correct, rebuke, encourage, and train us in His righteousness so that we might be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
I. Calvinâ€™s Hermeneutical Method: Eight Exegetical Principles for Bible Study
(1) Clarity and Brevity
In a letter concerning his commentary on Romans, Calvin remarks that the best virtues of commentators are â€œclarity and brevity.â€ These virtues require the interpreter to aim for both transparency of exposition and focus. Calvin says, â€œAllegory is to be strictly excluded. When the purpose is to let the matter itself speak out in the exposition, there is no time for luxuriating in the wealth of problems that so many exegetes love, not for the sake of the text, but to draw attention to themselvesâ€ (Corpus Reformatorum, 59.33).
(2) The Intention of the Author
The constant search for the intention of the author is characteristic of Calvinâ€™s commentaries. Calvin writes, â€œSince it is almost the interpreterâ€™s only task to unfold the mind of the writer whom he has undertaken to expound, he misses the mark, or at least strays outside his limits, by the extent to which he leads his students away from the meaning of author [in the Bible].â€ Calvin underscores the seriousness of Biblical exposition: â€œIt is presumptuous and almost blasphemous to turn the meaning of scripture around without due care, as though it were some game that we were playingâ€ (Calvin, Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, 1.4).
(3) The Historical Context
In his Institutes, Calvin states, â€œThere are many statements in Scripture the meaning of which depends upon their contextâ€ (4.16.23). In his commentaries, Calvin often sets forth the historical context of a passage before giving an exposition of the text. For example, in dealing with the Psalms, Calvin speaks of the â€˜solemn assemblyâ€™ at which songs of praise were sung; of a â€˜public occasion of thanksgivingâ€™ in which the psalms of thanks had their setting; andâ€¦of a â€˜festival of renewal of the covenantâ€™ in which there was a solemn service of renewal and promises were signed and sealed and made binding by a covenant sacrificeâ€ (Corpus Reformatorum, 59-60).
(4) Original, Grammatical Meaning
In opposing Origen and allegorical interpretation, Calvin asserts, â€œLet us know that the true meaning of Scripture is the genuine and simple one [germanus et simplex], and let us embrace and hold it tightly. Let usâ€¦boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those fictitious expositions which lead us away from the literal senseâ€ (Calvini Opera- Corpus Reformatorum, 50.237; Institutes, 4.17.22). One theologian (B. S. Childs) suggests that â€œCalvin does notâ€¦need to add a secondary or spiritual meaning to the text because the literal sense is its own witness to Godâ€™s divine planâ€ (Childs, Sensus Literalis, 87).
(5) Literary Context
A passage should be understood not only in its historical context but also in its literary context. One place where Calvin refers to this principle is in dealing with the many protestations of innocence in the Psalms: â€œIf you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find not wickedness in meâ€ (Ps. 17:3). After listing about a dozen such passages as this one, Calvin writes, â€œAs for the testimonies (passages) we have adduced at this point, they will not hinder us much if they are understood according to their context, or, in common parlance, circumstances.â€ And he comes to the conclusion that, although the godly may â€œdefend their innocence against the hypocrisy of the ungodly, still, when they are dealing with God alone, all cry out with one voice: â€˜If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquity, Lord, who shall stand?â€™â€ (Institutes, 3.17.14). It is important to recognize genre or the type of literature you are reading. For example, is it poetry (like the Psalms); wisdom (Proverbs, Job); historical (Joshua, Samuel, Kings, Acts, etc.); epistles (Letters of Paul)?, etc.
(6) Meaning Beyond the Literal Biblical Wording
In dealing with the Decalogue, Calvin raises the issue of extending the meaning of a law beyond its literal meaning. He states as a general principle, â€œThe commandments and prohibitions always contain more than is expressed in words.â€ But he seeks, â€œto temper this principleâ€ so that it may not lead us â€œto twist Scripture.â€ He says, â€œWe must if possible, therefore, find some way to lead us with straight, firm steps to the will of God. We must, I say, inquire how far interpretation ought to overstep the limits of the words themselves so that it may be seen to beâ€¦the Lawgiverâ€™s pure and authentic meaning, faithfully renderedâ€¦Now I think this would be the best rule, if attention be directed to the reason of the commandment; that is, in each commandment to ponder why it was given to us.â€ In other words, Calvin looks beyond the literal meaning of a passage to the authorâ€™s goal. He uses as an example the fifth commandment, â€œHonor your father and your motherâ€: â€œThe purpose of the 5th Commandment is that honor ought to be paid to those to whom God has assigned it. This, then, is the substance of the commandment: that it is right and pleasing to God for us to honor those on whom he has bestowed some excellence; and that he abhors contempt and stubbornness against themâ€ (Institutes, 2.8.8). Calvin seems to follow the example of interpreting the Old Testament like our Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
(7) Figures of Speech
For Calvin literal interpretation does not mean wooden literalism. He discusses at length the necessity of interpreting figures of speech as figures. Calvin observes, â€œWhere Scripture calls God â€˜a man of warâ€™ (Ex. 15:3), because I see that this saying would be too harsh without interpretation, I do not doubt that it is a comparison drawn from men.â€ He draws attention to such statements in Scripture as: â€œGodâ€™s eyes see,â€ â€œIt came up to his ears,â€ and â€œHis hand extended.â€ These statements are anthropomorphic and must be so interpreted. Failure to do so, says Calvin, leads to â€œa boundless barbarism.â€ For what monstrous absurdities will these fanatical men not draw forth from Scripture if they be allowedâ€¦to establish what they please!â€ (Institutes, 4.17.23).
(8) The Scope of Focus on the Person and Work of Christ
Commenting on Jesusâ€™ words, â€œThese are the Scriptures that testify about meâ€ (John 5:39, NIV), Calvin writes, â€œWe ought to read the Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in them. Whoever shall turn aside from this object, though he may weary himself throughout his whole life in learning, will never attain the knowledge of the truth; for what wisdom can we have without the wisdom of God?â€ (Calvinâ€™s Comm. John 5:39).
II. The Relation between the Old and New Testaments
â€¢ Calvin is aware of differences between the OT and the NT, of course, but they pale in light of his emphasis on the unity. He writes, â€œI freely admit the differences in Scripture, to which attention is called, but in such a way as not to detract from its established unity.â€ For the differences â€œpertain to the manner of time period or epoch rather than to the substanceâ€¦In this way there will be nothing to hinder the promises of the Old and New Testaments from remaining the same, nor from having the same foundation of these very promises - -Christ!â€ (Institutes, 2.11.1).
â€¢ Calvin goes on to discuss at length five differences: (1) The OT stresses earthly benefits in contrast to the heavenly reality; (2) The OT speaks in images and shadows in contrast to â€œthe substanceâ€; (3) The OT has the character of the outward letter in contrast to the Spirit (Jer. 31:31-34); (4) The OT is characterized as bondage in contrast to freedom (Gal. 3-4); (5) The OT was restricted to one nation in contrast to all nations (Acts 2; cf. Gen. 15:1-6) (Institutes, 2.11.1-12).
For Calvin, however, these differences between the OT and NT are only differences in the form of administration of the covenant, not in the substance of the covenant of grace. For example, in discussing the ceremonial law, Calvin argues that the ceremonies â€œhave been abrogated not in effect but only in use. Christ by his coming has terminiated them, but has not deprived them of anything of their sanctityâ€¦Just as the ceremonies would have provided the people of the Old Covenant with an empty show if the poiwer of Christâ€™s death and resurrection had not been displayed therein; so, if they had not ceased, we would be unable today to discern for what purpose they were establishedâ€ (Institutes, 2.7.16).
â€¢ The major difference for Calvin between the OT and the NT is the degree of clarity regarding Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. As he says in one of his commentaries, â€œUnder the Law was shadowed forth only in rude and imperfect lines what is under the Gospel set forth in living colors and graphically distinct.â€ Yet to believers in the Old Covenant and believers in the New Covenant, â€œthe same Christ is exhibited, the same righteousness, sanctification, and salvation; and the difference only is in the manner of paintingâ€ (Comm. Heb. 10:1; Institutes, 1.11.10).
III. Understanding in the Context of the Whole Bible
â€¢ Because of his view of the unity of Scripture (the fact that the Holy Spirit is the One Author who inspires different authors), Calvin seeks to understand a passage within the overall thrust of Scripture. Today we speak of the hermeneutical circle (or spiral): one cannot understand a part without understanding the whole, and one cannot understand the whole without understanding the parts.
The key question for Bible teachers is how to enter this hermeneutical circle in the right way. How does one gain a view of the whole of Scripture so as to understand and teach the parts correctly? Interestingly, in his Preface to his 'Institutes' Calvin declares that he wrote this work precisely to help his students gain an overall view of Scripture: â€œIt has been my purpose in his labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling. For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought to especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contentsâ€ (Institutes, Preface to 1559 edition).
IV. Christocentric Interpretation
(1) Against Allegory
We want to consider Calvinâ€™s â€˜Christocentric Interpretationâ€™ but we must understand that â€œallegoryâ€ or any type of â€œspiritual interpretationâ€ was not Christ-centered interpretation. Calvinâ€™s introduction to Chrysotom discloses his aversion to â€œtwisting the plain meaning of the wordsâ€ by way of allegorical interpretation. Commenting on â€œThe letter kills, but the Spirit gives lifeâ€ (2 Cor, 3:6), he writes, â€œThis passage has been distorted and wrongly interpreted first by Origen and then by othersâ€¦This error of allegory has been the source of many evils. Not only did it open the way for the adulteration of the natural meaning of Scripture but also set up boldness in allegorizing as the chief exegetical virtue.
Thus many of the ancients without any restraint played all sorts of games with the sacred Word of God, as if they were tossing a ball to and fro. It also gave heretics a chance to throw the Church into turmoil, for when it is accepted practice for anybody to interpret any passage in any way he desired, any mad idea, however absurd or monstrous, could be introduced under the pretext of allegoryâ€ (Comm. 2 Cor. 3:6; Corpus Reformatorum, 50.40-41). In fact, Calvin considers allegorizing a ploy of Satan to undermine true biblical teaching. He asserts, â€œWe mustâ€¦entirely reject the allegories of Origen, and of others like him, which Satan, with the deepest subtlety, has endeavored to introduce into the Church, for the purpose of rendering the doctrine of Scripture ambiguous and destitute of all certainty and firmnessâ€ (Comm. Gen. 2:8; Gen. 6:14).
(2) The Intention of the Holy Spirit
â€¢ Since the Holy Spirit used human authors to communicate, we must never begin with the Spiritâ€™s meaning without first considering the human authorâ€™s meaning which He used. Like the Incarnate Word who was 100% human and 100% divine in One Person, so the written Word is 100% human and 100% divine in One Book, the Bible. In addition to Calvin speaking of the human authorâ€™s intention, he also speaks of the â€œintention of the Holy Spiritâ€ or the â€œintention of God.â€ For example, in rejecting a particular interpretation, Calvin says, â€œI think the Holy Spirit has a different intention hereâ€ (Comm. Daniel 12:4). By referring to the intention of the Holy Spirit, Calvin seems to be moving beyond the intention of the human author once established. Yet the two are intimately related (see above â€œincarnational analogy between Incarnate Word and Written Word of God: two natures, yet oneâ€).
â€¢ Calvin is unwilling to divorce the intention of the human writer from the meaning of the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that for him, the inspired intention, thoughts, and words of the prophet and of the Holy Spirit in the production of Scripture are so closely related there is no practical way to distinguish themâ€ (D. Puckett, Calvinâ€™s Exegesis, 36-37).
(3) The Goal of Finding Christ in the Old Testament
Jesus says to the Jews, â€œYou diligently study the Scriptures, because you think by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about meâ€ (John 5:39, NIV). Calvin comments, â€œWe ought to read the Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in themâ€¦By the Scriptures, it is well known, is here meant the Old Testament; for it was not in the Gospel that Christ first began to be manifested, but, having received testimony from the Law and Prophets, he was openly exhibited in the Gospelâ€ (Comm. John 5:39). Elsewhere he writes, â€œThis is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Fatherâ€ (Calvin, Preface to the French Trans. Of the NT).
(4) Progressive Revelation (Redemptive-History)
In searching for Christ in the OT, Calvin is aware that Godâ€™s revelation concerning Christ is not as clear in the OT as it is in the NT. But even in the OT, it becomes ever clearer. Calvin seeks to convey this progression in revelation with images which move from shadow to reality and from spark to the sun. He writes in his Institutes, â€œThe Lord held to this orderly plan in administering the covenant of his mercy: as the day of full revelation approached with the passing of time, the more he increased each day the brightness of its manifestation.
Accordingly, at the beginning when the first promise of salvation was given to Adam (Gen. 3:15) it glowed like a feeble spark. Then, as it was added to, the light grew in fullness, breaking forth increasingly and shedding its radiance more widely. At last- - when all the clouds were dispersed- -Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, fully illumined the whole earthâ€ (Institutes, 2.10.20). Progressive revelation, therefore, does not mean that Godâ€™s people in the OT were without any light. The patriarchs, says Calvin, were not â€œwithout the preaching that contains the hope of salvation and of eternal life, butâ€¦they only glimpsed from afar and in shadowy outline what we see today in full daylightâ€ (Institutes, 2.7.16; 2.9.1; Comm. Gal. 3:23). How then is Christ present in the OT? From the evidence we can gather that Calvin would answer in at least three ways: (1) Christ is present in the OT as the eternal logos, (2) Christ as promise, and (3) Christ as type.
For more on John Calvin and his understanding of the Work of the Holy Spirit, Go to: http://www.aplacefortruth.org/studies.htm