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Calvin as Biblical Interpreter

Resident Faculty, S. M. Baugh   |   May 1, 2009   |  Type: Articles

Between 1540 and early in 1564 when he gave his last biblical lecture, John Calvin published commentaries on nearly 50 of the Bible’s 66 books. That is an average of a little more than two biblical books per year. This feat becomes even more unimaginable when you consider that many of these works were originally published in both Latin and French, and some books like his Romans commentary or the Institutes were revised and augmented over the years. If that were not enough, Calvin was involved daily in sermons, lectures on biblical books (some of which ended up as commentaries, particularly those on the Old Testament), a nonstop stream of correspondence, and various ministerial duties.

Such a prodigious output from a man who was often disabled through sickness so that sometimes he had to be carried into the lecture hall on a chair deserves our admiration. Yet there are others in history and today who can match or exceed Calvin’s flow of printed words. Indeed, many of Calvin’s works were not written by him directly in the sense of putting pen and ink to a page but were completed with various kinds of secretarial assistance. No, what truly leads us to honor John Calvin as a biblical commentator half a millennium after his birth is the consistently superior quality of his commentaries. Calvin’s comments are only very rarely pedestrian and they are far more often richly edifying and many times radiant and enduring contributions of biblical exposition.

Calvin’s commentaries then, were both voluminous and, well, luminous, which brings us to an attribute of Calvin as biblical interpreter that has struck me as defining; he was wondrously disciplined. It takes discipline of Herculean proportions to put out an average of two new biblical commentaries per year with the depth of insight Calvin displays with all his other tiresome duties. In fact, it is this sheer volume of writing—and admittedly my own specialty—which will force us to focus only on his New Testament works which themselves span 12 substantial volumes in translation.

Let us then notice a few more aspects of Calvin’s circumstances as a biblical interpreter and then expand on why his discipline is so notable in this regard. It may not be known by all, but John Calvin’s first published work was not a biblical commentary, but comments on the first century Roman author Seneca’s, de Clementia (On Clemency). This work was written about a year before Calvin’s conversion and bears the marks of an enthusiastic young humanist without really showcasing the biblical commentator he was to become.

Calvin turned to Bible interpretation at age 31 in 1540, which was four years after the first edition of his Institutes while he was still in Strasbourg after being forced out of Geneva. This was to be the first in a series he planned on the Pauline epistles, but the next volume—that of 1 Corinthians—had to wait until 1546 with many other Paulines appearing two years later and the final ones in 1551. A two-volume set on Acts and then comments on John followed in 1552 to 1554, and his final new work, the Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels in 1554 with new editions of some earlier works rounded out his New Testament commentaries.

Let us now look more carefully at these commentaries and how they evidence Calvin’s discipline. In the dedication of his first, the Romans commentary, Calvin remarks that he and a friend had discussed at length the kind of commentary that would best serve the church in his day. He remarks in a famous passage that an interpreter’s real virtue consisted in “lucid brevity” in order to be “comprehensible.” To this end, Calvin tells us that he has tried to modify his more ornate style.

The background of this insistence on “lucid brevity” as a commentary’s chief excellence is twofold. The first is that his respected colleague at Strasbourg, the reformer Martin Bucer, had already come out with his own Romans commentary that was notably long, rambling, and filled with extensive digressions. It apparently is full of excellent almost encyclopedic insights into various biblical issues, but Calvin is tactfully saying that a commentator should write in a more disciplined and concise manner even if he, like Calvin, is personally “incapable of being moved by a love of abbreviation.”

The second background to Calvin’s ideal of “lucid brevity” is that he and his contemporary reformers were all renaissance humanists who had been steeped in long, flowing Ciceronean Latin style with its always rather verbose elegance. Brevity was never a feature of the ancient classical style which was still in full revival in Calvin’s day.

Calvin’s discipline comes through in this regard because he determines ahead of time to ignore the long, painful years of training in lengthy, artistic Latin and instead to write in a more simple manner which would potentially expose him to ridicule by his contemporaries as uncultivated or uncouth. While a refined writing style may seem like a luxury in our day, in Calvin’s it was a necessity to gain a hearing. For example, Calvin’s prefaces are written with renaissance elegance in contrast to the “lucid brevity” of the commentaries themselves.

Furthermore, we may discern that the rigor of writing in such a simple style in his commentaries may have rankled Calvin at times. Perhaps this explains why he breaks out of his ordinary habit of concentrating on the biblical author’s message in is own abbreviated sentences and has the cheek to correct the style of the inspired writer. For example, in his comments on Rom. 2:8, Calvin notes that “the passage is a little confused.” By this he does not mean that Paul’s meaning is unclear, but that his style demands better balance of opposites because he had used words that relate to two clauses where they should relate only to one. Calvin concludes: “This, however, by no means confuses the meaning of the passage, and we must accept this in apostolic writings. It is from other writers that eloquence is to be learned: here spiritual wisdom is to be sought in an inadequate literary style which lacks polish and refinement.”

As I said, Calvin is very disciplined in that he only rarely comments on an author’s Greek style. Another sign of this discipline is that he rarely uses the passage at hand as a springboard into lengthy critique of his opponents or exposition of dogmatics, which marked many of his contemporaries. For example, Calvin writes as follows on Rom. 2:13 which reads: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified”:

The sense of this verse, therefore, is that if righteousness is sought by the law, the law must be fulfilled, for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works. Those who misinterpret this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works deserve universal contempt. It is, therefore, improper and irrelevant to introduce here lengthy discussions on justification to solve so futile an argument.

In the last sentence, Calvin may as well have been convincing himself not to wander off onto the doctrine of justification—a topic he covered fully in his Institutes—because his task as a commentator was to stick to a brief exposition of the biblical author’s meaning despite the misinterpretations of his day. Calvin’s discipline to stick to his goal of lucid brevity is one that consistently marks all of his New Testament commentaries which he produced over the years.

There are two similar issues which mark Calvin’s comments that might be misleading. The first is that his notations on the meaning of Greek (or Hebrew) expressions are actually relatively infrequent. And the second is that he seldom interacts with ancient commentators such as Origen, Chrysostom, or Augustine, or later scholastic writers whom he simply labels “the schoolmen.” It is possible to imagine that the reason for these things is lack of expertise in the original languages or in the history of interpretation, but the truth is that Calvin simply was a disciplined writer who did not want to fill his comments with technical linguistic or historical references that would detract from his purpose of explaining the biblical writers in a simple and concise way.

I would like to make clear that I have used the disciplined quality of Calvin’s commentary work as a way to organize some of their central features, but talking about Calvin’s discipline may paint him as a dark figure grimly scrawling stern comments. The truth, in contrast, is plainly evident when you read him. Calvin was a remarkably learned man but he cares little about displaying his learning in his works of biblical interpretation. He was remarkably skilled in elegant Latin, but holds back in his style because he felt that brevity and clarity were of far more use for the church and he wanted to display the biblical authors’ meaning not his own abilities. Calvin, in a word, was disciplined as a commentator because he was at heart a servant of Christ and of his church.

And lastly, Calvin was certainly not grim or stern. Listen to some of these insights and you will find a man who is deeply humble and expresses his personal and profound gratitude to God in Christ:

[N]ot even a drop of life can be found beyond Christ, nor is there any other remedy for our poverty and want than that which he conveys to us from his own abundance. (on Rom. 5:15)

But where there is pride, there is no knowledge of God. This is a beautiful passage, and my wish is that everybody would learn it by heart, so that they might keep to the rule of right knowledge. (on 1 Cor. 8:2)

Faith, then, brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ. (on Eph. 2:8)

This, however, is a great consolation, that in all our miseries we are sharers in Christ’s cross, if we are his members; so that through afflictions the way is opened up for us to everlasting blessedness. . . . (on Phil. 3:10)

n the resurrection [of Christ] there is the restoration of all things, and thus it is the beginning of the second and new creation, for the former had fallen in the ruin of the first man. As, then, Christ in rising again had inaugurated the kingdom of God, he is rightly called the beginning. For we truly begin to exist in the sight of God, when we are renewed and become new creatures. (on Col. 1:18)

In conclusion, John Calvin was a learned scholar and pastor who rarely put that learning into the foreground in his biblical interpretations precisely because of his disciplined approach to his task. He had decided at the beginning that biblical interpretation that was lucidly brief would best serve Christ and the church. If time will indeed tell, it has spoken irrefutably that Calvin succeeded not only in serving the church of his day but for these many centuries afterward. More and more, commentators today write huge tomes that run to over a thousand pages plodding their way through a jumbled panorama of secondary opinion. In this context, Calvin’s comments, because of his deep love of God, of his truth, and of his church stacks up very well indeed, especially when you read in place after place his succinct, rich and penetrating insights into the biblical authors’ meaning. I invite you to turn to Calvin on Hebrews 7, or James 2, or really anyplace in his Romans work and you will see for yourself why we are today celebrating the 500th birthday of a biblical interpreter who described himself in the preface to his Hebrews commentary as “an unknown and obscure man.”

First published in Evangelium, Vol. 7, Issue 1

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