Thoughts and Notes on "Calvin as Bible Interpreter"

The notes and thoughts below are just from my reading of the essay. I decided to post because the article gives an insightful look to Calvin as Bible interpreter.

Notes from John Thompson’s article, “Calvin as Bible Interpreter” by McKim, Donald K (ed). John Calvin: Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Paving the Way

  1. The printing press was key in making books (and information!) more accessible for the general public.
  2. Many philological discoveries were happening that paved the way for Calvin
  3. Also, a feeling of angst with the medieval Catholic church primed the way for Calvin. He did not want to be a reformer but his position, exegesis, and importance in the community made him one.
  4. Calvin entered into the “second wave” of the Reformation.

Calvin’s Statements on the Theory and Practice of Biblical Interpretation

Calvin writes his commentary different than Bucer and Melanchthon. Melanchthon wrote a very detailed commentary that chased rabbit trails of dogmatic importance where Bucer was very overview. Calvin decided to leave dogmatic pursuits to his Institutes and stick with exposition and application in his commentary.

Two key places that Calvin’s states his hermeneutical methods are in:

  1. Preface to the 1539 edition of his commentary to Romans
  2. Preface to the Homilies of Chrysostom

Four Aspects of Calvin’s Interpretation as summarized in the preface of his Romans commentary

  1. Seeking to lay out the mind or intention of the writer (this includes both the supposed author and also the Divine author). This would be accomplished by historical context, background, and philological studies.
    1. Thompson notes that “Calvin often stresses less what the apostle intended to say than what Paul intented his words to effect in the life of the church at Rome.”
  2. Calvin wanted to plainly explain the letter to his hearers in such a way they could easily understand
  3. Calvin did not rely on Scripture alone for interpretation but used other sources, such as the early church, in his interpretations. It is not solo scriptura but sola scriptura.
    1. This understanding of the reformers is becoming more widespread but still needs to be stated. They understood the helpfulness and guidance of previous interpreters. Even when they didn not agree, as Calvin often times does, they still interact and find them useful in exegesis.
      1. “There are extant on this Epistle many Commentaries by the ancients, and many by modern writers: and truly they could have never employed their labours in a better way; for when any one understands this Epistle, he has a passage opened to him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.”[1]
  4. The two works: Institutes and his commentaries reveal his goal of differentiating himself slightly from Melanchthon and Bucer.

Three Observations from Preface to the Homilies of Chrysostom

  1. A sustained apology for the Church Fathers
    1. Thompson says, “They offer sub- stantial benefits, including guidance in the meaning of Scripture, examples of and exhortation to moral uprightness and discipline, and insight into the life and practices of the early church, which was better ordered and purer than the church of later centuries.” - p. 63
    2. The early church was to be read along side scripture to help guide interpreters.
  2. Biblical interpretation in general and more specifically his commentaries are to serve the uneducated lay person.
  3. Calvin thought highly of Chrysostom because of his literal exegesis. This term needs to be clarified:
    1. Calvin’s literal exegesis (and that other early church) should not be read through the lens of the modern historical-critical method. A stark contast exists that needs to be noted.
      1. For example in his discussion on Galatians 4 Calvin asserts that Paul’s allegorical reading is valid because “Paul can compare the fracture in Abraham’s family to the birth of the church in the New Testament because in Abraham’s own day his household was the church, literally and historically.” - p. 68 What the literal sense today means compared with Calvin is substantially different.
      2. Thompson also notes, “Thus, he generally shies away from “allegory” but will happily embrace plausible analogies, types, metaphors, and so on – as a rhetorically trained critic, his technical vocabulary is rich and precise – so long as he sees a warrant in the context of the narrative that serves as the source of the type or analogy or application. Accordingly, Calvin will dismiss out of hand any allegory that he finds utterly off the subject of the scriptural text or that wrenches words out of context while ignoring the plot. On the other hand, as we will see, he finds embedded in both the New Testament and the Old many other instances of “allegory” – defined, to be sure, as a rhetorical device or metaphor rather than as a theological discovery.”
        1. My thoughts - This is interesting because the early church would generally use an allegorical interpretation after finding the literal sense. In other words it was a four-fold sense of scripture. Doctrine can be establish from the literal but not the allegorical. It has also been noted in Peter Martens excellent book “Origin and Scripture”, which he explains that Origen’s allegorical interpretation is rooted in the historical/literal sense. Only when the historical/literal sense is understood can one interpret allegorically.

  1. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), xxiv.  ↩