ON THE FOUR APPROACHES TO JOHN CALVIN’S INTERPRETIVE METHOD: INTRODUCTION

This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for Dr. Puckett at SBTS for his class, John Calvin and the Reformed Tradition. I will continue to post my paper in installments over the course of the next week. 
John_Calvin_and_Thomas_Hobbes_by_spacecoyote

Theology is forged in the context of life.  John Calvin is no exception to this rule.  The Genevan reformer believed his calling was to serve the church through writing.  He unquestionably fulfilled this purpose, but did so through the pains of an active public ministry.  Though much of Calvin’s interpretive method was determined by his humanist and theological training, it was his pastoral experience and polemical nature which greatly influenced his hermeneutic. In 1559, just five years before his death, John Calvin wrote, “[T]here is no one who is assailed, bitten, and wounded by more false accusations than I.”[1]While this forthright candor was meant to be a commentary on his lifetime, these words proved to be prophetic.[2]  Calvin received a myriad of dissenting titles, both in his lifetime and posthumously: “Dictator of Geneva”, “Pope of Protestantism”, and “Murderer,” to name a few.  Twice Calvin was compelled by a curse to take a pastorate.  He was exiled from his home.  Geneva, the city that first received him as pastor, expelled him.  Certainly, a man shrouded in this much controversy must have preached a bold message.  John Piper aptly said, “[Calvin] has never left people indifferent—either you follow him or you turn against his teaching.”[3]

A quote often attributed to Winston Churchill states, “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  If this quip is true then one can assume that, at least at some point in his lifetime, John Calvin stood up for something.  What he stood for, however, was not a something but a someone.  Calvin’s monomaniacal aim was that all would truly see Christ, not the Christ depicted in traditions or Christ the slave master, but the Christ of Scripture.  For Calvin, anything less than the Christ of Scripture was not Christ at all: "Whoever wishes to have the half of Christ, loses the whole."[4] Calvin emphasized that the whole of Christ is not found in the annals of church history, but wholly engrained in God’s disclosure of Himself: the Bible.

Calvin acknowledges that even without the assistance of Scripture one can still learn a great deal about God in His created work, what he called this “glorious theater.”[5] But the knowledge gained therein is lacking.  He taught that God, through natural revelation, gives man enough light to see his own filthiness.  In seeing his filthiness, man understands his need for God. But nature cannot show man how to be made right with God.  For this reason, Calvin relegates nature to a "mute teacher."[6] Nature is meant to be a sign that proclaims God's character, order, greatness, and beauty to man.  This knowledge, however, is not salvific.  Instead it stands to accuse anyone who attempts a plea of ignorance.[7] After coming to a knowledge of God as Creator, a person needs to know Him as Redeemer.  Calvin rightly shows that this redemptive knowledge cannot be attained without the tutelage of Scripture.[8]

Like other Reformers, Calvin “desired to move toward Scripture and away from church tradition as the basis for faith.”[9] This mentality birthed the idea termed sola Scriptura.  Since all that needs to be known about God is found in Scripture, it is of the upmost importance to study His Word.  Calvin’s intention is to help his readers learn to understand Scripture better for themselves.  In the preface to the reader in the, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes, "My purpose in this labor is to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word…"[10] But his work was not reserved solely for the students of theology. Calvin writes in both French and Latin, so middle-class, nobility, and any other literate person could read and learn.

The Institutes are presented as a guide for laity and students alike in their study of the Bible and as a companion to his commentaries. The Institutes were never meant to stand alone. Not wanting to enter into polemics in his commentaries, Calvin addresses many disputes of doctrine in his Institutes.  Because of this delineation, he tries to avoid taking up large expositions of Scripture in his Institutes. He had already done so in his commentaries.  Because of these differences, the point where Calvin’s commentaries and his Institutes overlap is the best vantage point for studying Calvin’s exegetical method.

INTERPRETIVE APPROACHES

Calvin utilizes four different approaches in his interpretation of the Word.  At times, he takes the purely humanist approach: focusing mostly on historical-grammatical context and philology.  At other times, Calvin approaches Scripture as a theologian, looking beyond the literal meaning to the spiritual purpose and application of the text.  He does so by nuancing the symbiotic nature of the dual authorship of Scripture.  There are other instances where Calvin’s rhetorical temperament seems to dictate his exposition, leading his interpretation amiss.  There are also times Calvin takes an approach marked by personal experiences and concern for how the message might be received by his audience.


[1]John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mcneill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, 2 vols., Paperback (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4.

[2] Anthony. N. S. Lane, A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 13.

[3] John Piper, John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God, Kindle ed. (Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2009), Kindle Location 73.

[4] See John Calvin’s Commentary on Gal 5:2.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.5.8.

[6] Ibid., 1.6.1.

[7] Ibid., 1.5.14.

[8] Ibid., 1.7.1.

[9] Edward J. Herrelko III, "History of Biblical Theology," in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz (Bellingham: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

[10] Calvin, Institutes, 4.