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

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.

1005116_10200270752671734_1727734833_nBorn into a middle to upper-middle-class family, Calvin’s father was able to afford for him to be educated in the medieval system of the trivium, or three parts, of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.[1] Like his brother Charles, Calvin was studying to become a priest, when his father advised him to change his course of study from theology to law. “This momentary detour provided young John not only with a sharpening of his mind, but also an introduction to the Renaissance pursuit of the ancient sources of learning.”[2] Through his studies in law he encountered a new approach to analyzing ancient texts, advocated by a group called humanists.[3] A humanist would be “especially attentive to the historical context in which the text was produced and to the linguistic and literary features of the text."[4] Calvin adopted this Renaissance approach and used it heavily in his exposition of Scripture. Having been trained in philology, Calvin understood that proper translation of every word in its immediate context was pertinent to determine the true meaning of a verse. He taught his readers that there are “many statements in Scripture the meaning of which depends upon their context."[5] For Calvin, even prepositions were worth disputing if improper translation took away from the author's intended meaning. This can be seen in Calvin’s commentary of Psalm 3:2. Here Calvin disputes the preference of many for the preposition of instead of to. Recognizing that the letter lamed is indeed sometimes used to mean of in Hebrew, Calvin writes, “David here intended to express something more, namely, that his heart was in a manner pierced with the mockery of his enemies."[6] This was a prime example of how an improper transliteration of just one Hebrew letter could betray David’s intended sentiments, which ultimately alters the correct interpretation of the passage.

As a humanist, Calvin was most concerned with the natural meaning of the text. Some with good intentions escape to intricate allegories to avoid apparent discrepancies in the Scriptures. Others utilized allegories to twist the Scriptures to prooftext their forced presuppositions. Calvin seems to employ what could be called the Occam's Razor approach to Bible study: to explain a thing, no more assumptions should be made than are necessary. If the literal interpretation satisfies the text, then no further postulating is necessary. Few passages have been subject to more speculation than Genesis 6:1-4. Based on the pseudepigraphal apocalyptic writings of Enoch, some early church fathers believed this passage depicted fallen angels coming to earth to have coitus with human women who begot Nephilim. Calvin refutes this phantasmal fiction by interpreting Scripture sola Scriptura. Since Moses never uses "sons of God" to refer to angels, Calvin rightly concludes this has nothing to do with angels copulating. Rather it has everything to do with God's chosen people disregarding His divine order: the commingling of Israel with non-Israel. According to Calvin, Seth's descendants, driven by lust, yoked themselves unequally with the unbelieving dependents of Cain: "For it was an intolerable profanation, to pervert, and confound, the order appointed by God."[7]

Calvin goes on to work through the etymology of the word Nephilim. Unlike some of the fathers, Calvin doesn't believe these Nephilim to be great in stature, but prefers the more literal translation: “robust.” He concedes, "Elsewhere, I acknowledge, the same word denotes vastness of stature, which was formidable to those who explored the land of Canaan. But Moses does not distinguish those of whom he speaks in this place, from other men, so much by the size of their bodies, as by their robberies and their lust of dominion."[8] Using a word study from Scripture alone, Calvin takes this passage from trans-species intercourse and giants to something far less fantastic.


[1] Julius J. Kim, “At Work and Worship in the Theater of God: Calvin the Man and Why I Care” in With Calvin in the Theater of God: The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life, ed. David Mathis, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 33.

[2] Ibid.

[3] David L. Puckett, “Calvin, John,” in Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, ed. Donald McKim, (Nottingham, England: IVP Academic, 2007), 287.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Calvin, Institutes, 4.16.23.

[6] See Calvin’s Commentary on Ps 3:2.

[7] See Calvin’s Commentary on Gen 6:1.

[8] See Calvin’s commentary on Gen 6:7.