ON THE FOUR APPROACHES TO JOHN CALVIN’S INTERPRETIVE METHOD: Theological 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. thugcalvinJohn Calvin was also a scholar. At twenty-three, he published his first work, a commentary on De Clementia by the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca.[1] Calvin was a brilliant student and author who enjoyed studying the classics.  Soon after, he experienced true conversion.  While the details of his conversation are sparse, it is known that Calvin came to see his sin and recognized his need to look outside himself for a solution: “The solution came with help from the writings of the early Reformers like Luther, who many of Calvin’s friends already were reading and studying.”[2] After his conversion, he reallocated all of his scholarly efforts from studying the classics to polemics, textual criticism, and exegesis of the Word of God.  As a theologian, Calvin was able to lay the spiritual application of a text alongside its historical-grammatical meaning.  This is why Calvin’s commentaries are still relevant 500 years later.

Calvin recognized an immeasurable breach between God’s ineffability and man’s ability to comprehend Him.  Because of this gap, God alters his message in a way to accommodate mankind.  This has been called John Calvin’s Doctrine of Accommodation.  On multiple occasions, he uses the analogy of a mother babbling to her infant to describe God speaking to humanity in the Scriptures.  He goes on to say, though mankind proverbially creeps on the ground and dwells so far below the heavenly realms so that they could never attain any true knowledge of God, "God comes down to them in such a manner as to cause some kind of mirror to reflect the rays of his glory."[3]

Though he does not label it as such, Calvin presents an interesting example of accommodation in his commentary on John 1:29.  He suggests John used the language of “Lamb of God” for the sake of the Jews who "having been accustomed to sacrifices, could not be instructed about atonement for sins in any other way than by holding out to them a sacrifice."[4] There is nothing novel about this thought, per se, but Calvin continues by saying that this language used by John was adapted to instruct Jews.  Contrastingly, he suggests that one can better understand the atoning work of Christ and forgiveness of sins through His blood by looking to baptism.  To him, what the paschal lamb was for the Jew, baptism is for the Christian. By interpreting this verse as accommodating language, Calvin concludes that baptism is the clearest picture of forgiveness since, in baptism, the believer is washed and cleansed from the pollution of sin.[5]

To avoid allegorical assumptions and excessive typologies, Calvin used biblical logic to draw the line for what was allegorical, prophetic, or fulfilled in that day.  Calvin outlines his principle for determining which Old Testament passages are allegories: “[I]f there has been no historical fulfillment of the promise, one should look for a fulfillment that is not literal."[6] This principle can be observed most easily in the prophecy of a virgin conceiving found in Isaiah 7:14.  Because Calvin felt that some Jewish exegetes would want to pervert the true exposition of this passage, he ensured a thorough discourse of his interpretation and the reasons for it.  Some suggest this Immanuel was Hezekiah or the son of Isaiah.  For those that posit it was Hezekiah, Calvin refers to them as "excessively impudent," and "grossly ignorant of history," since Hezekiah would have been a mature man when Jerusalem was besieged.[7]  For those that suggest Immanuel was the son of Isaiah, Calvin retorts that the passage would have likely read, "from the seed of Isaiah."[8]  Furthermore, he rejects the thought that a mere man would have the title Immanuel bestowed on him, "for this title is far too illustrious to admit of being applied to any man."[9]

There were others who alluded that the virgin conceived a child in Isaiah's day.  Calvin, however, finds this highly unlikely.  He repeats that God is not likely to apply the name Immanuel to any man.  He then goes on to say, if this prophecy was fulfilled in Isaiah's day, the obvious question is, by whom?  Since there is no historical fulfillment of this prophecy, the exegete must not interpret the passage literally.  Calvin concludes the interpretation: this Immanuel, conceived by a virgin, was a foreshadowing of the coming Christ born of the virgin Mary.

His method of determining what was true typology is almost formulaic: "[I]n order to learn to apply to Christ whatever David, in times past, sang concerning himself, we must hold this principle, which we meet with everywhere in all the prophets, that he, with his posterity, was made king, not so much for his own sake as to be a type of the Redeemer."[10]  Calvin warns his readers not to "rest in the mere shadow,"[11] but to read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament.  Like many before him, he rightly concludes David's kingdom to be a physical trajectory pointing to a greater spiritual truth.  He differed, however, by stressing that this trajectory should not be divorced from its very real historical context.  Calvin's formal scholastic tutelage pulled him to press a text in its original historical-grammatical context, while his spiritual tutelage pushed him to look through the foggy mist for the substance at the end of the shadow: Christ Jesus.

While Calvin never lays out a doctrine of inspiration, one can be deduced from his writing.  He believed the Holy Spirit used the mouths and hands of the apostles as a medium to teach, reprove, correct, and train God's people in righteousness.  When the wicked hearts of men began to presume that Christ saves them because of their merits, Calvin writes, "[T]he Spirit shuts the door by the mouth of Paul, when he informs us that this love was founded on the purpose of his will."[12]  The Spirit brought forth His intended message through the mouth of Paul. Calvin appears to be a faithful proponent of what would later be understood as verbal plenary inspiration.

His view of verbal plenary inspiration can be found in his commentary of the flood account.  When recounting Moses' description, Calvin writes, "A repetition follows, sufficiently particular, considering the brevity with which Moses runs through the history of the deluge…For it was the design of the Spirit to retain our minds in the consideration of the vengeance too terrible to be adequately described by the utmost severity of language."[13] He interprets Moses’ brevity as the Spirit’s designed purpose. According to Calvin, the apostles were “sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit.”[14]

Because the Scriptures bear two authors, Calvin sees no contradictions for a text to simultaneously posses a natural and spiritual meaning.  One would be shortsighted to run to an allegorical interpretation when the literal interpretation is so rich in meaning.  Calvin describes the ark as a true test of Noah's faith.  He posits, "[T]he most grievous temptation of all was, that he was commanded to descend, as into the grave, for the sake of preserving his life, and voluntarily to deprive himself of air and vital spirit; for the smell of dung alone, pent up, as it was, in a closely filled place, might, at the expiration of there days, have stifled all the living creatures in the ark."[15]  Without resorting to allegory, he shows the literal meaning of the text to have a rich spiritual truth.  After chastising Origen for his loose allegorization, Calvin concludes, “[T]here is nothing more profitable, than to adhere strictly to the natural treatment of things."[16]

Calvin warns of the danger of making a literal passage allegorical when the plain reading does not agree with the exegete's presuppositions.  This over-allegorization not only twists God's intended meaning, but makes the interpretation of Scripture seem an impossible task for laity. Doing so actively works against that which the reformation sought to teach: the perspicuity of Scripture.  Calvin does not deny allegories in Scripture, or even multiple applications of text, but believes there to be only one intended meaning for each passage.  He writes, "I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man at his pleasure, may assign. Let us know, then, that true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning."[17]


[1] Kim, With Calvin in the Theater of God, 34.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Calvin’s Commentary on Isa 6:1.

[4] See Calvin’s Commentary on John 1:29.

[5] Ibid.

[6] David L. Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 113.

[7] Calvin, Isa 7:14.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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

[11] Ibid.

[12] Calvin, John 3:16, emphasis his.

[13] See Calvin’s Commentary on Gen 7:13.

[14] Calvin, Institutes, 4.8.9

[15] Calvin, Gen 6:22.

[16] Calvin, Gen 6:14, emphasis mine.

[17] Calvin, Gal 4:22, emphasis mine.