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

men_debate_calvinismThe Institutes were written to teach students of theology how to study the Scriptures better.  Countless letters were penned to encourage persecuted Christians all over Europe. Commentaries were composed for the spiritual edification of his readers.  But one common thread was woven into much of Calvin’s writings: his polemic.  From just a small sampling of the commentary on the gospel of John, he writes against the Anabaptists, Servetus, Erasmus, Papists, and other 'barking dogs.'  Because the majority of his writing was done in the midst of an active public ministry, Calvin witnessed the effects of the dissenting arguments first hand. Seeming desperate to refute these points, Calvin sometimes leans too heavily on a passage to make a rhetorical retort, even when his argument is not supported by the plain reading of the text. These instances epitomize Calvin’s polemical nature bleeding into his interpretive method. One doctrine Calvin consistently disputes is the nature of the sacraments.  In general, Protestants had rejected the Catholic view of transubstantiation.  Nevertheless, Calvin found little common ground with the Lutheran and Zwinglian beliefs on the sacraments.  Although Calvin encourages expositors to be responsible in their utilization of allegorical interpretation, there are times when he does not heed his own advice.

When discussing the nature of the coal that the seraphim removed from the altar and administered to Isaiah, Calvin likens this to the use of sacraments strengthening the believer in proportion to their ignorance.[1] He goes on to extemporize, showing “that the confirmation which was obtained by the sign was not without effect, but that the blessings signified by it was at the same time bestowed, so that Isaiah knew that he had not been deceived."[2] He implies that in the sacraments the reality is given along with the sign. Calvin explains why this is worth noting: "And this ought to be the more carefully observed, because there are few persons in the present day who understand the true use of sacraments, and because many godly and learned men are engaged in frequent disputes respecting them."[3] Calvin interprets this as allegory solely for polemical purposes.


[1] Calvin, Isa 6:7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.