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

whatchu-talkin-bout 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.

As a pastor, John Calvin consistently experienced rejection, loss, and failure.  Between the goading of his chronic infirmities and the loss of his only child and wife, Calvin still maintained an incredibly active public ministry.  He preached ten times every two weeks to a city full of refugees.  He was faithful to care for his congregation, even if it meant his life.  When the plague that had come through Strasbourg swept through Geneva, “Calvin refused to abandon his flock and seek safety outside town, risking his life to remain and comfort his ailing parishioners.”[1] This pastoral heart becomes apparent in his interpretive method, especially in the care he takes to explain not only what a text means, but also what it does not mean.

Calvin uses his commentaries to explain biblically the fundamental tenants of the Protestant Reformation.  One such tenant is the priesthood of all believers: a doctrine derived from the New Testament to tear down the walls of what is deemed spiritual and secular.  Because God has appointed all believers to be “royal priests,”[2] He is equally and indiscriminately accessible to all who are in Christ Jesus.  Calvin uses the appointing of the first apostles as a biblical defense for the priesthood of all believers.  He demonstrates that Christ did not choose unlearned men because He prefers ignorance to learning, but in order to humble the pride of those who think that heaven is not open to the unlearned.[3]  Calvin aimed to use the Scriptures to show that Christ, by his example, transforms the common and unlearned into men who faithfully measure up to the biblical requirement for an elder.[4]

While rare, there are moments when Calvin shows vulnerability in his commentaries.  In these moments, he appears to encourage himself with right exegesis.  On Paul's anguish to see the Galatians made complete in Christ, Calvin writes, "[W]hen a minister is contrasted with God he is nothing and can do nothing and is utterly useless; but, because the Holy Spirit works efficaciously by means of him, he comes to be regarded and praised as an agent."[5]  Here the distinction is made between the one who wills and the one who works.  If ministers wish to do anything with their efforts, let them labor to form Christ in themselves.  At the curtail of this section, it becomes evident that Calvin is preaching to himself: "The writer is now so oppressed with grief, that he almost faints from exhaustion without completing his sentence."[6]

On multiple occasions, Calvin espouses his view on how a pastor should carry himself in his congregation.  He writes, “It is the part of a wise pastor to consider, not what those who have wandered may justly deserve, but what may be the likeliest method of bringing them back to the right path.”[7]  A pastor's duty is to come down as far as possible, to study the people and their various dispositions, in order to bring them lovingly to compliance with their message.[8]  Not only is Calvin instructing minsters to contextualize their message, but to learn how to accommodate their message to match the capacity of their congregations.  But this accommodation should not come at expense of the truth:

[Pastors] must not be entirely guided by their own inclinations, or by the bent of their own genius, but must accommodate themselves, as far as the case will allow, to the capacity of the people–with this reservation, however, that they are to proceed no farther than conscience shall dictate, and that no departure from integrity shall be made, in order to gain the favor of the people.[9]

Like a mother bird chewing food for her young, Calvin’s interpretation softens the Word of God for his congregation.


[1] David Mathis, “The Life and Ministry of John Calvin—A Brief Biography” in Mathis 157.

[2] 1 Pet 2:9.

[3] See Calvin’s Commentary on Matt, Mark, Luke, John 1-11, Luke 5:10.

[4] Based on 1 Tim 3:2 an elder must be able to teach.

[5] Calvin, Gal 4:20.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Calvin, Gal 4:12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., Gal 4:20.