Posts in Calvin
Calvin's Warning to All Regarding Trinitarian Distinctions

In a chapter on the Trinity in the Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin provides some sage words to consider before delving into the distinctions and unity of the three persons. The section entitled “The ground of all heresy: a warning to all” is exactly that: a warning to all of his readers (transtemporal) to avoid biting off more than they can chew. He writes:

Satan, in order to tear our faith from its very roots, has always been instigating great battles, partly concerning the divine essence of the Son and the Spirit, partly concerning the distinction of the persons … Here, indeed, if anywhere in the secret mysteries of Scripture, we ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation; let us use great caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends. For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure, a mind as yet unable to establish for certain the nature of the sun’s body, though men’s eyes daily gaze upon it? Indeed, how can the mind by its own leading come to search out God’s essence when it cannot even get to its own? Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself … But if some distinction does exist in the one divinity of Father, Son, and Spirit—something hard to grasp—and occasions to certain minds more difficulty and trouble than is expedient, let it be remembered that men’s minds, when they indulge their curiosity, enter into a labyrinth.[1]

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 145–6 emphasis added.  ↩

Symbiotic Relationship Between Faith and Hope

Faith believes God to be truthful: hope waits for him to display his truthfulness at the appropriate time. Faith believes that God is our Father: hope reckons that he will always act as such towards us.

Faith believes that eternal life has already been given to us: hope waits for the day when it will be revealed.

Faith is the foundation on which hope is built: hope feeds faith and keeps it alive.

- John Calvin, Truth For All Time: A Brief Outline of the Christian Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 85-6.

Calvin On The Proper Celebration Of The Lord’s Supper

Although the Genevan Regulations on the Ecclesiastical Ordinances which were revised by Calvin suggest the Supper ought to be taken once a month, Calvin, in his Institutes says that the Supper would be “administered most becomingly if it were set before the church very often, and at least once a week.” (4.17.43) He then proceeds to list (what I counted) a twelve step procession of the proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper. 

  1. The service should begin with public prayers.
  2. After this, a sermon should be given. For the Supper must always be accompanied by the preaching of the Word.
    1. Elsewhere, he writes: “The bread is a sacrament only to those persons to whom the word is directed; just as the water of baptism is not changed in itself, but as soon as the promise has been attached it begins to be for us what it was not before.” (IV.XVII.15)
  3. The bread and wine should be placed on the table.
  4. Then, the minister should repeat the words of institution of the Supper.
  5. “Next, he should recite the promises which were left to us in it…”
  6. “At the same time, he should excommunicate all who are feared from it by the Lord’s prohibition.”
  7. “Afterward, he should pray that the Lord, with the kindness wherewith he has bestowed this sacred food upon us, also teach and form us to receive it with faith and thankfulness of heart, and, inasmuch as we are not so of ourselves, by his mercy make us worthy of such a feast.”
  8. Here, either believers ought to sing a psalm or read something.
  9. Then, “in becoming order the believers should partake of the most holy banquet, the ministers breaking the bread and giving the cups.”
  10. “When the Supper is finished, there should be an exhortation to sincere faith and confession of faith, to love and behavior worthy of Christians.”
  11. “At the last, thanks should be given, and praises sung to God.”
  12. “When these things are ended, the church should be dismissed in peace.”

John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mcneill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Paperback (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), IV.XVII.43, 2:1421-22.

Hell May Be Worse Than You Think

As I have previously written, John Calvin recognized an immeasurable breach between God’s ineffability and man’s ability to comprehend Him. Because of this gap, God would have to alter 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 infantto 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."[1] The writers of the Westminster Confession of Faith picked up on Calvin’s understanding of accommodation and used similar language in describing the process by which God made covenants with men: “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.”[2]

What if the terrifying descriptions of hell are just God accommodating us? What if the depictions are mere symbolism? What if the symbols actually represent a greater, more severe reality, which we who now see in a mirror dimly cannot comprehend at present? On this, Calvin writes:

Because no description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked, their torments and tortures are figuratively expressed to us by physical things, that is, by darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth, unquenchable fire, an undying worm gnawing at the heart. By such expressions the Holy Spirit certainly intended to confound all our senses with dread.... So we ought especially to fix our thoughts upon this: how wretched it is to be cut off from all fellowship with God. And not that only but so to feel his sovereign power against you that you cannot escape being pressed by it. [3]

There is nothing more terrifying than hell. For in hell, a person is separated from the love of God for all eternity and falls subject to His unrestrained wrath.

“Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11)

[1] John Calvin,  Isaiah 1-32, trans. by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 7: Isa 6:1..

[2] Westminster Assembly of Divines, The Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.1, emphasis mine.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mcneill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Paperback (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 2:1007-8.


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.

CalvinDavid Kakish
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.


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.

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.

CalvinDavid Kakish
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. 

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.


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.

Are You A Thief?

Calvin on stealing:

“[S]tealing is not simply committed with our hands, when [for example] someone is able to steal another person’s money or coins. But stealing occurs when a man possesses what isn’t his, and when we don’t attempt to protect what God has put in a person’s hands, for he wills everyone to retain what he has...Whenever we do not render to every man what rightfully belongs to him, God will always regard that iniquity a stealing.”

Calvin paints with a broad stroke to show how everyone is guilty of theft.

“Whatever the case, God will not neglect to judge as a thief anyone who has taken advantage of a simple man, or has sold him goods in an underhanded way, seeing that he has outwitted him through a fault of judgement. Anyone who also overcharges an illiterate person is equally a thief. Moreover, if an artisan makes a faulty good and the buyer cannot perceive the flaw, or especially if someone takes whatever he can and sells what unquestionably doesn’t belong to him, [justifying it on the basis] that he is dealing with a rich man who has a full purse, it’s all the same.”

Ultimately, we steal because we are discontent in our allotment from God. What is the cure for our dissatisfaction?

“The only medicine we need for healing these vices, is for us to be able to lift our eyes to heaven and say, “God is our Father, he will provide all that we need; it is he in whom we must hope for all that sustains us in this present life; in sum it is his benediction that constitutes the fountain of all wealth.”

To break God’s law is to invite His wrath on us. That is why Calvin asks,

“Is it of small consequence when he says that thieves and robbers will not enter the kingdom of God? Is this present life so dear to us that in order to get by in this world and gain a few goods we are willingly ready to provoke the wrath of God?”

He concludes with,

“Therefore, let none of us think that it is only lawful for us to guard what we have, rather, as the principle of charity exhorts us, let us see that we preserve and procure our neighbor’s property as much as our own. That is why we should not be thieves in God’s eye, nor man’s, and why the possessions that he has put in our hands are blessed by him, and why he makes us prosper, and why we should experience such a contentment that we should always aspire toward that celestial heritage, knowing that therein we shall possess the fullness of all goods in perfection.”

- Calvin, John. John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments. Translated and edited by Benjamin W. Farley. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980. Sermons 10, 185-202.