Posts tagged john 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.  ↩

Healthy Families Dine Together

My problem with the greater part of contemporary theological publications is that the issues are typically presented in straw-man-like soundbites, diluted to reductionistic dichromatism, in order to pander to the rigidity of their respective constituencies. Thiselton describes this entrenched division as a “dualistic chasm.” He bemoans the fact that “too often, biblical specialists and systematic theologians tend to ‘talk past’ each other on the basis of a different agenda.”[1] Frame concludes that, “Sometimes our divisions of theology and practice are differences of perspective, of balance, rather than differences over the essentials of faith.”[2] We only fuel this burgeoning tribalism when we arm the masses with trite, sardonic quips of thesis and antithesis, thereby fractioning the people of God further through dissension and division.

To be sure, I am not elevating ecumenism over and against biblical fidelity. There are issues that will (and should) divide us (e.g. Trinity—one God, of one essence, who exists in three, coequal, coeternal persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the full deity and humanity of Jesus; Christ’s bodily resurrection; justification by faith). I applaud Mohler’s push for processing subjects through a theological triage: categorizing doctrine as first, second, and third-order issues. My prayer is that this step toward Christian maturity (cf. Rom 12:18; Heb 12:14) will assist us in viewing denominations not as rifts in God’s kingdom, but as a means to guard the consciences of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Like C.S. Lewis, and Richard Baxter before him, I desire a Mere Christianity. I have always been fond of Lewis’ description of Christianity as a great hallway with many doors leading to different rooms (denominations). He explains that fires and chairs and meals happen in the rooms, and not the hall—the hallway is a place to test out various doors. Lewis proposes some helpful questions one ought to reflect on before choosing a room:

[Y]ou must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this?”[3]

Upon choosing a room, Lewis offers the guest one final instruction, the one rule common to the whole house: “Be kind to those who have chosen different doors, and to those who are still in the hall.”

As I said, I relish Lewis’ allegory, and yet it has never fully satisfied me. While I agree that fires, chairs, and meals do not belong in the hall, and that they can happen in the rooms, I do not believe they are restricted to the rooms. Why should we sequester ourselves from those residing in other rooms, limiting our interactions to only those who are “likeminded”?

Lewis’ words paint a picture of Christendom as a castle (cf. Jn 14:2). I should like to think that this castle has more than halls with rooms! I imagine an enormous dining room furnished with a sprawling table, adorned with a feast fit for kings and queens. Can we not dine together?

Teaching in a house filled to capacity, the crowd informs Jesus that his family is outside looking for him. In a ground-shattering reply—especially considering the high-priority of family in Semitic cultures—Jesus redefines familial relationships in light of the gospel. He answers them, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34–35; cf. Jn 19:26). Paul also refers to church as “God’s household” (1 Tim 3:15). Elsewhere he encourages Timothy to treat older men as fathers, “younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters” (1 Tim 5:1–2). All those who are united with Christ constitute a spiritual family, one that transcends bloodlines, class distinctions, gender, ethnicity, race, age, and even theological differences. The church (universal) must think of itself as a family, and healthy families dine together.

As one family living under the same roof, sharing commonality in first-order issues, there are far more things that unite us than divide us. Presuming to be peacemakers, we often try to avoid conflict whenever possible. Yet fear of disagreement should not deter us from dining together. In fact, failing to debate certain subjects might convey that the issues are inconsequential. As Chesterton famously quipped, we must argue! He writes:

If I think the universe is triangular, and you think it is square, there cannot be room for two universes. We may argue politely, we may argue humanely, we may argue with great mutual benefit; but, obviously, we must argue.[4]

James Montgomery Boice relays a story about Donald Grey Barnhouse organizing a lunch with five ministers from differing denominations. He devised a rule that they should only discuss points of agreement during the meal. Afterwards, they could speak about their differences if they wished. Boice reports:

They began to talk about Jesus Christ and what he meant to each of them. The tension abated, and there was a measure of joy as each confessed that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he came to die for our sins, and that he rose again bodily. Each acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord. Each agreed that Jesus was now in heaven at the right hand of God the Father praying for his church. They confessed that he had sent his Holy Spirit at Pentecost and that the Lord was living in each of his children by means of the Holy Spirit. They acknowledged the reality of the new birth and that they were looking forward to the return of Jesus Christ, after which they would be spending eternity together.[5]

After the meal, when they turned to their differences, they realized that the issues felt secondary—“not unimportant but secondary.” Realizing that they would not agree on some of these issues, they agreed to disagree without denying the fact that they were all members of Christ’s body (cf. Eph 4:5).

What if, after perceiving lines of demarcation between us and those in the other rooms, we fought our instinct to construct walls to protect (read isolate) ourselves? One way to do this is to deconstruct the common narrative that depicts fellow Christians as “good guys” or “bad guys.” True, sound doctrine is essential (Titus 2:1–3:11). And true, there may be some among us who are not of us (1 Jn 2:19). Therefore, we must be vigilant, for wolves sometimes reside with the sheep (Mt 7:15). However, in the name of “maintaining biblical orthodoxy” or “fending off wolves” some God-fearing men and women have been ostracized for holding varied theological opinions on open-handed issues. It is possible to maintain that a particular position is wrong while simultaneously recognizing that it is biblically tenable (e.g. age of the earth, sequence of eschatological events).

God has revealed himself to us in his Word and in his world. At present, we cannot know him exhaustively (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), but we can know him truly. So far as it is possible, we should strive to think God’s thoughts after him in humility; not forgetting Calvin’s lesson that the finite cannot possess the infinite. In the opening pages of his long-awaited systematic theology, Thiselton acknowledges that “Human beings, even philosophers, are finite and even sinful, and they cannot grasp the whole of the infinite. They cannot view reality ‘eternally or theocentrically,’ even granted revelation from God.”[6] Barth also understood that theology has limits. He demonstrated this by using angels to ironically mock himself and his critics. He writes:

The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume, and each is thicker than the previous ones. As they laugh, they say to one another, ‘Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!’—and they laugh about the persons who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.[7]

Martin Luther supposedly said that “human nature is like a drunkard trying to ride a horse. He gets on and falls off on the left side. He resolves not to make that mistake again, so he remounts, careful to avoid falling off on the left, and promptly falls off on the right.” I recognize my naïveté, and accept that I will likely be dismounted—either to the right (fundamentalism) or to the left (relativism). For, as Arthur Conan Doyle has observed, “horses [are] dangerous on both ends and crafty in the middle.” And yet, I refuse to give up trying to find balance on this fickle saddle. I want to create as much room as biblically possible to accommodate a potpourri of dissimilar views. I want a munificent yet mature orthodoxy.

When the people of God across denominational lines suspend their differences on tertiary issues and strive to labor together in love—seeking to see his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven—we answer Jesus’ prayer that we would be one (Jn 17:21–22). I am not insinuating that we should pursue unity through conformity (nor artificial uniformity). As Lewis once remarked, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”[8] On the contrary, the unity of the church, which displays the manifold wisdom of God, shines most brilliantly in volitional diversity (cf. Eph 3:10). Furthermore, no one lives in the hall, nor does one sleep in the dining room (cf. 1 Cor 11:21–22). After meals, it is perfectly acceptable (and expected!) for everyone to return to his or her room. To reject the invitation to come and eat (cf. Is 55:1), however, is not only unacceptable, but insubordinate (cf. Phil 1:27; Eph 4:3).

Alas, perhaps I am too Hegelian…


  1. Anthony C. Thiselton, Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works with New Essays (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 115.  ↩

  2. John Frame, “A Primer on Perspectivalism (Revised 2008),” June 6, 2012, http://frame-poythress.org/a-primer-on-perspectivalism-revised–2008/.  ↩

  3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1977), 190 emphasis added.  ↩

  4. G. K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, 1908–1910, ed. Lawrence J. Clipper and George J. Marlin (Charlottesville, Va: Ignatius Press, 1987), 194.  ↩

  5. James Montgomery Boice, To the Glory of God: A 40-Day Devotional on the Book of Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010), 148.  ↩

  6. Anthony C. Thiselton, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2015), 2.  ↩

  7. Stephen Webb, Re-Figuring Theology: The Rhetoric of Karl Barth (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), 164.  ↩

  8. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 292.  ↩

Calvin on Faith and Hope and the Christian Life

How should we define faith and hope? What is the difference between them? How do the two concepts shape the Christian life? Calvin answers all of the above in his book Instructions in Faith (1537). My soul is lifted when I read Calvin articulate the inseparable, symbiotic relationship between “faith” and “hope.” He takes two seemingly independent melodies (faith and hope) played by separate instruments and weaves them together to create one harmonious, orchestral chorus. He writes:

If faith is a sure persuasion of the truth of God which can neither lie nor deceive us and be neither vain nor false, those who have conceived this certainty surely expect likewise that God will accomplish His promises which, according to their conviction, cannot but be true.

So that, in sum, hope is nothing else than the expectation of the things that faith has believed to be truly promised by God. Thus Faith believes God to be truthful: Hope expects that He will show His veracity at the opportune time.

Hope is nothing else than the expectation of the things that faith has believed to be promised by God. Faith believes God tells the truth; Hope expects God will demonstrate his truthfulness at the opportune time. Faith believes God to be our Father; Hope expects He will always act as such toward us. Faith believes eternal life to be given to us; Hope expects that it shall be revealed at some time. Faith is the foundation on which Hope rests; Hope nourishes and maintains Faith. Because no one can expect and hope anything from God, except he or she will have first believed his promises. On the other hand, it is necessary that our feeble faith be sustained (lest we grow weary and fail). So patient hope and expectation keep faith.

John Calvin On Correct Baptismal Usage

I was pressed on the proper mode of baptism recently by a Presbyterian brother.[1] I listened as he made his protestations and appeals to a myriad of proofs for the legitimacy of sprinkling over and against immersion. After a few minutes, I grabbed my copy of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.[2] I flipped through the pages of Calvin’s magisterial tome when I found the section I was looking for.[3] Then I began reading Calvin’s section on Erroneous and correct baptismal usage:

But whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water—these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word “baptize” means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.[4]


  1. The three traditional modes of baptism: pouring, sprinkling, and immersion.  ↩

  2. Anecdote: A different Presbyterian brother once confessed that meeting a Baptist who had read through the Institutes was akin to “encountering a unicorn in the forest.”  ↩

  3. I have always been tickled by Barth’s description of Calvin in Karl Barth, Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence 1914–1925, trans. James D. Smart (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), 101: “Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.”  ↩

  4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1320 emphasis added.  ↩

QOTD: Calvin on Allegory

While I do not mirror Calvin's exact sentiments on allegory, I will acknowledge the dangers he hints at here, mainly, the speculative novelty of an allegorical reading that sometimes overshadows the natural reading of a text:

I am aware of the plausible nature of allegories, but when we reverently weigh the teachings of the Holy Spirit, those speculations which at first sight pleased us exceedingly, vanish from our view. I am not captivated by these enticements myself, and I wish all my hearers to be persuaded of this,—nothing can be better than a sober treatment of Scripture. We ought never to fetch from a distance subtle explanations, for the true sense will, as I have previously expressed it, flow naturally from a passage when it is weighed with maturer deliberation.[1]


  1. Calvin’s commentary on Daniel 10:5–6 in John Calvin and Thomas Myers, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 242.  ↩

QOTDDavid Kakishjohn calvin
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
Hell
Hell

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.

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.

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.