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CALVIN AS BIBLICAL COMMENTATOR
In these translated selections from the Biblical Commentaries of Calvin, we have tried to produce a readable version of a representative part of his work in this field. The Commentaries were translated into English soon after they were published in the second half of the sixteenth century. (They were retranslated about the middle of the nineteenth century, by the Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh, and have been reprinted in this second version.) They were also translated immediately into French and somewhat later into Dutch and German. Calvin’s Commentaries profoundly influenced the churches of the Reformed tradition; and there can be little doubt that a renewed interest in them and study of them would not only contribute to a better understanding of Calvin, but would also have a profound influence on the mind and life of the church today. Our primary interest in preparing this volume has been to present Calvin as a Biblical commentator, with the hope that many will be induced to turn to the Commentaries themselves in search of the light Calvin throws upon the meaning of the Scriptures.
We concur in the judgment of many before us that Calvin was, for various reasons, a unique and extremely illuminating commentator. His education as a humanist, his extensive knowledge of the work of other interpreters of the Bible, his classical and patristic erudition, his insights as a Reformer and churchman, and his exegetical competence and grasp of the Biblical mind — all these make him an endlessly fresh and eye-opening interpreter.
I. THE QUALITY OF THE COMMENTATOR
Calvin’s Commentaries and sermons fill volumes 23–55 of his Works (in Corpus Reformatorum11Opera, in Corpus Reformatorum, ed. by G. Baum, E. Cunitz, E. Reuss, vol. 59, pp. 451–482, contains a list of Calvin’s publications during his lifetime.); and the Commentaries by themselves fill forty-five volumes in English: thirty on the Old Testament, fifteen on the New Testament (in the series of the Calvin Translation Society).
The grandeur of this achievement becomes all the more evident when we remember that these Commentaries were the work not of a detached scholar, but of a Reformer whose days were filled largely with pastoral work both in the church and in the state. His multiple activities and preoccupations in the latter capacity, especially in the light of his delicate and sickly physical condition, leave one amazed at the diligence and perseverance which made Calvin’s literary output (fifty-nine volumes in his Works) possible. One must not forget the several versions of the Institutes, his numerous tracts and thousands of letters. Calvin believed not only in the Word of God, but also in human words as means of promoting the gospel and serving the church.
The Commentary on Romans, the first, was published in 1540. The latest, Joshua (1564) and Ezekiel, chs. 1–20 (1565), were published after Calvin’s death. In between came the great Commentaries on Genesis, the four last Books of Moses (Harmony), the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Lamentations, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets (Calvin preached on the other books such as Deuteronomy, Job, and Samuel, but he did not lecture on them). There were also the Commentaries on all the books of the New Testament, except 2 John and 3 John and Revelation. The Harmony of Exodus-Deuteronomy (four volumes in English) and the Harmony of the Gospels (three volumes) deserve special mention as astonishing works of organization, both of narrative and of topics. They are, in fact, convincing evidence of Calvin’s grasp of Scripture as a whole and in detail. It is impossible to single out the greater Commentaries. Each is valuable for the insights it gives into the Word of God contained in it. One has only to consult Calvin on a few given passages of Scripture to recognize that he is indeed a teacher without an equal. Calvin comments with the conviction that any passage of Scripture he may examine contains a Word of God full of God’s wisdom, applicable to the condition of his hearers and readers in one respect or another. This conviction enables him to respond to the Bible with a vitality and intelligence which certainly go into the making of the mass of interesting material contained in the Commentaries from one end to the other. So it is that in spite of the occasional dips, one is aware of walking through on a high road, with solid pleasure and frequent excitement of illumination.
Most of the Old Testament Commentaries were delivered as lectures. Calvin spoke slowly and quietly, so that his words could be recorded fairly accurately by his students and more exactly by his secretaries. Afterward he went over what had been taken down, corrected it, and allowed it to be published with proper dedications to friends and persons of importance in England and elsewhere.
It is important to remember that these lectures were delivered at the Academy, which provided education to the children of Geneva, and attracted students of theology by the hundreds from France, England, Scotland, Holland, and elsewhere. Some of the greatest Protestant theologians of the day were trained in this Academy. But the majority of those who attended his lectures went to their several countries to work, and often to suffer, for the establishment and the progress of the Reformed faith. What these men needed was clear, sure, and strong grasp of Scripture doctrine, available for the new churches or gatherings of Protestants in their own lands, surrounded by hostile forces and in constant peril. Calvin commented for the upbuilding of these people and the churches they came from and went to.
He began his lectures always with the prayer, “May the Lord grant that we study the heavenly mysteries of his wisdom, making true progress in religion to his glory and our upbuilding.” The closing prayer was longer, and in it Calvin laid before the Lord the special needs of the faithful as the Scripture just studied had revealed them.
The Scripture passage was read in the original language, then translated into Latin.22There was often a desire to include the Hebrew in the publication, but to keep the cost of the volumes as reasonable as possible, this was not always done. But see the Amsterdam edition of 1667. Calvin’s Latin translation is apparently his own; in the classroom, it was made directly from the text. He was of course as familiar with the Vulgate as most modern English translators are with the Authorized Version, and like the modern translators, he enjoyed making improvements.33For strong objections to the Vulgate, see Tracts (Edinburgh edition), vol. 3, pp. 76 f., or Opera, vol. 7, pp. 411 f. His wording is said to be closest, in the Old Testament, to the translation of Leo Jud, printed at Zurich in 1543 (reprinted 1545 and 155744King, John. Preface to Genesis, Edinburgh ed., pp. xv–xvi.); but it does not seem so close as to suggest actual dependence. For example, in Gen. 1:6 Jud’s translation runs, Dixit quoque Deus sit extensio; Calvin’s, Et dixit Deus sit extensio.
What Hebrew text he used is apparently uncertain. Available, besides the Brescia edition used by Luther, were the Soncino (1488), the Bomberg editions, printed at Venice (1518–1526), and three editions of Münster, printed at Basel (1534, 1536, 1546). None of them differed significantly from the Brescia edition. The Complutensian Polyglot, finally published in 1521, was used by Beza (according to Delitzsch) and presumably was available to Calvin.
Calvin’s opponents have minimized his knowledge of Hebrew (Il n’en connoissoit gueres que les caracteres55Footnote of an article by Tholuck in the English volume on Joshua, Edinburgh ed., p. 348.), but the Commentaries themselves offer sufficient evidence to the contrary. He deals repeatedly with disputes over the roots from which words were derived, and with various grammatical constructions. Further, he has a real sense of Hebrew style and uses it frequently as a guide to interpretation.66See pp. 157, 310, 365, 396. He recognizes fully the importance of “synonymous parallelism.” He takes for granted the relative antiquity and accuracy of the Masoretic Hebrew in comparison with the Septuagint and the Vulgate, and he therefore uses them both along with the Targum, Theodotian, and the church fathers, much as he uses the commentaries of his own contemporaries, as aids to the interpretation of the text, not as independent authorities.
While translating the New Testament, Calvin has both the Vulgate and Erasmus before him. But he does not hesitate to make his own rendition. This statement could be substantiated from almost every other page of the New Testament Commentaries. One or two examples will suffice. He translates εὑρίσκομαι as inveniam (“that I may find”), against Erasmus’ reperior and the Vulgate’s invenior; and he justifies his rendition by saying “as Budaeus77See note 32. (the great Hellenist) shows by various examples” (on Phil. 3:9). Erasmus translates ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον εὐχαριστία, of Eph. 5:4, as sed magis gratiarum actio, “but rather by giving thanks greatly.” Calvin prefers Jerome’s sed magis gratia. He admits that the Greek word usually means “thanksgiving,” but he thinks the present context requires that it be translated as gracious.
As to the New Testament text, Calvin clearly uses that of Erasmus. But references to ancient and more recent “manuscripts” show that he was not satisfied simply to follow even an authority like Erasmus.
Erasmus’ influence on Calvin as critic and exegete was far-reaching. The former’s insistence upon the necessity of knowing the original languages of the Bible88Opera Omnia, 10 vols., ed. by J. Clericus, Leyden, 1703–1706, vol. 5, pp. 77–78.; his principle that the more obscure passages of the Bible should be interpreted with the help of those which are clear99Ibid., p. 131.; his plea for understanding the Bible in its “natural, or historical and grammatical” sense, and spiritually, that is, for moral edification1010Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 1026, 1029, 1034.; his view of the Bible as having been written under the direction of the Holy Spirit (Ut enim Spiritus ille divinus, mentium apostoliarum moderatur) without a forced uniformity as to content1111Ibid, vol. 6, p. 13, on Matt. 2:7.; his conviction that various and divergent accounts and teachings in the Bible do not diminish its authority and saving power1212Berger, Samuel, La Bible au seizième siècle, Paris, 1879, p. 78.; his critical attitude with regard to the authorship of certain books, and his independence in relation to patristic interpreters, including Jerome; his dictum: In fontibus versetur oportet, qui vellit esse vere theologus — “Every man who would be a true theologian must return to the sources” 1313Ibid. — all this, together with the example of free and competent examination of Scripture he sets in his emendations and annotations, are written large in Calvin’s Commentaries. (How much of this agreement is to be credited to the direct influence of Erasmus on Calvin and how much to the humanistic classical training which Calvin had received is of course debatable.)
Calvin divides his text conveniently, so that he may be able to deal with a story or topic as a whole. After explaining a given passage in general, he then proceeds to discuss specific verses, phrases, and words, which he repeats sometimes in Latin and sometimes in the original. As he proceeds, he uses Latin renditions of the text which are not the same as those first given. His mind is on the original Hebrew or Greek and not on a Latin version, whether his own or another’s.
As the occasion demands, Calvin goes into details in discussing a geographical and historical point. He appeals to classic authorities; to Jewish, pagan, Christian writers of antiquity, like Josephus, Pliny, and Jerome; and he quotes the best authorities of his own day. But he is brief and to the point. He weighs evidence, expresses an opinion, and moves on. It is seldom that he loses himself in detail and turns aside from his main purpose (as he does on Gen. 15:2, where his discussion of mesek, sagah, shuk, and Damascus must have bored all but the hardiest students). After details have been dealt with, he returns to the meaning of the whole passage, often giving a summary of its teaching, or stating the central theme and applying it to the need of the church and of his hearers and readers. He had a habit, which must have brought reassurance to his students, of marking the end of the treatment of a passage by saying, “Now we have [tenemus] the prophet’s meaning.”
He paraphrases frequently, clarifying statements and ideas for the duller students. One can imagine the quick dipping of quill pens in the ink whenever the class heard “as if he were to say” (acsi diceret), followed by the repetition of a text in his own words. Often he projects his mind into those of his hearers, and takes up a line of thought which is of special practical concern to them. It is surprising how often he does the same for a present-day reader. One can hear the soft-spoken lecturer occasionally shaking up the unconcerned with well-aimed and adroit thrusts, and waking them up to the relevance of the Word of God to their own and their churches’ condition. The Word applied, and Calvin was eminently resourceful in pointing this out to the mind of the not too bright student. The occasional belaboring of the obvious must no doubt be attributed to Calvin’s concern with what we would call “average mentality.” He can also make his point clear by an occasional flash of humor: “the uproar made by a fallen leaf,” 1414See. p. 322. the suggestion that he might wear a military uniform to class,1515See pp. 353. f. the comment on bracelets and nose rings1616On Ezek. 16:12. or the asses’ ears.1717See p. 80. Calvin was never boisterous, but he certainly had wit and could be witty — a good but rare quality in a commentator!
Characteristically, his worst term of condemnation for any interpretation is “frigid,” by which he means not so much “remote” or “lifeless” as lacking in the power to give living faith to the church; on the other hand, his favorite word of praise is “solid,” a sound and sure foundation for the church’s faith. Eight years separated the printing of the Isaiah Commentary and that on the Minor Prophets. A comparison of Calvin’s treatment of Isa. 2:4 with that of Micah 4:2 (Written eight years later) shows him addressing himself to different specific situations. And yet it also reveals the continuity of his thought in his primary concern with the upbuilding of the church.
With all this practical concern with the “progress” of his students and of the churches, Calvin was a conscientious historical critic. His comments did not degenerate into the undisciplined exhortation which often goes with “practical preaching.” He neither practiced nor encouraged irresponsibility toward “the genuine sense” of Scripture. The students were to know what the author of a given text meant by what he said, and any “spiritual” meaning other than one derived from the author’s intention was at once misleading and unedifying. Calvin said bluntly of Ezek. 17:1–2, “The prophet’s discourse cannot be understood without a knowledge of the history [behind it].” Calvin’s concern with history will be dealt with later.1818See “Calvin as Historian,” pp. 29–31. Here we point it out as an essential part of his work as a lecturer, contributive rather than irrelevant to the hearing of God’s Word.
Calvin’s refusal to be diverted from his main purpose is clear also in his use of classical and early Christian literature. The list of classical references is a long one. Cicero appears most often (sixteen times in the Pentateuch Harmony alone); but there are quotations from all the better-known Latin authors (Horace, Juvenal, Seneca, Terence, Cato, Quintilian, Virgil, Plautus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Livy, Pliny), and from the Greek authors (Homer, Euripides, Xenophon, Ovid, Aristophanes, Epicurus, Plutarch, and Aesop). He quotes Plato and Aristotle with respect. He admires Plato’s wisdom and piety, but objects to the “angelology” of Platonism (2 Peter 1:4, Col. 2:18, etc.). He quotes Aristotle on the distinction between anger and hatred (from “The Second Book on Rhetoric”), and refers with approval to his saying that the tongue should be an image of the understanding (Gal. 5:19, 1 Cor. 14:11). In the field of law, he speaks of Portius’ law, Flavian law, the laws of Sempronius, and Valerius’ law (Acts 16:35, 22:25, 1 Tim. 1:10). Herodotus, Pliny, Gellius, Homer all contributed a discussion of the giant Og in Deut. 3:4. It is not always possible to tell whether Calvin is depending on his own memory of a quoted passage, or on a collection of quotations such as the Adagies of Erasmus. Calvin was admired by his friends and feared by his enemies as a most learned man. But he never makes a display of his erudition and it seldom interferes with a forthright presentation of the meaning he saw it and with his communication with his hearers and readers.
The same holds for his use of ancient Christian literature. Hundreds of references in the Commentaries, quotations, approving and disapproving discussions make it obvious that Calvin had an extensive and masterly knowledge of Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom. He obviously learned a great deal from all three, and depended upon the latter two, as well as on Josephus, for his knowledge of Biblical times and places. But his knowledge is not limited to these giants. He makes apt reference, with frequent quotations, to Tertullian and Cyprian; to Irenaeus and Origen; to Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Hilary, Lactantius, and Ambrose of Milan; to Eusebius and Socrates, the historians; to Pope Leo I, Gregory the Great, and Bernard of Clairvaux. But again, the fathers are consulted for the help they may provide for understanding Scripture; they do not interfere with his exposition of it.
Calvin was grateful to contemporary commentators like Melanchthon, Bucer, Bullinger, and others (on Romans1919See Epistle to Simon Grynaeus, below.). But the use he makes of their works keeps a consistent pattern. No references are given to exhibit his own learning. However, his comments show that he had read and pondered over the works of his contemporaries. Ecolampadius,20201482–1531. He was born in Weinsberg in the Palatinate. He went to Bologna to study law but ended studying theology in Heidelberg. In 1515 he became cathedral preacher in Basel, and after a period in Germany, in 1522 he returned to Basel, after which his name was associated with that of Zwingli and with the Protestant Reformation. He was well versed in “the new learning” and was respected both as exegete and as theologian. he says, interprets rightly and prudently, but one needs leisure to read his work (Dan. 9:25). He quotes approvingly and supports by his own argument Luther’s designation of Ps. 132:14 as “the bloody promise,” but he disagrees with Luther on Dan. 8:22–23; “Luther indulging his own thoughts too freely refers this to the masks of Antichrist.” He gives high praise to Bucer in the Preface to Psalms,2121See p. 54 (and cf. p. 75). but he says of him elsewhere (Preface to Romans) that he is too prolix for busy men to read, and too profound to be understood by the simple, and that because of the incredible fecundity of his mind, he does not know where to stop.
Calvin declares (and truly) that he does not expend words refuting contrary opinions unless he knows the faithful are troubled by them.2222See Autobiographical Sketch, p. 57. Most of his arguments therefore are with the “papists” and the Anabaptists. There are uncomplimentary references to “the doctors of the Sorbonne.” Jewish commentators are usually treated as a group and dismissed as blind to the relation between the Old Testament and Christ. He uses their judgment frequently on details, especially the meaning or derivation of words. Kimchi he mentions by name and calls him “the most correct interpreter among the rabbis” (Ps. 112:5).
It is ironical that Calvin in spite of his frequent references to “the blindness of the Jews” was himself attacked, especially by the theological faculty of Wittenberg, as “a Judaizer.” A pamphlet against his method of interpreting Scripture, which was published in 1593, bore the horrendous title “Calvin Judaizing, that is, the Jewish Glosses and Corruptions by which John Calvin did not Fear to Corrupt the most Luminous Passages of Sacred Scriptures and its witness to the Glorious Trinity, the Deity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, including the Predictions of the Prophets on the Coming of the Messiah, His Birth, Passion, Resurrection, and Sitting at the Right Hand of God, in a Detestable Fashion. A Refutation of the Corruptions is Added.” The reason for such attacks was of course Calvin’s insistence on attending to the “genuine sense” of Scripture.2323Pp. 28f., 107f., 140f., 353, 366f. But see also on Deut. 13:1, John 11:58. He despised the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture which had provided Christians with their favorite means of twisting the Bible into a religious book of their own liking. In insisting upon the original meaning of a text, he deprived the orthodox, even among Protestants, of many of their traditional proof texts. He even undermined the traditional doctrine of Biblical authority. But he taught the Protestant ministry how to read their Bible, and to understand it as the Word of God to the churches — which is the utmost a commentator can do.
Calvin published his Commentaries to give his readers insight into the Word of God and to point out its relevance to their own life and situation. To this end he cultivated accuracy, brevity, and lucidity. He achieved his purpose to a degree that has aroused the admiration and gratitude of generations of readers. And in this day, as Prof. James Everett Frame of Union Theological Seminary of New York used to say, a man who would understand his Bible will do well to have Calvin’s Commentaries within easy reach.
Here we must not fail to point out that every salient point of Calvin’s theology is discussed, and is often more briefly and clearly and persuasively presented, in the direct statements of the Commentaries than in the sustained and usually technical arguments of the Institutes. We hope that our selections on faith, providence, Jesus Christ, and so on, will help the reader to correct many an impression he has received either by dipping into the Institutes or by secondhand acquaintance with Calvin. We ourselves were repeatedly and pleasantly surprised by what we found in these Commentaries: we hope the reader will find the same instruction and pleasure.index1
II. THE PREPARATION OF THE COMMENTARIES
In the main, the Old Testament Commentaries were delivered as lectures, and the New Testament Commentaries were dictated at home. We owe an enormous debt to Calvin’s friends and secretaries who wrote down his lectures and sermons, and took dictation at his home.2424Doumergue, Emile, Jean Calvin, vol. 3, pp. 592 f. Among these special mention must be made of Jean Budé, the son of the great humanist Guillaume Budé, and his brother-in-law Charles de Jonvillers, both of whom were refugees from France and lived on Calvin’s street. They worked tirelessly with him in the preparation of the Commentaries on Jeremiah and Lamentations, on Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets, which occupy seventeen volumes in English translation. They have left us firsthand accounts of the way Calvin’s Commentaries were composed and made ready for publication.See Papacy
Budé wrote of the beginning of the work: “When some years ago that most learned man, John Calvin, at the advice and request of friends, undertook to explain the Psalms of David in the School, some of us his hearers began to take notes in our own way, for our own private study, according to our own judgment, and at will. But aroused by what we heard, we began to think how unjust it would be to a great many people, and to the whole church, if the benefit of such lectures were to be restricted to a few people. We did our best to take down the lectures word for word. Without wasting time, I joined myself with two zealous brothers for this purpose; and it happened by God’s grace that our effort was not without success. For, when we put our several notes together, and wrote out the lectures, we found that little had escaped us, and that we could fill the gaps without much trouble. Calvin himself is our witness that this is what happened in the first undertaking in which our abilities were put to the test. All the hearers [of the lectures] will readily acknowledge that we followed the same procedure far better in taking down the lectures on Hosea; for by this time we were more skillful at our job through much repetition and long practice.” 2525Opera, vol. 42, pp. 191–192.
And we have the following, from Charles Jonvillers, on the preparation of the Commentary on Ezekiel:
“On February 13, 1563, Calvin began to expound Ezekiel in the Public School; even though he was constantly afflicted by various serious diseases, and had either to be carried to the lecture hall in a wooden chair, or arrive perforce on a horse; for his frail body had become so worn out that there was hardly any strength left in him. And yet, for a whole year after that February, the virulence of his disease did not keep him from discharging his responsibilities of preaching and lecturing.
“Finally, in February of the following year, when he had finished chapter twenty (except for four verses), he was forced to stay at home and almost continuously in bed. Still, even while his mind had to carry the burden of his illness, he was constantly thinking, or dictating; and he often kept writing, so that it is hardly credible how much he accomplished even when he could not leave his house because of bad health. Among other things, he corrected diligently the greater part of these lectures, as is evident from the copy with his notations, which I have saved with care along with the rest.” 2626Ibid., vol. 40, proleg. See Edinburgh edition of Ezekiel, p. xlvii.
A passage from The Life of John Calvin, by Nicolas Colladon, a minister and friend of Calvin, gives us a glimpse of the latter at work:
“About the month of September (1558), he was attacked by a prolonged and dreadful fever; and while it lasted, he was forced, to his great regret, to stop both reading and preaching. But he did not cease to work at home, in spite of the remonstrances of those around him that he spare himself. At this very time he revised and improved his Commentary on Isaiah, which had already been printed in the year 1551. Besides, at this time his lectures on all the Minor Prophets were printed; for previously there had been only a separate printing of his lectures on Hosea. It may be that when he was seized by the fever he had already read all the Minor Prophets, and there were only two or three lectures on Malachi left. However, since the printer was nearby, Calvin, wanting to avoid publishing an imperfect work, worked over his lectures in his own rooms and dictated them to several persons who were able to be present. Thus these lectures, as well as the others, were taken down from his mouth, and printed like the rest. He worked in his room because it was winter and he had the fever; and it was not good for him to go outside.” 2727Ibid., vol. 21, pp. 87–88.
Again, according to Colladon: “Calvin on his part did not in the least spare himself. He worked much harder than his strength and health could bear. Every other week he preached one sermon a day.2828According to Doumergue, Calvin “often preached twice a day; he gave lectures; he spoke before the congregation every week. He spoke before the consistory every week. He spoke before the council. How often a week?” (Jean Calvin, 6, p. 73). See also F. W. Kampschulte, Johann Calvin, 2, p. 375. But this writer is dependent to a large extent upon Colladon, whom we have been quoting. Three times a week he lectured on theology. He was present at every meeting of the consistory, and made all the remonstrances. Every Friday, at a discussion on Scripture, which was called the congregation, what he added after the main speaker was like a lesson in itself. He did not fail to visit the sick, to give pastoral advice, and to do an endless number of things that went with the ordinary exercises of his ministry. Aside from the usual activities, he was greatly occupied with the faithful in France. He instructed, exhorted, counseled, and comforted them in the midst of persecution, as well as interceded for them, or had others do it when he thought there was a way.” 2929Opera, vol. 21, p. 66.
After describing Calvin’s excellent memory, Colladon goes on to say: “It is not that he had much time to prepare his lectures, for even though he would have preferred to do so, he had no leisure for it. And for a truth, most of the time he did not have one whole hour for preparation. . . . I will add still another evidence for his [remarkable] memory: If, while he was dictating, someone came in to speak to him and stayed a half hour, or even an hour, most often he would remember where he had left off, and would go on from there as though nothing had happened, whether he was dictating letters, or a commentary, or something else. . . .
“He slept very little. Even though this meant he was less than energetic, it did not keep him from being ready for work and the fulfillment of his duties. On the days when he was not to preach, he would stay in bed and at five or six o’clock would ask for a number of books, so that he might dictate with someone writing down his work. If it was his week, he was always ready to go up into the pulpit. When he returned home, he went to his bed and lay down on it with his clothes still on, and taking some book, continued his labors. . . . So it is that he dictated most of his books in the morning, working continually and in a very happy state of mind.” 3030Ibid., pp. 108–110.
III. CALVIN AS RENAISSANCE HUMANIST
I. Calvin’s “Literalism”
Calvin’s exegetical method and procedure were the product of a century of classical humanism, first in Italy, but later especially in Northern Europe. Humanists, such as Lorenzo Valla3131Lorenzo Valla was a learned, boisterous, and fearless scholar. He is famous for his exposure of “the Donation of Constantine,” which was supposed to have established the supremacy of Rome in the church and over Italy and Western Europe. He was an accomplished Latinist, a rigorous textual and historical critic, and a general nuisance for the tradition. But he escaped the inquisition because of powerful friends including two popes (Nicholas V and Calixtus III). (1407–1457), Guillaume Budé3232Calvin called Budé “a matchless ornament and crown of literature, by whose contribution today our France lays claim to the palm of erudition” (O. Breen, John Calvin: A Study on French Humanism, p. 114). He refers to Budé often (I Cor. 4:13, II Cor. 1:13, Phil. 2:9, John 2:5, 6:7, etc.) as an authority on the languages and civilization of Greece and Rome. De asse at partibus eius of Budé was held in highest esteem as a source book on the subject. He was critical of the church and defended the primacy of Scripture and the cross for salvation, but he refused to join “the Lutherans.” His family later found their way to Geneva. (See Josef Bohatec, Budé and Calvin, Graz, 1950, for a classic discussion.) (1467–1540) and Erasmus3333Erasmus requires no special discussion here. His relation to the Reformation has inspired a literature that is copious and readily available. See Preserved Smith, Erasmus, 1923; Albert Hyma, The Youth of Erasmus, Ann Arbor, 1931; Margaret M. Phillips, Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance, London, 1949; Louis Bouyer, Autour d’Erasme, Paris, 1955. (1466–1536), had in common a zeal for recovering the literature of Greece and Rome, and for publishing reliable versions of the old classics. They loved the wisdom and style of the ancient writers, and drank up their sayings for new insight into a virtuous and happy life. These men, and many others like them, were fine linguists and critics, with whom it was axiomatic that the establishment of the best possible text of a writing was the first step toward understanding it. They compared manuscripts and authorities, and assumed the responsibility of producing their own editions of the classics. Calvin, who was trained in the humanistic method, and admired Budé and Erasmus greatly, took it for granted that before commenting on any passage in Scripture, he had to ascertain what the author of it actually said.
The so-called literalism of Calvin is directly related to the Renaissance scholars’ desire to get at the original and “genuine” meaning of a text. Reformers, like Luther, Bucer, and Zwingli, as well as Calvin, who were all indebted to Erasmus and the humanistic method, agreed that the natural meaning of a statement was to be preferred to one arrived at by way of allegorizing or supplying a meaning other than the literal. This method was a commonplace among humanists, who applied it to Greek and Roman writings earlier than to the Bible. Allegory was contrary to the humanistic canon of interpretation; and “literalism,” that is, the desire to get at an author’s own mind, was of its essence.
So we find Calvin bent upon establishing what a given author in fact said. He criticized the church fathers, especially Augustine, Chrysostom, and Jerome, for dealing too subtly with the texts, for allegorizing and speculation; even though he obviously takes their understanding of the Bible more seriously than he does that of the humanists.3434See pp. 107 f., 307 (cf. 327), 311, 334, 370. He complains repeatedly that even while Augustine’s remarks on a given passage are good, they are irrelevant to the purpose of its writer (on Rom. 8:28, John 1:16). Allegorizing was misunderstanding, and misunderstanding was the evil a scholar had to avoid by all means.
Neither the humanists nor Calvin meant by the literal meaning necessarily an unspiritual meaning. The natural interpretation of a passage for them was one that did Justice to the intention of the author. When Calvin protested against allegorizing, he was protesting not against finding a spiritual meaning in a passage, but against finding one that was not there. The Word of God written for the upbuilding of the church was of course spiritual, but in the primary sense of leading to the knowledge of God and obedience to him. Calvin’s “literalism” establishes rather than dissolves the mystery of the Word of God, provided for the Christian’s help and comfort.
2. Calvin as Historian
As a disciplined humanist, Calvin recognized that the Biblical writers, for example the prophets, wrote for their own times and situations. In this sense, Calvin is a confirmed “historicist.” When Isaiah, or Hosea, or Jeremiah, or a psalmist speaks he speaks for the benefit of God’s people or the church in his own day. The Holy Spirit does indeed speak by them prophesying the Messiah, and for the future church. Calvin can say that Isaiah foresaw the glory of Christ (on John 12:45). But he habitually looks at the prophecies quoted in the New Testament, not from the position of the prophet, but from that of the apostles or Evangelists who “applied” them to their own situation. Even while he assumes that the New Testament writers wrote as dictated and directed by the Holy Spirit, as a commentator he is concerned with the way they dealt with the Old Testament; and he speaks of their activity as applying [traho, apto], both in the active and in the passive.3535See p. 91. His basic conviction in this matter, put in practice throughout his Commentaries, is that the Old Testament applied to the situation of the early church, especially to the mission of Christ, and that the Bible as a whole applies to the situation of the church in his time So, he is interested in the way the New Testament writers applied prophecy to their own history after Christ. In fact, in the Old Testament itself, the exodus from Egypt is more than an incident in the past. It is a parable of the life of Israel, and we might add, of human life in general. The same is true of the mission of Christ, and his cross. Calvin was profoundly impressed with the analogy between Christ’s destiny and that of the church in his time. Thus he saw a profound continuity between the Old Testament and the New, and between both and the events of his day (on Matt. 3:3).
To Calvin, the ultimate end of the Bible is the Kingdom of Christ, his reign over the people of God, and their faithfulness and obedience to him. This end was seen in the Old Testament dimly, or as he likes to say, umbratile, in a shadowy way. It was only right that when Christ came, the Evangelists should have applied the prophecies to him; for the words fitted him and his work far better than they did David, or Cyrus, and their works. Commenting on Matt. 27:35, he says that the statement of Ps. 22:18, They parted my garments among them, and did they cast lots upon my vesture, applies better to Christ than to David who was speaking of himself only by way of metaphor. The same according to Calvin is true of Ps. 118:22, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner (Matt. 21:42). Christ himself applies Jer. 7:11, But you have made it a den of robbers, to his own situation, when he cleanses the Temple (Matt. 21:13).
As a critic Calvin recognized in the Bible a natural working of the human mind which is not always too clear or too apt. Commenting on 1 Peter 3:14, And be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled, he goes so far as to accuse Peter of misconstruing Isaiah (ch. 8). But he excuses Peter on the ground that he was only referring to the prophet for a purpose of his own, and not explaining “every word used by the prophet.” He says that when Paul quoted Ps. 68:19, in Eph. 4:8, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men, he actually changed the wording of the psalm, even though “he can hardly be said to have departed from the substance.” But he believes that Paul did not actually quote the psalm; he “used it as an expression of his own, adapted to the matter on hand.” Paul more than once gets into difficulties by using “the Greek translators” (on Heb. 10:5, 38), and at least once one cannot tell what prophet he is quoting from (on 1 Cor. 15:54). When Stephen says in Acts 7:16 that the patriarchs were taken to Shechem and buried in a sepulcher bought by Abraham, he clearly contradicts Gen. 50:13, Josh. 24:32. Calvin refers to Jerome’s statement that the pilgrim Paula saw the tombs of the twelve patriarchs in Shechem. But he is not convinced. He says that perhaps Moses was using “synecdoche,” that is, Joseph stands for the patriarchs; or that perhaps Luke was following an old tradition. He ends the discussion with, Quare hic locus corrigendus est. Hence this verse must be corrected! (See also on Josh. 24:32, Gen. 46:8, 47:31.) He also admits that when Luke made Paul speak Hebrew in Jerusalem, he may have been mistaken. Calvin thinks Paul spoke the common language of the day — Aramaic (Acts 22:2). He thinks Mark is less accurate than Luke about Easter morning (on Mark 16:1), and that Matthew’s version of Jesus’ denunciation in ch. 23:24 is defective (defecta est oratio apud Matthaeum). Even Christ himself does not quote Isaiah exactly, but applies his words to his own purpose (on Matt. 15:7).
3. The Reliability and Inspiration of the Bible
Calvin studied the Bible as a book composed by human beings, according to the interests of the authors, and he followed the practices familiar to critics of literature. In this his humanism is obvious. But he also was a humanist of the bent of Lefèvre d’Étaples,3636Lefèvre d’Étaples (1450–1536) visited Italy (in 1492, 1500) and brought to France new zeal for classical learning. In 1512 he published a commentary on Paul’s epistles, and pleaded for the study of Scripture as “the unique means of approaching Him who works all things in all” (A. L Herminjard, Correspondence des Reformateurs, col. I, p. 6). In 1517 he was denounced by the Sorbonne for denying that Mary Magdalene, Mary the sister of Lazarus, and “the sinful woman” were the same. After 1520 he became the center of a lively reform movement including the Bishop of Meaux and the king’s sister, Marguerite d’Angoulême. In 1523 he translated Gospels into French, and continued translating the Bible until 1530. He died a fugitive at Nérac in 1536. Erasmus, or Bucer, when he put his method to a theological use. Calvin was not interested in the Bible as a merely human product. His critical study was inspired by a profound and powerful desire to get back, through texts and versions, to “the oracles of God.” If some humanists went back to the classical authors for new wisdom on man, Calvin, with the other Reformers, went back to the Bible for the wisdom of God.
It is important to remember that the Bible was to him above all the Word of God spoken for the edification of the church. This explains his willingness to admit many unsolved problems of detail, even while he insists that the writers of the Bible were the mouthpieces of God. He sees that the Evangelists differ one from another in many a detail (on Matt. 22:2), but he insists that they agree on the main points of a story or parable. Where there is a question of numbers, as of women and angels at the resurrection, he points to the writers’ unconcern for exact information in such matters and draws the reader’s attention to the gospel or law. In fact, he sets aside a discrepancy of a thousand, between an account of Moses (Num. 25:90) and that of Paul, by remarking that the Biblical writers cared no more than the ancient Romans for numerical minutiae (on 1 Cor. 10:8). Paul was concerned to warn the church at Corinth against idolatry. What mattered was the reliability of the Bible with regard to the word of God and the promises of God, and not factual accuracy on detail.
The humanists believed in the wisdom of the classics, feeding their minds on the sayings (of which they made collections) of the ancient philosophers; but they did so not for mere factual accuracy, but for the edification of their age. There is a suggestive analogy between the humanist attitude toward the classics and Calvin’s toward the Bible. The Word of God spoken by the Spirit was the word of salvation and every blessing that goes with it. One had to believe in it and receive it with gratitude. It was worthy of the most diligent investigation. So one did one’s best to understand the Bible, and to discover its consistency as the Word of God. A man had to attend to the chief business on hand. What we have in the Bible is the wisdom of God, a “Christian philosophy,” a way of life that will enable us to live and die well in a world where the devil rages and perils are always at hand. Indeed the humanistic method required that one deal with questions of time, place, and authorship raised by the texts; but one also had to be prepared to leave them unsettled, and go on to the main point, to what was said of God’s glory and man’s duty.3737See the Preface to the Commentary on Hebrews.
Calvin knew that there were variant versions of the Bible, but he did not know — nobody knew — in his time, that there were various traditions behind the Biblical literature. Today we recognize that “contradictions” in the Bible are due to “date, authorship, and composition.” But our way was not open to Calvin. Both assuming the inerrancy of the Spirit and knowing the ways of the human mind, Calvin did his best to harmonize contradictory statements. But even where he failed, he was satisfied that the intention of the Spirit in dictating “the oracles of God” was fulfilled; that the Word of God for the guidance of the church had been properly received and set down for the benefit of God’s people.
Calvin indeed insisted that the Spirit “dictated” the oracles of God. But such dictation did not so much establish the authority of the Bible as give us the Word of God for the upbuilding of the church and the benefit of the Christian in particular situations. Since the Holy Spirit spoke by the prophets, God himself spoke; so, when men read the Bible, they attend to their God. But what is their business but to listen to him and to hear him for obedience? So it is that the Christians read the whole of the Bible as the Word of God: not to believe God spoke because the Bible tells us he does, but that as they read the Bible, God himself may speak to their condition. The authority of the Bible is to Calvin the authority of God revealing himself and speaking to a Christian’s specific need; and the inspiration of the writers of the Bible is presupposed in God’s self-revelation to the Christian who reads it.
Calvin’s doctrine of the authority of Scripture is discussed at length by theologians and church historians. Unfortunately, too many of them rely on sections of the Institutes, and fail to test the conclusions they draw by the content of the Commentaries themselves.3838Cf. Davies, Rupert E., The Problem of Authority in the Continental Reformers, London, 1946. Exceptions are Emil Kraeling, The Old Testament Since the Reformation, Harpers, 1955, and the section in The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, pp. 124–126, by John T. McNeill. See also Henri Clavier, Étude sur le Calvinism, Paris, 1936, especially pp. 103 f. Dr. Edward A. Dowey maintains that Calvin assumes the traditional views of the inerrancy of the Bible even while he comments upon it as the work of human beings (The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, 1952, pp. 90 f.). This position, which seems correct, has been debated, and it does not alter our thesis that the ground of the authority of the Bible for Calvin was not inerrancy, but God who speaks by it. For a fine discussion of the subject, see “The Reformer’s Use of the Bible,” by Paul L. Lehmann, in Theology Today, October, 1946. See also Kemper Fullerton, Prophecy and Authority, ch. 7.
Calvin, of course, accepts the whole Bible as the Word of God and he uses terms like “dictation” and “amanuensis of the Holy Spirit.” In his Commentaries he shifts back and forth between God and the prophet as the speaker in the same way in which the prophets alternate the first and third person in their oracles. But those who see in such phrases a doctrine of inerrant Scripture and exact verbal inspiration forget that Calvin himself had a good deal of experience in dictating to secretaries and to students, and then correcting the results. God, the Holy Spirit, is of course inerrant, and the Word of God given by the Spirit was formulated to serve best the needs of God’s church. But the human instruments, being men, were certainly not perfect. And they did remain men. Isaiah remained a great poet and Ezekiel indulged in wearisome repetitions. Calvin made no assumption of a succession of miracles to eliminate every slip.3939But see on Jer. 36:4–6, 28, and Dowey, op. cit., pp. 90 f.
Calvin trusted the fidelity of those to whom God had entrusted his Word more than he trusted the care of the Jewish rabbis who supplied the vowel points. More fundamentally, he trusted the providence of God to provide his chosen in all ages with needful instruction. He himself seldom emends (but see Ezek. 16:43); however, when he discusses emendations suggested by others, he dismisses them, not on the ground of impiety, but because of the better sense he can find in the Masoretic text (e.g., Ezek. 14:4). Inerrancy is not for Calvin the basis for the authority of Scripture.
Calvin uses the doctrine of inspiration against the Church of Rome.4040Institutes, Bk. I, ch 7. The Bible is the Word of God as over against the word of man as found in the papacy. His contention is that the Spirit spoke by the prophets and not by the pope or the Roman Church. The fathers could be wrong and often were; the councils could be wrong and often were; the tradition and the canon law could be and often were wrong. Over against all these, the Bible could not be and was not wrong. So when the fathers, the councils, or the tradition in general oppose the Bible, the Bible is right, and all the rest are wrong.
But the things at issue between Rome and the Reformers were not the incarnation of our Lord, or his resurrection, or any miracle or prophecy. They were not the number of Israelites who came out of Egypt or the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. They did not even have to do with “the date, authorship, or composition” of the books of the Bible. All such questions, which have agitated men from “the age of reason” to our own day, were not the points at issue. Therefore, the question of verbal infallibility and plenary inspiration, with the relevant questions having to do with “science and religion” or “faith and reason,” were not at issue. The issue was a proper exposition of the Christian faith: the grace of God, sin, justification, the ministry, and the sacraments; in short, the gospel. The heart of the Bible to Calvin as to Luther is Christ — the anticipation of Christ and the witness to Christ, Christ’s own work and his relation to the people of God.4141See pp. 61 f., 93f., 101, 104 f., et al. This is where the inspiration of the writers is crucial. Witness to Christ is the reason for inspiration, as it is also the reason for the work of the Spirit in the church. The Spirit spoke by the prophets about Christ! And as he spoke about Christ and all that is relevant to our salvation by him, he spoke with absolute authority. The Church of Rome had corrupted the gospel. The gospel in its purity was to be found in Scripture. This purity of the gospel was the work of the Spirit, who had dictated the gospel, as found throughout the Bible, to the writers.
At a later time, inspiration meant infallibility with regard to miracles, predictions, and sundry accounts of matters of fact. For the “fundamentalists,” the test of belief in inspiration has been an acceptance of factual statements that seem contrary to natural process, or others that seem to involve contradiction. A grain of historical sense should suggest that Calvin was neither liberal, nor orthodox, nor neo-orthodox; even though all these can claim him in one respect or another. He was liberal in his determination to understand the Biblical writers historically He was orthodox in his belief that the Bible was “dictated” by the Spirit. He was “neo-orthodox” in making Christ who came to save sinners central to the whole Bible.
4. Knowledge of God
The language of the Spirit is the language of human beings, and even while it is dictated, spoken, it is dictated or spoken not in an alien tongue with an alien logic but in the familiar tongue of man with its common logic. However, the speech of the Spirit is a heavenly discourse, concerning God and his benefits, spoken not to satisfy our curiosity as to his “essence,” but that we may know his power.4242See below, pp. 141, 176. The language of the Bible is intended not to disclose God as he is in himself, but as he is toward us. He is toward us, not as an informant first but as a Savior, with his power. To know God in fact is to know above all his power; and we know his power in the faithfulness, peace, joy, the spiritual gifts, we receive from him. God’s power and Word go together. According to Calvin, God’s power is spiritual and the Spirit of God, who is witness to God’s power above all, speaks a spiritual language which is accommodated to our understanding by the use of our common language.
There is a knowledge that gives a man power over the thing known; the knowledge of the Christian man is the opposite of this. By the knowledge of God the Christian subjects himself to God’s power. The latter knowledge differs from “the speculative,” which Calvin considered incongruous with the Christian’s relation to God. We know God, not to use him, but to worship and obey him. Therefore we know, not God’s essence (as we know the essence of an object), but his grace and will by and for worship and obedience. This knowledge is one adapted to our role as creatures, and one sufficient for this role; not more and not less than we need to believe in God and obey him. It is knowledge first and last of God’s love exercised toward us; a knowledge carrying with it a certainty all its own by the same acting of God; but one in which “facts” as read in the Bible act as “signs” of God’s spiritual power, and establish the sovereignty of God as God by pointing to him whose “being” is hidden from the mind of man.4343See pp. 59–63, 270 ff., 356, 366 ff.
There is of course a singular congruity between the sign and the thing signified: as between the resurrection and the victory of God over sin and death; or between the ascension and the return of the Son to the right hand of the Father. But prior to the congruity we discern, there is the congruity of God’s own doing, as established by the Holy Spirit. If we recognize the signs as signs, it is because the Spirit gives us light as an aspect of God’s redemptive work. When we put Calvin’s doctrine of inspiration in its proper context, and remember the unique way in which Biblical language is to him a signification of God’s love and power as present in the church, we realize that Calvin used the Bible neither as an authoritarian nor as an anti-authoritarian, neither as a Hodge nor as a Sabatier; the Bible was to him the vehicle of God’s power first, and secondly of our knowledge of Him.
5. Knowledge of Man
Calvin’s belief that the Bible is God’s Word, and his discipline as a humanist, are not sufficient for explaining his greatness as a commentator. What indeed is it that keeps a reader of these volumes of Commentaries interested, as he proceeds chapter after chapter, verse after verse? The variety in the treatment of the texts of course does a great deal to prevent boredom. But the positive interest of the reader is maintained by Calvin’s constant concern with the light that the texts throw upon the life of man in its many aspects and its tantalizing depth. The Institutes begin with the proposition that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man are inseparable one from the other, and that they together constitute the only true and solid wisdom (vera demum ac solida sapientia).4444The first sentence of the Institutes. Here in the Commentaries Calvin makes full use of this principle. The stories of “holy men” like Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, and Jesus himself become occasions for illuminating comments upon humanity and its ways. Calvin does not, any more than the Biblical writers, apologize for God’s elect. Aware of God’s faithfulness and grace, he gives the reader “realistic” insights into the characters he depicts and helps him to understand himself as well as his fellow men. Thus it is that the Commentaries remain endlessly and perennially interesting. And the fact that Calvin sees all things ultimately in the light of the gospel gives his wisdom a special quality which we might well characterize as “Christian understanding.” He knows that the wisdom of the Bible is not the wisdom of the “philosophers.” 4545See pp. 127, 131, 279, 313, 341, 389. But to him it is wisdom, presented to us by the Holy Spirit himself, as wisdom without which we would have only our folly. It is clear that this conviction kept Calvin’s ardor and his thought alive and made him a superb commentator on the Bible.
The Bible contains a definite perspective upon human life. Calvin appropriates it, and uses it freely and variously for an understanding of man. Calvin’s interpretation of this perspective may well appear to some readers as “pessimistic.” In the light of God’s wisdom, men seem to be given to folly which produces in turn the miseries writ large in their history. The failings of patriarch, king, and apostle, not to mention those of God’s people in general, are set down impressively in the Bible, and Calvin does not fail to point them out. He points out the infidelities, rebellions, cowardices, and malefactions of men which have brought contempt for God and misery upon themselves. History is tragic; but it is neither hopeless nor futile. Universal though evil is, men act as responsible beings, under the mercy as well as the judgment of God who is wise and knows what he is doing. Calvin entertains neither Stoic fatalism nor humanistic “faith in man.” He repudiates both fatalism and “free will” because he sees history as the drama of God’s sovereign dealings with sinners, for their salvation and the fulfillment of God’s purpose. Thus history is suffused, as Jonathan Edwards would say, “with a divine and supernatural light” ; in it the Spirit speaks with the might of the living God toward faith and a godly life. So, the miseries of men are seen in the context of God’s mercy and faithfulness, even his judgment and wrath cooperating with his Fatherly benevolence, toward the predestined purpose of his self-disclosure to men as illumined by Jesus Christ who is God manifested in the flesh.
IV. INTERPRETER FOR THE SUFFERING CHURCH
In Calvin’s mind there was a profound and prevailing continuity between Christ and the church: between the experience of Christ and the experience of God’s people, whether in days of the “fathers,” or in the early Christian church, or in his own day. There is hardly a Biblical account of the trials and tribulations of the godly that does not occasion a lively discussion from Calvin’s pen. He never fails to see Christian life sub specie crucis. The prophets were persecuted, and Christ was crucified. Christ’s disciples were persecuted, and so were the Christians in the early church; so also were Christians in England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Eastern Europe, and especially in Calvin’s own country, France. News of the tortures, exiles, executions from these lands came to Calvin both by letter and by word of mouth from the many who sought refuge in Geneva. He spent much time and effort helping the refugees in the city, and writing letters of comfort and encouragement to Christian people in hopeless situations abroad.4646See Letters of John Calvin, ed. by Jules Bonnet, 4 vols. It has an excellent index. Geneva itself was an object of ecclesiastical hatred and political machination, and in danger of invasion. Within the city there were rebellions, divisions, and all manner of restiveness. The fact is that all through his ministry Calvin’s mind and soul were preoccupied with the sufferings that were the lot of the Protestants among whom he labored and for whom he was called upon to provide instruction, guidance, and encouragement; sufferings for which there often was no human help.
Calvin appropriated the sufferings of God’s people depicted in the Bible for the evangelicals in Europe and for himself. It is hardly possible, as we read his comments on Noah, David, Job, Jeremiah, or on the disciples of Jesus, to escape the truth that they all are vivified by their profound appropriateness to his condition.4747See especially the Autobiographical Sketch, pp. 51, 55–57. Calvin turns again and again to the inescapable and bewildering fact that in this world the disciples of Christ have suffered far more grievously than the wicked who have abused and oppressed them. So it had been in the past; so it was in his own day; so it was in his own person. He suffered physically as well as mentally all his days. He lived under cares and contentions which gradually killed him at the age of fifty-six. The image of Calvin as a stern and insensitive puritan overlord does not bear examination. He not only felt the afflictions of his fellow evangelicals, but also commented upon them constantly both as an interpreter of the Bible and also as a “theologian.” It is quite possible and even necessary to see Calvin’s work as a whole in the light of the wrongs that were perpetrated against the faithful throughout his ministry. It is no exaggeration to say that if one overlooks the mystery of the world’s animosity to the gospel and to those who adhere to it, one is bound to misunderstand Calvin profoundly and to misconstrue his work both as a thinker and as a man of action. The following discussion of particular doctrines from this point of view is intended to give the reader a helpful clue to Calvin’s mind. It is not meant to be a complete exposition, nor is it meant to obscure Calvin’s primary concerns with the “honor of God,” justification by faith alone, obedience to God in man’s total life, and so on, which are essential for understanding his theology. We have not dwelt upon these latter emphases in Calvin because they are commonplaces of all adequate expositions of his work.
The suffering of the righteous confronts us directly with the providence of God; and the doctrine of providence was constantly on Calvin’s mind and to it he made a peculiar contribution. It was traditional in medieval theology to write on “providence and free will.” The providence of God, although welcome as providing for man’s necessities, was a stumbling block in so far as it made man’s own freedom doubtful. So the main interest of the philosophical theologians was to reconcile God’s providence with man’s freedom and responsibility. Now, all this is changed by Calvin. He finishes his comments on Acts 20:32 with the characteristic and blunt statement: “Since Scripture teaches that we have sufficient help in God’s power, let us be mindful that only they are strong in the Lord who renounce their free will and lean upon him who alone, as Paul confesses rightly, is able to build up.” When people suffered dungeon and exile, yea, were at the brink of death in the hands of irresistible foes, it was irrelevant and futile to reconcile providence with the free will of man. These victims of oppression were not free against the combined power of church and state. The only proper question under the circumstances was, “What did God intend by their suffering?” What these people needed to know was that God was “at the helm” and that neither torture nor death came upon them without the providence of God who was their Father. They were comforted, not by the knowledge of their freedom, which they did not have, but by faith in the sovereignty of God the Father which Calvin would not let them forget.
When Calvin took up the other matter of providence in relation to human wickedness, he insisted upon man’s sin (as in the case of Judas), and upon the subtle tyranny of Satan over human beings (Matt. 26:14). But once again he insisted upon the proposition that no evil is perpetrated apart from God’s providence and his use of it for his glory and the good of his people. Even as a sinner, a man could receive hope and courage from the faith that his own wickedness was under God’s providence and would further, in spite of himself, God’s glory.
We are not concerned here with justifying Calvin against his detractors. The point is that his doctrine of providence grew out of his preoccupation with the sufferings of “the elect,” and can be stated and understood properly in that context. “Since Scripture teaches!” In a way, it is quite unwarranted to claim that Scripture in toto denies man’s freedom in so far as he is a responsible being. Calvin himself does not deny, in fact he insists upon, the doctrine of man’s responsibility (on Matt. 11:21). But he is far from wrong in the insight that Scripture is a celebration of God’s peculiar sovereignty as God and Father, and was written above all by men who set themselves to instill courage and hope among God’s troubled people, declaring God’s control over the affairs of men and the hope of the fulfillment of his purpose through all the vicissitudes of human existence. In any case, Calvin’s doctrine of providence, with all the thought he spent upon it, means that whether we are good or evil, whether we live or die, we are God’s.
The subject of providence requires a discussion of miracles. To Calvin, the miracles of the Bible were in a class by themselves. They were the work of God the Father, in praise of Christ and for the sake of the church; and the knowledge of them was the work of the Spirit. They were to Calvin the means with which God revealed himself to his people. They were strictly “signs” in the sense of the Gospel of John. God worked them not to inflame man’s taste for miracles in general, but as vehicles of his grace suitable for human apprehension. What made a miracle a sign was the Word of God. A miracle without the Word was to Calvin a prodigy which even the Pharaoh’s magicians could perform (Ex. 7:12). It proved, not God’s grace, but his judgment which blinded the people and made them deaf to God’s word. Calvin recognized no sure way to discriminate between a sign and an imposture except by the Word of God as illumined by his Spirit (on 1 John 4:1 f.).
Calvin was aware that men are always gaping for miracles (on John 11:18). The more they feel their weakness before the powers of nature, the more they look for a supernatural power that will enable them to overcome the evils caused by nature and the climax of these evils in death. The miraclemongers care, not about the Kingdom of God, but about their convenience and their belly (on John 6:26). They have no taste for the cross, and therefore they debase the power of Christ with their “hope of gain.” Calvin knew all this as a permanent temptation in the church. He insisted, therefore, repeatedly and strongly that miracle and doctrine go together (on Matt. 24:23, Mark 16:20), and refused to identify God’s power with the working of miracles (on 1 Thess. 1:4), holding that the Word of God is superior to miracles (on John 4:48, 20:31). Christians languished and died in prisons without any miracle to enable them to escape. These people lived, not by miracles, but by the Word of God, by their faithfulness to Christ. What they had available was not the hope of physical escape, but the greater miracle of faithfulness and joy. Therefore, Calvin received the Biblical miracles as signs of God’s power; but he knew the same power by the preaching of the gospel, by the miracle of weak men made strong, both as to those who preach and as to those who hear (on Mark 16:20).
Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is a complex matter, and is above all directed against the Roman Church, in support of “justification by faith.” 4949See pp. 197 f., the Institutes, Bk. III, chs. 21–24. The position of these chapters in the Institutes is itself revealing. But here it is necessary to keep in mind the persecution of the Protestants in his day. As in Scripture, so in Calvin’s mind it was no small comfort that the sufferings of the church were predestined according to the will and the purpose of God.5050See especially on Rom. 8:28–30, pp. 306 f. Predestination meant to Calvin, as to Paul, that the sufferings of the Christians were no accident in the history of mankind. The unfolding of history was the realization of God’s purpose which went back to the beginning. The doctrine of predestination for Calvin was bound up with the doctrine of history as the continued fulfillment of God’s purpose. There had been, there was, and there was to be nothing fortuitous, nothing apart from God’s intention, nothing that originates from man’s will and caprice. Jesus Christ had been called and predestined by God for his mission, together with his suffering and cross. His gospel, scoffed at and rejected by the world, was no novelty. It had been in God’s purpose and was promised in prophecy through the ages. So as age followed age, fulfillment followed fulfillment, all according to God’s own eternal purpose.
Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was inspired by the need of the Protestant churches for a knowledge of the continuity between the gospel they believed and for which they suffered, and the promises of God made from the beginning and through the ages. Like the early church, like evangelist and apostle, the Reformer took great pains to establish the antiquity of the gospel he preached. A church under persecution was plagued with profound doubts. Excommunicated ex-Romanists, subject to enemy power, deprived of home and goods, in exile and at death’s door, these poor people who lived in anxiety and despair, subject to miseries from which even the dregs and criminals of society were exempt, had nothing to sustain them except the promises of God. They were invited by Calvin to turn their eyes to Abraham and Moses and Noah and David, to the great deliverance of God, to the mysterious workings of his “secret purpose,” to the manifestations of his wisdom and power, rooted in his eternal purpose and his predestined end — all established in Jesus Christ crucified, risen, ascended, and at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. If one abstracts the doctrine of predestination before the ages from the promises of God made by creation and fulfilled through the ages since, one does violence to Calvin’s mind on this matter (see especially on 2 Tim. 1:9–10, Titus 1:2).
This introduction is not the place for a full exposition of such a complex and profound doctrine as predestination. We are interested only in indicating that Calvin’s version of this doctrine cannot be understood properly except in relation to the suffering church. For instance, it is common to think of predestination as deterministic (on Rom. 9:17). Determinism means that one fact arises from one or more others by way of a natural necessity and that one can discover how one situation determines another. But one does not study the condition of the Christians in this world and arrive at an understanding of predestination. There is no open and comprehensible explanation of God’s ways with his people one by one. God’s purpose remains God’s secret, and he alone can justify his deeds among men. So, God’s predestination remained a mystery to Calvin, and was affirmed not as a doctrine of determinism arrived at by observing “the causes and connections of things,” but by fixing the mind and heart upon the Word of God, upon Christ and the history of God’s people. Determinism has nothing to do with the mystery of evil. On the contrary, it explains the mystery away. Predestination as Calvin understands it is inseparable from that same mystery and the very ground of courage for living with it.
3. Faith and Reason
Calvin refused to “explain” to himself or to others the workings of God’s purpose in the fearful destiny of the believers in the world. On the other hand, the triumph of Christ, his ascension and sitting at God’s right hand, were the immovable signs of God’s sovereignty and thus the certainty of the fulfillment of God’s predestined purpose. Predestination therefore meant to Calvin hope in a world where “determinism” could have produced only despair. This hope Calvin received from Scripture, and he was determined to let Scripture rule his mind and keep it within the bounds of sanity.
But the Word and promise of God made no sense to the carnal mind. The Word of God was both a stumbling block and a foolishness, and the flesh recoiled from it. There was no way of verifying it while believers were tortured and murdered all around him. There was no way of justifying the ways of God in His world except by faith.
Faith which is the proper work of the Spirit must rely upon and draw its strength from the promise of God in Christ and Scripture. It has no mandate to supersede the Word of God. And this is so because faith is to believe in God’s love and care for his people in the midst of their humiliations and sufferings. But this love and care we know, not by our cogitations upon “the facts of life,” but by adhering to God’s word in the Bible. “Reason,” which confronts us with the injustices and cruelties of this world, cannot attain to a certain knowledge of God’s beneficence. The usual rational arguments for God’s justice and mercy, based upon the observed workings of God’s providence, even though Calvin himself used them, gave him no “certain knowledge.” There was no use trying to make sense of the suffering of the elect by deep or high thinking. Therefore, the primacy of faith in our knowledge of God became established as a fixed point in Calvin’s theology.
But faith did not solve the problem raised by reason to reason’s satisfaction. The Spirit did not open to him the “secret counsel” of God, because in fact Scripture itself confronted him with this secret counsel, rather than removed its secrecy. Faith, therefore, could not, any more than reason, penetrate to a knowledge of God as he is in himself. Faith was a gift of God whose main function was to create in man a certain knowledge of God’s goodness toward us. The miracle of faith was the miracle of joy in the midst of suffering. The knowledge of God given by the Word and the Spirit was a knowledge which occurred and became established with the joy of partaking in the cross of Christ. If the Christians not only bore their cross, but also rejoiced in bearing it, it was by the doing of God’s own Spirit who regenerated them, made them new creatures. The doctrine of the Spirit comes to life in Calvin’s theology, because he recognized that the comfort and joy of Christians at their cross is the work of the living God who “spoke by the prophets.”
Faith is the knowledge of God’s goodness toward his suffering people, and not a vague and general sense of the divine. Calvin did not deny that the carnal mind has a confused and idolatrous awareness of God. But he knew that a natural knowledge of God, without his self-revelation in Christ crucified and risen, by the inward working of his Spirit, is no match whatsoever against the machinations of the devil and the cruelty of men. He knew that human cogitation, without God’s illumination and power, is helpless before the monstrous evils which proclaim the power of Satan and his reign of darkness and death. Calvin knew this, and felt it adequately. He knew the misery of this body of death, and he knew also that a mind conjoined with this body must inevitably be overwhelmed by a life that is in fact a shadow of death (on 2 Cor. 4:11–12). Sufferings of this life act as portents of death, and before death, says Calvin, “all the powers of men succumb with terror” (on 2 Cor. 1:8). Calvin was deeply impressed, doubtless in himself as in others, with the elemental desire to live and the shrinking of the flesh from its destruction (on 2 Cor. 5:1, Gal. 2:20, 2 Tim. 4:7). He knew how brave men are away from danger, and how they turn into trembling leaves when they meet it (on John 18:17). This was no academic matter with him. He knew it as a common human reality. And he knew that in the jaws of hell, it is only the Lord who gives true courage. “Let us, therefore,” he says, “learn to be strong nowhere but in the Lord” (ibid.).
4. Jesus Christ
The Commentaries contain numerous and weighty statements that we know God in Christ. Commenting on 1 Peter 3:21, Calvin says, “Hence all cogitation on God apart from Christ is an immense abyss which immediately swallows up our whole mind.” In another place, speaking of the knowledge of God among the Athenians, he says that “the Lord allowed the men of Athens to fall into extreme madness” (on Acts 17:16). Abyss, labyrinth, madness: such were words which came to Calvin’s mind when he considered man’s knowledge of God apart from Christ. For those who have taken up their cross for the gospel’s sake, there is no knowledge of God’s goodness except in the knowledge of the crucified and risen Christ.
In the context of the Christian life, Christ’s mediatorship was to Calvin a continuing experience as well as a historical event. That God had revealed himself as Father in a man who was tempted and suffered, who exercised his Sonship by the death of the cross, was at the center of the gospel to multitudes of Christians who suffered and were tempted under their cross. Calvin’s Christ was nothing if he was not the Comforter of the church, the source of the Christian’s courage and hope, and his power of endurance.
This explains two of the characteristic emphases of Calvin: the humanity and the Kingship of Christ, perhaps his Kingship and humanity, as two focuses of his mediatorship. No one after Paul in the history of the church, so far as we know, made so much of the ascension of Christ and his sitting at the right hand of the Father, as did Calvin. There is nothing more joyful for a Christian than to know that Christ crucified is at God’s right hand as the King and comfort of his people, reigning over the church, interceding with the Father for his people, protecting and watching over them in their tribulations. Hence in Calvin’s thought the death, resurrection, ascension of Christ, issue in his sitting at God’s right hand as the climax of his own mission; from it they derive their whole glory as elements of the gospel. The sitting at the right hand is also the source of all the benefits that Christians receive from God the Father. It is not too much to say that if one takes away Christ at God’s right hand, the whole gospel as addressed to the suffering church falls to pieces, because the Christians are left without their Christ, and therefore without their God. Hence, there is no image so alive in Calvin’s mind as that of the Son seated next to the Father. Calvin insisted upon the ascension of the same Christ who lived and died for us. The Christ who sits at God’s right hand is not a spirit who is ignorant of our flesh. He has gone from us to lift our minds up to our God and his heaven. So it is that he gives us his spiritual gifts, by the Spirit, of courage and hope in the midst of our trials. Thus it is that he is at once “the vicar of God” (on Mark 16:19) and our brother.
Calvin was as little concerned with the divine “essence” of Christ as he was with the essence of God in general. It is the divine power and grace of Christ that he finds of decisive importance for the church. He of course never denied, he emphatically affirmed, the union of divine and human natures in Christ. By the standard of the Church fathers, he was orthodox enough. But the words “essence” or “nature” belonged to contexts of thought that were not his own. He had no stomach for the kind of metaphysical reflection that is required by the mind’s desire to penetrate to God’s or Christ’s essence. The main point of Calvin’s insistence on the deity of Christ was that he was the agent of our salvation. Commenting on Col. 1:15, he insists that Christ is “the image of the invisible God,” not only by virtue of his essence, but also as one in whom God makes himself known to us. We know nothing about Christ’s divine nature apart from what he has done and continues to do for us. And he has done and continues to do his work as a human being and our brother. Our brother is our King, and our King is our brother. This situation is stated properly in terms, not of essence, but of God’s saving work; provided we bear in mind with Calvin that the one and the same saving work was at once the Father’s and the Son’s by the Spirit.
Calvin’s eloquent comments on the events of Christ’s life and death as recorded in the Gospels are clearly intended to show the Christians that they are suffering after their King and participating in his life. Here the deity of Christ in no wise vitiates his authentically human experience of temptation and “Passion.” Calvin pays his tribute to orthodoxy by reminding himself that the Son of God put on humanity and shared our life freely and voluntarily. He even shows a predilection for the notion that he was “God clothed in human flesh” (on Luke 19:41), or “manifested in the flesh” (on John 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:16). “And yet, in Christ we see the infinite glory of God united with our polluted flesh so that they become one” (on 1 Tim. 3:16). Calvin’s concern for the encouragement of the church led him not only to emphasize Christ’s common humanity but also to present it as a state of creaturely weakness. The human nature of Christ was not that of Adam before the Fall! He was no ideal and splendid specimen of humanity such as man is supposed to have been before he sinned (Augustine5151City of God, Bk. XII, pars. 9 f., Bk. XXII, pars. 12 f.). He had “our polluted flesh” ; our flesh with all its susceptibilities and pains. When he was slapped, or whipped, or finally nailed to the wood, he did not look down upon the proceedings as a bemused god or hero; he suffered as suffer the believers who are tormented by their persecutors.
It is quite evident that the orthodox understanding of the two natures of Christ, as involving a divine and a human essence and even a divine and a human consciousness, was, to say the least, awkward in relation to Calvin’s concern with Christ’s role as mediator — especially with Christ as the head of a church engaged in mortal combat with evil. It is hardly too much to say that Christ’s divinity meant to Calvin above all that he, with the Father, was the source of the Christian life and its blessings (on 2 Thess. 2:16). He insisted that the Biblical statements concerning Christ’s relation to God are, as it were, not metaphysical but soteriological or “operational.” They refer to his work, to what he is to us and for us. God himself we know by his saving work; and as this saving work is done by Christ, we know him as God.5252Niesel, Wilhelm, The Theology of Calvin, The Westminster Press, 1956, tr. by Harold Knight.
5. The Christian Life and the Last Things
About the Christian life we need not say much in this place. We have cited Calvin extensively on this subject in our selections. Here we shall consider his so-called otherworldliness.
Calvin’s emphasis on self-denial can be understood and interpreted rightly only if we keep in mind that there is in fact no victory over the power of death without a denial of the self which works by sin and despair. A man has to know the death of Christ by his own death, and know the resurrection of Christ by the miracle of the victory over death within him; and such knowledge is inseparable from the warfare in which he is subject to temptation and harassment under the assaults of Satan. Calvin speaks of an inner and an outer mortification. The first has to do with the struggle against sin or unfaithfulness; the latter with the struggle against the powers of this world (on 2 Cor. 4:10). It is quite evident that these two go together, since the temptation to deny our Lord rises in the midst of fear of the evils to which men expose themselves in the hands of men when they set out to obey God and cleave to Christ.
Calvin knew no antidote to defeat and ruin except to raise our minds to heaven. To him, a Christian walked on earth, but his life was hid in heaven. He spoke with obvious passion against attachment to this world, and exhorted Christians to renounce it in favor of heaven. In a sense, nothing is so essential to his theology as the opposition between heaven and earth, and the insistence that Christians, with their minds and hearts, leave the earth and go up to heaven.
But Calvin wanted Christians to lift their minds to heaven because Christ is there, and it is from there that he reigns over the church in the world. He says explicitly that heaven, where God is, and Christ is, is “above all the heavens.” It is not the heaven we see and in which the stars shine (on Heb. 9:24). Calvin is not concerned with it except as the abode of God and Christ, and the origin of our salvation; so that, to turn the mind to heaven means to turn it to Christ at God’s right hand: to turn to him for strength against tribulation and for victory over evil. We must turn to “heaven” for victory on earth.
On the other hand, to turn away from the earth is to Calvin to mortify the sinful flesh which shrinks before warfare with evil and the suffering it entails. To renounce the world is to renounce Satan and all his evil works. It is hard to be faithful to the gospel while the flesh rebels against the privations and oppressions which it would avoid at the expense of treachery to Christ and his gospel. In short, Calvin’s insistence upon self-denial and world renunciation must be understood in the context of the Christian warfare and in the light of the sheer necessity of dying to sin if one is to live to Christ. It has nothing to do with ascetic contempt for the created world, or with an otherworldliness which seeks a heaven because it despairs of this world in general. Calvin had only love and respect for the world as God’s creation for the use and enjoyment of man.5353See pp. 124, 347, 349 f., 355, 356.
Calvin turns the attention of the Christian not only upward but also toward the future. Hope, for Calvin, is at the heart of the Christian life. He sets before his readers “the blessed and immortal rest of heaven” as the hope that will enable them to suffer death with patience, and even to desire eagerly what they fear (on Luke 12:50). With Paul, he argues that if there be no resurrection of the dead, Christians, who are sheep meant for slaughter, are the most miserable of men (on 1 Cor. 15:19). He regards the present life of the Christians, with all its travail and groanings, as unfulfilled unless our redemption culminates in the resurrection and “eternal felicity.”
But the new life in Christ is itself by a resurrection from the dead (on John 5:21). When Paul says that the Spirit of God “shall also quicken your mortal bodies,” according to Calvin he means “everything left in us that is subject to death. . . . From this we gather that here he speaks not of the last resurrection which shall be in a moment, but of the continuous working of the Spirit, by which he gradually destroys the remnants of the flesh and restores a heavenly life in us” (on Rom. 8:11). In his comments on Acts 2:19, he identifies the great day of the Lord not with the last things, but with “the whole Kingdom of Christ” and the trials of the church. He does not postpone the destruction of death prophesied by Paul to the end, but speaks of it as having already occurred, as already realized in the deliverance of the Christians from the power of death (on 1 Cor. 15:26). The Day of Judgment is even now anticipated in the present dread and terror deep in the lives of the ungodly, and in the present joy and exultation of the believers (on Rom. 2:5). The coming of Christ itself is anticipated when Christians obey God and “vie one with another in imitating him” (on Heb. 10:7); when Christians, in the extremity of their sufferings, call upon him, and he comes to them with power and help (on Matt. 19:23); when he consummates his present reign with a complete revelation of his authority in all the earth (on Matt. 25:31). Calvin speaks of the last things as a full manifestation of what is now hidden or obscure.
He even, as we say, demythologizes the prophecy “Heaven and earth shall pass away,” by calling upon Christians to raise their faith “above heaven and earth,” to Christ in God’s heaven (on Matt. 24:35). He calls upon them so to meditate upon the last things as to receive patience and perseverance in their trials (on 1 John 3:2). Their life is to be a waiting, without any clairvoyance as to time and seasons. They are to live every day as though it were their last (as it might well have been under the cross), in the hope of Christ’s coming, by which they are to be comforted by Christ (on Heb. 10:25). Calvin was well aware of the absurdity of the Christians’ situation, and knew very well how foolish the Christians’ hope looked from the outside. But he also knew that the hope which grows within the Christian life, from it and into it, has its own peculiar rationale, and flourishes in spite of external circumstances, because it is the work of Christ and his Spirit. In this way, the eschatological statements of the Bible, with their several “metaphors” (on 1 Cor. 15:52, Heb. 10:26–27), illuminate the life of the Christians, as well as point to their ultimate destiny with God. But here one must remember Calvin’s concern with the present responsibilities of Christians and his whole ethical concern to which we have devoted a long chapter.
Introductory Selections from Calvin
I. AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH FROM THE DEDICATION OF THE COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS
If those who read this commentary, which has cost me much labor, derive some benefit from it, I should like to have them know how greatly I have been helped [in writing it] through those relatively mild conflicts by which the Lord has trained me. My own experience not only aided me in applying to our present situation the teaching I gathered [from the Psalms], but also opened the way to an intimate understanding of the mind of those who wrote them. It gave me no little help in understanding the complaints of David, the greatest of the psalmists, about the evils which the church suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to be its members, for I myself had had the same or similar experiences with enemies within the church. I differ so much from David since I lack the many virtues which distinguished him, and I labor so much under the corresponding faults, that I am ashamed to compare myself to him. But although as I read the records of his faith, endurance, ardor, zeal, and sincerity, the difference between us often made me groan, yet I found especial help for myself when I saw in the Psalter as in a mirror both the requirements of my calling and how ceaselessly [David] fulfilled them. . . .
It goes without saying that my own position is far below David’s. And yet, as he was elevated from the sheepfolds to the highest position of authority, so God took me also from obscure and small beginnings and honored me with the office of herald and minister of the gospel. My father intended me as a young boy for theology. But when he saw that the science of law made those who cultivate it wealthy, he was led to change his mind by the hope of material gain for me. So it happened that I was called back from the study of philosophy to learn law. I followed my father’s wish and attempted to do faithful work in this field; but God, by the secret leading of his providence, turned my course another way.
First, when I was too firmly addicted to the papal superstitions to be drawn easily out of such a deep mire, by a sudden conversion He brought my mind (already more rigid than suited my age) to submission [to him]. I was so inspired by a taste of true religion and I burned with such a desire to carry my study further, that although I did not drop other subjects, I had no zeal for them. In less than a year, all who were looking for a purer doctrine began to come to learn from me, although I was a novice and a beginner.
Then I, who was by nature a man of the country and a lover of shade and leisure, wished to find for myself a quiet hiding place — a wish which has never yet been granted me; for every retreat I found became a public lecture room. When the one thing I craved was obscurity and leisure, God fastened upon me so many cords of various kinds that he never allowed me to remain quiet, and in spite of my reluctance dragged me into the limelight.
I left my own country and departed for Germany to enjoy there, unknown, in some corner, the quiet long denied me. But lo, while I was hidden unknown at Basel, a great fire of hatred [for France] had been kindled in Germany by the exile of many godly men from France. To quench this fire, wicked and lying rumors were spread, cruelly calling the exiles Anabaptists and seditious men, men who threatened to upset, not only religion, but the whole political order with their perverse madness. I saw that this was a trick of those in [the French] court, not only to cover up with false slanders the shedding of the innocent blood of holy martyrs, but also to enable the persecutors to continue with the pitiless slaughter. Therefore I felt that I must make a strong statement against such charges; for I could not be silent without treachery. This was why I published the Institutes — to defend against unjust slander my brothers whose death was precious in the Lord’s sight. A second reason was my desire to rouse the sympathy and concern of people outside, since the same punishment threatened many other poor people. And this volume was not a thick and laborious work like the present edition; it appeared as a brief Enchiridion. It had no other purpose than to bear witness to the faith of those whom I saw criminally libeled by wicked and false courtiers.
I desired no fame for myself from it; I planned to depart shortly, and no one knew that I was the writer [of the book]. For I had kept my authorship secret and intended to continue to do so. But Wilhaim Farel5454Guillaume Farel (1489–1565), was like Calvin, a Frenchman. He was one of the circle of Reformers who gathered around Bishop Briconnet at Meaux near Paris. When, after much struggle in which Farel was active, the Reformed faith was established in Geneva in 1535, he was the leader of the church and induced Calvin to work with him. He was ousted with Calvin in 1538, and returned with him in 1541, but he left in 1542, and in 1544 settled in Neuchatel. He remained Calvin’s close friend, and died a year after Calvin in 1565 in Metz. forced me to stay in Geneva not so much by advice or urging as by command, which had the power of God’s hand laid violently upon me from heaven. Since the wars had closed the direct road to Strasbourg, I had meant to pass through Geneva quickly and had determined not to be delayed there more than one night.
A short time before, by the work of the same good man [Farel], and of Peter Viret,5555Pierre Viret (1511–1571), Swiss-born Reformer, helped Farel in Geneva and stayed in the city when Farel and Calvin were expelled (1538–1541). Thereafter he worked in Lausanne, his birthplace, and also lectured on the New Testament in Bern, until he was ousted in 1559 and returned to Geneva. After a checkered career in France and much controversy with French Catholics, he died at Orthez (south of Bordeaux) in 1571. He was an extensive and respected writer as well as an effective preacher. Unfortunately he has not been studied fully or properly. the papacy had been banished from the city; but things were still unsettled and the place was divided into evil and harmful factions. One man, who has since shamefully gone back to the papists, took immediate action to make me known. Then Farel, who was working with incredible zeal to promote the gospel, bent all his efforts to keep me in the city. And when he realized that I was determined to study in privacy in some obscure place, and saw that he gained nothing by entreaty, he descended to cursing, and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back from giving help at a time of such great need. Terrified by his words, and conscious of my own timidity and cowardice, I gave up my journey and attempted to apply whatever gift I had in defense of my faith.
Scarcely four months had passed before we were attacked on the one side by the Anabaptists and on the other by a certain rascally apostate who, relying upon the secret aid of certain important people, was able to give us much trouble. Meanwhile, internal dissensions, coming one upon another, caused us dreadful torments.
I confess that I am by nature timid, mild, and cowardly, and yet I was forced from the very beginning to meet these violent storms. Although I did not yield to them, yet since I was not very brave, I was more pleased than was fitting when I was banished and forcibly expelled from the city.
Then loosed from my vocation and free [to follow my own desire], I decided to live quietly as a private individual. But that most distinguished minister of Christ, Martin Bucer,5656Martin Bucer (1491–1551) was the Protestant Reformer in Strasbourg, where Calvin stayed for three years (1538–1541) when he was forced out of Geneva. A man zealous for Christian unity, he had considerable influence upon Calvin, especially during this early period in the latter’s activity. He commented extensively upon the Bible, and did his best-known work on the Gospels. His commentary on Romans was published in Strasbourg in 1536, shortly before Calvin began to work on his own. See Henri Strohl, Bucer: humaniste étien. dragged me back again to a new post with the same curse which Farel had used against me. Terrified by the example of Jonah which he had set before me, I continued the work of teaching. And although I always consistently avoided public notice, somehow I was dragged to the imperial assemblies.5757At Worms in 1540 and at Regensburg in 1541, where the Catholics and the Protestants entered into futile discussions on reunion. There, whether I wished it or not, I had to speak before large audiences. Afterwards the Lord had pity on the City of Geneva and quieted the deadly conflicts there. After he had by his wondrous power frustrated both the criminal conspiracies and the bloody attempts at force, I was compelled, against my own will, to take again my former position.5858See John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, 1954, ch. II. The safety of that church was far too important in my mind for me to refuse to meet even death for its sake. But my timidity kept suggesting to me excuses of every color for refusing to put my shoulder again under so heavy a burden. However, the demand of duty and faith at length conquered, and I went back to the flock from which I had been driven away. With how much grief, with how many tears, and in how great anxiety I went, God is my best witness. Many faithful men also understood my reluctance and would have wished to see me released from this pain if they had not been constrained by the same fear which influenced me.
It would make too long a story to tell of the conflicts of all sorts in which I was active and of the trials by which I was tested. I will merely repeat briefly what I said before, so as not to offend fastidious readers with unnecessary words. Since David showed me the way with his own footsteps, I felt myself greatly comforted. The holy king was hurt more seriously by the envy and dishonesty of treacherous men at home than he was by the Philistines and other enemies who harassed him from the outside. I also have been attacked on all sides and have had scarcely a moment’s relief from both external and internal conflicts. Satan has undertaken all too often in many ways to corrupt the fabric of this church. The result has been that I, who am a peaceable and timid man, was compelled to break the force of the deadly attacks by interposing my own body as a shield.
In all these five years certain men have had too great an influence, and a part of the common people who were corrupted by their alluring propaganda have been seeking unrestrained license. We therefore had both to oversee discipline and to fight without intermission. For the ruin of the church was a matter of no account to profane men and despisers of heavenly doctrine who desired and obtained power to gain every indulgence they dared. Some were driven mad by famine and hunger, and certain others by insatiable ambition or shameful greed for profit; and they all were ready to ruin themselves and us by mixing everything up rather than to [allow us to] maintain order. They were at it a long time, and I think made use of every tool forged in Satan’s workshop. The only possible way to end their wicked plots was to destroy the men themselves by a shameful death — a spectacle which grieved me very much. For although they deserved any possible punishment, I would rather have had them live safe and unharmed. And they could have done so, if they had not been wholly impervious to wise counsel.
This five-year trial, hard and burdensome enough to me, was made still worse torture by the ill will of those who never ceased to attack me and my ministry with vile slanders. Many were so blinded by their desire to abuse me that their effrontery became shamefully outspoken. Others were saved by their own craft from conviction and ignominious exposure. But when anyone repeats an offense of which he has been accused a hundred times and acquitted, the indignity of it all is hard to bear.
Because I assert that the world is governed by the hidden providence of God, insolent men rise up and say that I make God the author of sin — a futile and baseless slander which would come to nothing of itself if it did not find eager listeners. Envy or spite or ingratitude or wickedness so rules men that they recoil from no lie, however absurd and monstrous. Others strive to overturn the eternal predestination by which God distinguishes the reprobate from the elect; others undertake the defense of free will. And not ignorance so much as a kind of perverse zeal brings many adherents to these factions.
When one suffers trials at the hands of professed enemies, one can bear them. But when people who hide under the name of brothers, those who not only eat the sacred bread but also serve it to others, and who boast loudly that they are heralds of the gospel — when these carry on such wicked warfare, how detestable it is! It is of this kind of thing that David most rightly complains, when he says, The man of my peace and he who ate bread with me has lifted his heel against me (Ps. 41:10); and also, My companion and associate who used to go with me to the temple of God, with whom I took sweet counsel, he like an enemy has handed me over to the wicked (Ps. 55:14).
Some men have spread frivolous rumors about my treasures; others about my enormous power. Others have talked about my sumptuous table. Does a man live in the lap of luxury when he is content with meager food and plain clothing; when he requires no more frugality from the poorest folk than he himself practices? As for my authority, I wish I could hand it over to them! They measure my power by the amount of my labor, by the weight of work that wears me down. How much money I have, my death will show — if there are any whom I cannot convince while I am alive. But I admit that I am not “poor,” because I desire nothing beyond my actual needs.
These inventions, although they have no basis in fact, are believed among many people because the majority think that the only way to cover up their shame is to mix black with white. They think the best guarantee of impunity and license would be the end of the authority of the servants of Christ. In addition there are the mockers at feasts of whom David complains in Ps. 35:16: not only the plate lickers but those who hunt the favor of the powerful with false denunciations. I have become used to swallowing insults for so long that I am almost insensitive; yet as their insolence increased I could not help feeling some bitter pricks.
And as though it were not enough for me to suffer the inhumanity of neighbors, a throng of evil-driven men from the frozen sea [Germany] stirred up (accenderet) against me a storm I have no words to describe. I am still speaking of internal enemies of the church, proud proclaimers of the gospel of Christ, who because I do not accept their crass explanation of [the Lord’s Supper as] devouring the flesh of Christ, are roused against me more violently than my open enemies. Here also I can associate myself with David, While I seek peace, they rush to war (Ps. 120:7). Moreover they all show great ingratitude when they attack on the flank and the rear a man who is laboring in defense of the common cause, and deserves their support. Certainly, if they possessed the slightest human sympathy, their great hatred of me would be placated by the fury the papists pour upon me and the way they attack me.
But this also was David’s experience. He deserved well of his people, yet he was hated by many, as he laments in Ps. 69:4: They hate me without a cause. . . . I returned what I did not rob.5959Calvin’s wording. When I was assailed by the undeserved hatred of those whose duty it was to help me, I received no small comfort from knowing of the glorious example [set by David].
Now these experiences were a very great help to my understanding of the Psalms, since, as I read, I was going through well-known territory. And I hope my readers will realize that when I discuss David’s thoughts more intimately than those of others, I am speaking not as a remote spectator but as one who knows all about these things from his own experience.
I have striven faithfully to make the value of this treasury [of the Psalms] available to all the faithful. And even though I have not accomplished what I had desired, I deserve some thanks for my attempt. All I ask is that each reader judge my labor justly and honestly by its fruits and the profit he finds in it. Certainly, as I said, when a man reads my book, he will see that I did not seek to give pleasure unless I also gave help.
I have kept throughout to a simple method of teaching; and to avoid all ostentation, I have refrained for the most part from the refutation of others, which readily provides much opportunity for plausible showing off. I have not mentioned opinions opposed to mine except where there was danger that my silence would leave my readers doubtful or perplexed. I realized, of course, that many would have been more attracted and tickled if I had included a varied mass of ostentatious and glittering material. But nothing meant more to me than to consider the upbuilding of the church.
May God who gave me this purpose also guarantee its success.
Geneva, August 10, 1557.
II. Preface to Olivétan’s New Testament
II. PREFACE TO OLIVÉTAN’S NEW TESTAMENT
Epistle to the Faithful Showing that Christ Is the End of the Law6060This preface to Pierre Robert Olivétan’s translation of the New Testament, which has had a lasting influence upon the French versions of the Bible, was written in 1534, about a year after Calvin’s conversion. We have translated it and put it here in the beginning of this volume because it is his first statement of faith as a Protestant and an eloquent defense of it. Erasmus wrote a similar preface to his New Testament, and so did Lèfevre d’Étaples. For the latter, see Herminjard, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 132 ff. (No. 69). See also Nos. 1, 49, 79, 202 in the same work. We regret that space did not permit us to include at least his “Epistle of Exhortation” (No. 69) in this selection. For Erasmus’ preface see Opera Omnia, 1704, vol. 5, pp. 137 f. This was translated into English in 1529, 1540. Again we regret leaving this preface out! The title at the head of Calvin’s preface appeared at the beginning of Bibles and New Testaments printed in Geneva and elsewhere after 1543. The present text, from the Opera, C. R. 9, pp. 791 f., contains additions Calvin made after 1534.
To all those who love Christ and his gospel, Greetings. God the Creator, the most perfect and excellent Maker of all things, who had already shown himself more than admirable in their creation, made man as his masterpiece, to surpass all other creatures. Man is endowed with a singular excellence, for God formed him in his own image and likeness, in which we see a bright refulgence of God’s glory. Furthermore, man would have been able to continue in the state in which he was formed, if he had been willing to bow down in humility before the majesty of God, magnifying him with deeds of grace; not to seek his glory in himself, but knowing that all good things come from above, always to turn his mind on high and to glorify the one and only God to whom belongs the praise.
But the wretched man, wanting to be somebody in himself, began incontinently to forget and misunderstand the source of his good; and by an act of outrageous ingratitude, he set out to exalt himself in pride against his Maker and the Author of all that is excellent in him. For this reason, he went down in ruin and lost all the dignity and superiority of the state in which he was first created; he was despoiled and divested of all his glory and deprived of all the gifts which were his; and this, to confound him in his pride and to constrain him to understand what he was unwilling to do voluntarily: that he was by himself nothing but vanity, and would never have been anything else except with the help of the Lord of power.
Therefore, seeing that God’s image and likeness was thus defaced, and man was without the graces which God in his goodness had bestowed upon him, God began to hold man in abhorrence and disavowed him as his handiwork. Since he had put man there and ordained [his life] for his own enjoyment and pleasure in him, as a father with his beloved child, He now held him in contempt and abomination. Whereas before everything in man pleased him, it now gave him displeasure; everything that he would have loved, now aroused his wrath; everything that he had contemplated with the good will of a father, he began to detest and to look at with regret. In short, the whole man with all that he had, his deeds, his thoughts, his words, his life, wholly displeased God, as though man were a special enemy and adversary of God; so much so that God repented of having made him. After having been thrown into such a confusion, man was fruitful in his cursed seed, to beget descendants like himself; that is, vicious, perverse, corrupt, void, and deprived of all good, rich and abundant in evil.
Still, the Lord of mercy, who not only loves but is himself love and kindness, being ready in his infinite goodness to love him who deserved no love, did not altogether destroy men, or overwhelm them in the abyss of their iniquity. But on the contrary, he sustained and supported them gently and patiently, giving them time and opportunity to return to him and to apply themselves again to that obedience from which they had turned aside. And even though he disguised himself and kept silent, as though he wished to hide himself from them, leaving them to go after their desires and the yearnings of their lusts, without law, without order, without any correction of his Word, he nevertheless has given them notice enough [of his presence] to move them to seek, feel, and find him, and to know him and honor him as is his due.
For he has raised everywhere, in all places and in all things, his ensigns and emblems, under blazons so clear and intelligible that no one can pretend ignorance in not knowing such a sovereign Lord, who has so amply exalted his magnificence; who has, in all parts of the world, in heaven and on earth, written and as it were engraved the glory of his power, goodness, wisdom, and eternity. Saint Paul has therefore said quite rightly that the Lord has never left himself without a witness; even among those to whom he has not sent any knowledge of his Word. It is evident that all creatures, from those in the firmament to those which are in the center of the earth, are able to act as witnesses and messengers of his glory to all men; to draw them to seek God, and after having found him, to meditate upon him and to render him the homage befitting his dignity as so good, so mighty, so wise a Lord who is eternal; yea, they are even capable of aiding every man wherever he is in this quest. For the little birds that sing, sing of God; the beasts clamor for him; the elements dread him, the mountains echo him, the fountains and flowing waters cast their glances at him, and the grass and flowers laugh before him. Truly there is no need for long searching, since everyone could find him in himself, because every one of us is sustained and preserved by his power which is in us.
Meanwhile, in order to reveal his infinite goodness and kindness more fully among men, he was not content to teach all men as we have just described; but he made his voice to be heard especially by a certain people, whom he elected, by his good will and free grace, from among all the nations of the earth. These were the children of Israel, to whom he showed himself clearly by his Word, and declared to them by his marvelous works what he intended them to know. For, he drew them away from subjection to Pharaoh the king of Egypt, under whom they were held down and oppressed, to deliver them and set them at liberty. He accompanied them night and day in their flight, as one more fugitive in their midst. He fed them in the desert. He made them to possess the Promised Land. He gave victories and triumphs to their hands. And as though he were nothing to the other nations, he willed expressly to be called the God of Israel, and to have Israel called his people, on condition that they would recognize no other Lord and receive none else as their God. And this alliance (covenant) was confirmed and handed down by authentic instruments of testament and testimony given by himself.
Nevertheless, these people, all of whom shared in the experience of their cursed race, showed themselves to be true heirs of the wickedness of their father Adam. They were unmoved by all these remonstrances [of God], and did not listen to the teaching by which God admonished them. The creatures that had the glory and magnificence of God stamped upon them were of no help to the Gentiles, and failed to make them glorify him to whom they testified. And the Law and the Prophets did not have the authority to lead the Jews in the right way. All have been blind to the light, deaf to admonitions, and hardened against the commandments.
It is true enough that the Gentiles, astonished and convinced by so many goods and benefits which they saw with their own eyes, have been forced to recognize the hidden Benefactor from whom came so much goodness. But instead of giving the true God the glory which they owed him, they forged a god to their own liking, one dreamt up by their foolish fantasy in its vanity and deceit; and not one god only, but as many as their temerity and conceit enabled them to forge and cast (feindre et fondre); so that there was not a people or place which did not make new gods as seemed good to them. Thus it is that idolatry, that perfidious panderer, was able to exercise dominion, to turn men away from God, and to amuse them with a whole crowd of phantoms to which they themselves had given shape, name, and being itself.
As for the Jews, even though they received and accepted the messages and commandments which their Lord sent them by his servants, they have nonetheless intemperately falsified the faith before him, turned carelessly away from him, violated and despised his law, hated it, and resisted walking in its ways. They have become strangers to the house of God and run as dissolute men after other gods, worshiping idols after the manner of the Gentiles, contrary to the will of God.
Wherefore, if God were to approach his people, whether Jew or Gentile, a new covenant was needed: one which would be certain, sure, and inviolable. And to establish and confirm it, it was necessary to have a Mediator, who would intercede and come between the two parties, to make concord between them; for without this, man would have had always to live under the ire and indignation of God, and would have had no means of relief from the curse, misery, and confusion into which he was snared and had fallen. And it was our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the true and only eternal Son of God, who had to be sent and given to mankind by the Father, to restore a world otherwise wasted, destroyed, and desolate.
Also from the very beginning, the world was not without the hope of recovering the loss suffered in Adam. For even Adam, in spite of his incontinency after his ruin, was given the promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent; which is to say that Jesus Christ born of a virgin would strike down and destroy the power of Satan.
After that, this promise was renewed more fully to Abraham, when God told him that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in his seed. This meant that from his seed would come Jesus Christ according to the flesh, by whose blessing all men of every land would be sanctified. And the same promise was renewed to Isaac, in the same form and in the same words; and after that it was announced often, repeated and confirmed by the testimony of the various prophets, so as to state plainly, and most reliably, of whom Christ was to be born, at what time, in what place; what afflictions and death he was to suffer, and with what glory he was to rise from the dead; what was to be his Kingdom, and to what salvation he was to bring his own.
In the first place, it is foretold for us in Isaiah, how he was to be born of a virgin, saying: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel (Isa. 7:14). The time is described for us in Moses, when good Jacob says, The scepter shall not be taken from the line of Judah, nor the government from his hand, until the coming of the One who is to be sent; and the same is the expectation of the nations (Gen. 49:10). And this was verified when Jesus Christ came into the world; for the Romans, after having divested the Jews of all government and rule, had, thirty-seven years before [the coming of Christ] ordained Herod king over them, whose father was Antipater the Edomite and his mother an Arabian; he was therefore a foreigner. It had happened sometimes before that the Jews had been without a king; but they had never before been left as they were now without counselors, rulers, and lawgivers. Another numbering [of the time of Christ’s birth] is given in Daniel, by the reckoning of the seventy weeks (Dan. 9:24). The place of his birth was given us clearly by Micah, who said, And thou Bethlehem Ephrata, thou are the least among the thousands of Judah; but from thee shall come for me the One who shall reign over Israel; and his coming shall be for all the days of eternity (Micah 5:2). As for the afflictions he was to bear for our deliverance and the death he was to suffer for our redemption, Isaiah and Zechariah have spoken of those matters fully and with certainty. The glory of his resurrection and the nature of his Kingdom, and the grace of the salvation he was to bring to his people — these things were fully treated by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah.
Such promises, declared and testified to by these holy men who were filled with the Spirit of God, have been the comfort and consolation of the children and elect of God, who have nourished, supported, and sustained their hope in these promises, waiting upon the will of the Lord to show forth what he had promised. Many kings and prophets among them have desired greatly to see its accomplishment, never ceasing all the while to understand, in their hearts and spirits by faith, the things they could not see with their eyes. And, God has confirmed his people in every possible way during their long waiting for the great Messiah, by providing them with his written law, containing numerous ceremonies, purifications, and sacrifices, which were but the figures and shadows of the great blessings to come with Christ, who alone was the embodiment and truth of them. For the law was incapable of bringing anyone to perfection; it only presented Christ, and like a teacher spoke of and led to him, who was, as was said by Saint Paul, the end and fulfillment of the law.
Similarly, many times and in various seasons, God sent his people kings, princes, and captains, to deliver them from the power of their enemies, to govern them in peace, to recover their losses, to give them flourishing reigns, and by great prowess to make them renowned among all the other peoples. He did all this to give them a foretaste of the great miracles they were to receive from this great Messiah, who was to be endowed with all the power and might of the Kingdom of God.
But when the fullness of time had come and the period foreordained by God was ended, this great Messiah, so promised and so awaited, came; he was perfect, and accomplished all that was necessary to redeem us and save us. He was given not only to the Israelites, but to all men, of every people and every land, to the end that by him human nature might be reconciled to God. This is what is stated plainly in the next book (the New Testament), and set forth there openly. This book we have translated as faithfully as we were able according to the truth and the style of the Greek language, to enable all Christians, men and women, who know the French language, to understand and acknowledge the law they ought to obey and the faith they ought to follow.6161Instead of this passage, the treatise of 1543 and all the editions of the Bible that reproduce it contain the paragraph which follows in the text.
It is to declare this thing (reconciliation), that the Lord Jesus, who is its foundation and substance, has ordained his apostles, whom he has charged and commanded to publish his grace to the whole world. And the apostles, in order to discharge their duty properly and plainly, not only have taken pains and shown diligence in fulfilling their embassy by the preaching of the word by mouth, but they have also followed the example of Moses and the prophets, and have left an eternal remembrance of their doctrine by reducing it to writing; in which they have first told the story of the things the Lord Jesus did and suffered for our salvation, and then shown us its value, what profit we gain from it, and how we are to receive it. This whole collection is called the yew Testament, and is called such in relation to the Old, etc.
And this book is called the New Testament in relation to the Old, which, in so far as it had to be succeeded by and related to the New, and was shaky and imperfect in itself, was abolished and abrogated. It is the new and the eternal, which will never grow old and fail, because Jesus Christ is its Mediator. He has ratified and confirmed it by his death, by which he has accomplished full and complete remission of all sins (prevarications) which remained under the first testament.
Scripture is also called gospel, that is, new and joyful news, because in it is declared that Christ, the sole true and eternal Son of the living God, was made man, to make us children of God his Father, by adoption. Thus he is our only Savior, to whom we owe our redemption, peace, righteousness, sanctification, salvation, and life; who died for our sins and rose again for our justification; who ascended to heaven for our entry there and took possession of it for us and [it is] our home; to be always our helper before his Father; as our advocate and perpetually doing sacrifice for us, he sits at the Father’s right hand as King, made Lord and Master over all, so that he may restore all that is in heaven and on earth; an act which all the angels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles did not know how to do and were unable to do, because they had not been ordained to that end by God.
As the Messiah had been promised so often in the Old Testament by the many testimonies of the prophets, so also Jesus Christ was by sure and certain testimonies declared to be the One, and none other, who was to come and was to be waited for. For the Lord God has made us so completely certain in this matter, by his Word and his Spirit, by his angels, prophets, apostles, and even by all his creatures, that nobody is in a position to contradict it without resisting and rebelling against God’s power. In the first place, the eternal God has testified to us by his voice itself (which is without doubt irrevocable truth), saying, Behold my well beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear him (Matt. 9:7). And as Saint John says, the Holy Spirit himself is our great witness in our hearts (1 John 5:1). The angel Gabriel, sent to the Virgin Mary, said to her: Behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and shall bear a Son, and shall call his name Jesus; for he shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give him the throne (le siege) of his father David, and he shall reign forever in the house of Jacob; and there shall be no end to his Kingdom (Luke 1:32–33). This same message was given in substance to Joseph; and later also to the shepherds, who were told that the Savior was born, who was Christ the Lord (Matt. 1:20–21; Luke 2:10–11). And this message was not only brought by an angel, but was confirmed by a multitude of angels, who all together glorified the Lord and announced peace upon earth. Simeon the Just confessed it nobly in the spirit of prophecy: and taking the little child in his arms, he said: Now, O Lord, let thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples (Luke 2:29–31). John the Baptist also spoke of him as was fitting, when he saw him coming to the river of Jordan, and said, Behold the lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Peter and all the apostles have confessed, testified, preached all the things which belong to salvation, of which the prophets had foretold that they would be accomplished in Christ the true Son of God. And those whom the Lord has ordained to be witnesses down to our own age have amply demonstrated the same by their writings, as their readers can see well enough.
All these witnesses come together into a unity so well, and they are of one accord among themselves so fully, that it is easy to recognize in such agreement most certain truth. For there could not be such harmony in lies. Besides, it is not only the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the angels, the prophets and apostles that bear witness to Jesus Christ; his own wonderful works show forth his most excellent power. The sick, the lame, the blind, the deaf, the mute, the paralytic, lepers, lunatics, demoniacs, and even the dead raised by him have carried the emblems of his power. By his power, he has given life; in his name, the works he has had given him to do were sufficient witnesses to him (John 10:25). Besides, even the wicked and the enemies of his glory were constrained by the very force of truth to confess him and to acknowledge something [of his glory]: for instance, Caiaphas, Pilate, and his wife. I do not care to bring up the witness of the devils and unclean spirits, seeing that Jesus Christ rejected them.
In short, all the elements and all the creatures have given Jesus Christ the glory. At his command, the winds ceased, the raging sea subsided, the fish brought two drachmas in his belly, the stones (to render him witness) were broken to pieces, the veil of the Temple was torn in the middle, the sun was darkened, the graves were opened, the many bodies were restored to life. There has been nothing in heaven or on earth which has not witnessed that Jesus Christ is God, Lord and Master, and the great Ambassador of the Father sent here below to accomplish the salvation of mankind. All these things were announced, manifested, written, and signed in this Testament, by which Jesus Christ has made us his heirs in the Kingdom of God his Father, and declares to us his will (like a testator to his heirs) that it [his Testament] be put into execution.
Furthermore, we are called to this inheritance without respect for persons; male or female, little or great, servant or lord, master or disciple, cleric or lay, Hebrew or Greek, French or Latin — no one is rejected, who with a sure confidence receives him who was sent for him, embraces what is presented to him, and in short acknowledges Jesus Christ for what he is and as he is given by the Father.
In the meantime, all we who bear the name of Christians, male or female, shall we permit ourselves to dishonor, to conceal, and to corrupt this Testament, which is so rightly ours, without which we could not pretend any right to the Kingdom of God, without which we should be ignorant of the great blessings and promises which Jesus Christ has given us, of the glory and beatitude he has prepared for us? We do not know what God has commanded or forbidden us; we cannot tell good from evil, light from darkness, the commandments of God from the ordinances (constitutions) of men. Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom, folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinners justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. The gospel is the Word of life and truth. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe; and the key to the knowledge of God, which opens the door of the Kingdom of Heaven to the faithful by releasing them from sins, and closes it to the unbelievers, binding them in their sins. Blessed are all they who hear the gospel and keep it; for in this way they show that they are children of God. Woe to those who will not hear it and follow it; because they are children of the devil.
O Christians, men and women, hear this and learn. For surely the ignorant man shall perish in his ignorance, and the blind who follows another blind man will fall into the ditch with him. There is but one way to life and salvation, and that is faith and certainty in the promises of God which cannot be had without the gospel; for by hearing it and knowing it living faith is provided, together with sure hope, and perfect love for God and a lively love toward our neighbor. Where then is your hope, if you contemn and scorn to hear, see, read, and retain this holy gospel? Those who have their affections fixed upon this world chase with every means whatever they think will bring them happiness, without sparing labor, body, life, or reputation. And all this is done in the service of this wretched body, which has a life so vain, miserable, and uncertain. When it is a question of life immortal and incorruptible, of beatitude eternal and immeasurable, of all the treasures of Paradise, shall we not endeavor to pursue them? Those who give themselves to the mechanical arts, however low and mean these may be, expend pain and labor to learn and know them; and those who aspire to a reputation of greatest excellence torment their minds day and night, to understand something of the human sciences, which are nothing but wind and smoke. Should we not then much more be employed and diligent in the study of this divine wisdom, which passes beyond the whole world and penetrates as far as the mysteries of God, which it has pleased him to make known by his holy Word!
What then shall estrange and alienate us from this holy gospel? Shall injuries, curses, disgrace, and want of worldly honor? But, we know well that Jesus Christ has traveled the same road which we have to follow, if we would be his disciples; that we must not refuse to be despised, mocked, humiliated, and rejected before men. For it is thus that we shall be honored, prized, glorified, and exalted in God’s judgment. Will there be banishments, proscriptions, privation from goods and riches? But we know that if we shall be banished from one country, the whole earth is the Lord’s, and if we be thrown out of the earth itself, nonetheless we shall not be outside of his Kingdom. [We know] that when we are despoiled and impoverished, we have a Father who is rich enough to nourish us; even that Jesus Christ was made poor, so that we might follow him in his poverty. Will there be afflictions, prisons, tortures, torments? But we know by the example of Jesus Christ that this is the way to arrive at glory. Finally, will there be death? But death does not do away with a life that is worth having.
In short, if we have Jesus Christ with us, we shall come upon nothing so accursed that he will not turn it into a blessing; nothing so execrable that it shall not be made holy; nothing so evil that it shall not turn into our good. Let us not lose our comfort when we see all earthly powers and forces against us; for the promise cannot fail, that the Lord on high will hold in mockery all the assemblings and efforts of men who would conspire against him. Let us not be desolate, as though all hope were lost, when we see true servants of God die and perish before our eyes. For it was said truly by Tertullian, and so it has been approved and shall be until the consummation of the age, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
And we have a still greater and a more sure consolation, when we turn our eyes away from this whole world and set aside all that we can see before us, to wait with patience for the great judgment of God, by which in one moment all the machinations of men against him shall be struck down, brought to nought, and overturned. This shall be when the Kingdom of God, which we now see in hope, shall become manifest; when Jesus Christ shall appear in majesty with his angels. It shall then be that the good and the evil shall be present before the judgment seat of this great King. Those who have remained firm in this testament, who have followed and kept the will of this good Father, shall be at his right hand as his true children, and shall be blessed with the fulfillment of their faith, which shall be eternal salvation. And since they were not ashamed to own and confess Jesus Christ, when he was despised and condemned before men, they shall also share in his glory, and shall be crowned with him in eternity. But the perverse, rebellious, and condemned, who have despised and rejected this holy gospel, and similarly those who for the sake of holding on to their honor, riches, and high estate have been unwilling to be humbled and made low with Jesus Christ; who for fear of men have cast aside the fear of God and like bastard [sons] disobeyed this Father — these shall be on the left hand; they shall be executed and cast out; for the reward of their unfaithfulness, they shall receive eternal death.
Therefore, when you hear that the gospel presents you Jesus Christ in whom all the promises and gifts of God have been accomplished; and when it declares that he was sent by the Father, has descended to the earth and spoken among men perfectly all that concerns our salvation, as it was foretold in the Law and to the Prophets — it ought to be most certain and obvious to you that the treasures of Paradise have been opened to you in the gospel; that the riches of God have been exhibited and eternal life itself revealed. For, this is eternal life; to know one, only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, whom he has established as the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation. He [Christ] is Isaac, the beloved Son of the Father who was offered as a sacrifice, but nevertheless did not succumb to the power of death. He is Jacob the watchful shepherd, who has such great care for the sheep which he guards. He is the good and compassionate brother Joseph, who in his glory was not ashamed to acknowledge his brothers, however lowly and abject their condition. He is the great sacrificer and bishop Melchizedek, who has offered an eternal sacrifice once for all. He is the sovereign lawgiver Moses, writing his law on the tables of our hearts by his Spirit. He is the faithful captain and guide Joshua, to lead us to the Promised Land. He is the victorious and noble king David, bringing by his hand all rebellious power to subjection. He is the magnificent and triumphant king Solomon, governing his kingdom in peace and prosperity. He is the strong and powerful Samson, who by his death has overwhelmed all his enemies.
It follows that every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in this same Jesus Christ alone. For, he was sold, to buy us back; captive, to deliver us; condemned, to absolve us; he was made a curse for our blessing, sin offering for our righteousness; marred that we may be made fair; he died for Our life; so that by him fury is made gentle, wrath appeased, darkness turned into light, fear reassured, despisal despised, debt canceled, labor lightened, sadness made merry, misfortune made fortunate, difficulty easy, disorder ordered, division united, ignominy ennobled, rebellion subjected, intimidation intimidated, ambush uncovered, assaults assailed, force forced back, combat combated, war warred against, vengeance avenged, torment tormented, damnation damned, the abyss sunk into the abyss, hell transfixed, death dead, mortality made immortal. In short, mercy has swallowed up all misery, and goodness all misfortune. For all these things which were to be the weapons of the devil in his battle against us, and the sting of death to pierce us, are turned for us into exercises which we can turn to our profit. If we are able to boast with the apostle, saying, O hell, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? it is because by the Spirit of Christ promised to the elect, we live no longer, but Christ lives in us; and we are by the same Spirit seated among those who are in heaven, so that for us the world is no more, even while our conversation is in it; but we are content in all things, whether country, place, condition, clothing, meat, and all such things. And we are comforted in tribulation, joyful in sorrow, glorying under vituperation, abounding in poverty, warmed in our nakedness, patient amongst evils, living in death.
This6262This paragraph is not in the 1535 preface. It appears for the first time in the treatise of 1543 (C. R. 9, 815). is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. And for a fact, since all the treasures of wisdom and understanding are hidden in him, there is not the least question of having, or turning toward, another goal; not unless we would deliberately turn aside from the light of truth, to lose ourselves in the darkness of lies. Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And such knowledge although mean and contemptible to the mind of the flesh is nevertheless sufficient to occupy us all our lives. And we shall not waste our time if we employ all our study and apply all our understanding to profit from it. What more would we ask for, as spiritual doctrine for our souls, than to know God, to be converted (transformez) to him, and to have his glorious image imprinted in us, so that we may partake of his righteousness, to become heirs of his Kingdom and to possess it in the end in full? But the truth is that from the beginning God has given himself, and at present gives himself more fully, that we may contemplate him in the face of his Christ. It is therefore not lawful that we turn away and become diverted even in the smallest degree by this or that. On the contrary, our minds ought to come to a halt at the point where we learn in Scripture to know Jesus Christ and him alone, so that we may be directly led by him to the Father who contains in himself all perfection.
Here, I say once again, is enclosed all the wisdom which men can understand, and ought to learn in this life; which no angel, or man, dead or living, may add to or take away from. This is where we ought to stop and put a limit to our understanding, mixing nothing of our own with it and refusing any doctrine whatever which might be added to it. For anyone who undertakes to teach one other syllable beyond what is taught us in it, ought to be accursed before God and his church.
And you kings, princes, and Christian lords, who are ordained of God to punish the wicked and to uphold the good in peace according to the Word of God — to you it belongs to have this sacred doctrine, so useful and needful, published, taught, and understood in all your lands, realms, and lordly domains, to the end that God may be magnified by you, and his gospel exalted; because by right it is his due that all kings and kingdoms obey him in all humility and serve his glory. Remember that sovereign Empire, above all kingdoms, principalities, and lordships, was given by the Father to the Lord Jesus; and he is to be feared, held in awe, and honored by everyone, great or little. Remember6363See previous note for this passage and the next paragraph. what was foretold by the prophets: that all the kings of the earth would render him homage as their superior, and would adore him as their Savior and their God; let this come true in you. And remember that it is no dishonor for you to be subject to such a great Lord, as though in this way your own majesty and high place would be reduced and become as nothing; for it is the greatest honor you may lawfully desire, to be known and regarded as the officials and lieutenants of God. It is unthinkable that Jesus Christ, in whom God wills to be glorified and exalted, should not have dominion over you; and in fact it is reasonable enough that you should be the ones to give him this preeminence, provided your own power is founded in him alone. Otherwise what an ingratitude it would be that you should want to shut out him who has established you in the power you possess, and maintains and keeps you in it! What is more, you ought to know that there is no better foundation, nor one firmer, for keeping your domains in true prosperity, than to have him as Chief and Master, and to govern your peoples under his hand; and that without him they [your domains] can be neither permanent nor endure for long, but shall be accursed of God and shall consequently fall down in confusion and ruin. Since God has thus given you the sword in hand for governing your subjects in his name and by his authority; since he has done you the honor of giving you his name and title; since he has sanctified your position above those of others, to make a portion of his glory and majesty reflected in it — let each one of you engage himself by his own hand to magnify and exalt him who is God’s true and glorious image, in whom he fully represents himself to us. Moreover, to do this, it is not enough merely to confess Jesus Christ, and to profess to be his own, so that you have the title without the truth and reality of the matter; you must give place to his holy gospel and receive it with obedience and humility. This is an office every man must fulfill; but it belongs to you especially to see to it that the gospel is heard, to have it published in your lands, in order that it may be known by the people who have been committed to your charge; in order that they may know you as servants and ministers of this great King, and may serve and honor him, by obeying you under his hand and under his guidance.
This is what the Lord requires of you through his prophet, when he calls you the guardians of his church. For this tutelage and protection is not a matter of enlarging the riches, privileges, and honors of the clergy, which makes them high and haughty, living in pomp and in all dissoluteness, contrary to their proper estate; much less is it a matter of maintaining the clergy in their pride and inordinate displays; it is rather a matter of seeing to it that the entire teaching of the gospel is kept in its purity and truth; that the Holy Scriptures are faithfully preached, read, and perused; that God is honored according to the rule given us in them, and the church is well governed; that all which is contrary to the honor of God, or to the good government of the church, be corrected and repressed; so that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ may flourish by the power of his Word.
O you who call yourselves bishops and pastors of the poor people, see to it that the sheep of Jesus Christ are not deprived of their proper pasture; and that it is not prohibited and forbidden to any Christian freely and in his own language to read, handle, and hear this holy gospel, seeing that such is the will of God, and Jesus Christ commands it; for it is for this cause that he has sent his apostles and servants throughout the whole world; giving them the power to speak in all tongues, so that they may in every language preach to every creature; and he has made them debtors to the Greeks and the barbarians, to the wise and the simple, in order that none might be excluded from their teaching. Surely, if you are truly their vicars, successors, and imitators, it is your office to do the same, watching over the flock and seeking every possible means to have everyone instructed in the faith of Jesus Christ, by the pure Word of God. Otherwise, the sentence is already proclaimed and put down in writing, that God will demand their souls at your hands.
It is the will of the Lord of lights by his Holy Spirit, by means of this holy and saving gospel, to teach the ignorant, to strengthen the feeble, to illumine the blind, and to make his truth to reign among all peoples and nations, to the end that the whole world may know but one God and one Savior, Jesus Christ; one faith, and one gospel. So be it.
III. EPISTLE TO SIMON GRYNAEUS ON THE COMMENTARY ON ROMANS
John Calvin, to Simon Grynaeus,6464Simon Grynaeus (1493–1541), Swabian scholar, professor of Latin and Greek in Heidelberg, left for Basel in 1529 to succeed Erasmus. He lectured on Greek and later on the New Testament. He took part in the preparation of the First Helvetic Confession and attended the Conference of Worms in 1540. As the above dedication and other letters make clear, Calvin had a great admiration for this linguist, exegete, and theologian. a most illustrious man.
I remember that three years ago we had a friendly talk about the best way of expounding Scripture. The method which you liked best, I myself approved most of all others. We both felt that the chief virtue of an interpreter consists in clarity combined with brevity. And indeed, since about the only business he has is to lay open the mind of the writer he has set out to explain, the more he leads the reader away from it, the more he deviates from his own purpose and is sure to wander out of bounds.
We expressed the desire that, from among all those are today engaged in aiding [the cause of] theology with this kind of work, someone would come forward who would strive for simplicity and would write so as not to discourage his readers too much with long-winded expositions. At the same time, however, I know that not everybody agrees with us in this matter; and that those who do not accept [our views], have good arguments on their side. Still, I cannot budge from my love of brevity. Of course, since it happens that there is a variety of disposition among men, and different people find pleasure in different things, let everyone, in this case also, enjoy his own judgment, provided that he does not try to make it a law for everybody else. Let us not, on our part, repudiate or condemn the labor of those who are more wordy and expansive in their expositions of the Sacred Books. But let them in return do the same to us, even though they may think our [exposition] is too compressed and concise.
I simply could not resist trying my hand at something along this line, which might be of benefit to the church of God. I am not sure that I have succeeded in doing what we thought was desirable; nor did I hope as much when I began. But I did make the effort to discipline my style, so that one could see I was aiming at the ideal we set down. How far I have succeeded, it is not for me to decide; I leave it to you and others like you to judge.
I can indeed see that many people will be offended by my undertaking and condemn me because of all things I have dared to try [my ability] on this epistle of Paul. Since men of excellent learning have already labored at expounding it, it is unbelievable that any room is left for others to produce something better. And I must say that even though I hoped my labor would produce some good results, I was at the beginning deterred by this very consideration. I was afraid that, if I set my hand to this task after so many excellent workmen, I would incur the reputation of temerity.
There are commentaries on this epistle by many ancient and many modern writers. Indeed they could not have labored at a better task; because when anyone understands this epistle, the way is open before him to an understanding of the whole of Scripture. I do not need to say anything about the ancient [interpreters] whose piety, erudition, saintliness, and age invest them with such authority that we should not condemn anything we have received from them. As to those who are living, nothing will be gained by mentioning all of them by name. I will speak my mind about those who have labored zealously and done outstanding work [in the field]. Philip Melanchthon,65651497–1560. German Reformer and friend of Martin Luther. His annotations on Romans were published in 1529 and his commentary in 1532. by his singular learning and industry, and the power of his competence in every kind of intellectual discipline has shed much light on this epistle; more than all who came before him. But he evidently set himself to examine closely only those matters which were worthy of his own attention; he stopped with these, and deliberately passed by a great deal which cannot but trouble the ordinary mind. Then comes Bullinger,6666Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), a Swiss Reformer, was the successor of Zwingli in Zurich. His commentary on Romans and the other epistles of the New Testament was published in 1537. who also received much praise; and that rightly, because he has combined simplicity with learning, and for this he has been highly approved. Finally there is Bucer6767See note 3, p. 54. who, by his tireless labors, has just about said the last word. He is a man (one of us) of exceptionally profound learning, with an immense knowledge of many subjects, endowed with an extraordinarily lucid mind; a great reader, possessor of other qualities, many and various, in which nobody today can surpass him, few can equal him, and he excels most people; and beyond all this, he deserves special praise because I can think of nobody who has turned to the exposition of Scripture with equal diligence and [desire for] precision. I submit, therefore, it never entered my head to compete with such men, as this would have been a most impudent rivalry; nor did I want to grab for myself the smallest part of the praise which belongs to them. Let them have the blessing, and favor, and authority, which all good men acknowledge they deserve. But I hope this much will be conceded to me: nothing is so perfect among men that those who come after them will find no room for refining and clarifying it, and adding to its beauty. As for myself, I do not dare to say anything except that I thought my work might perhaps be of some use; and that I undertook it for no other purpose than to promote the common good of the church.
To this end, I hoped that when I wrote in my own way, no [charge of] odious rivalry would be pressed against me, as I was at first afraid it would be. Philip succeeded in what he set out to do: to clarify to the utmost what is essential. He had no intention of preventing others from doing what must not be neglected; and he did omit much because he was occupied with the things that come first. Bucer is too prolix to keep the interest of busy people; his [thoughts] are so high that the lowly and those whose attention is not the best are in no position to understand him. Whenever he deals with any subject, his unbelievably forceful and fecund mind brings up so many things that he does not know how to take his hand off the paper (tabula). Therefore, because Melanchthon has not dealt with everything, and Bucer has written too much to be read through in a short time, my intention does not in the least look like rivalry with them.
And yet, I wondered for some time whether I would do better to make some gleanings from these other men, so as to be able to put together something to help those of mediocre mentality; or whether I should compose a complete commentary, in which I would have had to repeat much that has been said before by all or at least by some of them. But these men often differ among themselves, which gives much trouble to readers who are not very acute, causing them to hesitate with whom they should agree. Therefore, I thought I would not regret my labor if I could point out the best interpretation, and thus relieve those whose judgment is not sufficiently strong from the trouble of judging; especially since I was determined to compress and be succinct, so that my readers would waste no time, and would learn, by reading my work, what is in [the books of] the others. In short, I vowed not to give just cause for the complaint that much [of my work] has been superfluous.
As to its usefulness, I shall say nothing. However, men of good will who read it have acknowledged having benefited from it more than I dare modestly promise in so many words.
It is only right that I should be excused when I at times disagree with others and differ from them. [I know that] we must have such reverence for the Word of God that we do not, so far as it is possible, set it against itself with our contradictory interpretations. I dare not think how much damage is done to its majesty, especially when we do not treat it with great discernment and sobriety. And, if to contaminate anything dedicated to God involves a great crime, anyone who handles the most sacred thing in the world with unclean or incompetent hands ought not to be endured.
Therefore, it is sacrilegious audacity rashly to turn Scripture this way and that (as we please), and to fool with it as though it were a game; many people have been doing this very thing long enough.
But we ought always to remind ourselves that even those who have not been wanting in zeal for piety, and have handled the mysteries of God with conscience and sobriety, have not always agreed among themselves. God has in no instance honored his servants with such blessing as to endow them with full and perfect knowledge of every subject; and doubtless his reason for this has been to keep them humble and desirous to keep in communication with their brothers. It is of course highly desirable that we should constantly agree in our understanding of Scripture passages. But there is no hope for such a thing in this life. Therefore, we must do our best neither to be pushed by a desire for novelty, nor to deprecate others through envy; neither to be aroused by hatred, nor to be goaded by ambition; rather, we should do only what is necessary, our aim being nothing else than to make progress, disagreeing only for reasons which are honorable. When we follow this rule in our interpretation of Scripture, there will be less license with regard to the essentials of our religion, in which principally God would have his own of one mind. The readers will easily see that I have tried to do both [to make progress and to maintain unity].
But because it is not proper that I state or establish the value of my own work, I am happy to leave criticism to you. Since everybody defers to your judgment in many things, I also, who have been intimate with you and know very well the kind of man you are, owe you deference in everything. Familiarity has a way of diminishing respect, but as men of learning know very well, in your case, it greatly increases esteem. Farewell.
Strasbourg, November 18, 1539.
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