History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
« Prev Calvin's Commentaries Next »

§ 111. Calvin’s Commentaries.

I. Calvin’s Commentaries on the Old Test. in Opera, vols. XXIII.–XLIV., on the New Test., vols. XLV. sqq. (not yet completed). Separate Latin ed. of the Commentaries on the New Test. by Tholuck, Berlin, and Halle, 1831, 1836, etc., 7 vols.; also on Genesis (by Hengstenberg, Berlin, 1838) and on the Psalms (by Tholuck, 1836, 2 vols.). Translations in French (by J. Girard, 1650, and others), English (by various writers, 1570 sqq.), and other languages. Best English ed. by the "Calvin Translation Soc.," Edinburgh, 1843–55 (30 vols. for the O. T., 13 for the N. T.). See list in Darling’s Cyclopaedia Bibliographica, sub "Calvin."

II. A. Tholuck: Die Verdienste Calvin’s als Schriftausleger, in his "Lit. Anzeiger," 1831, reprinted in his "Vermischte Schriften" (Hamburg, 1839), vol. II. 330–360, and translated by Wm. Pringle (added to Com. on Joshua in the Edinb. ed. 1854, pp. 345–375).—G. W. Meyer: Geschichte der Schrifterklaerung, II. 448–475.—D. G. Escher.: De Calvino interprete, Traj., 1840.—Ed. Reuss: Calvin considéré comme exegète, in "Revue," VI. 223.—A. Vesson: Calvin exegète, Montaub, 1855.—E. Staehelin: Calvin, I. 182–198.— Schaff: Creeds of Christendom, I. 457–460.—Merx: Joel, Halle, 1879, pp. 428–444.—Fred. W. Farrar: History of Interpretation (London, 1886), pp. 342–354.

Calvin was an exegetical genius of the first order. His commentaries are unsurpassed for originality, depth, perspicuity, soundness, and permanent value. The Reformation period was fruitful beyond any other in translations and expositions of the Scripture. If Luther was the king of translators, Calvin was the king of commentators. Poole, in the preface to his Synopsis, apologizes for not referring more frequently to Calvin, because others had so largely borrowed from him that to quote them was to quote him. Reuss, the chief editor of his works and himself an eminent biblical scholar, says that Calvin was, beyond all question the greatest exegete of the sixteenth century."779779    "Ohne alle Frage der groesste Exeget des (sechszehnten) Jahrhunderts." Geschichte der heil. Schriften des Neuen Test. p. 618 (6th ed. 1887). Archdeacon Farrar literally echoes this judgment.780780    "The greatest exegete and theologian of the Reformation was undoubtedly Calvin." History of Interpretation, London, 1886, p. 342. Farrar quotes from Keble a manuscript note of Hooker, who says that "the sense of Scripture which Calvin alloweth" was held (in the Anglican Church) to be of more force than if "ten thousand Augustins, Jeromes, Chrysostoms, Cyprians were brought forth." Diestel, the best historian of Old Testament exegesis, calls him "the creator of genuine exegesis."781781    "Der Schoepfer der aechten Exegese." Diestel adds: "Johannes Calvin ragt ebensowohl durch den Umfang seiner exegetischen Arbeiten wie durch eine seltene Genialitat in der Auslegung hervor; unuebertroffen in seinem Jahrhundert, bieten seine Exegesen fuer alle folgenden Zeiten noch bis heute einen reichen Stoff der Schriftkenntniss dar." Geschichte des Alten Testaments in der christl. Kirche, Jena, 1869, p. 267. Dr. A. Merx of Heidelberg, another master in biblical philology, fully agrees: "Calvin ist der groesste Exeget seiner Zeit ... der Schoepfer der aechten Exegese" (on Joel, p. 428), and he ascribes to him, besides the necessary learning, including Hebrew, the sagacity of understanding and explaining the whole from the parts, and the parts from the whole. Few exegetical works outlive their generation; those of Calvin are not likely to be superseded any more than Chrysostom’s Homilies for patristic eloquence, or Bengel’s Gnomon for pregnant and stimulating hints, or Matthew Henry’s Exposition for devotional purposes and epigrammatic suggestions to preachers.782782    G. Wohlenberg, a Lutheran divine, begins a notice of the new edition of Calvin’s Commentaries on the New Test. (in Luthardt’s, Theol. Lit.-blatt," Oct. 9, 1891) with this remark: "Calvin’s Commentare zum N. T. gehoeren zu den nie veraltenden Werken. Und so gut wie Bengel’s ’Gnomon’ immer wieder gedruckt und gelesen werden wird, so lange es eine gesunde und fromme Schrifterklaerung giebt, so werden auch Calvin’s Commentare nie vergessen werden."

Calvin began his series of Commentaries at Strassburg with the Epistle to the Romans, on which his system of theology is chiefly built. In the dedication to his friend and Hebrew teacher Grynaeus, at Basel (Oct. 18, 1539), he already lays down his views of the best method of interpretation, namely, comprehensive brevity, transparent clearness, and strict adherence to the spirit and letter of the author. He gradually expounded the most important books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and the Prophets, and all the books of the New Testament, with the exception of the Apocalypse, which he wisely left alone. Some of his expositions, as the Commentary on the Minor Prophets, were published from notes of his free, extempore lectures and sermons. His last literary work was a Commentary on Joshua, which he began in great bodily infirmity and finished shortly before his death and entrance into the promised land.

It was his delight to expound the Word of God from the chair and from the pulpit. Hence his theology is biblical rather than scholastic. The Commentaries on the Psalms and the Epistles of Paul are regarded as his best. He was in profound sympathy with David and Paul, and read in their history his own spiritual biography. He calls the Psalms (in the Preface) "an anatomy of all the parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or, rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life the griefs, the sorrows, the fears, the doubts, the hopes, the cares, the perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated." He adds that his own trials and conflicts helped him much to a clearer understanding of these divine compositions.

He combined in a very rare degree all the essential qualifications of an exegete—grammatical knowledge, spiritual insight, acute perception, sound judgment, and practical tact. He thoroughly sympathized with the spirit of the Bible; he put himself into the situation of the writers, and reproduced and adapted their thoughts for the benefit of his age.

Tholuck mentions as the most prominent qualities of Calvin’s commentaries these four: doctrinal impartiality, exegetical tact, various learning, and deep Christian piety. Winer praises his "truly wonderful sagacity in perceiving, and perspicuity in expounding, the meaning of the Apostle."783783    "Calvinus miram in pervidenda apostoli mente subtilitatem, in exponenda prespicuitatem probavit." In the third ed. of his Com. on the Ep. to the Galatians.

1. Let us first look at his philological outfit. Melanchthon well says: "The Scripture cannot be understood theologically unless it be first understood grammatically."784784    "Ignavus in grammatica est ignavus in theologia." Postill. IV. 428. He had passed through the school of the Renaissance; he had a rare knowledge of Greek; he thought in Greek, and could not help inserting rare Greek words into his letters to learned friends. He was an invaluable help to Luther in his translation of the Bible, but his commentaries are dogmatical rather than grammatical, and very meagre, as compared with those of Luther and Calvin in depth and force.785785    Calvin himself fully acknowledged the exegetical merits of Melanchthon, Bullinger, and Bucer, in their commentaries on Romans, but modestly hints at their defects to justify his own commentary, which is far superior. See his interesting dedication to Grynaeus, written in 1539.

Luther surpassed all other Reformers in originality, freshness, spiritual insight, bold conjectures, and occasional flashes of genius. His commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, which he called "his wife," is a masterpiece of sympathetic exposition and forceful application of the leading idea of evangelical freedom to the question of his age. But Luther was no exegete in the proper sense of the term. He had no method and discipline. He condemned allegorizing as a mere "monkey-game" (Affenspiel), and yet he often resorted to it in Job, the Psalms, and the Canticles. He was eminently spiritual, and yet, as against Zwingli, slavishly literal in his interpretation. He seldom sticks to the text, but uses it only as a starting-point for popular sermons, or polemical excursions against papists and sectarians. He cared nothing for the consensus of the fathers. He applied private judgment to the interpretation with the utmost freedom, and judged the canonicity and authority of the several books of the Bible by a dogmatic and subjective rule—his favorite doctrine of solifidian justification; and as he could not find it in James, he irreverently called his epistle "an epistle of straw." He anticipated modern criticism, but his criticism proceeded from faith in Christ and God’s Word, and not from scepticism. His best work is a translation, and next to it, his little catechism for children.

Zwingli studied the Greek at Glarus and Einsiedeln that he might be able, "to draw the teaching of Christ from the fountains."786786    He wrote in 1523 that, ten years before (when priest at Glarus), "operam dedi Graecianis literis, ut ex fontibus doctrinam Christi haurire possem." He learnt Hebrew after he was called to Zuerich. He also studied the fathers, and, like Erasmus, took more to Jerome than to Augustin. His expositions of Scripture are clear, easy, and natural, but somewhat superficial. The other Swiss Reformers and exegetes—Oecolampadius, Grynaeus, Bullinger, Pellican, and Bibliander—had a good philological preparation. Pellican, a self-taught scholar (d. 1556), who was called to Zuerich by Zwingli in 1525, wrote a little Hebrew grammar even before Reuchlin,787787    De Modo legendi et intelligendi Hebraeum, written at Tuebingen or Basel in 1501, first printed in the Margarita philosophica, at Strassburg in 1504 (one or two years before Reuchlin’s Rudimenta Linguae Hebr.), recently discovered and republished by Nestle, Tuebingen, 1877. and published at Zuerich comments on the whole Bible.788788    Commentaria Bibliorum, Zuerich, 1632-39, 7 vols. See Diestel, l.c., 272 sq., and Strack in Herzog2 XI. 432 sqq. Bibliander (d. 1564) was likewise professor of Hebrew in Zuerich, and had some acquaintance with other Semitic languages; he was, however, an Erasmian rather than a Calvinist, and opposed the doctrine of the absolute decrees.

For the Hebrew Bible these scholars used the editions of Daniel Bomberg (Venice, 1518–45); the Complutensian Polyglot, which gives, besides the Hebrew text, also the Septuagint and Vulgate and a Hebrew vocabulary (Alcala, printed 1514–17; published 1520 sqq.); also the editions of Sabastian Muenster (Basel, 1536), and of Robert Stephens (Etienne, Paris, 1539–46). For the Greek Testament they had the editions of Erasmus (Basel, five ed. 1516–35), the Complutensian Polyglot (1520), Colinaeus (Paris, 1534), Stephens (Paris and Geneva, 1546–51). A year after Calvin’s death, Beza began to publish his popular editions of the Greek Testament, with a Latin version (Geneva, 1565–1604).

Textual criticism was not yet born, and could not begin its operations before a collection of the textual material from manuscripts, ancient versions, and patristic quotations. In this respect, therefore, all the commentaries of the Reformation period are barren and useless. Literary criticism was stimulated by the Protestant spirit of inquiry with regard to the Jewish Apocrypha and some Antilegomena of the New Testament, but was soon repressed by dogmatism.

Calvin, besides being a master of Latin and French, had a very good knowledge of the languages of the Bible. He had learned the Greek from Volmar at Bourges, the Hebrew from Grynaeus during his sojourn at Basel, and he industriously continued the study of both.789789    His knowledge of Hebrew was unjustly depreciated by the Roman Catholic Richard Simon. But Dr. Diestel, a most competent judge, ascribes to Calvin "a very solid knowledge of Hebrew." See above, p. 276, and p. 525. Tholuck, also, in his essay above quoted, asserts that "every glance at Calvin’s Commentary on the Old Testament assures us not only that he understood Hebrew, but that he had a very thorough knowledge of this language." He mentions, by way of illustration, a number of difficult Hebrew and Greek words which Calvin correctly explains. He denies that he was dependent on Pellican’s notes, as Semler had gratuitously suggested. He was at home in classical antiquity; his first book was a Commentary on Seneca, De Clementia, and he refers occasionally to Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Polybius, Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Livy, Pliny, Quintilian, Diogenes Laërtius, Aulus Gellius, etc. He inferred from Paul’s quotation of Epimenides, Tit. 1:12, "that those are superstitious who never venture to quote anything from profane authors. Since all truth is from God, if anything has been said aptly and truly even by impious men, it ought not to be rejected, because it proceeded from God. And since all things are of God, why is it not lawful to turn to his glory whatever may be aptly applied to this use?" On 1 Cor. 8:1, he observes: "Science is no more to be blamed when it puffs up than a sword when it falls into the hands of a madman." But he never makes a display of learning, and uses it only as a means to get at the sense of the Scripture. He wrote for educated laymen as well as for scholars, and abstained from minute investigations and criticisms; but he encouraged Beza to publish his Commentary on the New Testament in which philological scholarship is more conspicuous.

Calvin was also familiar with the patristic commentators, and had much more respect for them than Luther. He fully appreciated the philological knowledge and tact of Jerome, the spiritual depth of Augustin, and the homiletical wealth of Chrysostom; but he used them with independent judgment and critical discrimination.790790    He expresses his estimate of the Fathers in the Preface to his Institutes as follows: "Another calumny is their charging us with opposition to the fathers; I mean the writers of the earlier and purer ages, as if those writers were abettors of their impiety; whereas if the contest were to be terminated by this authority, the victory in most parts of the controversy, to speak in the most modest terms, would be on our side. But though the writings of those fathers contain many wise and excellent things, yet, in some respects, they have suffered the common fate of mankind; these very dutiful children reverence only their errors and mistakes, but their excellences they either overlook, or conceal, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said to be their only study to collect dross from the midst of gold. Then they overwhelm us with senseless clamors, as despisers and enemies of the fathers. But we do not hold them in such contempt, but that if it were consistent with my present design, I could easily support by their suffrages most of the sentiments that we now maintain. Yet, while we make use of their writings, we always remember that ’All things are ours’ to serve us, not to have dominion over us, and that ’we are Christ’s’ alone, and owe him universal obedience. He who neglects this distinction will have nothing decided in religion, since those holy men were ignorant of many things, frequently at variance with each other and sometimes even inconsistent with themselves." In the preface to his commentary on the Romans he praises the Fathers for their pietas, eruditio, and sanctimonia, and adds that their antiquity lent them such authority, "ut nihil quod ab ipsis profectum sit, contemnere debeamus." Compare with this judgment Luther’s bolder and cruder opinions on the Fathers, quoted in vol. VI. 534 sqq.

2. Calvin kept constantly in view the primary and fundamental aim of the interpreter, namely, to bring to light the true meaning of the biblical authors according to the laws of thought and speech.791791    In the dedicatory preface to his Com. on Romans he reminds his friend Grynaeus of a conversation they had three years previously, on the best method of interpretation, when they agreed that the chief virtue of an interpreter was "perspicua brevitas," and adds:, Et sane quum hoc sit prope unicum illius officium, mentem scriptores, quem explicandum sumpsit, patefacere: quantum ab ea lectores abducit, tantundem a scopo suo aberrat, vel certe a suis finibus quodammodo evagatur." He transferred himself into their mental state and environment so as to become identified with them, and let them explain what they actually did say, and not what they might or should have said, according to our notions or wishes. In this genuine exegetical method he has admirably succeeded, except in a few cases where his judgment was biassed by his favorite dogma of a double predestination, or his antagonism to Rome; though even there he is more moderate and fair than his contemporaries, who indulge in diffuse and irrelevant declamations against popery and monkery. Thus he correctly refers the "Rock" in Matt. 16:18 to the person of Peter, as the representative of all believers.792792    Harmon. II. 107. He stuck to the text. He detested irrelevant twaddle and diffuseness. He was free from pedantry. He never evades difficulties, but frankly meets and tries to solve them. He carefully studies the connection. His judgment is always clear, strong, and sound. Commentaries are usually dry, broken, and indifferently written. His exposition is an easy, continuous flow of reproduction and adaptation in elegant Erasmian Latinity. He could truly assert on his death-bed that he never knowingly twisted or misinterpreted a single passage of the Scriptures; that he always aimed at simplicity, and restrained the temptation to display acuteness and ingenuity.

He made no complete translation of the Bible, but gave a Latin and a French version of those parts on which he commented in either or both languages, and he revised the French version of his cousin, Pierre Robert Olivetan, which appeared first in 1535, for the editions of 1545 and 1551.793793    See Reuss, Gesch. des N. T. § 474 (p. 639, 6th ed.). Reuss prepared from Calvin’s French Commentaries a French version for his ed. of the Opera.

3. Calvin is the founder of modern grammatico-historical exegesis. He affirmed and carried out the sound and fundamental hermeneutical principle that the biblical authors, like all sensible writers, wished to convey to their readers one definite thought in words which they could understand. A passage may have a literal or a figurative sense, but cannot have two senses at once. The word of God is inexhaustible and applicable to all times; but there is a difference between explanation and application, and application must be consistent with explanation.

Calvin departed from the allegorical method of the Middle Ages, which discovered no less than four senses in the Bible,794794    Expressed in the memorial lines:—
   Litera gesta docet; quid credas, Allegoria;

   Moralis, quid agas; quo tendas, Anagogia."
turned it into a nose of wax, and substituted pious imposition for honest exposition. He speaks of "puerile" and "far-fetched" allegories, and says that he abstains from them because there is nothing "solid and firm" in them. It is an almost sacrilegious audacity to twist the Scriptures this way and that way, to suit our fancy.795795    Pref. ad Romanos: "Affinis sacrilegio audacia est Scripturas temere huc illuc versare et quasi in re lusoria lascivire: quod a multis jam olim factitatum est." In commenting on the allegory of Sarah and Hagar, Gal. 4:22–26, he censures Origen for his arbitrary allegorizing, as if the plain historical view of the Bible were too mean and too poor. "I acknowledge," he says, "that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom, but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man at his pleasure may put into it. Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions which lead us away from the natural meaning." He approvingly quotes Chrysostom, who says that the word "allegory" in this passage is used in an improper sense.796796    "Et certe Chrysostomus in vocabulo Allegoriae fatetur esse catechresin (κατάχρησις): quod verissimum est." He was averse to all forced attempts to harmonize difficulties. He constructed his Harmony of the Gospels from the three Synoptists alone, and explained John separately.

4. Calvin emancipated exegesis from the bondage of dogmatism. He was remarkably free from traditional orthodox prepossessions and prejudices, being convinced that the truths of Christianity do not depend upon the number of dicta probantia. He could see no proof of the doctrine of the Trinity in the plural Elohim,797797    Ad Gen. 1:1 (Opera, XXIII. 15): "Habetur apud Moses ויהלא , nomen pluralis numeri. Unde colligere solent, hic in Deo notari tres personas; sed quia parum solida mihi videtur tantae rei probatio, ego in voce non insistam. Quin potius monendi sunt lectores ut sibi a violentis ejusmodi glossis caveant. Putant illi se testimonium habere adversus Arianos ad probandam Filii et Spiritus divinitatem, interea se involvunt in errorem Sabellii." But in the words, "Let us make man," Gen. 1:26, he admits, after rejecting the Rabbinical fancies, the intimation of a plurality in God: "Christiani apposite plures subesse in Deo personas ex hoc testimonio contendunt. Neminem extraneum advocat Deus: hinc colligimus, intus eum aliquid distinctum invenire ut certe aeterna eius sapientia et virtus in ipso resident." (Ib. 25.) nor in the three angel visitors of Abraham, Gen.18:2, nor in the Trisagion, Ps. 6:3,798798    On this passage he remarks: "Veteres hoc testimonio usi sunt, quum vellent adversus Arianos tres personas in una Dei essentia probare. Quorum ego sententiam non improbo; sed si mihi res cum haereticis esset, mallem firmioribus testimoniis uti." nor of the divinity of the Holy Spirit in Ps. 33:6.799799    Older Lutheran divines (even Walch, Biblioth. Theol. IV. 413) charged him with Judaizing and Socinian misinterpretation of the O. T. proof texts for the Trinity and the divinity of the Messiah. Aegidius Hunnius, in his Calvinus Judaizans (Wittenberg, 1693), thought that Calvin ought to have been burnt for his abominable perversion of the Scriptures. D. Pareus of Heidelberg defended him against this charge in his Orthodoxus Calvinus. Modern Lutheran exegesis fully sustains him.

5. He prepared the way for a proper historical understanding of prophecy. He fully believed in the Messianic prophecies, which are the very soul of the faith and hope of Israel; but he first perceived that they had a primary bearing and practical application to their own times, and an ulterior fulfilment in Christ, thus serving a present as well as a future use. He thus explained Psalms 2, 8, 16, 22, 40, 45, 68, 110, as typically and indirectly Messianic. On the other hand, he made excessive use of typology, especially in his Sermons, and saw not only in David but in every king of Jerusalem a, figure of Christ." In his explanation of the protevangelium, Gen. 3:15, he correctly understands the "seed of the woman," collectively of the human race, in its perpetual conflict with Satan, which will culminate ultimately in the victory of Christ, the head of the race.800800    Ad Gen. 3:15 (Opera, XXIII. 71): "Generaliter semen interpreter de posteris. Sed quum experientia doceat, multum abesse quin supra diabolum victores emergant omnes filii Adae, ad caput unum venire necesse est, ut reperiamus ad quem pertineat victoria. Sic Paulus a semine Abrahae ad Christum nos deducit …. Quare sensus est (meo judicio), humanum genus, quod opprimere conatus erat Satan, fore tandem superius." He widens the sense of the formula "that it might be fulfilled" (i{na plhrwqh|'), so as to express sometimes simply an analogy or correspondence between an Old Testament and a New Testament event. The prophecy, Hos. 11:1, quoted by Matthew as referring to the return of the Christ-child from Egypt, must, accordingly, "not be restricted to Christ," but is, skilfully adapted to the present occasion."801801    Harm. I. 80. Tholuck’s ed. On Matt. 2:23 in the same chapter, Calvin says (p. 83): "Non deducit Matthaeus Nazaraeum a Nazareth: quasi sit haec propria et certa etymologia, sed tantum est allusio," etc. In like manner, Paul, in Rom. 10:6, gives only an embellishment and adaptation of a word of Moses to the case in hand.802802    Comp. his notes on Gen. 3:15; Isa. 4:2; 6:3; Ps. 33:6; Matt. 2:15; 8:17; 11:11; John 1:51:2:17; 5:31 sq.; 2 Cor. 12:7; 1 Pet, 3:19; Heb. 2:6-8; 4:3; 11:21.

6. He had the profoundest reverence for the Scriptures, as containing the Word of the living God and as the only infallible and sufficient rule of faith and duty; but he was not swayed by a particular theory of inspiration. It is true, he never would have approved the unguarded judgments of Luther on James, Jude, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse;803803    See Luther’s judgments in vol. VI. 35 sq. but he had no hesitancy in admitting incidental errors which do not touch the vitals of faith. He remarks on Matt. 27:9: "How the name of Jeremiah crept in, I confess I know not, nor am I seriously troubled about it. That the name of Jeremiah has been put for Zechariah by an error, the fact itself shows, because there is no such statement in Jeremiah."804804    Harm. II. 349 (Tholuck’s ed.): "Quomodo Jeremiae nomen obrepserit, me nescire fateor, nec anxie laboro: certe Jeremiae nomen errore positum esse pro Zacharia 13:7, res ipsa ostendit: quia nihil tale apud Jeremiam legitur, vel etiam quod accedat." Concerning the discrepancies between the speech of Stephen in Acts 7 and the account of Genesis, he suggests that Stephen or Luke drew upon ancient traditions rather than upon Moses, and made "a mistake in the name of Abraham."805805    Ad Acta 7:16 (Acts 7:16):, "In nomine Abrahae erratum esse palam est … Quare hic locus corrigendus est." According to Gen. 50:13, Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah at Hebron, and Jacob was buried there, and not at Shechem. He was far from the pedantry of the Purists in the seventeenth century, who asserted the classical purity of the New Testament Greek, on the ground that the Holy Spirit could not be guilty of any solecism or barbarism, or the slightest violation of grammar; not remembering that the Apostles and Evangelists carried the heavenly treasure of truth in earthen vessels, that the power and grace of God might become more manifest, and that Paul himself confesses his rudeness "in speech," though not "in knowledge." Calvin justly remarks, with special reference to Paul, that by a singular providence of God the highest mysteries were committed to us "sub contemptibili verborum humilitate," that our faith may not rest on the power of human eloquence, but solely on the efficacy of the divine Spirit; and yet he fully recognized the force and fire, the majesty and weight of Paul’s style, which he compares to flashes of lightning.806806    See his admirable comments on 1 Cor. 1:17 sqq., and 2 Cor. 11:6, where he mentions the majestas, altitudo, pondus, and vis of Paul’s words, and says: "Fulmina sunt, non verba. An non dilucidius Spiritus Sancti efficacia apparet in nuda verborum rusticitate (ut ita loquar) quam in elegantiae et nitoris larva?"

The scholastic Calvinists, like the scholastic Lutherans of the seventeenth century, departed from the liberal views of the Reformers, and adopted a mechanical theory which confounds inspiration with dictation, ignores the human element in the Bible, and reduces the sacred writers to mere penmen of the Holy Spirit. This theory is destructive of scientific exegesis. It found symbolical expression, but only for a brief period, in the Helvetic Consensus Formula of 1675, which, in defiance of historical facts, asserts even the inspiration of the Masoretic vowel points. But notwithstanding this restraint, the Calvinistic exegetes adhered more closely to the natural grammatical and historical sense of the Scriptures than their Lutheran and Roman Catholic contemporaries.807807    Fr. Turretin, a strict scholastic Calvinist, and one of the authors of the Helvetic Consensus Formula, opposed the allegorical method and defended the sound, one-sense principle (in his Inst. Theol. Elencticae, quaest. XIX., vol. I. 135): "Nos ita sentimus, Scripturae S. unicum tantum competere verum et genuinum sensum, sed sensum illum duplicem posse esse, vel Simplicem, vel Compositum. Simplex et historicus est, qui unius rei declarationem continet, absque ullius alterius significatione, qui vel praecepta, vel dogmata, vel historias spectat. Et hic rursus duplex, vel Proprius et Grammaticalis, vel Figuratus et Tropicus. Proprius qui ex verbis propriis oritur; Tropicus qui ex verbis figuratis. Sensus Compositus seu mixtus est in oraculis typi rationem habentibus, cujus pars est in typo, pars in antitypo; quae non constituunt duos sensus, sed duos partes unius ejusdemque sensus intenti a Spiritu Sancto, qui cum litera mysterium respexit, ut in isto Oraculo, ’Os non confringetis ei,’ Exo. 12:46, plenus non potest haberi sensus, nisi cum veritate typi, seu Agni Paschalis, conjungatur veritas Antitypi seu Christi ex Jo. 19:36."

7. Calvin accepted the traditional canon of the New Testament, but exercised the freedom of the ante-Nicene Church concerning the origin of some of the books. He denied the Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews on account of the differences of style and mode of teaching (ratio docendi), but admitted its apostolic spirit and value. He doubted the genuineness of the Second Epistle of Peter, and was disposed to ascribe it to a pupil of the Apostle, but he saw nothing in it which is unworthy of Peter. He prepared the way for a distinction between authorship and editorship as to the Pentateuch and the Psalter.

He departed from the traditional view that the Scripture rests on the authority of the Church. He based it on internal rather than external evidence, on the authority of God rather than the authority of men. He discusses the subject in his Institutes,808808    Bk. I. ch. VII. and VIII. and states the case as follows: —

"There has very generally prevailed a most pernicious error that the Scriptures have only so much weight as is conceded to them by the suffrages of the Church, as though the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended on the arbitrary will of men.809809    Luther said substantially the same thing in his controversy with Eck: "The Church cannot give any more authority or power to the Scripture than it has of itself. A Council cannot make that to be Scripture which is not Scripture by its own nature." ... For, as God alone is a sufficient witness of Himself in His own Word, so also the Word will never gain credit in the hearts of men till it be confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit. It is necessary, therefore, that the same Spirit, who spake by the mouths of the prophets, should penetrate into our hearts, to convince us that they faithfully delivered the oracles which were divinely intrusted to them … Let it be considered, then, as an undeniable truth, that they who have been inwardly taught by the Spirit, feel an entire acquiescence in the Scripture, and that it is self-authenticated, carrying with it its own evidence, and ought not to be made the subject of demonstrations and arguments from reason; but it obtains the credit which it deserves with us by the testimony of the Spirit. For though it commands our reverence by its internal majesty, it never seriously affects us till it is confirmed by the Spirit in our hearts. Therefore, being illuminated by him, we now believe the divine original of the Scripture, not from our own judgment or that of others, but we esteem the certainty that we have received it from God’s own mouth, by the ministry of men, to be superior to that of any human judgment, and equal to that of an intuitive perception of God himself in it … . Without this certainty, better and stronger than any human judgment, in vain will the authority of the Scripture be either defended by arguments, or established by the authority of the Church, or confirmed by any other support, since, unless the foundation be laid, it remains in perpetual suspense."810810    Selected from Inst. I. VII. §§ 1, 4, 5, and VIII. § 1.

This doctrine of the intrinsic merit and self-evidencing character of the Scripture, to all who are enlightened by the Holy Spirit, passed into the Gallican, Belgic, Second Helvetic, Westminster, and other Reformed Confessions. They present a fuller statement of the objective or formal principle of Protestantism,—namely, the absolute supremacy of the Word of God as the infallible rule of faith and practice, than the Lutheran symbols which give prominence to the subjective or material principle of justification by faith.811811    Comp. vol. VI. 36 sqq.

At the same time, the ecclesiastical tradition is of great value, as a witness to the human authorship and canonicity of the several books, and is more fully recognized by modern biblical scholarship, in its conflict with destructive criticism, than it was in the days of controversy with Romanism. The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit and the external testimony of the Church join in establishing the divine authority of the Scriptures.

« Prev Calvin's Commentaries Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |