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Jean Calvin (1509-64)

J. I. Packer calls Jean (translated John) Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion “a literary masterpiece,” and “one of the wonders of the spiritual world” as well as “one of the wonders of the theological world.”1 Concerning Calvin, Gerald Bray says, “With Luther, he was the greatest of the Reformers, and by far the most outstanding biblical exegete of his time.”2 To these I could add many more similar evaluations than I have been able to count. Calvin’s exegesis, dogmatics, and sermons have all been praised because in these ways he has persuasively explained and applied the word of God.

One reason for Calvin’s appeal is the clarity afforded by his writing scheme. The standard practice for commentaries was to discuss a doctrinal issue every time it appeared in Scripture. Instead of veering off on such digressions, Calvin could point the commentary reader to the relevant part of his Institutes. Thus each had a clear purpose. Calvin’s Institutes at first was a simple handbook for Protestants (published in Latin but also then in French) and grew from there to be more like a theological textbook3 and his commentaries helped pastors and the people in the pews to understand the text.4 Calvin’s sermons were on verses taken sequentially through whole books of the Bible5 and built upon his interpretation of the passage and his dogmatics to explain and apply them to his congregation.6 He preached on Sunday mornings from the New Testament, on Sunday afternoons from the New Testament or Psalms, and every morning of the week every other week from the Old Testament.7 Similarly, he wrote commentaries on the New Testament books, except probably (and notably) for Revelation, and then wrote commentaries on Old Testament books. He did not write commentaries on every Old Testament book either. Regarding the synoptic gospels and Exodus-Deuteronomy Calvin wrote harmonies so that he could discuss parallel passages simultaneously and present a unified narrative.8 All of these things allowed him to argue that commentary writing should exhibit “lucid brevity.”9 Not every Reformer did write as concisely or clearly, nor did they keep each kind of work so clearly organized and disciplined.

At the age of 11 or 12, Calvin went to Paris for a preparatory school where he studied grammar, especially Latin. Next he went to the monastery school at Montaigu, which was designed to prepare young men to enter the priesthood. But by 16 or 17, his father had failed to get him a position in the church twice and decided to send him to Orléans to study law. From there he went to the University of Bourges and studied Greek, when it was not fashionable to do so, and taught rhetoric in a convent while also doing pulpit supply in a local church. He moved around some more eventually returning to Paris to study the classics, including Hebrew. Then in 1532, at about 23 years of age, he came out with a commentary on Seneca, a stoic philosopher, called De Clementia (which when translated means, On Mercy).10 His training was excellent preparation for any Renaissance humanist, including having been educated in that tradition at the Sorbonne, but instead the following year Calvin officially joined the ranks of the Reformers.11 A few years later, William Farrel, who recognizing the wisdom and skill of this Frenchman recently exiled, cajoled him into staying in Geneva, Switzerland in order to help with the Reformation there.12 This background shows us his interests and training prepared him for careful explanation of the text from its original languages as its author originally intended it to mean. Calvin’s approach was contrary to the deep-seated belief that there was a hidden meaning in many stories of Scripture, which were not to be taken as historical, but rather necessitating an allegorical reading with various things representing others as the way to lay it bare.13

For Calvin, the reason for commentaries was “to lay open the mind of the writer.” In doing so, he did not carefully differentiate between human and divine authors because the interpretation would be the same since God was writing in a way that was understandable at that time and place.14 Therefore, as Bray tells us, he took interpreters to task who sought to find a reference to Christ in each and every single verse. To him the literal sense of the text was the focus of interpretation, except where the context and the meaning requires going above and beyond a strict literal understanding of the text. Bray gives us the examples of a strict literal interpretation of “thou shalt not kill” given the witness of the rest of Scripture and “this is my body” when spoken by Jesus in the flesh before his death. Thus he avoided literalistic abuses as well as allegorical excesses. Calvin did support using typology in interpretation of Scripture, but that typology was always grounded in history and theology. All of Scripture pointed to Christ in that he was the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the subject of the New Testament.15 The care and precision he exercised, even the nuances or subtlety of his methods, advanced the science of Biblical interpretation to a new level. But this was not done without passion or persuasion. He thought it was important to convincingly convey our spiritual benefits in Christ that are revealed in the word of God.16

What these principles meant when Calvin covered the same subject in the Old Testament and the New Testament was that first there would be differences because, as T. H. L. Parker puts it, “he binds and confines himself to the conditions of the respective authors and their subjects.” Parker continues, “This is another way of saying that he faithfully observes the context.” The context is not just the smallest unit of text, but the book is to be understood in its historical context, and Parker notes, “the context of any single book is the rest of the Holy Scripture.” Thus he argues that for Calvin, “No book can be interpreted as if it stood outside the Bible.” Nevertheless, those writing in the Old Testament did so living in the twilight rather than in the sun. Therefore, Calvin refused to take everything he learned from the New Testament and impose it on the authors of the Old Testament.17 Calvin said, “The Covenant of all the fathers is no different in substance and reality from ours; it is simply one and the same. But the administration is different.”18 Among the differences were that the New Testament tells us clearly the heavenly blessings, which the Old Testament had described as (apparently) earthly blessings. Another difference was that the Old Covenant had given us the letter of the law without the power of the Spirit and the New Covenant has the law written on the heart by the Spirit.19 The task of unpacking the system of covenant theology was primarily left for his students. But Calvin took history seriously, which was a new emphasis in biblical interpretation.

It should also be noted that Calvin had developed a respect for the church from an early age and he read Scripture in conversation with commentators and theologians from his own and earlier ages, especially the church fathers Augustine and Chrysostom.20 Among the near-contemporaries of note that he respected most was Martin Luther, though at times he took exception to Luther’s exegesis. Calvin felt that since it was inevitable that not every interpreter of Scripture will agree about every interpretation, he did not wish to critique other individual commentators by name. Yet he knew his criticisms were often not directed at individuals but at schools of interpretation – both Christian and Jewish.21 Calvin’s innovation was to systematically disagree with the teaching of previous commentators, including the church fathers, when their teaching conflicted with the text of Scripture understood in its historical context. The usual practice had been to mine the fathers to look for evidence to support your position and to ignore those who did not. But Calvin was determined to save the text of Scripture from the tradition of its interpretation.22 The measure of his success in doing so is apparent given how Calvin is rightly considered “the father of modern biblical scholarship”23 and as such his commentaries are still in print and use today alongside modern interpreters.

But Calvin was not without detractors in his own day. It is because of Calvin’s emphasis on the historical ‘situatedness’ of any given text that he was attacked as promoting Jewish exegesis. His concern was that Jewish interpreters could easily dispel the stretches that some Christian commentators had made in explaining Scripture. Moreover, too often those who had espoused similar methods of interpretation rather than fanciful allegorization were not consistent and lapsed into allegory when looking for a Christological leap. These too were speculative and a barrier to answering Jewish exegesis. But it was also because Calvin insisted on interpreting the Hebrew text rather than a Greek translation that the charge resonated among some. At the time, many showed great reluctance to use the Hebrew even if they were Renaissance humanists. But Calvin also clearly interpreted the Old Testament as a Christian exegete because the text is fulfilled in Christ. Therefore, he makes many negative evaluations of the exegesis of the rabbis for missing this and for their penchant for creating fables to explain difficult texts. Calvin does not just attack particular interpretations of certain verses but instead the whole interpretive enterprise because the Jewish people were in full-scale rebellion against God and trying to provide a way of evading Christ’s claims.24

One might argue that Calvin’s own method for avoiding difficult texts was to appeal to the idea of accommodation. The principle simply notes that God has communicated to his people in a way that they can understand. He mentions the relevant Latin words no less than forty-one times in the Institutes and the idea is implied elsewhere.25 For example, Calvin tells us, “God’s constancy shines forth in the fact that he taught the same doctrine to all ages,” what changes is the “outward form and manner” because “he accommodated himself to men’s capacity, which is varied and changeable.”26 The principle of accommodation opened the door for Calvin to explain that the creation story of Genesis 1 was not telling us science but relating the real history of creation in a way that the common person living in ancient Israel could understand.27 Accommodation also was a way to understand the many anthropomorphisms (describing God using human features, actions and emotions) found in Scripture.28 Thus some will accuse Calvin of reintroducing a non-literal interpretation when it suits him.29 However, Calvin was simply avoiding literalism and allegorism.

Another reason Calvin’s writings have gained such popularity among Christians is the devotional and doxological way that he spoke. It is in Scripture that the believer in Christ encountered God personally and becomes persuaded of the truth of the message in it. A real interpretation of the Bible without this experience would be impossible. We noted earlier that Calvin’s exegesis was the basis of his dogmatics and together they served as the foundation for his preaching. Add to these observations then that if the preaching does not result in the transformation of lives then the Scripture has not been unpacked properly.30 Calvin describes his own “sudden conversion,”31 which may or may not correspond to the time he became teachable; that is, this conversion may be the time when he willingly submitted to the teaching of Scripture and became a Reformer. He was then “always ready to learn.”32 To this it is also important to add that Calvin did not write from the safety of a monastery nor an ivory tower. He wrote as a pastor who suffered the loss of his one infant child and the loss of his wife after she had been in ill health for nearly nine years. He wrote as well as someone who had escaped persecution in France in his twenties only to suffer physical persecution in Geneva later in life. His most peaceful years were in Strasbourg, but aware of the dangers he willingly returned to Geneva.33

Given all this, it would be helpful to compare Calvin’s commentaries, dogmatics, and sermons. Bray has noted that the exact connection between the commentaries and sermons of Calvin is difficult to define. He says that the sermons “occasionally show a degree of independence from the commentaries.”34 To be sure this likely reflects the different purposes of a commentary and a sermon in Calvin’s systematic thinking as well as the different audiences that he had in mind for each and the different methods necessary for persuading those audiences. We must consider, however, that most of the lectures, commentaries, and sermons were not given at the same time35 and Calvin was always ready to learn from Scripture. Not insignificant to this evaluation is the observation that Calvin did not write out his sermons in advance or even use notes in the pulpit.36

Take, for example, a famous passage about how God would circumcise the heart of his people: Deuteronomy 30:6. In Calvin’s Harmony of the Law, he began, “this promise far surpasses all the others” [before it] and he understood it as a reference to the New Covenant. He says that the prophet in Jeremiah 31:31-33 was interpreting this verse in Deuteronomy. The people of Israel needed a divine solution – “that God should renew and mold their hearts.” Calvin notes that the spiritual benefit of reconciliation with God promised here is God giving them “the Spirit of regeneration.” He also sees a metaphor in the word circumcise in that circumcision was their rite of initiation into God’s service and Moses is therefore saying, “God will create you spiritually to be new men, so that, cleansed from the filth of the flesh and the world, and separated from the unclean nations, you should serve Him in purity.” Calvin also notes that Moses is telling us that the Sacraments depend on God’s Spirit working in us. Circumcision was “the Sacrament of repentance and renewal, as Baptism is now to us” but just as people were circumcised to no effect, so too “now many are baptized to no profit.”37 And he continues with a brief discussion contra “the defenders of free-will.” This is dated to 1564.38

Deuteronomy 30:6 is cited at least six times in the Institutes. The first time he quotes it together with Deuteronomy 10:16, where Moses had told Israel to circumcise your heart, to show that the commandments demonstrate that without God’s grace we cannot fulfill them.39 Here much more time could be spent since Calvin’s sermon presupposes the whole of Reformed theology when preaching Deuteronomy 30:6-10.

On Monday, 20 April 1556, Calvin had read Deuteronomy 30:6-10 and after noting the previous promises concerning the present life says, “But now he speaks of a higher and a more excellent matter.” The similarity to the later commentary is obvious. Then Calvin continues, “Whereas the Holy Scripture requires us to do that which God demanded; it is not because we have the power to do it: for God does not measure his commandments after our power: albeit that we be weak, yet nevertheless we be bound unto him: but when he has shown us our duty, it belongs to him to give us the grace to accomplish it.” Calvin uses the sermon as an opportunity to respond to Roman Catholics who say we can do it all ourselves. He brings in Deuteronomy 10:16 and how now it is God who will circumcise their heart. A short time later he returns to the Roman Catholic teaching “that there is also a certain agreement between God and man, so as God for his part does one piece and we do the other, yea and the principal part.” And Calvin demonstrates this was not Moses’ meaning. He continues by explaining how the law of God condemns us and being convicted men (with our pride beaten down so that we would not presume of ourselves), “he added the promise, and faith.” It is true that you are uncircumcised in heart, “but I will change your hearts, I will renew your minds, I will reform you to my self.” Calvin also applies what we read concerning circumcision and baptism to the radicals of his day by showing the continuity of the Law and Gospel, even saying that the fathers who lived under the law were like little kids under overseers and tutors. Yet he emphasizes that they had the same promise of salvation that we do. And they had Sacraments from God to the same end we do, which therefore were spiritual. No doubt you can tell that his sermon is much more persuasively and passionately spoken and at greater length. This sermon is an evangelical appeal par excellence and decisively from a Reformed perspective.40

Although Calvin’s sermon on Deuteronomy 30:6-10 was published before his commentary on the same, the sermon clearly is built upon his exegesis and dogmatics. This sermon, like his Institutes, aims to help the people in his congregation to see the flaws of Roman Catholicism (among others) and state positively the Reformed understanding. Calvin interprets the passage in light of Moses’ earlier words in the book as well as how they are interpreted by Jeremiah. Accommodation was necessary to explain the promises mentioned before these verses, but now Moses speaks more clearly. Since the passage discusses the New Covenant and mentions the type of circumcision, this also brings into the discussion baptism and the Spirit. When he preaches this he brings out the continuity of the one covenant. Therefore, here in Calvin’s interpretation we find that he is able to avoid both literalism and allegorism.


Bray, Gerald. Biblical Interpretation: Past & Present. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

—–. DM926, “History of Biblical Interpretation.” Lecture. 16 Oct 2013. Knox Theological Seminary.

Calvin, John. Harmony of the Law, vol.3. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Database on-line. Available from Internet. Accessed 17 Oct 2013.

—–. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. by John T. McNeill. Trans. by Ford Lewis Battles. Library of Christian Classics, 2 vols. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.

—–. The Sermons of M. John Calvin upon the Fifth Booke [sic] of Moses called Deuteronomie [sic]: Faithfully gathered word for word as he preached them in open Pulpet [sic]. Trans. by Arthur Golding. London: Printed by Henry Middleton, 1583. Reprinted facsimile. Oxford: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.

Hall, David W. and Peter A. Lillback, eds. A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008.

Parker, T.H.L. Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries. Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1986.

Parsons, Burk, ed. John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology. Orlando, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008.

Puckett, David L. John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., general ed. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2005.


1J. I. Packer, “Foreword,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), p.x-xii.

2Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past & Present (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p.177.

3John T. McNeill, “Introduction,” to John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), see xxxiii-xxxix for a historical treatment of the various editions; D. G. Hart, “The Reformer of Faith and Life,” in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Orlando, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), p.45-46 for a good summary of the expansion of the Institutes; see also Derek W. H. Thomas, “Who was John Calvin?” in ibid., p.23 describing the first edition as “a pocket-sized companion to theology.”

4Bray, Biblical Interpretation, p.201; John L. Thompson, “Calvin, John,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, general ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2005), p.96.

5Steven J. Lawson, “The Preacher of God’s Word” in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, p.73.

6See Bray, Biblical Interpretation, p.203-4.

7Lawson, in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, p.73.

8Bray, Biblical Interpretation, p.179.

9Quoted in Thompson, in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation, p.96.

10Thomas, in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, p.20-21.

11Bray, Biblical Interpretation, p.178.

12“Cajoled” puts it too kindly. See Thomas, in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, p.23-24.

13Cf. Gerald Bray, “Allegory,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation, p.34-36.

14Thompson, in ibid., p.96, Calvin is quoted herein; see also David L. Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p.25-37.

15Bray, Biblical Interpretation, p.202-203.

16Thompson, in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation, p.96.

17T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1986), p.80-82.

18Quoted in Ibid., 47 (Parker included some Latin phrases in parentheses).

19Ibid., 51-52. “Apparently” added to reflect a nuance suggested by Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis, p.38-40. Calvin thought the OT saint could see beyond the form of the promise to the reality. Puckett repeats Parker’s discussion (from p.51-55) on p.40-43.

20Thompson, in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation, p.96.

21Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis, p.14-16.

22Bray, DM926, “History of Biblical Interpretation,” [lecture] (16 Oct 2013) Knox Theological Seminary.

23Bray, Biblical Interpretation, p.177.

24Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis, p.52-53, 55-57, 82-84.

25Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis, p.51, n.110. He quotes Battles saying any analysis of Calvin’s exegesis without looking at accommodation would be unfinished.

26Calvin, Institutes, 2.11.13

27Parker, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries, p.99-100; cf. Institutes, 1.14.3.

28Parker, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries, p.100; Cf. Murray A. Rae, “Anthropomorphism,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible.

29For example, Forstman’s critique in Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis, p.11.

30Bray, Biblical Interpretation, p.201-204.

31Thomas, in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, see p.29, n.6 for a bibliographical list of interpreters presenting different views on dating it.

32Ibid., 22-23.

33Thomas, in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, p.22, 26; and Harry L. Reeder, “The Churchman of the Reformation,” in ibid., p.58.

34Bray, Biblical Interpretation, p.178.

35Ibid., seep.178-9 for a chart of the dates for Calvin’s commentaries, sermons, and lectures.

36Parker, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries, p.10.

37John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, vol.3, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, available from, accessed 17 Oct 2013. Spelling updated.

38Bray, Biblical Interpretation, p.178.

39Calvin, Institutes, 2.5.8, cf. 2.5.12, 3.3.6, 4.16.3, and 4.16.20.

40John Calvin, The Sermons of M. John Calvin upon the Fifth Booke of Moses called Deuteronomie…, trans. by Arthur Golding (London: Printed by Henry Middleton, 1583), reprinted facsimile (Oxford: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), p.1052-1058. Spelling updated.

This was originally written as an essay for Gerald Bray’s History of Biblical Interpretation class.

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