Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 2.18-20

1 Peter 2.18-20

[18] Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. [19] For it is commendable if you bear up under the pain of unjust suffering because you are conscious of God. [20] But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.



Calvin’s penchant for brevity has turned into something of an obstacle for us in this series. The dearth of material that he offers to us leads, in turn, to a dearth of material that I can offer to you my readers. And yet, we will not turn aside.


When undertaking Scriptural exegesis, there are two aspects of context to which one must give attention. First, there is the literary context, that is, one must consider the text that comes before and after the passage in question. There are varying sublevels here, beginning with the sentences prior or after, moving out to encompass whole chapters and books, further still to the Testament (Old or New) in question, and also to the entirety of the canon. At this point, consideration of context passes outside of the canon, and thus enters into its second aspect, namely, historical context. This includes such aspects as material, social and intellectual history. How much attention that an exegete can give to all thee varying levels of context is determined by skill, time, and goal. Why do I bring this up? In part because Calvin doesn’t give me much to work with here so I need something to talk about, but also because Calvin gives us brief examples of both of these aspects. He tells us that these verses are “connected with what is gone before, as well as the other things which follow,” and this helps us to see that we are concerned with “civil or social subjection,” as opposed to ontological subjection (one assumes). Calvin also, in his discussion of the relation of slaves and servants to masters, take into consideration the condition of this relationship “at that time” in an attempt to understand precisely what is demanded by this passage.


In the midst of his discussion, Calvin gives us a paragraph that is simply a gem. This kind of paragraph makes doing this kind of habitual reading in Calvin worthwhile (and imagine, you all get the benefit of my discipline in these matters!). What the TNIV gives us above in verse 18 as “those who are harsh” is translated by Calvin as “the forward”, which he takes to mean masters who are not “equitable or humane”. But, there is a variant (whether in the textual or in the interpretive tradition is hard to ascertain) here that Calvin notices where “forward” has been changed to “wayward”, which Calvin notes has been used by
“the Sorbons, who commonly understand by wayward, the dissolute or dissipated, were it not that they seek by this absurd rendering to build up for us an article of faith, that we ought to obey the Pope and his horned wild beasts, however grievous and intolerable a tyranny they may exercise. This passage, then shews how boldly they trifle with the Word of God.”
It is that last line, where Calvin attaches this variant linguistic rendering to trifling with the Word of God, that gets me. Classic!


Although it only pops up here and there, the center of Calvin’s interpretation of these admonitions seems to be the idea of ‘duty’. When speaking of the fear that should accompany submitting to masters, Calvin says that “fear arises from a right knowledge of duty” (and, thus, the TNIV rendering of “reverent fear” seems to hit the mark by Calvin’s standards). A little later Calvin writes that “one performs his duty, not from a regard to men, but to God.”

It seems to me, on the basis of my reading of Calvin (not just in this series but through the years) that ‘duty’ plays an important role in Calvin’s thought. It ties in with his notion of vocation, of Christian freedom, and a host of other topics. For Calvin, duty is central to freedom, for true freedom comes only through submission to the order established by God – freedom comes through doing our duty, we might say. It seems to me that our contemporary situation gets this relation between freedom and duty hopelessly wrong. Things like ‘duty’ or ‘responsibility’ are often seen as things that impede our freedom, and things that therefore should be cast off. But this is destructive self-servitude, not true freedom. True freedom is always ‘freedom for’ and never simply ‘freedom from’.


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