John Calvin as Old Testament Interpreter: A Bundle of Contradictions

The following excerpt hails from T. H. L Parker, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries (Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 6–7.

By the time Calvin began publishing his Old Testament commentaries, the pioneering work had been done and there was a fairly solid body of material at his disposal – quite good texts of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Bibles, some grammars and lexicons and concordances, and several “modern” commentaries, besides those of the Church fathers which had been edited and printed. Even when there were no modern works and scholars had to rely on classical or early Christian authors, these were now available in print. …

But we must approach any of these older Biblical writers in a spirit of sympathy and humility, not judging them ignorant and backward because they seem strange to us. To approach them in such a spirit of sympathy will mean, I think, that we shall be surprised, not only at their intellectual energy, their insights, their incredible knowledge of the Bible, but also at their whole approach of submissive reverence for Scripture, of eager search for truth, of confidence and certainty.

Of course, this was not true of all sixteenth century commentators. There were the barren rascals then just as now. But it is true of Calvin, all round the greatest of them all. Yet what strange medley we are going to meet in the following pages. Barth called Calvin ‘a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological.’ That is one side, and nowhere is it more true than in the Old Testament expositions. But there is another Calvin, a bourgeois, down to earth, common-sensical Calvin, and this Calvin, too, is very evident in the expositions. Indeed, the Calvin we encounter there is a bundle of contradictions. He will say the loveliest and the ugliest things (‘the Lord went to prison with him’ – ‘God never suffered any babies to be killed save those whom he had already reprobated and destined to eternal death’); he can be highly subtle (in literary criticism, say, or theological understanding) and unbelievably naïve (Noah’s Ark); he can interpret one passage with profound insight and another in the most mundane of ways.

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