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John Calvin's Hermeneutical Perspective
John Calvin is remembered as a French theologian and reformer. He was born in Noyon, Picardy, in 1509 and died in 1564, aged fifty-two. His writings greatly influenced the Reformation and Protestantism generally.
Calvin was brought up as a middle-class Roman Catholic. He had scholastic leanings, was interested in literature and wanted to study theology, which he began in 1523 at the University of Paris, supporting himself by working as a Chaplain in the Noyon Cathedral. However, his lawyer father wanted him to study law, so he changed to that discipline in 1528. After his father died three years later he began to study Greek at a college noted for its humanistic leanings.
Around this time he had a spiritual experience and converted to Protestantism. He believed himself to be chosen by God to implement world spiritual reformation. His ideas were considered to be heretical and in 1533 he had to flee from Paris; later twenty-four others were burned at the stake for their beliefs.
In March, 1536, his 'Institutes of the Christian Religion' was published in Basel. Four months later he went to Geneva and was invited by Guillaume Farel to assist in organizing the Reformation there. In May monasteries had been dissolved and mass abolished; Farel and Calvin wanted the clergy to control the city. Calvin advocated several strict reforms, including excommunication and compulsory church attendance. However, many considered these too severe and in 1538 those advocating milder reform with the magistrates controlling the clergy won. Farel and Calvin fled to Strasbourg. Here he was a Minister and theological lecturer for three years.
During this time his reputation grew as an educator, author and preacher. He had many followers but even they saw some of his hermeneutical perspectives as controversial. He had contributed to the removal of the influence of the Pope in Geneva and it disturbed his followers when he claimed to be the sole authority in deciding what constituted true Christianity.
Never-the-less, Calvin was one of the most influential writers and exegetes of the Reformation. Much of his work has retained a lasting significance in the history of both Biblical hermeneutics and of the Protestant Church.
Calvin's Influence Continues Today
Calvin's Major Works
Among others, there are two major works of Calvin that continue to be influential in the area of Biblical hermeneutics.
- The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This was published in March, 1536. It became a definitive authority, establishing important non-Lutheran Protestant fundamental principles in Western European churches.
- Commentaries. Calvin's commentaries constituted a major part of his writing. These works covered his exegetical interpretation of almost all the books of the Bible in great detail.
Influences on Calvin's Interpretation
Undoubtedly Calvin was influenced by his family who intended him for an ecclesiastical career in the Roman Catholic Church. He studied theology for five years, then changed to the law, but five years later broke away from the Catholic Church.
- The Classics: Like Luther, Calvin read widely and was influenced by the Greek and Roman philosophers, especially Plato, and this is evident in his work.
- Philology: Again like Luther, Calvin studied Hebrew and this gave him a strong basis for examining the Bible texts, providing one of the Reformation's most notable contributions to Biblical hermeneutics. He was deeply interested in the intended meaning of the words and his writing shows great insight into the problems of exegesis.
Calvin as Exegete
Calvin is often seen as the founder of modern exegesis. He recognized the continuity between the prophesies and the lives of God's people in the Old Testament, their fulfillment in Jesus and the people's lives the New Testament, carrying on until the present.
Briefly, his views on some aspects of interpretation cover areas such as allegory, historical illumination, textual problems and the church.
- Allegory: Calvin rejects allegory, stating that the Bible is literal, but he uses allegory when he wants to relate Old Testament texts to Jesus when it does not appear in the literal meaning.
- Historical Illumination: Calvin saw historical illumination as a way to use grammatical and historical relevance to prepare the text for theological exegesis while avoiding logic and rigidity.
- Textual Problems: Calvin was aware of problems in the text and sought to find solutions but these did not always endure the test of time.
- The Church as Interpreter: Calvin held that the church held authority as interpreter, but that was subservient to the revelation of God.
In his interpretation of Scripture Calvin formulated a theological system based upon that of Luther. This included the denial of free will, justification by faith without works and Scripture as the only rule of faith.
Scripture as the only rule of faith. Calvin extends this doctrine so that faith is founded on the Word of God speaking to the heart through the Holy Spirit.
To Luther's system, Calvin added doctrines of grace, salvation and predestination.
The Influence of Calvin's Perspectives
Although the area where Calvin preached and wrote was not large his influence right from the Reformation to the present day has been quite extensive.
- The Church of England: In 1552, when Cranmer revised his original 1549 English Prayer Book, it showed the influence of Calvin in the theology and in austerity of worship. Later, under the influence of the Calvinists, Elizabeth I's first parliament chose Cranmer's 1552 Prayer Book and preserved his rather Puritan Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
- Other Protestant Churches: Calvin is recognized as the most influential writer of the reformers among the non-Lutheran churches. Karl Barth was a Swiss follower of both St. Augustine and Calvin. The Calvinistic tradition led to many misunderstandings and excesses but also continues to influence Christian thinking.
Calvin's Contribution to Biblical Hermeneutics
John Calvin contributed much to the history of Biblical hermeneutics. However, his writings should be considered critically as there are errors and dogmatic traditions which have been superseded by more recent discoveries and exegetics.
On the positive side, he created renewed interest in hermeneutics and it is thought that some modern commentaries could benefit from emulating his scientific methods and insights. By studying the writings of both Luther and Calvin we can deepen our respect for what is holy and ways in which present day hermeneutics could be enriched.
Other Articles on Biblical Hermeneutics
- Biblical Hermeneutics and Culture
Discusses the influence of culture on Biblical interpretation through the ages.
- St. Augustine's Contribution to Biblical Hermeneutics
Discusses the influence of the writings of St. Augustine on Biblical hermeneutics and the church.
- Hermeneutical Practice in the New Testament
Discusses the hermeneutical practice of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament in their reference to the Scriptures of the Old Testament.