Calvin’s Preaching: Faithful to the Meaning of the Text

Calvin decried allegorical interpretation, which later brought him under the scornful accusations of the Lutherans who would charge him with undercutting the Scriptures with his historical method. But to Calvin, the original, historical meaning of a passage was the meaning of the passage.

He had little patience with those who read meanings, even Christological ones, into texts where they didn’t belong. While defending the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper against the Lutherans and the Catholics, Calvin states boldly,

Nay, their supine security proves that they do not greatly care what Christ meant, provided it furnishes them with a shield to defend their obstinacy, while our careful investigation should be an evidence of the authority which we yield to Christ. The only question here is, whether it be unlawful to inquire into the genuine meaning.[1]

To remain faithful to the meaning of Scripture, Calvin even refused to interpret Christologically many texts that church and synagogue had traditionally considered to be messianic. These include Genesis 3:15; Numbers 23:21; Psalms 46, 61, 76, 80, 89, 93, 99; Isaiah 41:2-4; 42:5-9; 45:1-7; Jeremiah 30:4-6; Joel 2:23; Haggai 2:6-8, 18; Malachi 2:17; 4:4-6.[2]

Although in many of these cases Calvin does go on to explain some manner of Christological promise/fulfillment, he justifies his reasoning by saying,

Subtle speculations please at first sight, but afterwards vanish. Let every one, then, who desires to be proficient in the Scriptures always keep to this rule – to gather from the Prophets and Apostles only what is solid.

Because of Calvin’s focus on understanding the Scriptures in light of their original historical context, Phillip Schaff referred to him as “the founder of historical-grammatical exegesis.”[3]

Calvin was so certain of the sovereignty and supremacy of God’s revelation that he did not feel the need to add anything to the text, he only had to explain it properly and the text would bear witness to God’s divine plan.[4]

[1] Calvin, Institutes, vol. 2, 575 (IV:xvii:22).
[2] Pieter A. Vierhoef, “Calvyn oor Messiasverwagting in die Ou Testament,” Nederduitse Gereformeerde Teologiese Tydskrif, as cited in Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 138, n. 109.
[3] Cited in Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 130, n. 80.
[4] See Brevard Child’s comment in Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 130.

About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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