John Calvin and Theological Exegesis

Repost on John Calvin number six.

Randall Zachman makes a great point in highlighting Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between Biblical exegesis/interpretation and “Sound theology”/dogma:

. . . The Institutes and the commentaries are intended by Calvin to open access to Scripture for future pastors, whereas the catechism and the weekly sermons are meant to open access to Scripture for members of the congregation. For Calvin, the proper understanding of Scripture depends on familiarity both with the summary of the rudiments of doctrine and with Scripture itself. Those who lack this kind of training, even though they are expert in the Hebrew language, will inevitably misunderstand Scripture. “But it generally happens with men who are not exercised in the Scripture, nor imbued with sound theology, although well acquainted with the Hebrew language, yet hallucinate and fall into mistakes even in first rudiments.” [Calvin’s Comm. on Ps. 73:26] As a teacher and preacher, Calvin sought to exercise his students in Scripture and imbue them with sound theology; . . . [brackets mine] (Randall C. Zachman, “John Calvin As Teacher, Pastor, And Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought,” 108)

This is what dawned on me somewhere between Bible College and Seminary. When I went to Bible College I was full of the idealism that I was going to learn the Biblical languages (so I minored in NT Greek), and thus be able to thoroughly understand and interpret the concepts and doctrine of Scripture (on that basis alone). What I began to realize, as I did syntactical analysis, is that even knowing the “languages,” I still had to make interpretive decisions (even in doing translation work — from the Greek to English). So I went on to seminary and did a Masters thesis which was an “exegetical/language” based thesis (on I Corinthians) — although my passage was really inspired by Martin Luther’s theology of the cross — and I took further language classes (like Hebrew and Greek); but this time it was alongside historical theology (not just systematic like in the undergrad). Anyway, what I’m getting at, and what has led me down the path I’ve been on now since seminary, is the point Zachman is highlighting on Calvin’s thinking. That is that just knowing the Biblical languages isn’t enough. Every Biblical exegete operates and moves within a theological milieu or system; and this “system” is going to impact the way that particular exegete makes his/her interpretative decisions as they approach the text of Scripture (it’s just how it is). So what motivates me is to engage the implications, the “inner logic” of Scripture (e.g. deal with the underlying theological framework that the Scripture writers and Apostles assume in their largely occasional writings) so that I am aware of what is informing my “interpretive decisions” as I approach the text. I think this is what Calvin was on about, and I think it’s something we all need to be mindful of as we endeavor to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, working through the dogmatic concepts implied by the text and Christ’s life is not just a negative concern (my point above: e.g. “so that I am aware of what is informing my ‘interpretive decision'”), but there is a very positive side to doing the “inner logic” stuff too. And that is that we become aware of the implied intentions of the particular writers and Holy Spirit as we engage the text of Scripture. In short, we become quickly aware that the canon of Scripture has a very Trinitarian/cruciformed-christoformed shape to it. The grammar and syntax of the text is really only intended to be in service to this undeniable and great reality: Jesus Christ!

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; . . . ” ~John 5.39 (NASBU)


2 thoughts on “John Calvin and Theological Exegesis

  1. This actually makes for a good criticism of Dunn’s Christology in the Making, which I’ve had the pleasure of reading recently for a doctoral seminar. He lost his way on more than one occasion in that volume.


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