Monday, March 2, 2015

John Calvin (1509–1564)

I must confess that I was not a big fan of John Calvin. After reading his Institutes of the Christian Religion many years ago, I was impressed by his brilliance but unconvinced by many aspects of his theology.

I gained a great deal of appreciation for Calvin, however, after reading some of his commentaries, beginning with his commentary on James. His interpretations are insightful if not brilliant. In his James commentary, for example, I especially appreciated Calvin's refusal to domesticate James's sayings about the wealthy and the poor (e.g., the "plain, decent folk," the "humble and obscure," and so forth). Calvin's commentaries are still well worth reading.

Although the focus in this blog is on the parables, I want to begin with a brief introduction to Calvin for those who need it:   

John Calvin was a pre-eminent Reformed theologian and biblical interpreter. He was born in Noyon, France, and, according to his father’s wishes, was educated in Paris. He initially studied theology, with a view toward a career in the service of the church, but in 1528, he instead started to study law at Orleans and Bourges. After a “sudden conversion,” to which he briefly alludes in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, he changed course and eventually was no longer “obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery” (Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms). Calvin fled Paris in 1533 and France in 1534, due to a threat of persecution against Protestants, and he arrived in Basel in 1535. After publishing the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, he was offered a position as a lecturer and preacher in Geneva, where he stayed for the rest of his life, except for a three-year exile as a pastor to the French congregation in Strasbourg (1538-41; CCEL). Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 and began working to establish his vision of the church and commonwealth in Geneva, where everyone is dedicated equally to the glory and service of God, but where both church and state had different areas of responsibility. 

Calvin’s influential commentaries on biblical books reflect include rhetorical, philological, and historical insights, and, in many ways, anticipate a historical-critical approach. The commentaries include references to philosophers, orators, poets, historians, and rhetoricians, as well as previous and contemporary interpreters of Scripture. Calvin believes that an interpreter should ascertain the “original” meaning of the text—in its literary and historical contexts—before applying the text to contemporary life (see McKim 2007: 291). In addition, Calvin believes that the “chief excellency of an expounder consists in lucid brevity” and the exegetical task is “to lay open the mind of the writer whom he undertakes to explain, the degree in which he leads away his readers from it, in that degree he goes astray from his purpose, and in a manner wanders from his own boundaries” (“The Epistle Dedicatory” to Romans; CCEL).

Calvin’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Three Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, and Luke (1555) was the last commentary on the New Testament that he wrote. This commentary provided an opportunity for Calvin to explore both how parables should be interpreted as well as the more basic questions as to why Jesus spoke in parables in the first place:

Now though parables are generally found to illustrate the subject of which they treat, yet the uninterrupted course of a metaphor may lead to obscurity. So then Christ, in delivering this parable, intended to wrap up, in an allegory, what he might have said more plainly and fully, without a figure. But now that the exposition is added, the figurative discourse has greater energy and force than if it had been simple: by which is meant, that it is not only fitted to produce a more powerful impression on the mind, but is also more clear. So highly important is the manner in which any thing is said.
The next post will introduce a bit more about Calvin's perspective on the parables and investigate what he has to say about the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. 

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