Thursday, March 5, 2015

John Calvin and the Parables (part 2)


Calvin’s literary and rhetorical sensibilities allowed him to recognize the great power of parables and other figurative language. His theological sensibilities, however, led him to recognize that such figurative language could be a two-edged sword: the truth of God could shine brightly upon the elect through the parables, but their obscurity leads to their “light [being] choked by the darkness of men.” Parables thus “might only strike [the reprobates’] ears with a confused and doubtful sound (see also Flaming 148).
           
Like Luther, Calvin usually rejects allegorical interpretations of the parables. As is clear in the examples I will give in this series of posts, his approach in this commentary is to begin interpreting a parable by stating the central point that Jesus seeks to make through the parable. Calvin quotes the texts that he seeks to interpret; then he speaks briefly about the parable as a whole and its overall meaning, before beginning a verse-by-verse exposition of the parable. His goal, once again, is to explore the meaning that Jesus himself wanted to convey. Here, for example, is Calvin’s introduction to his verse-by-verse explanation of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (see also Flaming 148-9):

Though this exhortation—as will appear from the conclusion of it—has nearly the same object with the former, yet it is properly added, in order to confirm believers in perseverance. Our Lord knew how strongly the nature of men is inclined to idleness, and how, for the most part, they not only grow weary after a great lapse of time, but give way through sudden dislike. To remedy this disease, he taught his disciples that they were not duly fortified, unless they had sufficient perseverance for a long period. When this is ascertained to be the design of the parable, we ought not to trouble ourselves much with minute investigations, which have nothing to do with what Christ intended. Some people give themselves a good deal of uneasiness about the lamps, the vessels, and the oil; but the plain and natural meaning of the whole is, that it is not enough to have ardent zeal for a short time, if we have not also a constancy that never tires. And Christ employs a very appropriate parable to express this. A little before, he had exhorted the disciples, that as they had a journey to perform through dark and dreary places, they should provide themselves with lamps; but as the wick of the lamp, if it be not supplied with oil, gradually dries up, and loses its brightness, Christ now says, that believers need to have incessant supplies of courage, to support the flame which is kindled in their hearts, otherwise their zeal will fail ere they have completed the journey.

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