Calvin the Exegete

In Richard Muller’s helpful article entitled “Calvin’s Exegesis of Old Testament Prophecies” he summarizes the great Reformer’s approach and in doing so touches on why I find Calvin so refreshing and clear-headed.

For all its deep interest in literal meaning and historical context, Calvin’s exegetical method stands in an intellectual and theological continuity with earlier Reformation models and, through them, with some of the basic interests of medieval exegesis. The underlying structure of promise and fulfillment that gave a certain rigor of interpretation to the fourfold exegesis and to the double-literal and literal-prophetic models remained prominent in Calvin’s though, nor did he shun the typological thinking underlying the hermeneutic of promise and fulfillment. Where Calvin follows and develops the earlier Reformation models, he tends to look more closely at the primary literal meaning of the text as a means to overcome rampant allegory. His sense of history and of historical example may be viewed as a development of Melancthon’s emphases. None of the exegetes–Luther, Oecolampadius, Melancthon, and Calvin–wanted to lose the flexibility of reference available to the allegorical method: the text must be allowed to speak to the church. Calvin’s explicit use of rhetorical categories like synechdoche or complexus may in this context be seen as a shifting of the mode of analysis out of an allegorical or literal-spiritual mode (which postulated more than one sensus of a given text) to a rhetorical mode in which one sensus could nevertheless point toward multiple referents.

These considerations bring us back, at a slightly more sophisticated level, to our opening caveat: The wedge driven between Calvin and modern “critical” method cannot be affirmed at the expense of the unity of Calvin’s hermeneutic…Calvin’s exegesis does represent a more textually, grammatically, and historically oriented hermeneutic, but it remains within the bounds of a hermeneutical approach in which the final implication of any text is determined by the broader context of promise, fulfillment, and the ongoing history of God’s people.

(Richard A Muller, “The Hermeneutic of Promise and Fulfillment in Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament Prophecies of the Kingdom,” The Bible in the Sixteenth Century [ed. David C. Steinmetz; Durham, N.C.: Duke, 1990], 81-82)

I often find Calvin to be surprisingly sophisticated in his exegesis, while maintaining a high view of the text and a mind for theological application. It is what leads him to clear opinions like this one regarding “the star of the morning” or “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14:12:

The exposition of this passage, which some have given, as if it referred to Satan, has arisen from neglect of ignorance; for the context plainly shows that these statements must be understood in reference to the king of the Babylonians.  But when passages of Scripture are taken up at random, and no attention is paid to the context, we need not wonder that mistakes of this frequently arise.  Yet it was an instance of very gross ignorance, to imagine that Lucifer was the king of devils, and that the Prophet gave him this name.  But as these inventions have no probability whatever, let us pass by them as useless fables.

(John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  Vol. I., 442.)

May all biblical commentators be so vivid in their application.