Entr’acte: Why Calvin, of all people?

Now that the commentary for Chapter 15 has been concluded, I realize it will take a certain amount of time to write the summary. This was a very long, and very rich chapter, with seemingly a myriad of themes requiring long, involved commentary. So bear with me. After this, Chapter 16 will be a breeze, and then we can move on to Matthew. I am very much looking forward to that.

In the meantime, during a chance meeting that resulted in a conversation in Starbucks, I was asked why I use Calvin’s Commentaries. It’s not like there haven’t been more written in the meantime. It’s certainly a legitimate question, and it’s especially a good one, so let me just say a few words about this. It deserves a discussion.

One reason, probably the primary reason, is that Calvin was, in my estimation, a theologian of the first order. Not only that, he was fearless. The idea of Predestination had been around since Augustine, but the Church had always refused to take the problem head-on. Calvin was not so squeamish. He grasped the nettle and said what had been unthinkable: that God created some people only to damn them. Now, I’m not saying I agree with him here, but such a ferocious attitude has to garner respect. He had the courage of conviction to follow his thought to its logical conclusion. This wasn’t original; the implication had been hanging there for a thousand years, and Wyclif really spoke the unspeakable first, but Calvin didn’t flinch from unpleasant implications, and he made his conclusions stick. As such, I wanted to see how he pursued the other aspects of his commentary.

Too, our methods of approach are very similar. He set out the Latin, translated it, and then commented. And he translates the Latin with knowledge of the Greek, even if he does not set this out in dual form the way I have. At the time he wrote, his audience was thoroughly familiar with the Latin Bible, but not so much with the Greek. That knowledge was around; Erasmus worked from the original Greek a few decades before Calvin, but knowledge of Greek was not yet widespread. He was concerned, first, with what the words said, and second–but not secondarily–with what they meant.

Finally, he was trained as a scholar the way I was trained. Of course, the depth of his knowledge far and away exceeds mine; he probably forgot more than I will ever know. But it’s the method he used. He obviously sat through seminar classes–and then taught them–like I did, in which the words were discussed in conjunction with their meaning. As such, I feel an affinity of mindset. The difference is that he was trained as a Biblical scholar, not as an historian. That profession scarcely existed in his time.

This difference in backgrounds is part, perhaps a major part, of the reason that I have come to very different conclusions, and for one very good reason. In his commentaries, in most commentaries, the text is compared to other texts in the Bible; the commentator seeks to bolster her reading by offering evidence from elsewhere, whether OT or NT. This is fine if one is conducting a theological inquiry. It will not do for an historical one. Especially for Paul, one cannot look at things written later–even later letters–and assume any sort of continuity. For historical purposes, to get at the historical implications of Paul’s words and thought, he has to be read in a vacuum, disregarding everything else in the NT. For none of it existed. Paul will be relevant for examination of later writers, but later writers cannot illuminate Paul. We will have to consider whether Paul influenced the later writers, but the evangelists did not influence Paul. Later writers will show us where the thought went as it developed, but they do not shed light onto the time and the thought milieu in which Paul wrote. So there, I must part ways with M Calvin. But I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent with him on the journey.

None of this is meant to imply that there is not a lot to be learned from other commentators. There certainly is. And I pick up things in sermons, too, and good things. This past Sunday’s sermon included the insight that the feeding of the 5,000 was the first church pot luck supper. Brilliant insight. I try to read as much as possible, but, unfortunately, given a day job and a family, what is possible does not always extend very far.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 9, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, epistles, General / Overview, Special topic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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