Last week we looked at the first of three distinctive elements in Calvin’s approach to biblical interpretation. We saw how Calvin understood his place as a middle way between the two “Judaizing” approaches of Catholics and Anabaptists.
Calvin’s assessment of these two traditions has to be understood in terms of his own moment in history, and what he has to say about these two traditions can hardly be taken as the final word.
What his assessment shows us, however, is Calvin’s commitment to allow the voice of the Old Testament to speak while also allowing the New Testament to have the final word. Calvin is clearly committed to finding some balance between the beliefs that (1) all Scripture is revelatory and therefore is to be respected, and (2) that revelation ultimately finds its fullest expression in the gospel.
In other words: Calvin sought to respect the context of the Old Testament while also realizing that Christ makes a difference in how one appropriates the Old Testament. This, I would suggest, is an unavoidable tension for all Christian readers, and it comes to bear on the science/faith discussion (i.e., how to read Genesis), which we will get to after we look at the next two distinctive of Calvin’s hermeneutic. We turn to the second of those distinctives below.
Literalism vs. Allegorical Interpretation: the Importance of Grammatical-Historical interpretation
The issue before Calvin was how to read the Old Testament without giving in to the “Judaizing” extremes that he saw in Catholicism and the Anabaptists. His approach wass what we might call “grammatical-historical” today. This is not a term that Calvin would have recognized, but the idea was certainly familiar to him. In fact, Calvin’s attention to both the historical circumstances of the Old Testament and to the Hebrew grammar was as rigorous as one would find among his contemporaries.
It is worth noting that Calvin felt it important to address the historical context of Scripture as a way of grounding a text’s interpretation. Of course, Calvin’s understanding of the ancient world was minimal at best—much of the context of Scripture we take for granted today was unknown to him. Still, Calvin had keen historical instincts owing to his humanist training, which sought to rediscover the cultural values and norm of antiquity. This included a study of the original languages of texts. Calvin applied this same mindset to Scripture.
Put differently, this first question to be asked of the Old Testament was not “What does this mean for me?” or even “What does this mean in light of Christ?” Rather, the first question was “What did this mean in the original setting in which God’s revelation was given?” How that original context then relates to the Christological context and personal application is another matter, one that introduces some tensions, as already mentioned and which we will get to in time.
Calvin’s commitment to historical and grammatical contexts led him to arrive at interpretive conclusions that were not always in sync with his Christian contemporaries. For example, in his Genesis commentary (on 1:6 concerning the firmament), Calvin famously quipped, “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” Calvin simply meant that, given its moment in history, Genesis does not teach astronomy, but rather speaks in such a way that everyone at all times can relate to: no scientific conclusions should be deduced from this description of the cosmos. In Genesis, the cosmos is described as it was seen by ancient peoples, not as it is scientifically.
Similarly, Calvin’s comment on Hosea 6:7 shows his attention to grammatical context. In this verse we have the lone reference to Adam outside of Genesis (with the exception of 1 Chronicles 1:1)—specifically, a reference to Israel breaking the covenant “like” Adam. The Hebrew could be understood as “like Adam”, meaning the person, or “as at Adam”, meaning a geographic location.
The fact that the passage continues by referring back to “Adam” by the adverb “there,” and also mentions Shechem and Bethel as other locations of rebellion, made the matter clear for Calvin: Adam is a place, not a person. It is very tempting to find here the lone Old Testament reference to Adam’s rebellion in the Garden, but Calvin would have none of it and seemed to lose patience with those who insisted on reading the person Adam into Hosea 6:7. Such a reading, Calvin wrote, is “frigid and diluted” and “vapid,” not worthy even of refutation.
Paying attention to the historical and grammatical context of the Old Testament sometimes led Calvin to bucking the trend. Most clearly this pertains to Calvin’s disdain for allegory. Since the examination of context was foundational to Calvin, he had no place for allegory, which he felt was arbitrary.
Calvin was not unique in his rejection of allegory (given the general “humanistic” climate mentioned above), but that rejection was still somewhat against the mainstream of the day. Allegory in the church is rooted in Origen (185-254) and was a common approach to biblical interpretation throughout much the 1500 years prior to Calvin (including Paul, see Galatians 4:21-31). But Calvin’s concern was that allegory downplayed the Christ-centered message of the Old.
Calvin felt that by divorcing Scripture from history (as allegory tends to do) the truth and reality of the gospel was in danger—which is a great irony, since allegorical interpretation arose precisely to advance Christological readings of Scripture.
Further, allegory took the Bible out of the hands of the people and into the hands of experts. Only those with literary sensitivity and training could see the deeper allegorical meanings in the text. Although here too is an irony, since a historically responsible handling of the Bible requires its own kind of expertise (e.g., knowing Greek and Hebrew), and the subjectivity of allegory actually made it more available to the uneducated.
In any event, Calvin’s grammatical-historical approach was a move to respect the context of Scripture, and so he saw himself as correcting the allegorical tradition of early and medieval exegesis. A contextual reading for Calvin was a necessary first step to mining Scripture in his theology. This is certainly understandable today—even instinctual—but it also introduced a tension for Calvin that we can see him working out here and there: the New Testament authors do not always seem rooted in the grammatical historical context of Scripture.
This problem led Calvin to the twin concepts of accommodation and typology, which we will get to in the next post.
At this juncture, the question for us to be pondering is the role that context plays today in interpreting Scripture. Should the approach Calvin advocated be practiced today in view of the great wealth of historical information we have at our finger tips, even if that leads to non-traditional interpretations? In other words, can one take a grammatical-historical reading of Scripture too far?