This post was originally published as part of Pete Enns' series on Calvinism.
In my last post, we saw that Calvin prized a grammatical-historical approach to reading the Old Testament. Such an approach, he felt, was a needed corrective to allegorical interpretation. The latter did not pay its due respect to the revelatory nature of the Old Testament in its original context, and so obscured the gospel message found there.
Calvin, however, being a keen observer of the New Testament, observed what even casual readers of the New Testament have seen: the New Testament authors do not always follow the intention of the Old Testament writers. In other words, they do not necessarily follow a grammatical-historical approach.
Because of this curious circumstance, Calvin argued for a unity in the Bible in something other than a grammatical-historical manner. He employed two concepts that work together and are very much part of our vocabulary today: accommodation and typology.
These concepts were Calvin’s way of respecting the climactic word of God in Christ without dismissing the Old Testament context. Seeing them at work shows something of Calvin’s theological sensitivity even where maintaining this balance creates interesting tensions.
Accommodation and Typology
Calvin’s embrace of a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, ironically, led him to reject time honored Christological interpretations of certain texts.
One example is the Hebrew word for God, elohim. This word is plural in form, and so many Christian interpreters had previously understood elohim as a reference to the Trinity. But Calvin thought that reading the Trinity into this plural word was frivolous and did not agree with the “natural” sense of the word as it is used throughout the Old Testament.
Ironically, it was just such a contextually sensitive approach to Old Testament interpretation that led some of Calvin’s opponents to accuse him of Judaizing! After all, if Calvin was so concerned about reading the Old Testament as a Christian book (as he claimed), why did he reject other people’s Christological interpretations? He did so because while reading elohim as a reference to the Trinity may be Christological, it was nevertheless wholly out of sync with how the word functions in context.
But this raises a big question: if Calvin rejected this kind of Christological interpretation, how did he read Christ in the Old Testament at all? How did he go about seeing Christ’s presence in the Old Testament on the one hand, while at the same time interpreting the Old Testament grammatical-historically?
This is where the two related ideas of accommodation and typology come in, and with these two ideas we really arrive at the heart of Calvin’s approach to Old Testament interpretation.
According to Calvin, accommodation is a pedagogical tool, so to speak, that God employs to communicate to human beings. God is infinite, and we are finite. God has complete knowledge, and we see only partially. This is even more so in light of sin: the gulf between God and us is greater still.
Therefore, if God wishes to speak to us, he must bridge this gulf by descending into our world and speaking our language. In other words, God accommodates himself to our ability to comprehend. This is what Calvin famously refers to as God’s “lisping.” He talks to his people as a father would talk to his young children. He speaks in ways that we understand.
Two brief examples will illustrate this point. First of all, God accommodates himself in his creation. We cannot observe God’s “naked essence,” as Calvin puts it—that is always hidden from his creatures. We cannot behold God directly. But we can see his glory through his creation. God speaks to us in ways that we can understand.
Another example, and by far the most important, is Christ himself. This is God’s ultimate act of accommodation. Jesus is fully God, yet he is fully human as well. There is no more direct way for God to speak to us than by becoming one of us.
Like creation and Christ, the Old Testament is an example of God accommodating himself to speak to ancient Israelites. Throughout the Old Testament, God was speaking in ways that the Israelites in their time and place could understand. This is why there are many elements of God’s revelation in the Old Testament that are very similar to what we find among Israel’s neighbors. In fact, as is well known, there is hardly a single element of Israelite culture that does not reflect well-established practices (e.g., sacrificial systems, priests, temples, kings, prophets, law codes, wisdom sayings).
But this does not mean that God, in accommodating himself in the Old Testament, was merely “reacting” to the culture. Rather, embedded (so to speak) in these cultural structures was their ultimate focus: Christ. And this is where the notion of typology comes in.
For example, God accommodated himself in the Old Testament sacrificial system. But, according to Calvin, God did so not merely to fit into the surrounding ancient Near Eastern environment. Rather, he did so because the idea of sacrifice is woven into creation to prefigure the sacrifice of Christ, an idea that is then parodied by other ancient cultures. Likewise, the temple as the dwelling place of God’s glory prefigures Christ in whom the fullness of God’s glory dwells.
Another way of putting this is that all cultures have in some sense God’s ultimate Christ-centered purpose “built in” to them. It is in this sense that Calvin can say Christ is truly “in” the Old Testament, even if his Old Testament presence is only a shadowy anticipation of the real thing.
Typology refers to the presence in seed form in the Old Testament (through sacrifice, temple, etc.) of what will later become a New Testament, in-Christ, full-flowered reality. That is how Calvin read the Old Testament respecting the original context while at the same time seeing that God’s accommodation to the Old Testament world is ultimately forward-looking.
This quick sketch does not do full justice to Calvin, but even so there are tensions in Calvin’s hermeneutic that may not be adequately worked out. Indeed, perhaps these could not be worked out during his historical moment, but the more generous point to note is that Calvin even attempted to work through these tensions at all.
Still, at times Calvin found himself in a hermeneutical dilemma. For Calvin, the Holy Spirit must be regarded as an authoritative guide to the meaning of the Old Testament. But Calvin also conceded that the New Testament writers sometimes appear to twist (his word, albeit in Latin) the Old Testament to meanings that are foreign to the original writer's intention.
He sometimes solved the difficulty by arguing that it was not always the intent of the New Testament writers to interpret the Old Testament texts that they cited. Sometimes they used the Old Testament for illustrative, or “pious” purposes (e.g., Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 (preceding 7 verses provided for context)). Of course, one wonders how Calvin could know what the writers’ purposes were, but the principle remains all the same. No interpretive errors are made if no interpretation is taking place.
Sometimes, however, Calvin did believe that, even in their forced use of the Old Testament, the New Testament writers intended to interpret the Old Testament (e.g., Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17). In such cases he allowed the New Testament to inform him about what the Old Testament writer may have understood and intended.
This solution is ad hoc, however, and is in considerable tension with Calvin’s commitment to grammatical-historical interpretation: he is making a final interpretive judgment by appealing to something that is beyond the context of that passage and even in tension with that passage.
As I said, this is a tension all interpreters have to live with, and what is quite refreshing is that Calvin bothered to engage the issue at all.