Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism

| By Pete Enns

For a better understanding of this on-going series on "Evolution and Our Theological Traditions" and how it relates to BioLogos' discussions on science and faith, please see the introduction to the series here.


Calvinism has been a dominant Protestant theological tradition since its teachings were first systematically articulated by John Calvin (1509-64). Many, both Calvinists and others, would argue that there is no more intellectually potent tradition to come out of the Protestant Reformation, and not without reason. It is known for its intellectual depth and detailed argumentation, and has for these reasons had a strong influence on the development of Protestant thinking. Thus it is reasonable for us to begin our discussions here, for some of the issues we lay out with respect to Calvinism will be repeated in one form or another in other traditions (though not all) through to Evangelicalism today.

We will focus on Calvinism and the Bible. Specifically, we will begin today to look at how Calvin approached the task of biblical interpretation.

One way to focus our task further is to ask what was distinctive about how Calvin handled Scripture in his time. I think there are two distinctive elements: emphasis on the grammatical-historical dimension of Scripture, and the expectation that Christ is the central subject of Scripture. As we will see, these two elements can sometimes be in tension, but Calvin was nevertheless committed to them and expounded them with great insight.

Certainly Calvin’s view of Scripture could also be described by familiar concepts such as inspiration, infallibility, biblical authority, etc., but these are not what set Calvin and his followers apart from other traditions. I do not mean to suggest that Calvin held property rights to grammatical-historical interpretation or Christ-centeredness of Scripture. But, these were a focus of Calvin’s thinking more so than in other traditions.

One way to see these distinctives at work is to looks at how Calvin handled three issues of his day: (1) his reaction to Catholic and Anabaptist views; (2) literal vs. allegorical interpretation; and (3) accommodation and typology. We will look at the first of these today.

Calvin on Catholic and Anabaptist Interpretation

Calvin had rather harsh words for both Catholic and Anabaptist interpretation of the Bible. I do not agree personally with Calvin’s rhetoric on this topic, but if we look beyond it, we will see something of Calvin’s distinctives, which is our goal.

According to Calvin, Anabaptists and Catholics were both guilty of "Judaizing” Scripture—an unfortunate term that clearly echoes Paul’s energetic denunciation of the so-called Judaizers in Galatians. What Calvin meant was that both of these groups failed to read the Old Testament in light of the coming of Christ. However, these two groups accomplished their Judaizing in two opposite ways.

Calvin argued that Catholics made the mistake of subordinating the New Testament message to that of the Old Testament. This implied for Calvin that the Old Testament was of a higher authority than the New Testament, and so, in substance, was no different than Jewish exegesis. In fact, in his polemics against the Catholic Church, Calvin even went so far as to refer to their theologians as “those rabbis.”

One example may help illustrate. The Catholic justification for priestly vestments was rooted in the Old Testament, for example the priestly regulations governing the tabernacle in the book of Exodus (chapter 25 and following). Calvin saw this as evidence of a Catholic tendency (or any liturgically-minded tradition) to read the Old Testament as a standard for Christian practice. In doing so, Calvin argued, Catholics either reject or at least subordinate the New Testament teaching (for example, in Hebrews) that the person and work of Christ renders null and void the legitimacy of these Old Testament regulations. (One might wonder if Calvin’s strong views on the Sabbath suggest an inconsistency on his part, but that is neither here nor there for our topic.)

Hence, in Calvin’s eyes, Catholics were guilty of Judaizing by elevating the Old Testament to an authoritative standard of religious practice even when the New Testament nullifies those practices. For Calvin, Catholics missed the point of the gospel. Of course, lying not too far beneath the surface of this rhetoric was the climate of deep suspicion and animosity in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Theological debates about Scripture never happen in a vacuum, which participants of the science/faith discussion today can readily attest to.

By contrast, the Anabaptists were guilty of the opposite extreme. They were so intent on reading the Old Testament in light of the New that they lost sight of the distinctiveness of God’s revelation in the period before the coming of Christ. As Calvin saw it, Anabaptists saw no role for the Old Testament in the life of the believer. Hence, Anabaptists “Judaized” the Old Testament by restricting its relevance to Judaism.

For example, Anabaptists argued that the Patriarchs partook merely of earthly blessings, e.g. the promise of possessions, land, and children. In response Calvin argued that the New Testament itself presents the Gospel of grace as being available by faith proleptically but in reality in the Old Testament—in which Calvin is following Paul's presentation of Abraham's faith in Romans 4. Anabaptists, although claiming the name of Christ, were actually Jewish in their interpretation of the Old Testament by failing to follow the lead of the New Testament.

To put it another way, Anabaptists held to a rigid promise-fulfillment scheme of the two testaments. The OT wasmerely promise. In other words, there was no actual salvation in the OT, since it was promise. The fulfillment came with Christ. In rejecting this view, Calvin argued that the OT believer actually partook of the blessings in Christ, albeit proleptically, but still in reality.

To summarize, Catholics Judaized the OT by putting it on a level higher than that of the NT. Anabaptists Judaized the OT by rendering it irrelevant to the Church, i.e., by relinquishing it to Judaism.

Whether or not Calvin was entirely correct in his estimations, his hermeneutic was an attempt to balance these two extremes. Against the Anabaptists, he wanted to give the Old Testament its due recognition as divine revelation that pointed to the Gospel. Against the Catholics, he refrained from elevating the Old Testament to the status of guide for interpreting the New.

This attempt to achieve balance also lead to some tensions in Calvin’s hermeneutic, and watching him work them out will give us a clearer picture of what he and his tradition have bequeathed to subsequent generations and centuries. We will return to this in my next post.


About the Author

Pete Enns

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.