Wednesday, December 09, 2009

2009 Westminster Conference Report (2): Don Carson on Calvin as commentator and theologian

Calvin as commentator and theologian
Don Carson
Carson is famed a New Testament scholar rather than a Calvin specialist. As he approached his subject he reminded us of the words of the 'famous American theologian', Clint Eastwood, "A man's got to know his limitations." But he suggested coming from his specialism he might be able to offer some fresh perspectives on the matter in hand.
Calvin was remarkable in that he was a systematician and a Bible commentator. Today's commentators are not often systematic theologians and many systematicians are not too hot on biblical exegesis. Much of what passes for systematic theology today is in fact historical theology where the views of figures from the past are compared and contrasted. Some systematics is more akin to philosophical theology, others give attention to prolegomena, but there are few biblically informed systematic theologies. Calvin however was a systematiser in the Institutes and a prolific biblical commentator. The Institutues and the commentaries fed off each other. In his preface to the Institutes, Calvin made it clear that his systematic work and the commentaries needed to be read together. He did not dilate on doctrinal points in his commentaries because he had dealt more fully with theological issues in the Institutes. As the Institutes expanded from the modest 1536 edition to its 1559 definitive form, it is possible to trace the impact of Calvin's exegetical work on his overarching theological system.
The term 'Biblical Theology' was first used in 1604 of a book full of proof texts for Lutheran orthodoxy. By the 18th century Biblical Theology denoted the study of the theology of the Bible in historical sequence. Under the influence of the Enlightenment, Biblical Theology fell under the spell of the history of religions school of thought. Today Biblical Theology tends to focus rather narrowly on the theology of John, Luke, Peter or 'Q' rather than looking at whole Bible Biblical Theology. Calvin was a 'whole Bible biblical theologian' and a systematic theologian.
Calvin criticized both Melanchthon and Bucer's approach to writing commentaries. 1) In his commentaries Melanchthon gave attention to the theological loci found in the text rather than the whole textual unit. 2) Melanchthon's loci were determined by Aristotelian philosophy. He did not follow the flow of the biblical text. Calvin's expositions followed the text wherever it led. 3) In Bucer we find both the loci approach and an exegesis of the text, making his commentaries massive, unreadable tomes. Calvin aimed at 'clear brevity' in his commentaries. Many of his commentaries were transcripts of his lectures on the Bible. He dealt with the loci in the Institutes.
The development of Calvin's thought can be noted as the Institutes expanded over the years. Material was added to sections on the knowledge of God and ourselves, justification, repentance, the likeness and dislikeness of Old and New Testaments, predestination, providence, the Christian life and monastic vows. His exegetical work influenced and enriched his treatment of these subjects.
Case Studies
Genesis 1 & 2
In the 1536 Institutes there is a lengthy discussion of the image of God under the heading of the knowledge of God and ourselves. In his Commentary of Genesis, he gives scant attention to the image of God.
Genesis 1:2 & 26
From the start the Institutes was thoroughly trinitarian, but Calvin was cautious about seeing the Trinity in the text of Genesis 1. In his commentary he does not draw trinitarian conclusions from the plural divine name Elohim or the use of "us" in Genesis 1:26. He knows very well that God is Trinity, but did not wish to dump his wider theological conclusions into every text of Scripture. Calvin was accused of being a Judaizer because of his reluctance to read truths only fully revealed in the New Testament back into the Old.
Calvin was a master of grammatico-historical exegesis. He eschewed Luther's more explicitly Christological approach to the Old Testament, refusing to read the Old Testament anachronistically.
Genesis 3
In the 1536 Institutes, Calvin spoke of the cancellation and effacement of the image of God due to the fall. As his work expanded he gave more attention to the matter of living for righteousness, with large a sections of Book III of the 1559 Institutes becoming in effect "A Little Book on the Christian Life". He has little to say about this in his commentary on Genesis 3.
Ten Commandments
Calvin wrote a Harmony of the last four books of Moses, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Here he follows a more loci-based approach rather than straight exposition. He gives a more lengthy discussion of the purpose of the law than we find in the Institutes. Unlike in his Harmony of the Gospels, his work on the Pentateuch does not follow the original order of events. The order is changed for the sake of theological emphasis. This more complex approach is partly due to the fact that the work was written rather than being based on his lectures.
In the Harmony his treatment of Exodus 20:1-17 is very much like that of his exposition of Deuteronomy 5 in his commentary on the last Book of Moses. But he comments on Exodus 20:18 first in order to set the scene. In the Harmony Calvin was attempting to provide a biblical theology of the Pentateuch.
1 Peter 2
In the 1536 Institutes, Calvin argued that there are three marks of a true Church, the right preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments and church discipline. Thereafter, while he emphasizes the importance of discipline, only the Word and sacraments are mentioned as the marks of the church. Calvin was willing to adapt his material for the sake of emphasis.
1 Corinthians 1
In the categories of systematic theology, 'justification' is a once-for-all forensic declaration that a sinner is right with God by faith in the finished work of Christ. 'Sanctification' is defined as the progressive transformation of the believer. Calvin recognised that sanctification does not always carry that meaning in the Bible. Paul described the Corinthians as "saints", 1 Corinthians 1:2. But as the rest of the letter shows, that does not mean that they were living holy lives. Calvin saw that in this case sanctification simply meant being set apart to God. In a similar way, the instruments used in the temple were described as "holy", without implying moral change. Calvin did not use the later language of definitive or positional sanctification in contrast to progressive sanctification. But he was aware that the discourse of systematics is often different to the vocabulary of the biblical text. We need to be sensitive to this too. In systematic theology, we speak of the 'effectual call' to salvation, but in the Synoptics 'call' means invitation. It is in Paul that 'call' means 'effective call'. Philippians 3 is all about progressive sanctification in the sense intended by systematic theology, but the word 'sanctification' is not used once. Preachers need to be aware of the differences between the discourse of systematics and the way language is used in the text of Scripture, so that we do not simply read the categories of systematic theology into the Bible.
Those who read a lot of systematic theology need to compliment that study by reading commentaries that give serious attention to the text of Scripture. Those who read lots of commentaries also need to engage with systematic theology to gain a holistic and coherent view of biblical truth. Biblical theology helps systematic theology to consider texts in their proper redemptive-historical setting. Systematic theology helps biblical theology to locate individual texts in the context of the whole counsel of God. The fact that Calvin was a fine systematiser and a model of clear and concise biblical exegesis makes his God-given gifts seem all the more remarkable.
The ensuing discussion mainly ranged around the issue of Christ-centred hermeneutics. Is Calvin Christ-centred enough in his Old Testament commentaries, especially compared with Luther? Carson said that Calvin got it right. When we take his ministry as a whole, he was thoroughly Christ-centred. But he did not read Christ into every Old Testament text. Carson argued that a simplistic "this points to Jesus" approach to the Old Testament is unhelpful. For example, Psalm 69, quoted several times in the Passion Narratives is firstly about David. We understand it as Messianic due to God's covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, and the expectation of a Davidic Messiah in the prophets - Isaiah 9:6-7 etc. We need to show how the Old Testament Scriptures speak of Christ by making these redemptive-historical links clear. Calvin did this. But still some were unhappy with the apparent lack of Christ-centeredness in Calvin's OT commentaries. His work on Genesis was cited as a case in point. This is also a complaint that might be levelled against many contemporary conservative Old Testament commentaries. The text is expounded in accordance with the rules of grammatico-historical exegesis, but very seldom is an attempt made to show how the passage points to Christ. This is out of kilter with what Jesus said about his place in the Old Testament, Luke 24:46-47 and also 1 Peter 1:10-12. On its own, a grammatico-historical approach to the Old Testament is not sufficient for the Christian expositor. We also need to be sensitive to the redemptive-historical and Christological pattern of biblical revelation.

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