The primary aim of John Calvin’s theological efforts was the glory of God. For Calvin, the contemplation of the preeminence of God was the greatest good in the universe. It is so important that without this divine contemplation we cannot even know ourselves. As Calvin stated near the beginning of the Institutes, “Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” This is true because “. . . what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.” Calvin therefore concludes “. . . we must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.” The centrality of God in Calvin’s heart and mind is the key to understanding his theology.
The foundational principle for John Calvin was always the glory of God. Everything we know is indissolubly bound to the being of God. For Calvin only two kinds of knowledge exist, “the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” True knowledge of ourselves can only come when we know God. This principle makes the study of theology not only a divine mandate but a human necessity. Calvin sought to maximize the glory of God in his exposition of the great doctrines of Scripture. The glory of God is revealed “in the whole workmanship of the universe.” Because of this, “men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. Indeed, his essence is incomprehensible . . . . But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory . . .” That God created all things for His glory was for Calvin the hermeneutic principle that pervades all his writings. Creation, election, and justification are all for God’s glory. I believe this to be an excellent model in the study of theology. If one must err it would seem to be preferable to err on the side which maximizes God’s glory. With that as a guide we will be protected from the tyranny of the modern day humanistic hermeneutic which seeks to interpret the Scriptures in a way that maximizes man’s glory.
Calvin’s passion for God’s glory also influenced his theology in another important way. Doctrines like God’s sovereignty, election and justification were always articulated in such way that maximized God’s glory. When discussing the doctrine of justification with the Italian cardinal Sadolet, Calvin emphasized what was at stake in Rome’s understanding of this important doctrine. He wrote “You . . . touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. . . . Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished.” The glory of God was always the root issue for Calvin.
The Authority of Scripture
Another important aspect of Calvin’s theology is his use of Scripture as the sole authority. Scripture rules over the church rather than the church ruling over Scripture. “It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church that the certainty depends upon church assent.” For Calvin, Scripture is authoritative because it has its source in God. “Hence, the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard.” All other authorities (church tradition and fathers) are subservient to the ultimate authority of Scripture. Although Calvin lived before the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” was used as a way of explaining this, he seemingly would have been very comfortable with subjugating all other authorities to the authority of Scripture. Other authorities are respected as far as they concur with Scripture, but where there is a difference of opinion Scripture rules all other authorities. Calvin quoted extensively in his works from the church fathers, some positively and others negatively, but they were never enshrined as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Scripture alone occupied this lofty position in the thought of John Calvin.
Because of Calvin’s view of the authority of Scripture, his interpretation of Scripture was also distinct from the medieval Catholic church in that he investigated the writings of the early church fathers in light of Scripture. As John Leith has observed, “Calvin’s theology can properly be described primarily as commentary upon Scripture as a whole and secondarily as commentary upon the way the church had read Scripture in its theology and creeds.” When arguing against Pighius in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, Calvin asserts that the rule of faith is to be sought in the Word of God, in Scripture, in the oracles of God, not in tradition. In the “Prefatory Address to King Francis” at the beginning of the Institutes, Calvin demonstrates that “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory – to put it modestly – would turn to our side.” He did this by giving ten paragraphs of which each begins with “It was a father who said . . .” or something similar. Each of these paragraphs demonstrate an area where the fathers were against the Catholic position and supportive of the Protestant position. But Calvin did not seek to win the contest on the basis of the church fathers, his desire is to submit all teaching to the authority of Scripture. The Catholics, he said, “worship only the faults and errors of the fathers. . . . . You might say their only care is to gather dung amid gold.” Calvin, on the other hand, sought to rest the weight of his arguments on Scripture because the Church was produced by Scripture.
For if the Christian church was from the beginning founded upon the writings of the prophets and the preaching of the apostles, wherever this doctrine is found, the acceptance of it – without which the church itself would never have existed – must certainly have preceded the church.
For Calvin, this showed the Scriptures superiority to the church since the Scriptures were chronologically prior to the church. Therefore, Calvin always sought to interpret the fathers in light of the clear meaning of Scripture.
The Historical Grammatical Approach to Scripture
Calvin’s interpretation of Scripture set him apart from the medieval Catholic church’s allegorical hermeneutic. He is called by many “the father of the historical-grammatical method of biblical study.” This method “attempts to discover what the Scripture meant to those who wrote it, and what it means according to the common definition of its words and its grammatical intent.” Calvin believed that the allegorical method of interpretation originated with the devil. It is Satan’s attempt to undermine the certainty of biblical teaching. As Calvin commented on Galatians 4:22, “For many centuries no man was thought clever who lacked the cunning and daring to transfigure with subtlety the sacred Word of God. This was undoubtedly a trick of Satan to impair the authority of Scripture and remove any true advantage out of the reading of it.” The conviction that Scripture should be interpreted in its historical and grammatical intent was central to Calvin’s approach to theology. This is true because, for Calvin, “Everything was exposition of Scripture. This was the ministry unleashed by seeing the majesty of God in Scripture. The Scripture were absolutely central because they were absolutely the Word of God and had as their self-authenticating theme the majesty and glory of God.” In Book 1 of the Institutes, Calvin commented on the danger of falling into error without the Word of God:
If we turn aside from the Word, as I have just now said, though we may strive with strenuous haste, yet, since we have got off the track, we shall never reach the goal. For we should so reason that the splendor of the divine countenance, which even the apostle calls “unapproachable” [I Tim. 6:16], is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted into it by the thread of the Word; so that it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it.
For Calvin, the only hermeneutically safe road to travel was the road of the authoritative Scriptures. As stated above, Calvin’s method of interpreting the Scriptures was a substantial break with previous Catholic exegetes. The method of allegory, which was made popular by Origen in the Third Century, was used throughout the Medieval age as a means of interpreting difficult Old Testament passages. Calvin argued that this method had done great damage to the church. In place of this faulty interpretive principle, Calvin proposed a historical, grammatical approach to the Scriptures which modern day exegetes take for granted. This approach regarded seriously the historical and literary context of the text in question. Calvin’s faithful exposition of almost the entire Bible through his commentaries was perhaps his greatest enduring contribution to the church across denominational lines and through the ages.
The enduring influence of the theology of John Calvin is a testimony to the solid foundation upon which his theology was based. Theologians today would be well served to begin with the same essential presuppositions with which Calvin began. Passion for the greater glory of God; a historical-grammatical approach to the interpretation of Scripture; and, the authority of Scripture ruling over all other authorities are all necessary components of a Reformed, Evangelical approach to theology. No one exemplified these better than the Reformer from Geneva. For this reason, the study of the life and theology of John Calvin is vital if we are to understand the essence of Reformed theology.
The final edition of the Institutes from 1559 is a remarkable testimony to the systematic genius of Calvin, as well as the depth of his knowledge of Scripture. Because it was completed after Calvin had faithfully preached through the entire Bible, it shows a remarkable degree of depth. It was meant by Calvin to be a guide to Scripture, in the tradition of Luther’s Larger Catechism (1529). In fact, Calvin intentionally modeled the Institutes after Luther’s catechism. In the preface to the Institutes French edition of 1541, Calvin states that they “could be like a key and an entrance to give access to all the children of God, in order that they might really understand Scripture. This seems to have been his greatest desire as is evident in the words with which he addressed the pastors of Geneva for the last time.
As concerns my doctrine: I have taught faithfully, and God has given me grace to write. I have done it with the utmost fidelity, and have not to my knowledge corrupted or twisted a single passage of the Scriptures; and when I could have drawn out a far-fetched meaning, if I had studied subtility, I have put that [temptation] under foot and have always studied simplicity. I have written nothing through hatred against any one, but have always set before me faithfully what I have thought to be for the glory of God.
This is the heart of a man who was greatly used by God for His glory. May God grant a double portion of this spirit to be poured out upon the pastors of our day.