As a young preacher settling down in my new pastorate several years ago, it did not occur to me what inestimable wealth of instruction and example John Calvin’s commentaries provided on the subject of preaching. Schooled in the Reformed faith, I was not a total stranger to the lectio continua approach to preaching which Calvin’s commentaries exemplify. The lectio continua is a cherished Reformed tradition of preaching in which a preacher goes through the books of the Bible or sections of the Bible in a consecutive manner. This was Calvin’s method of preaching, and for the most part of his ministry, with rare exceptions, he systematically preached through entire books of the Bible. His congregation was fed on a steady diet of sequential expository messages. But beside the example of consecutive expository preaching, something which any serious student of Calvin might learn from his writings is his exegetical and expository prowess. His commentaries are models of clarity and excellence.

Numerous scholars, some of whom would be the least inclined to accept Calvinism, emphasise the extraordinary virtues of Calvin as an expositor of Scripture. The opinion of Philip Schaff, one of the renowned church historians of the nineteenth-century, best sums up the reputation of Calvin in this area: “Calvin was an exegetical genius of the first order. His commentaries are unsurpassed for originality, depth, perspicuity, soundness and permanent value. He combined in a very rare degree all the essential qualities of an exegete — grammatical knowledge, spiritual insight, acute perception, sound judgment, and practical tact” (1885–1910, 8:524–25). John Murray, former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and himself a distinguished biblical scholar, said that “Calvin was the exegete of the Reformation and in the first rank of biblical exegetes of all time” (Murray, 2001:308). An acquaintance with Calvin’s commentaries will undoubtedly reveal to the reader a rare combination of exegetical insight, pastoral concern, and theological depth.

Although Calvin is most thought of as the theologian of the Reformation that wrote the Institutes, which continues to be a mainstay of Reformed theology, not many think of him as preacher and expositor par excellence. It is for this reason that I wish to introduce to you John Calvin, the expository genius. Thankfully, we don’t have to wade through shallow and muddy waters to try and find our way to the priceless pearls that confirm the genius that lies behind the preaching of the ‘Genevan Reformer.’ We have thousands of pages of his commentaries and sermons to glean through and several secondary sources to consult. Calvin wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, leaving only Judges, Ruth, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First and Second Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Second and Third John, and the book of Revelation. Less than two years ago, Dr. Steven J. Lawson wrote a book entitled The Expository Genius of John Calvin, which masterfully presents to us an articulate and cogent summary of the contours of the Reformer’s preaching.

In this article, I would like us to look at some of the characteristics which distinguished Calvin’s skills and genius as an expositor.

A Well-Grounded Belief in the Authority of Scripture

Calvin lived at a time when the authority of Scripture was being challenged, and in its place, people were looking to church traditions, papal edicts, and the decisions of church councils as the source of authority. But Calvin took his firm stand on the chief cornerstone of the Reformation — sola Scriptura. All other authorities are subservient to the ultimate authority of Scripture, and are to be respected only in so far as they agree with Scripture. Calvin quoted extensively in his works from the church fathers, some positively and others negatively, but he never put them at the same level as the Scriptures. This lofty position in his thought was reserved for Scripture alone. 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 the light of Scripture. As Leith (1971:321) 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”.

So high was his regard for the authority of the Bible that it engendered in him a deep reverence for Scripture. He writes, “The majesty of Scripture deserves that its expounders should make it apparent, that they proceed to handle it with modesty and reverence” (1979, p.227). He goes on to say, “Such veneration we ought indeed to entertain for the Word of God, that we ought not to prevent it in the least degree by varying expositions; for its majesty is diminished, I know not how much, especially when not expounded with great discretion and with great sobriety (1961, p.1). 

Proficiency in the Biblical Languages

Looking at the tomes of his writings, it is apparent that Calvin was an intellectual genius. He possessed, among other things, exceptional adeptness in Hebrew and Greek. The quality and depth of interpretation that we find in Calvin’s commentaries is partly to be credited to his linguistic abilities. Few people realise that today’s church is built on the Reformation’s linguistic heritage, and Calvin occupies a central place in that heritage. The biblical languages are the basic tools in any study of the Bible, and we neglect them to our own peril. One only needs to turn to Calvin’s commentaries to draw encouragement and inspiration as to why a knowledge of the languages is crucial to a preacher’s exegetical task. John Currid, Professor of Old Testament at the Reformed Theological Seminary in the USA, has written an excellent book entitled John Calvin and the Biblical Languages. This little book shows us how Calvin used the knowledge of the biblical languages to provide richness, depth and accuracy to his understanding of Scripture—and his exposition of it. Someone has said that the difference between reading the Bible in English versus reading it in the original languages is similar to the difference between watching television in colour with watching it in black and white! 

Use of 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” (Vos, 1996:93). This method “attempts to discover what Scripture meant to those who wrote it, and what it means according to the common definition of its words and its grammatical intent” (Vos, 1996:93). The conviction that Scripture should be interpreted in its historical and grammatical intent was central to Calvin’s approach to theology.

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 splendour 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 (1960, I: p.39).

In using this approach, Calvin insisted that the words within each specific passage were to be considered in their historical context and grammatical structure. In so doing, he sought to unfold the author-intended meaning of Scripture (Lawson, 2006, p.69). This same point is stressed further by David Puckett, who writes, “Calvin never loses sight of the fact that before one can explain how a passage applies to the person of the sixteenth century, he must determine what its meaning was for the original writer’s contemporaries…” (1995, p.67).

A Passion for Clarity and Brevity of Exposition

In Calvin’s Dedication in his commentary on Romans, which was his very first commentary, written to Simon Grynaeus, his friend and Hebrew teacher, he states that the interpreter’s principal virtue resides in perspicua brevitate (Richard C. Gamble, 1985, p.9). This means, among other things, that he will not include lengthy references to other writers. The reason is clear: he wants to present the message of the Scriptures as simply and clearly as possible. Moisé Silva observes that these two virtues—brevity and clarity—were not two separate aims, but rather twin ideals that he pursued in conscious distinction from much of the work that had preceded him (1994, p.297). One theologian that stood out from Calvin as a model for brevity and clarity was the fourth century Greek preacher John Chrysostom.

Calvin sees the goal of a commentator or expositor as unfolding the mind of the biblical writer, and to succeed in this goal means the deletion of superfluous material which may lead the reader away from the meaning of the author. He was concerned that the message of the text must not be obscured by the expositor. He consciously refrained from dealing with contrary opinions (unless the omission was likely to confuse the reader). He sought to write in a style that was patterned after the Scriptures themselves. “The Bible has its own eloquence, and it is the eloquence of simplicity” (Silva, p.298). This is the exegetical principle that Calvin articulated when he was at the young age of thirty. His example should remind us of what our primary goal ought to be. We must resist the temptation to become overly weighed down either by exegetical perplexities or by perceived devotional needs.

An Appreciation of Human Learning (Common Grace)

Calvin was trained in the humanities, and he put this knowledge to the use of biblical interpretation. He wrote in his Institutes: “…if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance, for if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths” (1960, I.5.2, p.53). Calvin’s use of “secular” learning is of special significance because it reflected a theological concept called common grace. He looked upon the minds of secular writers, though fallen and perverted, as nonetheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts (1960, 2.2. p.273–275). However, Calvin recognised at once that the marvel and praiseworthiness of human learning as a divine gift was basically unstable because of the fallen and perverted mind of the sinner.

To give one example, in his commentary on Jonah, Calvin decides that Jonah’s miraculous survival in the depths of the sea did not involve the size of the fish that swallowed him, since recent writings in marine biology reveal that there are fish big enough to swallow people whole (1986, p.73). 

Passionate Application of Scripture

In his expositions, Calvin regularly emphasised the practical application of Scripture. The aim of all preaching is to change lives. Even in his commentaries, you can scarcely find a page where Calvin does not apply the text in a practical way. In expounding 2 Timothy 3:16, which says that Scripture is profitable for reproof and correction, he said, “Those who cannot bear to be reproved had better look for another school-master than God. There are many who will not stand it: ‘What! Is this the way to teach? Ho! We want to be won by sweetness.’ You do? Then go and teach God his lessons! ‘Ho! We want to be won in another style.’ Well, then, go to the devil’s school! He will flatter you enough—and destroy you” (Parker, 1992, p.14). Steven Lawson writes that Calvin’s application carried the following distinctives: pastoral exhortation, personal examination, loving rebuke, and polemic confrontation (p.106–112). Calvin always had himself in view in his preaching, and his application always began with himself. May all preachers emulate this great servant of God in not seeking to take the hearers where they themselves are not willing to go. 

Conclusion

We have demonstrated, albeit in a cursory manner that in that great “Genevan Reformer” lay skills and gifts and methods honed through various providential circumstances that God permitted him to experience. These were used by God to fashion Calvin into the great expositor that he was. Although many different estimates have been formed of Calvin’s character, according to the point of view from which it is contemplated, few, however, can dispute his intellectual greatness, or the powerful service which he rendered to the cause of Protestantism. Our preaching will be all the better if we cared to sit at the feet of God’s choice servant and learn from the expository genius himself.   

Bibliography

Calvin, J. (1979) Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 1, trans. William Pringle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Calvin, J. (1961) The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, English translation by Rev. John Owen. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman.

Calvin, J. (1960) Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Gamble C., Richard. (1985) “Brevitas et facilitas: Toward an Understanding of Calvin’s Hermeneutic,” Westminster Theological Journal 47:1 (Spring), 1-17.

Lawson J.S. (2006) The Expository Genius of John Calvin. Orlando: Reformation Trust.

Leith, J. H. (1971) “John Calvin – Theologian of the Bible.” Interpretation, 25:3, 329-344.

Moisé S. & Walter C. K, (1994) Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Murray, J. (1976) Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth.

Parker, T.H.L. (1992) Calvin’s Preaching. Louisville, KY : Westminster/J. Knox Press.

Puckett, D. (1995) John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament. Loisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Schaff, P. (1910) History of the Christian Church. New York: Scribner’s.

Vos, H. F. (1996) Exploring Church History. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.