One of the chief benefits of training for ministry at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, England, was the Hall’s absolute commitment to intense Biblical studies. Not only did we benefit from some very fine tutors, but we also benefited from an excellent library containing the most well respected Bible commentators in the world past and present. This gave me a hunger for Biblical scholarship, one which I’ve
continued to pursue in the ordained ministry. My office is slowly becoming filled with the commentaries from the same Bible scholars I read at Oxford and I continue to enjoy their insights. When preparing for a sermon, I pull down the relevant commentaries and stack them beginning with the most technical and gradually work my way through till I wind up with the most pastorally applicable. Of all the commentaries I read during this process, none do I look forward to more than the commentaries of the reformer from Geneva, John Calvin (who does disappoint but only on rare occasions). Many times I have found modern scholars, with all the advancements in archaeological, linguistic and sociological research, have little to add to the insights of John Calvin writing 500 years before them. And of course rarely is Calvin’s intense pastoral concern to apply Biblical truth to the souls of his congregation matched by any modern evangelical authors. So let us turn to this great man and see what gems we might mine from his extensive collection of writings to apply to our reading of the Bible.
1) Approach the Scriptures with the Right Goal in Mind
People pick up the Bible for many reasons. Some people read it to increase their learning, some people read it for moral guidance, some people read it for self-improvement, time tried wisdom, or simply for comfort. While each of these is good, Calvin would want the chief end of our reading of Scripture to be about knowing God. In the Institutes he writes that the Scriptures were given to the Church “as a surer and more direct means of discovering himself” (Institutes 1.6.1). A few lines later he clarifies his statement by saying
“It was necessary, in passing from death unto life, that they should know God, not only as a Creator, but as a Redeemer also; and both kinds of knowledge they certainly did obtain from the Word. In point of order, however, the knowledge first given was that which made them acquainted with the God by whom the world was made and is governed. To this first knowledge was afterwards added the more intimate knowledge which alone quickens dead souls, and by which God is known not only as the Creator of the worlds and the sole author and disposer of all events, but also as a Redeemer, in the person of the Mediator” (Institutes 1.6.1)
The “first knowledge” that Calvin here refers to is that knowledge of God revealed in creation (Rom 1.20). But that personal, intimate, saving knowledge of God where he is known as savior and mediator is only given in the Scriptures and this is their chief end and unifying theme from beginning to end. When we approach the Scriptures, Calvin would have us consider what they have to say about God first, and more specifically what they have to say about God as redeemer. Only after this do we move onto personal application.
2) Pray before you open your Bible
Calvin believed that you could open up the Bible, read it, comprehend it, and yet fail to apply any of its life saving benefits to your soul. As long as we read the Bible through human effort alone, we would undoubtedly fail to read it rightly. Only with the aid of the Holy Spirit, authenticating the truths of the Scriptures on our hearts, will we be able to read the Bible in a spiritually edifying way. Calvin writes:
For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our hearts, in order to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely entrusted. (Institutes 1.7.4).
Before we open the Scriptures, perhaps we might pray with John Calvin: “Father, send your Holy Spirit to penetrate my heart, and seal the truths of your Word on the deepest, most hidden parts of my soul.”
3) Make every effort to understand the Author’s intentions
It is clear from reading his commentaries that Calvin took great pains to understand the original intention of the Author. While all interpretation is “reader response” to some extent, Calvin would not have been of the mind that the reader’s opinion was important, he wanted to know what the author’s opinion was. He employed commentaries, linguistic study guides, and histories to better comprehend the author’s language, cultural setting, and intent. In his dedication to his commentary on 1 Corinthians he writes:
I am confident that I have secured- that it will furnish no ordinary assistance for thoroughly understanding Paul’s mind. (Calvins Commentaries Vol 10, pg 34)
How might we apply this? We might start by disregarding our cultural fascination with what we think and believe and seek to understand what the author thought and believed and intended to convey. Secondly, we might see what helps are available in pursuing this goal. Understanding the culture of the author, his background and historical setting are often a great help. The best tool for this is a good set of commentaries. You could buy John Calvin’s complete set for $200 here. Or a good contemporary set is the Bible Speaks Today series that can be purchased here on CD rom for $65. For most lay people, a set of commentaries is simply far too great of a commitment (both in time and money) and thus not a realistic choice. If this is true, then I would recommend the ESV Study Bible. It comes as close as I think you can come to a full set of commentaries handily available in one compact volume. Finally, a warning against one volume commentaries such as this one. Even though the scholars involved in that particular project are complete all-stars, I have found one volume commentaries to be singularly unhelpful. If you’re going to go the one volume route, get an ESV Study Bible.
4) Summarize what you’ve read with brief, simple application
In the introductory remarks to his commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Calvin writes:
The chief virtue of the interpreter consists in lucid brevity. And truly, since almost his only responsibility is to lay open the mind of the writer whom he has undertaken to explain, to the degree that he leads his readers away from it, he goes astray from his purpose.
I take this to mean for our present discussion, that when we read the Bible we should make a practice of simply and succinctly summarizing what we have learned and distilling a simple application from such knowledge that could be acted upon immediately. I make a personal habit of doing this in a journal, as well as trying to share what I am learning in my study of Scripture with Steph (my wife) or Iain (Associate Rector).
While by no means comprehensive, I believe that these are a few principles near and dear to the heart of John Calvin that he would commend to us in our study of Scripture. I hope you’ve found this helpful!