Using Extrabiblical Texts in Biblical Study

I (Andrew) did not just move my family across the country, so I have no excuses for my dearth of posts!  (Although I was swamped preparing a lecture/presentation on the history and archaeology of Old Testament Jerusalem, and preparing to host the meetings of Classis Southwest US of the URCNA which were held Sept 17-18 at Christ Reformed Church where I pastor.)

Now that I’m on vacation, I’ve had time to dive into a couple of books I’ve been itching to read.  The first is John Currid’s Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Mentor, 2006) which is a fun, historical read, outlining Calvin’s own education in Greek and Hebrew, as well as his work to equip ministers to rightly handle the word of truth through their own language studies in Geneva.  Currid’s chapter “King of Commentators” is especially fine as he analyzes some of Calvin’s linguistic work.  (Of course, I was especially interested in discussion of Calvin’s knowledge and use of Hebrew.)

I loved these paragraphs, however, which spoke to the use of extra-biblical texts in biblical exegesis:

[P.T.] Fuhrman gets at the heart of Calvin’s preaching when he says that his sermons ‘are properly homilies as in the ancient church: expositions of Bible passages at [sic] the light of grammar and history, and their application to the hearers’ life situations.’  Calvin sought to understand Scripture itself, and to let the Scriptures speak for themselves through the preacher.

In this regard, Calvin did not use contemporary issues of the day or the hot topics of the current socio-political issues of Europe in his preaching.  It was not that Calvin was unaware of such issues swirling around him, but they are not the principal concern of the preacher.  He said, ‘I am not ignorant of what pleases or displeases the world, but nothing is of more concern to me than to follow the way the Master prescribes.’  On the other hand, Calvin did not shy away from using extra biblical texts in order to explain a meaning of a Scriptural passage.  [R.C] Zachman comments that ‘Calvin is convinced that the skilled interpreter of Scripture must be immersed in the literature of the Greek and Latin world and will often refer to such literature to help him elucidate the meaning of Scripture.’  This belief truly reflects Calvin’s training in the ways and manners of the Renaissance.

Pgs. 23-24 (Bold emphasis added.)

No reference is made to being immersed in either Egyptian or Akkadian literature, but since the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Cuneiform did not occur until the early/mid-1800’s, it is no wonder he omitted this corpus of literature.  (Had Calvin had access to these texts, I’m sure he would have read them as well!)  But I’ve found the literature of the ancient Near East to be wonderfully beneficial in my own reading of the Old Testament, not necessarily in a dramatic way as though I was only able to draw together the big-picture of the scriptures after reading ANE texts, but rather by becoming familiar and comfortable with the various expressions, customs and themes that occur throughout literature in the ancient world.

Currid’s Calvin and the Biblical Languages is a nice read, although in several places it felt overly dependent on secondary literature.  I would have preferred more citation to primary sources (whether by Calvin or by his contemporaries), though I did appreciate several references to Calvin’s Opera, and did like the bibliographical nature of Currid’s footnotes.  There are several articles and books about Calvin’s exegesis of the OT that are now on my radar because of this book.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

9 thoughts on “Using Extrabiblical Texts in Biblical Study”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    Looks like an interesting read. I think Calvin’s attitude towards extra biblical material was fairly common among 16th and 17th century writers. In some of the work I did on the use of David in resistance theories, it was interesting how much “classical” examples of political praxis came up (e.g., Athens, Sparta, etc.). In general, there was also an interest in Greek, Roman, and “Oriental” literature (usually via Greco-Roman sources though, of course, the “Hebrew Revival” of the 15th-16th centuries played a large role as well). John Owen’s Biblical Theology (of which I know you are aware [grin]) is filled with “antiquities,” legends, etc. from the ancient world that Owen works to use as sources to explain the OT and NT.

    Some of this, I think, was simply standard humanist and scholastic education. Nonetheless, it is interesting how these early modern individuals were keen to discern the biblical text’s historical context. Though there was still an active use of the “quadriga” (whether the magisterial reformers admitted it or not), I do think that this historical bent explains their especial predilection for typologies.

    With all of that in mind, I always wonder what they would have thought of, e.g., John Piper’s cautions regarding the use of Second Temple literature when interpreting the NT. (I say that appreciating Piper’s point while at the same time dissenting from his overly narrow contextual reading strategy.)


    1. Hi Nevada – would you mind elaborating on your comment “I do think that this historical bent explains their especial predilection for typologies”?

      I’m not a seminary student and am sure to expose my ignorance of this subject but I read behind Calvin in his commentaries frequently in support of my own private reading of the scriptures and it seems a rare thing for Calvin to use typology in explaining the scriptures. I’m often surprised at some texts where it seems to me a type of Christ but never a mention by Calvin. I do not have an example off the top of my head. Maybe I’m not understanding typologies.


      1. Hi CB,
        What a great question!

        Let me try to expand my thoughts a little. As a reaction and reformulation of late Medieval interpretive methods, the Reformers tended to castigate “allegorical” methods of interpretation (though, to be quite honest, they actually continued to use them though in different ways). Generally, they were more comfortable with linear, historical typologies rather than vertical, non-historical allegories. What I mean by this is that the reformers liked to draw historical analogies between past persons and events and “new covenant” (i.e., from Jesus to the present) persons and events. So, for example, they would use Old Testament figures like David as examples of piety (i.e., “Just as David suffered patiently under Saul’s persecution, even so we as the current people of God ought to suffer patiently under persecution.”). In all of this, of course, they assumed that a strong historical continuity between past and present saints.

        Medieval allegorical interpretation was happy to do the same, but certain strains went further and tended to use scripture as a vertical kind of ladder for the soul’s mystical ascent to God. This manner of interpretation believed it acceptable to use the text as a springboard to developing one’s inner piety without paying much attention to the historical context, etc.

        In some ways, the distinction between allegory and typology eventually breaks down because both are trying to “apply” the text to a new context and both are trying to draw analogies between past and present. Nonetheless, I do think that the reformers as a whole tended towards more historically inclined typologies.

        All right, with all that said, you are exactly right that Calvin doesn’t do much with typologies. He allows a few, but following Martin Bucer, he’s fairly reticent to point them out. This is especially the case, as you noted, with types of Christ. However, on using OT saints as examples of piety, etc., he is just as “typological” as other reformers like Zwingli, Luther, etc.

        Does that make sense? Let me know if it doesn’t.


  2. Great discussion – thanks for the interesting comments, guys!

    Nevada – yes, I think this is one of those things which situates Calvin as a renaissance man quite nicely. And yes, I remember being struck by Owen’s huge number of citations from Greco-Roman sources although right away I noticed that the ANE was really not cited anywhere (which makes perfect sense based on the history decipherment).

    As for the Wright/Piper exchange – that is an interesting question. I think because some have witnessed the use of extra-biblical texts in overly determinative ways, they feel that the answer is perhaps to avoid use of extra-biblical material altogether, rather than using it more carefully. I’ve watched people use the comparative method in simplistic ways, drawing too close of an association between texts either without explaining the mechanism of their connection, or without paying close attention to significant differences. This is where I find it useful to limit what we expect to find in (or prove from) the study of comparative texts. In this way, I suppose this is similar to how we use the finds of Archaeology. And yet I’ve also watched people extend the perspicuity of scripture beyond where the category is designed to cover. I’m confident that we don’t need comparative texts to know the content of the gospel itself, but there are a host of other things that would remain murky if we did not avail ourselves to knowledge of ancient customs accessible only via ANE texts.


  3. Really good stuff! AS with all things(as you know), Scripture has got to be used as a final authority. But yes, works of the church has to be used as well because we cant throw out 2000 years of biblical exposition. We have the Word, and we have the words of the church. No, that isn’t a catholic thing, its is a Christian thing. We cant dismiss 2000 years of historical teachings, but we are to use Scripture as the “magnifying glass” so to speak to make sure it is accurate. This goes for pastoral studies, sunday morning services, and sunday school or any bible study. Good Work!


    1. Definitely … good description, Josh. This is that key distinction between ministerial and magisterial authority. Though church history doesn’t have an infallible authority (which is reserved for scripture alone), it is a real authority nonetheless and one we must be respect, even while interacting critically with it and checking it for errors in light of scripture.

      Also, this post is going even beyond ecclesiastical writings and into the realm of “secular” writings from the ancient world that affect how we understand portions of scripture. Those too are beneficial when reading the Bible as they enlighten aspects of God’s word we might otherwise misunderstand. But again, the key to the doctrine of perspicuity is that the gospel itself is crystal clear, even though not all portions of scripture are equally clear.


      1. Well, what is sad to me, I am seeing new born Christians pumping out of churches (those “seeker friendly” ordeals) and are being led to read daily devotions from who know who? Some of these devotional writes don’t even hold to a confession of faith! Churches need to be making disciples and teaching them through the Scriptures, and to make sure of their salvation. So sad as to what the “church” is becoming. Sort of why I started my blog. Im sick of it. New Christians are just a nother “notch” on the belt or an extra member, blah, blah, blah. I need a little help in combatting this, because I am trying to reach out to the 30-40 year old group, and that isn’t an easy group to try to show an example too. It is very hard!


  4. Pretty interesting and pretty helpful comments all around. A personal experience illustrates what we all know–Protestant historical grammatical interpretation does not prune out wild allegory or application: my son and I attended a Plymouth Brethren “reading” a couple of years ago where one of the older men (the only ones who made comments) spoke of the Samaritan women, who had five husbands and still no satisfaction, just as we may seek satisfaction through our five senses and come to no satisfaction. OK.
    By the way, speaking of Calvin’s caution as well as his use of older writers–I note that, after Augustine, Benard of Clairvaux is the most frequently quoted older writer in the Institutes (I think I have that right); but if you look at Bernhard’s sermons–whew! Talk about wild and unjustified allegory!


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