John Calvin’s use of Secondary Sources

David Steinmetz’s essay “The Scholastic Calvin” in the book Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (eds. Carl Trueman & R.S. Clark) has always been a favorite of mine.  In working on a book review this morning, I turned to this chapter to confirm a methodological point about how scholastic categories were used differently in parishes and schools.  In doing so, I came across this interesting quote about Calvin’s exegetical labors.

Though Calvin had a love for the primary source texts, evident especially in his use of Greek and Hebrew in his preaching and commenting, he was no lone-wolf, attempting exegesis without reference to the exegetical labors of others.  He was one who saw the value of consulting both primary and secondary sources.  The following quote by Steinmetz illustrates this nicely:

Calvin did not comment on the glossed Latin text but on the unglossed Greek and Hebrew text.  For Calvin, who even took the Hebrew and Greek Bibles with him into the pulpit, the Bible could not be properly understood without a mastery of the original languages in which it was written.  Although some medieval theologians like Nicholas of Lyra and Paul of Burgos could read Hebrew and even cited rabbinical traditions in their exposition of Scripture, mastery of languages was far less important to most scholastic theologians than mastery of the glosses, a collected treasury of traditional wisdom derived from the most part from the ancient church.  Similarly, the fact that Calvin read an unglossed Hebrew or Greek text did not mean that he prepared his own interpretations of the Bible without first reading commentaries on the passage he was expounding, including commentaries by ancient Christian Fathers.  Anyone who doubts this fact has only to compare Calvin’s exposition of Romans 4 with the antecedent exegetical tradition to see how great his dependence was on earlier tradition, not only for great themes and insights but also for smaller bits of exegetical lore.  Calvin’s Hebrew and Greek Bible was formally but not materially unglossed.  His library, if not the margins of his Hebrew and Greek text, was filled with the work of glossators, ancient and modern.

“The Scholastic Calvin,” pg. 24. (Pagination according to the 1999 edition published by Paternoster Press.)

This is a good reminder of the value of consulting commentaries, articles, encyclopedias and books – both old and new – in our exegetical labors.

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

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3 comments on “John Calvin’s use of Secondary Sources

  1. My general practice is to consult commentaries to the extent necessary to prepare for the sermon. It varies depending on the text.

  2. […] John Calvin’s use of Secondary Sources (reformedreader.wordpress.com) Though Calvin had a love for the primary source texts, evident especially in his use of Greek and Hebrew in his preaching and commenting, he was no lone-wolf, attempting exegesis without reference to the exegetical labors of others.  He was one who saw the value of consulting both primary and secondary sources. […]

  3. Dante says:

    For moral purposes, Calvin loved Chrysostom’s homilies. He even planned on translating them into French, though this never came about. He did, however, write the preface for this translation which was published in Hartford Quarterly 5 (1965): 19-26 and in Kirk, ed., Humanism and Reform.

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