Hans Frei on John Calvin: OT/NT Differences and Similarities

I’m finally reading through Hans Frei’s turbid (to quote one reviewer) but thorough history of biblical hermeneutics, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (Yale University Press, 1974) and found his comments on John Calvin fascinating.

The covenant God made with the Old Testament saints varies from ours not in substance but administration. Thus, the temporal felicity held before the eyes of the Jews was not to be their ultimate goal but a mark that they were “adopted to the hope of immortality, and that the truth of this adoption was certified to them by oracles, by the law, and by the prophets” (2.10.2). Calvin argues that the Old Testament fathers were well aware that “God rarely or never in this world gives his servants those things which he promises them” (2.10.7) so that they are instead signs or figures of the state which fulfills them: “in order to the better elucidation of the Divine goodness, the prophets represented it to the people in a figurative manner; but … they gave such a representation of it as would withdraw the mind from earth and time … and would necessarily excite to a contemplation of the felicity of the future spiritual life” (2.10.20). The unity of the two books is further demonstrated because the fathers’ covenant, identical with ours, was founded not on their merits but on God’s mercy. Also “they both possessed and knew Christ as the Mediator, by whom they were united to God and became partakers of his promises” (2.10.12).

As for the differences between Old and New Testaments, they are real without detracting from the unity of the canon. In fact, under the heading of difference, Calvin reiterates much of what he had said earlier about unity but in the process changes the emphasis. In the Old Testament the celestial inheritance is exhibited “under the figures of terrestrial blessings,” whereas in the New Testament, “the Lord directs our minds to the immediate contemplation of it” (2.11.1). In this context he tends to emphasize the incompleteness rather than the frustration of earthly hopes and blessings. The Israelites were indeed promised and given the land of Canaan in which they were to dwell; but it is nonetheless, under a figure, the promise of a celestial city and of everlasting life. The terrestrial blessings are not so much false as incomplete, so that they do not terminate in themselves but lead on to the spiritual hope instead (2.11.2). Calvin does not simply downgrade the truth and reality of the earthly occasion and its blessings in the own place and time (though he does indeed often tend in that direction), but takes them up into another context where they no longer have a meaning in their own right and instead prefigure what is to come.

In addition, however, there are aspects of the Old Testament (e.g., the ceremonial law) which are abrogated because they were nothing more than temporary manifestations or shadows of what was later given to us to know substantially (2.11.4). The figural relation in this respect is between shadow and reality, the evanescent and the permanent, in the meaning of historically grounded symbols and institutions. Specifically, the ceremonial and sacrificial law is a symbol of the confirmation and ratification of the covenant through the blood of Christ. By relative contrast to this pattern of a shadow-substance relation, the first kind of figuration was that of an earthly, historical promise and occasion anticipating and prefiguring a later historical as well as eternal state of affairs. The family resemblance between the two kinds of figural interpretation is evident.

Pgs. 32-33

I’m not sure what I think about the line that Calvin “takes earthly matters up into a context where they no longer have meaning in their own right” – that sounds like too flat of a reading of Calvin – but I still found his description to be interesting. Since reading this chapter, I have been rereading the portions of Book II in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion that Frei references. Calvin’s comments on the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament are very insightful.

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


2 comments on “Hans Frei on John Calvin: OT/NT Differences and Similarities

  1. Turbid is right! That’s a tough book, isn’t it? I got to the chapter on Schleiermacher and put a bookmark there…I’ll have to finish it now that you brought it to mind!

  2. Nevada says:

    I’ll confess that when working through the Calvin section for my dissertation, I had to read it twice (with several rereads of individual paragraphs) just to make sure I understood his argument! :-)

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