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John Calvin: His legacy in commentaries, not just the institutes by Mark L. Strauss
As the 500th birthday of John Calvin approaches (July 10th), theologians around the world will be reflecting on and celebrating this man’s remarkable legacy. Calvin is perhaps best known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, his magnum opus on Reformed Theology. Yet Calvin also wrote commentaries on almost every book in the Bible. For me, at least, these may be his most lasting legacy. Calvin embodied through his life, ministry and scholarship the spirit of sola scriptura.
Both my father and my grandfather were preachers and lovers of books. Together they collected thousands of books. Years ago I inherited most of their library. However, as my own library grew to the bursting point and my interests turned to more academic ones, I was forced to weed out volumes that were less useful to my studies. Gradually I got rid of most of the devotional commentaries in favor of more critical ones—passing the former on to my students or to our seminary library. Calvin’s commentaries, however, I always kept. Though nearly 500 years old, they remain remarkably fresh and contemporary in their exegesis and application. Calvin did hermeneutics the way I teach my students to do it, seeking the author’s intent in its own historical and literary context but with an eye on the larger biblical context and the sweeping drama of redemption. Though I may not always agree with Calvin’s exegesis, he is always insightful and always draws his conclusions from the text.
In the introduction to Eerdman’s 1948 edition of Calvin’s commentaries, Andrew K. Rule puts it well:
Henceforth it should be impossible for any student to fail to recognize that Calvin was, not a speculative, but an exegetical theologian; and that, as an exegete, he belongs among the greatest. His Commentaries are devotional in character, not critical; but it is not difficult to see that, in preparing them, he made a masterly use of the best critical information then available. Modern scholars have at hand, of course, a much richer critical machinery. But many of them seem to be overwhelmed rather than aided by it, and few of them employ it with the sagacity that Calvin everywhere displays. Modern scholars possess a more intimate knowledge of first century Greek, because of the discovery and study of the Papyri. Old Testament scholars also now have the increasingly rich results of archaeology for their guidance. And so, in details, Calvin sometimes needs correction. But still he stands out as a master of exegesis, an expositor whose profound and accurate scholarship served, unobtrusively, to illumine the religious significance of the Scriptures.
What a remarkable legacy! Somehow I doubt anyone will say the same about my scholarship 500 years from now.
Mark Strauss (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in San Diego. He has written: Four Portraits, One Jesus; Distorting Scripture?; Luke in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary series, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth, and numerous other books and articles.
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