The Hermeneutics of John Calvin.

By Thomas F Torrance

Printed: 1988

Publisher: Scottish Academic Press. Edinburgh

Dimensions 15 × 23 × 2.5 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 15 x 23 x 2.5


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In the original dustsheet. Black cloth binding with gilt title on the spine.

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Editor’s Copy (Dr. Douglas Grant)

Note: Following Robert Maxwell’s death in 1991 the Frost & Templeton families purchased the Scottish Academic Press and today the Frost family still help to keep the brand alive.

Perhaps one of Calvin’s most distinctive characteristics was his exegesis of Scripture. Firmly rooted in the historical-grammatical method, Calvin’s interpretive method was distanced from speculation and was critical in many ways similar to later modern hermeneutics. Calvin’s hermeneutics in this regard was different from much of the interpretation that preceded him and different from much of the Catholic interpretation against which he often argued. How then did Calvin develop such a Hermeneutic?

Thomas F. Torrance, co-editor of a series of translations of Calvin’s New Testament commentaries, sought to answer this question in The Hermeneutics of John Calvin. In this book, Torrance purposed to set Calvin’s hermeneutic among the streams of influences that came from Mediaeval Scholasticism and the rising Humanist movement. Particularly, Torrance set out to identify Calvin’s hermeneutic as arising out of the social milieu of Calvin’s time at University in France (viii).

Torrance set out this investigation in two parts. The first is a background study to the intellectual situation in Paris and three major figures in it. The second section is a more detailed look into Calvin’s own interpretative method and Torrance’s identification of influences on Calvin’s hermeneutics.

Calvin is a minor player in the first section of the book, only being mention twice (39, 41). Torrance at this point is focusing on three figures, John Duns Scotus, his disciple William of Occam and the Scottish implant into Paris, John Major of Haddington. These expositions of the thought of these men traced their theories about how knowledge of God is obtained.

Directly relevant to Calvin’s hermeneutic is the discussion of the interpretatio of Major. It was Major’s method to utilize the analogy of faith, though not using that term, thus comparing the meaning of Scripture with itself as its own interpreter (49-52). Major also focused on the literal meaning of the text, as opposed to the letter of the text or fanciful interpretation that would go beyond where the text intended to go (52ff.). Torrance additionally pointed out that, while Major’s interpretations were grounded in the text, interpretation was to be done in recognition with the historic interpretation of the fathers and the creeds (57).

Torrance began the second part of the book by looking into Calvin’s interpretive method, not hesitating to call Calvin the “father of modern biblical exposition.” (61). If the knowledge of God is the goal, as had been sought be Scotus and Occam, this knowledge, in Calvin’s view, must come about through interpretation of Scripture (61). Torrance noted that Calvin sought such knowledge through objective interpretation, with the analogia fidei being the primary instrument of achieving such objectivity.

This method was brought into view by Calvin’s use of the Institutes for exposition. The Institutes was to serve as a guide for the proper interpretation of Scripture (68), but it was not to be Calvin’s ideas alone. Calvin placed his exposition within the context of church history, thus preventing novelty in his interpretation (68-69). Torrance summed up this relationship of theology and interpretation in Calvin by outlining that theology serves interpretation (70), that theology reduces private interpretation (70-71), and that theology invests the authority back into the Word instead of into the interpreter (71-72).

Calvin’s interpretive method included a desire to return to the original intention of the authors in light of their historical situation. That desire was reflected in Lorenzo Valla’s hermeneutic in law. Valla had reacted against the glut of glosses that had come as interpretations added onto laws already in place (96-97). Calvin mirrored this by dismissing the glosses added onto Scripture.

Torrance also divided Calvin’s hermeneutic into Calvin pre-conversion and post-conversion writings. This division played out in Torrance’s analyses of the commentary on Seneca (133ff) and of De Scandalis (140ff). Through those analyses, Torrance showed that there was continuity between Calvin’s pre-conversion and post-conversion hermeneutic, the latter gaining the benefit of the former. This recognition led Torrance to the conclusion that Calvin was a humanist, even after Calvin’s conversion (161).

Torrance brought further shape to the discussion by addressing the issue of Calvin’s religious epistemology. Calvin recognized Scripture as the source of knowledge of God (77). It is at this point that the importance of Scotus’s and Occam’s religious epistemologies becomes clear. Torrance traced the similarities of how God comes to be known between Calvin and Scotus, Occam and Major (83-90). In all of these, the knowledge of a thing and thus of God could only come from the knowledge of words, thus contrasting the scientia rerum with the scientia verbum (101-102).

Torrance brought to this study an immense amount of research. This research went beyond the area of theological studies, which would be a more comfortable area for church historians. Torrance recognized that Calvin was influenced, especially before Calvin’s conversion, by humanist, juristic and classical studies. Accordingly, Torrance spent substantial space on describing the rising humanism of the late mediaeval period in the Scotist tradition, to Parisian legal studies and to classical authors. Such understanding is important for recognizing the influences on Calvin’s hermeneutic in his commentary on Seneca and further recognizing the congruence of that hermeneutic with Calvin’s post-conversion writings.

Torrance’s plan for the book was not to describe the interpretive method of Calvin alone. Torrance sought more to identify sources of influence of Calvin’s method. While Torrance is thorough in describing the relationships between Calvin’s hermeneutics and the hermeneutics of others of or his jurist background, Torrance is not entirely critical of the significance of such relationships.

For example, Torrance uncritically assumes the Reuter thesis, which states that Major was highly influential in Calvin’s work. The thesis was relatively recent, having been first suggested by François Wendel in 1950 and fully stated by Karl Reuter in 1963. That thesis, however, had already been questioned before Torrance wrote this work. A. A. LaVallee in 1967 demonstrated that it was possible that Major and Calvin were not in France at the same time. Further, Alexander Ganoczy in 1966 pointed out that even if the two were in Paris at the same time, they were active in different colleges within the university and Calvin would likely have not taken in courses under Major.

It is not important at this point whether the Reuter thesis is correct, and further work on the subject has been done since Torrance’s book. Correct or incorrect, it would have been prudent for Torrance to make the reader aware of the debate rather than assume the thesis to be true. Torrance could have further argued in defense of the thesis and perhaps even suggested that the parallels he had noted were strong enough to show dependence. Unfortunately, Torrance assumed that the parallels were proof enough of Major’s influence. Torrance gives the same treatment to the putative influence of Thomas a Kempis, who, though admittedly not mentioned by Calvin, was perceived by Torrance by parallels of thought to have been an influence on Calvin (74).

Torrance’s work is the product of immense scholarship and is very useful for understanding the thought of Calvin against the background of his humanist predecessors. While Torrance’s thesis that these similarities were marks of influence was only demonstrated at the philological level, the entirety of the exposition sheds fresh light on the relationship of Calvin with the milieu of his university days and in the broader stream of humanist thought.

Thomas Forsyth Torrance, MBE FRSE (30 August 1913 – 2 December 2007), commonly referred to as T. F. Torrance, was a Scottish Protestant theologian. Torrance served for 27 years as Professor of Christian Dogmatics at New College, Edinburgh in the University of Edinburgh. He is best known for his pioneering work in the study of science and theology, but he is equally respected for his work in systematic theology. While he wrote many books and articles advancing his own study of theology, he also edited the translation of several hundred theological writings into English from other languages, including the English translation of the thirteen-volume, six-million-word Church Dogmatics of Swiss theologian Karl Barth, as well as John Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries. He was also a member of the famed Torrance family of theologians.
Torrance has been acknowledged as one of the most significant English-speaking theologians of the twentieth century, and in 1978, he received the prestigious Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion.[1] Torrance remained a dedicated churchman throughout his life, serving as an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland. He was instrumental in the development of the historic agreement between the Reformed and Eastern Orthodox Churches on the doctrine of the Trinity when a joint statement of agreement on that doctrine was issued between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Church on 13 March 1991.[2] He retired from the University of Edinburgh in 1979, but continued to lecture and to publish extensively. Several influential books on the Trinity were published after his retirement: The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (1988); Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement (1994); and The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (1996).

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