Calvin, Jesus, and Cleaning the Temple

Editors Note: the following is a discussion of Chp. VIII, Book II of Calvin's Institutes. Pages quoted come from The Library of Christian Classics. Ed. John McNeill, Trans. Ford Lewis Battle. Westminister Press: Philadephia.

An unusual claim might be made for John Calvin’s discussion of the Decalogue. In some ways the work of Calvin might be compared to that of the work he implies in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. That does not mean (as many Younger Evangelicals[1] might be wont to argue) that Calvin is God; simply that in historically true form Calvin has looked at the work of Christ and seen himself. This is not a perfect analogue, but it is interesting to note the similarities between the work of Christ on the Mount and the work of Calvin in the Institutes.

In the prologue to his discussion on the Ten, Calvin wrote that the Law as given at Sinai the Lord had given “the rule of perfect righteousness” (371). Yet true to human nature, the “Israelites would not rest, once they had received the law, but would thereafter bring forth new precepts, unless they were severely restrained” (371).  For this reason one of the chief purposes in the coming of Christ was not to bring a new law, but to bring the complete and full understanding of the law as it was intended to be. Calvin would argue that:

“when we say that this is the meaning of the law, we are not thrusting forward a new interpretation of our own, but we are following Christ, its best interpreter. The Pharisees had infected the people with a perverse opinion: that he who has committed nothing by way of outward works against the law fulfills the law” (373).

The purpose of the Mount then was to reflect back on the previous Mount and show the people where they had erred in adding to and taking away from the Ten. Calvin, then, seems to have seen himself and his work in a similar light. His work on the ten seemed not so much a new work, as a call to remember the previously established purpose of the Ten, and return the Church back to those very important words.

This type of work can be seen in two different but important ways. First one may examine the way in which Calvin went about his work. Like the monastic Bonaventure, Calvin argued that the Ten served as synecdoches, which are small pieces of information which entail much larger meanings. However Calvin believed that these synecdoches could not be divorced from the historical context of the Old Testament, nor from even the context of the New Testament either. Within in the explicitly exegetical section, Calvin sought to elucidate a common meaning and purpose behind the word which could then be examined and enlarged in the current context of Calvin.

In this sense this is a return to a more common method of interpretation found in many of the Patristic Fathers, which was the interpretation of spiritual principles which are grounded and rooted in the literal, historical meaning of the text. That Calvin was intent on returning to the ground of the early church can be seen in those authorities to  whom he appealed, as well as, those authorities against whom he argued. The text was liberally sprinkled with scriptural quotations, and only on occasion does there appear an address from someone non-canonical. Yet when these do appear that are Western Church fathers such as Augustine and Ambrose.[2] Meanwhile those to whom he argued against were more often church teachers from the Roman Catholic era of the church such as Aquinas.[3]

In discussing the name of God as given in the commandments, Calvin compared the work of God in the Exodus to the work of God in the ‘modern’ church. He wrote that: “we must regard the Egyptian bondage of Israel as a type of the spiritual captivity in which all of us are held bound, until our heavenly Vindicator, having freed us by the power of his arm, leads us into the Kingdom of freedom” (381). This simple but beautiful analogy had previously been picked up by Philo, but was not to be seen in many of the following works examined within the periscope of this course. When one compares incidents such as this to his work on, say, the First Word which requires worship of God alone in both veneration and adoration, one can see Calvin as a faithful interpreter of scripture seeking to rid discussion of this text which the harmful “playfulness of the human mind” which had worked to “dream up various rites with which to deserve well” of God (371). In looking at Christ and the commands of both Sinai and Olives, Calvin saw himself working to cleanse the temple of all the additives and preservatives of the ‘modern’ church life. One may take the work as it was, and decide for themselves the value of just such a work.

[1] I am using the term as discussed by Robert Webber in the same named work discussing the changing beliefs and values of the upcoming generation of Evangelicals. As Christianity Today has noted in an issue last year, there has been a predominant upswing in Calvinistic theology among today’s Evangelicals.

[2] An example of this can be found on pg 381 where he discussed the incarnation as a victory over the devil, a prominent salvific motif of the early church which lost some luster in the succeeding eras.

[3] An example of this can be found on pp. 373-4 where he argued against the teaching of Aquinas that the teaching of Christ added something not found in the Mosaic Law.


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