The Calvinistic Hermeneutic, Stated

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Hermeneutics is “the discipline that studies the theory, principles, and methods used to interpret texts, especially ancient ones such as the sacred Scriptures. Traditional hermeneutics focuses primarily on the discovery of the historical meaning as intended by the author and understood by the original audience.”1 Thus a Calvinistic hermeneutic is the discipline that studies the theory, principles, and methods which Calvinists use to interpret the Bible.

Do not be alarmed. Every Christian has a hermeneutic, a method of interpreting biblical texts. Whether one is a Calvinist, Arminian, Wesleyan, Pentecostal/Charismatic, Eastern Orthodox, or with whatever other Christian persuasion one may be aligned. Everyone who approaches any text, whether sacred or otherwise, interprets that text by a hermeneutical grid. This post will examine the Calvinistic hermeneutic, using Calvinist Moises Silva’s chapter, “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics.”2 My intention is for the reader to better understand Calvinism, and also give witness to the breach between Calvinists and Arminians at the foundational level of hermeneutics itself.

It is true that there is a “close connection between biblical interpretation and systematic theology” (251). It has always been this way. Even for John Calvin, his “exegetical method in the commentaries is absolutely identical to his use of the Bible in the Institutes, but one must recognize that during the course of over two decades, Calvin’s theological thought guided his exegesis, while his exegesis kept contributing to his theology” (251).

Whether or not one accepts Calvin’s conclusions on many theological issues, his legacy, records Church historian Philip Schaff, is that of “an exegetical genius of the first order. His commentaries are unsurpassed for originality, depth, perspicuity, soundness, and permanent value” (253). Schaff also noted Arminius on Calvin:

      Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s

Commentaries

      , which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself [a Dutch divine, 1551-1608]; for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison (

incomparabilem esse

      ) in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy (

spiritum aliquem prophetiae eximium

      ). His

Institutes

      ought to be studied after the [Heidelberg] Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination (

cum delectu

      ), like the writings of all men.

3

As Silva already noted, “it is not feasible to separate biblical interpretation from theology” (259). For Calvin, in Silva’s opinion, “both his expositions and his theology are superb precisely because they are related” (260). Silva argues, “But even if one has little use for Calvin’s system, I wish to suggest that exegesis stands to gain, rather than to lose, if it is consciously done within the framework of one’s theology” (260). However, he recognizes the problem with such a statement. He writes,

    Such an approach, admittedly, seems to be diametrically opposed to the aims of grammatico-historical exegesis. Three centuries ago scholars were already arguing, with great vigor, that systematic theology ~ especially in its classical form ~ must be kept quite separate from biblical interpretation. Indeed, it was not difficult to show that theological biases had frequently hampered the work of exegetes, even to the point of distorting the meaning of the text. True “historical” exegesis was understood, more and more, as interpretation that was not prejudiced by theological commitments (260).

Does one gain a systematic theology from proper, or strict, exegesis, or is exegesis born out of one’s theological presumptions and presuppositions? How much is one influenced by the other? And which one has priority? Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard write, “The aims and presuppositions of interpreters govern and even determine their interpretations. . . . [M]any interpreters find in a text precisely the meaning, and only the meaning, they expected (and wanted!) . . .”4 Silva noted that “proper exegesis should be informed by theological reflection. . . . [M]y theological system should tell me how to exegete” (261). If that appears as shocking and outrageous, it was intentional. Silva writes,

    [W]e should recognize that systematic theology is, to a large extent, an exercise in contextualization, that is, the attempt to reformulate the teaching of Scripture in ways that are meaningful and understandable to us in our present context. Sometimes, it is true, theologians have given the impression (or even claimed) that their descriptions are no more and no less than the teachings of Scripture and that therefore, being independent of the theologian’s historical context, those descriptions have permanent validity. But the very process of organizing the biblical data ~ to say nothing of the use of a different language in a different cultural setting ~ brings to bear the theologian’s own context (261).

For Calvin, and the majority of Calvinists today, God’s sovereignty is the standard hermeneutical grid by which they interpret all of Scripture (sovereignty meaning that God has already meticulously predetermined every minutiae of our existence by His unchangeable, predetermined, causative will). Roger Olson comments, “Of course, when Calvinists say that Arminians do not believe in God’s sovereignty, they undoubtedly are working with an a priori notion of sovereignty such that no concept but their own can possibly pass muster.”5 While that is true for the Calvinist, it is also true for the Arminian, for no Arminian is going to accept the Calvinist’s concept of sovereignty.

Concerning what impact this has on hermeneutics, Silva writes:

      With regard to exegetical practice, the doctrine of divine sovereignty makes us particularly sensitive to God’s workings in the history of redemption. Biblical narrative nowhere suggests that the divine plan has been frustrated by historical accidents or human obstinacy. While free agency and responsibility are clearly assumed, these human realities are pictured as coordinate with ~ indeed, subsumed under ~ God’s will for his people. . . .

The Reformed view of biblical inspiration . . . goes hand in hand with a Reformed understanding of history. The God who controls the events of history is the God who interprets those events in Scripture, and thus there can be no inherent contradiction between the two. . . .

The doctrine of divine sovereignty also helps us to appreciate the centrality of the concept of covenant in Scripture. As is well known, Calvinism has been characterized by an approach known as covenant theology. . . . Fundamentally, it refers to God’s dispositions in his plan of salvation. It is God who takes the initiative in forming a people for himself, so that the assurance “I am your God and you are my people” provides an all-pervasive principle throughout the history of redemption (from Gen. 17:7-8 to Rev. 21:3).

Faithfulness to this principle should guide the exegete at numerous points, as in passages that bear on the doctrine of salvation by grace, or when assessing the function of the Mosaic law in relation to the Abrahamic covenant. . . . Finally, an appreciation for the Calvinistic or Augustinian (indeed, Pauline!) doctrine of divine sovereignty and election affects one’s understanding of biblical interpretation as such. It is not difficult to recognize God’s lordship over biblical history without submitting ourselves to that lordship as interpreters (265-66).

Is there any wonder why there is friction with a Calvinistic understanding of biblical hermeneutics by those who disagree with its presuppositions? Of course not! It is quite expected. And reasonable debate is not only to be expected but should also be appreciated, for challenges force one to sharpen his theology. Silva notes, “Acquainting ourselves with the history of biblical interpretation can sometimes be a baffling experience. Looking around us even today, we become aware of theological controversies among believers and find them unspeakably depressing” (268). It does not have to be this way.

People of opposing theological positions would benefit themselves as well as their hearers (or readers) by objectively stating their position, while maintaining a Christlike attitude, resisting polemics, and realizing that it is possible that their presuppositions and hermeneutical grid could be wrong. For some, unfortunately, the mere possibility that aspects of their theology could be wrong is utterly unthinkable. For them, the option of any other theological position would almost be like believing a different religion with a different God. This is most unfortunate.

1 James D. Hernando, Dictionary of Hermeneutics (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2005), 23.

2 Moises Silva, “The Case for Calvinistic Hermenutics,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Moises Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994) 251-269.

3 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952-53), 8:280.

4 William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 143.

5 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 116.