Calvin, Exegesis, and Thelogy: A Silvanic Approach

According to Jim West, Stephen R. Holmes suggests in what appears to be a most interesting article that those wishing to find the center of Calvin’s thought would be well advised to look for it primarily in his commentaries rather than in the celebrated Institutes, often the only text to which people turn in that quest. That is some good advice as far as it goes, and to the extent that folks neglect Calvin’s commentaries, I agree with Jim’s further suggestion that they should set aside the Institutes and pick those up instead. I worry, however, that if taken beyond its proper corrective use, this bit of advice would only reverse the error, and encourage folks to focus on the commentaries and neglect the Institutes! Instead, it must always be kept in mind that there is a truly symbiotic relationship between Calvin’s exegesis and his theology, and that in their interplay, they demonstrably enriched each other over the course of the Reformer’s career. No one has made this point better than the infallible Moisés Silva himself:

“The first edition of the Institutes was published when Calvin was a very young man, and the subsequent revisions and expansions reflect both his growing knowledge of historical theology (references to the Fathers and medieval theologians increase sharply in each subsequent edition) and his greater attention to exegetical work. No one is likely to argue that these two sides of his work were independent of each otheras though he forgot about his theology when he exegeted (and that is why his commentaries are good!), or did not pay attention to the Bible when he did theology (and that is why the Institutes are so bad!). My own thesis is that both his exegesis and his theology are superb precisely because they are related” (page 303).

And in a footnote to this last sentence, he goes on to say:

“Calvin himself saw his two projects as complementary. In his introductory statement to the Institutes (‘John Calvin to the Reader‘), he tells us that his aim in this work was to help ‘candidates in sacred theology’ grasp ‘the sum of religion in all its parts’ and thus guide them in the study of Scripture. Such a compendium would make it possible for him, when writing his commentaries, to avoid long doctrinal discussions. In his view, the proper use of the commentaries presupposed that the student was ‘armed with a knowledge of the present work, as a necessary tool’ (4-5)” (page 303).

Indeed, as Silva had already noted in the introduction to this chapter, “one must recognize that during the course of two decades, Calvin’s theological thought guided his exegesis, while his exegesis kept contributing to his theology,” since, after all, “[t]he first edition of the Institutes appeared in 1536 and the last one in 1559, and during those two decades most of the commentaries were produced” (page 295).

These quotations come from Silva’s wonderful article “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics,” chapter 18 of Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007). I note with great delight that in this new edition, the essay includes a meaty seven-page postcript that further elaborates on the topics discussed in its original form “in the light of the history of interpretation, and in connection with a related issue, namely, the New Testament use of the Old Testament” (page 312). Splendid!

5 responses to “Calvin, Exegesis, and Thelogy: A Silvanic Approach

  1. Don’t you think it should be ‘a Silvic appoach’? ‘Silvanic’ suggested to me an adjectival form of ‘Silvanus’.


  2. Indeed, but this is a play on “Isaianic,” given that one of Silva’s areas of specialization as a researcher is, and I quote, the “linguistic patterns in the Hexaplaric recension of
    the Greek text of Isaiah.” ;-)

    (Incidentally, Silva’s widely recognized expertise in the LXX/OG Isaiah led to his selection as translator of that book in the NETS.)


  3. Yvette> Aww, shucks, thanks! :-)

    Manuel> ¡Saludos! Gracias por hacerme saber que también admiras a Moisés Silva–es bueno saber que uno no está solo en el mundo. ;-) Gracias por comentar aquí, y mil gracias también por tu «blog», que recién acabo de descubrir y cuya existencia me da muchísimo gusto.


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