A Question of Hermeneutics from Two Theological Giants (Part 1)
An Essay By Benjamin // 5/13/2016
John Calvin and Augustine of Hippo were both great theologians of their day. But though separated by hundreds of years, they often proved to be doctrinal allies during the Reformation. After Calvin’s initial exposure to Augustine during his time at the College de Montaigu, he came to have a great respect for the theologian of Hippo. Calvin would later quote extensively from Augustine in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. However, though often doctrinally in agreement, their views came into sharp conflict when it came to how to interpret the Scriptures. While Calvin and Augustine both sought to discover the authorial intent of Scripture, only Calvin’s hermeneutic offered an objective standard to determine the true intent of the Author.
In order to understand the hermeneutics of these two men, we have to first understand their backgrounds and presuppositions.
Augustine’s early education was primarily rhetorical. He studied the classic rhetoricians in order to learn the art of rhetoric (Richard Norris, “Augustine and the Close of the Ancient Period,” 382). During this time, Augustine became caught up in Manicheanism, which he saw as an enlightened form of Christianity because of their rejection of the “barbarities” in Scripture and their pursuit of wisdom through asceticism (Ibid.). It was not long, however, before Augustine abandoned Manicheanism and fell into skepticism (Ibid.).
During this period of doubt, Augustine came across the works of Ambrose, bishop of Milan and a follower of the Alexandrian school of interpretation (Ibid.). Ambrose’s interpretations of Scripture skipped over the literal meaning of the text to find a deeper, spiritual meaning (Ibid., 383). This “new” method of interpreting Scripture enabled Augustine to see how he might get around the “barbarities” in Scripture and it drew him back to orthodox Christianity. He returned to the study of the Scriptures again, but this time with a view to understanding the “spirit” rather than the “letter” (Ibid.).
Calvin’s background shares several similarities with Augustine’s. Like Augustine, Calvin’s earliest training was for the clergy (Francois Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of his Religious Thought, 17) and during his education he studied the classic rhetoricians extensively. But the most prominent aspect of Calvin’s background was his humanism, which he did not share with Augustine. However, no one would have concluded after looking at Calvin’s earliest studies that he would ever become a humanist. After a brief time at the College de la Marche, Calvin spent five years at the College de Montaigu, a college that was known for its anti-Lutheran and anti-humanist positions (Ibid., 18). Despite this, Calvin developed friendships with many humanists during his time there so that when he left the college, he would have been identified as a Catholic humanist (Ibid., 19-20). After leaving the College de Montaigu, Calvin studied law at the Orleans University. Calvin’s commitment to humanism became clear during this time as he drove himself to pursue humanistic studies in addition to his strenuous courses in law (Ibid., 22-23). Calvin’s humanist studies ranged from scrutinizing the classic philosophers and rhetoricians to teaching himself Greek (Ibid.).
Calvin’s humanism revealed itself to the world in writing during his early twenties when he completed a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. This was Calvin’s first book and it would gain him a reputation as one of the great humanists (Ibid., 31). In this book, we can see Calvin’s humanist background as a commentator that would later appear in his commentaries on Scripture. Calvin’s methodology in this work was typical of the general practice of a humanist of his day. The work reflected Calvin’s careful attention to language, grammar, and logic as he carefully sought to uncover Seneca’s thought (Ibid.). Calvin’s later methodology in approaching Scripture would remain largely unchanged from his commentary on Seneca (David Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament). But it would be a mistake to claim that Calvin’s humanist background was the definitive aspect that defined his hermeneutic.
For both Calvin and Augustine, their doctrinal presuppositions were the key determinants for their respective hermeneutics.
When it came to the goal of biblical interpretation, Calvin and Augustine had very similar views that arose from their common understanding of the nature of inspiration. Augustine understood Scripture to be the ministering of God’s Word “to human beings through human beings” (Augustine, qtd. in Norris, 388). Human authors would write as they were guided by the Holy Spirit so that what they wrote was God’s own communication. However, the Holy Spirit worked in such a way that the human authors brought their own vocabulary and experiences into the text (Norris, 388). Based on this understanding of inspiration, Augustine drew two primary conclusions on the purpose of interpretation. Augustine saw that if Scripture was inspired by God, then the true meaning of Scripture was the intent of the Spirit who inspired the human authors. He therefore concluded that the primary purpose of interpretation was to know and understand the mind of the Author (Ibid.). Furthermore, if Scripture was indeed God’s word to mankind, then the true meaning of Scripture would provide edification to mankind. Because of this, Augustine’s second major concern when interpreting Scripture was contributing to the faith of his readers (Ibid., 392). These conclusions necessarily followed from Augustine’s doctrine of inspiration.
Calvin therefore came to very similar conclusions on the goals of interpretation because he held to a similar view of inspiration. Like Augustine, Calvin recognized God as the primary origin of Scripture, declaring that it “has nothing of human origin mixed with it” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 249). But at the same time Calvin did not believe that the authors had acted as automatons, dictating the words of the Holy Spirit. He held that the human authors had contributed their own personalities to the text (Barbara Pitkin, “John Calvin and the Interpretation of the Bible,” 174). Based on this understanding of inspiration as well as his humanist background, Calvin concluded with Augustine, that the ultimate goal of the interpreter is to know the intention of the Divine Author of Scripture (Ibid.). He wrote that the only responsibility of the interpreter of Scripture is “to lay open the mind of the writer whom he undertakes to explain,” concluding that “the degree in which he leads away his readers from it, in that degree he goes astray from his purpose, and in a manner wanders from his own boundaries” (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, xxiii). But in Calvin’s mind, understanding the intent of the human author was just as important to unlocking the meaning of the text as understanding the intent of the Divine Author. In fact, Calvin argued that no interpretation contrary to the human author’s intention could possibly be a valid interpretation of the text (Ibid.). Calvin thus took Augustine’s position one step further and identified an intrinsic connection between the intent of the Divine Author and that of the human author (Pitkin, 174). But despite this difference, Calvin and Augustine agreed that one of the primary goals of interpretation was to discover authorial intent. To a certain extent, Calvin even agreed with Augustine on what that intent was. Calvin believed that God had given Scripture for the edification of the Church, claiming, “This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father” (John Calvin, Preface to Olivétan’s New Testament). In these fundamental presuppositions about the purpose of hermeneutics, Calvin and Augustine wrote in harmony. Their radically different hermeneutics arose from their conflicting views on the clarity of God’s revelation to mankind.