A Question of Hermeneutics from Two Theological Giants (Part 2)

An Essay By Benjamin // 5/23/2016
Calvin believed that God’s communication in Scripture was clear and understandable. He argued that God had revealed Himself through the written word of Scripture because man in his sinfulness was too dull to perceive or understand God through creation. Because of this, he compared Scripture to a pair of glasses that takes our confused vision and shows us with clarity the radiant glories of God (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 70). Calvin logically concluded that if God gave Scripture to reveal Himself to us, He would not fill Scripture with obscurities or hidden meanings. Intentional obscurities in the text would only indicate that God had been unable to communicate clearly. This understanding of the perspicuity of Scripture led Calvin to conclude that there was a single correct understanding of any given text, which he referred to throughout his commentaries as the “natural” or “plain” sense of the text (David C. Steinmetz, “John Calvin as an Interpreter of the Bible,” 285). This does not mean that Calvin saw all Scripture as woodenly literal. On the contrary, he often took interpretations that other commentators had referred to as spiritual or typological and presented them as the natural sense of the text (Ibid., 285). For example, when Calvin speaks of the tree of life, he argues that it was set before Adam as a “symbol and memorial of the life which he had received from God” (John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 116). In fact, Calvin goes so far as to claim that the tree of life was a figure of Christ (Ibid., 117). And yet, Calvin argues that this symbolic and typological interpretation is securely based in a natural reading of the text. From the context, Calvin notes that it would be absurd for us to claim that this tree could actually impart life to Adam since Adam had already received life directly from God, who is the ultimate Source of all life (Ibid., 116). Thus, the tree served as an “attestation of [God’s] grace” rather than an object endued with His life-giving power (Ibid.). Calvin then argued that since the Apostle John describes Christ as the source of all life (John 1:4) in the New Testament, the tree of life ultimately pointed figuratively to Christ (Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 117). Even when Calvin adopts a symbolic or typological interpretation, he does not attempt to search after a deeper, hidden meaning behind the text, but only to adopt whatever interpretation arises out of a natural reading of the text in the context of the entirety of divine revelation.
Augustine, on the other hand, approached Scripture with the assumption that it was full of ambiguities and obscurities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between an obscure Scripture and the nature of God. Rather, he saw these obscurities as tools designed to drive the reader to search deeper, reaching beyond the plain sense of the text to an allegorical, hidden meaning. In his commentary on Genesis written against the Manichees, Augustine describes Scripture as a cloud that waters us with the words of God (Augustine, On Genesis, 100). As we look into this cloud for our spiritual food, we see only dimly “in an enigma” (Ibid.). By this, he means that the authors of Scripture did not always – or even often – present their meaning in its plain sense, but commonly wrote in an enigmatic sense designed to exercise the reader and point him towards the author’s true meaning (Ibid., 28). Augustine believed that while every part of Scripture possesses a literal meaning, that literal meaning is often merely the “outward expression and evidence of the ‘mind’ that governs them” (Norris, 395). Thus, if the goal of the interpreter is to discover the author’s intent – the “mind” behind the text – Augustine argued that we have to identify and explain these obscure passages in an allegorical sense (Norris, 391-392).
Because of their differing views on the perspicuity of Scripture, Calvin and Augustine approached Scripture with dramatically different hermeneutics.
In his emphasis on the edification of the Church, Augustine often resorted to allegorizing the text in order to get around the obscurities and come to the edifying meaning behind the text. In fact, Augustine went so far as to claim that every interpretation of Scripture that contributes to faith is valid (Norris, 399). We can see an example of this in his interpretation of Genesis 1:28 in his Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees. Augustine argues that we should understand the fish, birds, and creeping animals that God put under Adam’s authority in this verse as figuratively referring to “the affections and emotions of our soul” (Augustine, On Genesis, 78). Augustine claims that the allegorical sense of Genesis 1:28 is that we should keep our affections and emotions in subjection and “have mastery over them by temperance and modesty” (Ibid.). Throughout this allegorical interpretation, however, Augustine acknowledges that there is a literal, historical meaning of the text – he believes that there was a literal Adam who was given literal dominion over literal animals (Ibid.). But he promotes his allegorical interpretation as an alternative understanding of the text because it moves past the externals to the “mind” behind the text, thus providing edification for the Church (Ibid.).
Augustine, however, later seemed to regret his failure to address the literal meaning of Genesis in this earlier work against the Manichees. In fact, in his commentary on the literal interpretation of Genesis, he stated, “The narrative of these books is not written in a literary style proper to allegory…but from beginning to end in a style proper to history” (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 8.1.2). He even goes so far as to appear to condemn those who adopt a figurative interpretation of Genesis,

“…[I]n Genesis, since there are matters beyond the ken of readers who focus their gaze on the familiar course of nature, they are unwilling to have these matters taken in the literal sense but prefer to understand them in a figurative sense” (Ibid.)

But Augustine was not challenging a figurative interpretation in and of itself, but only the view that a figurative interpretation was either the best, or even the only interpretation. This explains why he contrasts Genesis to the Canticle of Canticles, a book that was strictly allegorical (Ibid.). Augustine’s later attempt at writing a literal interpretation on Genesis did not condemn his earlier allegorical work as a failure (Augustine, On Genesis, 36). It only affirmed Augustine’s conviction that the allegorical sense was not the only valid sense. While in his early years he had believed that it was impossible to interpret Genesis literally, later in life, he came to see that the literal interpretation was also valid. In fact, he came to the conclusion that the literal interpretation was likely the human author’s intention – what he calls the proper sense of the text (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 8.2.5).
But in another of his later works, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine makes it clear that he does not believe the human author’s intent to be the only valid meaning of the text. On the contrary, there can be multiple valid interpretations of a text, “even though the meaning the writer intended remain undiscovered,” so long as “it can be shown from other passages of Scripture that any of the interpretations put on the words is in harmony with the truth” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 3.27.38). Augustine claims that the Holy Spirit “made provision” for multiple interpretations to “occur” to the reader (Ibid.). In this, he remained largely unmoved from his earlier years when he had argued that anything that is true is a legitimate interpretation of any given text of Scripture (Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustin, 12.31.42).
Therefore, it is not surprising that even after writing a commentary on the literal meaning of Genesis, Augustine continued to espouse his allegorical interpretations. For example, in one of his later works, The City of God, written just shortly after his Literal Meaning of Genesis, he describes the days in Genesis figuratively, declaring that “morning” refers to creation’s returning “to the praise and love of the Creator” from the “evening,” which he describes as “the knowledge of the creature” (Augustine, The City of God, 11.7). He claims that Scripture’s avoidance of the word “night” indicates that creation never allowed the knowledge of itself to turn it away from the Creator (Ibid.). Thus, even after concluding that the literal interpretation of Genesis was the proper interpretation, Augustine continued to uphold allegory as a valid sense in his interpretation.
Calvin on the other hand, argued that everything God spoke in Scripture is clear and true and useful (John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 420). Thus, all interpretations beyond the literal interpretation are necessarily invalid because they look past the clear meaning of Scripture and turn the clarity of Scripture into obscurity. Calvin explained that the reason why Scripture might sometimes seem dark and ambiguous is because of the “dullness and slowness of our apprehension” (Ibid., 421). Thus, Calvin saw the literal sense and the spiritual applications of the text as one and the same. When Calvin interpreted Scripture, he sought to find the author’s intended meaning and then apply that single, literal meaning to his readers or hearers (Pitkin, 354). For example, when Calvin approached Genesis 1:28, he interpreted man’s dominion over the animals literally, arguing that this referred to man’s authority as God’s vicegerent over creation (John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 96). Calvin argues that the intent of the author of Genesis was to demonstrate God’s graciousness and goodness in providing man with “an immense profusion of wealth” and in honoring mankind with such dignity (Ibid.). Calvin then applies the plain and simple meaning of the text to his readers, encouraging them to look to God for their support and sustenance with the confidence that “if God had such care for us before we existed, He will by no means leave us destitute of food and of other necessities of life, now that we are placed in the world” (Ibid.).
Calvin’s belief in the single intent of the author was rooted in his humanistic background. He clung to the humanist belief that each author had a primary point that they were trying to get across to their readers and that every text within a given work should be interpreted with this main purpose in mind (Randall Zachman, “Calvin as Commentator on Genesis,” 10). But in order to understand the author’s intent for a text, the interpreter had to understand the historical and literary context of the text (Pitkin, 176). In other words, the interpreter had to understand the literal meaning of the text. This did not mean that a text could never be taken figuratively. On the contrary, Calvin would argue that if the historical and literary context indicated that the author intended the text to be taken figuratively, the figurative sense of the text is the literal meaning of the text (Ibid.). A literal or historical exegesis simply meant that the text remained grounded in the literal and historical context in which it was written (Ibid.). This naturally led to the conclusion that the author could only have one specific intended meaning for the text in its particular literary and historical context. Calvin’s humanist background drove him away from the traditional view of the Middle Ages to conclude that there could only be one meaning for any given text, and that one meaning was the intent of the human author as well as the Divine Author.
Calvin’s devotion to the single authorial intent of Scripture was so strong that even in passages that appeared to have little or no edificatory value, Calvin stuck to the natural sense and searched out how it might be naturally understood in such a way that it could also bring edification to the Church. One example of this is Calvin’s interpretation of the days in Genesis 1. It is particularly interesting to compare Calvin’s interpretation of this passage with the allegory offered by Augustine because they actually arrive at the same application of the text. But while Augustine had to force his allegories on the text to come to this conclusion, Calvin stayed true to the original intent. Augustine’s viewed the days in Genesis 1 with their evenings and mornings as pointless details – if interpreted literally. But, as we saw earlier, he argued that if taken figuratively, the evenings and mornings can refer to the creature turning from the knowledge of itself to the praise and glory of the Creator through the various areas of creation (Augustine, The City of God, 11.7). Thus, the application of this text is that when we examine creation, we ought always to make sure to allow the knowledge of creation to lead us to glorify the Creator (Ibid.).
Calvin arrives at a very similar conclusion, but draws this conclusion from the natural sense of the text instead of from Augustine’s forced interpretation. Calvin understands the terms “evening” and “morning” to refer to the literal evening and morning of a day (Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 78). Calvin then argues that God had created in six days instead of instantaneously in order to remedy our tendency to pass lightly over God’s creative work. Thus, God “distributed the creation of the world into successive portions, that he might fix our attention, and compel us, as if he had laid his hand upon us, to pause and to reflect” (Ibid.). Calvin concludes that when we consider how God spread out the work of creation over six days, we should marvel over each aspect of creation and from the creation, turn to worship the infinite glory of the Creator (Ibid.).
From Augustine’s point of view, both of these interpretations are equally valid, particularly because they arrive at the same conclusion on application. In fact, he would likely argue that the Holy Spirit intended for both of these meanings in the text. But Calvin clung to the perspicuity of Scripture and maintained that there was only one valid interpretation of the text, and that was the intent, both of the Divine Author and the human author. Calvin’s determination to know the original intent of the human author as well as the Divine Author and to understand Genesis and its edificatory value from the natural sense of the text led Phillip Schaff to describe him as the “founder of modern historical-grammatical exegesis” (qtd. in Puckett, 56). Calvin’s commitment to the single meaning of the text was the basis for all the particulars of his exegetical method – every aspect of his exegetical method was designed to uncover the single meaning of the text.