A Question of Hermeneutics from Two Theological Giants (Part 3)

An Essay By Benjamin // 5/23/2016
Calvin, with his humanist background, was convinced that “the understanding of an ancient text depended in the first instance on the mastery of the language in which it was written” (Steinmetz, 288). This belief was not just an idle claim for Calvin. It impacted how he read and taught from Scripture so that he would even bring the Hebrew and Greek texts with him to the pulpit and translate as he preached (Ibid.). Though scholars in Calvin’s day were beginning to recognize the value of the original languages, many – even among the humanists – questioned the usefulness of Hebrew studies to biblical interpretation (Puckett, 56). Calvin, however, subscribed to the view of the “Strasbourg-Basel-Zurich school of Hebraica” (Friedman, qtd. in Pitkin, 175), which stressed the importance of a knowledge of Hebrew and even encouraged a moderate use of rabbinic commentators in order to “clarify the meaning of the Old Testament” (Puckett, 57). Though Calvin probably was not an expert in Hebrew, his knowledge of Hebrew was proficient enough that he could competently use it (Ibid., 58). In fact, Calvin would often base his interpretations – at least in part – on points of Hebrew grammar or vocabulary (Ibid., 59). This is evident throughout the first three chapters of his commentary on Genesis. For example, in order to prove that Genesis 1:1 speaks of God creating ex nihilo, Calvin notes that the word translated “created” is the Hebrew term אבר meaning “to create” rather than ריצ which means “to frame or form” (Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 70).
Augustine, on the other hand, while he encouraged the study of the original languages, did not view the languages as especially useful in deciding between the various interpretations (On Christian Doctrine, 2.12.17). In fact, Augustine claimed that while the original languages might prove useful in distinguishing “the literal translation” from other interpretations, in the end it had little significance because “to those who read with knowledge, a great truth is to be found in each” (Ibid.). For Augustine, the study of the original languages was an interesting pursuit, but with little practical value.
Even Calvin recognized that the biblical languages did not work like some magical key that could unlock the meaning of Scripture. While he relied heavily on Hebrew in order to better understand the meaning of texts throughout the Old Testament, he did not believe that a mere knowledge of Hebrew could lead an interpreter of Scripture to “a precise understanding of the text” (Pitkin, 175). The original languages merely narrowed down the possibilities of what the text could mean (Ibid.).
In order to come to the precise meaning, context was king. This context could take on several forms. For example, when in doubt on the precise meaning of a specific word, Calvin would examine the usage of that word throughout Scripture and even in other Hebrew texts (Puckett, 62). For example, when commenting on Genesis 1:2, Calvin describes the common Hebrew usage of the terms והוח and והוב in order to better explain what Moses was trying to communicate by “without form, and void.” He writes that in the common Hebrew usage of these words, they generally refer to “anything empty and confused, or vain, and nothing worth,” thus setting the stage for the amazing creative work that God does in the rest of the chapter (Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 73). Calvin also would carefully examine the immediate context to determine the precise meaning of a word. For example, in commenting on Genesis 3:1, he notes that the Hebrew אףכי can mean “‘although’ or ‘indeed,’ and sometimes, ‘how much more’” (Ibid., 146). Calvin notes that only one of these fits naturally into the context, noting that the other possibilities are “not only forced” but also “proved to be false by the reply of Eve” (Ibid., 147). Thus, through the immediate context as well as the broader context of usage, Calvin sought out the precise meanings of the words in the text of Scripture.
But perhaps of even greater importance was Calvin’s determination to read the text in its historical context (John Thompson, “Calvin as a Biblical Interpreter,” 70). He sought to put himself in the author’s shoes so that he could understand the mind and intentions of the author (Ibid.). Thus, even before he gets into the text of Genesis in his commentary, he spends ten pages discussing “the design of Moses, or rather of the Holy Spirit, who has spoken by his mouth” (Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 59). In this section, he strives to understand and explain the main argument that Moses – and by extension, the Holy Spirit – was trying to make through the book of Genesis. One important issue relating to historical context that Calvin notes regarding Genesis 1-3 is that Moses saw himself as writing “the history of the creation of the world” – not some allegorical fable (Ibid., 57). Because of this, when Calvin interprets Genesis 1-3, he interprets it as history, plainly set out for Israel. This explains why Calvin was so critical of allegorical interpretations. Calvin saw that the allegorical interpretation ignored the historical context and thus failed to achieve the only purpose worth achieving for an interpreter – the intent of the author.
Augustine, on the other hand, believed that the intent of the Divine Author could extend far beyond what we might think was the intent of the human author. In fact, he argued that the human author as well as the Divine Author could have had an infinite number of intentions for any given text. Thus, Augustine did not concern himself much with the historical context of Genesis. He argued that Genesis was written as history in his The Literal Meaning of Genesis (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 8.1.2) and yet wrote of the same passages allegorically just a few years later in his The City of God.
Calvin and Augustine’s hermeneutics differed drastically in their particulars despite their agreements on the purpose of hermeneutics. These differences in the particulars of their hermeneutics have often been described in terms of the allegorical versus the literal interpretation. We can see these methods in full contrast in the two theologians’ interpretations of Genesis 2:5-6. This passage – in its literal sense – describes the earth prior to the creation of man – no plants of the field, no rain, and no man to cultivate the ground, but instead a mist rising up from the earth (Genesis 2:5-6).
Augustine, however, seeing no edificatory use in this literal sense, argues that the plants of the field figuratively refer to life, the rain to the Scriptures, and the field to a man’s soul (Augustine, On Genesis, 98). Augustine notes that just as the field produces plants and is made to live by rainfall, so the soul receives life – is made “green” – by the Word of God (Ibid.). He then argues that Genesis 2:5-6 is showing us that this was not always the case, but that before the fall – before man had to labor on the earth – the soul received life from within – from a perfect intellect that was capable of perfectly knowing and perceiving God without any external aids (Ibid., 99).
But while Augustine eloquently described this verse as allegorically referring to the life-giving propensities of the Scriptures, Calvin took the verse in its natural sense and still managed to find edificatory value from this seemingly empty verse. This verse describes the state of creation immediately after God’s creative work, “For the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground” (Genesis 2:5-6). Calvin took the verse in its natural sense, describing how the plants suddenly appeared, “sprung into existence at the command of God, and by the power of his word” (Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 110). Calvin notes the goodness of the original creation and of the God who created it in providing food that the earth produced without any labor on man’s part (Ibid., 111). Creation all seemed to work together for man’s benefit. And yet, Calvin notes that the focus and intent of the biblical author was the God was the source of all of this goodness. Even now, “it is God who opens and shuts the cataracts of heaven, and … rain and drought are in his hand” (Ibid.). Throughout Calvin’s commentaries and sermons on Genesis, we can see his determination to follow the author’s original intent perfectly meet and blend with his desire to edify the Church.
Even Augustine would have admired Calvin’s hermeneutic, for he writes,

“if anyone wanted to take everything that was said according to the letter, that is, to understand it exactly as the letter sounds, and could avoid blasphemies and explain everything in harmony with the Catholic faith, we should not only bear him no hostility, but regard him as a leading and highly praiseworthy interpreter” (Augustine, On Genesis, 95)

But because of his view on perspicuity and his belief in a plethora of intentions behind the text, the literal meaning remained just one of many possible interpretations.
Because of this, only Calvin’s hermeneutic could actually lead to the authorial intent of the text. Augustine’s hermeneutic falls short because it cannot offer an objective standard to determine the Author’s meaning. He argued that any interpretation of a passage that teaches true doctrine is valid, but he provided no way for us to know if a particular truth was the meaning that the Author intended to communicate through that passage. His only possible defense for his interpretations would be that they at least teach doctrine and applications that conform to the truth. But at that point, he would have to abandon his claims of finding the intention of the Author.
Augustine’s problem only becomes worse when we consider his claim that every interpretation of Scripture that conforms to the truth was intended by the Author. If every interpretation that conforms to the truth is intended by the Author, then we have no objective standard to determine truth. We have no basis for claiming that one interpretation conforms to the truth while another does not because we can have no assurance that our interpretations of even the “clear” passages are actually true. In this way, Augustine’s hermeneutic forces us towards one of two extremes. We must either rely on what we believe internally to be true when we approach Scripture or we must rely on what a community, such as a church, declares to be true. But if we rely on our internal perception of truth to interpret Scripture, then we are no longer searching for the Author’s intent but are instead forcing our intentions on Scripture. Similarly, if we rely on the declaration of a community, then we will only find the intent of that community in Scripture. In both cases, the interpreter fails to achieve what Augustine claimed was the foremost duty of the interpreter.
Calvin’s hermeneutic, on the other hand, actually reveals the Author’s intended meaning. Calvin recognized that if God had communicated Scripture in order to reveal Himself, then we must assume the perspicuity of Scripture. Once this is assumed, the method to uncover the Author’s intent follows naturally. Thus, of these two great theologians, only Calvin could truly find the author’s intended meaning. While Calvin and Augustine may have come to many of the same doctrinal conclusions on various issues, only Calvin could actually claim to rest his doctrine on an objective and authoritative foundation – the intent of the Author found in His Word through a literal interpretation of the text.