Calvin on How Systematic Theology Benefits Our Reading and Studying of The Bible

In an age where it seems like Biblicism has infected almost all of the American Evangelical Church, it will sound odd to most that we should need an external guide to help us read and understand the Bible. But this is exactly what John Calvin argues in his monumental work “Institutes of the Christian Religion”.

“I may further observe, that my object in this work has been, so to prepare and train candidates for the sacred office, for the study of the sacred volume, that they may both have an easy introduction to it, and be able to prosecute it with unfaltering step; for, if I mistake not, I have given a summary of religion in all its parts, and digested it in an order which will make it easy for any one, who rightly comprehends it, to ascertain both what he ought chiefly to look for in Scripture, and also to what head he ought to refer whatever is contained in it. Having thus, as it were, paved the way, as it will be unnecessary, in any Commentaries on Scripture which I may afterwards publish, to enter into long discussions of doctrinal points, and enlarge on commonplaces, I will compress them into narrow compass. In this way much trouble and fatigue will be spared to the pious reader, provided he comes prepared with a knowledge of the present work as an indispensable prerequisite. The system here followed being set forth as in a mirror in all my Commentaries, I think it better to let it speak for itself than to give any verbal explanation of it.” Epistle to the Reader from Institutes

As you can see, Calvin saw his Institutes as a companion to his commentaries, and to the reading and studying of the Bible. He says that his systematic theology “paves the way” for the studying of the scriptures. How so? Because systematic theology provides a framework of topics in which to place the teachings of scripture within as you read.

An analogy I thought of to describe this is a path winding through a large, thick forest. The forest represents the Scriptures, which contain a total of 66 books, 1,189 chapters and 31,102 verses. The path represents those who have gone before us and entered that forest to chart a path for us. We follow the path because it guides us safely through the forest. Calvin saw his Institutes as something that provides the students of scripture a pathway to understanding them properly.

To continue the analogy, the Biblicist impulse is to ignore the entrance to the forest and the path, and instead plunge right into the middle of the forest and blaze their own path. While this may be a noble sentiment, almost every major heresy that had plagued the Church was started by this impulse. God has handed down the creeds, confessions and writings of those who have gone before us, to help us navigate and understand the scriptures, which themselves still remain the SOLE and INFALLIBLE rule of faith and practice for the Church. This is a precarious balance to be sure: avoiding the one extreme of making tradition more authoritative than scripture and the other extreme of solo scriptura, which makes the Bible a book that is to be interpreted by the individual alone, apart from the history of the Church.

But for Calvin, there was a necessity of being taught not only TO read the scriptures, but also HOW to read the Scriptures and what to find in them. For further study on the relationship between Calvin’s Institutes and his commentaries, check out the quote below and click the link to check out his entire paper on the subject.

“From 1540 to the end of his life in 1564 Calvin produced commentaries in a variety of forms on 24 books of the Old Testament and all but three books of the New.  Biblical interpretation was a major focus of Calvin’s publishing career, and he saw his commentaries as a full theological partner with the Institutes.  That is to say, they were equally important genres, and were intended to be read together.  In the commentaries, one finds a thorough discussion of individual texts in conversation with the teachings of Scripture as a whole, as synthesized in the Institutes, but without extensive excurses on points of doctrine.  In the Institutes, one finds a synthesis of the consistent teachings of Scripture, supported with references to individual texts, but without extensive commentary on the texts.  This was Calvin’s plan as he laid it out in the “letter to the reader” from the 1539 second edition of the Institutes where he went so far as to refer to that work as a “necessary tool” for the study of Scripture.” Gary Neal Hansen

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