Let the Bible Speak!
Anticipated by Christians worldwide, tomorrow, October 31, 2017, will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was fundamentally a return to the Bible. Over against Roman Catholicism’s claim that Scripture and church tradition are co-authoritative, the Reformers proclaimed that only Scripture is the final authority for faith and practice. Sola scriptura has often been called the “formal principle” of the Reformation because it identifies the source from which all Protestant theology flows, the basis of every other doctrine.
Practically speaking, though, what does it look like to embrace sola scriptura? We may tend to answer in the negative. We shouldn’t bind people’s consciences with human traditions, and we must reject any idea that conflicts with the teaching of Scripture. While these applications are necessary, I want to emphasize a more positive ramification: sola scriptura compels us to study the Bible carefully and expound it clearly.
LEARNING FROM CALVIN
The writings of Reformer John Calvin compellingly illustrate this truth. Calvin is widely known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Yet he viewed that work as a theological introduction to the Bible that would make it unnecessary for his biblical commentaries to digress extensively on doctrinal issues. Calvin makes this point in the “Epistle to the Reader” in the 1559 edition of the Institutes. Nearly twenty years earlier, however, he had expressed a parallel sentiment in the dedicatory epistle to his first commentary on a biblical book, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
Calvin dedicates the Romans commentary to his friend Simon Grynaeus, a professor of Greek at Basel. He begins with a reminiscence that leads into his statement of purpose:
I Remember that when three years ago we had a friendly converse as to the best mode of expounding Scripture, the plan which especially pleased you, seemed also to me the most entitled to approbation: we both thought that the chief excellency of an expounder consists in lucid brevity. And, indeed, since it is almost his only work to lay open the mind of the writer whom he undertakes to explain, 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. Hence we expressed a hope, that from the number of those who strive at this day to advance the interest of theology by this kind of labour, some one would be found, who would study plainness, and endeavour to avoid the evil of tiring his readers with prolixity. I know at the same time that this view is not taken by all, and that those who judge otherwise have their reasons; but still I cannot be drawn away from the love of what is compendious.
Richard Gamble has convincingly argued that Calvin’s goal of “lucid brevity” arose from his view of the Scriptures themselves.* As Gamble explains, Calvin viewed humanistic rhetoric as frivolous and man-exalting, while biblical rhetoric is economical and sharply focused on communicating truth. The Reformer’s expositions aimed at the same conciseness and clarity employed in the actual writing of Scripture.
Consequently—unlike some of the other Reformers—in his commentaries Calvin typically avoids quoting external authorities and exercises restraint when refuting contradictory views. As he argues at the end of the preface to his Psalms commentary, amassing an impressive array of materials would hinder the goal of interpretation—illumining the text for the edification of the Church.
This brings us to the heart of the issue. Calvin’s desire for “lucid brevity” reflects his approach to the task of interpretation. Verbosity would distract readers from the aim of unfolding the original intent of the authors of Scripture. As quoted above, “It is almost his [the expositor’s] only work to lay open the mind of the writer whom he undertakes to explain.” Or as Calvin said after explaining Psalm 8:2, “I have now discharged the duty of a faithful interpreter in opening up the mind of the prophet.”
Calvin’s focus on authorial intent led him to detailed exegesis following a grammatical-historical hermeneutic. He engaged in comparison of the textual evidence available to him. He provided a literal Latin translation of the passages he commented on, comparing the translations of others. He carried out careful linguistic analysis, studying word meanings and syntax in the original languages of Scripture. He also endeavored to interpret each biblical statement in connection with its context. Finally, he was judicious in the identification of typology, over against the allegorical excesses of medieval interpretation that continued to influence Martin Luther.
These are all hallmarks of Calvin’s commentaries, and he commented on almost all the books of the Bible! It’s no wonder that his commentaries remain in print centuries later and continue to be appreciated as reliable guides to the meaning of Scripture.
But to dwell only on Calvin’s commentaries could distort him into a dry, ivory-tower scholar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do his commentaries exude a devotional warmth, but Calvin viewed himself largely as a preacher.
At Geneva Calvin preached systematically through over thirty books of the Bible. Sunday mornings were taken up with New Testament books, and many Sunday afternoons were devoted to New Testament books or the Psalms. For part of his ministry, every other week the people would also gather at six or seven each weekday morning to hear Calvin preach, primarily from the Old Testament. (For details see T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching.)
John Calvin immortalized his dedication to sequential expository preaching in connection with the conflicts he had with the civil leaders of Geneva. After only eighteen months of ministry in Geneva, Calvin and his colleague William Farel were expelled by the city council in 1537. What did Calvin do when the council asked him to return? He stepped into his pulpit and began preaching at the passage where he had stopped three and a half years before!
APPLYING SOLA SCRIPTURA
By commending Calvin’s commentary-writing I’m not suggesting that we all need to follow suit. The Reformer’s massive literary output resulted from the unique intellect with which he was blessed. Nor do I view every detail of Calvin’s preaching ministry as a model. I might not, for example, preach 201 sermons on Deuteronomy, nor am I sure how this fit into Calvin’s goal of “lucid brevity.”
My point is that Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture had a definite impact on his ministry. Sola scriptura is not merely a weapon to combat Roman Catholic heresy. If the Bible is God’s verbally inspired Word and the only final authority, its every verse demands our diligent attention. Sola scriptura obliges every believer to use whatever abilities and resources he has—including prayer—to strive to understand what God is saying through the meaning intended by the human authors of Scripture. “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Ps. 119:15).
Protestant bibliology also motivates expository preaching. We practically deny sola scriptura when our preaching is characterized by eisegesis or superficial proof-texting, dominated by human-interest stories, or promoting of personal opinions. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
“The Bible is our only authority!” was the cry of the Protestant Reformation. “Then let the Bible speak!” responded Calvin. May our celebration of the Reformation renew our commitment to put its principles into practice.
*See “Brevitas et Facilitas: Toward an Understanding of Calvin’s Hermeneutics,” Westminster Theological Journal 47/1 (1985): 1-17; compare idem, “Calvin as Theologian and Exegete: Is There Anything New?” Calvin Theological Journal 23/2 (1988): 178-94; “Exposition and Method in Calvin,” Westminster Theological Journal 49/1 (1987): 153-65.
Image credit: Portrait of John Calvin attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, public domain