- John Calvin and the Grounding of Interpretation: Calvin's First Commentaries
In John Calvin and the Grounding of Interpretation, Ward Holder enters into the well-established debate regarding the inner consistency of Calvin's theology and interpretation of scripture, and offers a new, compelling solution. Holder proposes that the coherence of Calvin's thought becomes clear only when we distinguish between consistent hermeneutical principles and variable exegetical practices. Through the use of this distinction, "Calvin's work is seen as a grasping of the Christian religio, re-framed for the historical circumstances of the mid-sixteenth century" (10). Calvin's first set of biblical commentaries, focused on the Pauline epistles and produced between 1540 and 1551, serve as the example to demonstrate Holder's argument.
Holder divides his book, the revision of his dissertation, into seven chapters. The introductory chapter, "Readers and Readings," describes hermeneutical principles, in the case of theology, as the interpreter's innate assumptions about God and faith that remain constant over time and space, and exegetical practices as interpretive tools that may vary according to scripture passage, the interpreter's own circumstances, and the needs of his audience. In the second chapter, Holder lays out the "seven essential hermeneutic principles in Calvin's writing: hierarchical epistemology, scripture's authority, divine accommodation, the unity of the scripture's testimony, interpretation's goal, the hermeneutical circle, and edification" (36). The third chapter examines Calvin's "principal exegetical tools: paraphrase, [End Page 1236] contextual interpretation, scripture's self-interpretation, tradition's possibilities, the stance of humility, simplicity's sake, and the goal of fuller meaning" (90). In chapter 4, edification — teaching the members of the church how to live as a faithful Christian community — emerges clearly as Calvin's driving goal, and it is here that Holder first seriously considers the issue of Calvin's own historical context. He convincingly makes the point that Calvin's focus on edification necessitated that he take into consideration the nature of his Genevan audience (increasingly literate, largely bourgeois and artisan) and the form of communication that would best suit those individuals (clear and simple explanation).
In chapter 5, Holder turns to Calvin's connection to Augustine and demonstrates how the hermeneutics/exegesis distinction can be used to clarify that relationship. According to Holder, Calvin is substantially in agreement with Augustine's doctrine, but he is critical at times of Augustine's exegesis. The exegetical differences between the two theologians, Holder argues, can largely be explained by historical context, in particular by the different audiences for which Augustine and Calvin were writing — Calvin's audience being considerably more literate, with far greater access to printed texts.
In the following chapter, Holder takes this discussion a step further to argue persuasively that Calvin saw himself firmly within the current of the traditional, ancient church. In cases where Calvin disagreed with the church fathers' interpretations of scripture, he often used "historical contextualization to argue the reasons for the patristic authors who go astray" (243). In his brief concluding chapter, Holder reviews the importance of scripture, history, and church in Calvin's theology, which he summarizes as "the strength of the Holy Spirit's voice, speaking through the scriptures in all ages to a lived reality in the hearts of the believing community" (273).
Throughout this book, Holder grounds his arguments firmly in his thorough knowledge of his sources and the relevant scholarship. He supports his discussion with detailed footnotes, which demonstrate clearly the extensive reading in theology, literary theory, and history that underpin this project. On a technical note, the text would have benefited from a more thorough copyediting, a step which too many publishers seem willing to forgo these days. This problem does not, however, diminish the significance of Holder's contribution to the fields of Reformation history and historical theology.
A key aspect of this contribution is Holder's placing of the matter of historical context squarely into the discussion of...