Man of the Bible
John Calvin was one of the truly great Christian exegetes and, indeed, systematic theologians of all time—never mind that I disagree with a great deal of what he has to say about God, his sovereignty, the nature of his grace, and election, predestination, and human freedom.
I attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which is largely in the Reformed tradition, even though I was an evangelical Methodist. I read Calvin, Theodore Beza, both Hodges (Charles and A. A.), B. B. Warfield, G. C. Berkouwer, Louis Berkhof, Cornelius Van Til, and various other Calvinists. I enjoyed taking a class on Calvin with T. H. L. Parker at the University of Durham in England during my doctoral studies and reading in his commentaries. The end result was discovering that when it comes to careful exegesis and consistent theological systems, Calvin had set the bar high.
Along the way, I also discovered exactly why I am not a Calvinist, and I became a more convinced Arminian as a result of reading Calvin. I also discovered that Calvinism is actually in the main a redoing of Augustine's theology. Calvin's is not at all a distinctively Protestant form of theologizing. But he deserves full marks for working out the logical implications of Augustinianism to the nth degree, as well as for adding some new wrinkles.
Above all for me, he is to be respected for understanding that biblical theology can only be done on the basis of a detailed and comprehensive exegesis of all the relevant material. This is precisely what I have tried to do in my career. I needed to follow Calvin's lead and begin by researching and writing commentaries on the entire New Testament corpus. Exegesis is the basis for all good biblical theology, and the latter should not be attempted without first doing the former.
Years ago my wife and I made a pilgrimage to Geneva. We visited the Reformers' memorials, and I even sat in Calvin's teaching chair (please don't tell the elderly Swiss guard at that shrine). As a Protestant, I owe much to Calvin as well as to Luther, as did my spiritual forebears John and Charles Wesley. Calvin's theology proved to be the iron offered by a brother who sharpened my own theology. For this I am truly grateful.
I have fond memories of working carefully through Calvin's Institutes for the first time, and being especially surprised by and taken with his profound theology of the Holy Spirit. I remember reading in Gordon-Conwell's newspaper a rather interesting historical curio from a letter of Calvin about how one morning he woke up and found himself speaking in lingua barbaria. The article went on to speculate that Calvin may have spoken in tongues!
All in all, Calvin lived out Bengel's maxim: Apply the whole of the text (of the Bible) to yourself. And apply the whole of yourself to the text. It's a motto by which any Christian should be proud to live.
Ben Witherington is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, Asbury, Kentucky.
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This article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Christianity Today as part of the series "What Calvin Gets Right: Even those who vigorously disagree with the Reformer are still impressed." Other articles in the series include:
Theologian of the Spirit | Calvin was no charismatic, but he was closer to it than some Reformed people readily admit. By Roger E. Olson
A Common Hope | Much of 'Calvinism' is simply Christianity. By John Wilson
Other articles on Calvin appearing in the September 2009 issue include:
John Calvin: Comeback Kid | Why the 500-year-old Reformer retains an enthusiastic following today.
The Reluctant Reformer | Calvin would have preferred the library carrel to the pulpit.
Calvin's Biggest Mistake | Why he assented to the execution of Michael Servetus.
More on Calvin is available in our full coverage area.