Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 1: Genesis, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Several of the Commentaries of Calvin on different portions of the Holy Scripture having been for some time before the public, through the labors of The Calvin Society; it is not improbable that the readers of the following pages will have already become in a great degree familiar with the writings of this celebrated Reformer.
It may, perhaps, therefore be thought an unnecessary, if not a presumptuous undertaking, to preface the present work with any general observations on the character of Calvin’s Expository Writings. But though the Commentary on Genesis was neither the first which Calvin wrote, nor the first which the Calvin Society has republished; yet since, in the ultimate arrangement of the Commentaries it must take the foremost place, the Editor has determined to offer such preliminary remarks as may seem desirable for a reader who begins to read the Commentaries of Calvin, as he begins to read the Bible itself, at the Book of Genesis. If, in taking such a course, he is charged with repeating some things which have been said by others before him, he will not be extremely anxious either to defend himself from the charge or to meet it with a denial.
It seems to be now generally admitted that though, in the brilliant constellation formed by the master-spirits of the Reformation, there were those who, in some respects, shone with brighter lustre than Calvin, yet, as a Commentator on Holy Scripture, he far outshines them all.
There is scarcely anything in which the wisdom of God has been more conspicuous, than in his choice of instruments for carrying into execution the different parts of that mighty revolution of sentiment, which affected, more or less, every portion of Europe during the sixteenth century.
Long before the issue of the movement was seen or apprehended, we behold Erasmus, the most accomplished scholar of the age, acting unconsciously as the pioneer of a Reformation, which at length he not only opposed, but apparently hated. He had been raised up by God to lash the vices of the Clergy, to expose the ignorance, venality, and sloth of the Mendicant Orders, and to exhibit the follies of Romanism in sarcastic invectives rendered imperishable by the elegant Latinity in which they were clothed. But he did still more. The world is indebted to him for the first edition of the entire New Testament in the Original Greek. 1 He had also the honor of being the first modern translator of the New Testament into Latin. 2 He published a valuable critical Commentary on the New Testament, which was early translated into English, and ordered to be placed in the Churches. 3 Yet, great as the service undoubtedly was which he rendered to the cause of truth, he never dared to cast the yoke of Rome from his own neck, never stooped to identify himself with the Protestant Reformers; but lived and died, as there is reason to fear, a mean, trickling, timeserving Romanist, panting for preferment in a Church, the unsoundness of which he had so fearfully exposed. It is not, however, to be denied that God employed him as a most important instrument in shaking the foundations of the Papacy, and in preparing the way for the more successful efforts of more sincere and devoted servants of God.
Among these Luther and Melancthon in one field, Calvin and Zuinglius in another, occupy posts of the greatest responsibility and usefulness; but Luther and Calvin are manifestly the great leaders in this cause.
In qualifications necessary for the commencing of this great struggle, we readily yield the palm to Luther. His indomitable energy, his noble bearing, his contempt for danger, his transparent honesty of purpose, his fiery zeal, his generous frankness — though too often degenerating into peremptory vehemence of spirit and rudeness of manner — eminently fitted him to take the lead in a warfare where so much was to be braved, to be endured, and to be accomplished.
There was still another qualification, which perhaps no man ever possessed in so high a degree as the Saxon Reformer, and that consisted in the prodigious mastery he had over his own mother-tongue. He seized on the rude, yet nervous and copious German of his ancestors, and taught it to speak with a combination of melody and force, which it had never known before. And his vernacular translation of the Holy Scriptures, in opening to the millions of the German empire the Fount of eternal life, also revealed to them the hitherto hidden beauties and powers of their own masculine tongue.
Calvin, like Luther, was a man of courage; but he wanted Luther’s fire, he wanted Luther’s ardent frankness of disposition; he wanted, in short, the faculty which Luther possessed in a preeminent degree, of laying hold on the affections, and of kindling the enthusiasm of a mighty nation.
Calvin, like Luther too, was a Translator of the Scriptures, and it is worthy of remark, that he also wrote in a far purer and better style than any of his contemporaries, or than any writers of an age near his own. But he had not the honor, which God conferred on Luther, of sending forth the sacred volume as a wholes through that great nation in which his language was spoken, and of thus pouring, by one single acts a flood of light upon millions of his countrymen.
But whatever advantage may lie on the side of Luther in the comparison, so far as it has yet been carried, we shall find it on the side of Calvin in grasp of intellect, in discriminating power, in calmness, clearness and force of argument, in patience of research, in solid learning, in every quality, in short, which is essential to an Expositor of Holy Writ. We are the better able to institute this comparison, because Luther himself wrote a Commentary on the Scriptures; but the slightest inspection of the two Commentaries will convince the Reader of Calvin’s intellectual superiority; and will show, that as a faithful, penetrating, and judicious expounder of the Holy Spirit’s meaning in the Scriptures, he left the great Leader of the Reformation at an immeasurable distance behind. 4
The doctrinal system of Calvin is too well known to require explanation in this place. It is, however, a mistake to suppose that, on those points in which Calvinism is deemed peculiarly to consist, he went a single step farther than Luther himself, and the great majority of the Reformers. He states his views with calmness, clearness and precision; he reasons on them dispassionately, and never shrinks from any consequences to which he perceives them to lead. But it would be the height of injustice to charge him with obtruding them at every turn upon his reader, or with attempting to force the language of Scripture to bear testimony to his own views.
No writer ever dealt more fairly and honestly by the Word of God. He is scrupulously careful to let it speak for itself, and to guard against every tendency of his own mind to put upon it a questionable meaning for the sake of establishing some doctrine which he feels to be important, or some theory which he is anxious to uphold. This is one of his prime excellencies. He will not maintain any doctrine, however orthodox and essential, by a text of Scripture which to him appears of doubtful application, or of inadequate force. For instance, firmly as he believed the doctrine of the Trinity, he refuses to derive an argument in its favor, from the plural form of the name of God in the first chapter of Genesis. It were easy to multiply examples of this kinds which, whether we agree in his conclusions or not, cannot fail to produce the conviction, that he is, at least, an honest Commentator, and will not make any passage of Scripture speak more or less than, according to his view, its Divine Author intended it to speak. Calvin has been charged with ignorance of the language in which the Old Testament was written. Father Simon says that he scarcely knew more of Hebrew than the letters! The charge is malicious and ill founded. It may, however, be allowed that a critical examination of the text of Holy Scripture was not the end which Calvin proposed to himself; nor had he perhaps the materials or the time necessary for that accurate investigation of word and syllables to which the Scriptures have more recently been subjected. Still his verbal criticisms are neither few nor unimportant, though he lays comparatively little stress upon them himself. 5
His great strength, however, is seen in the clear, comprehensive view he takes of the subject before him, in the facility with which he penetrates the meaning of his Author, in the lucid expression he gives to that meaning, in the variety of new yet solid and profitable thoughts which he frequently elicits from what are apparently the least promising portions of the sacred text, in the admirable precision with which he unfolds every doctrine of Holy Scripture, whether veiled under figures and types, or implied in prophetical allusions, or asserted in the records of the Gospel. As his own mind was completely imbued with the whole system of divine truth, and as his capacious memory never seemed to lose anything which it had once apprehended, he was always able to present a harmonized and consistent view of truth to his readers, and to show the relative position in which any given portion of it stood to all the rest. This has given a completeness and symmetry to his Commentaries which could scarcely have been looked for; as they were not composed in the order in which the Sacred Books stand in the Volume of Inspiration, nor perhaps in any order of which a clear account can now be given. He probably did not, at first, design to expound more than a single Book; and was led onwards by the course which his Expository Lectures in public took, to write first on one and then on another, till at length he traversed nearly the whole field of revealed truth.
That, in proceeding with such want of method, his work, instead of degenerating into a congeries of lax and unconnected observations constantly reiterated, should have maintained, to a great degree, the consistency of a regular and consecutive Commentary, is mainly to be imputed to the gigantic intellectual power by which he was distinguished. Through the whole of his writings, this power is everywhere visible, always in action, ingrafting upon every passing incident some forcible remark, which the reader no sooner sees than he wonders that it had not occurred to his own mind. A work so rich in thought is calculated to call into vigorous exercise the intellect of the reader; and, what is the best and highest use of reading, to compel him to think for himself. It is like seed-corn, the parent of the harvest.
It has been objected against Calvin by Bishop Horsley, — no mean authority in Biblical criticism, — that “by his want of taste, and by the poverty of his imagination, he was a most wretched Expositor of the Prophecies, — just as he would have been a wretched expositor of any secular poet.” 6 It is true, this censure is qualified by the acknowledgment that Calvin was “a man of great piety, great talents, and great learning.” Yet, after all, it would not, perhaps, be difficult to show that, as an expounder of the poetical portions of Holy Scripture, — the Psalms for instance, — Bishop Horsley more frequently errs through an excess of imagination, than Calvin does through the want of it. However this may be, it is not intended here to assert, either that Calvin possessed a high degree of poetical taste, or that he cultivated to any great extent the powers of the imagination. His mind was cast in the more severe mould of chastised, vigorous, and concentrated thought. They who seek for the flowers of poesy must go to some other master; they who would acquire habits of sustained intellectual exercise may spend their days and nights over the pages of Calvin.
But that which gives the greatest charm to these noble compositions is the genuine spirit of piety which breathes through them. The mind of the writer turns with ease and with obvious delight to the spiritual application of his subject. Hence the heart of the reader is often imperceptibly raised to high and heavenly things. The rare combination of intellect so profound and reasoning so acute, with piety so fervent, inspires the reader with a calm and elevated solemnity, and strengthens his conviction of the excellence and dignity of true religion.
On the mode in which The Editor has executed his task he may be permitted to say, that he has attempted to be faithful as a translator, without binding himself to a servile rendering of word for word, unmindful of the idiomatic differences between one language and another. Yet it has been his determination not to sacrifice sense to sound, nor to depart from the Author’s meaning for the sake of giving to any sentence a turn which might seem more agreeable to an English ear. He has occasionally softened an expression which appeared harsh in the original, and would appear harsher still in our own language and in our own times. But in such cases, he has generally placed the Latin expression before the reader in a note. He has done the same, when any sentence appeared capable of a different interpretation from that which is given in the translation. A few passages which justly offend against delicacy are left untranslated; and one it has been thought expedient entirely to omit. Some remarks are, however, made upon it in the proper place.
Clear as the Latin Style of Calvin generally is, yet his sententious mode of expressing himself occasionally leaves some ambiguity in his expressions. Such difficulties, however, have generally been overcome by the aid of the valuable French Translation, published at Geneva in the year 1564, — the year of Calvin’s death, — of which there is no reason to doubt that Calvin was the author. Frequent references to this translation in the notes will show to what extent assistance has been derived from it by the Editor.
An English Translation of this Commentary on Genesis, by Thomas Tymme, in black letter, was printed in the year 1578. It is, upon the whole, fairly executed; but nearly every criticism on Hebrew words is entirely passed over; and where the Translator has not had the sagacity to omit the whole of any such passage, he has betrayed his own ignorance of the language, and obscured the meaning of his author. Tymme claims for Calvin the credit of being the first foreign Protestant Commentator on Genesis who was made to speak in the English language. 7
The reader will find Calvin’s Latin Version of the sacred text placed side by side with our own excellent Authorised Translation. 8 This was thought the best method of meeting the wants of the public. The learned may see Calvin’s own words, which they will much prefer to any translation of them, however accurate; the unlearned will have before them that version of the Scriptures which from their youth they have been taught to reverence. Where Calvin’s version materially differs from our own, and especially where his comments are made on any such different rendering, ample explanation is given in the notes.
The Editor may be expected to say something respecting the notes generally, which he has ventured to append to this Commentary. Some may object that they are too few, others that they are superfluous. It would have been easy to have made them more numerous, had space permitted; and easier still to have omitted them altogether. But the writer of them thought it would hardly be doing justice to Calvin to leave everything exactly as he found it; for were the distinguished Author of the Commentary now alive to re-edit his own immortal work, there is no doubt that he would reject every error which the increased facilities for criticism would have enabled him to detect, and that he would throw fresh light on many topics which were, in his day, dimly seen, or quite misunderstood. And though it belongs not to an Editor to alter what is erroneous, or to incorporate in his Author’s Work any thoughts of his own, or of other men; yet it is not beyond his province, — provided he does it with becoming modesty, and with adequate information, — to point out mistakes, to suggest such considerations as may have led him to conclusions different from those of his Author, and to quote from other Writers’ passages, sometimes confirmatory of, sometimes adverse to, those advanced in the Work which he presents to the public. Within these limits the Editor has endeavored to confine himself. How far he has succeeded, it is not for him but for the candid and competent reader to determine.
As it was possible that a doubt might exist whether the version of Scripture used by Calvin was his own, or whether he had borrowed it from some other source; it was thought worth the labor to investigate the true state of the case, by having recourse to the excellent Library of the British Museum. For this purpose the several versions which Calvin was most likely to have adopted, had he not made one for himself, were subjected to examination. It was not necessary to refer to any made by Romanists; and those made by Protestants into the Latin language, which there was any probability he should use, were but two. One by Sebastian Munster, printed at Basle with the Hebrew Text, in 1534, from which the version of Calvin varies considerably; the other by Leo Juda and other learned men, printed at Zurich in 1543, and afterwards reprinted by Robert Stephens in 1545 and 1557. The last of these editions was made use of in comparing the versions of Leo Juda and Calvin; and though there certainly are differences, yet they are so slight as to leave the impression that Calvin took that of Leo Juda as his basis, and only altered it as he saw occasion. To give the reader, however, the opportunity of judging for himself, a few verses of the first chapter of Genesis are transcribed from each.
Version of Leo Juda
1. In principio creavit Deus coelum et terram.
Version of John Calvin
1. In principio creavit Deus coelum et terram.
2. Terra autem erat desolate et inanis, tenebraeque erant in superficie voraginis: et Spiritus Dei agitabat sese in superficie aquarum.
2. Terra autem erat informis et inanis, tenebraeque erant in superficie voraginis: et Spiritus Dei agitabat se in superficie aquarum.
3. Dixitque Deus, Sit Lux, et fuit lux.
3. Et dixit Deus, Sit Lux, et fuit lux.
4. Viditque Deus lucem quod esset bona, et divisit Deus lucem a tenebris.
4. Viditque Deus lucem quod bona esset, et divisit Deus lucem a tenebris.
5. Vocavitque Deus lucem Diem, et tenebras vocavit Noctem; fuitque vespera, et fuit mane dies unus.
5. Et vocavit Deus lucem Diem, et tenebras vocavit Noctem. Fuitque vespera, et fuit mane dies primus.
6. Dixit quoque Deus, Sit expansio, etc.
6. Et dixit Deus, Sit extensio, etc.
A similar examination was next resorted to, for the purpose of ascertaining the source of Calvin’s French Version. The first printed version of the Scriptures into French was from the pen of Jacques Le Fevre d’Estaples; or, as he was more commonly called, Jacobus Faber Stapulensis. It was printed at Antwerp, by Martin L’Empereur. Though its author was in communion with the Church of Rome, yet the version is “said to be the basis of all subsequent French Bibles, whether executed by Romanists or Protestants.” 9
The first Protestant French Bible was published by Robert Peter Olivetan, with the assistance of his relative, the illustrious John Calvin, who corrected the Antwerp edition wherever it differed from the Hebrew. 10 It might have been expected that Calvin would have placed this version — made under his own eye, and perfected by his own assistance without alteration at the head of his Commentaries. But it appears that he has not done so, for though he departs but little from it, he not unfrequently alters a word or two in the translation.
While on the subject of Versions, it may be added, that in The Old English Translation by Tymme already alluded to, The Geneva Version is used. This translation was made by the learned exiles from England during the Marian Persecution, and is sometimes distinguished from others by the name of The Breeches Bible, on account of the rendering of Ge 3:7. 11
To give the reader some notion of the order in which Calvin’s Commentaries succeeded each other, the following List, with the dates appended, taken from Senebier’s Literary History of Geneva, is submitted to his consideration:
1540 Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans
1548 Commentary on all the Epistles of Paul 12
1551 Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Epistles of Peter,
John, Jude, and James
1551 Commentary on Isaiah
1552 Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles
1554 Commentary on Genesis
1557 Commentary on the Psalms
1557 Commentary on Hosea
1559 Commentary on the Twelve Minor Prophets
1561 Commentary on Daniel
1562 Commentary on Joshua 13
1563 Harmony of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy
1563 Commentary on Jeremiah
1563 Harmony of Three Gospels and Commentary on St John. 14
A facsimile of the title-page of the French Translation of 1563, and of the Dedication to the Duke of Vendome, as a specimen of the French style and spelling of the age, 15 and a further facsimile of the title-page of the English Translation of 1578, as well as of the Dedication to the Earl of Warwick by Thomas Tymme, prefixed to the latter, will be found in this edition. An accurate copy of the Map, roughly sketched by Calvin, for the purpose of explaining his hypothesis respecting the situation of the Garden of Eden, and which seems to have been the basis of the most approved theories on the subjects will be found in its proper place. The same Map is given in the French and English translations, and also in the Latin edition of Professor Hengstenberg, published at Berlin in the year 1838. It may be observed, as a coincidence, that the same sketch appears in the Anglo — Geneva Bible, to which reference has been made. A more elaborate Map accompanies the Amsterdam edition of Calvin’s Works, published in 1671.
The edition now issuing from the press is also enriched by an engraving, in the first style of art, of facsimiles of various medals of Calvin never before submitted to the British public. 16
Hull, January 1, 1847
Horne’s Introduction, vol. 5, Part I, chap. 1, sect. 4. London, 1846.
Ibid. vol. 5, Part I, chap. 1, sect.7.
The Editor has now before him “The first tome or volume of the paraphrase of Erasmus upon the Newe Testamente,” printed in 1548, with a dedication to King Edward VI, and another to Queen Catherine Parr, by Nicolas Udal. It appears that Udal translated the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Luke, and St. John; and Thomas Key, that of St. Mark.
Nothing is farther from the Editor’s intention than to speak slightingly of Luther’s Commentaries. That on the Galatians alone has laid the Church of Christ under lasting obligation to its Author. But its excellencies are not of the same order with those which mark the expository writings of Calvin. As a defense of the Gospel of Christ against the prevailing errors of the day — and, alas! of our own day too — it stands forth a masterpiece of sound argument and energetic declamation; and as a balm to wounded consciences, it remains to the present hour without a rival.
The reader is referred, for full information on this subject, to a small volume entitled, “The Merits of Calvin as an Interpreter of the Holy Scriptures,” by Professor Tholuck of Halle. To which are added, “Opinions and Testimonies of Foreign and British Divines and Scholars as to the Importance of the Writings of John Calvin.” With a Preface by the Revelation William Pringle. London, 1845.
See Horsley’s Sermons, vol. 1, p.72. In opposition to this testimony, it may be well to refer to that of Father Simon, a Roman Catholic, who says, “Calvinus sublimin ingenio pollebat,” Calvin possessed a sublime genius; and of Scaliger, who exclaims, “O quam Calvinus bene assequitur mentem prophetarum! — nemo melius,” Oh! How well has Calvin reached the meaning of the prophets — no one better.
See page 42.
The translator has pleasure in adducing the following testimony to our Authorized version from the pen of that excellent Biblical scholar, Albert Barnes of Philadelphia. “No translation of the Bible was ever made under more happy auspices; and it would now be impossible to furnish another translation in our language under circumstances so propitious. Whether we contemplate the number, the learning, or the piety of the men employed in it; the cool deliberation with which it was executed; the care taken that it should secure the approbation of the most learned men in a country that embosomed a vast amount of literature; the harmony with which they conducted their work; or the comparative perfection of the translation; we see equal cause of gratitude to the great Author of the Bible, that we have so pure a translation of his Word... It has become the standard of our language; and nowhere can the purity and expressive dignity of this language be so fully found as in the Sacred Scriptures.” — See Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Gospels, page 17. London, 1846.
Horne’s Introduction, vol. 5, p. 116.
Ibid. p. 118.
Prejudice has existed in some quarters against this version of the Holy Scriptures, on the ground that its Authors were too deeply imbued with Calvin’s sentiments. Bishop Horsley thus speaks of it: — “This English translation of the Bible, which is indeed upon the whole a very good one, and furnished with very edifying notes and illustrations, (except that in many points they savor too much of Calvinism,) was made and first published at Geneva, by the English Protestants, who fled thither from Mary’s persecution. During their residence there, they contracted a veneration for the character of Calvin, which was no more than was due to his great piety and his great learning: but they unfortunately contracted also a veneration for his opinions — a veneration more than was due to the opinions of any uninspired teacher. The bad effects of this unreasonable partiality, the Church of England feels, in some points, to the present day.” Such language, coming from such a quarter, furnishes strong testimony to the fact, (often very peremptorily and flippantly denied,) that the Church of England has, at least, some leaven of Calvinism in its composition. More accurate inquiry than Bishop Horsley’s prejudice allowed him to make, would show how largely the Reformers as a body were indebted to Calvin, how conscious they were of their obligation, and how deeply their writings were tinctured with his doctrine. But this is not the place for the discussion of such a subject. It is more to the purpose to observe, that the version of which we are now speaking, passed through more editions than any other, in the early periods of the Reformation; that it was mainly based upon that of the martyr Tyndale, that it was the ordinary Family Bible of the nation, and never was superseded till the present Authorized Version was produced in the reign of James the First.
The version in question has generally been spoken of as the production of the Exiles in Geneva; but by an accurate investigation of the subject, Mr. Anderson has made it appear highly probable, that the chief, if not the sole author of this version, was William Whittingham, who married the sister of John Calvin; and who, after the Marian persecution had ceased, remained a year and a half in Geneva to finish the work. On his return to England, he first accompanied the Earl of Warwick on a mission to the Court of France, and afterwards was made Dean of Durham. His objection to wear the prescribed habits occasioned him some trouble.
The circulation of this Bible in England was greatly promoted by the zealous exertions of John Bodley, Esq., a native of Exeter, an exile, during Mary’s reign, at Geneva, and the father of Sir Thomas Bodley, the munificent founder of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. John Bodley obtained a patent for printing this Bible from Queen Elizabeth, in the year 1560. See “Annals of the English Bible,” by Christopher Anderson, vol. 2, pp. 322-324.
Perfect accuracy is, perhaps, not to be expected in all these dates. Beza, in his Life of Calvin, says only that six of St. Paul’s Epistles were published this year, which were the two to the Corinthians, that to the Galatians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, and the Colossians.
Beza places the Commentary on Joshua in 1563, and says it was the last which Calvin wrote.
Histoire Literaire de Geneve, par Jean Senebier. Tome I. pp. 254-256.
The French title page is missing in the copy I have. The dedication in French has been omitted. — Sg.
The medals of Calvin are missing in the copy I have. — Sg.