Sacred Texts  Christianity  Calvin  Index  Previous  Next 

Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 45: Catholic Epistles, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at


THE Dedication to King Edward the Sixth is remarkably interesting, as it refers to the character of Popery at that day, and to its manoeuvres with regard to a General Council. The language is strong, and perhaps rougher than what would be at present used, but still true according to all we gather from history as to the state of things in those days. The main principles of Popery are still the same, and similar are its proceedings, though they may be more disguised, and its spirit is equally intolerant and persecuting. Like Mahomedanism, it is exclusive, and ever injurious to the harmony and peace of society.

The order in which the Epistles are arranged is not the same as in our version. There has not been a uniformity in this respect among the ancients. The reason for the arrangement here adopted was probably this, that the First Epistle of Peter, and the First of John, had, from the beginning, been universally acknowledged as genuine, while the Epistle of James, the Second of Peter, and that of Jude, had not from the first been universally received as canonical, though they were eventually so received. The Second and the Third Epistle of John were evidently not deemed by Calvin as “catholic;” and for this reason, as it seems, he omitted them.

The word “Catholic,” or General, as applied to the Epistles here explained, has been differently understood. Some have thought that they have been thus called, because they contain catholic truths; but other Epistles might, for this reason, be also called catholic. Others have supposed that catholic is synonymous with canonical; but in this case also there is no more reason for applying the word to these Epistles than to any other Epistles. But the more probable opinion is, that they were called Catholic, or General, because they were not written to any particular Church, but to Jewish or to Gentile Christians generally. Moreover, the term was not given them at first, but in subsequent ages.

The most probable dates of the five Epistles here explained are the following: —



The Epistle of James,

A.D. 61

The First Epistle of Peter,

A.D. 65

The Second Epistle of Peter,

A.D. 65

The Epistle of Jude,

A.D. 66

The First, Epistle of John

A.D. 68


This is the order according to the dates most approved by the learned. There is, for the most part, a unanimity as to the dates of the three first Epistles; but with regard to the Epistle of Jude, and the First Epistle of John, there is not the same agreement. There are many who fix later dates: to Jude, 90, and to John, 91 or 92. But this is a matter of no great consequence.

No doubt can be justly entertained but that James, called the Less, was the author of the Epistle. He was the son of Alphaeus or Cleopas, and of Mary, probably a cousin, not a sister, of Mary the mother of our Lord. Hence he is called our Lord’s brother, (Ga 1:19;) that is, a near relative, as the Word brother is often taken in Scripture. He took a leading part in the council held at Jerusalem, mentioned in Ac 15; and, according to Jerome, he resided there thirty years, and presided over the Church. He was put to death, as Hegesippus relates, who flourished in the second century, by a tumultuous mob, excited by Jewish zealots, in the year 62.

The canonicity of James’s Epistle has been a subject of dispute, though almost universally allowed in the present day. The facts respecting it, according to Basnage, are these, — During the three first centuries it was not extensively known; in the fourth century its authenticity was by some disputed; but in the fifth century it was universally acknowledged as genuine; and it has ever since been so acknowledged, with a very few exceptions. What seems to be a sufficient evidence in its favor is the fact, that it is found as a part of Holy Scripture in the first Syriac Version, which was made early in the second century.

The occasion of writing the Epistle appears to have been the abuse made of the doctrine of free grace by professing Christians, — a subject referred to also by Paul in Ro 6, and in his other Epistles. Abounding grace is at one time despised and rejected; at another time it is turned into licentiousness: these are evils which have ever prevailed in the Church. The Pharisee is too proud to receive grace; the Antinomian pretends to receive and magnify grace, that he may gratify the inclinations of his sinful nature. It was against the Antinomian that James wrote his Epistle.

According to Lardner and Macknight, the Epistle was addressed to the whole Jewish nation, at home and abroad, believers and unbelievers; according to Grotius and Wall, to the Jews dispersed abroad indiscriminately, believing and unbelieving; according to Michaelis, to the believing Jews, while the unbelieving were not overlooked; but according to Beza and Scott, to the scattered Jews who professed the Christian faith. And this last opinion has the strongest reasons and evidence in its favor.  1

With regard to the First Epistle of Peter, there has never been a doubt respecting its genuineness. This Apostle took a prominent part at first in the cause of Christianity, but of his labors after the council at Jerusalem, in the year 49, recorded in Ac 15, we have no account in Scripture. Mention is indeed made, in Ga 2:11, of his being afterwards at Antioch. It has been justly concluded from the superscription of this Epistle that he exercised his ministry in those parts which are here mentioned.

It was thought by Beza and Grotius that the Epistle was addressed to converted Jews; but by Doddridge, Macknight, and Scott, to Christians in general, both Jews and Gentiles. The latter opinion is the most probable. The arguments assigned by Horne, in his Introduction, in favor of the former opinion, are by no means satisfactory.

With regard to the Second Epistle of Peter, doubts have been entertained by some as to its authenticity. It appears that it was not at first so widely known as his First Epistle; and this was probably the reason why there were some during the first three centuries who did not regard it as genuine. But it has been quoted as a part of Scripture by some of the earliest Fathers, and fully acknowledged as authentic by those of the fourth and succeeding centuries.

The First Epistle of John has from the beginning been uniformly received as a portion of Divine Revelation. Some difference has existed as to the persons for whom it was especially intended, — a matter of no great importance. Some have supposed it to have been written for the Jewish Christians in Judea; but others, with more probability, for Christians generally, both Jewish and Gentile.

Though there is no name attached to it, yet there has been universal consent from the beginning that John was its author; and indeed the style of it throughout is sufficient to shew that he was the writer of it; for his Gospel and the Book of Revelation are in this respect exactly alike; and it is a style peculiarly his own.

Jude, or Judas, was, as he says, the brother of James, and therefore the son of Alphaeus or Cleopas. Though he does not call himself an apostle, yet he proved himself to be so by saying that he was the brother of James. He is called, as James was, the brother of our Lord, Mt 13:55. We have in Scripture no account of his ministry after the day of Pentecost.

His Epistle was not at first universally received as canonical. This is acknowledged by Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome; at the same time, they themselves so regarded it; and Jerome says that in his day it was by most received as genuine; and it has been quoted as a part of Scripture by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine.  2

That some of the Epistles were not universally received as authentic at first is no matter of wonder, when we consider the scattered condition of the Church, and the scanty means of communication. The fact, that some had doubts respecting them does not in the least degree invalidate their genuineness; on the contrary, it has conduced to strengthen the evidence in their favor; for the doubts of some must have occasioned a more minute inquiry as to their authenticity. And it was not long before all the Epistles, about which there had been some doubts, had attained the universal approbation of the Church; and what Lardner states is worthy of special attention, — That no writings, received by the primitive Church as genuine, have been since proved to be spurious; and that no writings, regarded by it as spurious, have been since proved to be genuine.

The Editor must mention here, what perhaps he ought to have mentioned before, — that in his translations he has not always retained what is called the historical present tense, which is often used by Calvin, according to the practice of Latin and Greek writers, and also of the Prophets and the Evangelists. This mode of writing does not accord with the usage of the present day.

Our translators have not been uniform in this respect either in the New or the Old Testament; for they sometimes departed from the original as to this tense, though, for the most part, they retained it. As, for instance, in Joh 11:39-40, the historical present is not retained in the 39th, while it is retained in the 40th verse. The anomalies as to the tenses often met with, especially in the Psalms, have arisen from overlooking this peculiarity. The future in Hebrew is very often used for the present; and this is the historical present, and ought to be rendered in our language in the past tense.

ThrussIngton, Sept. 29, 1855.



See Horne’s Introduction, vol. 4, part 2, chap. 4, sect. 3.


See Wolfius’ Prolegomena to this Epistle.

Next: Calvin's Dedication