Sermons on Job, by John Calvin. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993. 751 pp. $49.95 (hardcover). Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries: Daniel I (Chapters 1-6) by John Calvin. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Carlisle, Cumbria: The Paternoster Press, 1993. 300 pp. $24.99 (paper). Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries, by T. H. L. Parker. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1993. 239 pp. $16.99 (paper). Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, by T. H. L. Parker. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1993. 257 pp. $16.99 (paper). [Reviewed by the Editor.]
Several important, profitable books by and about John Calvin have recently been published.
The Banner of Truth has published the 159 sermons on Job that Calvin preached in 1554 and 1555. The worth of this big book can hardly be overestimated. It gives us the preaching of Calvin as he delivered the sermons. The sermons were taken down by a professional scribe hired for this purpose. The book is full of biblical exposition, sound doctrine, and exhortation to a godly life. Pastors will learn something about good, Reformed preaching. All Christians will be edified. Hear Calvin on Job 1:12, “And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD”:
Here at the first blush a man might marvel, why God did so give over his servant Job to Satan’s pleasure: is it meet that the Devil should have such credit with God, that when he craveth leave to work us mischief, God should grant it him. It seemeth that God favoreth him, and that he maketh sport with us in the mean while as with a tennis ball. But let us mark, that when God granteth Satan this thing, he doth it not to pleasure him, neither is he moved of any favor that he beareth towards him: but because he hath ordained it in his own purpose: he is not moved by Satan’s suit, nor persuaded by him to suffer Job to be punished. He had already so determined in his own purpose (p. 21).
Since this is a facsimile edition of the translation by Englishman Arthur Golding in 1574, the book is cast in Elizabethan English and uses the old English script. In no time, however, the attentive reader figures out that “v” is “u,” “u” is “v,” and a letter that looks for all the world like “f” is really “s.”
Adding to the value is a good table of contents (by 16th century Golding) that shows where in “this Booke” the “principal matters (are) conteyned.”
Calvin’s Daniel commentary is the first of two volumes on Daniel. This volume gives Calvin’s lectures on Daniel 1-6. A subsequent volume will give his lectures on chapters 7-12. This volume is also the firstfruits of the ambitious project by Rutherford House to provide a new translation in English of all of Calvin’s Old Testament commentaries. The Old Testament commentaries were last translated into English in the 19th century under the auspices of the Calvin Translation Society. This is the translation that was published by Eerdmans in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The commentary on Daniel published by Eerdmans in 1948 was the translation by one Thomas Myers in 1852. In his outstanding work, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries, T. H. L. Parker is critical of that 19th century translation of Calvin’s Old Testament commentaries:
The Old Testament volumes are in general badly edited. In few instances are the foot-notes at all helpful; often they are downright silly. The exceptions shine as rare gems. The editor of Genesis adds to the score against him that he omits anything that might bring a blush to the cheek of the young person, Gen. 19:31ff. and 38:10 are left out in toto. The translating in most of the volumes is unsatisfactory, not in the sense of gross incorrectness but in its imprecision. This was, it may be suspected, often deliberate, in their effort to make Calvin a good “Evangelical” of the mid-nineteenth century breed…. The truth was that the editors were not interested in presenting a sound edition of their author but only in supplying commentaries on the Bible that should carry the authority of Calvin’s name and therefore be of polemical service (pp. 2, 3).
Calvin’s New Testament commentaries have recently been retranslated into English. Now the Old Testament commentaries are being similarly published in a new English translation. The general editor of the project is D. F. Wright assisted by D. F. Kelly. Consultant editors are T. H. L. Parker, J. H. Leith, J. I. Packer, and R. S. Wallace. Contributing editors are R. C. Gamble, D. C. Lachman, A. N. S. Lane, and J. G. McConville.
The new translation of Calvin’s Daniel from the original Latin is by Calvin scholar, T. H. L. Parker. The translation is faithful and readable. Calvin’s lectures to his students (and this is what the Daniel commentary is), though helpful to the work of the seminarian and the pastor, are clear and instructive to the layman. Worthwhile simply as Calvin’s explanation of the Holy Scriptures, the commentary on Daniel has special importance by virtue of its treating God’s Word on the conflict between the kingdom of antichrist and the church in the last days. Commenting on the refusal of Daniel’s three friends to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s image as recorded in Daniel 3:16-18, Calvin said:
This is a most noteworthy passage. For first this reply is to be remarked: when men tempt us to deny God, we must shut our ears and admit no deliberation. For as soon as we even debate whether it is lawful to leave his pure worship we begin to injure God severely, whatever our reason may be. Would that it were well known to all that God’s glory is so transcendent, so vital, that everything must be put in its proper place when there is any thought of diminishing or obscuring that glory. But today the fallacy deceives very many into thinking it right to weigh in the scales, so to say, whether it might be best to swerve from the true worship of God for a time when some advantage on the other side suggests itself (p. 131).
The commentary exposes the suggestion by the theonomists that Calvin was postmillennial as the merest nonsense. In his explanation of the dream of the great image in Daniel 2, Calvin distinguished the kingdom of Christ—the little stone—from the other four kingdoms as heavenly, spiritual, and not visible or external. It is identical with the church. In the preface to the commentary, Calvin declared that “the throne and scepter of Christ is the preaching of the gospel.”
The book is handsome in appearance featuring Holbein’s flattering portrait of Calvin. The completed set will be impressive.
Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries and Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries by T. H. L. Parker are companion pieces. In these volumes, the noted Calvin scholar—and sympathetic spirit—analyzes Calvin’s commentaries on the books of the Bible. The work on the New Testament commentaries is more technical. It treats of such matters as the history of the writing and translating of the New Testament commentaries and the Greek text used by Calvin. The two most important chapters for the Protestant pastor are chapter four, “Calvin’s Method and Interpretation,” and chapter eight, “Prolegomena to Exegesis.” The latter has an interesting section on Calvin’s relation, in exegeting Scripture, to other interpreters of Holy Scripture. Calvin the exegete availed himself of the work of others, but also demonstrated, and insisted on, freedom of exegesis. He refused, for example, to be bound by the interpretation of Luther. This, he said, would constitute slavery for the minister of the Word called by God to work with the Scriptures.
It is Parker’s study of the Old Testament commentaries that is the gem. The book is a valuable introduction to the Reformed view of and work with Old Testament Scripture. It treats in some depth and at some length Calvin’s doctrine of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments; Calvin’s exposition of the history in the Old Testament Bible; Calvin’s view of the law; and Calvin’s interpretation of prophecy.
Parker’s description of Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant is intriguing (pp. 181ff.). It will sorely discomfit those who have convinced themselves that Calvin taught that the covenant is a conditional agreement and that the promise of the covenant is to all the natural progeny of Abraham.
Calvin’s attitude of childlike faith toward the Old Testament, as set forth by Parker (who barely hints at some doubts of his own about this attitude), is simply delightful. Referring to Calvin’s acceptance of all the miraculous in the Old Testament, Parker writes:
Improbability causes him no problems. He even goes out of his way to emphasize the improbability of some stories. We might say that the more improbable a story is, the better he is pleased. For Calvin’s world was one in which God himself was present and active continuously, a world in which, although men had wills and could use them, God’s will was done, a world in which God continuously and continually did miracles, the ordinary miracles of the created order or the extraordinary miracles transcending the created order (pp. 96, 97).
Parker illustrates Calvin’s attitude toward the “improbable” from Calvin’s explanation of the history of the flood, specifically the ark “how the humans were going even to survive for three days shut up in a box—’the smell of dung alone’ he says, ‘would have stifled all the living creatures in the Ark’. But all these problems would be looked after by God” (p. 98).
Coming through in every aspect of the Reformer’s explanation and application of the Old Testament is his reception in faith of the Scriptures as the very Word of God:
The fact is that for Calvin the Bible, the whole Bible and every nook and cranny of the Bible, is the Word of God as completely as if God himself had spoken the actual words. At every point, therefore, we are confronted by God’s will, God’s mind, and not by human purposes and ideas (p. 66).
God grant His church today spiritual sons of Calvin in the preaching and teaching of the Old Testament Bible.
Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries is a treasure.
This entire harvest of books by and about John Calvin is a feast for every student of Calvin and of the Word that he served faithfully and well in his day.