Calvin and the Biblical Languages

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 08/17/2010 by Mark Tubbs.

Recommended. A plea to modern Bible students and teachers to pursue linguistic knowledge of the original biblical languages.

Leading up to the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, multiple Christian authors and publishers pre-emptively joined the festivities by releasing Calvin-related titles having to do with Calvin's influence on everything from capitalism and commerce to church governance. Naturally, someone was bound to weigh in on Calvin's use of the Hebrew and Greek languages. John Currid, a professor of Old Testament at RTS Jackson, did so, and his contribution to the long conversation on Calvin is both worthwhile and enjoyable.

Currid's book is sequenced much like an hourglass, progressing from Calvin's broader roles in the Reformation to his more particular functions, and back again:

  1. The Christian Hercules
  2. The Exegetical Preacher
  3. King of Commentators
  4. This Most Faithful Interpreter
  5. The Academy
  6. That Singular Instrument of God

I read this book twice: once for information gathering, and a second time to ascertain any extreme bias that might render the book too unbalanced to recommend widely. As you might have inferred, a few of the chapter titles lionize Calvin something fierce. However, the contents are well balanced. For instance, Currid mentions more than once that Calvin didn't even break the Top 10 (my paraphrase) of Reformation language experts. In fact, Calvin deferred to fellow Reformer Martin Bucer when it came to the languages, even going so far as to prohibit the publication of his own commentary on the Psalms because Bucer's was superior. Moreover, Currid does not hesitate to point out a few places in which Calvin's interpretations were flawed.

Currid begins the book by explaining how Calvin restored the written Word of God to its rightful place, in tandem with faithful grammatical-historical interpretation. Quoting Reuss, the chief editor of Calvin's works, Currid reiterates the strident belief of "the greatest exegete of the sixteenth century" that the teaching of God cannot be properly understood unless we know the original styles and languages. Of course Calvin did not expect every single church member to be proficient in the languages, but he did stress the need for Bible teachers to possess a good knowledge of the Scriptures in the original languages.

Currid succeeds in conveying his main point - Calvin's belief that knowledge of the original languages was integral to Christian ministry - by constant and consistent reference to it throughout the biographical material comprising the bulk of the book. We are treated to interesting Calvinia tidbits in the course of the book, such as his habit of preaching extemporaneously, accompanied only by the Scripture text - in the original languages of course - and probably the Latin Vulgate.

The shortest chapter in the book, coming in at just 4.5 pages, demonstrates how Calvin's preparation and delivery began and ended with Scripture and prayer. These elements are truly the lifeblood of any preacher. The longest section in the book is an appendix containing the translated text of a Calvin sermon on Deuteronomy 16:1-4 which Currid has inserted as an illustration of Calvin's preaching style. Among the sermon's many attributes, Currid places special emphasis on five areas: the theological, Christological, polemical, pedagogic/didactic, and linguistic. Although Currid would like us to pay special attention to Calvin's use the Hebrew language, he warns us not to overlook the devotional purpose of the sermon: "the glorification of the majestic God of Israel and the Church."

This is a short book of just over 100 pages - good news for the layperson. Currid's intention is to celebrate Calvin and inform the reader, not to overwhelm and exhaust the reader with copious footnotes and myriad intellectual rabbit trails. It is a valuable book to read because, to put it briefly in the words of Fuhrmann, "for us to know Calvin the Reformer and Calvin the theologian, we must first know Calvin the exegete and linguist." Not to know and appreciate Calvin as an end in itself, however, but to know and use the original languages, as Calvin did, in order to be faithful to the call to preach the Word of God.