Saturday, January 09, 2010
Uncle Ben's Book Blog: Calvin on Micah and Nahum
Calvin's expositions were not composed as commentaries per se, but were daily sequential lectures to students, moving straight through the book. Some things are not found in Calvin's commentaries (or in other commentaries at the time), but are now an expected part of commentary literature. The most notable of these is an introduction. Modern commentaries have sizable introductions, with more or less extended discussions of such things as author, date and occasion of writing, and themes and theology of the book. This introduction can easily take up 15% to 25% of the entire book. Calvin devotes a couple of paragraphs to date and author issues, then simply dives into the exposition. Another difference is the lack of outline, or subdivision of the book. Calvin simply takes a verse, or a few verses at a time, then proceeds to expound them.
Obviously part of this difference is the age. In the 21st century, much more has been written on these books than was available in Calvin's day, and the introduction is a way of summarizing this material for the reader. But in a certain sense, the introduction is often a history of doubt and skepticism, rather than a faithful reading of the biblical text. Thus, Calvin assumes that the opening verse of Micah (The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth, etc.) means that Micah wrote the book. Meanwhile, many modern commentaries will spend page upon page explaining why anyone but Micah may have written it. These extended discussions I do not miss.
But the lack of an overall view of the book given by an outline, or subdivisions of the book means that one can simply get lost in the movement of the book, and the text of the Bible gets reduced to the verse or two currently under discussion.
There are three refreshing characteristics to Calvin's exposition that are commonly missing in modern commentaries. First, he assumes that these are the words of God to men. Second, his exposition is insistently ecclesiological, that is, he explains the text for the church. Third, he also reads the text Christologically. For someone who, in his day, was often accused of being a judaizer (i.e., seeing Christ too infrequently in the Old Testament) Calvin certainly finds the Old Testament to be a mine of teaching about Christ.
A warning. If you go to Calvin;s commentaries expecting him to answer the questions you have about the text, you'll probably be disappointed. Read him for what he has to say, and listen to the questions he's asking of the text. I guarantee that you will be enriched in the reading.