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Thursday, July 28, 2005 

Calvin's Accomodating OT Hermeneutics

Reading: "Problems With the Patriarchs: John Calvin's Interpretation of Difficult Passages in Genesis" WTJ
Listening: Only the AC unit, still haven't got the music uploaded yet.
Enjoying: Black and Gold on briar

Just got volume 67, No. 1 of the Westminster Theological Journal the other day. The opening article is by Scott M. Manetsch of TEDS, entitled above. His article is part of a larger movement in academia reflecting on Calvin the preacher in his commentaries rather than merely his theological reflections (a la the Institutes). After dealing with the logistics necessary for interacting with Calvin in theological prose, commentary, and notated sermon, Manetsch subdivides his investigation. He treats
four "naturally obscure" difficulties of Genesis, as well as two instances where various sins of Abraham and Noah are displayed in the text.

In wrestling with the former, questions such as "Was Moses an astronomer?" will eventually break the surface. However, Manetsch often shies away from attempting to deal with the texts in other disciplines, such as science or anthropology (methinks wisely). Instead, he allows Calvin to speak through copious footnotes, revealing The Theologian's genius, exegetical skills and biblical theology for the excellence it was and still is. Also during this time, he emphasizes Calvin's doctrine of
accomodare: the idea that
Here in the early chapters of Genesis, Calvin frequently reminds his audience that the scriptural text - as a speech-bridge between infinite deity and finite humanity - regularly employs rude and unrefined language in order to communicate divine truth in a manner comprehensible to the reader... Hence, when Moses wrote that God planted a garden in Eden (Gen. 2:8), he was "accomodating himself, by a simple and uncultivated style, to the capacity of the vulgar..." It is ultimately the Holy Spirit who "accomodates" himself to human capacity in the language of Scripture. Accomodation reflects God's fatherly love for human beings and his desire to instruct them despite the limitations of their finitude and sin... [Moses] has chosen to communicate God's truth in language suitable for the understanding of children. pp. 12 - 13
This is a desperately needed, nearly totally forgotten doctrine/hermeneutic that the Enlightenment cashed in early on. When dealing with the sins of the patriarchs, Manetsch focuses on two: Noah's drunkenness after the ark and Abram's use of Sarai when traveling abroad. In the instance of each man, according to Manetsch The Theologian emphasizes the righteousness and praiseworthyness of each man, while never excusing or making light of their faults. Separately, the value and dignity of properly partaking of wine, and the horrendous sin and terror that results from its misuse, are both themes emphasized in his expounding. Somewhat similarly, Abram's motives are never questioned, and only his execution is condemned. Both men are held up as examples to be followed, while the grave error and seriousness of their sins is placarded before the congregation as the reality of the deceit of sin - even a patriarch can stumble. The Theologian, while critical of the men and their sins in prose and commentary, is much gentler and encouraging in preaching.

Overall, Manetsch's article is well done. He (wisely) limits his scope to keep the material manageable, and proves an able historical scholar. The only thing I would have liked to have seen was more comparisons between sermons and the
Institutes. Alternatives to this, I think, would have been to look at other, smaller, works (especially On the Sacraments) that would have dealt with the patriarchs. Nevertheless, Manetsch did a terrific job.

I was surprised at his findings. I agree theologically with Calvin, and am not sure I would have made the transition (were I called upon to preach Genesis). I think I would have stuck with the moral flaws of the patriarch's, emphasizing justification by faith alone, the grace of God, and Jesus as our only example and hope. (Peter Leithart's A House For My Name is another example of someone who thinks the patriarchs get a bad rap, and should be viewed as basically obedient and righteous.) But then again, the main reason The Theologian was doing this was to edify his congregation. So maybe I have something to learn. As I said, the article was great.

For more, I would recommend:

Ford Lewis Battles "God was Accomodating Himself to Human Capacity" Readings in Calvin's Theology (Wipf & Stock, 1998)
David F. Wright "Calvin's Accomodating God"
Calvinus Sincerioris Religionis Vindex (Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1997) [***** Five stars! A must have!]
Check the link to CCEL at the right.

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Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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