This article shows how the book of Romans played a role in the writing of the Institutes by John Calvin.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2009. 2 pages.

Roman Adventure Paul's Epistle Provides a Passageway to Profound Treasures

Calvin wrote the Institutes to set forth sound doctrine and, at the same time, to expose false teaching. Another reason the Institutes were written was to stimulate his readers to read his commentaries. In doing so, Calvin's ultimate purpose was for his readers to reflect deeply on the Scriptures themselves.

This aim of Calvin's can be clearly seen in his words to the reader of the Institutes:

Moreover, it has been my purpose in this labour to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling. For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents. If, after this road has, as it were, been paved, I shall publish any interpretations of Scripture, I shall always condense them, because I shall have no need to undertake long doctrinal discussions, and to digress into commonplaces. In this way the godly reader will be spared great annoyance and boredom, provided he approach Scripture armed with a knowledge of the present work, as a necessary tool.

Calvin, therefore, regarded the Institutes as a "necessary tool" or hermeneutical guide for reading Scripture. In his Latin preface to a French edition of the sermons of Chrysostom (a fourth century church father who was archbishop of Constantinople), Calvin emphasised the importance of producing aids to guide ordinary Christians in reading and understanding the Scriptures.

Since the "doctrinal discussion" on key Scriptural passages is to be found in the Institutes, Calvin's commentaries were written in a concise style. They focus at getting directly to the text of Scripture, its meaning and its application. This feature of Calvin's commentary writing style may be illustrated by a consideration of Calvin's commentary on Romans.

More than 70 commentaries on this important Pauline epistle were written in the first part of the 16th century. These were written by both Protestant and Roman Catholic authors. Calvin's commentary on Romans reveals that he was aware of the commentaries of his contemporaries. He was also aware of the contemporary issues that are referred to by these works.

Calvin particularly praised Bullinger's commentary on Romans for both its scholarship and its clarity: "He (ie Melanchthon) is followed by Bullinger who also rightly deserved much praise. For he adds to scholarship the quality of being at the same time easily understood, which he has proven in many works." Calvin's own commentary on Romans stands out for its conciseness and succinctness.

There appears to be a close link between Calvin's understanding of Romans and the Institutes. Statistical analysis reveals that in the first edition of the Institutes (1536) Calvin cited Romans as many as 162 times. This had increased to as many as 573 times in the final edition of the Institutes (1559).

The original Latin edition of the Institutes was published in 1536 (Basel) while the final Latin edition was published in 1559 (Geneva). In the intervening years, there were editions in 1551 (Strasbourg) and 1556 (Geneva). Some scholars suggest that Calvin's understanding of Romans influenced and undergirded subsequent editions of the Institutes.

In his commentary on Romans, Calvin wrote a dedication to Simon Grynaeus who succeeded Oecolampadius as the professor of theology at Basel. The dedication indicates the high regard Calvin had for the Word of God:

Although I sometimes disagree with other writers, or at least differ from them in some respects, it is right that I should be excused in this regard. We ought to have such a respect for the Word of God that any difference of interpretation on our part should alter it as little as possible.

Its majesty is somehow diminished, especially if we do not interpret it with great discretion and moderation. If it be considered a sin to corrupt what has been dedicated to God, we assuredly cannot tolerate anyone who handles that most sacred of all things on earth with unclean or even ill-prepared hands.

In this dedication to Grynaeus, Calvin points out that the understanding of Romans opens a passageway to understanding the whole of Scripture. Moreover, in the introductory section of the commentary where Calvin outlines an overview of Romans, he states that, "if we have gained a true understanding of this Epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of Scripture". Calvin thus considered the understanding of Romans to be the door and passageway that unlocks the meaning of other biblical texts. This may be illustrated, for example, by the number of times Calvin refers to Romans in his commentary on Genesis.

Calvin's commentary indicates that he had mastered Greek. On occasions Calvin would offer suggestions for a more accurate translation of the text into Latin which was the language widely used throughout Europe at the time. Calvin's desire was that the text of Scripture, and its implications for Christian faith and conduct, be expounded clearly and faithfully.

Calvin considered that the epistle to the Romans could be viewed as Consisting of three major sections: chapters 1-8; chapters 9-11 and chapters 12-16. For Calvin the first eight chapters are the heart of the epistle as in these chapters the Apostle Paul explains the doctrine of justification.

Calvin seemed to have his finger on the pulse with respect to theological issues.

This is reflected in the following comment of Calvin's on Romans 10:4:

The apostle here refutes the objection which might have been made against him. The Jews might have appeared to have pursued the right path, because they had devoted themselves to the righteousness of the law. It was necessary for Paul to disprove this false opinion. He does this by showing that those who seek to be justified by their own works are false interpreters of the law, because the law has been given to lead us by the hand to another righteousness. Indeed every doctrine of the law, every command, every promise, always points to Christ. We are, therefore, to apply all its parts to him. But we cannot do this, unless we are stripped of all righteousness, are overwhelmed by the knowledge of our sin, and seek unmerited righteousness from him alone.

We no longer have access to Calvin's sermons on Romans. His commentary on Romans, however, continues to stimulate us to work at understanding this important portion of the Word of God.

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