Bad Calvin


I don’t think Calvin could get a job at Westminster Philly:

Hebrews 2:7. Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels. A new difficulty now emerges in the exposition of these words. I have already shown that the passage is properly to be expounded as referring to the Son of God, but the apostle now seems to use the words in a different sense from that in which David understood them. The phrase ‘a little’ (βραχύ τι) seems to refer to time, as meaning for a little while, and denotes the humiliation when Christ emptied Himself, and restricts His glory to the day of resurrection, whereas David extends it in general to the whole life of man. I answer that it was not the purpose of the apostle to give an accurate exposition of the words. There is nothing improper if he looks for allusions in the words to embellish the case he is presenting, as Paul does in Rom. 10.6 when he cites evidence from Moses — ‘Who shall ascend into heaven’, etc. — adding the words about heaven and hell not as an explanation but as an embellishment. David’s meaning is this: Lord Thou hast raised man to such dignity that he is very little distant from divine or angelic honour, since he is given authority over the whole world. The apostle has no intention of overthrowing this meaning or of giving it a different turn; but he only bids us consider the humiliation of Christ, which was shown forth for a short time, and then the glory with which He is crowned for ever, and he does this more by alluding to the words than by expounding what David meant.

[John Calvin, Hebrews and I & II Peter, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, p. 22-23]

According to Westminster Theological Seminary, if the NT author is not “expounding what David meant,” then you can find yourself a new job. Sorry, Calvin. You’ll have to go to Fuller. By the way, Herman Bavinck could not get a job at Westminster either, as Wyatt Houtz has provided for us. If Calvin and Bavinck are too loosey-goosey for your Reformed seminary, then you might want to reevaluate your doctrine of Scripture.

I am referring to the fiasco surrounding the forced retirement of Professor Douglas Green from WTS. Professor Bill Evans (Erskine College) has given the most thoughtful responses. I mentioned the controversy briefly back in June:

Professor Green teaches that the “authorial intent” of the OT writers need not include an explicit christology. The divine intent, partially veiled in earlier redemptive history, was discerned by the NT writers in their (inspired) appropriation of the OT. Call me naive, but I thought this is what everyone believed.

[“Chicago’s Muddy Waters”]

It seems to me that the administration is benefiting, for their purposes, from the example of Peter Enns, who was similarly dismissed a few years ago. With Enns proving to be far more controversial, culminating in the rejection of Israel’s portrait of God in the conquest narratives, WTS can feel rather vindicated in dismissing him. Now with Green, they can likewise weather the criticism and point to the example of Enns. The problem, however, is that Green has not ventured along Enn’s path, not to any significant extent that I have seen. And if Bill Evans’ theological evaluation is sound, as I believe it is, then WTS is tragically isolating themselves — not in some brave contra mundum stance, but against the best of their own tradition.



  1. I’ve heard that the drive is caused by a couple particularly “generous” donors who are pulling strings. I’ve also heard that the motivation is due to an increased, non-American outreach. According to one professor there, China and other nations need to be presented with a non-messy (!) Bible. So out with Doug Green, and apparently Calvin and Bavinck, and hell, the Apostles were not systematic enough.

    Authorial intent is hard to prove. It is rather possible David knew he was writing about the Messiah. But how can we prove what was in his head. He might have intended both. Authors do double entendres all the time. This is revelation, God can open categories beyond what an ANE king would expect based on culture.

    But regardless, it’s another attempt at creating some pristine orthodoxy which is hardly orthodox, and, in shady sacking going on, not orthopractic either.


    • I’ve heard that the drive is caused by a couple particularly “generous” donors who are pulling strings.

      Not surprising. Not surprising at all. I had not heard about the outreach angle — presenting a “non-messy” Bible to the unevangelized — but that makes sense as well, given the mindset of neo-fundamentalist-style Calvinism.

      Authorial intent is hard to prove.

      Yes, this is at the heart of why the Chicago Statement is so inadequate — not because of German rationalism but because of the apostolic hermeneutic itself! I am doing a Bible study on Hebrews at my church — hence, the Calvin quote from his commentary on Hebrews — and it is perfectly evident that the author of Hebrews could not sign the Chicago Statement. Neither could Calvin or Bavinck, not unless Kevin Vanhoozer were allowed to interpret it.

      …not orthopractic either


  2. Authorial intent is hard to prove.

    Long before post-structuralism and post-modernism (like, over 70 years ago) the question of authorial intent had been raised by New Critics like T.S.Eliot and literary theorists like Northrop Frye (both, of course, btw, deeply Christian thinkers), as well as by psychoanalytical approaches to literature, and I can tell you that the “intentional fallacy” was a staple of the lit crit I absorbed as an English major at Wesleyan University in the late 60s. Conservative evangelicals obviously have a problem not only with science but with culture as such.

    It is rather possible David knew he was writing about the Messiah.

    Sorry, Cal, but that strikes me as preposterous as the idea that Isaiah knew he was writing about the Virgin Birth, particularly if you’re suggesting that the one knew about Jesus and the other knew about Mary. A viable biblical hermeneutics has got to do better than believing six impossible things before your first hit of the day of caffeine.

    • Why is it preposterous? You have got to give some sort of concrete criticism before comparing me to the Mad Hatter! I am thinking in terms of Jesus, when he spoke of Abraham seeing His day and rejoicing.

  3. Even John 8:56 I would interpret in terms of promise and fulfillment rather than predictively, as if Abraham had a picture of Jesus in his mind. In the whole passage of John 8:48ff., as Leslie Newbigin (no liberal!) observes, “How absurd to talk as if Abraham, and this man Jesus, living two thousand years apart, could have ‘seen’ each other” — Newbigin refers to the Jews’ “crude literalism”. Narratively, it functions to open “the way for the unfolding of a deeper truth”, viz., “before Abraham was, I am.” On its own, however, it is just that — a “literalist misunderstanding” (Newbigin again), about which there is something soothsayerish, even docetic.

    • Yet Abraham, according to Jesus, ‘saw’ something. I’m not being as crudely literal as you’re pegging my words, and maybe that’s a misunderstanding. What I am getting at is that Abraham, or Isaiah or David, understood something Messianic within their writings. Jesus does this with the Psalm David wrote, ‘The LORD said to my Lord…”. Did David see a vision of what Jesus looked like and other material visions of Palestine a 1000 years later? Probably not, but he saw something beyond himself, not coming from within but inspired from without.

      Of course, as Peter would put it, the prophets would speak better than they knew. What matters, in an idea coined by Robert F Capon, is that the Holy Spirit is the grand editor, drawing it all together.

      • ‘What I am getting at is that Abraham, or Isaiah or David, understood something Messianic within their writings.’

        But Peter Enns says that this is a ridiculous idea! Clearly the patriarchs are figments of Israel’s attempt at creating a national mythos in the wake of the exile.

  4. Kevin, Thanks for posting these good observations about Calvin’s hermeneutic, and for the link to my article. Just one minor correction: I am the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College (not Erskine Seminary).

    • Ah, I will make the correction. Thanks for stopping by. I found the first two chapters of Hebrews, replete with OT quotations, to be very illuminating for this whole controversy.

    • Probably not, but I have not read I&I, the book in question at the time. I have theological objections to the incarnation analogy for Scripture, but that does not in-itself constitute a removable offence. I would have to read I&I to see how far Enns moves beyond the modest form of “accommodation” that Calvin famously used. (I actually have a post coming-up on the incarnation analogy.) I do think that Enns today is obviously well-beyond the boundaries of WTS or most evangelical schools, even compared to the pre-neo-fundamentalist golden age of Reformed OT scholarship from the 70’s to 90’s : Meredith Kline, Bruce Waltke, etc.

      Interestingly, it should be noted that Enns seems to have indicated on his blog at various points that his current views are not much different than he has held for quite a long time, overlapping with his stint at WTS. At least, that was my impression, but I do not recall the details of what he said. If so, he was perhaps hiding his true views at the time, or he was simply in a state of limbo in his own mind on where he stands — and only in hindsight do the doubts get highlighted.

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