Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 3: Harmony of the Law, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Coming into the field as a Translator of Calvin so late as I do, and after the various able Preliminary Notices of my predecessors in the task, it would ill become me to offer any lengthened remarks, either generally on the personal character and theological system of our illustrious author, or more particularly on his merits as a Commentator upon Scripture. It may not, however, be deemed superfluous that I should refer my readers to the brief but interesting Memoir of Calvin, written by his associate and friend Theodore Beza, and translated by Henry Beveridge, Esq., in Volume I. of Calvin’s Tracts in this Series. It would, I presume, be scarcely possible to produce within a similar compass any Biography of the great Reformer which could at all be brought into competition with this. That the colouring of partiality may be discerned in it, the circumstances of the case would lead us to expect; but as to the main facts of his life, whilst there can be little ground for supposing Beza to be ignorant of them, so is he above the suspicion of having intentionally falsified them. “Every reasonable person,” says Bayle “will agree with me, that, with respect to the historical sequence of Calvin’s travels, no author is more credible than Theodore Beza when the occurrences are of such a nature as neither to injure nor enhance the glory of Calvin.”
It would at any rate appear to be peculiarly unseasonable, at the present moment, to attempt any new Life of Calvin, when an announcement has recently been made of a large amount of materials having been discovered, which, when published, will probably throw much additional light on the subject. I allude to a statement of the French correspondent of the “Evangelical Christendom” for December 1851, vol. 5, p. 494, to the following effect: — “A young man, equally distinguished by his piety and learning, M. Jules Bonnet, had been commissioned, in the reign of Louis Philippe, to collect the unpublished Letters of Calvin in the Public Libraries of France, Geneva, etc. He has found 497, of which 190 are written in the French language, and 307 in Latin. This correspondence promises the greatest interest. It commences in 1524, when Calvin was yet on the benches of the University, and continues up to 1564, the period when the illustrious Reformer died. The greater part of these letters are addressed to Farel, Melancthon, Theodore Beza, and other distinguished theologians. The French letters are written to the King of Navarre, the Duchess of Ferrara, the Prince of Conde, etc. One is addressed to the Duke of Somerset, who exercised then high authority in England, and contains twenty-three pages.”
It may not be impossible that a more accurate examination of these documents will prove that some of them are already before the public; yet few, I think, into whose hands this work may fall will abstain from uniting in the hope expressed by our informant, that this correspondence should be published; or, if they are at all acquainted with the writings of Calvin, will fail to agree in the opinion that “it will present to literature some excellent models of style; to the historian, some precious documents; to the theologian, some interesting ideas; and to simple Christians, some edifying sentiments.”
I would even venture here to record my own fervent aspiration, that it may please God to dispose men’s hearts to afford such renewed encouragement to those who have undertaken the great national work of which this volume forms a portion, that it may not be abandoned until the whole Remains of Calvin, including the above-mentioned letters, shall have appeared in an English dress, and until every emanation from his almost miraculously fertile mind shall have enriched the religious literature of our age and country. I believe, however, I am correct in saying, that it will be impossible to put the top-stone on this monument of his Christian sagacity and industry, unless every exertion be made to obtain supporters by those who are desirous of its completion.
The Work, which it is now my privilege for the first time to introduce to the English Reader, is confessedly by no means the least worthy of its Author. One of the ablest and most laborious of our own Theological critics, Mr. Hartwell Horne, has especially singled it out for eulogy from amongst the whole series of Calvin’s commentaries. “His Harmony of the four last books of the Pentateuch (he says) has been much and deservedly admired for its ingenuity. The History contained in them forms a distinct part. The rest is comprised under the following divisions: —
1. Those passages which assert the excellency of the Law by way of Preface;
2. The Ten Commandments, under each of which are comprehended all those parts of the Law which relate to the same subject; and this forms the great body of the Harmony;
3. The Sum of the Law, containing those passages which enjoin Love to God, and Love to our Neighbor;
4. The Use of the Law; and lastly, its Sanctions of Promises and Threats.”
I have quoted Mr. Horne’s compendious account of the Book, in order that its character may at once be understood; and surely the very idea of thus combining and arranging this portion of Scripture, so as to present its contents in one simple and consistent whole, must strike us as indication of no ordinary grasp and originality of mind. With this Harmony before him, it is somewhat strange that Lightfoot should have thus expressed himself in the Epistle Dedicatory to his “Chronicle of the Times, and the Order of the Texts of the Old Testament;” “I do not remember that I ever heard or saw this kind of task undertaken in any language, namely, ‘to harmonize the Old Testament,’ and to lay the current of it in a proper series; and, therefore, I acknowledge I have made a very bold venture in attempting to break this ice, and to tread in these untrodden paths, for which foolhardiness I have no other plea than my own ignorance and the reader’s gentleness.” It was, one would suppose, hardly within the range of possibility that his ignorance could have extended to unacquaintance with this considerable work from the pen of Calvin; and yet, though his own plan was far more comprehensive, and at the same time less artificial in its management than that of Calvin, at least the boast of such absolute originality as he claims, seems to be barred by the existence of the Book I have translated. It is perhaps even still more remarkable that it should be passed over altogether by Dr. Townsend, in the account of previous Harmonies prefixed to his own valuable “Connexion of the Old Testament!”
The only solution I can give of this omission on the part of these two eminent writers — neither of whom would have been at all likely to do intentional injustice to the clarum et venerabile nomen in question — is that at which I have above hinted, viz., that whilst there are undoubtedly manifest points of similarity in their undertaking, there was still a considerable difference in the mode of its performance.
The object which Calvin had in view, and which he has so efficiently executed, was not so much to present the narrative of each of the four last books of the Pentateuch in its regular order of occurrence, though it necessarily happens that, with respect to a great part of them, this must incidentally be the case. His aim was a far higher one than that of a mere Chronologist. He sought not mainly to arrange the facts of Scripture, but rather to systematize its doctrines, and to bring out the mind of the Spirit of God in the revelation of His just, and good, and holy Law in a complete and harmonious form. His work was intended as an auxiliary in that important process of generalization, which every diligent and devout reader of the Bible must to a certain extent, though sometimes even unconsciously, carry on in his own mind; not satisfying himself with the notions conveyed by isolated texts, but “comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” until he arrives at a nearer comprehension of that perfect order which reigns in the midst of their apparent discrepancies.
The ingenuity of his arrangement it is impossible to gainsay. That it is open to objections, even of a graver character than have sometimes been alleged against ordinary Harmonies, he seems himself to have felt; but with his usual candor and ability, he meets them in the Preface, to which the reader is referred as the best apology for his motives, and the clearest exposition of his design.
But whatever may be thought of its execution, it is certain that we have here the opinions of a master-mind on various topics of paramount interest and importance, when it had attained its fullest maturity and development. We expressly learn from Beza, vide Life of Calvin, p. 82, that both the Commentary itself, and its Translation into French, which was made by himself, were amongst the labors of 1563, the penultimate year of his mortal existence, and this statement is confirmed both by Senebier, as quoted in the Translator’s Preface to Genesis, vol. 1, p. 18, and by Calvin’s own Dedicatory Epistle to the French Translation of the Commentaries on the whole Pentateuch, which is given in the latter work, p. 27, and which bears the date of Geneva, “le dernier jour le Juillet, M.D. LXIII.”
One can scarcely here forbear from a passing allusion to the gigantic, and almost incredible labor involved in these publications. “Calvin’s diseases (says his friend and biographer) had so much increased, and were so numerous, as to make it impossible to believe that so strong and noble a mind could be any longer confined in a body so fragile, so exhausted by labor, and, in fine, so broken down by suffering. But even then he could not be persuaded to spare himself. Nay, if at any time he abstained from public duty, (and he never did so without the greatest reluctance,) he still at home gave answers to those who consulted him, or wore out his amanuenses by dictating to them, though fatigued himself.” Making every allowance for the assistance he received in the mere mechanical portion of his Work; and viewing this arrangement, and its Commentary purely as an intellectual effort, it is surely a marvelous production under the circumstances here detailed, and, in itself, a remarkable evidence of the vast resources, and highly disciplined powers of the mind which gave it birth. Nay, more than this, may it not be fairly questioned whether it must not have been made “a labor of love” with him, and whether any less powerful impulse than love towards Him, who hath first so freely and so abundantly loved us, working in dependence upon strength from above, could have carried it through?
We may indeed well imagine, that it was an undertaking after his own heart, conceived, it may be, in earlier years, but reserved for execution as the appropriate solace of his declining age. As life wore on, or rather, in his ease, we may say, as life wore out; as daily experience increasingly taught him the imperfection of human wisdom; as the difficulties of his position 1 in the van of the Reformation thickened around him, doubtless the Scriptures of God grew more and more precious to his soul, and were still more highly valued as the counsellors of his mind and the delight of his heart.
There were certain subjects, too, necessarily brought before him in his meditation upon these particular Books, which must have been very congenial to him. It was not unnatural that he should take pleasure in soberly and calmly reviewing those doctrines which had so largely exercised his earlier thoughts, and that the distinctive tenets, which are usually associated with his name, and which, as the Article of the Church of England testifies, are “full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ,” should once more pass before him in his latter days, and demand his serious consideration. Here, then, was the opportunity. The Election of Israel, their Predestination, and Calling to be the Lord’s peculiar people, and the judicial blindness of wicked Pharaoh’s heart, led him to reflect and speak with more than ordinary fullness upon the divine decrees of our heavenly Father; and, perhaps, some of his most prejudiced opponents might be surprised to find the limitations which his system recognized, and the moderate tone of his statements, if they could be induced to examine them here in their particular application, rather than in the cruder and harsher form of general deductions and logical definitions. At any rate — if, according to Bishop Burnet, “the common fault on both sides (in this controversy) is, to charge one another with the consequences of their opinions, as if they were truly their tenets” — it must be confessed by all, that our Author is by no means guilty of denying the responsibility of the sinner, or the need of personal holiness in the righteous. If, elsewhere, he may have seemed to dogmatize too accurately, and too closely to confine the dealings of Almighty wisdom within the narrow tracks of human apprehension, they will perceive but little of such a spirit here. They will find him here, as in all his other Commentaries, a faithful and honest Expounder of God’s Word, seeking to build upon it no theories of his own, but to elicit in all sincerity and godly simplicity the instruction it was intended to impart. The error into which he may most justly be accused of falling, is not the making it assert too much but too little. The fancies of the Rabbins and of the Allegorists were his aversion; and it may be that he sometimes ran into the opposite extreme, and cleaved too rigidly to the literal interpretation.
But there is yet another reason why so firm an upholder of the truth and authenticity of the Bible should have been greatly interested in an exposition of the Pentateuch. Even before the days of Calvin these precious Books had been a favorite point for the unbeliever’s assaults. They had not, indeed, been so systematically impugned as in these latter times; but still their credit had even then been assailed with no inconsiderable subtlety, and particular points in them had been subjected to severe and unfavorable criticism. Calvin’s remarks are not unfrequently leveled directly against these adversaries; but, apart from this direct advocacy of the truth, his labors indirectly furnish one of the best barriers possible against the acceptance of the notion, that the books of the Pentateuch were but a collection of fragments, and by no means the production of a single Author. Nothing can more satisfactorily prove the unity of these Books than that homogeneous body of Truth into which Calvin has here resolved them.
I had intended to offer some observations upon the writers who have preceded and followed Calvin in his illustration of this part of the Bible. I find, however, that the necessity of the case would prevent me from presenting anything more than a mere Bibliographical Catalogue, which it would be easy enough to draw up, but which would here be somewhat out of place. It will be seen, that in the brief illustrative notes appended to the text, many of them have been referred to.
For the Notes on the Hebrew words, etc., signed W., I am indebted to my dear and venerable friend and neighbor, the Rev. Henry Walter, B.D. and F.R.S., Rector of Hasilbury Bryan, Dorset, formerly Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Honourable East India Company’s College at Haileybury. It is no slight personal gratification to me to have my name thus publicly associated with his; and I feel that it will operate with those, who are acquainted with his valuable Writings, as a high recommendation of the work.
In the Notes, C. will signify Calvin; L., Luther; S.M., Sebastian Munster; LXX, the Septuagint; A.V., our own Authorized Version; and V., the Latin Vulgate.
C. W. B.
May 12, 1852.
“Quia tu cum Bullingero ex primis illis columnis pene soli superestis, vobis quam diutissime (si ita Domino visum fuerit) frui cupimus.” — Grindal to Calvin, June 19, 1563. Parker Society’s Zurich Letters, 2d series, Letter xlii.