Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 3: Harmony of the Law, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
THE PREFACE OF JOHN CALVIN
TO THE FOUR LAST BOOKS OF MOSES;
Arranged By Him In Form Of A Harmony,
And Illustrated By Commentaries.
If I do not at once begin by stating my reasons for the plan I have adopted in the composition of this Work, it will undoubtedly incur the censures of many. Nor will it be attacked only by the malevolent and the envious, (a matter of little consequence,) but some will perhaps be found, who, with no other cause of disapproval, and without any malignity, will still think that I have inconsiderately, and therefore unnecessarily, altered the order which the Holy Spirit himself has prescribed to us. Now, there cannot be a doubt that what was dictated to Moses was excellent in itself, and perfectly adapted for the instruction of the people; but what he delivered in Four Books, it has been my endeavor so to collect and arrange, that, at first sight, and before a full examination of the subject, it might seem I was trying to improve upon it, which would be an act of audacity akin to sacrilege. I pass by those critics with indifference whose object is to frame causes of detraction out of nothing, and whose greatest pleasure it is to invent occasions of railing; but there will be no difficulty in conciliating those who are only unfavorable through misunderstanding, if they will but listen calmly to the course I have pursued. For I have had no other intention than, by this arrangement, to assist unpracticed readers, so that they might more easily, more commodiously, and more profitably acquaint themselves with the writings of moses; and whosoever would derive benefit from my labors should understand that I would by no means withdraw him from the study of each separate Book, but simply direct him by this compendium to a definite object; lest he should, as often happens, be led astray through ignorance of any regular plan.
These four books are made up of two principal parts, viz., the Historical Narrative and the Doctrine, by which the Church is instructed in true piety, (including faith and prayer,) as well as in the fear and worship of God; and thus the rule of a just and holy life is laid down, and individuals are exhorted to the performance of their several duties. 2 This distinction Moses does not observe in his Books, not even relating the history in a continuous form, and delivering the doctrine unconnectedly, as opportunity occurred. I admit, indeed, that whatever refers to the regulation of the conduct is comprehended in the ten commandments; but, since all have not sufficient intelligence to discern the tendency of what is elsewhere taught, or to reduce the different precepts to their proper class, there is nothing to prevent such assistance being afforded them, as, by setting before them the design of the holy Prophet, may enable them to profit more by his writings.
Moreover, the use and application of the narrative in the four Books is twofold; for the deliverance of his ancient people reflects, as in a bright mirror, the incomparable power, as well as the boundless mercy, of God in raising up, and as it were engendering his Church. But that the most gracious Father should have followed up this same people with his continual bounty even unto the end, and have so contended with their gross impiety, their detestable iniquity, and foul ingratitude, as not to cease to be more than liberal towards the unthankful and the evil, is a manifest proof of his inestimable loving-kindness; whilst we may perceive in his constant government of them, how unwearied is the course of his grace in cherishing, defending, honoring, and preserving those whom he has once embraced with his love. Hence may we obtain a source of confidence; hence, too, may we learn to be bold in prayer; while, lest we should be in doubt whether these exertions of God’s grace, which Israel experienced as well in their original calling as in their successive history, have any relation to ourselves also, Moses has stated their cause to have been that gratuitous adoption, which is common to us with them, from the times that the only-begotten Son, having “broken down the middle wall of partition,” vouchsafed to become our head. On the other hand, the terrible and memorable punishments, which are everywhere recounted, instruct us in reverence towards God, and inspire our hearts with awe, lest we should falsely boast ourselves to be his children, whilst indulging in the liberty of sin. For, since God so severely punished idolatry, evil affections and lusts, rebellion and other crimes, we may learn that he nowhere more evidently inflicts his judgments than upon his Church, and thus we may appropriate to the deceivers of our own day whatever happened to the hypocritical Jews.
I. The doctrine is divided into four principal Heads. In order to prepare their minds for its reception, Moses commends the authority of the Law by many eulogies. Whatever statements, therefore, occur as to the Dignity of the Law are set down by way of Preface, 3 that God may be duly reverenced. Consequently, they precede in order the precepts of the Law, and will occupy the first place.
II. The Ten Commandments follow, in which God has briefly, but comprehensively summed up the Rule of a Just and Holy Life; yet so as not to separate from them those interpretations which the Lawgiver has added unconnectedly. For many Precepts, which are not found in the Two Tables, yet differ not at all from them in sense; so that due care must be taken to affix them to their respective Commandments in order to present the Law as a whole.
III. The Third Head Of Doctrine consists of 4 Supplements; by which word I mean, with respect to the First Table, the Ceremonies and the outward Exercises of Worship; with respect to the Second Table, the Political Laws, for the object of both these parts is merely to aid in the observance of the Moral Law; and it is not a little important, that we should understand that the Ceremonies and the Judicial Ordinances neither change nor detract from the rule laid down in the Ten Commandments; but are only helps, which, as it were, lead us by the hand to the due Worship of God, and to the promotion of justice towards men. We are aware that of old there was a constant controversy of the Prophets against the Jewish people; because, whilst strenuously devoting themselves to Ceremonies, as if True Religion and Holiness were comprised in them, they neglected real righteousness.
Therefore, God protests that he never enjoined anything with respect to the Sacrifices: and he pronounces all External Rites but vain and trifling, if the very least value be assigned to them apart from the Ten Commandments. Whence we more certainly arrive at the conclusion to which I have adverted, viz., that they are not, to speak correctly, of the substance of the law, nor avail of themselves in the Worship of God, nor are required by the Lawgiver himself as necessary, or even as useful, unless they sink into this inferior position. In fine, they are appendages, which add not the smallest completeness to the Law, but whose object is to retain the pious in the Spiritual Worship of God, which consists of Faith and Repentance, of Praises whereby their gratitude is proclaimed, and 5 even of the endurance of the Cross. As to all the Political Ordinances, nothing will obviously be found in them, which at all adds to the perfection of The Second Table: therefore it follows, that nothing can be wanted as the rule of a good and upright life beyond the Ten Commandments.
IV. The Last Part shews the end and use of the Law; and thence its usefulness is very extensive. For how would it profit us to be instructed in righteousness of life, unless the perception of our guilt and iniquity induced us to seek after the remedy? But when God allures us so gently and kindly by his promises, and again pursues us with the thunders of his curse, it is partly to render us inexcusable, and partly to shut us up deprived of all confidence in our own righteousness, so that we may learn to embrace his Covenant of Grace, and flee to Christ, who is the end of the law. This is the intention of The Promises, in which he declares that he will be merciful, since there is forgiveness ready for the sinner, and when he offers the spirit of Regeneration. On this depends that sentence of St. Paul, that Christ is the end of the Law Still I do not so distinguish this class from the foregoing, as if it had nothing in common with them. For, before arriving at it, it will be often necessary to refer both to the terrible ruin of the human race, as well as to the peculiar blessing of Adoption, and to that increasing flow of fatherly love which God extends to his people. For all the expiations have no other meaning than that God will be always merciful, as often as the sinner shall flee to the refuge of his pardon. But how needful this division is will be best understood as we proceed.
The song of Moses and his death will be the conclusion of the Four Books.
The whole of this passage, to the end of the paragraph, is omitted in the French Translation.
“Afin qu’elle (i.e., la Loy) ait envers nous telle reverence qu’elle merite;” — In order that the Law may receive from us the reverence it, deserves. — French Trans.
“Appendices.” — Lat. “Dependances.” — Fr.
“Et aussi de s’humilier pour porter en patience toutes afflictions;” and also in humbling themselves to bear patiently all afflictions. — Fr. Trans.