Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 42: Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
The Commentaries of Calvin on the Epistles of Paul are generally considered to be among the most successful of his Expositions of Scripture. In the writings, indeed, of one whose vast powers have been applied to the exposition of nearly the whole of the Inspired Volume, and whose rare endowments, as an interpreter of Scripture, have drawn forth expressions of the profoundest admiration even from the most inveterate adversaries of the system of doctrine maintained by him, there is room for some diversity of opinion as to the particular portions of Divine truth which he has most successfully expounded. It is mentioned by M. Teissier, in his extracts from M. de Thou’s History, 1 that “although all the works of Calvin have merited the esteem of persons of good taste, he has in the opinion of some succeeded best in unfolding the doctrine of Providence,” while, according to Joseph Scaliger, who “reckoned Calvin to have had a divine genius, and to have excelled in the explication of Scripture, so that no one among the ancients could be compared” to him, “the best of his theological treatises was his Commentary on Daniel.”
While, however, there may be some difference of opinion among the many admirers of Calvin as to the particular portion of his expository writings, in which his vast powers shine forth to most advantage, there can be no question that his expositions of the Epistles of Paul are singularly felicitous. It is stated by Tholuck, in his view of Calvin as an interpreter of the Holy Scriptures, that among his Commentaries on the new Testament, “those on the Epistles of Paul are by far the best,” and that “in the Pauline Epistles, he merges himself in the spirit of the Apostle, and becoming one with him, as every one clearly feels, he deduces everywhere the explanation of that which is particular from that which is general.” 2 A similar view of the peculiar excellence of Calvin’s expositions of the Epistles of Paul is given by Böhmer, of Berlin, in his introduction to the Epistle to the Colossians, (as quoted by the late Dr. Pye Smith, in his encomium on the writings of Calvin.) “John Calvin well merited the epithet, often given to him, of The Great Divine. Independent, in the highest degree, of other men, he most often discerns, with piercing eye, the spiritual mind of Paul, and with his masterly command of language, makes it so clear, that both the most learned student of theology, and the plain affectionate believer, are equally benefited and satisfied.” 3
That the Expository Treatises of Calvin on Paul’s Epistles should be considered by the most eminent critics to be peculiarly successful is the more remarkable, when we take into view the disadvantageous circumstances under which most, if not all, of them were prepared. His Commentaries on six of Paul’s Epistles were written by him (as we are informed by Beza, in his Life of Calvin 4 ) in 1548, a year of most harassing conflict with the enemies of the truth. His Correspondence, however, at this period, clearly shews that his devout mind found tranquility in an assurance of Divine support. In writing to Brentius, who was then living in exile at Basle, he says: “Amidst all these calamities one consideration supports and refreshes my mind: I assure myself that God, in commencing the wonderful restoration of his Church, which we have witnessed, has not held out a vain and transient hope to us, but has begun a work that he will not fail to accomplish in spite of the malice of men and the opposition of Satan. In the meantime let us patiently undergo the purification which is necessary for us.” 5 It manifestly appears, also, from the Dedicatory Epistle prefixed to his Commentaries on four of Paul’s Epistles, addressed to Christopher, Duke of Wirtemberg, that he had found the Epistles of Paul peculiarly consoling to his mind amidst outward troubles. Calvin is thought, indeed, to have had a marked resemblance in disposition and character to the great Apostle of the Gentiles, so that he has been termed by an eloquent writer, 6 “the Paul of the Reformation,” — a circumstance which is thought to have contributed to render him more successful in the exposition of Paul’s’ Epistles, while, as is justly observed by the Translator of Calvin on Galatians and Ephesians in the Biblical Cabinet, (vol. 30.) “the chief cause unquestionably lay in his singularly clear perception of that system of doctrine which Paul was honored to declare.”
The Epistle To The Philippians stands associated with a most interesting event in the history of the progress of Christianity. While the charge given to the Apostles as to the universal promulgation of the Gospel was most explicit, it was in a gradual manner, and for the most part under the guidance of circumstances seemingly fortuitous, that their sphere of labor was extended. “Beginning at Jerusalem,” (Lu 24:47,) as expressly instructed by their Master, they would, to all appearance, have continued to pursue their labors in and around that city, had not occurrences taken place from time to time, and these, too, of an untoward nature, considered in themselves, which led them to extend the benefits of the Gospel to countries more and more remote from their original sphere of labor.
Philippi was the first place in Europe in which the Gospel of Christ was proclaimed, and it is sufficiently manifest from Luke’s narrative, that the introduction of the Gospel at that time into Europe was not the result of any preconcerted plan on the part of the Apostles themselves. Had they been left to their own choice, they would, it appears, have disseminated the Gospel in Bithynia, or some other province of Asia Minor; but, instead of this, they were specially directed by the Spirit of God to “come over into Macedonia,” (Ac 16:9,) by which means the Gospel was for the first time introduced into Europe. And when we consider the important place which Europe has held during so many ages in connection with the progress of Christianity, and more especially the high honor assigned to European Christians, as being chiefly instrumental in its diffusion throughout the world, we cannot fail to mark with deep interest the circumstances connected with the first preaching of the Gospel at Philippi. “The little rill,” says Foster, “near the source of one of the great American rivers, is an interesting object to the traveler, who is apprized, as he steps across it, or walks a few miles along its bank, that this is the stream which runs so far, and which gradually swells into so immense a flood.” 7 For a similar reason, the preaching of the Gospel by Paul in the hearing of a few women by a river’s side near Philippi, trivial as the circumstance may appear in itself, becomes invested with the deepest interest, when viewed in connection with the state and prospects of Christianity at the present day.
While Luke makes mention only of two individuals — Lydia and the Jailer — with their respective households, as the fruits of the first preaching of the Gospel at Philippi, it clearly appears, from the Epistle to the Philippians, that from these small beginnings a flourishing Christian Church had sprung up, which, at the time when the Epistle was written, was in so prosperous a state, that the Apostle, who reproves so sharply the Churches of Corinth and Galatia, finds no occasion for censuring the Philippians, but commends in the highest terms their exemplary deportment.
Philippi was originally called Crenides, from the numerous fountains of water in its neighborhood, and afterwards Dathos, or Datos, from its gold and silver mines. The city received the name of Philippi from Philip, father of Alexander the Great, by whom it was rebuilt and greatly enlarged. It is celebrated in profane history, as is noticed by Calvin in the Argument on the Epistle to the Philippians, for a signal victory which was gained by Octavius, afterwards Augustus Cæsar, and Antony over Brutus and Cassius; and it is not a little remarkable, that a city which was the scene of a victory that decided the fate of the Roman Empire, should have been afterwards illustrious as the scene of a nobler victory, intimately connected with the signal triumph of the Gospel in Europe.
The Epistle bears evidence of having been written by Paul when a prisoner for the sake of Christ; and there seems every reason to believe that it was written by him during his first imprisonment at Rome. Dr. Paley, in his Horæ Paulinæ, adduces a variety of arguments, founded on incidental notices in the Epistle itself, to prove that it was written “near the conclusion of St. Paul’s imprisonment at Rome, and after a residence in that city of considerable duration.” It is generally believed to have been written about A.D. 62. The Epistle “breathes,” says Barnes, “the spirit of a ripe Christian, whose piety was mellowing for the harvest; of one who felt that he was not far from heaven, and might soon be with Christ ... At the mercy of such a man as Nero; a prisoner; among strangers, and with death staring him in the face, it is natural to suppose that there would be a peculiar solemnity, tenderness, pathos, and ardor of affection breathing through the entire Epistle. Such is the fact; and in none of the writings of Paul are these qualities more apparent than in this letter to the Philippians.”
The Epistle To The Colossians is generally supposed to have been written by PAUL about A.D. 62, in the ninth year of the reign of the Emperor Nero. It bears evidence of having been written during Paul’s first imprisonment at Rome. The Apostle, in the course of the Epistle, makes repeated allusions to the circumstance of his being at the time in “bonds” (Col 4:18) for the sake of Christ. Colosse (or, as several ancient manuscripts read, Colassæ) was, at the time when the Epistle to the Colossians was written, a flourishing city in the south of Phrygia, situated most picturesquely under the immense range of Mount Cadmus, and near the confluence of the rivers Lycus and Meander; but, about a year after Paul’s Epistle was written, was, along with the neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis, destroyed by an earthquake, as is noticed by Calvin in the Argument of the Epistle. The site of the ancient city, the only remaining vestiges of which consist of arches, vaults, squared stones, and broken pottery, is now occupied by the village of Khonas, in which, as stated by the General Assembly’s Deputation to Palestine in 1839, “a band of about thirty Greek Christians are found.” 8
It has been matter of controversy by whom the Church of Colosse was planted. Dr. Lardner adduces a variety of considerations tending to shew that it was founded by Paul, chiefly the following: —That as Paul was twice in Phrygia, as stated by Luke, (Acts 16:6, Acts 18:23,) it is extremely probable, that on one or other of those occasions he was at Colosse, and planted a Church there; that he expresses himself toward the close of the first chapter in such terms as seem to imply that he had himself dispensed the Gospel to the Colossians, and that the general tenor of the Epistle seems to indicate that he is not writing to strangers, but to persons with whom he had been personally conversant, and to whom he had been, under God, the instrument of conversion. On the other hand, many distinguished commentators are of opinion that the Church of Colosse was not founded by Paul. Calvin, in the Argument of the Epistle, speaks of the Colossians as having been instructed in the Gospel, not by Paul, but by Epaphras and other Ministers. Hug and Koppe are decidedly of opinion that Paul did not plant the Church of Colosse, and had no personal acquaintance with the Christians there. Davenant is of opinion that the Church of Colosse was planted by Epaphras. Byfield, in his Exposition of the Colossians, thinks it probable that the Church of Colosse was planted, not by Paul, but by Epaphras or Archippus. Doddridge thinks the Epistle “contains no argument from whence it can certainly be inferred that he” (PAUL) “was personally acquainted with the Colossians.” Scott, in his Preface to the Epistle, gives it as his “decided opinion, that the evidence against the Apostle’s having been at Colosse is far stronger than any that has been adduced on the affirmative side of the question.” In short, there is no inconsiderable force in the arguments adduced on both sides, and “uncertainty still lies on the dispute whether Paul was ever at Colosse.” 9
While, however, there is so much uncertainty as to the person by whom the Church of Colosse was planted, that uncertainty, it is to be noticed, does not by any means arise from any indication of comparative indifference on the part of the Apostle Paul to the welfare of the Colossian converts in the Epistle which he addresses to them. While a prisoner at Rome for the sake of the Gospel, he had heard with deep concern of the insidious attempts which had been made by certain false teachers to draw off the Colossian Christians from the doctrine in which they had been instructed. It is not certain what were the precise tenets, that were attempted to be disseminated among them. There seems to have been a strange blending of the doctrines of the Essenes with the subtleties of Platonism, and the asceticism of Oriental Philosophy.
The general scope of the Epistle is briefly stated by Davenant as follows — that the hope of man’s salvation is placed entirely in Christ alone, and that consequently we must rest satisfied with faith in Christ, and live according to the rule laid down in the Gospel, to the rejection of Mosaic ceremonies and philosophical speculations. The attentive reader of the New Testament cannot fail to observe a striking similarity between the Epistle to the Colossians and that addressed to the Ephesians, not merely in their general structure, but also in the subjects treated of, and even in the order and connection in which they are introduced — a closeness of resemblance which clearly indicates, not merely that the Epistles were written by the same person, and about the same time, but also that the Churches to whom they were addressed, were in many respects similarly situated.
Among the expository treatises on the Epistle to the Colossians, there is, apart from that of Calvin, no one that better deserves, or will more amply repay attentive perusal, than that of Bishop Davenant, as a sound, judicious, and eminently practical exposition of a portion of the New Testament, in which the distinctive doctrines and principles of Christianity are so largely brought into view. It deserves also to be mentioned in connection with this, that Mr. Howe, in his funeral sermon on the death of his intimate friend, the Rev. Richard Adams of Oxford, afterwards of London, speaks with high commendation of his “judicious and dilucid expositions of the Epistles to the Philippians and the Colossians — which was the part he bore in the supplement to that useful work — the English Annotations on the Bible, by the Rev. Mr. Matthew Pool.” 10
The First Epistle To The Thessalonians is generally believed to have been the first Epistle written by PAUL to any of the Churches of Christ. It appears to have been written towards the close of A.D. 52, about two years subsequently to the introduction of the Gospel into Thessalonica by the instrumentality of Paul and Silas. Thessalonica was a large and populous city, situated on the Thermean Bay. The city was originally called Thermæ, but came to receive the name of Thessalonica from Philip, King of Macedon, by whom it was rebuilt and enlarged, in memory of the victory which he there gained over the Thessalians. Its present name is Saloniki — manifestly a corruption of Thessalonica. It contains a population of 70,000, and is a city of great commercial importance.
In the account which Luke gives of the introduction of the Gospel into Thessalonica, mention is made of Paul’s entering into a Synagogue of the Jews and “reasoning with them three Sabbath days out of the Scriptures.” (Ac 17:2.) This was the means of converting to the Christian faith some of his Jewish hearers; but, as is manifest from Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, the converts gained were chiefly from among the idolatrous Gentiles. Thessalonica “adored many gods, but principally Jupiter, as the father of Hercules, the alleged founder of its ancient royal family.” 11 A violent tumult which had been raised against PAUL and SILAS by the unbelieving Jews constrained them to quit Thessalonica on a sudden, and escape to Berea, and afterwards to Athens; and the abrupt manner in which the Apostle’s labors at Thessalonica were broken off, seems to have led him to feel the more solicitous as to the prosperity of the Gospel in that city, and to have given occasion for the Church of the Thessalonians being favored to receive the earliest of PAUL’S Epistles.
The First Epistle to the Thessalonians concludes with a special direction that we do not find to be given in connection with any other of Paul’s Epistles:
“I charge you by the Lord, that this Epistle be read unto all the holy brethren.”
The strict charge thus given as to the public reading of the Epistle is justly adduced by Paley, in his Horæ Paulinæ, as a most convincing evidence of the authenticity of the Epistle. “Either the Epistle was publicly read in the Church of Thessalonica during St. Paul’s lifetime, or it was not. If it was, no publication could be more authentic, no species of notoriety more unquestionable, no method of preserving the integrity of the copy more secure. If it was not, the clause we produce would remain a standing condemnation of the forgery, and, one would suppose, an invincible impediment to its success.”
It is an interesting circumstance, that the first Epistle written by Paul to any Christian Church affords a most pleasing view of the fruits of the Gospel among the Christians to whom it is addressed; while it presents a most attractive picture of zeal and devotedness on the part of the writer. “If I wished,” says Fuller of Kettering, “to be impressed with a pattern of a Christian minister, I would study the second chapter of this Epistle” (1st Thessalonians); “and if I wished to see a pattern of a Christian people, I know not where I could look better than to the Church of the Thessalonians.” 12 The general design of the Epistle is to express the high satisfaction afforded to the mind of the writer by the favorable accounts which had been brought him by Timothy respecting the Christians at Thessalonica, as well as to encourage them to stedfast adherence to the truth amidst more than ordinary temptations to apostasy. “Imagine,” says Benson, in his Preface to the Epistle, “the Great Apostle of the Gentiles to be full of a just resentment and generous indignation against his countrymen, the unbelieving Jews, who had lately treated him and them so maliciously; and at the same time having the most tender and parental care and affection for the young converts at Thessalonica, and you will have the very posture of his mind during the writing of this Epistle, for these two things appear everywhere throughout the Epistle.”
The Second Epistle To The Thessalonians appears to have been written a short time after PAUL’S former Epistle to that Church. The Apostle had learned, that some expressions in his former Epistle in reference to the hopes of Christians beyond the grave had been misapprehended by the Thessalonian converts, as though he had intended to intimate that Christ’s second advent was near at hand. In correcting this mistaken idea, he takes occasion to predict a great apostasy that was to overspread to a large extent the Christian Church, and when we consider how directly opposed “The Mystery Of Iniquity” (2Th 2:7) here predicted is to the nature of Christianity, and how unlikely the breaking out of such a system of error must have appeared at the time when the prediction was given forth, this portion of the Apostolical Writings must be regarded as affording unequivocal evidence of their Divine authority. It is not a little remarkable that the Apostle Paul, in one of the earliest of his Epistles, and when writing to a Church that was in a most flourishing condition, foretells with the utmost distinctness and minuteness, the rise and progress of a system of delusive error, which was not to be fully developed until several centuries subsequently to the time when the prediction was committed to writing; while it manifests itself even at the present day so strikingly in accordance with Paul’s prediction, that no historian of recent times could have furnished a more accurate delineation of the appalling system in all its leading features, than was thus presented to the mind of Paul eighteen hundred years ago by the Spirit of Inspiration. This the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, while it is the shortest of Paul’s Epistles to the Churches, is invested with more than ordinary interest, as predicting the rise, progress, and final destinies of the Papal system.
“The Epistle naturally divides itself,” as is remarked by Dr. Adam Clarke, “into three parts, and each is contained in a separate chapter:
“Part I., Chapter 1, contains the Address, and Motives of Consolation in their afflicted and persecuted state.
“Part II., Chapter 2, is partly Prophetical, and partly Didactic. It contains the doctrine concerning Christ’s Coming to Judgment, and a Prophecy concerning some future but great Apostasy from the Christian Faith.
“Part III., Chapter 3., is wholly Hortatory, and contains a number of important Advices relative to Christian Virtues and a proper behavior in those situations in life in which it had pleased God to call them.”
The Reader will find prefixed to the present translation of Calvin’s Commentary on the Colossians, a copy of the Translator’s “Epistle Dedicatorie” to the old English translation of Calvin’s Commentary on that Epistle, published in black letter in 1581. The Translator, who gives merely his initials, (R.V.,) appears to have been Robert Vahne, or Vaughan, who published also in 1581 a translation of Calvin’s Commentary on the Galatians. The title-page is as follows: —”A Commentarie of M. Iohn Caluine, vpon the Epistle to the Colossians. And translated into English by R.V.
Pray for the peace of Hierusalem, they shall prosper that loue thee.
At London, Printed by Thomas Purfoote, and are to be sold at his shop ouer against S. Sepulchers Church.”
He is also the author of “A Dialogue defensyue for women agaynst malicyous detractoures,” published in 1542; and of a translation published in 1582, of “Examination of the Councell of Trent, touching the Decree of Traditions, by Mart. Kemnicious.”
It will be observed, that there is no separate Dedication by Calvin of his Commentaries on the Philippians and Colossians — his Commentaries on these Epistles having been dedicated by him, along with those on Galatians and Ephesians, to Christopher, Duke of Wirtemberg. The Dedication will be inserted in a future volume of The Calvin Translations, which will contain the Translation of the Commentaries on Galatians and Ephesians.
Maturinus Corderius, (Mathurin Cordier,) to whom CALVIN dedicates his Commentary on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, was, as stated by Beza, in his Life of Calvin, 13 “a man of great worth and erudition, and in the highest repute in almost all the schools of France as a teacher of youth.” He taught at Paris, Nevers, Bordeaux, Neufchatel, Lausanne, and Geneva. He was the author of the “Colloquies,” so much used in the education of youth throughout Europe. CALVIN was his pupil at the College de la Marche. He died at Geneva, where he taught till within a few days of his death, in 1564, at the age of eighty-five.
Benedict Textor, to whom CALVIN dedicates his Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, appears to have been the son or nephew of Jean Tixier de Ravisi, or Ravisius Textor (Lord of Ravisi,) who was Rector of the University of Navarre at Paris, and was the author of various works. He died in 1524. There is a small volume still extant containing “Epistles” (to the number of 149,) which appears to have been written by a relative of Benedict Textor. It bears date 1602, and is entitled “Epistolæ Joannis Ravisii Textoris (Nivernensis) — non vulgaris eruditionis.”
While The Commentaries of Calvin everywhere abound with important statements in reference to Popery, so that the reader will find able and successful refutations of the errors of that corrupt and delusive system brought forward in connection with the interpretation of passages of the Word of God, which might have seemed to have no particular bearing on the Papal system, and introduced by him for the most part with less abruptness than is to be observed in the writings of some of his contemporaries, the present Volume of his Commentaries is rendered the more interesting, and will, we trust, under the Divine blessing, be productive of the greater utility, in the present eventful times, from its containing Calvin’s exposition of a portion of THE NEW TESTAMENT that presents the minutest and most comprehensive view that is to be found in any part of the Sacred Writings, of the rise, progress, and ultimate overthrow of Antichrist.
ELGIN, March 1851.
Les Eloges des Hommes Savans.” — Tom. 1, p. 240.
“Merits of CALVIN,” pp. 6, 31.
Ibid., pp. 65, 66.
CALVIN’S Tracts, vol. 1:
“CALVIN and the Swiss Reformation,” p. 350.
Dr. Mason of New York
Foster’s Essays, (Lond. 1819,) p. 5.
“Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews,” p. 339.
Eadie’s Biblical Cyclopædia, Art. Colossians.
Howe’s Works, (Lond. 1822,) vol. 3, p. 435.
Illustrated Commentary, vol. 5, p. 297.
Fuller’s Works, vol. 4:
CALVIN’S Tracts, vol. 1:.