Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries

Written by T. H. L. Parker Reviewed By D. F. Wright

It is a pleasure to welcome a book which fills a glaring gap. The lack, prior to this work by the doyen of British Calvin scholars, of a study of such an extensive corpus (running to 25 volumes in a newly-projected English translation) of so distinguished a commentator as John Calvin is a truly remarkable fact. The book is good news for Calvin studies also for a second reason, in that, ‘like an ice-breaker opening up a way for the scientific party’, as the author puts it, it exposes so much terrain awaiting further exploration. There is scope for many a Ph.D. in this vast territory.

Readers familiar with Dr Parker’s earlier work on Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries will be well advised to read carefully his explanation, in the Introduction, of the differences between the two books. They are considerable. Dr Parker’s concern here is largely expository, with four chapters dealing respectively with the relation between the two Testaments, and history, law and prophecy in Calvin’s commentaries. The first chapter alone deals with more technical matters, presenting a very useful account of Calvin’s three forms of OT exposition—sermons, lectures and commentaries. Only in this chapter does the writer make any references to secondary literature. He breaks new ground in discussing the lectures—their hearers, the timetable of their delivery, the time they took to deliver, the relationship between their oral and written (printed) form, and between Calvin’s only three commentaries proper (on Psalms, his harmony of Exodus-Deuteronomy, and Joshua) and his commoner lectures. All students of Calvin will learn a good deal from this chapter.

The remaining four chapters, which deal only with the lectures and commentaries (the two being normally, if loosely, grouped together as ‘the commentaries’), tackle more familiar subject-matter, but do so with a detailed knowledge of Calvin’s works that few can match. The non-technical character of the bulk of the book will increase its value to non-specialist readers, not least the expositors and preachers of today. They will find, for example, much stimulus in Calvin’s remarkable arrangement of the Mosaic law in his harmony—which is in fact much more than a harmony.

Scholarly opinion may beg to differ on a few aspects of Dr Parker’s interpretation of Calvin. (The reviewer may be allowed to refer to his own discussions of the Mosaic harmony commentary in Scott. Journ. of Theol. 36 (1983), pp. 463–485, and Calv. Theol. Journ. 21 (1986), pp. 33–50.) But one can say with much greater confidence that many a young theological student could do far worse than buy this book and follow the example of Karl Barth, who once averred, in a letter quoted by Parker, ‘I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.’

D. F. Wright