Review: Calvin and the Biblical Languages

Calvin And The Biblical Languages by John D. Currid

Calvin – an inspiration to learn Greek and Hebrew

This short book is essentially a short biography of Calvin with reference to the biblical languages. It covers the fact that an essential factor in the Reformation was it’s recovery and emphasis on the biblical languages. “The Reformers,were, for the most part, seriously committed to the original languages of the Bible. It was a hall-mark of the Reformation.” (p. 66) This was true of Luther, Melanchthon, Beza, Erasmus, and of course Calvin. This was a time when there was an explosion of interest in Greek and Hebrew, oftentimes in the face of fierce opposition. When and how Calvin learned the Biblical languages is covered, including some historical controversies (only in academia 🙂 as to the specifics.

Calvin’s life as a scholar and preacher is given in detail, focusing on his use of the languages in that work. “His Hebrew was good but his Greek was outstanding.” (41)

A whole chapter, most interesting, is given to The Academy founded at Geneva for the training of pastors and scholars, with emphasis on the biblical languages. “His aim in the schola publica was to raise up and train pastor-scholars. These were men who could work well with the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, who could perform proper exegesis of a text, and who understood theology and philosophy; yet, they could take all that intellectual work and translate it to the masses… Calvin himself was such a pastor-scholar.” (60) Especially interesting is how the faculty was assembled from the best scholars in all the world at the time.

Currid is a great scholar in his own right. This book is loaded with footnotes, (thankfully at the bottom of each page) for further research. The book demonstrates a thorough understanding of the time and the controversies in this very specific subject. The book is loaded with direct quotes from Calvin and other reformers themselves, as well as the current scholarship on them.

In all, this book had the effect of convincing me even more thoroughly of the necessity of learning the biblical languages for myself. Calvin is both persuasive in his arguing for this, and encouraging. I am inspired more than ever to press into this great task with discipline, and this book has played a part in that. I do recommend it for anyone interested in Calvin, the Reformation, or the biblical languages in the life of pastor or student.

Here are some other great quotes from the book:

Erasmus – “How much better…to learn Greek or Hebrew, or at least Latin, which are so indispensable to the knowledge of Sacred Scripture that I think it extremely impudent for anyone ignoring them to usurp the name of theologian.” (17)

Melanchthon – “The Scripture cannot be understood theologically unless it be first understood grammatically.” (20)

“[Calvin] knew and used the [Latin] Vulgate, but he did not trust it in the way that he trusted the [Greek] original.” (42)

“[Calvin] believed that ignorance of biblical languages resulted in mistakes in matters `easy and obvious to every one’ and those without skills are led `most shamefully astray.’ He concurred fully with the old rabbinic adage that studying the Bible without Hebrew is like kissing one’s bride through the veil.” (60)

Calvin – “I know for a fact that one who has to preach and expound the Scriptures and has no help from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, but must do it entirely on the basis of his mother tongue, will make many a pretty mistake. For it has been my experience that the languages are extraordinarily helpful for a clear understanding of the divine Scriptures.” (67)

Calvin – “Once we understand the significance and weight of the words, the true meaning of Scripture will light up for us as the midday sun.” (68)

“How sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude!”

Martin Luther on learning Greek and Hebrew:

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor–yes, almost without any labor at all–can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame! Yes, how sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude!

“To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” quoted in Basics of Biblical Hebrewby Gary Pratico and Miles Van Pelt, p. 121

How much more is this true in the 21st century, with 3 different Hebrew lexicons on my shelf, half a dozen Greek grammars, computer software, parsing guides. How happy Luther would have been if he had had our opportunity.

Let us not be indolent in this matter.