Rejoice with me, for I have finally completed a task begun 19 years ago—the reading of all three volumes of Calvin’s commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. I began vol. 1 (477 pp.) on February 15, 2000, and completed it on June 19 of that year (see review and extended quotations in As I See It 3:9). I began vol. 2 (456 pp.) sometime in 2012, and completed its reading on February 8, 2013 (review and quotations, As I See It 16:3). I launched into vol. 3 (395 pp.) shortly thereafter, but made small progress, and soon set it aside. Then, in February of 2018, I picked it up again, and attacked it off and on.
The comments on the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 22) were very long and very tedious, doubly so because Calvin’s amillennialism and denial of a future 7-year Tribulation rendered his interpretation completely unsatisfactory—it almost made me set the task aside again. But I “persevered unto the end,” and finally, March 16, 2019, I completed the final page of volume 3.
Throughout vol. 3, and as well as in the other two, it is always Calvin’s conviction that the Bible has Divine authority and is therefore entirely true. Anyone who pretends that this Reformer was soft on Biblical infallibility is either misinformed or simply lying. He avoids allegory and spiritualizing the text, and seeks to present a straightforward exposition of the text as he understands it. Sometimes the comments seemed to have too little exposition and too much “application” (vague and general commonplace platitudes). Calvin repeatedly addresses Papal errors and departures from Biblical teaching, and unhesitatingly exposes these errors in practice and in doctrine. He rejects strongly both the Papists “transubstantiation” and Luther’s “consubstantiation” views of the Lord’s Supper.
Calvin is in this volume decidedly much less a doctrinaire “Calvinist” than many of the modern sort of self-professed “Calvinists,” though in one place he speaks at length against resistible grace (which seems to be, contrary to the Reformer, the plain teaching of the text in question). He does sometimes use standard Calvinistic jargon—e.g., referring to the elect as “His people” (a thing the NT never does), though he also and often refers to the Jewish people as “His people” and “God’s chosen people.” Calvin does, after the typical amillennial manner, confound Israel and the Church. And, surprising to some, Calvin repeatedly (with a case or two strongly to the contrary) makes statements supporting unlimited atonement (see selected quotes below).
Wishing to have an informed, first-hand familiarity with, and opinion of, Calvin’s writings and views, I will likely read in his writings again, but what shall I read next? Perhaps Genesis or John or Acts. But I am not ready to do so just yet.
Some selected quotes from vol. 3 of Calvin’s commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (1979 Baker reprint of William Pringle’s translation)—
“Nothing has a more powerful tendency to withdraw teachers from a faithful and upright dispensation of the word than to pay respect to men; for it is impossible that any one who desires to please men (Galatians 1:10) should truly devote himself to God.” (pp. 42-3; italics in all quotes in original)
“For since God makes known His will clearly in the Scriptures, the want of acquaintance with them is the source and cause of all errors.” (p. 53)
“No other rule of a holy and righteous life was prescribed by Christ that what had been laid down by the Law of Moses; for the perfect love of God and our neighbors comprehends the utmost perfection of righteousness.” (p. 56)
“It is necessary that men should be convinced of their righteous condemnation, that they may betake themselves to the mercy of God.” (p. 57)
“God disdains the forced services of men, and chooses to be worshipped freely and willingly.” (p. 58; I wonder how Calvin harmonized in his mind this opinion with his practice of persecution of dissent, and forced compliance with his views of religious practices by Anabaptists and others).
“Again, when Moses commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he did not intend to put the love of ourselves in the first place, so that a man may first love himself and then love his neighbors … But as we are too much devoted to ourselves, Moses, in correcting this fault, places our neighbors in an equal rank with us; thus forbidding every man to pay so much attention to himself as to disregard others.” (p. 59; some years ago, I actually heard a preacher teach this error which Calvin here correctly decries)
“We ought to have a deeper reverence for Scripture than to reckon ourselves at liberty to disguise its natural meaning.” (p. 63)
“[The scribes] had perverted by their false opinion the pure and natural meaning of the Law… . It is evident that Christ exhorts the people to obey the scribes, only so far as they adhere to the pure and simple exposition of the Law.” (pp. 72, 75)
“The more holy a man is, the more eminently is he devoted to prayer.” (p. 85)
“Thus we see that the Papists, while they transgress the chief commandments of God, are extremely zealous in the performance of trifling ceremonies.” (p. 89)
“The children of God ought to desire to be pure rather than [merely] appear so.” (p. 94)
“The Papists now transfer the honor of God to departed saints, and even are so perverse as to adore their images.” (pp. 95-6)
“Popery [is] not satisfied with paying just veneration to Apostles and Martyrs, they render to them divine worship, and think that they cannot go too far in the honours which they heap upon the; and yet, by their rage against believers, they show what sort of respect they would have manifested towards Apostles and Martyrs, if they had been still alive to discharge the same office which they anciently held. For why are they inflamed with such rage against us, but because we desire that the doctrine to be received, and to be successful, which the Apostles and Martyrs sealed with their blood? … . Let them adorn the images of the saints as they may think fit, by perfumes, candles, flowers, and every sort of gaudy ornament. If Peter were now alive, they would tear him in pieces; they would stone Paul; and if Christ himself were still in the world, they would burn him with a slow fire.” (p. 97)
“The chief sacrifice which God requires from us is self-denial.” (p. 114)
“Let us learn from it, that no offense is more heinous in the sight of God, that obstinacy in despising his grace.” (p. 136)
“There is no reason, therefore, why any person should expect the conversion of the world.” (p 147)
“The chief part of our wisdom lies in confining ourselves soberly within the limits of God’s word.” (p. 153)
“[Jesus] compares death—as in other passages—to baptism (Roans 6:4) because the children of God, after having been immersed for a time by the death of the body, shortly afterwards rise again to life, so that death is nothing else than a passage through the midst of the waters.” (p. 169; note well how Calvin here clearly understands that “baptize” means “immerse”)
“The Son of God willingly surrendered himself to die, in order to reconcile the world to the Father, … . the voluntary sacrifice by which all the transgressions of the world may be blotted out.” (p. 185)
“Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for the salvation of the human race.” (p. 193)
“The sacrifice had been appointed by an eternal decree of God for expiating the sins of the world… . God’s determination that the world should be redeemed … . the eternal salvation of the human race.” (pp. 200, 205)
“By the word many [Mark 14:24] [Christ] means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse… . Let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated.” (p. 214)
“A false confidence in his virtue carries [Peter] away into foolish boasting… . Peter forming confident expectation for himself goes far beyond the limits of faith… . And therefore whenever any temptation is presented to us, let us first remember our weakness.” (pp. 219, 220, 221)
“The true test of virtue is only to be found when the contest begins.” (p. 226)
“Certainly those who imagine that the Son of God was exempt from human passions do not truly and sincerely acknowledge him to be a man… .When he saw the wrath of God exhibited to him, as he stood at the tribunal of God charged with the sins of the whole world, he unavoidably shrunk with horror from the deep abyss of death.” (pp. 227, 234)
“[Peter] endeavors to … obstruct the path of redemption of mankind.” (p. 246)
“The more eminent a man is, therefore, he ought to be the more careful to be on his guard; for his elevation makes it impossible for him to fall from it without doing greater harm.” (p. 262)
“But it may be asked, Is weeping requisite in true repentance? I reply, Believers often with dry eyes groan before the Lord without hypocrisy, and confess their fault to obtain pardon; but in more aggravated offences they must be in no ordinary degree stupid and hardened, whose hearts are not pained by grief and sorrow, and who do not feel ashamed even so far as to shed tears.” (p. 266)
“True repentance is displeasure at sin, arising out of fear and reverence for God, and producing, at the same time, a love and desire of righteousness.” (p. 269)
“[Jesus] obtained deliverance for the whole human race… . God had appointed him to be a sacrifice (katharma) to atone for the sins of the world.” (pp. 277, 282)
“…the redemption of mankind.” (p. 283)
“For if the Son of God had not been free from all sin, we would have had no right to look for satisfaction from his death.” (p. 289)
“We have no reason to fear that our sins, from which the Son of God acquits us by so valuable a ransom, will ever again be brought into judgment before God.” (p. 290)
“[God] would never have permitted his Son to endure it, unless he had intended that it should be an expiation for the sins of the world.” (p. 293)
“In the death of Christ, … [the repentant thief] beholds a sacrifice of sweet savour, efficacious for expiating the sins of the world[.]” (p. 312)
“So then Christ, although struck by the hand of God, he appeared to be a man utterly abandoned, yet as he did not cease to be the Savior of the world, …” (p. 312)
“…by this prayer [Jesus] obtained authority to save all souls, …” (p. 322)
“…that spectacle of which depends the salvation of the world.” (p. 329)
“…salvation through Christ was promised indiscriminately to all the Jews and … the promise of it was common to them all, …” (p. 330)
“Christ once appeared as a Redeemer to the Jews and to the whole world, as had been declared by in the predictions of the prophets.” (p. 334)
“We ought, therefore, to acknowledge that we come short in every respect, so that the heavenly doctrine proves to be both useful and efficacious to us, only so far as the Spirit both forms our minds to understand it, and our hearts to submit to its yoke… .For no darkness is more dangerous for quenching the light of the Spirit than reliance on our own sagacity… . For God does not bestow the Spirit on his people in order to set aside the use of his word, but rather to render it fruitful. It is highly improper, therefore, in fanatics, under the pretense of revelations, to take upon themselves the liberty of despising the Scriptures; for what we now read in reference to the apostles is daily accomplished by Christ in all his people, namely, that by the Spirit he guides us to understand the Scriptures, and does not hurry us away into idle raptures of enthusiasm.” (pp. 275-6)
“No mortal is of himself qualified for preaching the gospel, except so far as God clothes him with his Spirit.” (p. 379)
“But as Christ enjoins them to teach before baptizing, and desires that none but believers shall be admitted to baptism, it would appear that baptism is not properly administered unless when it is preceded by faith. On this pretense [!], the Anabaptists have stormed greatly against infant baptism.” (p. 386; Calvin goes on to explain away the obvious intent of the text, to justify this relic of Romanism, namely infant baptism, without which Romanism, and all union of church and state, would soon cease).
“Though Christ does not expressly state whether he intends this gift [i.e., the miraculous gifts of the Spirit] , to be temporary, or to remain perpetually in his Church, yet it is more probable that miracles were promised only for a time, in order to give lustre to the gospel, while it was new and in a state of obscurity… . And certainly we see that the use of them ceased not long afterwards, or at least, that the instances of them were so rare as to entitle us to conclude that they would not be equally common in all ages.” (p. 389)
Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.