Friday, November 30, 2012

Calvintaries 02 - Romans Part One


(gosh it looks funny written out in allcaps)

Translator's Preface 

I think it is important for this project to at least skim-read these prefaces. I am reading a translation from the Latin: the translator's mindset has affected the text I read in some way. Even the most rigorously literal translation does that. The translator is Reverend John Owen, who I think wrote a rather useful commentary on Song of Solomon (though I might be thinking of another Rev Owen).

Owen first places Calvin within a tradition of commentaries on Roman stretching back to Origen and forward to Fry, Haldane, Chalmers - Owen's contemporaries. I believe he is doing this to show that Calvin need not do everything that could possibly be done with Romans, for other works exist as well; but also to implicitly put all Catholic use of Romans outside faithful tradition and thereby render that institution's view of Romans irrelevant.

Secondly, Owen addresses Calvin's style of commentary. Calvin does little verbal criticism but mainly tries to show the logic and sequence of thought. Owen spares a few paragraphs to rebuke those who insists on finding novel meanings for bits of scripture; I have noticed from prior reading of Calvin that he is quite definite about what passages mean and not given to embracing ambiguity.

Thirdly, Owen notes that the style of the epistles is Hebraic and steeped in Torah rather than largely classical. Certainly it is true that Paul was a Hebrew, a Pharisee son of Pharisees, but he was also a Roman citizen who likely had rhetorical training. It is not entirely out of line to see some classical touches to his epistles, so long as they are not first seen as classical letters.

Fourthly, Owen assumes a consensus on Romans being written about AD 57-58, to a church which was not founded by Peter and Paul together; Owen suggests that strangers from Rome were converted at Pentecost and started the church on their return. This is important for an understanding of Paul's original audience, and also refutes contemporary Roman tradition.

Fifthly, Owen lays out several potential structures for Romans. The analysis he presents at length is address-justification-God's dealings-Christian duties-conclusion. He presents the two main themes of Romans as merit and grace; as he puts it, "the righteousness of man and the righteousness of God". He also notes that just because there is argument about the meaning of Romans doesn't mean that there is not a single, clear, correct meaning. Owen attributes the false understandings of Romans - those that deny its assertion of salvation through grace alone - to the earthly man not being able to discern spiritual truth without the Spirit in him. I think this is an important point: not all interpretations are equal, and some of them are wrong because of a dearth of salvation rather than a dearth of logic or linguistic understanding. This point is particularly important here in Australia, where the culture is positive towards entertaining the possibility of all manner of spiritual things being true, but negative towards the certainty of just one Spirit. Pluralism is good as a mechanism for facilitating the formulation of beliefs - it is not, and functions badly, a means of encouraging everyone to be uncertain about anything society cannot agree upon.

Owen further notes that the doctrine of salvation by grace touches the very heart of human sin and pride. Even those who profess belief can try to earn their salvation through ceremonial acts, their moral acts being obviously insufficient - and this Owen ascribes also to Israel, who substituted the rituals of true religion for the religion itself and thus stripped themselves of faith and hope. The solution is Paul's: to show what all men are, and how all men may be saved through unmerited grace, and thus to show how worthless are all our moral works.

So you can see that there is useful stuff even in the translator's preface, and one gets a clear impression of Owen as a devout man wrestling with Papist doctrine. I apologise for my style here - I tend to absorb the writing style of those I read, so you have gotten an attenuated version of Rev Owen's style. He translated Calvin's commentary on Romans from the Latin in 1849. Praise God for his work.

I assume hope that my summaries of the prefaces will get shorter as the summer continues.

Epistle Dedicatory 

If the preface has benefited us, how much more the dedication by Calvin himself?

Calvin describes the expounder's goal as "lucid brevity", to lay open the writer's mind as succinctly as possible. He sees an understanding of Romans as a passage to understanding the whole of scripture. I can agree, but then all of scripture is a passage to understanding all of scripture. One could just as easily pull salvation by grace alone out of Lamentations: it is how things must work, and so it is how things do work, all through scripture.

He then summarises the commentaries of his contemporaries. Melancthon - useful on the main points, avoids tricky bits. Bullinger - learned but in a plain style. Bucer - gifted with many excellencies and hard-working. Calvin says that he will cover what others have covered, so that he has a complete exposition for the humble reader. He notes that even people of faith can disagree about points of interpretation, and all we can do is make sure that we don't disagree for stupid reasons (hatred, defamation, a desire for novelty) but only by necessity.

Calvin closes by asking Simon Grynaeus, to whom the book is dedicated, to judge the commentary. Calvin humbles himself not before every reader but before a friend and colleague.


What on earth is this bit? Well, as far as I can tell, it's the sixteenth century version of an introduction. Calvin lays out his general understanding of Romans and his view of its structure. He describes Romans as methodical and artful in its construction, dealing primarily with the relationship between man's action and his salvation (or rather the lack of such, as signalled in the dedication).

What follows is my summary of Calvin's summary of Paul. Don't take it as gospel - read the book yourself.
  1. Paul first deprives both Jew and Gentile of any defence or excuse they mighty have against God's judgement, then returns to the subject of justification by faith.
  2. As above, so below.
  3. He ends the third chapter by claiming the same salvation by faith for all people.
  4.  In chapter four this is defended by the example of Abraham and the words of David. He takes the opportunity to discuss how Abraham was righteous without circumcision, and how salvation does not come from the law.
  5. The fifth chapter is largely illustrations and comparisons to show that God's mercy is greater than our sin.
  6. Chapter six discusses sanctification, reasoning from baptism as participation in Christ that we are buried and resurrected with Christ. The death of the human with Christ is what allows new life in Christ - so no one can be saved without regeneration. He mentions the law as being "abrogated" (Calvin says, though I would say consummated or perhaps recapitulated).
  7. Law is useful because it condemns us plainly, but our own state means we cannot obey and so cannot be saved through the law. The Spirit and the flesh are in opposition to each other as long as we live in mortal bodies. 
  8. Consolation for the regenerate in the forms of: the absence of condemnation, the testimony of the Spirit, the certainty of eternal life and God's power over all evil.
  9. Israel isn't the people who are descended from Abraham, but those who trust in the promise he was given - hence references to where faithful son inherits rather than all sons inheriting.Essentially, God rejects some and elects other and it is just, but without any higher reason than the will of God. Calvin sees some sort of predestination even in the family narratives here, or at least in Paul's reading of them. 
  10. Paul essentially discusses whether the Jews are in any way different from Gentiles. The conclusion seems to be that, in salvation terms, they are not. Paul quotes Isaiah to show that God was always speaking to Israel, and they rarely heard him; and now he speaks to the Gentiles too, without ceasing to speak to the Jews. The whole point of this is to gather all Israel to him - not the nation, but the people of God. The faithful. 
  11. I struggled with this, because the eleventh chapter appears to vanish from Calvin's argument of Romans. In any case it follows the trajectory of chapter ten and closes with a very Hebraic doxology.
  12. General precepts on Christian life. It is interesting that this bit of Romans, which shapes the modern church so powerfully, is summarised in a single clause while other chapters get multiple paragraphs of argument. Perhaps it is because Calvin is more interested in expounding Paul's movement towards his conclusions than the conclusions themselves, which are quite plain once the logical flow is explained.
  13. Establishes that spiritual freedom does not require rebellion against what Calvin terms "magistrates". 
  14. Neither contempt nor unquestioned honour for the Mosaic law is helpful. The guiding or enclosing principles ought to be love and edification.
  15. Repetition and conclusion of the subject: the strong should help the weak. Paul tries to establish unity in the one salvation his audience shares, and gives them hope of a personal visit.
  16. Calvin mentions that the last chapter of Romans is salutations and a "remarkable prayer". My NIV only has fifteen chapters of Romans. It is possible that Calvin had different divisions, which would solve the Mystery of Chapter Eleven. I imagine the actual exposition will give some hint about this.
In summary, Calvin's argument of Romans is focused on Paul's discussion of the differences between Jew and Gentile, and between the weak and strong in faith. There is very little discussion of the fundamental Christian doctrines which Paul explains in the process of his argument; our translator, Owen, felt a need to talk about justification and sanctification but Calvin does not. This could be because he wants the argument to give an understanding of the letter, not what we take away from the letter; it could be because Calvin only proceeds to systematic or biblical theology after doing structural exegesis. Doubtless the exposition will clarify this issue - or not.

Next part of Romans goes up on Monday. The book will probably be at least three posts.

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