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Reviews of faculty books

A.R. Kearns Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity David C. Steinmetz and the students he trained in a nearly 40-year teaching career at Duke. One of the most significant recent contributions is Sujin Pak’s The Judaizing Calvin , a work that reflects the hallmark of the “Steinmetz school”: careful reading of the exegesis of Reformation theologians evaluated in the context of medieval and ancient biblical interpretation.

Pak takes her title from a 1593 treatise, Calvinus Iudaizans , authored by the Lutheran theologian Aegidius Hunnius, who attacked John Calvin’s exegesis (nearly three decades after Calvin’s death) for undermining the biblical basis for the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. At issue here was Calvin’s identification of the literal sense of certain psalms with the life of David, even though these psalms were traditionally understood (even by Gospel writers and apostles) as literal prophecies of Christ.

Although Calvin had his defenders, most notably in the Reformed theologian David Pareus, Pak’s work suggests that Hunnius was not completely off the mark in his critique of Calvin. By analyzing Calvin’s exegesis of eight “messianic psalms,” so-called because they are quoted in the New Testament as prophecies of Christ, and by comparing Calvin’s exegesis to medieval interpretations and the interpretations of his older contemporaries Martin Luther and Martin Bucer, Pak shows that Calvin was, in fact, doing something different in his reading of these psalms. Most notably, Calvin wanted to circumscribe the literal meaning of these texts by the intention of the human author. Thus, for Calvin these psalms refer primarily to circumstances in the life of David. This does not mean, of course, that Calvin was trying to de-Christianize the Old Testament, for Calvin continued to read these psalms as lessons in Christian piety and devotion. However, as part of his larger program to de-allegorize Christian exegesis with interpretation that is closely tied to the grammatical and historical sense of the text, Calvin clearly wanted to rein in (not eliminate) christological readings of the Old Testament.

Are we to conclude, then, that Calvin’s emphases on authorial intention, history, and context validate the claim that he has made a clean break with the medieval exegetical tradition, and has laid the foundation for the development of the historical-critical method? Pak is unwilling (thankfully, in my mind) to make such a sweeping claim. She recognizes that Calvin shares too many convictions with pre-modern readers of Scripture to be credited (or blamed) for fathering the modern approach to biblical studies. Like his pre-modern predecessors, Calvin believes that God has inspired Scripture and that good exegesis should edify faith, promote charity, and inspire hope in believers. However, Pak rightly notes that modern exegesis will share many of the emphases developed in Calvin’s exegetical program, even though it may be driven by fundamentally different purposes than those shared by Calvin and pre-modern interpreters.

One of the most important contributions of Pak’s book is her analysis of the nasty anti-Judaism that often accompanies Christian readings of the Old Testament. The pre-modern tradition, in its reading of the messianic psalms, and indeed of the Old Testament prophecies in general, often made the Jews the enemies of Christ, and therefore of the church. This reading strategy continued even in the Reformation-era exegesis of Luther and Bucer.

Is there a way, then, for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible “Christianly” without embracing the anti-Jewish attitudes that have accompanied Christian interpretation of the Bible? Here, Pak offers Calvin’s reading of the Psalms as a possible model. Because of his refusal to read the messianic psalms first and foremost as literal prophecies of the saving events of Christ’s life, Calvin has no need to target the Jews as enemies of the church. Indeed, in his reading David becomes a model Jew who edifies the church and teaches Christian truths. And while Calvin may have abandoned the traditional christological readings, he has not, in fact, abandoned the centrality of Christ in his interpretations of the psalms. As the supreme expression of God’s providential care for the world, Christ remains the focus of these psalms even when they are interpreted in relation to David’s life.

Pak’s brilliant study of the history of exegesis demonstrates how historically oriented scholarship can be in service of the church and its theology. She shows how an engagement with our exegetical forebears can help us learn ways to become more faithful and charitable readers of Scripture. 

Craig S. Farmer is the Joel O. and Mabel Stephens Chair of