That Time Calvin Disagreed with Augustine (Or, How to Read the Fathers Like a Protestant)

Augustine-JohnCalvinIt doesn’t take a specialist to know that Calvin loved the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. After the Bible, he quotes Augustine more than anybody else in the Institutes (I think, but don’t quote me on this) more than all the other Fathers combined. Whenever he wanted to establish the antiquity of a doctrine, or its soundness with the interpretation of the Church universal, it’s a safe bet he’s going to pull out an Augustine quote, especially since he was an authority both he and his Roman interlocutors agreed upon.

Calvin’s Quibbles

That said, Calvin wasn’t a slavish admirer of the great bishop as we see here in his comments on the story of Pentecost:

And when. To be fulfilled is taken in this place for to come. For Luke beareth record again of their perseverance, when he saith that they stood all in one place until the time which was set them. Hereunto serveth the adverb, with one accord Furthermore, we have before declared why the Lord did defer the sending of his Spirit a whole month and a half. But the question is, why he sent him upon that day chiefly. I will not refute that high and subtle interpretation of Augustine, that like as the law was given to the old people fifty days after Easter, being written in tables of stone by the hand of God, so the Spirit, whose office it is to write the same in our hearts, did fulfill that which was figured in the giving of the law as many days after the resurrection of Christ, who is the true Passover. Notwithstanding, whereas he urgeth this his subtle interpretation as necessary, in his book of Questions upon Exodus, and in his Second Epistle unto Januarius, I would wish him to be more sober and modest therein. Notwithstanding, let him keep his own interpretation to himself. In the mean season, I will embrace that which is more sound.

-Commentary on Acts 2:1-4

While according him great respect and noting his interpretation, Calvin says that the great Augustine has put forward what he considers to be a less “sober” and “modest” interpretation which he simply cannot follow. So what explanation does he find more plausible?:

Upon the feast day, wherein a great multitude was wont to resort to Jerusalem, was this miracle wrought, that it might be more famous. And truly by means hereof was it spread abroad, even unto the uttermost parts and borders of the earth.  For the same purpose did Christ oftentimes go up to Jerusalem upon the holy days, (John 2, 5, 7, 10, 12,) to the end those miracles which he wrought might be known to many, and that in the greater assembly of people there might be the greater fruit of his doctrine. For so will Luke afterward declare, that Paul made haste that he might come to Jerusalem before the day of Pentecost, not for any religion’s sake, but because of the greater assembly, that he might profit the more, (Acts 20:16.) Therefore, in making choice of the day, the profit of the miracle was respected: First, that it might be the more extolled at Jerusalem, because the Jews were then more bent to consider the works of God; and, secondly, that it might be bruited abroad, even in far countries. They called it the fiftieth day, beginning to reckon at the first-fruits.


We see here the difference I’ve mentioned before when it comes to the Reformers and the earlier, especially medieval, hermeneutical tradition; they will usually privilege the ‘literal’/historical-grammatical sense of the text over any spiritualizing, allegorizing, or typological senses. Calvin isn’t opposed to typological interpretation in principle–he engages in quite a bit of it himself and accepts the prefigurement of Pentecost in the sense of first-fruits pointing towards the initial fruitfulness of the Gospel by the Spirit’s power. He’s concerned, though, that the interpretation first be grounded plausibly in the history of the event. In other words, in a text like this, he insists that the intentionality of the human actors be made sense of and that “the profit of the miracle was respected.” Only then may we move on to the typological meaning without it becoming over-subtle.

Now, that said, I myself think Calvin was being a little over-cautious here; Augustine’s got a point linking Pentecost with the giving of the Law, and the Spirit who writes the Law on our very hearts. Part of the point of typology is that God’s authorship of history can transcend even the human actor’s, or author’s original intent, without violating them. Also, given modern studies in the theological dimension to the authorship of the Gospel writers, it doesn’t strike me as improbable that Luke intended for multiple resonances to be in play in the text connected to as rich a concept as Pentecost.

The Moral of the Story

More interesting than the specific interpretation given to the passage however, was Calvin’s treatment Augustine’s interpretation. Here he offers us a model for a Protestant engagement with the interpretive tradition of the Fathers: respectful, but critical listening. He doesn’t do what so many pop-Protestant approaches do and simply ignore the tradition because, “All I need is my Bible.” Calvin knows that the Church, at least some segments of it, has been reading the Bible well enough for a very long time, so he doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. He knows the arrogance it takes to approach the text in a way that says the Spirit has skipped 20 centuries of interpreters in order to finally reveals the Scriptures to me. In fact, it is precisely through the teachers of the Church that he works most of the time.

At the same time, in order that the Spirit may truly rule through the Word, Calvin reads the Fathers critically–not disrespectfully, but with a knowledge that they are fallible men, who can err just as he might. As you would treat a respected pastor who has faithfully labored over the texts for years, so with the Fathers: pay careful attention to what they have to say, consider deeply, and go back to the text. Indeed, this lesson is valuable, not only for Protestants looking to read the Fathers, but for Protestants looking to read the early Reformers; Calvin teaches me by his disagreement with Augustine that it’s permissible for me to disagree with Calvin!

Soli Deo Gloria

16 thoughts on “That Time Calvin Disagreed with Augustine (Or, How to Read the Fathers Like a Protestant)

  1. I appreciate both Calvin’s respectful disagreement and interaction with Augustine and what you draw from this disagreement about respect for tradition and not sliding into what Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We have much to learn from the Patristics and the Reformers, etc. and it is madness to think we can just start over and figure out what these guys just missed. And yet, we are not to turn off our minds either and treat their writings as Scripture. Great post.

    • Thanks man! I think this is one of the most important lessons we have to learn right now. We need to be proactive both about introducing people to the Fathers as well as giving them a framework within which to read them. I’ve had a number of friends run across them and find out the blessings of the early church and then think they have to run off to become Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic to claim them. Nope, they’re our Fathers as well.

  2. Good and thoughtful stuff here. One affirmation and one nit:

    1. Protestants, especially modern evangelicals, would do well indeed to model Calvin’s respectful, but critical listening to the church fathers. I pick on today’s evangelicals because they more than anybody it seems prize the “me-and-my-Bible” mentality. Trained Reformed teachers (and Lutherans and Anglicans), in particular, more often than not read the church fathers in just this way.

    2. There’s nothing particularly Protestant about reading the church fathers respectfully but critically. The other communions—whether Catholic or Orthodox—do not deem any one particular church father as infallible. You’ll find many disagreements with various fathers coming from Catholic and Orthodox commentators. The difference is usually in terms of degree: Protestants disagree more often with the church fathers than Catholics or Orthodox, because, if we’re being honest, the closer one lines up to the early church fathers, the closer one will be to the Catholic or Orthodox churches. We know this to be the case when looking at the differences in degree among Protestants themselves: Lutherans and Anglicans are (typically) much closer to Catholics and Orthodox in faith and practice in large part because of their lack of disagreement (compared to, e.g., Presbyterians) with the early church fathers.

    No doubt, “they’re our Fathers as well,” but when the disagreements begin to far outweigh the agreements, we should perhaps wonder what kind of sons we are.

    • I can roll with the agreement and the nit. I think what I’ve noticed, and I noted it in the other comment, was that Protestants just start reading them and, well, for various reasons, some feel they have to jump to EO, or RC communions to appreciate them.

      As for the kind of sons we are–well, you know, hopefully ones submitted to the same Lord through His Word.

    • “the closer one lines up to the early church fathers, the closer one will be to the Catholic or Orthodox churches.”

      While this may seem reasonable on the outset, this is not necessarily true. One consideration: Augustine has been considered both to be the Father of Medieval Sacramentalism and also the Reformer’s focus on grace. Was he a mere contradiction or is there something in Augustine’s thought that was divided or reconfigured over the centuries?

      While certainly alien, I don’t think the Fathers necessarily lead either to RCC/EO or towards Protestantism, but something else.

  3. What if we haven’t the time to read the early fathers? While I don’t think the “Me and my Bible” mentality is wise, what if our approach is to read commentary and use a method of the early to interpret Scripture through “the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ”?

    When I first became a Christian at 29, I was told to read the Institutes. I did read them, slogged through them, and (I’m sorry to say after all that work) pretty soon forgot them. I was very busy: a medical resident, then a practicing physician, soon, add to that a mother, then add to that a homeschooler. I am only recently able to do some serious critical reading about my faith, questioning the damaging things my fundamentalist mentors planted in my head as the proper way to interpret Scripture.

    I may be revealing myself to be truly foolish to say that everything I *know* to be true about God is very limited: God exists, He is Omnipresent, He loves us, He gave us His son as a mysterious but perfect Sacrifice for all people, and it is at least partly if not completely through this perfect sacrifice that He wants us to know Him. If this is what I know about God, this is how I must interpret even commentary on His word.

    I would appreciate any help here.

    • Susan, please do not take every suggestion for study as a command or necessarily as an accusation if it is not something you find yourself able to complete. We all have different amounts of time to devote to these types of studies and that makes sense with respect are different roles within the body. I myself can’t do half of the things I think are a good idea. I do believe its a Christian just reading the Bible will get things out of the text and the Spirit of God will lead them into truth. At the same time these comments about “me and my Bible” are more directed towards those who have no impulse to study beyond their own wisdom on the text–those who think that they don’t need any help because they’ve got it covered. In a similar way the advice to read the Fathers is for those who like studying theology but don’t think they need to know anything that was written more than 20 years ago and just to the right of the past like it didn’t matter. Getting a good commentary is a good help as well getting your hands on a few good big-picture books that help identify key themes in Scripture even if they don’t comment on every text.

      I don’t know if this helps. I am on my phone.

      • Your answer is dismissive, and your final comment cements your half-hearted attempt to read my comment and respond to it. Sorry.

      • Dismissive? I honestly tried to answer it but doing so on my phone made it so that I couldn’t read it and respond at the same time so I might have lost my train of thought. That happens to me sometimes. Honestly, my final comment was a real question.

      • It’s good to know you care, but I didn’t accuse you of not caring. I felt you treated my comment as unworthy of real consideration. I wasn’t whining about my lack of time to read the Fathers. I wasn’t feeling accused. But I felt humiliated by your response. Blame print media. Blame my (insert whatever). Did you even think about what I said about the me-and-my-bible? Doesn’t sound like it, since you give me part of the sentence as advice later on.

      • Okay, having re-read it I think I got thrown off by the missing word (“fathers”) and missed the point of that sentence. Yes, I’d say that’s a fine way to read it. That’s how I end up trying to do it myself.

        As for humiliating you in my response, I am sorry but that wasn’t even close to my intent.


  4. Good morning Derek! I always love how God’s Spirit uses you to confirm what He is revealing to me! Thank you so much for taking the time & the effort (hard work) to study, read & comment on so much of the bible & biblical commentary from both the early fathers & current teachers!
    My take on the date of the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples in Acts2 ended up being the same as Calvin – due to Deut16:16 where the end of festival of weeks was one of the 3 times a year all the men must come to the tabernacle (or in their day Herod’s temple).
    I also agree with Augustine’s insight that God can use the timing for a typology of the “law being written in their hearts” by the Holy Spirit indwelling them. God has revealed (especially in the book of Hebrews) that He is more than capable of using events or things as types or shadows of future fulfillment.
    So….all that to say AMEN to your point of being respectfully critical in our assimilation of men’s teachings both past & present. Acts17:11 I think gives us complete permission to critically inspect the teachings of men (especially if they could inspect PAUL’s teaching, which trumps both Augustine & Calvin). In fact, more than just permission…the Bereans are considered (by Paul himself) to be more noble (honored) because they did just that!
    God is truly blessing your work not only at Trinity, but beyond (subtle Buzz play on words heehee). Love you dearly, Karen 🙂

    • Karen, if there’s one person that comes to mind when I think of the Bereans it’s you. You’re a faithful servant of the Word. I’m glad this blessed you. That’s my big hope for these: that they bless the church of God.

  5. Pingback: A Crash-Course in Revelation (Or, Reformedish Thoughts on Scripture According to Westminster) | Reformedish
  6. I’ve got the “Institutes” sitting on my bedside table. Susan might appreciate that it was given to me by a physician friend of mine who said he took four years to read it, but God help me I can’t crack that massive tome! Any advice on how to get started? Other writers helped me read Augustine, and Lonergan and Geach were great for Thomas. Should I be looking for insights about the nature of knowledge, or demonstrations of piety?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s