Literal, Christological, Spiritual: A Look Into Calvin’s Approach to Hermeneutics and Preaching

calvinWhat is our aim in preaching?  What should it be?

This is a debated question among preachers who share many of the same evangelical convictions—namely, the authority and sufficiency of Christ. Some argue for a “text-driven approach,” which gives pride of place to timeless truths of the text discovered through a rigorous grammatical-historical approach to the text. Others call for an “apostolic” or “redemptive-historical” approach, where the methods of the apostles are imitated.

Often the former critiques the latter of reading into the text, appealing too much to typology, even straying into allegory. (Full disclosure: I think this argument is a red herring. It applies to some who advocate a figural approach to Scripture. But it falls flat against interpreters like Richard Gaffin and G.K. Beale). By contrast, those who read with an eye to the redemptive-historical nature of Scripture, worry that exegesis which only reads passages at the textual level and makes direct application (e.g., drawing ethical principles from Boaz’s treatment of Ruth) misses the Christological aims of Scripture—not to mention, the way any passage fits into the context of the whole Bible (what is known as the “canonical context”).

Space doesn’t permit a full discussion here. Two helpful books that engage this subject are the edited volume by G.K. Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text? Essays on the New Testament Use of the Oldand the multi-perspective book Biblical Hermeneutics: Five ViewsThese books will show the turning points in the debate. For now, let me put forward a mediating approach which takes the best of both positions, one historically modeled by John Calvin.

Calvin’s Literal, Christological, Spiritual Aims in Preaching

In his outstanding volume on pastoral ministry in Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536–1609Scott M. Manetsch summarizes three aims in Calvin’s preaching. Manetsch’s brief description of Calvin’s preaching puts into two pages what David Puckett has demonstrated at length in his dissertation-turned-monograph, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament. In what follows I quote Manetsch quoting Calvin; the page numbers are from Manetsch’s volume.


First, trained in the humanities, Calvin was rigorously committed to a literal reading of Scripture. That is, “Christian preaching . . . endeavors to explain the biblical text in its literary and historical context and applies the message to the needs and problems of the audience” (160). In his commentary on Galatians, the French Reformer reveals his commitment to a literal approach,

“Let us know,” Calvin states, “that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and simple one, and let us embrace and hold it resolutely.” (160)

Reading the text as the final and definitive authority, the preacher’s work is to exposit what the text says—adding nothing, taking nothing away. However, such a textual approach doesn’t forget the larger context of the canon, as Manetsch explains,

“When treating difficult passages, the expositor must look to the unity of God’s revelation, allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture by consulting verses from across the biblical canon to help elucidate the literal meaning of the text.” (160)

Rightly, the literal meaning is understand only as the unified texts of Scripture mutually-interpret one another. Just as the literal approach requires reading words in light of sentences, sentences in light of paragraphs, paragraphs in light of books, so books must be read in light of the the Book, and in light of the full and final revelation of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ.


The second aspect to Calvin’s method of interpretation concerns “the central focus, or scopus, of Scripture” (161). For Calvin this centerpiece was none other than “the living person of Jesus Christ himself” (161). In his commentary on John 5:39 Calvin writes,

“The Scriptures should be read with the aim of finding Christ in them. Whoever turns aside from this object . . . will never reach the knowledge of the truth.” (161)

Filling in the ellipsis, Calvin says that a man “may weary himself throughout his whole life in learning,” but he will not come to a knowledge of the truth unless he finds the One who is truth. This is why Scripture has been given to us. Therefore, the faithful expositor must show how every text naturally finds its resolution in Christ. Indeed, to adapt terms from David Helm and Augustine of Hippo, Christ is the ‘melodic line’ of Scripture (Helm) and every passage of Scripture will remain in a state of unrest until it finds it rest in Christ (Augustine).

Because the literal reading of Scripture works at the level of textual propositions and canonical promise-fulfillment structures (i.e. Old Testament promise and New Testament fulfillment in Christ), we need not divorce a literal reading from a Christological reading. In fact, this is the best way to read Scripture—to see the shape of the text as our starting place, Christ as our ultimate aim, and personal application as the means by which we, the faithful reader, are transformed. It is not too much to say, this is a trinitarian way of reading—the Father (and the Son) sends the Spirit to inspire the prophets and apostles to bear witness about the Son; in turn, when we hear the Spirit’s testimony it draws us to Christ so that we might give praise to our heavenly Father.

But, of course, this triune approach to Scripture requires a Christological and Spiritual aim—the third aspect of Calvin’s approach.


A “Spiritual” reading of Scripture is probably not a felicitous term  because of how often this kind language refers to allegorical or figurative readings of Scripture. Yet, if we define Spiritual according to 1 Corinthians 2:10–16 and 2 Timothy 3:16, we can avoid such errors. In this Pauline approach to Scripture, the Spirit illumines our minds to understand and embrace the inspired Word of God. Accordingly, a Spiritual way of preaching is one that aims to impress the full weight of God’s Word into the hearts and lives of hearers. Or as Calvin puts (161),

“If doctrine is not supported with exhortations, it is sterile and will not pierce our hearts.” (Sermon on Titus 2:15–3:2)

“There are two things required [of preachers], first that we provide a good and pure explanation to the faithful of that which is required for their salvation, and then that we add as much vehemence as appropriate, so that the doctrine touches and enlivens hearts.” (Sermon on 1 Timothy 4:12–13)

Truly the Word of God must be presented clearly, but a clear presentation is not the same thing as Spiritual preaching. Faithful expositors, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, must have their hearts set ablaze so that when they preach their Spirit-derived passion might light a fire in the hearts and minds of their hearers.

Technically-speaking, this comes in showing how the passage applies today and impressing hearers through holy rhetoric a sense of weightiness and beauty of the truths being proclaimed. In other words, Spirit-empowered preaching is something wholly different than classroom instruction. The best classroom instruction of the Bible may move towards doxology, but preaching must result in doxology, which in turn empowers discipleship. “In this way, the Holy Spirit achieves his sacred purposes through the ministry of the preacher, declaring God’s glory, announcing the gospel of salvation in Christ, and reforming the church” (161).

Preach the Whole Christ from the Whole Bible

While not perfect, Calvin is a good model in so many ways. Especially with his commitment to Christ-centered exposition, we find a corrective to the extremes of “text-driven” and “redemptive-historical” preaching. We should labor in the text with a literal hermeneutic, while at the same time looking for how every passage finds its natural telos in Jesus Christ. This is why I have in another place argued for a Christotelic  hermeneutic (Christ-at-the-end) instead of Christolocentric one (Christ-at-the-center).

At the same time, those who love to follow the threads of biblical theology and typology from obscure Old Testament figures to Jesus Christ must be reminded that such canonical movements can only be endeavored after we have done the spade-work of exegesis. To shift metaphors, apostolic preaching is not like haphazardly climbing aboard a plane to fly from the plains of Shinar (Genesis 11) to Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2). Rather, with a different spirit than the tower-builders in Babel, we must construct from the grammatical-historical rubble at Babel a land rover that treks from Abraham to Israel to David to Jesus on the way to Acts 2 and then to us.

In other words, typology is not a quick and easy puddle jump from the Old Testament to the New. It is a rigorous march through the various epochs of redemptive history. Or to say it differently, it is a literal approach that reveals Christ from all Scripture. When we grasp this approach, modeled but not exhausted by Calvin, we are on our way to a faithful exposition of Scripture that is literal, Christological, and Spiritual.

May God help us preachers see how to do this, so that we might feed his sheep with the bread of life gathered from all corners of his canonical field.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds