The Independent Pupil: Calvin’s Transformation of Erasmus’ Theological Hermeneutics -- By: Don H. Compier

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 54:2 (Fall 1992)
Article: The Independent Pupil: Calvin’s Transformation of Erasmus’ Theological Hermeneutics
Author: Don H. Compier


The Independent Pupil:
Calvin’s Transformation of Erasmus’ Theological Hermeneutics

Don H. Compier

The relationship between John Calvin’s theology and the humanist thought of the Renaissance has long been of interest to scholars of the sixteenth century. As François Wendel observed,1 some interpreters tend to make much of Calvin’s attacks on humanists, therefore stressing the incompatibility between his earlier scholarly preoccupations and his mature career as a Reformer.2 On the contrary, others, like Wendel, insist that even after his “conversion”3 Calvin continued to use humanist methodology, adapted the writings of pagan antiquity to Christian ends, promoted humanist education at Geneva, and developed doctrine decisively shaped by typical themes of the Renaissance.4 In particular, scholars have shown that Calvin’s writings represent the tradition of Ciceronian rhetoric recovered

by the humanists.5 A third group chooses a middle course, noting both continuities and discontinuities.6

In all this literature, however, surprisingly little has been said about the relationship between Calvin and the most influential of the Northern humanists, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. In his earlier work, Wendel, for instance, made tantalizing suggestions about possible links, but William J. Bouwsma is the first to detail Calvin’s considerable dependence on his famous predecessor.7 Due to the scope of his work, however, Bouwsma can devote only one short chapter (pp. 113-27) to biblical hermeneutics, a subject which is of central importance for both men. Given the nature of the sixteenth century as an era marked by the recovery of the original scriptural sources, historians have rightly lamented the dearth of research in this vital area.8

Studies of the hermeneutical principles of both Erasmus9 and Calvin10 are now available. Therefore there is no need to provide a comprehensive description in this essay.

To my knowledge, however, no thorough comparison of the theories of interpretation utilized by Erasmus and Calvin has been attempted. By reflecting on key primary sources, then, I wi...

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