Problems With The Patriarchs: John Calvin’s Interpretation Of Difficult Passages In Genesis -- By: Scott M. Manetsch

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 67:1 (Spring 2005)
Article: Problems With The Patriarchs: John Calvin’s Interpretation Of Difficult Passages In Genesis
Author: Scott M. Manetsch


Problems With The Patriarchs:
John Calvin’s Interpretation Of Difficult Passages In Genesis

Scott M. Manetsch

Scott M. Manetsch is Associate Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

Mark Twain once wryly noted, “It is not the parts of Scripture that I don’t understand that bother me. Rather, it’s the parts of Scripture that I do understand.” And there are few portions of Scripture that are more difficult for the Christian exegete and preacher than the book of Genesis—with all of its obscurity and clarity. Here the Christian interpreter confronts a whole battery of baffling questions. First, there are the obscurities. The scientist asks, “What has Genesis 1 to do with science?” The Christian historian inquires, “Should the account of the patriarchs be taken as history or (mere) kerygma?” The man or woman in the pew wonders, “When did God create the heavens and the earth? Where precisely was Eden located? Whom did Cain marry? How did Noah get all those animals on his ark?” So many obscurities, and the interpreter is barely six chapters in.

But the clarities of Genesis may be even more problematic. The patriarchs of old—these men depicted as heroes of faith—sometimes behaved rather badly: Noah weathers the flood, only to sink, naked, into a drunken stupor in his tent. Abraham—the great exemplar of faith— is a polygamist who has a nasty habit of endangering his beautiful wife Sarah by not acknowledging that they are married. And what is to be said about Lot, Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons, whose sins include polygamy, incest, drunkenness, offering daughters to sexual predators, selling a brother to slave traders, and slaughtering an entire city to avenge a sister’s rape? What is the faithful Christian expositor to do with all of this obscurity. .. and embarrassing clarity in the book of Genesis? The brave interpreter exploring this dangerous landscape would seem well-advised to heed the sign on the rim of the Grand Canyon: Warning! Dangerous trail ahead. Proceed at your own risk!

John Calvin (1509–64) traveled the treacherous terrain of the book of Genesis repeatedly during twenty-five years of pastoral ministry in Geneva. The grand themes of Genesis (creation, fall, providence, justification by faith) as well as details of the patriarchs’ lives are woven tightly into the argument and theology of each successive edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the 1559 edition of the Institutes, for example, Calvin quotes from or alludes to the

book of Genesis nearly 250 times. The reformer also lecture...

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