Book Review

"The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms" by G. Sujin Pak

Dan Borvan
G. Sujin Pak
Friday, December 17th 2010
Jan/Feb 2011

Most readers of Modern Reformation are probably familiar with John Calvin's commentaries on the Bible. Many no doubt own the entire set and consult them regularly. A select few perhaps even read Calvin's commentaries for daily devotionals. From Calvin we learn to appreciate careful handling of the Scriptures and application for the Christian life. But many who are familiar with Calvin may not know just how groundbreaking his interpretations were in his day. They were so provocative that other Protestants accused him of aiding and abetting Jewish and Arian heresies with his commentary on the Psalms. It is from these allegations that G. Sujin Pak titles her book, The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms.

In this volume, Dr. Pak, assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, explores the history of interpretation of eight "messianic Psalms" (Psalms 2, 8, 16, 22, 45, 72, 110, and 118) and compares Calvin with select medieval interpreters, Martin Luther, and Martin Bucer. This work began as Pak's doctoral dissertation at Duke under the guidance of David C. Steinmetz, a true pioneer in the history of biblical exegesis. His landmark essay "The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis" is still a must-read for anyone who studies Scripture. Pak ably follows her mentor in thoroughness of research and careful textual analysis.

Pak opens the book with a chapter on the medieval exegesis of these eight psalms where she examines the commentaries of the Glossa Ordinaria, Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349), Denis the Carthusian (1402-71), and Jacques Lefèvre d'Ã?taples (1455-1536). Although the interpretations differed at certain points, the commentators generally agreed that the literal sense of these psalms was their meaning as literal prophecies of Christ. The first horizon of the life of David and the historical context of the composition was bypassed on the way to the christological significance. For example, the kings and princes who "take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed" (Ps. 2:2) were identified as Herod, Pilate, and the Jewish leaders who conspired together against Jesus. David's only purpose was to prophesy about Christ, not provide the original setting of the psalm. Pak concludes, "None of these interpreters read the primary, literal sense of these Psalms in reference to their historical context in the life of David or Solomon" (28).

The second chapter details Martin Luther's method. His interpretation of these eight psalms did not differ significantly from the medieval exegetes. Primarily, these psalms function as literal prophecies of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Luther failed to root his understanding of the Psalms in the historical context of the life of David. In Psalm 2, he viewed the kings and princes as the Jews, the enemies of Christ. The Messiah will "speak to them in his wrath" (Ps. 2:5) and "break them with a rod of iron" (Ps. 2:11). Pak explains that Luther's original contributions to the history of the exegesis of these eight psalms manifested in his focus on the teaching of justification by faith alone and his distinction between law and gospel.

Martin Bucer, the Reformed theologian of Strasbourg, aligned himself with much of the previous tradition of interpretation with regard to these eight psalms. They function as literal prophecies of Christ and teach specific aspects of his life and nature. Bucer did, however, insist on the importance of the historical context as the foundation for christological readings. David then becomes a type of Christ rather than just a prophet of Christ. For example, the anointed one in Psalm 2:2 first speaks of David, but also foreshadows Christ as the anointed Son of God. Just as David was the true king set in Zion (Ps. 2:6), so Christ is the ultimate king. Pak marks Bucer as the beginning of a distinctively Reformed reading of the Psalms, specifically with his typological interpretation and emphasis on the doctrine of election. On this reading, Bucer initiated the method that Calvin would then perfect.

Calvin broke with the traditional christological interpretation of these eight psalms. He did not primarily read them as literal prophecies of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Although many of the psalms were fully completed in Christ, the majority of his exegesis involves the importance of David. Pak outlines three general principles that Calvin adopted when applying a psalm to Christ.

First, a psalm may reference Christ when it is fully realized in Christ or more appropriate to Christ. In these cases, David acts as a type of Christ. Most of Calvin's christological readings of these eight psalms were typological’i.e., they were grounded in the historical context of the psalm. The Psalms do offer literal prophecies of Christ when they concern Christ's kingship and kingdom. Calvin emphasized the royal aspect of Christ more than his predecessors, who were concerned with the passion and resurrection. The kingdom of God becomes one of the primary lenses through which Calvin reads Scripture.

Second, Calvin applied a psalm to Christ when Christ himself does. For example, Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 while on the cross (Matt. 27:46): "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Even though he ultimately views these psalms as relating to Christ, Calvin first rooted these passages in the life of David. The first reading of Psalm 22 pertains to the life of David. Only after Calvin had understood the original context did he apply the psalm to Christ.

Third, a psalm applied to Christ when the christological reading retains the "simple and natural" sense of the passage and is in keeping with the author's (divine and human) intended meaning. Concerning Psalm 2, Calvin wrote: "Those things that David declares concerning himself are not violently, or even allegorically applied to Christ, but truly predicted concerning him" (81). The christological application must keep with the author's intention. Calvin's restraint in applying a psalm to Christ was partially motivated by his concern for the ability to defend interpretations against Jewish commentators. Calvin distanced himself from Christians who exposed themselves to ridicule from rabbinical exegetes by "sophistically" applying aspects of psalms to Christ. He viewed a christological reading of the simple and natural sense of a psalm as most appropriate. Calvin's interpretation of the Psalms as primarily speaking of David and only secondarily speaking of Christ, however, led some fellow Protestants to accuse him of Judaizing.

The Judaizing Calvin exposes areas of Calvin's exegetical skill heretofore unappreciated. Reformed Christians now have a new opportunity to admire the work of Calvin, but also to adopt his methods as a means for fruitful interpretation of the Bible.

Friday, December 17th 2010

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