Article of the Month




What the Reformers Really Said Calvin on types and parallels

by Peter Masters


Before the Reformation it was fashionable for clergy to assume that there were various ‘levels’ of meaning (usually four) to be mined out of every passage of Scripture. Mystical and fanciful allegorical methods of interpretation were well entrenched. Even Augustine, who taught that the literal sense of the Scripture should be seen as paramount, accepted the idea that a passage will have several levels of sense.

In such a context, it is not surprising that the Reformers strongly emphasised the great and primary importance of the literal, plain sense of the text. However, in several books by modern approach authors, Calvin (as well as Luther) is carried to an extreme to support their ideas, being quoted as saying that the original author’s intended surface meaning is the sole correct meaning of the text. Modern approach authors triumphantly parade words from Calvin’s letter of dedication in his commentary on Romans:

‘Since it is almost his [the interpreter’s] only task to unfold the mind of the writer whom he has undertaken to expound, he misses his mark, or at least strays outside his limits, by the extent to which he leads his readers away from the meaning of his author.’

Is Calvin here supporting the theory of the modern approach school? He is not, for here lies a most valuable feature of Calvin’s method of interpretation, long discussed by Calvin scholars. On the one hand, he repeatedly stresses the need to cling closely to the human author’s intention, while on the other he also insists on seeing the intention of the Holy Spirit, and what He intended to say to the church. Noted Calvin scholars speak of how he pursues the intention of the Holy Spirit within the literal sense, viewed with spiritual eyes, to find Christ and His church in the Old Testament.

One may see Calvin’s balanced position in his introduction to Isaiah, where he asserts that ultimately the text contains no human reasoning, but only the revelation given by the Spirit of God.

Professor Brevard Childs of Yale Divinity School in his recent work on Isaiah1 summarises Calvin’s method in these words:

‘Because the Bible is a written text of a human author, its words can be studied grammatically as any other writing. However, this is only part of the task; the relation between the human and divine nature of Scripture requires a much more subtle approach ... It is crucial to understand that what Calvin means by a text’s literal sense is not simply identified with its verbal or historically reconstructed meaning ... For Calvin, there is ... a strong force exerted to extend the meaning by adapting the biblical text to the present usage of the church. This bridge or act of application is by the means of a transference, that is, an anagoge [a literary analogy].’

Calvin justly denied that he used allegorisation in the medieval sense, for he did not twist the literal sense of the passage, but made the passage analogous to the experience of the church, taking his cue from New Testament statements that the Old was written for all ages. He, therefore, read the Old Testament through the eyes of New Testament doctrines, believing, as we have noted, that it is about Christ and His church. In all this, he never strayed from the meaning of the Old Testament passage, but unquestionably extended the sense.

We should allow Calvin to speak for himself. In his commentary on Galatians he makes the following superb statement about the plain sense and how it relates to the presence of figures and parallels in the Old Testament. (Needless to say the modern approach writers do not quote this.) Here is the perfect expression of the matter. First, Calvin upholds the literal sense, condemning those who make allegories out of texts at whim; but then he shows that there are parallels between Old Testament events and the church age, and these must be seen and correctly handled. (This comment is on Galatians 4.24.) We urge our readers to persevere with this slightly complex quotation as it decisively lays to rest the idea that Calvin was in line with today’s modern approach.

‘For many centuries no man was thought clever who lacked the cunning and daring to transfigure with subtlety the sacred Word of God. This was undoubtedly a trick of Satan to impair the authority of Scripture and remove any benefit out of the reading of it... Scripture, they say, is fertile and thus bears multiple meanings. I acknowledge that Scripture is the most rich and inexhaustible fount of all wisdom. But I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which anyone may fasten to it at his pleasure. Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and simple one, and let us embrace and hold it resolutely. Let us not merely neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions which lead us away from literal sense.

‘But what shall we reply to Paul’s assertion [that Abraham’s family is an allegory]? He certainly does not mean that Moses purposely wrote the story so that it might be turned into an allegory, but is pointing out in what way the story relates to the present case; that is, when we see there the image of the church figuratively delineated. And an anagoge [a spiritual, allegorical interpretation] of this sort is not foreign to the genuine and literal meaning, when a comparison was drawn between the church and the family of Abraham. For as the house of Abraham was then the true church, so it is beyond doubt that the principal and most memorable events that happened in it are types for us.’

That last statement declares the true position of the Reformer and all who follow him, and is the position we seek to lay out in this book, namely that parallels were intended by God.

Earlier in this book we accused the modern approach authors of selectively quoting Calvin, and what follows is a particularly bad example. Immediately after the words shown earlier from his commentary on Romans, he makes the following statement. Modern approach writers do not quote this because it destroys their prohibition of the use of later scriptures to explain a text.

‘If we understand this epistle [Romans] we have a channel opened up for us to the understanding of the whole of Scripture.’

In other words, Calvin believed that Romans should condition and mould our understanding of all other parts of Scripture, even opening up for us, for example, the Book of Genesis. God’s intended spiritual or typical message, which may not be immediately apparent to us, springs to life by the help of Romans.

Right and wrong spiritualising

So important is the subject of God’s intended figures and parallels in the Old Testament, that a few further comments on parallels are provided in the following pages (with a little repetition) to clarify the position. The vehement tirade against allegorisation mounted by modern approach books prompts the question — are there allegories in the Bible? Remember that an allegory is a fictional story used to describe another subject, perhaps a moral message, by suggestive resemblances. It is an extended metaphor, or a moral story. By this definition there are few allegories in the Bible, but there are some, and we have named Song of Solomon and the longer ‘parables’ in the Book of Proverbs as examples.

However, when modern approach writers condemn allegorisation, they include in this the drawing of parallels. Yet there are thousands of parallels between things recorded in the Old Testament and the life of the church today, for God has written and preserved the history of the Jews to teach the church how He deals with His people spiritually. When modern approach teachers call allegorisation reprehensible and abominable, they ban all these parallels also, tearing out of the Old Testament its greatest pastoral purpose. This is no way to cure preachers who allegorise the Old Testament out of their imagination. They need to be shown how to correctly recognise and apply pastoral parallels without distorting the text.

Does a preacher have the freedom to choose for himself what an Old Testament narrative represents or parallels? He does not have such liberty. He should not, for example, take the account of David and Goliath and draw from it a sermon about ‘the giants in your life’ and how they must be slain, specifying a list of sins or objects of covetous desire, or similar ideas. This is merely low-level ingenuity, exploiting the text for sermon points, and failing to do justice to the whole event. This would be wrong ‘allegorising’ (which oddly enough comes in this case from the sermon notes of a modern approach supporter).

The preacher’s imagination spotted a vaguely plausible, but rather trivial connection and failed to notice that the giant was not an obstacle in David’s life, but in Israel’s. Had he remained faithful to the grammatical sense, he would also have respected that there was only one giant, and no parallel for plural giants in your life.

However, from the beginning of his sermon preparation, the preacher must be aware that the narrative has a purpose, and in this passage the purpose is clearly to provide an example of faith in spiritual warfare and service. What the arm of flesh could not do, God could do through the instrumentality of a faithful man, however young and obscure. The key words say that ‘the Lord saveth not with the sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s.’ Truly significant parallels abound, such as David’s rejection of Saul’s armour, surely applicable in principle to such matters as the necessary rejection of the polluted musical idiom and instruments of the world in the battle for souls, or the rejection of most of the fleshly methods and innovations presented in church-growth books. Equally, there are great positive and encouraging lessons to be drawn from the indication of David’s obedience and faith.

The point is that such narratives contain many principles of the of God’s ways, of the rewards of faith, of the consequences of absence of faith and of placing trust in human devices or false doctrine, and these must be drawn out. The pastoral eye must be active from the beginning of preparation, but great care must be exercised to ensure that the parallels drawn are logical, reasonably obvious, worthy, not far-fetched, nor strained, and not concerned merely with minor or trivial matters.

The rule is not hard to follow. In the historical narratives of the Bible, the family of Abraham or the church of the Jewish era represents and illustrates God’s dealings with His people in later times. Do we honor these parallels in making faithful spiritual observations and explaining the lessons of faith?


  1. The Struggle to Understand ISAIAH as Christian Scripture, Brevard S. Childs, Eerdmans, 2004, pp. 207-229.


This article is protected under copyright law and used by permission from the author.

Dr. Peter Masters

Dr. Peter Masters has been the minister of the Metropolitan Tabernacle (Spurgeon’s) in Central London since 1970. Some of the author's other books are, Psalms and Hymns of Reformed Worship, Do We Have a Policy? For Church Health and Growth, Only One Baptism of the Holy Spirit, Steps for Guidance, The Charismatic Phenomenon, The Healing Epidemic, Biblical Strategies for Witness. All of these titles are published by The Wakeman Trust, London, UK.

This article is taken from his book Not Like Any Other Book: Interpreting the Bible.


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