Why Didn’t Calvin Preach Revelation?

The reason Calvin didn’t preach Revelation isn’t exactly what Gerald Bray addresses on pages 51–52 in God Is Love, but what he says there probably takes us into the vicinity of the answer to that question:

The book of Revelation is in a category all its own and has frequently been misunderstood. One of the real advances in twentieth-century biblical scholarship was its rediscovery of the genre of apocalyptic literature, which has made it easier to interpret the last book of the Bible and to justify its place in the canon. For many centuries, Revelation was either ignored or misunderstood because no one really knew what to do with its rich symbolism. Many made the mistake of treating it as a literal prophecy, which led to fantastic predictions of the imminent end of time, and so on. Invariably, readings of that kind would turn out to be wrong, and that discredited the book in the eyes of many serious scholars. Now, however, it is possible to appreciate the text of Revelation for what it is and to realize that it is one of the most profoundly theological books in the entire Bible. It may take some time for awareness of this to percolate down to the average churchgoer, who is still liable to be misled by sensational interpretations, but there is a new scholarly consensus on the subject that promises to enhance, not diminish, the book’s reputation and usefulness in the life of the church.

Revelation is in the Bible, inspired by God, for the benefit of his people. These realities keep me from feeling any consternation about having attempted a book on which Calvin didn’t comment. Still, historical perspective is always appreciated.

11 Responses to Why Didn’t Calvin Preach Revelation?

  1. mike wittmer June 11, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    I like what Luther said, “revelation is a funny name for a book that doesn’t reveal anything.” I forget where he said it, so please don’t ask. Your book on the subject proves him wrong anyway, so it doesn’t even matter.

  2. James Kime June 11, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    The notion of Revelation being apocalyptic is suspect.The idea that it could not have been understood before demonstrates a faulty view of scripture and hermeneutic. Had they interpreted scripture with scripture, and left behind the augustinian allegory, it would have been quite simple. The blessing at the beginning of the book indicates it can be understood.

  3. Collin Garbarino June 12, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    It’s an interesting thought. But it brings a question to mind. When was the genre of apocalyptic literature lost?

    • JMH June 12, 2013 at 9:01 am #

      I think it would be natural to see that happening early on, as the church was flooded with non-Jews, mostly lost the ability to read Hebrew, and with the loss of the language lost a firm grip on the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors (i.e., biblical theology), replacing that perspective with strategies of interpretation brought in from other sources than the biblical writings.

  4. Elliott June 12, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    How do we know that Calvin never preached Revelation? Just an honest question, since I thought that he never wrote commentaries on a lot of books (Revelation to be sure, but also Judges, Ruth, 1& 2 Samuel, 1& 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, 2 and 3 John) and 75% of his sermons are lost.

  5. Bruce June 21, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    The book of Revelation may be the most “biblical” book in the Bible, given the profusion of OT references and allusions. Certainly, the author was steeped in the prophetic literature, Moses to Malachi. And he “had been with Jesus.”

    Of course it is speculative on my part, but when one examines the trajectory of Calvin’s exegetical work–whether commentary or sermon–it seems reasonable to me that Calvin hoped he might fully saturate his mind with the fullness of the remainder of Scripture, prior to interpreting John’s Revelation.

    He did not live long enough to complete the labor. He lived longer than perhaps even he expected to, given his almost interminable illnesses.

    **********
    THL Parker wrote two helpful books–on Calvin’s commentaries and his preaching–synthesizing much of the available data on Calvin’s interpretive career. We have a pretty good idea of what he was preaching on, and when. Not all his sermons have been preserved, nor have all extant been translated into English. And, many old editions have never been reprinted. But we do have a fairly complete outline of his regular (and extensive) preaching ministry.

    The evidence appears to be lacking for any treatment by Calvin of Revelation. There is also the paucity of simple quotations or cross-references in his other works to texts from Revelation. This has led some to think Calvin could have doubted (privately) the book’s inspiration.

    I prefer to think he was daunted. Nothing shameful in that. He would be well aware of the many, conflicting interpretations already in existence; and being a man highly indisposed to confusion, surely had little desire to add prematurely to that cacophony. This explanation does not entirely cover all the questions, including his seeming reluctance to quote or reference the Revelation; but it respects the man and his own silence.

    And I think this interpretation of Calvin fits with the tenor of JMH’s post, and the quote within it.

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