Calvin on Scripture for All

In 1535, Pierre Robert Olivétan published the first French Bible translated from the original languages. Calvin wrote a short preface to the Bible in Latin, as well as a much longer preface to the New Testament in French. Of course, in bringing the Bible into the common language of the French people, Olivétan–and his supporter Calvin–faced the usual arguments against the reading of Scripture by the common people. Usually, it was the charge that the people would not be able to understand it. This is his reply in the Latin preface:

But the impious voices of certain people are heard shouting that it is an unworthy thing for these mysteries [in the Bible] to be published for the simple crowd: “In these things for which an entire age has passed, otherwise great people aided by the helps of both nature and teaching, have nevertheless often fallen in the middle of the stadium–few, or perhaps none at all, are known who would reach the finish line. What,” they say, “in view of these things, can these poor fools follow, who are ignorant of all good arts and (if skill is asked for) inexperienced in everything?”

Truly, since God, from the folds of shepherds and from the ships of fishermen, took prophets  and apostles for himself, why are not such people worthy now of being disciples? Rather, if for those Rabbis [i.e., the impious shouters] (who share with them either greatness or ferocity) it is a shameful fate to learn with common and rough people, how great is the disgrace of learning from such teachers as those who excel in nothing either in part or in the simplest things, except in what they are taught by God? I do not say these things, by which I would take away from the church the order of teaching and learning, which ought to acknowledge the shining goodness of God as long as it is rightly instituted by the prophets, teachers and interpreters who are sent by him.

But in this I only claim that in the people of the faithful one is permitted to hear God himself speaking, and to learn by his teaching. When he wants to be known “from the least of them to the greatest,” when all are promised to be “taught by God” (θεοδιδάκτους) [Jer. 31:34], when God laments to be always labouring among them until he calls them “those weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast” [Is. 28:9], when he gives wisdom to infants [cf. Ps. 19:7], then he has instructed the poor to preach the gospel (εὐαγγελίσθαι). Since, therefore, we see in all walks of life those who make progress in the school of God, we recognize the truth of him who promised he would pour out his Spirit on all flesh [Joel 2:28]. (Praefationes bibliis gallicis Petri Roberti Olivetani, Calvini Opera 9: 787-88)

This passage is interesting for a few reasons. First, it closely reflects the same arguments Calvin will make in his commentary on 1 Corinthians some ten years later (1546), particularly about God’s choice of simple fishermen to be apostles and God’s mysteries being for all people. Second,  that in this preface to the whole Bible, Calvin cites Old Testament passages exclusively to this point (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Psalms, Joel). Later on, he will cite many New Testament passages, such as 2 Cor. 2:16; Rom. 9:32, 1:16; and John 14:6. Finally, however, that so early on in his thinking–Calvin has not yet written the first edition of the Institutes at this point (published 1536)–he has a developed sense of the “divine pedagogy,” of the idea that it is primarily God who teaches us about himself, and that human teachers are commissioned by God as part of this grand instruction of his people.

Also interesting is how Olivétan chooses this same verse from Jeremiah 31:34, as it is cited in John 6:45–“εσονται παντες διδακτοι του θεου, they will all be taught of God”–to head his cover for the New Testament.

olivetan - new testament design (1535)

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