Bullinger on 1 Cor. 1:21

Reading Heinrich Bullinger’s commentary on 1 Corinthians (1534), one notices some remarkable similarities to John Calvin’s commentary, to be published some twelve years later (1546). This is especially evident in his comments on 1 Cor. 1:21, “For it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe”:

Let no one wonder at the counsel of God, who revealed the gospel when he wished it to begin to dawn on mortals. It is like this: God fashioned this whole world with the decoration of his majesty–for which reason the Greeks adapted their name for the world, κόσμου, [related to κοσμειν, ‘to order’ or ‘to adorn’]–in order that all nations or educated peoples might know and call on God through this most beautiful spectacle. For so sings the prophet, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1 ESV). And the Philosophers who were believed wise by the consensus of the whole world, did not undertake their praise of it from anything other than what they laboured to examine and investigate in the natures of things. And yet, things were less fortunate when, not only with the common people, but also with the philosophers themselves, this effort ceased. For, by his works and the nature of things and his wonderful governance, they either did not know God, wondering rather at hidden things, or knowing him rightly, they did not worship him, seeking their own praise rather than the praise of the divine. This is explained more fully by the Apostle in Romans 1. Then, since with this he would not succeed, God, who does not want the human race to perish, instead accommodated himself to the capacity of mortals, and, led by his native goodness, altered himself in all appearances [i.e., took on a human life] in order to watch over them. Here he also approached this matter another way, and indeed, through “the foolishness of preaching”–meaning, “through foolish preaching,” in a Hebrew way of speaking.

Ne quis miraretur de Consilio dei, quo uoluit euangelium citra sapientiae splendorem illucescere mortalibus, retegit illud. Est autem tale. Condidit deus uniuersum hunc mundum in ornamentum maiestatis suae, unde & Graeci nomen mundo κόσμου accommodauerunt, ut omnes Gentes uel per hoc pulcherrimum spectaculum eruditae, deum cognoscerent & inuocarent. Sic enim cecinit propheta, ‘Coeli enarrant gloriam dei, & opus manuum eius annunciat firmamentum.’ Et Philosophi qui totius orbis consensu sapientes crediti, id laudis non aliunde assequuti sunt, quam quod in rerum naturis excutiendis & inuestigandis laborarunt. Atqui sinistrius cum apud uulgus, tum apud ipsos philosophos cessit iste conatus. Nam deum ex opere suo atque rerum natura admirabilique administratione uel non cognouerunt, res conditas admirati, uel cognitum rite non coluerunt, suam potius quam numinis laudem quaerentes, quemadmodum copiosus exponitur ab apostolo in 1. in Rom. cap. Proinde cum hac non successisset, deus qui genus mortalium perire non uult, quin potius se ad captum attempterat mortalium, et in omnes formas se, natiua bonitate ductus, uertit, ut seruet, etiam hic diuersa negotium istud aggressus est, nempe per stultitiam praedicationis, id est, per stultam praedicationem. Est enim modus loquendi Hebraicus.

Heinrich Bullinger, In priorem D. Pauli ad Corinthios epistolam (Zürich: Christoffel Froschouer, 1534), fol. 15v-16r.

There are some interesting connections with Calvin here, particularly with the idea that humanity ought to have known God through created things. Calvin speaks of a speculum, a mirror of God’s wisdom: “For in creatures God sets before us a very clear mirror of his marvelous wisdom” (Comm. 1 Cor. 1:21), through which humanity could have come to know God if they hadn’t abused it. Interestingly, Bullinger here speaks of creation as a spectaculum, that “most beautiful spectacle,” through which they “might know and call on God.” Speculum and spectaculum: not, I think, a coincidence.

Both also speak of God choosing to adapt himself to humanity’s failings. Calvin speaks of God approaching us alia via, by another way, using the same verb here as Bullinger uses (aggressus est, ‘to approach’) to speak of approaching us by the Incarnation, and by the foolishness of preaching. Calvin, however, does not specify this alia via, but it is clear he means the same as Bullinger: since humanity had wandered away, God sent Jesus in the flesh–another way–in order to call us back to him.

One interesting difference, I think, though perhaps it is only a matter of emphasis, is where Calvin and Bullinger locate the moral failure on the part of humanity. Bullinger says that the philosophers and common people “ceased” their effort to know God, for two reasons: they either (i) were more curious about hidden things than about God or (ii) they preferred their own glory to the worship of God. Calvin, on the other hand, does not mention particular ways in which humanity is at fault in this, but only that it is our own fault: “Thus, it is to be imputed to our own vice that we do not acquire a saving knowledge of God before we are emptied of our own understanding.” His emphasis is more on this latter: that because of our moral failing, we first must become foolish, empty of our own ideas about God, before we can then come to God in his revelation.

Calvin’s 1 Corinthians Commentary – His French “Translator’s Letter”

When John Calvin translated his own commentary on 1 Corinthians from Latin (published 1546) into French (published 1547), he attached a short letter, “Le translatevr, au Lecteur fidele,” “The translator, to the faithful reader.” It does not appear in the two English translations of the commentary (Pringle, 1848; Fraser, 1960), nor even in the collected Pauline commentaries published in Calvin’s own lifetime. It appears untranslated in the 19th-century collected works (Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia, vol. 49, p. vi). Besides its historical interest, it is also worth noting for Calvin’s comments on the need for people gifted by God for the interpretation of Scripture. I’ve transcribed it here with my own translation:


Comme l’exposition des Escritures, est vn don special en l’Eglise de Dieu: aussi, tous ne se peuuent pas vanter de l’auoir. Mais nostre Seigneur, l’a mise en aucuns, pour s’en seruir à l’edification de tous. Ce qui est bien mal recogneu de ceux qui reiettent toute ayde d’expositeurs: comme estans suffisans d’eux mesmes, d’entrer iusqu’au sens parfait de l’Escriture. Parquoy il est advenu, que, pour tel mespris, beaucoup sont tombez en lourdes, & enormes resueries. Ce n’est pas, à present, mon intention de traitter cest argument: lequel meriteroit deduction plus ample. Mais seulement d’aduertir en brief les fideles (pour lesquelz nous auons traduit ce liure) quel bien c’est, quand Dieu nous enuoye saine interpretation des Escritures: & comme ils le doyuent embrasser, tant pour en estre muniz & armez, que pour sauoir discerner, & iuger de ceux, qui la renuersent, & luy font vn nez de cire, comme sont les blasphemateurs, & apres s’en vantent, pour l’arguer d’incertitude. A fin donc, qu’ilz s’en puissent donner garde: il est bon, qu’ilz lisent ceux, ausquelz nostre Seigneur a faict grace, d’en auoir meilleure intelligence, que les autres. Comme aussi les sauans & lettrez, le recognoissent tresbien: confessans franchement, que leur litterature ne seroit suffisante, de les pouuoir faire atteindre au vray sens, & que c’est vne grace speciale. I’entens des modestes, & non presomptueux: lesquelz se cognoissent eux mesmes. A plus fort raison, les simples & non lettrez, ne doyuent refuser ceste ayde, pour estre conduitz & entretenuz en vraye & saine intelligence. Or c’est pour eux, que ceste translation est faicte: à ce qu’ilz ayent tousiours dequoy se consoler, & se confermer en la saincte doctrine de Dieu: & qu’ilz iouyssent aussi bien de ceste exposition, comme ceux, ausquelz nostre Seigneur a donné cognoissance des Langues. Le Seigneur leur vueille donner grace, d’en faire telement leur profit, que ce leur soit pour accroissement de vertu, & que louänge & gloire luy en soit de tous rendue. Ainsi soit il.


Since the exposition of Scripture is a special gift in the church of God, no one may boast of possessing it. But our Lord has given it to people of no importance in order that it may serve for the edification of all. This is very poorly recognized by those who refuse any help from expositors, as if they were sufficient in themselves to come upon the perfect meaning of Scripture. For this reason it happens that, because of such a mistake, many people have fallen under burdens and into extravagant dreams. It is not my intention, at present, to deal with this case, which would deserve very lengthy refutation; instead, it is only to briefly advise the faithful (for whom we have translated this book) as to what a good it is when God provides us with sound interpretation of Scripture. They ought to embrace it, as much to be armed and fortified as to be able to know how to discern and make judgment of those who controvert it and make of it a wax nose, as do blasphemers, who afterward puff themselves up in order to argue its uncertainty. In order, then, that they may be on their guard, it is good that they read those to whom our Lord has given the grace of having better understanding than others. This also the wise and lettered recognize very well, freely confessing that their books would not be sufficient to allow them to attain the true sense, and that it is a special grace. I mean here the modest and not the presumptuous, those who are well acquainted with themselves. With even greater reason, the simple and unlettered ought not to refuse this help, in order to be guided into and sustained in a true and sound understanding. Now it is for them that this translation has been made, that they may always have something by which to be consoled and be confirmed in the holy teaching of God, and that they may also take joy in this exposition, like those to whom our Lord has given the knowledge of languages [i.e., those who can read the original Latin edition]. May the Lord wish to give them grace to so gain from their reading of it that it will lead them to growth in virtue, and that praise and glory will be rendered to him by all. Amen.

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)

Pontius Pilate and the Creed

It struck me as I was reading about Calvin’s 1542 catechism, that he explains the presence of Pilate in the Creed as “in view of the certitude of the historical fact.” Bucer, too, in his 1534 catechism, argues that Pilate appears in order to “prove the truth of the history.” It is worth being reminded, as someone trained in systematics, just how tightly the faith is tied to historical events and locations, and even persons. Just one more sign, perhaps, of the damage done by the separation between the various subdisciplines of theology: systematics and biblical studies and church history.

Aquinas on God the Teacher

In my thesis, I’m looking at the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin on 1 Corinthians, specifically the first four chapters. This may seem an odd choice for these two great thinkers; normally one looks to Aquinas’ Summa theologiae or Calvin’s Institutes to understand their thought. I’m doing that too, but I’m interested in their biblical commentaries for a few reasons. First, because this work is what occupied both of them for most of their lives: Aquinas spent his university career as a “master of the sacred page,” lecturing to students on the books of the Bible, while Calvin preached at least once a day for most of his life, and spent a lot of his so-called spare time writing commentaries on the Bible–in the end, he produced commentaries on almost the whole of Scripture. Second, the thought of their major, more systematic works, is drenched in the understanding they drew from their constant immersion in the Bible. For Calvin, this is obvious; for Aquinas, it is increasingly being recognized. (In the Summa theologiae, we now know statistically, Scripture is quoted more than all other sources combined.) Finally, the task of commenting on the Bible holds a person to certain limits; one must follow the text closely and be faithful to its direction and path of argument or expression. This leads Aquinas especially to say things he doesn’t say elsewhere, which is interesting in itself. But beyond its interest, it is deeply instructive to see how these two great masters of the Bible read the text through which, they both agree, God leads us to salvation.

With that apologia out of the way, let us look at one particular comment from Aquinas’ commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world in its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Here Aquinas shows us how God dispensed his wisdom like a good teacher:

Then, when he says, “For since, in the wisdom of God,” etc., he designates the reason why the faithful are saved through the foolishness of preaching. And this is what he said before, that is, that “the word of cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:20). “For it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching,” that is, through the preaching which human wisdom considers foolish, “to save those who believe” (1:21b). And this because the world, that is, the worldly, did not know God through the wisdom which is grasped from the things of the world, and this “in the wisdom of God” (1:21a). For creating the world in divine wisdom, God built (instruit, also “instructs”) her judgments into the things of the world. As it says in Sirach 1:9, “He poured her out upon all his works,” so that the creatures themselves, made through the wisdom of God, are positioned toward the wisdom of God (se habent ad Dei sapientiam), carrying her judgments, just like the words of a person to his wisdom which they signify. And just as a student attains the knowledge of the wisdom of the teacher through the words which she hears from him, so a person was able to attain the knowledge of the wisdom of God through considering the creatures made by him. As it says in Romans 1:20, “The invisible things of God are understood through perceiving what has been made.” But humanity wandered from the right path of divine knowledge because of the vanity of their heart. For this reason, it says in John 1:10, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and yet the world did not know him.” And therefore, God led the faithful to saving knowledge of him through other things which are not found in the forms (rationibus) of creatures themselves. For this reason, these other things were considered foolish by worldly people, who only consider the forms (rationes) of human things. And these other such things are the teachings of faith. It is just like a teacher who, seeing that his meaning was not grasped by his hearers through the words he spoke, desires to use other words through which he can clarify what he has in his heart. (In I Cor. 1.3.55)

So how was “God pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe”? Because those people the world calls “wise” did not think anything of the things God did to save his people, because they only pay attention to created things. But God brought salvation through the cross of Jesus, something they thought foolish and impossible: how can God suffer and die? Why would God undergo that shame? So it pleased God to lead his faithful to himself through these things, rather than through the creatures the “wise” think so important. He used these other things, the things which faith teaches, to lead people to salvation, because like a good teacher, he wanted to make sure people did not misunderstand what is in his heart.

I’ll be giving a paper on this theme in Aquinas’ commentary at a conference in Cambridge coming up, 3-4 December. Hopefully I’ll be able to convey some of the excitement I have about themes like this in Aquinas’ work!

Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia

Here’s a set of links to the complete works of John Calvin in their original Latin and French. They can be downloaded as PDFs from the Université de Genève. The whole set is also available in searchable (but not downloadable) text from The Korea Institute for Calvin Theological Studies.

Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia. Edited by G. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss. 59 vols. Corpus Reformatorum 29–87. Brunswick: C.A. Schwetschke, 1863–1900.

Of course, these are all out of copyright, so they are legally accessible in PDF or other formats from GoogleBooks and archive.org, where available.

1. Institutio religionis christianae. Editio princeps 1536, editiones annorum 1539 — 1554 synoptice expressa. (GoogleBooks, GoogleBooks)

2. Institutio religionis christianae. Editio ultima 1559 (GoogleBooks)

3. Institution de la religion chrétienne 1560, t. 1 (GoogleBooks)

4. Institution de la religion chrétienne 1560, t. 2 (GoogleBooks)

5. Tractatus theologici minores, t. 1 (GoogleBooks, GoogleBooks)

6. Tractatus theologici minores, t. 2 (GoogleBooks)

7. Tractatus theologici minores, t. 3 (GoogleBooks)

8. Tractatus theologici minores, t. 4 (GoogleBooks)

9. Tractatus theologici minores, t. 5 (GoogleBooks, GoogleBooks)

10/1. Tractatuum theologicorum. Appendix (GoogleBooks)

One should also note that a new, critical edition of these works is being released through Librairie Droz in Geneva.

Ioannis Calvini opera omnia denuo recognita et adnotatione critica instructa notisque illustrata. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1992–.

Augustine on Christ as Wisdom

In light of the comments made recently by Amy Plantinga Pauw in her TF Torrance Lectures here at Aberdeen, I found the following from Augustine interesting:

The question then arises, why do the scriptures almost nowhere say anything about wisdom except to show it as either begotten or made by God? Begotten, that is to say, when it means the wisdom ‘through whom all things were made’; created or made as it is in men, when they turn to the wisdom which is not created or made but begotten, and are enlightened; then something is brought about in them which is called their wisdom…

Is it perhaps to commend to us for our imitation the wisdom by whose imitation we are formed, that wisdom in those books never speaks or has anything said about her but what presents her as born of God or made by him, although the Father too is wisdom itself? For the Father utters her to be his Word, not like a word spoken aloud from the mouth, or even thought of before it is pronounced–such a word is completed in a space of time, but this other Word is eternal; and she by enlightening us utters to us whatever needs to be uttered to men about herself and about the Father…

This then is the reason perhaps why it is the Son who is being introduced to us whenever mention is made of wisdom or description given of her in scripture, whether she herself is speaking or being spoken about. Let us copy the example of this divine image, the Son, and not draw away from God… For it does not imitate another going before it to the Father, since it is never by the least hair’s breadth separated from him, since it is the same thing as he is from whom it gets its being. But we by pressing on imitate him who abides motionless; we follow him who stands still, and by walking in him we move toward him, because for us he became a road or way in time by his humility, while being for us an eternal abode by his divinity…

Thus to conclude, it is not surprising that scripture should be speaking about the Son when it speaks about wisdom, on account of the model which the image who is equal to the Father provides us with that we may be refashioned to the image of God; for we follow the Son by living wisely. (On the Trinity, Book VII, §§4-5)

While it may be more difficult than the Church Fathers thought to identify Christ with the Wisdom of Proverbs 8, the New Testament and Augustine point us toward “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Augustine here is interestingly paralleled by Calvin as well: “…as God he is the destination to which we move; as man, the path by which we go. Both are found in Christ alone” (Institutes, 3.2.1).