The Judaizing Calvin – G. Sujin Pak

The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), written by the G. Sujin Pak, Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity at Boston University, presents an incisive look into sixteenth-century exegesis by contextualizing Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin alongside the late-medieval exegetical tradition. Pak seeks to offer new insights into Calvin’s location within exegetical history by demonstrating his use of traditional Jewish exegesis and redefining of the historical-literal sense of the Messianic Psalms. The book is divided into five chapters starting with the medieval and late-medieval interpretative tradition on the messianic psalms then a chapter on Luther, Bucer, and Calvin respectively. The final chapter details Aegidius Hunnius’s accusations that Calvin’s exegesis allowed room in Scripture for Arian and Jewish readings.

In this first chapter, Pak demonstrates that there is an overwhelming consensus within patristic, medieval, and late-medieval interpretations regarding the messianic psalms. She notes that this consensus relates to the identifying of the literal sense of these Psalms as being the “prophecies of Christ and their teachings concerning Trinity and the two natures of Christ” (6). She chooses a few key examples such as the commentaries of the Gloss, Denis the Carthusian, Nicholas of Lyra, and Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples to demonstrate consensus of their exegesis. Pak is insistent that none of these commentators interpret the literal sense of the messianic Psalms with respect to the historical situation of David. This exegetical contextualization is pivotal to Pak’s argument in providing a backdrop for Luther, Bucer, and Calvin.

Luther, Bucer, and Calvin are selected as Pak’s three case studies, and she suggests that Bucer represents somewhat of a mediating position between Luther and Calvin. On the first side of this spectrum, Pak sees in Luther almost overwhelming consistency with the antecedent exegetical tradition as he interprets each of these as primarily literal prophecies speaking of Christ. He sees David as a prophet speaking of Christ and does not view the literal sense with respect to David’s historical circumstances. Luther also consistently locates Trinitarian and Chalcedonian doctrines within these psalms. Frequently in Luther’s exegesis is a fierce anti-Jewish rhetoric which is used for both doctrinal purposes and for purposes of encouragement as he links the enemies of Christ and the church between Roman Catholics and the Jews. While Luther praised the Hebrew language, Luther made it a point to frequently mock and denounce the Christian use of Jewish exegesis—for in Jewish exegesis, the subject of Christian exegesis is fundamentally missed. Luther for these things, according to Pak, is proven to be in line with the antecedent tradition.

Pak next showcases Martin Bucer’s mediated position between Luther and Calvin. Key components of Bucer’s exegesis are his competence  as a Christian Hebraist, his use of Jewish exegesis, and his use of historical typology to demonstrate these Psalms with reference to Christ and the church. Bucer, according to Pak, positively uses Jewish exegesis to root his theological readings of these Psalms. While promoting the cause of reform with his Psalms commentary, Bucer sought to provide a more robust understanding of the Psalms via their “simple sense” which grounds his typological and pietistic readings of the Psalms. For Bucer, historical exegesis was primarily used as a vehicle for its typological end. However, in Bucer’s historical exegesis we can see three interpretations of these psalms, those being, Christological readings via typology, literal prophecies of Christ via David as prophet, and ecclesiastical readings which view the church as the fulfillment of certain Psalms. Therefore, while Bucer does stress historical context, he remains in line with the antecedent tradition insofar as he stresses those latter two interpretations. Like Luther and traditional exegesis, Bucer is also comfortable using these Psalms to stress certain doctrinal points. It is on Bucer’s stressing of historical context which we see overlap with Calvin, but these two still demonstrate notable exegetical divergences.

The end of the spectrum among Pak’s examples is John Calvin. Having set the stage and exegetical backdrop for Calvin’s interactions with the royal Psalms, Pak showcases Calvin as primarily reading these Psalms through the lens of the example of David. Calvin frequently diverges from the antecedent tradition by the “lack of prominence he gives to the Christological reading” (79)—that is, Calvin identifies the historical-literal sense not as prophetic but as concerning David’s own historical circumstances. Most of Calvin’s Christological interpretations are typological and firmly grounded in a historical reading of the text and when Christ uses the words of the Psalm in reference to himself. Calvin is also opposed to a Christological reading of a Psalm which destroys the simple sense of the psalm. Out of that same concern, Calvin breaks with the tradition with his avoidance of doctrinal exegesis. Calvin still retains some reference of these Psalms to Christ—though the primary feature of the Psalms for him is to showcase David’s piety for the sake of “doctrinal messages and pastoral messages for the church…” (100). In the final chapter of this book, Pak introduces Aegidius Hunnius’s (1550-1603) critique of the “judaizing” Calvin in whose exegesis—while not necessarily being Arian or Jewish per se—opens up these sorts of readings to the text. The core of this critique, simply put in Hunnius’s own words, is this: “For the Jews clamor in this same sense as Calvin when he says this to be the simple and natural sense!” (106).  In following this sort of Jewish exegesis, Calvin goes against apostolic exegesis and undermines Scriptural foundations for Christ’s divinity. David Pereus (1548-1622) defends Calvin in his double-down defense of the simple sense and affirmation of simple and composite types. In this debate, we see clearly the charge leveled against Calvin for being a “judaizer” of Scripture.

In the conclusion to her book, Pak recommends some areas for future research, some commentary on different Protestant “schools” of exegesis, and provides three final takeaways pertaining to Calvin’s exegesis. She argues that Calvin’s exegesis can contribute positively to the history of Christian-Jewish relations, that Calvin redefines the literal sense in the Old Testament, and that Calvin should be located in the pre-critical tradition—even while there are still certain elements of his exegesis which show forth in later exegetical history.

Pak’s robust historical background work and familiarity with the Christian exegetical tradition has made for a deeply compelling book. Her methodology offers a concise yet incisive glimpse into biblical interpretation in the sixteenth century, and I believe she offers some convincing insights pertaining to the location of Calvin’s own exegesis within exegetical history. While I do not disagree with Pak on Calvin’s placement in the pre-critical exegetical tradition, I do wonder, however, if her research has provided evidence somewhat at odds with her own conclusions at points. More specifically I wonder if by viewing Calvin’s exegesis as diverging with traditional exegesis (especially with respect to the literal sense) has Pak not effectively suggested that Calvin is in some part a forerunner to modern exegesis? Or does Calvin’s exegesis exist in a world to itself? That quibble aside, this remains an approachable and compact book that I would heartily recommend to students and teachers of church history, biblical studies, and theology alike.