Was John Calvin a Closet, Wolf-in-Sheep’s-Clothing, Liberal Gospel Higher Critic?

Was John Calvin a Closet, Wolf-in-Sheep’s-Clothing, Liberal Gospel Higher Critic? May 31, 2012

Now that I’ve got your attention, David Williams has a great post on John Calvin and how he looked at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and the parallel account in Luke 6, the Sermon on the Plain.

Apparently, Calvin had no patience–zero–with those who argued that these are two separate intact speeches given by Jesus and faithfully recorded by the Gospel writers. Rather, they were collections of Jesus-sayings that the Gospel writers brought together to “create” a sermon by Jesus.

These “sermons,” Calvin thought, are not sermons given by Jesus in one setting, as the Gospels themselves present them, but literary constructions by the Gospel writers. They are not accounts of an actual sermon, but sayings of Jesus pieced together.

Which happens to align quite nicely with modern Gospel criticism.

David sums it up this way:

The Sermon on the Mount was not a historical event as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was but rather is a product of Matthew’s editing, piecing together, and remixing clips, quotes, and sound-bytes from all over the place in Jesus’s teaching career into the hit single we have all come to know and love.

Such an assessment is a commonplace of modern historical-critical Biblical scholarship.  But it would be a mistake to chalk such critical assessments up to biblical scholars’ alleged latent atheism, ”methodological naturalism,” or anti-traditionalism, for the great Reformer John Calvin said more or less the same thing in his Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke.






The take-away, which is a huge lesson to learn from some contemporary Evangelicals, is that Calvin did not impose onto the Gospels a view of how the Bible ought to work as God’s Word. Rather, Calvin read the Gospel accounts with literary and historical sensitivity, allowing the biblical data to shape his understanding of how the Bible does work.

You can read the entire post here.

If you’re interested in some of Calvin’s other suspect, dangerous, views, check out David’s post where he tells us that Calvin didn’t think the Apostle Peter wrote the New Testament book ascribed to him, Second Peter.

Whose side is Calvin on, anyway? I think we need to keep a sharp eye on this guy. If he isn’t careful, the dominios will start unraveling down the slippery slope, and this wolf in sheep’s clothing will lead the faithful astray.

Oh well, this is what happens when an evangelical faith has pre-Enlightenment roots–their battles were not the battles of modern-day evangelicalism. But that’s a whole other long topic.

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  • Don Johnson

    I do not think many Calvinists today would let Calvin into their club.

    FWIIW, I see the author of the gospel of Matthew using literary forms to give 5 teachings which of course map to the 5 books of Torah. And the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is a deliberate echo (remez/hint) of the covenant on mount of Sinai/Horeb while the Sermon on the Plain in Luke is an echo (remez/hint) of the plains of Moab covenant in Deu. Jesus is thereby made to be indirectly claiming to be the new Moses.

  • Charles Twombly

    Great questions, Peter. A reminder that Calvin had a “call ’em as you see ’em” approach to the issues raised by Scripture and could do the same with the classical dogmas (though the Servetus scare and the accusation by some that Calvin wasn’t “sound” on the Trinity seems to have moved him back in a more consensual, Nicene direction, for which I for one am grateful).

  • Peter

    Is this the time to bring up Calvin’s teaching that lending money for interest (condemned in the Bible and for centuries of church teaching as usury) was really okay as long as it wasn’t abusive because – get this – times had changed, the culture worked differently now, and it was really the principle behind the usury prohibition (don’t abuse the poor) rather than the actual commandments that should prevail?

    • peteenns

      As good a time as any.

    • Don Johnson

      Not lending at interest ends up hurting the poor in cultures more modern than ancient Israel. This is because people will not lend at all.

  • Paul Brassey

    Oh goody! Now that Calvin has been returned to the throne of reasonable, intelligent religiosity, do we get to do away with this silly separation of church and state and resume burning heretics?

    • peteenns

      Some would say yes 🙂

  • Mark Chenoweth

    “If he isn’t careful, the dominios will start unraveling down the slippery slope, and this wolf in sheep’s clothing will lead the faithful astray.”

    He did that a long time ago. He led people into Calvinism. ; ) Anyways…

    • Mark got to it before I did. 🙂

  • Tim


    How much of David Williams’ post have you vetted? It seems reasonable, and is consistent with some of what I’ve heard regarding Calvin’s scriptural hermeneutic thus far. However, everyone sees eager to enlist Calvin on their various sides of scriptural debate, and I worry about cherry picking. I’d be interested in what your own assessment is as to a balanced and comprehensive view of Calvin’s treatment of Scripture.

    • peteenns

      Tim, David is an intellectual and a Calvinist. He has a good grasp of Calvin’s pros and cons, let’s call them. David is providing balance to the neo-Calvinist extremes.

      • Tim

        Got it. It’s just it’s all too easy to be burned relying on secondary analyses, particularly when coming from internet blog sites rather than well-received published works. And excluding investing the time necessary to work through the primary literature, it doesn’t hurt to ask for some validation/vetting from an esteemed scholar as yourself known for a balanced and particularly non-ideologically driven approach to scripture.

        • peteenns

          You are absolutely correct, Tim. I know David very well, for that’s worth–it’s the kiss of death for some 🙂

          • Tim


  • Rick

    I think this is a helpful post, however, the sarcastic comments probably don’t help dialogue with the other side:
    “If you’re interested in some of Calvin’s other suspect, dangerous, views”
    “Whose side is Calvin on, anyway? I think we need to keep a sharp eye on this guy. If he isn’t careful, the dominios will start unraveling down the slippery slope, and this wolf in sheep’s clothing will lead the faithful astray.”
    You could really use such info to help build your case, but instead you have to include digs (I realize you are trying to be funny, but is that how the other side- those you probably want to reach- will take them?).

    • peteenns


      Part of my schtick is that we all tend to take ourselves far too seriously in theological discussions. People are not fragile. If they feel digged at, they have the choice to look past it. I find myself needing to do that quite often. I do appreciate and accept your words, however. I know they are offered constructively.

      • Richard Worden Wilson

        I think that those who are prone to take offense categorize irony as sarcasm because it carries a more negative, even hostile connotation. Sarcasm is intentionally antagonistic, even hostile (the root meaning is “cutting”), irony seeks to bring understanding to potentially antagonistic situations. Merriam Webster online defines one of the meanings of irony as “a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning.” Subtle and paradoxical, which makes it difficult to interpret properly for some. Enjoy your posts a lot Pete. All the best to you in Christ.

        • Rick

          That assumes one is able to judge the motive of the writer. My concern is that Dr. Enns will be misunderstood. When trying to build bridges, which Dr. Enns and Biologos appear to be attempting, why take the chance of having the “other side” misinterpret “irony”? I think bridges are starting to be built (RJS at Jesus Creed, the Biologos Conference, the Biologos/Southern Baptist q & a session, etc…), so at this constructive time, careful wording should be used. With Dr. Enns knowledge (although I don’t always agree with him), his contribution is valuable to the discussion. I don’t want it to authomatically be ignored because of a misunderstanding.

      • Perhaps it would be fun to catalog instances where God and Jesus use sarcasm, irony, etc. This will probably always anger me: https://bible.org/article/brief-word-study-skuvbalon . “Because of Christian sensibilities”, a word in the Bible is mistranslated. Seriously? So much for inerrancy!

  • James

    On one level we don’t care whether there were two sermons preached at different elevations or a patchwork of sermon compiled by the evangelist. Critical scholars and archaeologist will continue to seek, as they should, the historical Jesus. But the interpretive task has shifted to a more narrative approach. We should read Matthew and Luke first and formost as inspired gospel story that is deeply true. This requires a good surface read but also a canonical view that widens to include the entire Old and New Testaments. Someone said to the effect that you can’t comment properly on a single verse until you know the entire Bible. But that’s only half our problem. We have to discern from all this what the Spirit is saying to the churches today–and to my own mixed-up heart.

  • Point well made. You have asserted elsewhere that inerrancy is not the basis of inspiration. I agree. Inerrantists have an infinite project. Empiricism can only give us possibilities but never certainties, as David Hume pointed out. We can’t wait that long for faith to come!!

  • Ronald Taska

    Peter: I have been following your career and your blog for quite some time now and also followed a blog of Westminster students who loved you and considered you to be their best professor. My question: Aren’t you just trying too hard to remain an evangelical? Why not just find a more moderate and progressive group? You might be less likely to get an ulcer if you did so.

    • peteenns

      I’m fine with Nexium.

      • Ronald Taska

        I love your reply and your sense of humor which always seems to thrive. My frustration, however, is that when it comes to religi0n and politics very few are influenced by the reason and evidence, which you discuss week after week, and even fewer actually change their minds about much of anything. So, since many of the issues that you discuss have been settled by scholars like Schweitzer quite awhile ago, why not just associate with a more open-minded group somewhere rather than setting yourself up for repeated attacks? Obviously, I have had some personal experience with this path and finally decided that it was better for others and for me to just move on from fundamentalism. I am much happier now. Thanks