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John Calvin and the Sensus Literalis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2004

Richard Burnett
Erskine Theological Seminary, P.O. Drawer 668, Due West, SC 29639,


Calvin has been traditionally regarded as having consistently interpreted scripture according to its literal sense and having also consistently repudiated non-literal modes of interpretation. This view has been recently challenged, however, by Gary Hansen, who claims that ‘Calvin's theological rules or priorities of interpretation allow for and even require non-literal interpretation of biblical texts’. The issue turns, however, on what interpreting scripture according to the literal sense actually meant for Calvin. Hans Frei claimed Calvin as a champion of the literal sense because he affirmed the primacy of the literal sense with respect to scripture's witness to the identity of Jesus Christ – that is, following the longstanding consensus of the church, Calvin proceeded on the basis that what the scriptures are literally about is not a concept or timeless truth, but the suffering, obedience, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The fact that other so-called ‘non-literal’ modes of interpretation such as allegory appear in Calvin's exegesis should not necessarily, however, be seen as a betrayal of Calvin's commitment to literal interpretation, but rather as evidence of the elasticity of the concept. For Calvin, metaphorical or allegorical interpretations may, to a limited degree, be ascribed to the literal sense, but they must not offend, subvert, or be given independent or equivalent status alongside the literal rendering of the basic story about Jesus depicted in the Gospel narratives.

This essay demonstrates that the literal sense in Calvin is a much more supple notion than many have assumed, especially when one considers his Harmony of the Gospels. Contrary to modernist assumptions and in contrast to a strict, direct identification between signa and res, a tight, irresidual, one-to-one correspondence between what is written and what is written about, Calvin's approach to literal interpretation allows for what Frei called ‘breathing space’.

Research Article
© Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2004

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This essay is an address that was delivered at the Eleventh Biennial Conference on Calvin Studies, 2 March 2002, on the campus of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. It followed Gary Neal Hansen's address, ‘John Calvin's Non-Literal Interpretation of Scripture: On Allegory’.