Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Calvin's Theory of Reading

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Calvin's Theory of Reading

Article excerpt

Abstract: Central to John Calvin's doctrine of Scripture, a doctrine basic to his theology and highly influential in his own time and subsequently, is a theory of reading. His doctrine, then, focuses not so much on the biblical text or on its origins as on the act of reading it. Three things are required for understanding and appreciating Calvin's theory of reading. The first includes the various sources upon which he drew and various influences exerted on him; the second exposes the conditions and dynamics crucial to this kind of reading; and the third points to consequences of his theory both for the Christian life and church and for the culture, including the rise and development of modernity.


There can be little doubt that Calvin's doctrine of Scripture is basic to his understanding of the Christian religion and the Christian life. It appears early in the Institutes and is extended. Mitchell Hunter is justified in calling it not only the most fully developed but the first substantial doctrine of Scripture (69). Indeed, Calvin's principal contribution to the Reformation can be summarized by his act of identifying or locating Scripture as primary for Christian faith and life.

What is often missed, however, is that Calvin's doctrine of Scripture is not first of all a doctrine of the text or of the text's origins, but of reading it. Embedded in his doctrine of Scripture, then, is a theory of reading. I would like, although briefly, to suggest, first, some of the sources upon which Calvin may have drawn to develop his theory of reading, second, what he took the act of reading Scripture to be, and, third, what historical consequences can be attributed to this theory of reading.


The first thing to point out is that for Calvin and his audience reading was a less delimited act than it is for us. We can see this in the way Calvin so easily includes the language of hearing in his discussion of reading Scripture. While it is well-known that Calvin relates reading to seeing, as in his spectacles metaphor, hearing is probably a more important description for him of the act and its results. Calvin also relates reading Scripture to eating, a move that has biblical warrants in instances of eating texts, as with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and John. In addition, reading was not as delimited an act for Calvin as it is for us because things other than verbal texts were read. Nature, for example, could also be read. This is why Calvin could place his doctrine of reading Scripture in the context of his general discussion of the knowledge of God derived from nature. Even more relevant to Calvin's doctrine of reading Scripture was the widespread practice, which he discusses at some length, of reading sacred pictures. At the fountainhead of that practice are the letters that Pope Gregory the Great sent to Serenus of Marseilles (599 and 600) directing that paintings be considered as texts that could be read by the illiterate. (1) Calvin attacks reading pictures not because he disagrees with Gregory's idea that paintings can be read but because a distinction had arisen, partially on the basis of literacy in Latin, between those who should read Scripture and those who, instead, should read paintings, a distinction primarily between clergy and laity. One goal of Calvin's doctrine of reading Scripture was to subvert the distinction between ordinary and elite.

A second thing to say about Calvin's theory of reading is that it seems to have been influenced by the monastic tradition of lectio divina. (2) As Jean Leclercq points out, this way of reading was a discipline designed to allow texts to have maximum effect on the reader, even to inscribe themselves on the reader's body and soul. The language most often used for this practice is eating; a text is taken as though by mouth, and the recipient ruminates on it: "the vocabulary is borrowed from ... the particular form of digestion belonging to ruminants," he says (90). …

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