John Calvin on
Isaiah 6: A Problem in the
History of Exegesis
DAVID C. STEINMETZ
Careful attention to precritical exegesis provides a constant stimulus
to modem interpreters by offering suggestions they would never
think of and by allowing them to hear, with ears not their own, voices
too soft for their own ears to detect.
It is no secret that the history of biblical interpretation in the sixteenth century represents one of the last, great, virtually unexplored, frontiers of Reformation history. While the hermeneutics and, to a lesser extent, the biblical exegesis of Martin Luther have been explored (though we still lack a synthetic study of Luther as an interpreter of Paul), no one has as yet done for the history of biblical interpretation in the sixteenth century what Smalley, Spicq, and De Lubac have done for the history of exegesis in the Middle Ages. Even less has been done in relating the academic study of the Bible by theologians to the popular use of the Bible in poetry, story, and song—to say nothing of its use by lawyers, politicians, exorcists, and physicians.
In a sense, this lacuna is very puzzling. There was no book more important in the sixteenth century than the Bible. Cicero, Seneca, Aristotle, Plato, Quintilian, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Jerome were all important authorities whom intellectuals in that century quoted with great regularity. But there was no book, honored by intellectuals and ordinary people alike, which received more attention, was better known, influenced more readers, or was talked about or commented on more frequently than the Bible. That is a shining and obvious fact. And yet the study of the history of the interpretation of the Bible in the sixteenth century is still an infant science.
While we have no statistics as yet for the frequency with which editions of new commentaries on Isaiah were published in the sixteenth century— though we do know that by 1567 Oecolampadius (1525), Zwingli (1529), Luther (1532), Münster (ca. 1540), Brenz (1550), Castellio (1551), Musculus