Calvin's Harmony of the Gospels: The Theme of the Gospel
Calvin chose to treat the synoptic gospels as a harmony, treating each passage in the order of its occurrence in the life of Jesus. Where events occurred in all three gospels, Calvin arranged to treat the corresponding texts together. Although this manner of commentary appears barbaric to modern scholarship, ignoring important questions unique to each textual tradition, it does have the benefit of placing the three gospels in synopsis—a practice that scholars still use today in order to evaluate which textual traditions are dependent upon others, etc.
The Theme of the Gospel
Calvin begins his commentary with a preface that provides us with helpful guidelines for how to read his work. In the first instance, he defines what he thinks the “gospel” is. Second, he clarifies the relationship of the Old Testament to the New and, within the New, of the Gospels to the Epistles. Third, he speaks briefly on the inspiration of scripture.
For Calvin, the gospel is defined in a twofold manner: it is (1) “a testimony to the revealed salvation which has been promised of old” and “an Embassy, by which the reconciliation of the world with God, once for all accomplished in the death of Christ, is daily conveyed to [humanity]”; and it is (2) that Christ is at once the pledge, the fulfillment, and the revelation of all of God’s promised benefits (adoption, atonement, resurrection). “Thus, the Gospel is the solemn proclamation of the presence of the Son of God revealed in the flesh to renew a fallen world, to restore [humanity] from death into life” (xi). The end (telos) of the gospel is that because we are God’s children, forgiven of our sins, we hope for the resurrection of the body. In Christ’s resurrection, we have the basis for “righteousness, salvation and entire felicity.” For Calvin, “entire felicity” and “complete happiness”—the goals towards which humans orient themselves—are the Kingdom of God itself. Once the kingdom takes root in us, it begins to clear away “the corruption of the flesh” and brings us “renewed in spirit” into “the glory of heaven.” (xi-xii).
The Relation of the Gospel to the Remainder of Scripture
Broadly speaking, Calvin allows that “gospel” means the whole New Testament, which is clearly distinguishable from the “Law” and “Prophets.” Within the New Testament, of course, there are the four books which are properly called Gospels. They are called so, according to Calvin, because they “describe Christ’s working out of the office of Mediator.” The Evangelists put Christ front and center, particularly his life, death, and resurrection, so that we might know “the whole sum of our salvation.” Broadly speaking, the New Testament is still the Gospel because the rest of the NT is devoted to exploring the “actual force and effect of [Jesus’] coming.” Even so, the Gospel does not replace the Law and the Prophets. Instead, the Gospels point us back to the promises of the Old Testament from the perspective of Christ as the fulfillment of those promises (xii).
The Inspiration of Scripture
Calvin pays careful attention to the history of scholarship on the synoptics. He rejects the thesis that Mark borrows from and shortens Matthew. This is an opinion that has subsequently been upheld by critical scholarship; however, in Calvin’s case, he holds that all three gospel writers work independently. He is more concerned to establish that the writers themselves, although they are known to the tradition, receive their authority from the Holy Spirit alone. The manner of inspiration is such that, for Calvin, the discrepancies and diversity between the gospels is the result of each author’s decision regarding how best to arrange the material and his own understanding of the facts. All this happened, however, “under the control of divine providence.” Calvin writes,
the Holy Spirit has given such wonderful unity in their diverse patterns of writing that this alone would almost be enough to win them authority if a greater authority from another source did not supply it (xiii).
This brief introduction is full of surprising and important commentary. First, of course, we have a short summary of what Calvin takes to be the “gospel.” It is, in short, everything that pertains to salvation. I am particularly interested in the fact that Calvin uses eudaemonistic language (“entire felicity” and “complete happiness”) in reference to the Gospel’s establishment of the Kingdom of God. The relationship between the OT/NT is no small subject matter and will inform the rest of our reading of the text. Finally, Calvin’s comments on inspiration demonstrate (1) Calvin’s scholarship and his willingness to buck tradition when the text goes in another direction, and (2) that the authority of the gospels is dependent upon the Holy Spirit alone, who inspired their authors to truthfully convey the good news without reducing the authors’ participation to the level of dictation alone.