It seems to be the common opinion that John Calvin was neither a master of Greek or Hebrew, yet he passionately perused them and encouraged and instructed all pastors to do the like. I find encouragement in the fact that Calvin wasn’t a master of the languages. It helps me see that some things were hard work for Calvin, yet he persisted because the worth of the goal was great. He believed in the importance of the original languages and it showed in all he did.
Calvin firmly believed in an educated pastorate, and part of this eruditio was mastery of the languages of Scripture. Prudence and fairness requires us to agree with the assessment of David Puckett when he concludes that Calvin ‘probably should not be regarded as a expert Hebraist, as was Münster, but he did know the language a great deal better than the seventeenth-century Roman Catholic scholar Richard Simon believed.’ Basil Hall perhaps provides an accurate judgment when he says that Calvin was ‘competent in Hebrew without being a distinguished Hebraist’ and that he was an ‘homme trilingue, a worthy representative of French biblical humanism.’ The reality is that ‘there is scarcely a Reformed exegete of the sixteenth century who did not have a good knowledge of Hebrew and was passionately concerned to establish the hebraica veritas.’ Calvin was an excellent Greek scholar, yet, again, he was not alone. Indeed, Reformed interpreters of the sixteenth century were masters of the Greek language, and men like Beza even surpassed Calvin in it.
John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 77-78.
In the establishment of the Genevan Academy we see Calvin’s passion for the biblical languages shine. It is clear from the heavy emphasis on the Biblical languages that Calvin felt they were of utmost important for those who would be pastors of the church. As I read the section below, I could not help but wonder what great things might come of us leading our children towards Hebrew and Greek at young ages:
The Genevan Academy had two departments: the schola private (the lower department) and the schola publica (the upper level). The former was for children beginning school at six years of age. There were seven levels of education; the seventh class was the most rudimentary and the first class was the highest order in the school. The content of the various levels are well-known and we do not need to repeat them here. When one reads them, however, one is immediately struck by the amount and centrality of the linguistic work. Bilingual instruction commenced in level seven, that is, the opening grade: students began to learn both French and Latin at this early age. By the fourth class they were introduced to the Greek language. In the upper three class levels the students were preparing almost all of their work in the original languages of Latin and Greek: they read, for example, Homer, Virgil, Cicero from their original tongues. They also translated directly from the New Testament; in level two they were reading the Gospel of Luke and in level one they were translating the Epistles.
The schola private served as a feeder to the schola publica; the latter had its primary purpose to train future ministers of the gospel. These were students who were preparing to preach the Word of God. And since ‘the exposition of the Bible was central to the sermon, Calvin ensured that the biblical languages were given primary place in the curriculum.’ Walker concludes that Calvin’s purpose was to ‘make Geneva the theological seminary of Reformed Protestantism.’ To Calvin, the Academy was to be an institution of great learning. And he believed that erudition required mastery of three languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.
John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 57-58.
Not only did Calvin teach and preach without any notes, he did so directly from the original language:
Calvin would then read a text in Hebrew or Greek, and offer a very literal translation of it into Latin. After that, he would provide a smoother Latin translation, followed by his commentary. Jean Crispin, a publisher of Calvin’s day, attended some of the reformer’s lectures. He commented on Calvin’s lecture style as follows: ‘… but he kept on lecturing continuously for a full hour and did not write down one single word in his book to help his memory.’ The book in question was the Hebrew Old Testament and, thus, Calvin was sight-reading the Hebrew text without any linguistic aids. Then, also without notes, he made comment on the text that had been read.
Colladon also remarked on Calvin’s teaching style; he said:
When lecturing, he always had only the bare text of Scripture; and yet, see how well he ordered what he said! Even when (some years before his death) he was lecturing on Daniel, although at some places he had to narrate historical facts at length, as we see from the lectures, he never had any paper before him as an aide-mémoire. And it was not as if he had adequate time to prepare; for, whatever he may have wished, he simply had not the opportunity. To say the truth, he usually had less than an hour to prepare.
John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 47.