JOHN CALVIN TO SIMON GRYNÆUS,
A MAN WORTHY OF ALL HONOR
I Remember that when three years ago we had a friendly converse as to the best mode of expounding Scripture, the plan which especially pleased you, seemed also to me the most entitled to approbation: we both thought that the chief excellency of an expounder consists in lucid brevity. And, indeed, since it is almost his only work to lay open the mind of the writer whom he undertakes to explain, the degree in which he leads away his readers from it, in that degree he goes astray from his purpose, and in a manner wanders from his own boundaries. Hence we expressed a hope, that from the number of those who strive at this day to advance the interest of theology by this kind of labour, some one would be found, who would study plainness, and endeavour to avoid the evil of tiring his readers with prolixity. I know at the same time that this view is not taken by all, and that those who judge otherwise have their reasons; but still I cannot be drawn away from the love of what is compendious. But as there is such a variety, found in the minds of men, that different things please different persons, let every one in this case follow his own judgment, provided that no one attempts to force others to adopt his own rules. Thus it will be, that we who approve of brevity, will not reject nor despise the labours of those who are more copious and diffused in their explanations of Scripture, and that they also in their turn will bear with us, though they may think us too compressed and concise.
I indeed could not have restrained myself from attempting something to benefit the Church of God in this way. I am, however, by no means confident that I have attained what at that time seemed best to us; nor did I hope to attain it when I began; but I have endeavoured so to regulate my style, that I might appear to aim at that model. How far I have succeeded, as it is not my part to determine, I leave to be decided by you and by such as you are.
That I have dared to make the trial, especially on this Epistle of Paul, I indeed see, will subject me to the condemnation of many: for since men of so much learning have already laboured in the explanation of it, it seems not probable that there is any room for others to produce any thing better. And I confess, that though I promised to myself some fruit from my labour, I was at first deterred by this thought; for I feared, lest I should incur the imputation of presumption by applying my hand to a work which had been executed by so many illustrious workmen. There are extant on this Epistle many Commentaries by the ancients, and many by modern writers: and truly they could have never employed their labours in a better way; for when any one understands this Epistle, he has a passage opened to him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.
Of the ancients who have, by their piety, learning, holiness, and also by their age, gained so much authority, that we ought to despise nothing of what they have adduced, I will say nothing; and with regard to those who live at this day, it is of no benefit to mention them all by name: Of those who have spent most labour in this work, I will express my opinion.
Philip Melancthon, who, by his singular learning and industry, and by that readiness in all kinds of knowledge, in which he excels, has introduced more light than those who had preceded him. But as it seems to have been his object to examine only those things which are mainly worthy of attention, he dwelt at large on these, and designedly passed by many things which common minds find to be difficult. Then follows Bullinger, who has justly attained no small praise; for with learning he has connected plainness, for which he has been highly commended. In the last place comes Bucer, who, by publishing his works, has given as it were the finishing stroke. For in addition to his recondite learning and enlarged knowledge of things, and to the clearness of his mind, and much reading and many other excellencies, in which he is hardly surpassed by any at this day, equaled by few and excelled by still fewer -- he possesses, as you know, this praise as his own -- that no one in our age has been with so much labour engaged in the work of expounding Scripture.
As then it would have been, I know, a proof of the most presumptuous rivalry, to wish to contend with such men, such a thing never entered my mind; nor have I a desire to take from them the least portion of their praise. Let that favor and authority, which according to the confession of all good men they have deserved, be continued to them. This, however, I trust, will be allowed -- that nothing has been done by men so absolutely perfect, that there is no room left for the industry of those who succeed them, either to polish, or to adorn, or to illustrate. Of myself I venture not to say any thing, except that I thought that my labour would not be useless, and that I have undertaken it for no other reason than to promote the public good of the Church.
I farther hoped, that by adopting a different plan, I should not expose myself to the invidious charge of rivalry, of which I was afraid in the first instance. Philipp attained his object by illustrating the principal points: being occupied with these primary things, he passed by many things which deserve attention; and it was not his purpose to prevent others to examine them. Bucer is too diffuse for men in business to read, and too profound to be understood by such as are simple and not capable of much application: for whatever be the subject which he handles, so many things are suggested to him through the incredible fecundity of his mind, in which he excels, that he knows not when to stop. Since then the first has not explained every passage, and the other has handled every point more at large than it can be read in a short time, my design has not even the appearance of being an act of rivalship. I, however, hesitated for some time, whether it would be better to gather some gleanings after these and others, by which I might assist humbler minds -- or to compose a regular comment, in which I should necessarily have to repeat many things which have been previously said by them all, or at least by some of them. But as they often vary from one another, and thus present a difficulty to simple readers, who hesitate as to what opinion they ought to receive, I thought that it would be no vain labour, if by pointing out the best explanation, I relieved them from the trouble of forming a judgment, who are not able to form a judgment for themselves; and especially as I determined to treat things so briefly, that without much loss of time, readers may peruse in my work what is contained in other writings. In short, I have endeavoured that no one may justly complain, that there are here many things which are superfluous.
Of the usefulness of this work I will say nothing; men not malignant, will, however, it may be, have reasons to confess, that they have derived from it more benefit than I can with any modesty dare to promise. Now, that I some times dissent from others, or somewhat differ from them, it is but right that I should be excused. Such veneration we ought indeed to entertain for the Word of God, that we ought not to pervert it in the least degree by varying expositions; for its majesty is diminished, I know not how much, especially when not expounded with great discretion and with great sobriety. And if it be deemed a great wickedness to contaminate any thing that is dedicated to God, he surely cannot be endured, who, with impure, or even with unprepared hands, will handle that very thing, which of all things is the most sacred on earth. It is therefore an audacity, closely allied to a sacrilege, rashly to turn Scripture in any way we please, and to indulge our fancies as in sport; which has been done-by many in former times.
But we ever find, that even those who have not been deficient in their zeal for piety, nor in reverence and sobriety in handling the mysteries of God, have by no means agreed among themselves on every point; for God hath never favored his servants with so great a benefit, that they were all endued with a full and perfect knowledge in every thing; and, no doubt, for this end -- that he might first keep them humble; and secondly, render them disposed to cultivate brotherly intercourse. Since then what would otherwise be very desirable cannot be expected in this life, that is, universal consent among us in the interpretation of all parts of Scripture, we must endeavour, that, when we depart from the sentiments of our predecessors, we may not be stimulated by any humour for novelty, nor impelled by any lust or defaming others, nor instigated by hatred, nor tickled by any ambition, but constrained by necessity alone, and by the motive of seeking to do good: and then, when this is done in interpreting Scripture, less liberty will be taken in the principles of religion, in which God would have the minds of his people to be especially unanimous. Readers will easily perceive that I had both these things in view.
But as it becomes not me to decide or to pronounce any thing respecting myself, I willingly allow you this office; to whose judgment, since almost all in most things defer, I ought in everything to defer, inasmuch as you are intimately known to me by familiar intercourse; which is wont somewhat to diminish the esteem had for others, but does not a little increase yours, as is well known among al the learned. Farewell.
Strasburgh, 18th October 1539.