In 1535 John Calvin wrote two prefaces for the newly translated French Bible, a work of his cousin Pierre Robert Olivetan. The first preface was in Latin and appeared at the front of the Bible; the second preface was in French and appeared at the beginning of the New Testament.
In this second preface, Calvin introduces the reader to the New Testament and the centrality of Jesus Christ. In the final section of this preface, Calvin exhorts all Christians to read the Scriptures and especially appeals to those in positions of authority to allow everyone to read, study, and truly understand the Word of God.
In this blog post, I present Calvin’s principal thoughts on the translation of the Scriptures as found in the French preface to the New Testament. First, we discuss the reason given for translating the Bible into French. We then consider in more depth the arguments that Calvin provides for reading the Scriptures in translation. Finally, we consider how Calvin approaches translation from a pastoral position by exhorting his readers to respond to the French Bible in a manner that will lead to understanding the Gospel, strengthening the Church, and magnifying God.
Reason for the Translation
Calvin states the reason for the translation in the second section of the preface. He writes that they translated, “that all Christians who know the French language, men and women, are able to understand and acknowledge the law they ought to obey and the faith they ought to follow.” For Calvin, the reason to translate is so that all French-speaking Christians may comprehend the Scriptures and respond in faith. It is implied that they will comprehend through their own personal reading and study. Furthermore, he hopes that they will acknowledge the true faith as a result of their study of the Scriptures.
His reference to “men and women” reveals that he did not agree with the position of many in the Roman Catholic Church that women could not read the Scriptures. In fact, he mentions women at other points in the preface to highlight that they should read and study the Scriptures.
The Importance of Reading a Translation
In the third section of the preface, Calvin exhorts everyone to read the translation and appeals to the authorities to approve and support such reading. He specifically addresses the religious authorities in the Roman Catholic Church and asks them not to forbid the reading and studying of the Scriptures. Calvin provides two reasons for Christians reading the Scriptures in their own language. He states that it is the will of God and the command of Jesus Christ. He then expands on the command of Jesus Christ and how it relates to translation.
Calvin first notes that Jesus sent his apostles and disciples throughout the whole world to preach to every creature (Mark 16:15). He also notes Paul’s comment in Romans 1:14 that he was a debtor to Greeks and barbarians, wise and simple. From these passages, Calvin draws the implication that Christians should preach and teach the Gospel message to every ethnicity. Furthermore, if every ethnic group should hear the Gospel, they should also read and study the Scriptures which contain the Gospel and provides the means for them to grow in their faith. Put another way, if the essential message of the Gospel is to be communicated, it follows that the whole counsel of God should also be communicated.
Furthermore, Calvin notes that the apostles and disciples were given the “grace” or “gift” of speaking in all languages so that they could preach the Gospel “in every language to every creature.” It is probable that Calvin has the events of the day of Pentecost in view (Acts 2:1-13). On Pentecost the apostles and the other believers in Jerusalem were empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak in the languages of the pilgrims who were celebrating the feast in the city. Jesus told his followers to remain in Jerusalem until they receive a gift from the Father (Luke 24:29; Acts 1:4).
Calvin associates the promised gift of the Spirit with the ability to speak in the languages of the various ethnic and linguistic groups present at Pentecost. Furthermore, Calvin suggests that the miraculous speaking in foreign languages was for the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel to the pilgrims in their respective languages.
Calvin apparently views the events of Pentecost as establishing a precedent that the Gospel is to be proclaimed in the languages of the nations. If the Spirit directed the first believers to preach in the languages of the nations, it should follow that the language groups of the world should also receive the Gospel in translation so that they might grow in grace. Taken together with the preceding argument, Calvin arrives at the conclusion that the Gospel and the Scriptures that contain the Gospel message should be available to every ethnicity in their respective languages.
At the close of the third section, Calvin writes that it is the will of God for “his truth to reign over all peoples and nations” through the Gospel and by the Holy Spirit. It appears that Calvin is returning the earlier thought that it is the will of God for everyone to read the Scriptures in their respective languages. If God wills to reign over all nations through the truth and, specifically, the truth of the Gospel and by the Holy Spirit, it follows that it is God’s will that every ethnicity comprehends the Gospel in their respective languages. Furthermore, for God’s truth to fully reign over all peoples and in every heart, God’s Word should be translated into the language of every ethnicity.
To orient readers to the importance of the work in their hands, Calvin devotes the first section of his preface to explaining how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. In the second section, he exhorts the readers to recognize Christ as their Savior and Comforter in their present trials and persecutions. In the third section, he exhorts the reader to read, understand, and live in obedience to the Word.
In a similar manner, Calvin exhorts the secular leaders to allow the Scriptures in French to be openly read and taught so that the people living in their jurisdiction might understand the truths of Scripture. He appeals to the authorities to respond in this way because it will magnify God and exalt his Gospel. He also reminds them that God has a right to their obedience and humble service.
Calvin’s final exhortation is to the religious authorities. He reminds them that they are accountable for the spiritual well-being of their sheep. In particular, he states that God will hold them personally accountable for the spiritual state of those who are denied their proper spiritual food—the Scriptures in translation. He exhorts them to follow the example of the apostles and employ every means possible to train everyone up in their faith in Jesus Christ, particularly allowing everyone to read and study the Scriptures in French.
Calvin approached the topic of translation from a pastoral and theological perspective. As a young reformer concerned with the spiritual conditions in France, he seeks to advance the translation of the Scriptures in French by exhorting everyone to read the Scriptures and use their position and authority to encourage others to do the same. Furthermore, his exhortation to read is presented in the context of grasping fully the greatness of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, Calvin defends translation by placing it in a larger theological context. It is the will of God that the people of God have the Scriptures in their respective languages. Furthermore, it is the command of Jesus Christ that the Church endeavor to proclaim the Gospel and translate the Word in every language for every ethnic group.
It is noteworthy that Calvin does not discuss the importance of translating itself but rather argues for the importance of the activity which translation makes possible: reading the Scriptures in one’s own language. In other words, the importance of translation for Calvin is found in what it makes possible—the equipping of believers to read, teach, and preach, in obedience to Christ, to the glory of our triune God.