Briefly describe and discuss the distinctive hermeneutical features of Paul the Apostle and The Reformers, and highlight and discuss any hermeneutical similarities and/or differences between the two.


Biblical interpretation as we know it begins in the intertestamental period (Bray, 1996, p. 47) and history is witness to a conspicuous number of hermeneutical approaches that have characterised different schools of thought as well as different ages (Reventlow, 2009). In this work, we should like to describe the distinctive hermeneutical features of both the Apostle Paul and the Reformers, to then move on discussing the similarities and differences between the two. To achieve our objective and better highlight the contrast between the Pauline and Reformed approaches, we thought it reasonable to narrow down the Reformed camp to a specific reformer, namely John Calvin. Though there is a variety within the views of the reformers, we believe Calvin provides us both with a sample of features that are common to the Reformers in general and with specific beliefs that will aid our work.

The hermeneutics of Paul the Apostle

Paul—or Παῦλος—is the Greek name of the apostle otherwise known as Saul of Tarsus;[1] Saul was his Jewish name, which corresponds to his being a Benjaminite (Phil 3:5; Rom 11:1; cf. Acts 13:21)(Betz, 1992). Paul was likely influenced by Hellenistic culture (Bray, 1996, p. 49), but was brought up in a traditional Jewish manner (Acts 26:4), “a way of thinking far removed and deeply separated from the predominant culture of his time” (Wischmeyer, 2017, p. 40). He then received strict Pharisee education under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), of the school of Hillel (Longenecker, 1970). 

The apostle’s sermons in the book of Acts as well as the many epistles attributed to him constitute the main corpus providing us with a window into Paul’s hermeneutics.

The first facet to consider when studying anyone’s hermeneutics is their foundational beliefs. Paul was a Jewish scholar affiliated with the strict sect of the Pharisee, and as such he held to beliefs shared by all first-century Jewish schools of interpretation (Longenecker, 1999, p. 6-7). Scriptures were considered divinely inspired and “contained the entire truth of God for the guidance of humans” (p. 6); in fact, both the Qumran scrolls and Philo’s commentaries are a witness to the eminent status of Scripture in early Judaism (Wischmeyer, 2017, p. 40). Moreover, the task of any Jewish interpreter was to bring out both the plain and the derived meanings of a portion of Torah, in order to make the Scriptures relevant to everyday life by applying God’s counsel in practice (Longenecker, 1999, p. 6-7).

The second facet to consider is the actual hermeneutics of the Pharisaic school attended by Paul; this consisted of four basic principles: peshatderashpesher, allegory (Longenecker, 1999). Peshat is the literal meaning of Scripture (Bray, 1996, p. 57), which is never abrogated or replaced by so called “higher levels” of meaning (Cohen, 2020); instead, these derived meanings build upon it (Fruchtenbaum, 1994, p. 842-44). Pesher was the most common hermeneutics employed by Jesus and most of his disciples (Longenecker, 1970), but not by Paul (Bray, 1996, p. 67), who retained the midrash typical of the Pharisaic school of Hillel, with its “seven ‘middoth’ or rules of exposition” (Longenecker, 1970, p. 5). Dockery (1992) maintains that we can see the apostle using such rules in his letters (p. 38). For instance, Romans 5:12-21 is said to be an example of the first rule, called qal wahomer, which means “light to heavy”: what is true for the lesser (Adam bringing death and sin into the world) is certainly true for the greater (Christ bringing life back to the world). Another one is the “pearl stringing” rule, according to which one draws together multiple passages as line of evidence for a particular thesis (p. 38); according to Longenecker (1970) we can see Paul using this in Romans 3:10–18 (joining five passages from the Psalms and one from Isaiah), Galatians 3:10–13 (joining Dt 21, 27; Hab 2; Lv 18), and many others (p. 27). Other techniques employed by Paul are “historical correspondence” and “corporate solidarity” (Dockery, 1992, p. 104), as well as referencing extra-biblical sources (Enns, 2003, p. 272-273), and of course allegory like in Galatians 4:21-31. 

Last but not the least, we must mention the Christocentric Principle (Woods, 2004) and the role of the Spirit in Paul’s hermeneutics (Wischmeyer, 2017). With regards to the former, Enns (2003) speaks of “Christ-driven hermeneutics” (p. 277): Scriptures are re-examined (but not reinterpreted) in light of Christ, to exalt him; the revelation of God in the Messiah is placed ‘neben dem Text’, but without a wooden juxtaposition, rather with a use of Scripture as central within a larger context of Christological awareness (Longenecker, 1970, p. 26).

Regarding the role of the Spirit, Wischmeyer maintains that though Paul is convinced that God’s will is unchangebly communicated by Scripture, he tries to combine Jesus’ life and death with his pneumatic status post resurrectionem (p. 44). Paul is entirely free—Wischmeyer says—to interpret (and not just re-examine) God’s will and revelation in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ (p. 45).

The hermeneutics of John Calvin

Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. He first had a theological and philosophical education to become a scholar and thus have a career in the church; then he also attained a law degree (Galli & Olsen, 2000, p. 38). He was raised a Roman Catholic (Shearer, 1996), and his major influence was Augustine of Hippo (McMahon, 2012). In fact, Calvin admitted that he could write a confession of his faith out of Augustine’s writings alone (Calvin, 1987, p. 38).

Once again, let us consider the first facet of the interpreter’s hermeneutics; being he a father of the Reformation, Calvin obviously subscribed to the foundational beliefs of the movement: Sola Scriptura and Divine Inspiration.

Sola Scriptura was the watchword of the reformation (Bray, 1996, p. 191), and it meant that Scripture alone was to be the authority in matters of faith, not the Pope or the Church. At one end of the spectrum there were those who insisted that only things expressly taught by Scripture should be allowed in the practice of the faith; at the other end there were those who held that things not explicitly forbidden by Scripture should be allowed. The key distinguishing factor between Protestant and Catholics was, however, whether Scripture was self-interpreting or whether it required the Magisterium’s authority (p. 192). Another matter of debate around Sola Scriptura was the matter of the canon (p. 194). 

With regards to the divine inspiration of Scripture, this was understood in two main ways by the Reformers: some held to the dictation theory, teaching that God dictated each word to the biblical authors (Erickson, 1985); others subscribed to a “co-operation model” (Bray, 1996, p. 195). Calvin—like Luther—held to the latter. Common to all Reformers were the implied doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. 

The second facet is about Calvin’s own interpretive methods; Calvin studied hermeneutics at the Sorbonne, amongst leading humanists (p. 201). He subscribed to several hermeneutical principles. First, inner illumination: the Holy Spirit is the ultimate guide in the interpretation of the text (p. 202). Second, authorial intent: the author’s original intentions must be pursued and used to aid interpretation. Third, Christological interpretation: to Calvin, Christ was the fulfilment of the Old Testament, but he broke away from Luther’s idea that every verse is a hidden reference to Christ (Woods, 2004, p. 83). Christocentric interpretation—for John Calvin—must be historical as well as theological. Thus, though Old Testament types do exist, he holds that they are not supposed to do away with the actual historical reality. For instance, the Levitical sacrifices are indeed a type of Christ’s final sacrifice, but they were very much historical, too, and not allegorical alone (Bray, 1996, p. 203). The fourth and more iconic hermeneutical principle, held by Calvin as well as all Reformers, is the grammatical-historical method of interpretation (Stallard, 2000): the text was to be interpreted in a literal manner, considering grammar, historical setting, and context. This did not mean literalistic, that is, an interpretation that fails to encompass basic figures of speech (Woods, 2004, p. 76). Likewise, it was not enforced in a wooden-rigid fashion, as it was admitted that a text may require to be expounded upon in the light of the rest of Scripture, and may also lead the interpreter to derived meanings (Bray, 1996, p. 202). A direct consequence of the grammatical-historical method was the rejection of the allegorical method: “Allegories ought to be carried no further than Scripture expressly sanctions: so far are they from forming a sufficient basis to found doctrines upon” (Calvin, 2017, p. 148). As it seems to be clear from Calvin’s own words, this is not a total rejection, but an abandonment of the Alexandrian method of interpretation introduced in the second century and that dominated the church throughout the Middle Ages (Woods, 2004, p. 82). This is made evident by Calvin accepting anagoge as an application of the literal text—as exemplified by his comments on Genesis 3:15 (Baxter, 1987, p. 152)—and, at the same time, accusing Origen and other allegorists of torturing Scripture in every possible sense (Woods, 2004, p. 82-83).

Comparing Paul the Apostle to John Calvin

Let us now compare the Apostle to the Gentiles with the iconic French reformer. First, let us look at their foundational beliefs. For instance, they both held to a very high view of Scripture, holding to a divine origin of the same, on this agreeing with Christ himself (Lk 16:31).

Do they, however, share the same view of Sola Scriptura, if at all? We have already mentioned how Wischmeyer (2017) argues that the role of the Spirit in Paul’s hermeneutics means the apostle is free to move beyond Scripture alone (p. 42). The Spirit, who is however not against Scripture (cf. Romans 1), is the apostle’s eschatological mediator and interpreter of God’s salvific history; and it is noteworthy how some of Paul’s letters have no reference to Scripture. Wischmeyer takes this to mean that the receipt of the Spirit makes reference to Scripture no longer indispensable (1 Th 1:5; Gal 3:2–5). Furthermore the core of Romans 1 (v18-23)—as well Paul’s usage of the same principles in Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31—is used by many advocates of natural theology (Spencer, 1988). Karl Barth’s famous opposition to natural theology (Johnson K. L., 2020) would seem to suggest it contradicts the traditional protestant understanding of Sola Scriptura. However, Frame (2018) masterfully argues to the contrary. Regardless, it remains a fact—as we mentioned already—that Paul does reference third party sources in his writings (Enns, 2003). 

Moving onto the actual hermeneutical principles, we can draw a parallel between the cornerstone of reformed hermeneutics—the historical-grammatical method—and the Jewish approach of peshat, part of the hermeneutical toolset of the apostle Paul. Historical-grammatical hermeneutics “is designed to arrive at authorial intent” (Woods, 2004, p. 77), by considering the Sitz im Leben (McCartney & Clayton, 2012), and we have mentioned how authorial intent was central for Calvin and the Reformers, too. Likewise, Schwartz (1994) explains how a commitment to peshat paves the way to establish authorial intent. In the fourfold Jewish hermeneutics adopted by Paul, the literal meaning brought out by peshat is the foundation for all derived meanings (Cohen, 2020), as modern scholarship agrees(Thomas, 2002; Vlach, 2010). Conversely, the historical-grammatical hermeneutics of Calvin tends to lead to the belief that any passage of Scripture has not (or has never had) more than a single meaning (Vanhoozer, 2009). Even the limited allegory accepted by Calvin is expected to be the product of this hermeneutical principle.

Next, we should like to compare the role of the Spirit in the hermeneutics of the two men. As far as the apostle is concerned, we mentioned several times already how the Spirit may be seen as Paul’s interpreter of God’s salvific history. Wischmeyer (2017) maintains that the arrival of the newly found role of the Spirit confers authority to Paul to reinterpret Scripture in light of the gospel: by looking at 2 Corinthians 3, she concludes that Paul “develops his personal concept of hermeneutics by interpreting Exodus 34” and changing some of its parts in order to raise the Gospel above the “old” Mosaic revelation. If we move to Calvin, we have mentioned the principle of inner illumination. Some have suggested this is tantamount to requiring both “textual inspiration” and “inner inspiration” (as understood by neo-orthodoxy) in order to understand Scripture (Goldingay, 1994), leading of course to real risks of subjective meaning in interpretation. In reality, Calvin’s understanding of “personal encounter” with God in the text was that Holy Spirit alone could bring someone to truly understand God’s message and be edified by it; he had no intentions to stray from the objectivity of Scripture and was essentially echoing Tertullian, who had accused the heretics to twist the Scripture by way of a false spirit (Bray, 1996, p. 203). Calvin’s understanding of the Spirit’s role seems similar to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14-16. And yet Calvin (2013) interprets this passage as to say that the Spirit-less man cannot understand and believe the gospel. Paul’s problem, instead, was that most Corinthians are immature and behave like unregenerate, thus he could give advanced teachings only to some (2:6), whilst the rest had to remain on basic teachings (3:2-3), which could be given to unbelievers just the same.

Finally, let us compare their understanding of a Christocentric hermeneutics. While early Jewish Christian leaders began with Christ and from there read the Old Testament through the lenses of the revealed Messiah, Paul usually adopts the opposite process, starting with the text and seeking Christological significance via a midrashic approach (Longenecker, 1970, p. 26-27). Similarly, Calvin’s foundational principle is that the Old Testament should be read with the aim of finding Christ in it, whilst preserving the literal and historical sense (Baxter, 1987, p. 243). Yet, Calvin had rejected allegory, whilst Paul possess that tool as part of his fourfold hermeneutics. Thus, how does Calvin achieve his goal? He does so via accomodation and typology (Dowey, 1994): the former—God’s willingness to adjust himself to human understanding in his relevation—forms the basis for the latter in Calvin’s theology. On the other hand, typology is part of the allegorical approach of Paul’s hermeneutics (Prasch, 2013). However, first-century hermeneutics employed types to illustrate biblical principles, not to construct doctrine from them. The latter is what we may at times see happening with Calvin. For instance, his commentary on Psalm 110 clearly states that because we have the testimony of Christ (cf. Lk 20:41-44) that this song was penned by David in reference to the Messiah, then this is evidence enough to declare the person of king David a type of the kingdom of Christ (Baxter, 1987, p. 244), effectively drawing doctrinal conclusions regarding the nature of the Kingdom of God and how this relates to the person of Christ. The Messiah is seen as currently on David’s throne, confounding Christ’s providential rule at the Father’s right hand with his Davidic rule in his mediatorial reign on earth(Johnson E. E., 2013, p. 104). Paul, instead, speaks of ‘inheriting the kingdom of God’ as a future experience (1 Cor 6:9, 10; 15:50; Gal 5:21; cf. Eph 5:5) realised only at the end of the age (1 Th 2:12; 2 Th 1:5; Col 4:11; cf. 2 Ti 4:1,18) (Michaels, 1987, p. 112). Calvin’s employment of types, though not extreme like Luther’s, is still more akin to typological hermeneutics (Rad, 1986), instead of being a use of types within the bounds of a literal interpretation. This is part of the problem that leads Calvin to what has become the classical Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9-11. Because Christ is king now over the Church, Calvin (1849), commenting on the first 5 verses of Romans 9, is convinced that Paul “dextereously manages” not to mention the truth about “destruction of the Jewish nation” (p. 334), yet Paul’s introduction makes it clear that what follows in Romans 9-11 is to be read in the context of the Jewish people (Bruce, 2014; Getty, 1988; Ladd, 1994). Calvin’s disalignment with Paul leads him to fail in gaining insight from original Old Testament context in Genesis, where Jacob and Esau are spoken of as national federal heads. Later in the text, Calvin does something similar with Paul’s quotes from Exodus. Thus, though Paul’s use of these Old Testament passages in Romans 9-11 is such to naturally bring out the vocational election of Israel and/or of inviduals within the nation (Wilkin, 2012)—the only election Paul discusses in these chapters—Calvin sees these chapters as discussing soteriological election.

Calvin and all the Reformers were honestly committed to a historical-grammatical hermeneutics, but they were above all concerned with soteriological issues, and eventually failed to apply typology in the Old Testament the same way Paul did, i.e. by building on top of peshat, the literal meaning. They also could not set free from Augustinian presuppositions about unilateral predestination of the eternal destinies (Wilson, 2012) or from early supersessionist errors (Diprose, 2004). This led them to a selective and inconsistent application of a literal hermeneutics affecting areas such as ecclesiology, eschatology or Israelology (Woods, 2004, p. 84).


We have seen that despite many similarities, there are substantial differences between the hermeneutics of the apostle Paul and that of the reformer John Calvin, especially when we move from theoretical hermeneutics to its application in the exegetical endeavour. To a large extent, this difference is true also of Paul and the Reformers in general. In fact, some of these differences would widen when comparing Paul with, for example, Luther, who held to an even more aggressive form of typological interpretation. The Reformers attempted “to act as the inheritors of the Jewish concept of scriptural hermeneutics and walk in Paul’s footsteps” (Wischmeyer, 2017, p. 41); for us to continue to do so, we must be true to the motto “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” (Woods, 2018), the idea that the Church must adopt an ever-present reformation mindset. This can be done by assuming a self-critical stance with which our presuppositions and traditions will be challenged and modified in a “hermeneutical spiral” (Osborne, 2010).


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[1] Tarsus was a city in Cilicia where he was born and raised (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3; cf. 9:30; 11:25).