I. Calvin's Exegesis of Consolation (in Paul)
In the first part we saw that Calvin was a pilgrim who himself needed the consolation of the gospel, given by the Spirit, through the ministry of Word, sacrament, and prayer. He was also a careful, thoughtful, and sophisticated reader of texts and principally Scripture. It is well known that Calvin was deeply influenced by Renaissance humanism. We all know about the Renaissance concern to get back to original sources (ad fontes) and to read them in their original context, according to the original intent of the author. A less well-known aspect of the humanism in which Calvin was trained was concern for the well-being of humans as God’s image bearers.
In his 1539 commentary on Romans we get a picture of how he understood Paul’s doctrine of paraklesis (consolation or comfort). Commenting on Romans 15:4, on the phrase, “through the patience and the consolation of the Scriptures we might have hope,” he recognized that the noun paraklesis might be translated a couple of different ways. He wrote:
The word consolation some render exhortation; and of this I do not disapprove, only that consolation is more suitable to patience, for this arises from it; because then only we are prepared to bear adversities with patience, when God blends them with consolation.
There were two reasons for not translating “paraklesis” as “exhortation,” the first is because “consolation” or “comfort” fit the context better, but the second reason is pastoral, because it is better pastoral theology. One of the chief purposes of Scripture is to “to raise up those who are prepared by patience, and strengthened by consolations, to the hope of eternal life, and to keep them in the contemplation of it.” He made the same choice in his interpretation of paraklesis in his 1548 commentary on Philippians 2:1.
No Pauline epistle focuses more on consolation than 2 Corinthians. In his 1546 commentary on 2 Corinthians Calvin had opportunity to consider the biblical doctrine of consolation at length. On 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “The God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our tribulation.” Calvin argued that Paul was able to endure “his tribulations with fortitude and alacrity” because of the “support derived from his consolation....” The source of our consolation is the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” who is the source of blessings, “for where Christ is not, there the beneficence of God is not.”
On verse 4, he noted that the consolation that Paul had received was not for his own benefit but for that of the Corinthians, because “whatever favors God conferred upon him, were not given for his own sake merely, but in order that he might have more in his power for helping others. And, unquestionably, when the Lord confers upon us any favor, he in a manner invites us by his example to be generous to our neighbors.” This he said is particularly true for pastors.
In his comment on 2 Corinthians 2:15 he argued that the comfort spoken of there should not be taken “actively” but “passively,” to mean “that God multiplied his consolations according to the measure of his tribulations.” The troubles of this life are “common to good and bad alike,” but when they happen to “the wicked” there is nothing redemptive in them. When they happen to believers, those Christians “are conformed to Christ, and bear about with them in their body his dying, that the life of Christ may one day be manifested in them.” Because our sufferings are in union with Christ, part of our identity with his sufferings, we are “sustained by the consolations of Christ, so as to prevent him from being overwhelmed with calamities.”
The ground of comfort is extrinsic, it is the promise of God in Christ. It has subjective consequences, however, just as the afflictions of which Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 1:6 refers to our personal experience of misery. Comfort or consolation is the antidote, as it were, for our experience of being “pressed down with anxiety from a feeling of misery.” Consolation refers to the lightening of the mind of grief.
For Calvin, Paul’s sufferings and experience of consolation “flowed out to the whole Church” and served as an encouragement to them that, “inasmuch as they concluded, that God who had sustained and refreshed him in his emergency, would, in like manner, not be wanting to them.” Paul’s sufferings were for the salvation of the Corinthians, not that they were “expiations or sacrifices for sins, but as edifying them by confirming them.” Salvation and comfort were joined “with the view of pointing out the way in which their salvation was to be accomplished.”
Why does God permit us to suffer? On 2 Corinthians 1:9 Calvin argued that we don’t appreciate how “how displeasing to God confidence in ourselves must be” so that, as a corrective, “it is necessary that we should be condemned to death.” The good news is that “God raises the dead. As we must first die, in order that, renouncing confidence in ourselves....” We must begin with despair, but “with the view of placing our hope in God.” He returned to that theme on 2 Corinthians 7:6. The Lord “comforts the lowly.” “Hence a most profitable doctrine may be inferred—that the more we have been afflicted, so much the greater consolation has been prepared for us by God.”
Though he is often pictured as a systematic theologian and though most people give most of their attention to Calvin’s Institutes, in fact Calvin was a preacher and a student of Scripture. His Institutes were harvested out of his biblical commentaries and preaching. So, his conception of the necessity, nature, and source of consolation, for the Christian, was shaped by the way he encountered the biblical teaching about consolation and particularly from his work in the Pauline epistles.
Next time we will look at how Calvin worked out his theology of comfort in his Institutes.