Bible scholar Peter Enns has made concrete some ironies and tensions that have troubled me in a vague way — vaguely, because I didn’t have names for them. The following is an excerpt from Part Two of his series Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism at The BioLogos Forum:
Paying attention to the historical and grammatical context of the Old Testament sometimes led Calvin to bucking the trend. Most clearly this pertains to Calvin’s disdain for allegory. Since the examination of context was foundational to Calvin, he had no place for allegory, which he felt was arbitrary.
Calvin was not unique in his rejection of allegory (given the general “humanistic” climate mentioned above), but that rejection was still somewhat against the mainstream of the day. Allegory in the church is rooted in Origen (185-254) and was a common approach to biblical interpretation throughout much the 1500 years prior to Calvin (including Paul, see Galatians 4:21-31). But Calvin’s concern was that allegory downplayed the Christ-centered message of the Old.
Calvin felt that by divorcing Scripture from history (as allegory tends to do) the truth and reality of the gospel was in danger—which is a great irony, since allegorical interpretation arose precisely to advance Christological readings of Scripture.
Further, allegory took the Bible out of the hands of the people and into the hands of experts. Only those with literary sensitivity and training could see the deeper allegorical meanings in the text. Although here too is an irony, since a historically responsible handling of the Bible requires its own kind of expertise (e.g., knowing Greek and Hebrew), and the subjectivity of allegory actually made it more available to the uneducated.
In any event, Calvin’s grammatical-historical approach was a move to respect the context of Scripture, and so he saw himself as correcting the allegorical tradition of early and medieval exegesis. A contextual reading for Calvin was a necessary first step to mining Scripture in his theology. This is certainly understandable today—even instinctual—but it also introduced a tension for Calvin that we can see him working out here and there: the New Testament authors do not always seem rooted in the grammatical historical context of Scripture.