Here are eight principles on Christ-centered interpretation of the Old Testament gleaned from a survey of Calvin’s Institutes, sermons, and commentaries.
1. By preaching the Old Testament we are preaching Christ’s Words
When Calvin commented on the Old Testament he repeatedly used phrases such as, “Here Christ comforts his Church…By these words, Christ convicts His people…Christ therefore spoke to Israel.” Calvin, therefore, encourages us to hear the words of the Old Testament as the very words of Christ.
2. Christ is the only teacher of His Church
Whatever stage of biblical revelation we look at in the Old or New Testament, Christ was the one and only teacher of his Church. For example, when commenting on Matt.11:27, Calvin wrote: “I mean that God has never manifested himself to men in any other way than through the Son, that is his sole wisdom, light, and truth.”
3. By preaching God we preach Christ
For Calvin, a God-centered sermon was implicitly Christ-centered. For example, in the Institutes, he wrote: “Whenever the name of God is mentioned without particularization, there are designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father.”
4. The Old and New Testaments are united by same covenant of grace
Although Calvin accepted that there were differences between the two Testaments, that did not in any way lesson the fundamental unity: “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same” (Inst. 2.10.2). In his commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-32, Calvin put it like this:
Now as to the new covenant, it is not so called, because it is contrary to the first covenant; for God is never inconsistent with himself, nor is he unlike himself…God could never have made a new, that is, a contrary or a different covenant….God has never made any other covenant than that which he made formerly with Abraham, and at length confirmed by the hand of Moses . . . Let us now see why he promises to the people a new covenant. It being new, no doubt refers to what they call the form . . . But the substance remains the same. By substance I understand the doctrine; for God in the Gospel brings forward nothing but what the Law contains.
The relation between the Testaments was absolutely central to Calvin’s thought. So much so, that the title of Book II of the Institutes, which is all about redemption in Christ is summarized in the title: The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, first disclosed to the fathers under the Law, and then to us in the Gospel.
5. There is One United People of God in both the OT and NT
Having surveyed Calvin’s teaching on this in John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament, David Puckett concludes:
The people of God are one and God’s revelation to his people as recorded in scripture is one. The differences between the revelation under the old and new covenants pale when compared with that which remains the same.
6. Every Old Testament believer was saved through faith in Christ
In opposition to those who insisted that Old Testament salvation was fundamentally different to the New, Calvin argued:
Indeed the ancient fathers were saved by no other means than by that which we have…they had their salvation grounded in Christ Jesus, as we have: but that was after an obscure manner, so as they beheld the thing afar off which was presented unto them…Accordingly, apart from the Mediator, God never showed favor toward the ancient people, nor ever gave hope of grace to them…Here I am gathering a few passages of many because I merely want to remind my readers that the hope of all the godly has ever reposed in Christ alone (Inst. 2.6.2).
7. Old Testament believers had the indwelling Holy Spirit
Calvin compared the promise-fulfillment relationship of the Old and New Testaments using the figures of shadow to light, shadow to body, child to adult, sketch to painting. And these analogies applied not just to Christ in the Old Testament but also the Holy Spirit. Though not to the same degree or power as in the New Testament, the “power and grace of the Spirit was vigorous and reigned in the very truth of the shadows.”
8. The hope of Old Testament believers was spiritual and heavenly
Calvin acknowledged that Old Testament promises seemed to be focused on the earthly and the temporal. However, he insisted that they actually were promises of eternal life. He highlighted New Testament verses which equated the Old Testament hope with that of the New Testament (Rom.1:2; 3:21; Heb.11:9ff), and concluded that God used the earthly promises to direct the minds of his people upward to the heavenly reality, and the Old Testament saints knew this and followed this course.