Calvin on the Inspiration of Scripture – Some corrections on the article of W.H. Neuser

It has become fashionable for “progressives” to cite Calvin as a supporter of a critical approach to the Bible. Such was not the case as N.H. Gootjes demonstrates in this article. The Editors

Calvin has dealt extensively with Scripture. Not only did he summarize the doctrine of Scripture in his Institutes, but he also preached and lectured on whole books of the Bible and wrote many commentaries. His commentaries cover almost all of the New Testament and a considerable part of the Old Testament.1 Calvin, obviously, had a high regard for Scripture.

W.H. Neuser, therefore, dealt with a central doctrine in Calvin’s theology when he discussed “Calvin’s Understanding of Holy Scripture” at the International Congress on Calvin Research.2 This is a timely topic, as the doctrine of Scripture is much debated in our century. Neuser, in this article, warns against the temptation to enlist Calvin as a champion for one’s own view on Scripture. He refers to the disagreement between J.A. Cramer and D.J. De Groot. Cramer, in a study published in 1926, attempted to make Calvin the precursor of modem Bible criticism. When De Groot wrote his doctoral dissertation on Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture (1931) he presented Calvin as a proponent of organic inspiration. Neuser is critical of both. Calvin adopted neither a positive nora negative attitude toward the historical-critical method of exegesis.(43)

After this conclusion it comes as a surprise that Neuser, when he returns to the issue, states that Calvin would be sympathetic toward the critical approach:

J.A. Cramer has attempted to make Calvin the father of scientific Scripture criticism and he understood the inspiration as a being prepared to reproduce the received words. Calvin did not think in such a modern way. Calvin thinks of a reliable passing on of the received message through the writers of the Bible. Nevertheless, this does not exclude a basic openness for Scripture criticism.(63)

Suddenly Calvin is placed in the discussions of our century and even presented as being open to the critical approach to the Bible. Since this is a fundamental issue, it seemed good not to include it in a general review, but to deal with it separately. We will have to be brief, but we will go into the three arguments Neuser presents to prove his position that Calvin would allow today’s critical approach to Scripture.



2 Timothy 3:16

This text is a focal point in every discussion on the character of Scripture. Referring to the Old Testament, Paul wrote: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (RSV). We are not going to discuss here what this text means; rather, we will see how Calvin understood it. According to Neuser, Calvin said two things about this text. First, the statement about inspiration does not apply to the book of the Old Testament; rather, it applies to its authors. According to Neuser, Calvin even goes a step further to state that these books are not inspired, but only their doctrine. (57) Calvin, says Neuser, does not take this text as an expression about the nature of the Old Testament but as a functional expression about its authors and its doctrine. (58)

If Neuser’s analysis were correct, Calvin could be accused of an inconsistency, for the first statement does not agree with the second. The first statement says that inspiration does not apply to the written text of the Old Testament at all but only to its authors. The second statement, however, says that inspiration does apply to the written text, but only to its doctrine. Is Calvin really so confused in his reasoning?

Concerning the first statement, Calvin wrote:

In order to uphold the authority of the Scripture, he declares that it is divinely inspired; for, if it be so, it is beyond all controversy that men ought to receive it with reverence. This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God hath spoken to us, and are fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestion, but that, being organs of the Holy Spirit, they only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare.)

Contrary to the statement of Neuser, Calvin, in this explanation of 2 Tim. 3:16, twice connects inspiration with Scripture. Calvin does not say: “In order to uphold the authority of Scripture, he [Paul] declares that its authors were divinely inspired.” Rather, he says about Scripture itself that it is inspired. Further, in the second part of the quotation Calvin speaks about the authors, the prophets. Even there, however, Calvin does not say merely that the prophets were inspired; instead, he focuses on what the prophets said. They only spoke what they had to declare. Calvin did not limit inspiration to God’s work in the authors. No, he states clearly that the resulting words and writings are from God.

Does Calvin limit this inspiration to only the doctrine? To find out, we will quote another part of his commentary on 2 Tim. 3:16:

Whoever then wishes to profit in the Scriptures, let him, first of all, lay down this as a settled point, that the Law and the Prophets are not a doctrine delivered according to the will and pleasure of men, but dictated by the Holy Spirit.4

From this, it is clear that Calvin does not make a distinction between Scripture and its doctrine. Rather, the Old Testament itself (the Law and the Prophets) are the doctrine (= teaching) dictated by the Spirit.

According to Calvin, the Old Testament itself is the inspired teaching of the Spirit. Calvin is dealing here with Scripture, and not limiting inspiration to its authors or to its doctrine, as the last sentence in this section proves conclusively:

This is the first clause, that we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.5

Personal inspiration

Neuser’s second argument elaborates on something he already indicated in his discussion of 2Tim. 3:16. Neuser claims that Calvin did not think that Scripture was divinely inspired; rather, he held that the authors were inspired. He refers to the well-known fact that Calvin frequently mentions the work of the Spirit in connection with the authors of Scripture. Calvin often says that God, or the Holy Spirit, speaks through the mouth of Moses, or David, Isaiah, etc. These expressions indicate that Calvin emphasizes personal inspiration. According to Neuser, personal inspiration excludes verbal inspiration of the words of the Bible. (58, 59) Neuser seems to work here with an inappropriate dilemma. His reasoning is that inspiration applies either to the Scripture text or to the authors of Scripture. Since Calvin speaks of personal inspiration, Neuser concludes that he does not teach that Scripture is inspired.

This reasoning, however, does not fit with Calvin’s expression. Calvin does not say something like: “The Holy Spirit inspired Moses, and Moses said….” The expression of Calvin to which Neuser refers, namely that “The Holy Spirit speaks through the mouth of Moses,” implies that the Spirit is the speaker of the words that come out of Moses’ mouth. The Holy Spirit used the mouth of a prophet, but the resulting words are the Spirit’s. The expression itself surely does not support Neuser’s view.

Neuser refers to many passages in Calvin’s Institutes where this expression is used. Do these passages indicate that Calvin taught personal inspiration, as opposed to Scriptural inspiration? We need not go into all the references. One will suffice to show that Calvin does not deny the inspiration of Scripture when he uses this expression. In his discussion of the incarnation of Christ, Calvin refers to 1 Tim. 2:5: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus….” He writes:

(Paul) could have said “God;” or he could at least have omitted the word “man” just as he did the word “God.” But because the Spirit speaking through his mouth knew our weakness, at the right moment he used a most appropriate remedy to meet it: he set the Son of God familiarly among us as one of ourselves. Therefore, lest anyone be troubled about where to seek the Mediator, or by what path we must come to Him, the Spirit calls Him “man,” thus teaching us that He is near us, indeed touches us, since He is our flesh. (11, 12.1)7

Calvin uses three expressions here:

1. (Paul) could have said; 2. the Spirit speaking through (Paul’s) mouth; 3. the Spirit calls him “man.” Calvin attributes Paul’s words directly to the Spirit. For Calvin, then, inspiration is more than personal inspiration. Inspiration means that the words Paul spoke are the words of the Spirit.

This is confirmed when we look to what Calvin wrote in the Institutes, in a section devoted to Scripture:

Therefore, illumined by (the Spirit’s) power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were  gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it [= Scripture] has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. (1, 7, 5)8

Calvin does not say that the Spirit merely inspired the authors of the Bible. No, he says that Scripture itself comes from the mouth of God. Neuser’s distinction between verbal inspiration and personal inspiration is not found in Calvin, but is a later invention used to give an opening to Scripture criticism.

The Spirit dictates

According to Neuser’s count, Calvin used the word “to dictate” some forty times in connection with Scripture. Neuser brings together interesting material and adds in an appendix the quotations where Calvin spoke of “dictating.” (67–71) He is able to show that this verb as used by Calvin does not mean to say that the Spirit literally dictated words which the human author simply wrote down.

Neuser goes much further, however, when he says that the term “to dictate” is not used to explain the inspiration of the words of Scripture, but to indicate the importance of the words and to relieve the human writer of his responsibility. (61, 62) This is clearly a reductionist interpretation. The expression “to dictate” does not say anything about the importance of a written text; instead, it speaks of its origin. This is also the way in which Calvin uses this·expression, as can be seen in his commentary on Jeremiah 36:4f. This text speaks of Jeremiah dictating to Baruch, but Calvin sees behind this God dictating to Jeremiah:

Therefore a greater part of so many words must have escaped the Prophet, had not God dicta ted them again to him. Jeremiah then stood, as it were, between God and Baruch; for God, by his Spirit, presided over and guided the mind and tongue of the Prophet. Now the Prophet, the Spirit being his guide and teacher, recited what God had commanded; and Baruch wrote down, and then proclaimed the whole summary of what the prophet had taught.9

God’s dictation, then, means that God, by the Spirit, guided the thoughts as well as the words of Jeremiah. Therefore, the prophet could reproduce whatGod had commanded.

Another example of Calvin’s use of the verb “to dictate” occurs in the commentary on 1 Pet. 1:11, about the Old Testament prophets who prophesied Christ’s suffering:

At the same time, a high praise is given to their doctrine, for it was the testimony of the Holy Spirit; the preachers and ministers were men, but He was the teacher. Nor does he declare without reason that the Spirit of Christ then ruled; and he makes the Spirit, sent from heaven, to preside over the teachers of the Gospel, for he shows that the Gospel comes from God, and that the ancient prophesies were dictated by Christ.10

Dictation by Christ is here virtually the same as teaching by the Holy Spirit. As a result, the Gospel is from God. The term “dictating” does not say much about the way God or the Spirit made known His Word to the authors of the Bible. but it does mean more than that the authors personally were inspired when they wrote. It clearly means, according to Calvin, that their writings are God’s Word. Actually, we had already seen this. In the second quotation from Calvin’s commentary on 2 Tim. 3:16, given above, exactly the same meaning occurs.


Calvin did not limit the inspiration of Scripture to personal or doctrinal inspiration. Instead, Calvin taught that, as the result of inspiration, Scripture itself is the Word of God. As every exegete of the Bible, Calvin knew of the difficulties in the Bible text. He addressed these on the basis of his conviction that Scripture is God’s Word. It does injustice to Calvin to present him as having been open to the destructive biblical criticism of the last two centuries.


1. A 22 volume set, originally printed in the 19th Century, is still available, republished by Baker Bookhousc, Grand Rapids.

2. W.H. Neuser, “Calvin Verstandnis der Heiligen Schrift” in W.H. Neuser, ed., Calivanus Sacrae Scripturae Professor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 41–71. Numbers in the text refer to the pages of this article.

3. See Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (tr. W. Pringle; repro Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) 248f. For this and the following quotations I have checked the original texts but since there were no difficulties concerning the debated issue I will use existing translations.

4. J. Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 249.

5. J. Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 249.

6. Neuser adds thai Calvin also connected inspiration with some particular statements in Scripture, but not with Scripture as a whole. (58) We need not deal with this since it docs not play any role in Neuser’s explanation.

7. The quotations of Calvin’s Institutes are taken from Institutes of the Christian ReU-8ion (ed.J.T. McNeill; Ir. F.L. Battles; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).

8. This is part of Calvin’s discussion of the testimony of the Holy Spirit; see on this my article, “Het getuigenis van de Geest in verband mel de Schrift” in Radix 11 (1985) 185ff, on Calvin, 186–194.

9. J. Calvin , Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, vol. 4; (Ir. J. Owen; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) 329; the Latin text in the article of Neuscr,68.

10. J. Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (tr. J. Owen; repro Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) 39, 40. (Reprinted with permission from The Clarion, Feb. 2, 1996.)