Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture

In recent discussions about the Bible appeals have repeatedly been made to John Calvin in effort to defend higher critical views. Reprinting this lecture which Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary gave in 1959 under the auspices of the Reformed Fellowship should clear up confusion on that matter and help us to see more clearly what we must believe about the Bible.

The contention that Calvin’s view of the inspiration of Scripture was not the high doctrine of plenary, verbal inspiration, espoused by the Reformed dogmaticians of the seventeenth century, has emanated from many quarters. It is noteworthy that within the last few years this question has received from students of Calvin thorough and exacting treatment. It is gratifying that the two studies which this present decade has produced and which have brought the most painstaking research to bear on the question have reached the same conclusion that in Calvins esteem the original Scriptures were inerrant. .In the words of E. A. Dowey: “There is no hint anywhere in Calvin‘s writings that the original text contained any flaws at all.”1 “The important thing to realize is that according to Calvin the Scriptures were so given that whether by ‘literal’ or ‘figurative’ dictation—the result was a series of documents errorless in their original form.”2 And Kenneth S. Kantzer, even more recently, has written that the evidence in support of the view that Calvin held to the “rigidly orthodox verbal type of inspiration . . . is so transparent that any endeavor to clarify his position seems almost to be a work of supererogation.”3 “The merest glance at Calvin’s commentaries,” he adds, “will demonstrate how seriously the Reformer applied his rigid doctrine of verbal in. errancy to his exegesis of Scripture” and Kantzer claims that “attempts to discover a looser view of inspiration in Calvin’s teaching fall flat upon examination.”4

Kantzer is to be complimented on his decision not to regard the task of providing the evidence in support of the foregOing conclusions a work of supererogation. He has furnished us with what is perhaps the most complete induction of the evidence drawn from the wide range of Calvin‘s works, And, since it was not a superfluous undertaking for Dr. Kantzer, it is perhaps not without necessity that we should devote some attention to the same question on this memorial occasion.

The present writer is not disposed to regard the question, as it pertains to Calvin‘s position, with any such attitude as might be described as cavalier, There are passages in Calvin that cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. It is significant that the passages which, in my judgment, occasion the most acute difficulty are precisely those which so able a controversialist as Charles A, Briggs has been wise enough to appeal to in support of his own contention that Calvin did not maintain biblical inerrancy.5 It Is well to place these in the forefront for two reasons. First, it is in the interest of fairness in polemics not to suppress what constitutes the strongest argument in support of an opposing position. Second, it is a principle of hermeneutics to interpret more difficult passages in the light of the more perspicuous, a principle that applies to the interpretation of theologians as well as of Scripture.

The passages in mind are Calvin‘s comments on Matthew 27:9; Acts 7:14–16; Hebrews 11:21. The first is concerned with the reference to Zechariah 11:13, athihuted to Jeremiah, and Calvin comments: “How the name of Jeremiah crept in, I confess that I do not know, nor do I anxiously concern myself with it. The passage itself clearly shows that the name of Jeremiah was put down by mistake for that of Zechariah (11:13), for in Jeremiah we find nothing of this sort, nor any thing that even approaches to it.”6

The second passage deals with the question of the number of souls reported by Stephen to have gone down into Egypt with Jacob and with the statement that Abraham bought a sepulchre of the sons of Hemor rather than of Ephron the Hittite, as Genesis 23:8–18 informs us., Calvin‘s remarks are: “Whereas he saith that Jacob came into Egypt with seventy-five souls, it agreeth not with the words of Moses; for Moses maketh mention of seventy only. Jerome thinketh that Luke setteth not down, word for word, those things which Stephen had spoken, or that he took this number out of the Greek translation of Moses (Gen, xlvi, 27), either because he himself, being a proselyte, had not the knowledge of the Hebrew tongue, or because he would grant the Gentiles this, who read it thus. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the Greek interpreters set down this number of set purpose, or whether it crop (crept) in afterward through negligence, (mistake😉 which (I mean the latter) might well be, forasmuch as the Grecians used to set down their numbers in letters. Augustine, in his 26th book or City of God, [De Civitate Dei,] thinketh that Joseph‘s nephews and kinsmen are comprehended in this number; and so he thinketh that the words went down doth signify all that time which Jacob lived. But that conjecture can by no means be received. For, in the mean space, the other patriarchs also had many children born to them. This seemeth to me a thing like to be true, that the Seventy Interpreters did translate that truly which was in Moses. And we cannot say that they were deceived; forasmuch as (in) Deut. x., where this number is repeated, they agree with Moses, at least as that place was read without all doubt in the time of Jerome; for those copies which are printed at this day have it otherwise. Therefore, I think that this difference came through the error of the writers which wrote out the book (libranarum, copyist). And it was a matter of no such weight, for which Luke ought to have troubled the Gentiles which were accustomed with the Greek reading. And it may be that he himself did put down the true number; and that some man did correct the same amiss out of that place of Moses. For we know that those which had the New Testament in hand were ignorant of the Hebrew tongue, yet skillful in the Greek.

Therefore, to the end (that) the words of Stephen might agree with the place of Moses, it is to bc thought that that false number which was found in the Greek translation of Genesis was by them put in also in this place; concerning which, if any man contend more stubbornly, let us suffer him to be wise without measure. Let us remember that it is not without cause that Paul doth forbid us to be too curious about genealogies . . .”7

In regard to verse 16 Calvin writes: “And whereas he saith afterward, they were laid in the sepulchre which Abraham had bought of the sons of Hemor, it is manifest that there is a fault (mistake) in the word Abraham. For Abraham had bought a double cave of Ephron the Hittite (Gen. xxiii. 9), to bury his wife Sarah in; but Joseph was buried in another place, to wit, in the field which his father Jacob had bought of the sons of Hemor for an hundred lambs. Wherefore this place must be amended.”8

The third passage (Heb. 11:21) is concerned with the discrepancy between the two statements that Jacob worshipped on the top of his bed and that he worshipped on the top of his staff. The difficulty in itself is by no means acute.9 But Calvin‘s statement at this point is the one with which we are concerned. “And we know,” he says, “that the Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect, as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned, who had as yet need of milk; and in this there is no danger, provided readers are ever brought back to the pure and original text of Scripture. But, in reality, the difference is but little; for the main thing was, that Jacob worshipped, which was an evidence of his gratitude. He was therefore led by faith to submit himself to his son.”10 The disturbing remark in this quotation is that “the Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect, as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned, who had as yet need of milk.” For in this instance Calvin is not reflecting upon some error that might have crept in in the course of copying the text of Hebrews 11:21 but upon the practice of the inspired writers themselves to the effect that they were not concerned with precise accuracy in a detail of this kind. If this is Calvin’s thought, then we might say that, in his esteem, an error of historical detail is compatible with the canons which governed the inspired writers and therefore compatible with the inspiration under which they wrote. As far as I am aware, this remark constitutes the most formidable difficulty in the way of the thesis that Calvin believed in biblical inerrancy. We are not, however, in a position properly to interpret and evaluate this statement and the others quoted above until we have made a broader survey of Calvin’s teaching.

Calvin’s greatest work The Institutes of the Christian Religion is interspersed with pronouncements respecting the character of Scripture and we should be overlooking some of the most relevant evidence if we did not take account of them.

“Whether God revealed himself to the fathers by oracles and visions, or, by the instrumentality and ministry of men, suggested what they were to hand down to posterity, there cannot be a doubt that the certainty of what he taught them was firmly engraven on their hearts, so that they felt assured and knew that the things which they learnt came forth from God, who invariably accompanied his word with a sure testimony, infinitely superior to mere opinion.”11 This quotation is of interest because it is concerned with the certification accorded to men who were the recipients of revelation by other modes of revelation than that of Scripture, a certification by which certitude of the truth was engraven on their hearts. This quotation also prepares us for what Calvin regarded as providing the necessity for inscripturation. So we read in the next paragraph, “For if we reflect how prone the human mind is to lapse into forgetfulness of God, how readily inclined to every kind of error, how bent every now and then on devising new and fictitious religions, it will be easy to understand how necessary it was to make such depository of doctrine as would secure it from either perishing by the neglect, vanishing away amid the errors, or being corrupted by the presumptuous audacity of men” (I, vi, 3). It is the liability to error, associated with tradition, that makes inscripturation necessary, and the documentation of the “heavenly doctrine” (coelestis doctrina) guards it against the neglect, error, and audacity of men.

We shall have occasion to give cxamples later on from Calvin’s other works of his characteristic dictum that the Scripture speaks to us with a veracity and authority equal to that of God speaking to us directly from heaven. We do not read far into the Institutes before we come across the most explicit affirmation to this effect. “When that which professes to be the Word of God is acknowledged to be so, no person, unless devoid of common sense and the feelings of a man, will have the desperate hardihood to refuse credit to the speaker. But since no daily oracles are given from heaven, and the Scriptures alone exist as the means by which God has been pleased to consign his truth to perpetual remembrance, the full authority which they obtain with the faithful proceeds from no other consideration than that they are persuaded that they proceeded from heaven, as if God had been heard giving utterance to them” (I, vii, 1).

It is in this same context that Calvin speaks of the Scriptures as the “eternal and inviolable truth of God.” It is in this same brief chapter that the follow· ing propositions are plainly asserted. God is the author of the Scriptures. The Scriptures themselves manifest the plainest signs that God is the speaker (manifesta signa loquentis Dei). This is the proof that its doctrine is heavenly. We are never established in the faith of this doctrine until we are indubitably persuaded that Cod is its author (I, vii, 4 passim). And so he adds: “Being illuminated therefore by him [i.e., the Spirit] we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that Scripture is from God, but, in a way that surpasses human judgment, we are perfectly assured . . . that it has come to us by the ministry of men from the very mouth of God” (I, vii, 5 – ab ipsissimo Dei ore ad nos fluxisse). We feel the firmest conviction that we hold an invincible truth” (idem). “Between the apostles and their successors, however, there is, as I have stated, this difference that the apostles were the certain and authentic amanuenses of the Holy Spirit and therefore their writings are to be received as the oracles of God, but others have no other office than to teach what is revealed and deposited in the holy Scriptures” (IV, viii, 9). At this stage it is not necessary to quote further from the Institutes, for in these few quotations there is virtually all that can be derived from that source. It is when we turn to other sources that the implications of these statements are brought into clearer focus.

With reference to Calvin’s concept of inspiration and of its effects we should expect that no passages would offer him the opportunity to express his thought more pointedly than II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:20. In this expectation we are not disappointed. In reference to the former he says: “First, he (Paul) commends the Scripture on account of its authority; and, secondly, on account of the utility that springs from it. In order to uphold the authority of the Scripture, he declares that it is divinely inspired (Divinilus inspiratam); 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 (non ex suo sensu loquutos esse) but that they were organs of the Holy Spirit to utter only those things which had been commanded from heaven. 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 prophecies are not a doctrine delivered by the will of men, but dictated (dictatam) by the Holy Spirit . . . Moses and the Prophets did not utter at random what we have from their hand, but, since they spoke by divine impulse, they confidently and fearlessly testified, as was actually the case, that it was the mouth of the Lord that spoke (os Domini loqllutum esse) . . . . 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 a’one, and has nothing of man mixed with it” (nee quicquam humani habet admixtum).

In his comments on II Peter 1:20 he again reminds us that the prophecies are the indubitable oracles of God and did not flow from the private suggestion of men and therefore we must be convinced that God speaks to us in the Scripture. And so he continues: “the beginning of right knowledge is to give that credit to the holy prophets which is due to God . . . . He says that they were moved, not that they were bereaved of mind. but because they dared not to announce anything of themselves (a se ipsis) and only obediently followed the Spirit as their leader, who ruled in their mouth as in his own sanctuary.”

Before making remarks respecting the import of these assessments of the origin, authority, and character of Scripture, it may not be amiss to cull from other places a few quotations to elucidate and confirm these statements of his. With reference to Mark as the author of the Second Gospel he says: “Mark is generally supposed to have been the private friend and disciple of Peter. It is even believed that he wrote the Gospel as it was dictated to him by Peter, so that he merely performed the office of amanuensis or scribe. But on this subject we need not give ourselves much trouble, for it is of little importance to us, provided we hold that he is a properly qualified and divinely ordained witness who put down nothing except by the direction and dictation of the Holy Spirit.”12 Respecting the four Evangelists he says that God “therefore dictated to the four Evangelists what they should write, so that, while each had his own part assigned to him, the whole might be collected into one body.”13 On Romans 15:4 Calvin paraphrases Paul’s thought by saying: “there is nothing in Scripture which is not useful for your instruction, and for the direction of your life” and then adds: “This is an interesting passage, by which we understand there is nothing vain and unprofitable contained in the oracles of God. Whatever then is delivered in Scripture we ought to strive to learn; for it would be a reproach offered to the Holy Sprt to think that he has taught liS anything which it does not concern us to know; let us then know that whatever is taught us conduces to the advancement of piety.”14 (to be continued)

1. Edward A. Dowey, Jr.: The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, New York, 1952, p. 100.

2. Ibid., pp. 101f.

3. Ed. John F. Walvoord: Inspiration and Interpretotion, Grand Rapids, 1957, p. 137.

4. Ibid., pp. 142f.

5. Charles Augustus Briggs: The Bible, the Church, and the Reason, New York, 1892, pp. 219ff.; cf. pp. 110ff. 6. Commentarius in Hartnoniam Evangelicam, ad Matt. 27:9. Able expositors have found in Matt. 27:9 an allusion to Jeremiah, chapters 18 and 19: cf. E. w. Hengstenberg: Christology of the Old Testament, E.T., Vol. IV, Edinburgh, 1865, pp.40ff. Hence it need not be maintained, as Calvin alleges, that the name Jeremiah is here a textual error. As will he shown later, the mistake to which Calvin here refers is, in his esteem, one of textual corruption and not one on Matthew’s part.

7. Commentarius in Acta Apostolorum, ad Acts 7:14; E.T. by Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, 1949, Vol. I, pp. 263f.

8. Ibid., ad Acts 7:16.

9. The question turn, on the difference of vowels attached to the same Hebrew consonants. If certain vowels are supplied, the term means “bed,” if others, “staff.” There is good ground for the latter alternative, following certain versions and Heb. 11:21. 10. Commentarius in Epislolam ad Hebraeos, ad 11:21; E.T. by John Owen, Grand Rapids, 1948, p. 291. 11. In quoting from the Institutes and Commentaries in the remaining part of this lecture, I have made use of the various translations. But I have often given my own rendering when I deemed it necessary to depart from the rendering of other translators. I believe these translations of mine are more pointed and accurate in reference to the subjects being discussed. 12. “Argulllenium in Evangclium Jesu Christi secundum Matthaenum, Marcum, et Lucam.” 13. “Argumentum in Evangelium Ioannis.” 14. Comm., ad Rom. 15:4.