Calvin on Scripture

Two Kinds of Observers

There have always been two kinds of Calvin-biographies, and since the nineteenth century there have also been two kinds of observations on Calvin’s use of Scripture.

Historians, investigators in the broad field of history, never are quite unbiased. They always approach the facts as children of their time and as men of a certain conviction, and it is inevitable that even in their research work they are influenced by their personal opinions.
Some observers have clearly and unreservedly stated that Calvin evaluated Scripture as the verbally inspired, authoritative, and infallible Word of God. I quote two American theologians.

Dunlop Moore wrote in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review,

While recognizing the free and natural exercise of their mental powers by the sacred writers, Calvin yet unequivocally asserts, that both the matter and form of what they wrote are due to the action of the Spirit of God. To make Calvin admit that there are real errors in Scripture would be, by implication, to charge him with teaching that there are errors inspired by God. An inspired error is utterly inconceivable, and Calvin is not guilty of countenancing the existence of such an absurdity.1

The famous Calvinist B. B. Warfield wrote:

Such, then, are the Scriptures as conceived by Calvin: sixty-six books, dictated by God to his notaries that they might, in this public record, stand as a perpetual special revelation of himself to his people, to supplement or to supersede in their case the general revelation which he gives of himself in his works and deeds, but which is rendered ineffective by the sin-bred disabilities of the human soul.2

On the other hand there are authors who deny flatly that Calvin would have anything to do with a theory of verbal inspiration, and one of them even declares Calvin to be “the father of the scientific criticism of the Bible.” The Dutch professor J. A. Cramer exclaimed that
Not he follows in the footsteps of Calvin, who sticks to the verbal inspiration of the Bible, but he who, standing on the ground of the experience of salvation obtained from Scripture, goes on with boldness in his scientific critical research of Scripture, not shrinking from any dogmatic bias, even if he attains results of which Calvin himself could not have dreamt by far.3

And in recent time the Austrian theologian Noltensmeier declared: “Calvin very unconcernedly practiced criticism of Scripture.”4
Of course there is a theoretical possibility that both groups of observers are right. First of all we have to consider that possibility.

Two Calvins?

J. A. Cramer suggests that there have been two Calvins. He supposes that the Calvin of the Institutes was not the same as the Calvin of the commentaries. In his Institutes he was bound by his own dogmatical system. But in his commentaries he spoke out more freely, he let himself go, and therefore we find, according to Cramer’s opinion, in these commentaries the real Calvin, and in the Institutes a kind of Calvin in a refrigerator.

This is a clever hypothesis. But it is at the same time a quite unacceptable hypothesis. If one thing has been repeated very often, it is this: that Calvin was a most consistent theologian; there has been progress in his ideas, of course; there is some difference between the first edition of the Institutes and the later editions; but this difference is never a difference in principles; it is always a difference in development of thought.

And it is quite impossible to maintain that at the same time of his life Calvin differed with himself in opinion about the authority of the text of Scripture, the original text. Such a suggestion is not a solution.

The Suggested Contradiction

It may seem a fairly superfluous task to give some quotations from the works of Calvin that are relevant to the question at stake. They are found in many books. I shall only give some examples.

In his Institutes he speaks the famous words:

Here is the supreme power with which pastors of the church, by whatever name they are called, should be invested—namely, to dare all boldly for the word of God, compelling all the virtue, glory, wisdom and rank of the world to yield and obey its majesty. Although, as I have observed, there is this difference between the apostles and their successors, they were sure and authentic amanuenses of the Holy Spirit; and therefore, their writings are to be regarded as the oracles of God, whereas others have no other office than to teach what is delivered and sealed in the Holy Scriptures. We conclude, therefore, that it does not now belong to faithful ministers to coin some new doctrine to which all, without exception, are made subject. [Emphasis added.]5

And at another place he speaks in the following manner:

Since no daily responses are given from heaven, and the Scriptures are the only records in which God has been pleased to consign his truth to perpetual remembrance, the full authority which they ought to possess with the faithful is not recognized, unless they are believed to have come from heaven, as directly as if God had been heard giving utterance to them.6

On the other hand Calvin sometimes seems to correct the text of Scripture:

“In the Greek words used by Paul the particle of comparison as is placed after to every man; but the order is inverted. Hence to make the meaning more apparent, I have rendered it as to every man rather than to every man as” (1 Corinthians 3: 5). “These repetitions I deem superfluous” (1 John 2:14). And sometimes Calvin seems to question the accuracy of Scripture. “Whereas he saith that Jacob came into Egypt with 75 souls, it agreeeth not with the words of Moses; for Moses maketh mention of 70 only. 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 in the word Abraham. For Abraham bought a double cave of Ephron the Hittite 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 a hundred lambs. Wherefore this place must be amended” (Acts 7:14, 16).

These samples are sufficient. There are many others of the same kind.

Some General Remarks

Before going on to consider the problem under consideration, I shall make some general historical remarks. The first is this: that it is unhistorical to create the impression that Calvin and the other Reformers lived in a situation and climate like that of the eighteenth century. With the exception of Marcion and some other heretics, it was the common opinion until that century, that the Bible in its totality was the inspired Word of God.

The Divine inspiration of the Bible was generally held to require belief in the truth of all its assertions on matters not only of history, doctrine and ethics, but also of cosmology, and natural science. In the earlier phases of the modern scientific movement (16th and 17th centuries) this view of inspiration was shared by Catholics and Protestants alike.7

My second remark is this: that consequently in the days of the Reformation there was no discussion about the inspiration of the Holy Scripture and its infallibility.8 There were controversies with the Roman Catholics about almost all parts of doctrine, but this point was not even touched. It is therefore a vain enterprise to seek in Calvin, as J. A. Cramer and others did, any basis for modern criticism of Scripture.

My third remark is, that textual criticism flourished in Calvin’s days. The great humanists hunted for manuscripts. The Complutensian Polyglot was edited; Erasmus published his Greek New Testament, and some years later Beza brought out the second edition of his New Testament, supplemented by the “Codex Bezae,” which had been discovered at Lyons, the “Peshitta,” and a Latin translation of the Arabic version. Calvin has been a master in textual criticism. The original text was sacrosanct in his eyes. “But all that happened afterwards with the word of Scripture has been in the eyes of Calvin only human work. Not any more than the church was infallible in its confession of the canon, were the copyists of the manuscripts, and all who have labored in any manner with the text, free from error and mistakes. Yes, Calvin does not shrink from calling their work several times defective and injudicious. And he holds it as a duty of theology to find out and to correct the “menda” and “errores” which in this manner have been introduced in the inspired text.” 9

The Thesis of Dr. De Groot

The able Dutch theologian, Dr. D. J. De Groot, who died a short time ago, defended in 1931 his thesis about Calvin’s conception of the Inspiration of Holy Scripture, and his work is still of great value. Two of his conclusions have to be quoted here.

The first one is this; “The opinion of H. Heppe that Calvin did not accept a proper “Inspiration der Aufzeichnung” (verbal inspiration) is in conflict with clear pronouncements of the Reformer.”

And the second one is this: “The opinion of J. A. Cramer, that Calvin considered himself bound by pronouncements of Scripture only so far as they agree with the Christian experience of salvation, is wrong.”

Dr. De Groot offers convincing arguments in his thesis for these conclusions. He traversed the works of Calvin in all directions, but he never discovered two Calvins, but only one.

Only in the exegesis of one text did he find occasion for the supposition that the Reformer more or less lost sight of the limits between higher criticism and textual criticism. But then he rightly remarks:

The Reformer would have been a superman if he also in this point not once in a way had been mistaken.10
And he gives abundant evidence for the contention that Calvin was a defender of the idea of verbal inspiration.

The Solution of the Problem

What is the truth then about the supposed contradiction which some have discovered in Calvin’s conception of Scripture? That contradiction is fictitious.

Dr. De Groot speaks of three kinds of arguments that have been advanced in favor of this alleged contradiction. They are to be found in the area of exegesis, of introduction to the books of the Bible, and of textual criticism.

Dr. De Groot demonstrates that Calvin cultivated these three theological disciplines without being unfaithful to the doctrine of verbal inspiration. He adds that it is most amazing that again and again authors quote remarks of the Reformer based on textual criticism to demonstrate that he shared their liberal points of view! This is only an unpardonable confusion of thought.

Dr. De Groot gives examples of Calvin’s textual criticism. He had a rather low opinion of the work of the Jewish scribes, who gathered and kept the prophecies and to whom he ascribes the division in chapters.

On Matthew 27: 9 he writes that he does not know how the name of Jeremiah could creep in there, but he does not doubt that it is introduced by mistake instead of the name of Zechariah.

On John 1:1 he acknowledges the right to correct an apparently corrupt text, for he defends Erasmus who replaced a word with a better one.

On John 8:3 the research of the manuscripts taught him that there are text-critical objections against the pericope about the adulterous woman.

When he has said on 1 John 2:14: “These repetitions I deem superfluous,” he continues: “It is probable, that inexperienced readers, who wrongly thought that he had spoken two times of the children, thoughtlessly added the two other parts.” Concerning Ephesians 5:14 he declares that some manuscripts are evidently mistaken.

In regard to 2 Thessalonians he concludes from an old translation and from some Greek commentators that the words of Paul had been tampered with, and he explains that a mistake with one letter could very easily have been made.

And so the list of Calvin’s critical remarks about the text of the several manuscripts can be multiplied.11

At the same time his conviction is unshaken that the apostles and the prophets wrote “dictante Spiritu Sancto,” by dictation of the Holy Spirit. This last expression does not mean that Calvin showed any adherence to a mechanical theory of inspiration.

He regards the writers of the books of the Bible as men who stood in service of God’s revelation with their whole personality, with all their natural and spiritual gifts; in whose writings their individuality and their environment are reflected.

On Matthew 4:5 he writes that the Evangelists had not the purpose scrupulously to follow the course of history; on Matthew 7:12 he writes that Matthew combined the chief contents of the teaching of Jesus from several oral sources; on Luke 1: 3 he speaks about the diligent research of the sources of the Evangelist. He compares the language of David and Isaiah with that of Amos and Zechariah, and esteems the first higher than the last; he speaks of the prolixity [wordiness—ed.] of Ezekiel and of the Hebraisms of Luke.11

Always he sees men writing the Bible—men with all their activities and capacities; but these men are used by the Holy Spirit to bring the truth of God; and this truth has to be received reverently, even when our heart or our understanding begins to make objections. That is the reason why Calvin answers his calumniator, who had calumniated against him, that he made the will of God the supreme cause of all the hardness of heart in men:

It is not I that said that ‘God taketh away the hearts of the princes and causeth them to err,’ or that ‘God held the heart of Pharaoh that he might not incline to humanity and mercy!’ It is not I that said ‘that God turned the hearts of the nations, and hardened them to hate his people’; or, ‘that he hissed for the Egyptians, and used them as his servants.’ It was not I that said ‘that Sennacherib was God’s rod in his hand, to punish his people.’ I did not say all these things. They are all the declarations of the Spirit of God himself.13
1. Presbyterian and Reformed Rev., 1893, p. 55.
2. Princeton Theol. Rev. VII, p. 259.
3. J. A. Cramer, De Heilige Schrift by Calvin, Utrecht, 1926, p. 75, 76.
4. A. Noltensmeier, Reformatorische Einheit, Graz—Koln, 1953, p. 79.
5. Institutes IV, 8, 9.
6. Institutes I, 7, 1.
7. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1958, p. 167.
8. Cf. A. D. R. Polman Onze Nederlandsche Geloofsbelijdenis I.
p. 197.
9. D. J. De Groot, Calvin’s opvatting over de Inspiratie der Heilige Schrift, Zutphen, 1931, p. 172.
10. op. cit. p. 131.
11. op. cit. p. 172–175.
12. On Ezekiel 2: 3; Acts 2: 3
13. Calvin’s Calvinism, Michigan, 1956, p. 320.

Reprinted from the September 1959 Torch and Trumpet

Rev. Louis Praamsma (1910–1984) served several churches in the Christian Reformed Church. He also served as an Assistant Professor at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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