Calvin on the Authority of Scripture


            Early on in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (in its completed 1559 edition), he discusses the authority of Scripture. After describing humanity’s natural sense of divinity (sensus divinitatis), Calvin turns to the necessity of the Word of God for saving revelation due to humanity’s clouded judgment. In order to establish Scripture’s authority, he first attempts to rebut the claim of the Roman Church that the authority of the Bible depends upon “the consent of the church.”[1] In seeking to secure the tyrannical claim that “the church has authority in all things,” his opponents trust more in the judgment of men than in the truth of God.[2]

            Scripture, for Calvin, bears witness to its own authority. Since its source is divine, it exhibits the marks of divinity. Indeed, Scripture, he claims, is “self-authenticated” (autopiston).[3] “It is not right,” therefore, “to subject it to proof and reasoning,” or, more basically, to any judgment of men.[4] To ask for external verification for the truth and validity of the Bible is like asking, “Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter?”[5] As Calvin puts it plainly, “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.”[6] Insofar as Scripture is concerned—putting to the side for a moment the question of individual apprehension—its authority is unquestionable. It is an obvious fact. Just as one could not describe the color black—“…it just is!”—so he cannot attempt to “prove” Scripture’s veracity.

            What are we to make of disagreements among men concerning the truth (or lack thereof) of Holy Scripture? The answer lies in the internal testimony of the Spirit. According to Calvin, “the same Spirit . . . who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.”[7] In other words, the authority of Scripture, since it is self-validated, cannot depend upon human judgments for its vindication. “We ought to seek our conviction,” rather, “in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit.”[8] Thus, those who do not acknowledge what is plainly true about the authority of Scripture have simply not received the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But on the other hand, “those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture.”[9] The reception of the Spirit’s internal witness is the dividing line between those who recognize Scripture’s authority and those who do not.

            It is not as if the Church has no role in the process of authenticating Scripture, however. For Calvin, once this more basic claim is understood, namely, that Scripture is self-authenticating and thus does not rely on any human judgment for its ultimate authority, we can turn to secondary proofs that assist us in trusting this claim. Such proofs consist of the fulfillment of prophecy, the antiquity of the Bible, and the accompanying miracles to verbal revelation. But among these is the consensus of the church: “As far and as wide as the earth extends, [Scripture] has obtained its authority by the holy concord of divers peoples.”[10] The fact that Scripture was received by the catholic Church is further support for its veracity. The Church, then, has a role, if not an ultimate one, in the authentication of the Bible’s authority.

            It is difficult to find issue with Calvin’s two major claims: Scripture derives its authority from God, and humanity depends upon the illumination of that same God in order to receive his revelation. However, ecclesiology seems to have evaporated in Calvin’s considerations.[11] What I mean by this is that Calvin considers only God qua God and humanity qua humanity but not those who have been incorporated into the divine-human Person, that is, the Church. God has authority and speaks; humans hear God speak and obey. God’s voice does not depend upon human validation; humans come to recognize God’s voice as authoritative through his inward testimony to them. But what of the Church? There is little sense here of the Church receiving the divine Scriptures from the Spirit as a people, both through the Spirit’s inspiration of those writings and his illumination of the Church. Calvin speaks only of the inward verification one receives from the Spirit. His inclusion of the Church’s consensus in the secondary proofs for Scripture’s authority is laudable (and to be recovered by evangelicals), but it also indicates the way in which ecclesiology has been legitimately sidelined.

            There are problems, it is true, with (Calvin’s characterization of) the Roman position. It seems a bit crude to suggest that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church. But it also seems crude to suggest the opposite. In either schema, Scripture and Church are placed in a competitive relationship: one must submit to the other. In Calvin’s assessment, Scripture is equated with “God” and the Church with “humanity”. In other words, for Calvin, Scripture is fundamentally divine, and the Church is fundamentally human. But is that a proper characterization of either reality? The Scriptures were written by “holy men of God . . . as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). Thus, they are divine and human in origin. The Church, moreover, is the temple of the Holy Spirit: divine and human. Indeed, the unity of divinity and humanity should not come as a surprise to Christians, as that is the mystery of our Lord’s coming in the flesh.

            It is not the case, then, that the Church is a divine entity that appropriates human writings to be Scripture. Nor is it the case that the Scriptures are of divine provenance and thus stand over and against a purely human Church. Rather, the Holy Spirit does two things: inspires the writing of Scripture and indwells the people of God. As a corollary of both, he carries the divine writings into the hands of his people and guides them, as a people, in their interpretation. Scripture and Church, therefore, stand in harmony. There is a sense in which the Scriptures do stand over the Church and correct her when she strays. But there is also a sense in which the Church is the one who uses Scripture (as a means of enjoyment of God) and not vice versa. The Church has priority over Scripture in an important sense: Scripture is for the Church, and not the Church for Scripture.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1:75.

[2] Calvin, Institutes, 1:75.

[3] Calvin, Institutes, 1:80.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, 1:80.

[5] Calvin, Institutes, 1:76.

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 1:76.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, 1:79.

[8] Calvin, Institutes, 1:78.

[9] Calvin, Institutes, 1:80.

[10] Calvin, Institutes, 1:92.

[11] I owe the basic insight of the integral connection between the study of Scripture (bibliology) and the study of the Church (ecclesiology) to Brad East, The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022). See especially pp. 69-122 for an analysis of John Webster as representative of the Reformed tradition.

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