The PostBarthian

John T. McNeill, On John Calvin’s View of Scripture

John Calvin

John Calvin

Did John Calvin hold to a doctrine of the Scriptures that is rejected by the Reformed Confessions? And would Calvin's understanding of Scripture be accepted as acceptable by most Evangelical Churches in America today? It seems that according to John T. McNeill's Introduction to his edition of the "Institutes of the Christian Religion", that McNeill believed that John Calvin would not have signed anything liked the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy. Here is the quotation from McNeill's Introduction followed by the respective quotations from Calvin's Institutes and Roman's commentary afterwards. 

To evaluate his position on this, we should need to search the Commentaries as well as the Institutes. It was less a problem to him than to some moderns. Doubtless he would have liked to assert without qualification the complete accuracy of Scripture, but he is frank to recognize that some passages do not admit of the claim of inerrancy on the verbal level. Thus he discusses an inaccuracy in Paul's quotation of Psalm 51:4 in Romans 3:4, and is led to generalize thus: "For we know that in repeating the words of Scripture the apostles were often pretty free [liberiores], since they held it sufficient if they cited them in accordance with the matter; for this reason. they did not make the words a point of conscience [quare non tantum illis fuit verborum religio]."(45) The expression here used, verborum religio, occurs in the Institutes(46) in a scornful characterization of opponents who wrangle on the basis of an artificially scrupulous insistence on each several word of a passage under interpretation. Calvin's keen sense of style is freely applied to the Bible writers. "John, thundering from the heights" is contrasted with the other Evangelists who use "a humble and lowly style," but this involves no divergence in the message.(47) The "elegance" of Isaiah and the "rudeness" of Amos are alike employed to express the "majesty" of the Holy Spirit.(48)

The divine authority of Holy Scripture is not derived from any declaration by the church; rather, it is upon Scripture that the church is built.(49) That God is the Author of Scripture is capable of rational demonstration, but this would be wholly ineffectual to build up a sound faith. Its authority is self-authenticating to those who yield to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The testimony of the Holy Spirit is more excellent than all reason. Certainty of its divine truth such as piety requires is ours only when the Spirit who spoke by the prophets enters our hearts. Then we realize that the Scripture has come to us "from the mouth of God by the ministry of men." (50) The Spirit too is its interpreter, and seals its teaching upon the reader's heart. Thus for Calvin the Bible is the believer's infallible book of truth when it is read under the direction of the Spirit. Furthermore, Holy Scripture has its organizing principle in the revelation of Christ, and has its chief office in enabling us to appropriate the life-giving grace of Christ. "The Scripture are to be read," says Calvin in his Commentary on John's Gospel, "with the purpose of finding Christ there."(51) It is important to realize that the focal point of the Institutes is not found in God's sovereignty, or in predestination, or in insistence on obedience to God's Word itself, apart from constant reference to Jesus Christ, whom the written Word makes known. (52)


(45) CR XLIX. 49. Similarly, Calvin's own quotations of Scripture, while true to the sense, are often verbally free. Cf. J. A. Cramer, De Heilige Schrift bij Calvijn, pp. 116-141; J. Haroutunian in LCC XXXIII. 31035.
(46) IV. xvii. 20. Another phrase here is "literae exactores," exactors of the letter.
(47) I. viii. 11.
(48) I. viii. 2.
(49) I. vii. 1-2.
(50) I. vii. 5; I. viii. 13.
(51) On John 5:39; CR XLVIII. 125.
(52) Cf. Luther's Preface to the Epistle of James and Jude: "And in this all genuine holy books agree, that they all together preach and stress Christ [Christum predigen und treiben]. Moreover, the true touchstone of criticism [tadeln] is when we see whether they stress Christ or not. What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if Peter or Paul teach it. Again, what preaches Christ would be apostolic even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod were to do it." (Dr. Martin Luther's sammtliche Werke LXIII. 156f.) Cf. the translation in Works of Martin Luther VI. 478. See also I. ix. 3

~ John T. Mcneill, Introduction, Institutes of Christian Religion trans Ford Lews Battles ed. John T. McNeill, Vol 1. pg lv-l

Selections cited above:

Commentary on Romans 3:4

4. But let God be true, etc. Whatever may be the opinion of others, I regard this as an argument taken from the necessary consequence of what is opposed to it, by which Paul invalidates the preceding objection. For since these two things stand together, yea, necessarily accord, that God is true and that man is false, it follows that the truth of God is not nullified by the falsehood of men; for except he did now set those two things in opposition, the one to the other, he would afterwards have in vain labored to refute what was absurd, and show how God is just, though he manifests his justice by our unjustice. Hence the meaning is by no means ambiguous, — that the faithfulness of God is so far from being nullified by the perfidy and apostasy of men that it thereby becomes more evident. “God,” he says, “is true, not only because he is prepared to stand faithfully to his promises, but because he also really fulfills whatever he declares; for he so speaks, that his command becomes a reality. On the other hand, man is false, not only because he often violates his pledged faith, but because he naturally seeks falsehood and shuns the truth.”

The first clause contains the primary axiom of all Christian philosophy; the latter is taken from Psalm 116:11, where David confesses that there is nothing certain from man or in man.

Now this is a remarkable passage, and contains a consolation that is much needed; for such is the perversity of men in rejecting and despising God’s word, that its truth would be often doubted were not this to come to our minds, that God’s verity depends not on man’s verity. But how does this agree with what has been said previously — that in order to make the divine promise effectual, faith, which receives it, is on the part of men necessary? for faith stands opposed to falsehood. This seems, indeed, to be a difficult question; but it may with no great difficulty be answered, and in this way — the Lord, notwithstanding the lies of men, and though these are hinderances to his truth, does yet find a way for it through a pathless track, that he may come forth a conqueror, and that is, by correcting in his elect the inbred unbelief of our nature, and by subjecting to his service those who seem to be unconquerable. It must be added, that the discourse here is concerning the corruption of nature, and not the grace of God, which is the remedy for that corruption.

That thou mightest be justified, etc. The sense is, So far is it that the truth of God is destroyed by our falsehood and unfaithfulness, that it thereby shines forth and appears more evident, according to the testimony of David, who says, that as he was sinner, God was a just and righteous Judge in whatever he determined respecting him, and that he would overcome all the calumnies of the ungodly who murmured against his righteousness. By the words of God, David means the judgments which he pronounces upon us; for the common application of these to promises is too strained: and so the particle that, is not so much final, nor refers to a far-fetched consequence, but implies an inference according to this purport, “Against thee have I sinned; justly then dost thou punish me.” And that Paul has quoted this passage according to the proper and real meaning of David, is clear from the objection that is immediately added, “How shall the righteousness of God remain perfect if our iniquity illustrates it?” For in vain, as I have already observed, and unseasonable has Paul arrested the attention of his readers with this difficulty, except David meant, that God, in his wonderful providence, elicited from the sins of men a praise to his own righteousness. The second clause in Hebrew is this, “And that thou mightest be pure in thy judgment;” which expression imports nothing else but that God in all his judgments is worthy of praise, how much soever the ungodly may clamor and strive by their complaints disgracefully to efface his glory. But Paul has followed the Greek version, which answered his purpose here even better. We indeed know that the Apostles in quoting Scripture often used a freer language than the original; for they counted it enough to quote what was suitable to their subject: hence they made no great account of words.

The application then of this passage is the following: Since all the sins of mortals must serve to illustrate the glory of the Lord, and since he is especially glorified by his truth, it follows, that even the falsehood of men serves to confirm rather than to subvert his truth. Though the word κρίνεσθαι, may be taken actively as well as passively, yet the Greek translators, I have no doubt, rendered it passively, contrary to the meaning of the Prophet.

Editor Comments on this passage:

**9191 Whenever there is a material agreement between the Greek and the Hebrew, we ought not to make it otherwise. If the verb κρίνεσθαι, as admitted by most critics, may be taken actively and be thus made to agree with the Hebrew, what reason can there be to take it in another sense? The only real difference is in one word, between νικήσης, “overcomest,” and תזכה, “art clear:” but the meaning is the same, though the words are different. To overcome in judgment, and to be clear in judgment, amounts to the same thing. The parallelism of the Hebrew requires κρίνεσθαι to be a verb in the middle voice, and to have an active meaning. The two lines in Hebrew, as it is often the case in Hebrew poetry, contain the same sentiment in different words, the last line expressing it more definitely; so that to be “justified,” and to be “cleared,” convey the same idea; and also “in thy word,” or saying — בדברך and “in thy judgment” בשפטך. In many copies both these last words are in the plural number, so that the first would be strictly what is here expressed, “in thy words,” that is, the words which thou hast declared; and “in thy judgments,” that is, those which thou hast announced, would be fully rendered by “when thou Judgest.” Commentators, both ancient and modern, have differed on the meaning of the verb in question. Pareus, Beza, Macknight, and Stuart, take it in an active sense; while Erasmus, Grotius, Venema, and others, contend for the passive meaning. Drusius, Hammond, and Doddridge render it, “when thou contendest in judgment,” or, “when thou art called to judgment:” and such a meaning no doubt the verb has according to Matthew 5:40, and 1 Corinthians 6:1, 6. But in this case regard must be had, especially to the meaning which corresponds the nearest with the original Hebrew. Some have maintained that “in thy judgment” בשפטך may be rendered “in judging thee;” but this would not only be unusual and make the sentence hardly intelligible, but also destroy the evident parallelism of the two lines. The whole verse may be thus literally rendered from the Hebrew, — Against thee, against thee only have I sinned; And the evil before thine eyes have I done; So that thou art justified in thy words, And clear in thy judgments. The conjunction למען, admits of being rendered so that; see Psalm 30:12; Isaiah 41:20; Amos 2:7; and ὅπως in many instances may be thus rendered; see Luke 2:35; Philemon 6; 1 Peter 2:9. It is what Schleusner designates ἐκβατικῶς, signifying the issue or the event. Pareus connects the passage differently. He considers the former part of the verse parenthetic, or as specifying what is generally stated in the previous verse, the third; and with that verse he connects this passage: so that the rendering of the two verses would be the following, — 3. For my transgression I acknowledge, And my sin is before me continually, — 4. (Against thee, against thee only have I sinned, and the evil before thine eyes have I done,) That thou mightest be justified in thy saying, And clear in thy judgment. This is certainty more probable than what Vatablus and Houbigant propose, who connect the passage with the second verse, “Wash me thoroughly,” etc. But the sense given by Calvin is the most satisfactory — Ed.

Institutes IV. xvii. 20

20. Before we proceed farther, we must consider the ordinance itself, as instituted by Christ, because the most plausible objection of our opponents is, that we abandon his words. To free ourselves from the obloquy with which they thus load us, the fittest course wil1 be to begin with an interpretation of the words. Three Evangelists and Paul relate that our Saviour took bread, and after giving thanks, brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saving, Take, eat: this is my body which is given or broken for you. Of the cup, Matthew and Mark say, “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:26; Mark 14:22). Luke and Paul say, “This cup is the new testament in my blood” (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). The advocates of transubstantiation insist, that by the pronoun, this, is denoted the appearance of bread, because the whole complexion of our Saviour’s address is an act of consecration, and there is no substance which can be demonstrated. But if they adhere so religiously to the words, inasmuch as that which our Saviour gave to his disciples he declared to be his body, there is nothing more alien from the strict meaning of the words than the fiction, that what was bread is now body. What Christ takes into his hands, and gives to the apostles, he declares to be his body; but he had taken bread, and, therefore, who sees not that what is given is still bread? Hence, nothing can be more absurd than to transfer what is affirmed of bread to the species of bread. Others, in interpreting the particle is, as equivalent to being transubstantiated, have recourse to a gloss which is forced and violently wrested. They have no ground, therefore, for pretending that they are moved by a reverence for the words. The use of the term is, for being converted into something else, is unknown to every tongue and nation. With regard to those who leave the bread in the Supper, and affirm that it is the body of Christ, there is great diversity among them. Those who speak more modestly, though they insist upon the letter, This is my body, afterwards abandon this strictness, and observe that it is equivalent to saying that the body of Christ is with the bread, in the bread, and under the bread. To the reality which they affirm, we have already adverted, and will by-and-by, at greater length. I am not only considering the words by which they say they are prevented from admitting that the bread is called body, because it is a sign of the body. But if they shun everything like metaphor, why do they leap from the simple demonstration of Christ to modes of expression which are widely different? For there is a great difference between saying that the bread is the body, and that the body is with the bread. But seeing it impossible to maintain the simple proposition that the bread is the body, they endeavoured to evade the difficulty by concealing themselves under those forms of expression. Others, who are bolder, hesitate not to assert that, strictly speaking, the bread is body, and in this way prove that they are truly of the letter. If it is objected that the bread, therefore, is Christ, and, being Christ, is God,—they will deny it, because the words of Christ do not expressly say so. But they gain nothing by their denial, since all agree that the whole Christ is offered to us in the Supper. It is intolerable blasphemy to affirm, without figure, of a fading and corruptible element, that it is Christ. I now ask them, if they hold the two propositions to be identical, Christ is the Son of God, and Bread is the body of Christ? If they concede that they are different (and this, whether they will or not, they will be forced to do), let them tell wherein is the difference. All which they can adduce is, I presume, that the bread is called body in a sacramental manner. Hence it follows, that the words of Christ are not subject to the common rule, and ought not to be tested grammatically. I ask all these rigid and obstinate exactors of the letter, whether, when Luke and Paul call the cup the testament in blood, they do not express the same thing as in the previous clause, when they call bread the body? There certainly was the same solemnity in the one part of the mystery as in the other, and, as brevity is obscure, the longer sentence better elucidates the meaning. As often, therefore, as they contend, from the one expression, that the bread is body, I will adduce an apt interpretation from the longer expression, That it is a testament in the body. What? Can we seek for surer or more faithful expounders than Luke and Paul? I have no intention, however, to detract, in any respect, from the communication of the body of Christ, which I have acknowledged. I only meant to expose the foolish perverseness with which they carry on a war of words. The bread I understand, on the authority of Luke and Paul, to be the body of Christ, because it is a covenant in the body. If they impugn this, their quarrel is not with me, but with the Spirit of God. However often they may repeat, that reverence for the words of Christ will not allow them to give a figurative interpretation to what is spoken plainly, the pretext cannot justify them in thus rejecting all the contrary arguments which we adduce. Meanwhile, as I have already observed, it is proper to attend to the force of what is meant by a testament in the body and blood of Christ. The covenant, ratified by the sacrifice of death, would not avail us without the addition of that secret communication, by which we are made one with Christ.

Institutes  I. viii. 11.

11. When we proceed to the New Testament, how solid are the pillars by which its truth is supported! Three evangelists give a narrative in a mean and humble style. The proud often eye this simplicity with disdain, because they attend not to the principal heads of doctrine; for from these they might easily infer that these evangelists treat of heavenly mysteries beyond the capacity of man. Those who have the least particle of candour must be ashamed of their fastidiousness when they read the first chapter of Luke. Even our Saviour’s discourses, of which a summary is given by these three evangelists, ought to prevent every one from treating their writings with contempt. John, again, fulminating in majesty, strikes down more powerfully than any thunderbolt the petulance of those who refuse to submit to the obedience of faith. Let all those acute censors, whose highest pleasure it is to banish a reverential regard of Scripture from their own and other men’s hearts, come forward; let them read the Gospel of John, and, willing or unwilling, they will find a thousand sentences which will at least arouse them from their sloth; nay, which will burn into their consciences as with a hot iron, and check their derision. The same thing may be said of Peter and Paul, whose writings, though the greater part read them blindfold, exhibit a heavenly majesty, which in a manner binds and rivets every reader. But one circumstance, sufficient of itself to exalt their doctrine above the world, is, that Matthew, who was formerly fixed down to his money-table, Peter and John, who were employed with their little boats, being all rude and illiterate, had never learned in any human school that which they delivered to others. Paul, more over, who had not only been an avowed but a cruel and bloody foe, being changed into a new man, shows, by the sudden and unhoped-for change, that a heavenly power had compelled him to preach the doctrine which once he destroyed. Let those dogs deny that the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, or, if not, let them refuse credit to the history, still the very circumstances proclaim that the Holy Spirit must have been the teacher of those who, formerly contemptible among the people, all of a sudden began to discourse so magnificently of heavenly mysteries.

Institutes  I. viii. 2.

2. I confess, however, that in elegance and beauty, nay, splendour, the style of some of the prophets is not surpassed by the eloquence of heathen writers. By examples of this description, the Holy Spirit was pleased to show that it was not from want of eloquence he in other instances used a rude and homely style. But whether you read David, Isaiah, and others of the same class, whose discourse flows sweet and pleasant; or Amos the herdsman, Jeremiah, and Zechariah, whose rougher idiom savours of rusticity; that majesty of the Spirit to which I adverted appears conspicuous in all. I am not unaware, that as Satan often apes God, that he may by a fallacious resemblance the better insinuate himself into the minds of the simple, so he craftily disseminated the impious errors with which he deceived miserable men in an uncouth and semi-barbarous style, and frequently employed obsolete forms of expression in order to cloak his impostures. None possessed of any moderate share of sense need be told how vain and vile such affectation is. But in regard to the Holy Scriptures, however petulant men may attempt to carp at them, they are replete with sentiments which it is clear that man never could have conceived. Let each of the prophets be examined, and not one will be found who does not rise far higher than human reach. Those who feel their works insipid must be absolutely devoid of taste.

Institutes I. vii. 1-2.

1. Before proceeding farther, it seems proper to make some observations on the authority of Scripture, in order that our minds may not only be prepared to receive it with reverence, but be divested of all doubt.

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 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 recognised, unless they are believed to have come from heaven, as directly as if God had been heard giving utterance to them. This subject well deserves to be treated more at large, and pondered more accurately. But my readers will pardon me for having more regard to what my plan admits than to what the extent of this topic requires.

A most pernicious error has very generally prevailed—viz. that Scripture is of importance only in so far as conceded to it by the suffrage of the Church; as if the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men. With great insult to the Holy Spirit, it is asked, who can assure us that the Scriptures proceeded from God; who guarantee that they have come down safe and unimpaired to our times; who persuade us that this book is to be received with reverence, and that one expunged from the list, did not the Church regulate all these things with certainty? On the determination of the Church, therefore, it is said, depend both the reverence which is due to Scripture, and the books which are to be admitted into the canon. Thus profane men, seeking, under the pretext of the Church, to introduce unbridled tyranny, care not in what absurdities they entangle themselves and others, provided they extort from the simple this one acknowledgement—viz. that there is nothing which the Church cannot do. But what is to become of miserable consciences in quest of some solid assurance of eternal life, if all the promises with regard to it have no better support than man’s Judgment? On being told so, will they cease to doubt and tremble? On the other hand, to what jeers of the wicked is our faith subjected—into how great suspicion is it brought with all, if believed to have only a precarious authority lent to it by the good will of men?

2. These ravings are admirably refuted by a single expression of an apostle. Paul testifies that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” (Eph. 2:20). If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist. Nor is there any room for the cavil, that though the Church derives her first beginning from thence, it still remains doubtful what writings are to be attributed to the apostles and prophets, until her Judgment is interposed. For if the Christian Church was founded at first on the writings of the prophets, and the preaching of the apostles, that doctrine, wheresoever it may be found, was certainly ascertained and sanctioned antecedently to the Church, since, but for this, the Church herself never could have existed.70 Nothings therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. When the Church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bounds shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent. As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that it came from God without recurring to a decree of the Church? it is just the same as if it were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste.

Institutes I. vii. 5;

5. Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit.73 Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own Judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human Judgment, feel perfectly assured—as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it—that it came to us, by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God. We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our Judgment, but we subject our intellect and Judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate. This, however, we do, not in the manner in which some are wont to fasten on an unknown object, which, as soon as known, displeases, but because we have a thorough conviction that, in holding it, we hold unassailable truth; not like miserable men, whose minds are enslaved by superstition, but because we feel a divine energy living and breathing in it—an energy by which we are drawn and animated to obey it, willingly indeed, and knowingly, but more vividly and effectually than could be done by human will or knowledge. Hence, God most justly exclaims by the mouth of Isaiah, “Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he,” (Isa. 43:10).

Institutes I. viii. 13

13. Again, with what confidence does it become us to subscribe to a doctrine attested and confirmed by the blood of so many saints? They, when once they had embraced it, hesitated not boldly and intrepidly, and even with great alacrity, to meet death in its defence. Being transmitted to us with such an earnest, who of us shall not receive it with firm and unshaken conviction? It is therefore no small proof of the authority of Scripture, that it was sealed with the blood of so many witnesses, especially when it is considered that in bearing testimony to the faith, they met death not with fanatical enthusiasm (as erring spirits are sometimes wont to do), but with a firm and constant, yet sober godly zeal. There are other reasons, neither few nor feeble, by which the dignity and majesty of the Scriptures may be not only proved to the pious, but also completely vindicated against the cavils of slanderers. These, however, cannot of themselves produce a firm faith in Scripture until our heavenly Father manifest his presence in it, and thereby secure implicit reverence for it. Then only, therefore, does Scripture suffice to give a saving knowledge of God when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Still the human testimonies which go to confirm it will not be without effect, if they are used in subordination to that chief and highest proof, as secondary helps to our weakness. But it is foolish to attempt to prove to infidels that the Scripture is the Word of God. This it cannot be known to be, except by faith. Justly, therefore, does Augustine remind us, that every man who would have any understanding in such high matters must previously possess piety and mental peace.

Institutes I. ix. 3

3. Their cavil about our cleaving to the dead letter carries with it the punishment which they deserve for despising Scripture. It is clear that Paul is there arguing against false apostles (2 Cor. 3:6), who, by recommending the law without Christ, deprived the people of the benefit of the New Covenant, by which the Lord engages that he will write his law on the hearts of believers, and engrave it on their inward parts. The letter therefore is dead, and the law of the Lord kills its readers when it is dissevered from the grace of Christ, and only sounds in the ear without touching the heart. But if it is effectually impressed on the heart by the Spirit; if it exhibits Christ, it is the word of life converting the soul, and making wise the simple. Nay, in the very same passage, the apostle calls his own preaching the ministration of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:8), intimating that the Holy Spirit so cleaves to his own truth, as he has expressed it in Scripture, that he then only exerts and puts forth his strength when the word is received with due honour and respect.

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