John Calvin on Errors in Scriptures (Quotations from Calvin’s Commentaries)

505px-Johannes_calvinAt many times, John Calvin's describes the ontology of Scripture using the same vernacular as contemporary statements such as the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, as well as dictation theories such as Plenary Verbal Inspiration that makes strong assertions about the Scripture's inerrancy, infallbility, and identity with the Word of God. Despite the similarities at times, when reading Calvin's voluminous commentaries, there are many times when Calvin makes conclusions that these statements and theories would never allow. This is especially true in that Calvin is willing to identify and work through certain kinds of errors he encounters in the scriptures, and is comfortable understanding the Scriptures being both human writings and the divine Word of God -- where these modern statements and theories strive endlessly to deny that any errors, as such, exist. Among the categories of errors in Scriptures, Calvin includes intentional and unintentional misquotations, technical inaccuracies, historical errors, scientific errors, cultural accommodations and even theological errors! All of these types of errors do not undermine or discredit Calvin's firm belief that although the Scriptures are a human document, they are also the inspired Word of God, and working through these difficulties are matters of little consequence to him and do not undermine or disable the Word of God revealed in them.  

I've provided a selection of quotations, where John Calvin allows for and identifies errors in the Scriptures that recent dictations theories would never allow. The importance of these quotations are not to prove that the Scriptures contain errors, but to demonstrate that John Calvin considered these examples to be errors in Scripture. It's a helpful example to demonstrate how the Reformers understood the Inspiration of the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21) and how it is much different than in conservative American Evangelicalism today, even to the point that many people today would be deeply offended by Calvin's conclusions. Even John Murray, who rigorously attempts to harmonize Calvin with these modern theories concludes that Calvin should not have used the language he did when discussing these scriptures.

"2. We need not doubt that it was this distinction between the demands of pedantic precision, on the one hand, and adequate statement, that is, statement adequate to the situation and intent, on the other, that Calvin had in mind when he said that “the apostles were not so punctilious as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned.” We are not necessarily granting that Calvin’s remarks are the best suited to the solution of the questions that arise in connection with Acts 7:14 and Heb. 11:21. We may even grant that the language used by Calvin in these connections is ill-advised and not in accord with Calvin’s usual caution when reflecting on the divine origin and character of Scripture. But, if so, we should not be surprised if such a prolific writer as Calvin should on occasion drop remarks or even express positions inconsistent with the pervasive and governing tenor of his thinking and teaching. In Calvin we have a mass of perspicuous statement and of lengthened argument to the effect that Scripture is impregnable and inviolable, and it would be the resort of desperation to take a few random comments, wrench them from the total effect of Calvin’s teaching, and build upon them a thesis which would run counter to his own repeated assertions respecting the inviolable character of Scripture as the oracles of God and as having nothing human mixed with it." (John Murray's "Calvin's Doctrine of Scriptures").

However, Calvin scholars such as John T. McNeill, Ronald Wallace, François Wendel, Wilhelm Niesel, J.K.S. Reid, etc. all say that Calvin cannot be harmonized with recent dictation theories, and it is only those who have agenda to prove these theories that make such assertions about Calvin, and all of these Calvin scholars say that Calvin's understanding of Scripture is quite different than what they considered modern "fundamentalism" because Calvin has a clear understanding that the Scriptures are both human writings and simultaneously the Word of God. 

Romans 3:4 ~ Example of Paul misquoting Psalms

In Romans 3:4, when Calvin indicates that Paul intentionally followed the incorrect translation in the Greek version of Psalm 51:4, to express his purpose, "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."

 “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.

~John Calvin, "Commentary on Romans",
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom38.vii.ii.html#Bible:Rom.3.4

Hebrews 11:21 ~ Example of Apostle of Hebrews Misquoting 1 Kings 1:47

In John Calvin's commentary on Hebrews 11:21, he demonstrates that the author of Hebrews quoted the Greek Septuagint, that contained an error in its translation of the Hebrew original source. Calvin notes that the Apostle did not correct the error, but allowed it to remain as an accommodation. Calvin says that the Apostle's in their use of the Old Testament, "were not so scrupulous in this respect, as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned [..] and in this there is no danger". 

"And worshiped on the top, etc. This is one of those places from which we may conclude that the points were not formerly used by the Hebrews; for the Greek translators could not have made such a mistake as to put staff here for a bed, if the mode of writing was then the same as now. No doubt Moses spoke of the head of his couch, when he said על ראש המטה but the Greek translators rendered the words, “On the top of his staff” as though the last word was written, mathaeh. The Apostle hesitated not to apply to his purpose what was commonly received: he was indeed writing to the Jews; but they who were dispersed into various countries, had changed their own language for the Greek. And we know 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 worshiped, which was an evidence of his gratitude. He was therefore led by faith to submit himself to his son."

~ John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews, 
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom44.xvii.vii.html#xvii.vii-p32

1 Corinthians 10:8 ~ Example of Factual Errors by Paul when quoting Numbers 25:9

John Calvin identifies a factual error in 1 Corinthians 10:8, where Paul records 23,000 but the source value is 24,000. Calvin says such inaccuracies are inconsequential, "Though they differ as to number, it is easy to reconcile them, as it is no unusual thing, when it is not intended to number exactly and minutely each head, to put down a number that comes near it [..] Moses has set down the number above the mark, and Paul, the number below it, and in this way there is in reality no difference."  

8. Neither let us commit fornication Now he speaks of fornication, in respect of which, as appears from historical accounts, great licentiousness prevailed among the Corinthians, and we may readily infer from what goes before, that those who had professed themselves to be Christ’s were not yet altogether free from this vice. The punishment of this vice, also, ought to alarm us, and lead us to bear in mind, how loathsome impure lusts are to God, for there perished in one day twenty-three thousand, or as Moses says, twenty-four. Though they differ as to number, it is easy to reconcile them, as it is no unusual thing, when it is not intended to number exactly and minutely each head, to put down a number that comes near it, as among the Romans there were those that received the name of Centumviri, (The Hundred,) while in reality there were two above the hundred. As there were, therefore, about twenty-four thousand that were overthrown by the Lord’s hand — that is, above twenty-three, Moses has set down the number above the mark, and Paul, the number below it, and in this way there is in reality no difference. This history is recorded in Numbers 25:9

~ John Calvin, "Commentary on Corinthians, Vol 2"
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom39.xvii.ii.html#Bible:1Cor.10.8

Acts 7:16 ~Example of a Historical Error in Scripture by Luke

In Calvin's commentary on Acts 7:16, the name Abraham is wrongly placed in the text, and Calvin specifically attributes this error to Luke, "it is manifest that there is a fault [mistake] in the word Abraham [..]   I can affirm nothing concerning this matter for a certainty, save only that this is either a speech wherein is synecdoche, or else that Luke rehearseth this not so much out of Moses, as according to the old fame; as the Jews had many things in times past from the fathers, which were delivered, as it were, from hand to hand [..] Wherefore this place must be amended.". 

16. Stephen saith, that the patriarchs were carried into the land of Canaan after they were dead. But Moses maketh mention only of the bones of Joseph, (Genesis 1:13.) And Joshua 24:32, it is reported, that the bones of Joseph were buried without making any mention of the rest. Some answer, that Moses speaketh of Joseph for honor’s sake, because he had given express commandment concerning his bones, which we cannot read to have been done of the rest. And, surely, when Jerome, in the pilgrimage of Paula, saith, that she came by Shechem, he saith that she saw there the sepulchres of the twelve patriarchs; but in another place he maketh mention of Joseph’s grave only. And it may be that there were empty tombs erected to the rest. I can affirm nothing concerning this matter for a certainty, save only that this is either a speech wherein is synecdoche, or else that Luke rehearseth this not so much out of Moses, as according to the old fame; as the Jews had many things in times past from the fathers, which were delivered, as it were, from hand to hand. And whereas he saith afterward, they were laid in the sepulcher 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, (Genesis 23:9,) 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.

~ John Calvin, "Commentary on Acts",
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom36.xiv.iii.html#Bible:Acts.7.16

Ephesians 4:8 ~ Example of Paul intentionally misquoting Psalms 68:16, and correct a theological error

According to Calvin, Paul intentionally "changed" the quotation of Psalm 68:16 into its "opposite meaning" by replacing "gave gifts" to "received gifts" in his quotation in Ephesians 4:8. Although the standard 'solution' to this bible difficulty is to say that Paul combined Psalms 68:16 with Leviticus, this is not Calvin's conclusion. Calvin says that the apostles, and in this case "Paul does not always quote the exact words of Scripture, but, after referring to the passage, satisfies himself with conveying the substance of it in his own language." The provocative point is that Paul has improved upon the Psalmist, that it may be right to consider Psalm 68:16 as a theological error, that has been amended by Paul!

And gave gifts to men. There is rather more difficulty in this clause; for the words of the Psalm are, “thou hast received gifts for men,” while the apostle changes this expression into gave gifts, and thus appears to exhibit an opposite meaning. Still there is no absurdity here; for Paul does not always quote the exact words of Scripture, but, after referring to the passage, satisfies himself with conveying the substance of it in his own language. Now, it is clear that the gifts which David mentions were not received by God for himself, but for his people; and accordingly we are told, in an earlier part of the Psalm, that “the spoil” had been “divided” among the families of Israel. (Psalm 68:12.) Since therefore the intention of receiving was to give gifts, Paul can hardly be said to have departed from the substance, whatever alteration there may be in the words.

At the same time, I am inclined to a different opinion, that Paul purposely changed the word, and employed it, not as taken out of the Psalm, but as an expression of his own, adapted to the present occasion. Having quoted from the Psalm a few words descriptive of Christ’s ascension, he adds, in his own language, and gave gifts, — for the purpose of drawing a comparison between the greater and the less. Paul intends to shew, that this ascension of God in the person of Christ was far more illustrious than the ancient triumphs of the Church; because it is a more honorable distinction for a conqueror to dispense his bounty largely to all classes, than to gather spoils from the vanquished.

The interpretation given by some, that Christ received from the Father what he would distribute to us, is forced, and utterly at variance with the apostle’s purpose. No solution of the difficulty, in my opinion, is more natural than this. Having made a brief quotation from the Psalm, Paul took the liberty of adding a statement, which, though not contained in the Psalm, is true in reference to Christ — a statement, too, by which the ascension of Christ is proved to be more illustrious, and more worthy of admiration, than those ancient manifestations of the Divine glory which David enumerates.

~ John Calvin, "Commentary on Ephesians"
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.iv.v.ii.html#iv.v.ii-p23

Matthew 27:9 ~Example of a Wrong Name Put Down By Mistake

John Calvin makes no attempt to defend the author of Matthew in his commentary on Matthew 27:9. Calvin says "the passage itself plainly shows that the name of Jeremiah has been put down by mistake," and although Calvin occasionally attributes such an error to a scribe, however, in this example he says: "I confess that I do not know nor do I give myself much trouble to inquire."  Note that Calvin doesn't attempt to vindicate Matthew of this blunder, but accepts it plainly as an error that should be corrected, without being hindered by whomever put down the wrong name, whether it was in sources to Matthew, by the Author of Matthew, or due to a later scribal error. 

9. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet. How the name of Jeremiah crept in, I confess that I do not know nor do I give myself much trouble to inquire. The passage itself plainly shows that the name of Jeremiah has been put down by mistake, instead of Zechariah, (11:13;) for in Jeremiah we find nothing of this sort, nor any thing that even approaches to it. Now that other passage, if some degree of skill be not used in applying it, might seem to have been improperly distorted to a wrong meaning; but if we attend to the rule which the apostles followed in quoting Scripture, we shall easily perceive that what we find there is highly applicable to Christ.

~ John Calvin, "Harmony of the Evangelists, Pt 3"
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom33.ii.xxxvi.html#ii.xxxvi-p31

Matthew 23:35 ~ Example of Mistaken name 

John Calvin provides several conjectures to explain why the wrong surname is attributed to Zechariah, and finally makes an interesting conclusion allowing that Jerome may be right that the text may contain an error, "or whether (as Jerome thinks) there is a mistake in the word, there can be no doubt as to the fact, that Christ refers to that impious stoning of Zechariah which is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:21, 22". Calvin is not thinking of a scribal transmission error, because Jerome affirms Barachiah is the original form, and arguest against the Gospel of Nazarenes where the name is corrected to Jehoiada, and at the same time Jerome denies that Zechariah is the son of Barachiah. Jerome's solution, that Calvin endorses is complicated in suggests the wrong name was intentionally placed in the text to follow a Hebrew pattern due to the meaning of Barachiah. Read Jerome's Commentary to understand why Matthew would have intentionally supplied the wrong name.

There is no probability in the opinion of those who refer this passage to that Zechariah who exhorted the people, after their return from the Babylonish captivity, to build the temple, (Zechariah 8:9,) and whose prophecies are still in existence. For though the title of the book informs us that he was the son of Barachiah, (Zechariah 1:1,) yet we nowhere read that he was slain; and it is, forced exposition to say, that he was slain during the period that intervened between the building of the altar and of the temple. But as to the other Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, the sacred history relates what agrees perfectly with this passage; that when true religion had fallen into decay, after the death of his father, through the wicked revolt of the king and of the people, the Spirit of God came upon him, to reprove severely the public idolatry, and that on this account he was stoned in the porch of the temple, (2 Chronicles 24:20, 21.) There is no absurdity in supposing that his father Jehoiada received, in token of respect, the surname of Barachiah, because, having throughout his whole life defended the true worship, he might justly be pronounced to be the Blessed of God. But whether Jehoiada had two names, or whether (as Jerome thinks) there is a mistake in the word, there can be no doubt as to the fact, that Christ refers to that impious stoning of Zechariah which is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:21, 22

~ John Calvin, "Harmony of the Evangelists, Pt 3"
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom33.ii.xiii.html#ii.xiii-p48

Numbers 8:26 ~ Example of Alleged Scribal Error

In his commentary on Numbers 8:26, Calvin concludes that the text is incorrect, but in this instance, he blames the error on the carelessness of a Scribe, despite the lack of manuscript evidence to support such a conclusion.

Nor does any reverence prevent us from saying that, as it sometimes happens in minor matters, a wrong number may have crept in from the carelessness of scribes; 239 and this is probably the most natural solution. The more correct reading, in my opinion, is, that they should offer two bullocks and one ram; but since it is elsewhere explained why God appointed this day, he only briefly recites here: “When they bring the fainha with the first-fruits."

~ John Calvin, "Harmony of the Law", Pt 2
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom04.iii.ix.iii.html#iii.ix.iii-p39

Genesis 1:14-16 ~ Example of Scientific (Astrological) Error 

In Calvin's commentary on Genesis 1:14-15, he considers two cosmological errors in these accounts: 1) that the Moon is not larger than Saturn and 2) the Moon is a dark, opaque body and not an luminary. Calvin's conclusion is that the author of Genesis is justified in using inaccurate science in order to communicate truths, so far as it enables that revelation to be better understood. The example demonstrates who a scientific error may be used in the Scripture, without it being corrected. He writes: "Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned"

15. Let them be for lights It is well again to repeat what I have said before, that it is not here philosophically discussed, how great the sun is in the heaven, and how great, or how little, is the moon; but how much light comes to us from them.71 For Moses here addresses himself to our senses, that the knowledge of the gifts of God which we enjoy may not glide away. Therefore, in order to apprehend the meaning of Moses, it is to no purpose to soar above the heavens; let us only open our eyes to behold this light which God enkindles for us in the earth. By this method (as I have before observed) the dishonesty of those men is sufficiently rebuked, who censure Moses for not speaking with greater exactness. For as it became a theologian, he had respect to us rather than to the stars. Nor, in truth, was he ignorant of the fact, that the moon had not sufficient brightness to enlighten the earth, unless it borrowed from the sun; but he deemed it enough to declare what we all may plainly perceive, that the moon is a dispenser of light to us. That it is, as the astronomers assert, an opaque body, I allow to be true, while I deny it to be a dark body. For, first, since it is placed above the element of fire, it must of necessity be a fiery body. Hence it follows, that it is also luminous; but seeing that it has not light sufficient to penetrate to us, it borrows what is wanting from the sun. He calls it a lesser light by comparison; because the portion of light which it emits to us is small compared with the infinite splendor of the sun.

16. The greater light I have said, that Moses does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity. Lastly since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. For since the Lord stretches forth, as it were, his hand to us in causing us to enjoy the brightness of the sun and moon, how great would be our ingratitude were we to close our eyes against our own experience? There is therefore no reason why janglers should deride the unskilfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God.

~ John Calvin, "Commentary on Genesis, Pt 1",
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom01.vii.i.html#Bible:Gen.1.16

 

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