John Calvin believed the Original Autographs of the Bible had Errors

John Calvin by Titian

John Calvin allowed for errors in the original autographs of the Holy Scriptures. Biblicist proponents of Evangelical literal theories of inspiration have advanced the myth that Calvin only allowed for scribal transmission errors in the extant Scriptures but not in the original autographs. The truth is that Calvin and the Magisterial Reformers (including Martin Luther) did not and would not affirm these contemporary literal theories of inspiration that are advocated so ardently today. Calvin affirmed a robust doctrine of accommodation such that bible difficulties were never a problem for him. Ironically these Protestant Church Fathers would find themselves disqualified from ministry today for their understand of Scripture in the very eponymous Churches that their work birthed!

According to Rogers and McKim in The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, it was A.A. Hodge (1823 – 1886) who first argued that only the original autographs were inerrant, and not the extant copies, as a retreat from those before him who argued that extant inerrant arguments were still known. How could John Calvin (1509 – 1564) hold to a Hodge's inerrancy of the original autograph theory that didn't exist until three centuries after his death? This is an anachronistic myth.

In Francois Wendel's excellent book "Calvin: The Origins and Developments of His Religious Thought", he identifies several loci in John Calvin's commentaries that exemplifies an allowance for errors in the Scriptures that are not due to scribal transmission errors, but where Calvin believed the errors existed in the original autographs. Two of the most notable are Calvin's  commentary on Hebrews 11:21 and his commentary on Matthew 27:9.

John Calvin's commentary on Hebrews 11:21:

"And worshipped 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 worshipped, which was an evidence of his gratitude. He was therefore led by faith to submit himself to his son."

John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews, Hebrews 11:21,

In John Calvin's Commentary on Hebrews 11:21, he provides an example of how his Doctrine of Accommodation allows for errors in the original autographs of the Scriptures. Calvin reference to the "Greek translators" is most likely the translators of the Septuagint. Calvin believes that the Septuagint translators wrongly translated 1 Kings 1:47 to say "on top of his staff" (erroneously in Calvin's opinion) instead of "the head of his couch". Calvin blames the translational error on the authors of the Septuagint rather than the Apostle of the epistle to the Hebrews, however Calvin affirms that the Apostle knowingly used the Septuagint's erroneous translation in the original autograph rather than correcting the error. Calvin believed that the Hebrew original of 1 Kings 1:47 is ambiguous in its meaning, but should not be translated as the Septuagint translators had placed "staff" in the text instead of "bed". In Calvin's mind, the Septuagint was the commonly received and know form of the Hebrew scriptures in the Apostle's audience, so it would be more appropriate to include the error in his quotation of 1 Kings 1:47 because it stands in the version of the Septuagint possessed by those whom the Apostle is writing. However, it should be noted that at times the Apostle of the Epistle of Hebrews (acknowledged by Calvin) to translate the same verse in ways that were different for the same verse, and deviating from the Septuagint. Calvin's allowance for various types of errors is clearly affirmed in his last statement Calvin did not find it necessary to affirm that the autographs were without error.

Also consider John Calvin's commentary on Matthew 27:9:

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. [..] Matthew does not quote the words of Zechariah; for he merely alludes to the metaphor, under which the Lord then complains of the ingratitude of the people. But the meaning is the same, that while the Jews ought to have entirely devoted themselves, and all that they possessed, to the Lord, they contemptuously dismissed him with a mean hire; as if, by governing them for so many ages, he had deserved nothing more than any cowherd would have received for the labors of a single year. He complains, therefore, that though he is beyond all estimation, he was rated by them at so low a price.

Likewise in Calvin's commentary on Matthew 27:9, the quotation is declared, by Calvin, to be misattributed to Jeremiah by Matthew. It does not matter to Calvin that Matthew has made this mistake, because it may be clearly ascertained in (from Calvin's opinion), that the quotation is from Zechariah rather than Jeremiah.

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  1. It was Hodge WHO first argued….

  2. So, what precisely did Calvin (or Luther) espouse? I’m curious now… this is very interesting.

  3. Thanks for the leads! Much appreciated!

  4. I will certainly look at some of the links from your blog and your own posts. Since I’m going to work my way trguohh the whole Bible with this volume, I’ll have plenty of chance to object.Of course, I cannot do so from the Orthodox perspective, but rather from that of an outsider.

  5. It’s amazing one can actually write such a groundless delusion promoting the pseudo-scholarship of Rogers & McKim’s pathetic nonsense long ago refuted by true scholar Dr. Woodbridge:
    If for no other reason than just plain vanity one would think they’d quit exposing their stupidity, but that will never happen in the deluded echo chambers of heterodoxy foolishly patting self on the back for supposed “bravery” in sticking it to the man, always in the echo chamber that would never dare to show its cowardly face outside in the midst of ETS or other orthodox groups to be eviscerated. Pathetic.
    No wonder Jesus, God’s Word Incarnate, tells us how He hides His things from the alleged “wise and understanding” and reveals them unto babes: Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21. God always has he last laugh:
    Psalm 2. Soli Deo gloria!

  6. PS The irony of the gross hypocrisy of the stupidity of heretics pretending we don’t PRACTICALLY have the original autographs today is how they themselves PRACTICALLY rely on vastly more corrupt manuscripts of OTHER documents as PRACTICALLY inerrant without comment, only asininely to turn right ’round so absurdly to pretend it’s not OK to do the same with God’s Word which, thanks to God’s glorious providence in the marvels of textual criticism is vastly more accurate than these other worthless documents on which they so foolishly and idolatrously rely in truly pitifully disgusting arrogance, utterly blind to aforesaid gross hypocrisy. As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

    • Russ,

      The biblical manuscripts are not practically inerrant at all. You’re making assertions that are completely contrary to the manuscript evidence that we posses. There’s no one manuscript that our current greek bibles use. The eclectic text of the GNT (NA28, UBS4, etc) are assembled from a vast number of different bible manuscripts, that scholars assemble through voting and general textual criticism guidelines that vary over time. The manuscripts we do posses are considerably different in length and content and words, such that we do not know practically what the originals might have contained, and there’s no evidence that the first copies of the originals were inerrant, or that they did not also contain variations from what was intended to be recorded.

      Here’s what the textual criticism scholar, Bruce Metzger says: “The two forms of text differ in character as well as length. The Western text is nearly one-tenth longer than the Alexandrian text, and is generally more picturesque and circumstantial, whereas the shorter text is generally more colorless and in places more obscure.”

      The hypocrisy goes the opposite way my friend, because you are not allowing the bible to say what it says, but are putting your system on top of it, and not allowing the bible to come to us as it has been passed down. You’re putting a system that say anything that does not conform to a novel and modern american theory of inerrancy needs to be rejected from the bible. And effectively, this censors the word of God.

  7. Thanks Wyatt for the post. I appreciate the work you’ve done and your kindness in responding to Russ Davis.

    I wonder if you might accept an adjustment to your interpretation of Calvin.

    (1) You rightly point to several statements in which Calvin identifies errors, misquotes, etc in the Bible. These are extremely thought provoking, and I regularly am frustrated by evangelical scholars who ignore them.

    (2) That said, these quotes need to be understood within the context of the 16thC and Calvin’s entire corpus. Textual criticism was roughly 100 years old (if we say it commenced with the work of Lorenzo Valla). Erasmus’ Greek Testamentum was still novel. Scientific biblical scholarship was new and this newness can be seen in Calvin’s engagement with it. Also, just to say, Calvin’s corpus is 59 vols in the CO plus 11 or 12 or whatev in the Supplementa, so it’s enormous.

    (3) Consider, for instance, that Calvin comments on textual variants with such apparent naivete. One wonders whether he was aware of the ramifications of a misquote or alteration in the Bible on his doctrine of scripture. One wonders as well whether he had any real sense of the notion of the autographa. When one considers, as well, that it is not uncommon for him to speak of the Holy Spirit as ‘dictating’ the scriptures to the biblical authors, and he can speak of the Bible in sermons as being God’s word ‘as if it had been dropped down from heaven to us’ – considering these things, we have to acknowledge a kind of confusion in his thinking.

    (4) All of this recommends the conclusions that scholarship more recent than Wendel, Rogers and McKim, etc have come to (THL Parker, Richard Muller, Jan Krans, myself, etc) namely that
    (a) Calvin did not hold the position ascribed to the Princetonians like Hodge, Warfield, etc,
    (b) but nor did he disagree with it. Warfield, et al simply raise ideas and develop lines of thought with which Calvin, Erasmus, Beza, etc would not have been familiar. Doctrine develops and we see that clearly here.
    (c) rather the position he held takes extremely seriously the Bible as God’s pure word from beginning to end
    (d) linking this idea very closely with Jesus Christ as the Eternal Word
    (e) yet he did not feel compelled to attach the divine Word so inextricably to the actual text of scripture in the manner later theologians did.

    Have you ever read: Jan Krans. Beyond What is Written: Erasmus and Beza as Conjectural Critics of the New. Testament. New Testament Tools and Studies 35. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Krans does an excellent job of trying to assess the peculiarities associated with the development of textual criticism in its earliest days.

    Thanks again!

    • Jon,

      Thanks for the long comment, I appreciate scholars like yourself that wrestle with Calvin, and do not read him anachronistically through the eyes of old princeton for the sole purpose of asserting inerrancy. Turretin and John Owen had asserted that the extent manuscripts were inerrant, and although variants existed, they still believed that inerrant manuscripts existed since the bible had been written — owen extended this assertion to the breathing marks on the hebrew manuscripts. The second generation old princetonians were no longer able to make this assertion, and people like AA Hodge were responsible for a retreat from from asserting the extent manuscripts were inerrant, to an unprovable assertion that the original autographs (OA) were inerrant. It’s good that you mentioned erasmus, especially to demonstrate that the manuscripts used by the 16th century reformers were significantly different than the eclectic GNT used today. Even the Textus Receptus is substantially different. In content and length vary up to 25-30% different in content.

      The Original Autograph argument is an unprovable tautology, and this post (above) demonstrates that calvin allowed the original manuscripts of the New Testament to contain errors that were introduced by the Septuagint. It made no difference to calvin if such errors existed in the original autographs, because the meaning may be discerned through studying the hebrew texts using hermeneutics. In case of doubt, Calvin says this very thing in his famous commentary on Hebrews 11:21:

      “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”

      Here are more examples:

      Calvin does say things that sound like inerrancy proponents at times, such as ‘dictating’, but his commentaries demonstrate that he does not mean this in the same way as mandated by old princeton inerrancy. Calvin allows the scriptures to have a “capacity for error” (to use a barthianism), and he is not concerned with a flawless manuscript or OA.

      I appreciate your willingness to admit that Calvin did not hold to the position of the Old Princeton theologians such as Warfield and Hodge. Unwillingness to admit that calvin says many things (especially in his commentaries) that oppose their mechanical or dictation theory of inspiration indicates there’s a presupposition against it that is so strong that they will not even read what Calvin has to say himself on such things.

      Where I disagree with your summary is that it describes Calvin as a primitive common ancestor that is compatible with either the old princeton inerrantists OR the princeton barthians and modern calvin scholars. Inerrancy rests upon a myth that the Church has always asserted that the Original Autographs are inerrant from the very beginning, and that Calvin and the Reformed Confessions have always asserted this since the very beginning, and this is used as a shibboleth that divides the church. It’s not uncommon to hear in evangelical churches that denying inerrancy is heresy! If this is the case, then Calvin and Luther are heretics as well, because they did not hold to modern theories of inerrancy. I think it would be much better to say that inerrancy is a modern ideas that developed most recently in the 1970’s in Chicago when evangelicals were defensive in the battle for the bible, that had a modernist origin in the rationalism of Old Princeton, and is primarily an american phenomena that has almost no reach outside the english speaking world in the 21st century.

      So it would be much more honest to say, Calvin did not hold to inerrancy, and that his position was not a mechanical theory of inspiration, as this post on OA demonstrate, and that the old Princeton theory is a development that came from Calvin’s followers (Turretin & Old Princeton) as the McKim & Roger’s proposal explains, but there is more work to be done in understand the nature of 16th century reformed’s doctrine of inspiration that still needs to be fleshed out.

      I appreciate your long comment and thanks for sharing!


  8. Thanks for your response, Wyatt. Remember – Calvin’s corpus is massive. 59 volumes in the CO alone. He preached 200 sermons on Deuteronomy. 107 sermons on 1 Samuel. 159 on Job. Have you read any of these? Because if you had, I think you’d hesitate to bring forth the tiny handful of statements from Calvin on errors in Scripture and present them as if they were definitive; as if they ought to govern our understanding of him. There are literally 1000s of Calvinian assertions on the Bible in which Calvin sounds more Warfieldian than Warfield himself. So, I’d recommend you do a bit more reading of Calvin’s corpus.

    • Jon,

      I appreciate your engagement on this story, because we may be the only two people thinking about this aspect of Calvin in the world at this time. However, IMHO it is pure hubris to expect anyone to read the entire all 59 latin volumes of Calvin’s works in the Corpus Reformatorum before making assertions about Calvin’s rejection of inerrancy.

      Inerrancy provides a mythical view of church history, claiming this is the one and only way that Scripture may be hermeneutically approached since the beginning of time. It asserts a hegemony that bullies people who do not follow this recent american innovation to reading scripture. Counter examples demonstrate that no matter how much Calvin may sound like Warfield, this is only an anachronistic innovation imposed on Calvin by that Inerrancy History Myth.

      So the mere existence of quotations, like the one I provided in the original post above, proves that Calvin does not conform to Inerrancy, because he otherwise could not have spoken so inconsistently. Reading the 59 CR’s will only provide more examples.

      So to say that Calvin was neither for or against inerrancy, is perpetuate that same behavior as those Calvin scholars who deny that this quote I shared above exists in Calvin.

      I dont mean to speak too harshly, and I do appreciate your engagement with this topic, but I respectively disagree with your assessment of Calvin on this loci.


  9. It’s not hubris, mate. It’s scholarship. The world is full of people who’ve read the Institutes and maybe a couple of passages from this commentary or that. It’s hard to take such an approach seriously. In fact, you can’t take it seriously. How can one feel confident saying something about Calvin’s thought when they realize there are 40 or 50 tomes from Calvin they’ve never even glanced at? If you don’t mind me saying, I would call that hubris.

    Best of luck with your own studies. I do wish you well!

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