John Calvin did not affirm Verbal Inerrancy but the Authoritative Message of Scripture

JohnCalvinInerrancyJohn Calvin is often asserted to be a proponent of the literal and mechanical (and docetic?) doctrine of Inspiration of Scripture known as "Inerrancy". There is one passage in the Institutes of the Christian Religion in particular (IV.vii.9) that is often quoted a prooftext that Calvin held to Inerrancy. However, all theologians say things at times that prima facie oppose what they truly believe and teach, especially when not quoted in location. D.A. Carson once said, "A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text" and this is especially true of this quotation! John Calvin's opinion matters, because he is the Church Father of the Reformed Church and the Augustine of the Protestant Church, and the scholastic debate's front line for every dogma, including Inerrancy) is John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.

The disputed quotation regarding Inerrancy appears in the Institutes IV.vii.9. The chapter it appears in is a polemic against the Papacy and is claims to absolute authority, and it is Calvin's agenda to prove that the successors of the apostles (i.e. the Apostolic Succession of Bishops) did not have the same authority as the Apostles. The text read quickly and carelessly would seemingly conclude that the Apostles were the hands of God, and that they wrote in flawless and inhuman precision that no other man has ever known. I've included the footnote #9 by John T. McNeill, the editor of the Ford Lewis Battle's translation that is helpful in demonstrating that this statement regarding them as "sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit" applied to "any new doctrine", and not to the precise literals of the text. This prooftext for Inerrancy, in fact, did not and does not affirm Inerrancy! I've included this quotation, and then following it a second quotation from the very same chapter in the proceeding paragraphs.

Yet this, as I have said, is the difference between the apostles and their successors: the former were sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit,

[^Note: John T. McNeill] "Certi et authentici Spiritus sancti amanuenses." This passage has been held to support the view that Calvin's doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture was one of verbal inerrancy. Yet he has no explicit support of such a view anywhere else, and here he immediately makes it clear that his interest is in the teaching rather than in the form of expression. The statement is prelude to the warning against "any new dogma." [..]

and their writings are therefore to be considered oracles of God; but the sole office of others is to teach what is provided and sealed in the Holy Scriptures. We therefore teach that faithful ministers are now not permitted to coin any new doctrine, but that they are simply to cleave to that doctrine to which God has subjected all men without exception. When I say this, I mean to show what is permitted not only to individual men but to the whole church as well. As far as individual men are concerned, by the Lord, Paul was surely ordained apostle to the Corinthians, but he denies that he has dominion over their faith [II Cor. 1:24]. Now who would dare claim a dominion that Paul attests does not belong even to him? But if he had recognized such license to teach that a shepherd could by right require men to subscribe with unquestioning faith to all that he might teach—he would never have communicated to these same Corinthians the regulation that when two or three prophets speak "let the others discriminate. But if a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent" [I Cor. 14:29-30 p.]. For he thus spared no one, and subjected the authority of all to the judgment of God's Word.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis. Battles. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960. 1156-7. Print.

The following quotation, that appears paragraphs before the previous quotation, explains Calvin's reasoning. There is one source of revelation, and that is the God-man Jesus Christ. The Apostles were not the source of revelation, but they were witness of the revelation of Jesus Christ, and they have faithfully communicated the teaching in the Holy Spirit that has been revealed to us. The Apostles stand in a unique position, in that they directly witnessed the revelation of Jesus Christ, and they truly heard, touched, and saw Jesus in a ways that none of their successors have or could, because Jesus has ascended to the Father in Heaven. The way that the Apostles have communicated the revelation of Jesus Christ is not, as Calvin says, in dictating the words in "exact verbal inspiration" but to the authority of their teaching in the Holy Spirit. Remember that Calvin is asserting the Authority of the Apostles over and against that of the Papacy, and is saying that the Apostles spoke in authority in a way that the succession of bishops of Rome were never able to do. It was the authority of their teaching, not the literals of their pens that was guaranteed.

Let this be a firm principle: No other word is to be held as the Word of God, and given place as such in the church, than what is contained first in the Law and the Prophets, then in the writings of the apostles; and the only authorized way of teaching in the church is by the prescription and standard of his Word. From this also we infer that the only thing granted to the apostles was that which the prophets had had of old. They were to expound the ancient Scripture and to show that what is taught there has been fulfilled in Christ. Yet they were not to do this except from the Lord, that is, with Christ's Spirit as precursor in a certain measure dictating the words. 

[^Note: John T. McNeil] "Verba quodammodo dictante Christi Spiritu." The adverb is, however, a deliberate qualification, discounting any doctrine of exact verbal inspiration. The context has reference to teaching, not words merely, showing that Calvin's point is not verbal inerrancy, but the authoritative message of Scripture.

For by this condition Christ limited their embassy when he ordered them to go and teach not what they had thoughtlessly fabricated, but all that he had commanded them [Matt. 28:19-20]. And nothing could be said more clearly than what he says in another place: "But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, . . . the Christ" [Matt. 23:8, 10]. Then, to fix this more deeply upon their minds, he repeats it twice in the same place [Matt. 23:9-10]. And because, on account of their ignorance, they could not grasp what they had heard and learned from the Master's lips, the Spirit of truth is promised to them, to guide them into a true understanding of all things [John 16:13]. For that restriction must be carefully noted in which he assigns to the Holy Spirit the task of bringing to mind all that he has previously taught by mouth [John 14:26].

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis. Battles. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960. 1155. Print.


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