The Errors of Inerrancy: #8 The Protestant Reformers Would Not Affirm Biblical Inerrancy (Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al.)

[The Errors of Inerrancy: A ten-part series on why Biblical Inerrancy censors the Scriptures and divides Evangelicals.]

8. The Protestant Reformers (John Calvin, Martin Luther, Zwingli, etc.) would not and did not affirm Biblical Inerrancy.


The Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, et al. have written isolated statements that are perennially quoted to support Biblical Inerrancy. However, Biblical Inerrancy was a mechanical theory of inspiration developed long after the magisterial reformers had died, so invoking the reformers to support Biblical Inerrancy is pure anachronism. A longer and closer look at the reformer's writings, especially their commentaries on scripture, reveals counter-examples that falsify the claim that they affirmed Biblical Inerrancy.

The eighth Error of Inerrancy is it asserts that the Protestant Reformers (such as Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, et al.) affirmed Biblical Inerrancy, to intimidate people (and pastors) to affirm Biblical Inerrancy or else be disqualified from ministry! If you, or anyone you know, has been bullied out of ministry, by proponents of Biblical Inerrancy, then know that the magisterial Protestant Reformers would be excluded as well! In this post, I will provide famous counter-examples from Luther and Calvin demonstrating that the Protestant Reformers believed the bible had a capacity for error to show that Biblical Inerrancy was foreign to the age of the Protestant Reformation.  

Martin Luther

Whatever Preaches Christ: Testing the Bible

Luther didn't read the Bible like proponents of Biblical Inerrancy today, because Luther believed that there were a significant differences between the revealed Word of God, and the Biblical witness to the revealed Word of God; Luther described this dialectic as follows:

"There are two entities: God and the Scripture of God, which are no less than two entities, creator and creature of God." —Martin Luther [1]

Luther believed that the Word of God had to be differentiated from the Biblical text, such that scriptures that preached Christ needed to be affirmed, and the other scriptures that didn't preach Christ needed to be set aside. Luther's hermeneutical method led him to reject several books of the New Testament because they didn't meet this standard. Luther famously described his hermeneutical method as follows: 

“The true touchstone for testing every book is to discover whether it emphasizes the prominence of Christ or not. All Scripture sets forth Christ, Romans 3:24f. and Paul will know nothing but Christ, 1 Corinthians 2:2. What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, not even if taught by Peter or Paul. On the other hand, what does preach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod does it.” ― Martin Luther [2]

Luther's statement that the Biblical text must be tested is baffling to anyone who affirms Biblical Inerrancy, because Biblical Inerrancy is a tautology that is above testing. Luther is not merely saying that Biblical difficulties must be harmonized, or that clever explanations must be devised to explain scriptures that prima facie do not preach Christ—these are clever schemes to diminish Luther's strong words. Luther believed that Christians should use Scripture to criticize Scripture, and that the New Testament should be tested, to determine whether it truly preaches Christ. Luther believed that even when a Biblical text written by Peter or Paul in the New Testament didn't preach Christ, then it should be set aside. Luther's method is not an hypothetical task, and may not be diminished to merely "Scripture interpreting Scripture", because Luther set aside four books of the New Testament.

The Canon of Luther's Bible excludes Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation

Luther's September Bible

A photo of the table of contents to Martin Luther's 1522 September Bible [4] showing Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation listed as deuterocanonical books in an appendix.

Martin Luther's hermeneutical method led him to reject many books in the Biblical canon that are affirmed by virtually all proponents of Biblical Inerrancy today, such as the New Testament books Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation. 

Luther's Bible is arguably the most famous translation of the Bible into a native language (even more than the King James Version). Luther's Bible is also known as the "September Bible" because it was published in September of 1522, and a landmark translation of the Bible into the German language, at a time that vernacular translations were forbidden by the Church. 

Luther's Bible contained a table of contents, in which Luther placed Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation into a deuterocanonical appendix, after the list of New Testament canonical books, denoting their secondary status in relation to the rest of the New Testament. I've provided a photo scan of this table of contents from a Luther's Bible in the inline image, which shows the Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation in a separate list at the bottom of the page ("Die Epistel zu den Ebreern" is Hebrews, "Die Epistel Jacobus" is James, "Die Epistel Judas" is Jude, and "Die offenbarung Johannis" is Revelation). 

Luther's exclusion of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation from the New Testament canonical books in the September Bible demonstrates that he didn't follow the rules of Biblical Inerrancy, and this would bar him from ordination at any Church that subscribes to Biblical Inerrancy. 

Luther's Epistle of Straw

Martin Luther was not a fan of the Book of James. I've already demonstrated that Luther excluded the Book of James from his New Testament canon in the September Bible. Luther is famous for calling the Book of James an "epistle of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical" and it is also significant that Luther wrote this within his introduction to the New Testament in Luther's Bible (1522)! In other worse, "epistle of straw" was not a spurious comment in an obscure letter, but was written as a header in Luther's Bible! Here is what Luther wrote:

"In sum: the gospels and the first epistle of St. John, St. Paul's epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, and St. Peter's first epistle, are the books which show Christ to you. They teach everything you need to know for your salvation, even if you were never to see or hear any other teaching. In comparison with these the epistle of James is an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical." (Martin Luther, 1522 Preface to the New Testament) [3]

John Calvin

John Calvin, like Luther, would not and did not affirm Biblical Inerrancy. Calvin believed that the Bible was a true witness to the Word of God, but he allowed the text to have errors, and had no desire to hide the errors, and was not embarrassed of them. Calvin frequently praised the veracity of the Bible, despite the existence of errors in the Bible. In my experience, only people who claim that John Calvin affirmed Biblical Inerrancy, were people those who had a pre-commitment to Biblical Inerrancy themselves; on the contrary, every Calvin scholar I've read (e.g. Wilhelm Niesel, Francois Wendel, John T. McNeill, etc.) agrees that Calvin would not and did not affirm Biblical Inerrancy. This is a red flag of bias!

Calvin's so-called Inerrancy Prooftext in the Institutes

Proponents of Biblical Inerrancy have capitalized on Calvin's praise of Scripture, and quoted these praises as if Calvin were affirming Inerrancy, especially one paragraph of the Institutes that is perennially quoted as follows: 

"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 (Certi et authentici Spiritus sancti amanuenses), 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." —John Calvin, Institutes IV.vii.9 [5]

The Calvin scholar, John T. McNeill made the following comment about this frequently cited, so-called Calvin Inerrancy prooftext:

"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." —John T. McNeill [6]

John Calvin wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible, and Calvin scholars demonstrate that Calvin did not follow Biblical Inerrancy in practice citing examples from these commentaries discussing "Bible Difficulties" and demonstrating that Calvin's hermeneutical method is not compatible with Biblical Inerrancy (like Luther, et al.)

Calvin's Theory of Inspiration: Inner Testimony of the Spirit

John Calvin's theory of inspiration was completely different than Biblical Inerrancy or other mechanical theories of inspirations that believe that the pens of the Biblical authors were superintended by the Holy Spirit, because Calvin did not conflate the human witness of Scripture with the divine Word of God. Wolfhart Pannenberg said, "John Calvin made a sharper distinction between divine doctrine (coelestis doctrina) and its written recording for the purpose of preserving it in human memory (Institutes 1.6.3)" [7]

Calvin scholars say that Calvin believed that it is the "Inner Testimony of the Holy Spirit" was what demonstrates the truthfulness of the Bible; the Bible isn't true because it is free from errors, but because the Holy Spirit testifies to the truthfulness of the Biblical witnesses. The Calvin scholar, F. Wendel explains Calvin as follows:

Although it is true to say that he [Calvin] thought one could find the word of God in the Bible, he nevertheless said that the word we possess in the Scriptures is a mirror which reflects something, but does not impart to us the thing itself (Institutes 2.2.6). The Scripture itself is 'an instrument by which the Lord dispenses the illumination of the Spirit to the faithful' (Institutes 1.9.3), but it is not to be identified with the Lord himself. Though the content of the Scripture is divine, inasmuch as it is the word of God, the form in which that content is clothed is not therefore divine. The authors of the books of the Bible wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; they were none-the-less liable to introduce human errors into it upon points of details which do not affect the doctrine (Comm on Matt 27:9; Hebrews 11:21). —Francois Wendel [8]

Calvin believed the Bible contains errors 

Calvin's incompatibility to Biblical Inerrancy is best demonstrated by reading his Commentaries on the Bible. I've provided quotations from the two scriptures quoted by Wendel: Calvin's commentary on Hebrews 11:21 and commentary on Matthew 27:9. Calvin makes similar comments throughout his commentaries, but these are two of the more famous and frequently cited examples. Calvin believed that the Apostles and Biblical authors were "not so scrupulous" to be concerned with errors in the Biblical texts, and even there were errors in the Original Autographs of the Biblical text, Calvin was not concerned about them, so long as the truth may be safely discerned. 

Calvin finds an error in the Original Autograph of the Book of Hebrews

In John Calvin's commentary on Hebrews 11:21, Calvin detects an error in the Original Autograph of the Book of Hebrews. The author of Hebrews quotes from the Septuagint or LXX (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that pre-dates the New Testament), and Calvin realizes that the quotation has an error in it where the Septuagint says "on top of his staff" in error, which misquotes the Hebrew original that says "the head of his couch". According to Calvin, this error was included in the Book of Hebrews, because the "Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect", or in other words, Calvin doesn't care about the error, and he didn't think the Apostles cared about the error either. Since the true meaning of the text may be deciphered by referencing the Hebrew original, then it wasn't a problem for Calvin because, as he says, "in reality, the difference is but a little." Since Hebrews is quoting the Septuagint, which predates the Original Autograph of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, then it is absurd to think Calvin is referring to a Biblical variant: this is nothing-less-than Biblical Inerrancy Denialism

Hebrew 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." (Calvin's Commentary on Hebrews 11:21) [9]

Calvin finds an error in the Book of Matthew

Calvin detects another error in the Bible in his commentary on Matthew 27:9. I've heard many incredible explanations to how Matthew 27:9 is not a blundered quotation of the Old Testament. Calvin does not get sucked into the Bible Difficulty game, and admits that Matthew 27:9's quotation of Jeremiah is a mistake in the text. According to the logic of Biblical Inerrancy, the entire veracity of Scripture is challenged by the existence of such an insignificant misattribution, however Calvin is not troubled by this misattribution at all. Calvin says he does not know how the error crept into the text, but it is an error, and "Jeremiah" should be corrected to "Zechariah 11:13". 

Matthew 27:9. 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. (Calvin's Commentary on Matthew 27:9) [10]

Calvin has no desire to defend the error in the Biblical text, nor does he remove the error. Denying errors in the scriptures, or devising clever harmonizations to hide the errors, or providing incredible explanations for how the error is not an error, as the proponents of Biblical Inerrancy try to do today, obscures the truth of the Bible, and causing more problems than are solved. Calvin is not asserting that this error is due to a variant, especially since there are no credible variants that say "Zechariah". Calvin sees the error, he identifies the error, and he's able to determine the truthfulness of the Word of God despite the error in the Biblical text.

 Quenstedt and Turretin: A Departure from Luther and Calvin

Biblical Inerrancy arose a century after the lifetime of Luther and Calvin; it was first imagined by 17th century Protestant Scholasticism theologians such as Turretin and Quenstedt, who deviated from Calvin and Luther's doctrine of inspiration, to a mechanical theory of inspiration. The Swiss Reformed Dogmatican, Francis Turretin (1623–1687) is largely responsible for introducing Biblical Inerrancy into the Reformed Church Tradition (after Calvin), and the Lutheran Dogmatician, Johannes Andreas Quenstedt (1617–1688) into the Lutheran Tradition. To demonstrate the stark difference between Luther and Calvin from Quenstedt and Turrentin, consider the following panic attack that Quenstedt had in this theologia (c. 1685), over the possibility of an error being found in the scriptures: 

"Once one concedes that anything in scriptures is of human origin, its divine authority is lost. If one admits that even a single verse was written without the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, then Satan will immediately claim the same for the whole chapter, the entire book, and finally the entire Bible, and in this way cancel all scripture's authority." [11]

Martin Luther and John Calvin would never have written a fearful slippery slope as Quenstedt. 


Biblical Inerrancy was imagined by others, long after Luther and Calvin had died. Martin Luther's Introduction to the New Testament in Luther's Bible and John Calvin's commentaries on Matthew 27:9 and Hebrews 11:21 are sufficient examples to demonstrate that they would not have affirmed Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and other modern definitions used by Reformed, Lutheran and Evangelical Churches today—the very same Churches that were founded by Calvin and Luther.

Ironically, there are many Presbyterian and Reformed Churches who claim John Calvin as their founder who require their elders to affirm Biblical Inerrancy, and similarly there are Lutheran and Evangelicals who claim Martin Luther as their founder who require their priests and pastors to affirm Biblical Inerrancy as well. It is extremely sad and ironic, that any church would eponymous name themselves after Luther (i.e. Lutherans) or Calvin (e.g. Calvinists), but would bar Luther or Calvin from being ministers in their churches due to the divisive doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy!

So any person that has ever been prevented from becoming an elder, pastor, priest or other officer in these a church for opposing Biblical Inerrancy, may know that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other magisterial reformers would be excluded too; and like Luther, you may boldly say "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise!" And anyone who is in a Church that requires signing the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, or similar statements, then be bold and resist this Error of Inerrancy that censors scriptures and divides evangelicals today, and be encouraged that Calvin and Luther is on your side! 


[^1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Vol 1.2 Doctrine of the Word of God. London: T & T Clark, 2010. 52. Print. Study Edition #5. [508]
[^2] Luther, Martin, and John Dillenberger. "Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude." Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. New York: Anchor, 2004. 35-36. Print.
[^3] Ibid. 19.
[^4] Luther, Martin. "1918 Luther September NT Re-Print of the 1522 New Testament in German."1918 Luther September NT Re-Print of the 1522 New Testament in German. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. <>.
[^5] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis. Battles. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960. 1155. Print.
[^6] Ibid.
[^7] Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology. Trans. G. W. Bromiley. Vol. 1. London: T & T Clark, 2004. 32. Print.
[^8] Wendel, Francois. Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. Place of Publication Not Identified: Nabu, 2011. 160. Print.
[^9] Calvin, John. "Commentary on Hebrews." Christian Classics Ethereal Library. CCEL, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. <>.
[^10] Calvin, John. "Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke - Volume 3." Christian Classics Ethereal Library. CCEL, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. <>.
[^11] Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Ibid. 32.


The Errors of Inerrancy: A ten-part series on why Biblical Inerrancy censors the Scriptures and divides Evangelicals:

#1 The Church has never possessed an inerrant Bible
#2 Inerrant Original Autographs are a Tautology of Biblical Inerrancy
#3 Inerrancy Censors the Bible’s Capacity for Error 
#4 Inerrancy denies that the Bible contains scientific errors
#5 Inerrancy reduced the Biblical Authors into Ventriloquist Dummies
#6 Inerrancy obscures Jesus with the Bible
#7 Biblical Inerrancy’s Myth-Making Machine, Unveiled 
#8 The Protestant Reformers Would Not Affirm Biblical Inerrancy (Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al.)
#9: Inerrancy turns the Bible into a Paper Pope. 
#10: Biblical Inerrancy Divides Evangelicals

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