Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

Calvin on the Nature of Scripture

In Uncategorized on 21/07/2011 at 19:51

Currently I’m deep in the middle of processing the Papers of the Rev. Wesley P. Walters. You can track my progress of processing the Walters Collection, here. Rev. Walters was best known as a noted researcher of Mormonism and most of the Walters Collection concerns that research, but he was also a Presbyterian pastor, with much of his ministry spent shepherding the Marissa Presbyterian Church in Marissa, Illinois. That church was originally part of the United Presbyterian denomination, and then after 1958, became part of the UPCUSA. It was in that context that Rev. Walters found himself dealing with the Confession of 1967, authored in large part by Dr. Edward A. Dowey. One particular problem with that document was its view of Scripture. In the report reproduced here, Rev. Walters provides a powerful corrective, showing that behind the views of the Westminster divines stood an equally strong view of Scripture espoused by John Calvin.

Marissa, Illinois
November 19, 1965

Southern Illinois Presbytery

Dear Fellow Presbyters

Since this year is to be a year of study on the proposed Confession of 1967., we are taking the liberty of making the following information available to you for background material.

Professor Dowey and other members of the committee that drafted the new document have expressly stated that It was their intention to revise the position of the Westminster Confession in which the Bible is equated with the Word of God. In speaking of this revision, Professor Dowey and others have indicated that the new document is a return to the Reformation position after Westminster had gone too far afield.

This way of presenting the issue, we feel, is misleading. An examination of the enclosed quotations from Calvin’s writings will show anyone familiar with the Westminster Confession that Westminster is just a condensed summary of Calvin’s position.If we think we must break with the position which has been held universally in the church since the days of the apostolic church, then let us frankly say so. But let us not try to misstate the issue.

While it may be true that the question of inspiration did not receive the emphasis of the Reformation that it did in the centuries that followed, this does not mean that the Reformed Churches did not believe such a doctrine. It means only that it was not an issue between them and the Papal party. Both groups agreed on the inspiration of Scripture, so who would expect them to make a big issue of it?

Even Dr. Dowey admits in his detailed study of Calvin (see his comments at the end of the attached enclosure) that Calvin held to biblical inerrancyin the autographs of Scripture. If we are willing to admit Luther as at all representative of the Reformation thought on the matter it is even more striking. Over and over in his writings Luther has remarks such as the following: “The Scriptures have never erred” (W. XV, 1481) ; “Scripture cannot err” (W. XIX, 1073); “The only book in which no historical or scientific error can occur is the Bible” (W. XIV, 491) ; “It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself ; it appears so only to the senseless and obstinate hypocrites.” (St.L. IX, 356). We may differ with Luther and Calvin today, but let us not misrepresent them.

We hope you will find the enclosure stimulating to your study and helpful in setting the problem in its true perspective.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

The Session
Marissa U.P. Church
W.P. Walters, Moderator

No man will take stock in a book or writing parts of which are untrue, particularly if he cannot tell which parts are true and which are untrue” – Luther (W. XX. 2275)


Calvin Equates the Bible with the Word of God

But where it pleased God to raise up a more visible form of the church, he willed to have his Word set. down, and sealed in writing, that his priests might seek from it what to teach the people, and that every doctrine to be taught should conform to that rule . . . .

Therefore, that whole body, put together out of law, prophecies, psalms, and histories, was the Lord’s Word for the ancient people, (verbum Domini fuit veteri populo); and to this standard, priests and teacher, even to the coming of Christ, had to conform their teaching.” Institutes IV.8.6 (Library of Christian Classics Edition used throughout).

Let this be a firm principles : No other word is to be held as the Word of God (Dei Verbum), 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.” Institutes IV.8.8

Now daily oracles are not …sent from heaven for it pleased the Lord to hallow his truth to everlasting remembrance in the Scriptures alone. Hence the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard.” Institutes I.7.1

For faith ought to be up held with such firmness as to stand unconquered and unwavering against Satan and all the devices of hell, and the whole world. We shall find this firmness solely in God’s Word. Institutes IV.8.9

But God wants us to respect His mouth and we know where that is : it is where He has spoken to us by Moses, by His prophets and, lastly, by His Apostles, in order that we may be accurately taught everything He wants us to know. So let us profit by this doctrine, that we be not rebels against the very mouth of God, His Word.” Sermon on Deuteronomy 1.22-28.

Writers Wrote Only Under God’s Direction

He (Moses) wrote, his five books not only under the guidance of the Spirit of, God, but as God Himself had suggested them speaking out of His own mouth.” Commentaryon Exodus 31.18.

There then followed the prophets, through whom God published new oracles which were added to the law . . . As for doctrine, they were only interpreters of the law and added nothing to it except predictions of things to come . . . But because the Lord was pleased to reveal a clearer and fuller doctrine in order better to satisfy weak consciences, he commanded that the prophecies also be committed to writing and be accounted part of his Word. At the same time, histories were added to these, also the labor of the prophets, but composed under the Holy Spirit’s dictation”. Institutes IV 8.6

It seems to savour of cruelty that he should wish the tender and innocent to be dashed and mangled upon the stones, but he does not speak under the impulse of personal feeling, and only employs words which God hath Himself authorised. Commentary on Psalm 137.9

This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God hath spoken to us, and are fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestion (non ex suo sensu loquutos esse) but that they were organs of the Holy Spirit to utter only those things which had been commanded from heaven. Whoever then wishes to profit in the Scriptures, let him, first of all, lay down this as a settled point, that the law and the prophecies are not a doctrine delivered by the will of men, but dictated (dictatam) by the Holy Spirit . . . . . . .

Moses and the Prophets did not utter at random what we have from their hand, but, since they spoke by divine impulse, they confidently and fearlessly testified, as was actually the case., that it was the mouth of the Lord that spoke (os Domini loquutum esse).” Commentary on 2 Timothy 3.16

He says that they were moved, not that they were bereavedof mind … but because they dared not to announce anything of themselves(a se ipsis) and only obediently followed the Spirit as their leader, who ruledin their mouth as in his own sanctuary .” Commentary, on 2 Peter 1.20.

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 (verba quodammodo dictante Christi Spiritu – with Christ’s Spirit in some measure dictating the words). 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… 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 … 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.” (Jn.14:26). Institutes IV.8.8

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 (et idea eorum scripta, pro Dei oraculis habenda sunt); 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. Institutes IV.8.9

Mark is generally supposed to have been the private friend and disciple of Peter. It is even believed that he wrote the Gospel as it was dictated to him by Peter, so that he merely performed the office of amanuensis or scribe. But on this subject we need not give ourselves much trouble, for it is of little importance to us, provided we hold that he is a properly qualified and divinely ordained witness who put down nothing except by the direction and dictation of the Holy Spirit.” Argumentum in Evangelium Jesus Christi secundum Matthaeum, Marcum, et Lucam.

He (God) therefore dictated to the four evangelists what they should write. in such a manner that, while each had his own part assigned him, the whole might be collected into one body; and it is our duty now to blend the four by a mutual relation, so that we may permit ourselves to be taught by all of them, as by one mouth.” Argumentum in Evangelium Ioannis

Nothing is Unimportant in Scripture

Here, however, it must be remembered that every word which may have issued from God is to be received with implicit authority, and no countenance given to the abominable practice of refusing to receive a doctrine unless it can be supported by two or three texts of Scripture.” Commentary on Psalm 62.12

For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know.” Institutes III.21.3

There is nothing in Scripture which is not useful for your instruction and for the direction of your life … This is an interesting passage, by which we understand there is nothing vain and unprofitable contained in the oracles of God …. Whatever then is delivered in Scripture we ought to strive to learn for it would be a reproach offered to the Holy Spirit to think that he has taught us anything which it does not concern us to know: let us then know that whatever is taught us conduces to the advancement of piety.” Commentary on Romans 15.4

We must not pick and call the Scripture to please our own fancy, but must receive the whole without exceptionSermon on 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

For our wisdom ought to be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and at least without finding fault, whatever is taught in Sacred Scripture.” Institutes I.18.4.

There is no cause why we should doubt whether this man lived or no . . . for the record of Ezekiel and also of St. James show right well that there was a Job indeed, and further, seeing that the story itself declareth it, we cannot in any wise deface the thing which the Holy Ghost meant to utter so precisely.” Sermon on Job 1.1.

Excellencies of Scripture beyond the Production of Human Power

Now this power which is peculiar to Scripture is clear from the fact that of human writings, however artfully polished, there is none capable of affecting us at all comparably …. Consequently, it is easy to see that the Sacred Scriptures, which so far surpass all gifts and graces of human endeavor, breath something divine.” Institutes 1.8.1

But whether you read David, Isaiah, and the like, whose speech flows sweet and pleasing, or Amos the herdsman, Jeremiah, and Zechariah, whose harsher style savors of rusticity, that majesty of the Spirit of which I have spoken will be evident everywhere…. As far as Sacred Scripture is concerned, however much froward men try to gnaw at it, nevertheless it clearly is crammed with thoughts that could not be humanly conceived. Let each of the prophets be looked into: none will be found who does not far exceed human measure.” Institutes I.8.2

Similarly, Moses foretells things, albeit obscurely, concerning the election of the Gentiles into God’s Covenant, which actually took place almost two thousand years later. Is this not plain proof that he spoke by divine inspiration? I omit other predictions, which so clearly breathe the divine revelation as to convince sans men that it is God who speaks. “Institutes I.8.7

:’Let us grant that to predict, long before, what at the time seemed incredible but at last actually came to pass was not yet a clear enough token of divine inspiration. Yet from what source but God shall we say have come those prophecies which Isaiah at the same time utters concerning release? He names Cyrus through whom the Chaldeans had to be conquered and the people set free. More than a hundred years elapsed from the time the prophet so prophesied and the time Cyrus was born for the latter was born about a hundred years after the prophet’s death. Mo one could have divined then that there was to be a man named Cyrus who would wage war with the Babylonians, would subdue such a powerful monarchy, and terminate the exile of the people of Israel. Does not this bare narrative, without any verbal embellishment, plainly show the things Isaiah recounts to be undoubted oracles of God, not the conjectures of a man?”… What of Daniel? Did he not so clothe his prophecies of future events almost to the six hundreth year as if he were writing a history of past events generally known? If godly men take these things to heart, they will be abundantly equipped to restrain the barking of ungodly men, for this is a proof too clear to be open to any subtle objection.” Institutes I.8.8

Divine Authorship Renders Scripture Authoritative in Itself

But a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church. As if the eternal and inviolable truth of pod depended upon the decision of men! “ Institutes I.7.1

Indeed, Scripture . exhibits fully an clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.” Institutes I.7.2

First, he (Paul) commends the Scripture on account of its authority; and secondly, on account of the utility that springs from it. In order to uphold V-.-a authority of the Scripture, he declares that it is divinely inspired (Divinitus inspiratam); for, if it be so it is beyond all controversy that man ought to receive it with reverence …, This is the first clause, that we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it. (nec quicquam humani habet admixtum). Commentary on 2 Timothy 3.16

The beginning of right knowledge is to give that credit to the holy prophets which is due to God.Commentary 2 Peter 1.20.

Inner Certainty of Scripture’s Divine Origin Comes Only through the Spirit

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated or self-authenticating – autopiston); hence, is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us. it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illuminated by his power, we believe neither byour own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God: but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that is has flowed to us from the very mouth of God (ab ipsissimo Dei ore ad nos fluxisse) by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork! This we do . . . fully conscious that we hold the unassailable truth! . . . we feel that the undoubted power of his divine majesty lives and breathes there.” Institutes I.7.5

We ought to remember what I said a bit ago; credibility of doctrine is not established until we are persuaded beyond doubt that God is its Author. This, the highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it…. True, if we wished to proceed by arguments, we might advance many things that would easily prove – if there is any god in heaven – that the law, the prophets, and the gospel came from him … Yet they who strive to build up firm faith in Scripture through disputation are doing things backwards . . . For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit . therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.” Institutes I.7.4

Unless this certainty , higher and stronger than any human judgment, be present, it will be vain to fortify the authority of Scripture by arguments, to establish it by common agreement of the church, or to confirm it with other helps. For unless this foundation is laid, its authority will always remain in doubt. Conversely, once we have embraced it devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, those arguments – not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds become very useful aids.” Institutes I.8.1

Christ the Only Contact with the True God, Known Only from Scripture

For this reason Christ himself bade his disciples believe in him, that they might clearly and perfectly believe in God… For even if, properly speaking, faith mounts up from Christ to the Father, yet he means this: although faith rests in God, it will gradually disappear unless he who retains it in perfect firmness intercedes as Mediator … For this reason I subscribe to the common saying that God is the object of faith, yet it requires qualification. For Christ is not without reason called ‘the image of the invisible God’. This title warns us that, unless God confronts us in Christ we cannot come to know that we are saved … So today the Turks, although they proclaim at the top of their lungs that the Creator of heaven and earth is God, still, while repudiating Christ, substitute an idol in place of the true God.” Institutes II 6.4.

As soon as we have gone out of Christ, we shall have nothing else than the idols which we have formed, but in Christ there is nothing but what is divine and what keeps us in God. Commentary on John 14.10.

They censure us for insisting upon the letter that kills, but in this matter they pay the penalty for despising Scripture. For it is clear enough that Paul there contends against the false apostles, who indeed, in commending the law apart from Christ, were calling the people away from the benefits of the New Testament in which the Lord covenants ‘to engrave his law in the inward parts of believers, and to write it in their hearts’ The letter, therefore, is dead, and the law of the Lord slays its readers where it both is cut off from Christ’s grace and, leaving the heart untouched, sounds in the ears alone. But if through the Spirit it is really branded upon hearts, it shows forth Christ, it is the word of life . . . What is more, in the very same place the apostle calls his preaching ‘the ministration of the Spirit’ meaning, doubtless, that the Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power. And what has lately been said that the Word itself is not quite certain for us unless it be confirmed by the testimony of the Spirit is not out of accord with these things. Institutes I.9.3.

Yet, indeed, they contend that it is not worthy of the Spirit of God, to whom all things ought to be subject, himself to be subject to Scripture. As if, indeed, this were ignominy for the Holy Spirit to be everywhere equal and in conformity with himself, to agree with himself in all things, and to vary in nothing! … He is the Author of the Scriptures: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Hence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there. This is no affront to him, unless perchance we consider it honorable for him to decline or degenerate from himself.” Institutes I.9.2

The Son of God … does not approve of any other faith than that which is drawn from the doctrine of the Apostles, and sure information of that doctrine will be found nowhere else than in their writings.Commentary,on John 1-7, 10.

Christ cannot be properly known in any other way than from the Scriptures.Commentary, on John 5:39.

Dr. Dowey’s Own Comments

Prof. Edward A. Dowey, Jr. in his study The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology (N.Y., 1952) observes the following :

There is no hint anywhere in Calvin’s writings that the original text contained any flaws at all.” p. 100

The important thing to realize is that according to Calvin the Scriptures were so given that – whether by ‘literal’ or ‘figurative’ dictation – the result was a series of documents errorless in their original form.” p. 101f.

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