Calvin on the Authority of Scripture

Calvin on the Authority of Scripture

The Holy Spirit does two things: inspires the writing of Scripture and indwells the people of God. As a corollary of both, he carries the divine writings into the hands of his people and guides them, as a people, in their interpretation. Scripture and Church, therefore, stand in harmony. 

Early on in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (in its completed 1559 edition), he discusses the authority of Scripture. After describing humanity’s natural sense of divinity (sensus divinitatis), Calvin turns to the necessity of the Word of God for saving revelation due to humanity’s clouded judgment. In order to establish Scripture’s authority, he first attempts to rebut the claim of the Roman Church that the authority of the Bible depends upon “the consent of the church.”[1] In seeking to secure the tyrannical claim that “the church has authority in all things,” his opponents trust more in the judgment of men than in the truth of God.[2]

Scripture, for Calvin, bears witness to its own authority. Since its source is divine, it exhibits the marks of divinity. Indeed, Scripture, he claims, is “self-authenticated” (autopiston).[3] “It is not right,” therefore, “to subject it to proof and reasoning,” or, more basically, to any judgment of men.[4] To ask for external verification for the truth and validity of the Bible is like asking, “Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter?”[5] As Calvin puts it plainly, “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.”[6] Insofar as Scripture is concerned—putting to the side for a moment the question of individual apprehension—its authority is unquestionable. It is an obvious fact. Just as one could not describe the color black—“…it just is!”—so he cannot attempt to “prove” Scripture’s veracity.

What are we to make of disagreements among men concerning the truth (or lack thereof) of Holy Scripture? The answer lies in the internal testimony of the Spirit. According to Calvin, “the same Spirit . . . 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.”[7] In other words, the authority of Scripture, since it is self-validated, cannot depend upon human judgments for its vindication. “We ought to seek our conviction,” rather, “in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit.”[8] Thus, those who do not acknowledge what is plainly true about the authority of Scripture have simply not received the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But on the other hand, “those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture.”[9] The reception of the Spirit’s internal witness is the dividing line between those who recognize Scripture’s authority and those who do not.

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