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Calvin on Scripture


Outline of Lecture on Calvin’s Understanding of Scripture


Note:  “Holy men of old knew God only by beholding him in his Son as in a mirror….God has never manifested himself to men in any other way than through the Son, that is, his sole wisdom, light and truth.”  (Inst. 4.8.5.)


Question 1:  What is the relation of the Son to scripture?  I.e., how are they both “Word of God”?

Question 2:  How are they different?






[1]        The necessity of scripture for our knowledge of God                    1.6.1.—1.6.4.

–        the patriarchs didn’t have s. yet knew God

–        after them, however, s. is essential to our knowing God




[2]        The nature of scripture’s authority          1.7.1.—1.7.3.

–        Calvin contradicts the Roman Catholic notion (of that era) that the church confers

authority on scripture.  The church recognises  the authority of s.



[3]        The role of the witness of the Spirit         1.7.4.

–        the Holy Spirit (i.e., God himself) persuades us of s.’s authority by first persuading

us of the authority of Jesus Christ.

–        apologetic argument or rational “demonstration” does not elicit our recognition

of s.’s authority.  To attempt to ground the auth. of s. in rational demonstration

is to “do things backward.”




[4]        The conjunction of Word and Spirit        1.9.1—1.9.3.

–        what God has joined together the Anabaptists put asunder, with the result that

“Spirit” becomes the source of “fanaticism.”




A Summary of Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture


1] “Word of God” is prior to scripture.  The patriarchs were the beneficiaries of God’s address and truth prior to any inscripturation.

“Word of God” can’t be equated with S., can’t be reduced to S.

Yet after inscripturation any claim for “Word of God” must be tested by S.



With respect to the patriarchs, Calvin makes the following points.


  1.   God imparted himself to individuals in a way that remains mystery.


  1.   The truth of God was “engraved” on their heart — i.e., it was nothing ephemeral, not a momentary “flash”.  This is to be contrasted with the “lightning flash” Calvin speaks of (the evidence of God in the creation) whose flash is so brief that no one can take so much as one step before darkness redescends.


  1.   They were convinced of the truth of God; i.e., they were possessed of certainty concerning the truth and assurance concerning their inclusion in it.


  1.   They understood the meaning of God’s revelation/truth.  There was no obscurantism here, nothing akin to the mystics’ vagueness or the radicals’ under-cognitive emotionalism.


  1.   They knew God to be the origin of this truth.  (i.e., revelation is of God and by God.)


  1.   This truth (“doctrine”) was committed to writing.  [NB: for Calvin “doctrine” characteristically means not doctrine buttruth/inscripturated/expounded]


Note: (i)  Points B through E operate every time we read S. in faith and the H.S. illumines us and vivifies the text so as to acquaint the reader with theliving person and truth of Jesus Christ, which acquaintance yields certainty of him and his truth as well as assurance of our inclusion in him.


Note: (ii)  Point A isn’t necessarily inoperative today, for God remains free to impart himself to anyone in any way under any circumstances, the entire development remaining a mystery to us.  At the same time, scripture (or any similar declaration of the gospel), vivified by the Holy Spirit, is thecustomary means whereby we become acquainted with God, and scripture is ever the measure of any claim to have encountered God elsewhere. This is not to deny that the God who visits us in the person of the Mediator is known “immediately” in so far as he is not inferred from scripture.

Point F is inoperative: contemporary inscripturation is not necessary since the apostolic testimony to the singular Word-made-flesh is sufficient.



2]  The church does not judge S.; the church is not an authority above S.  The church acknowledges that S. whose authority is as self-authenticating as are the colours and shapes and tastes of objects.   (To say the same thing at greater length and more nearly in the spirit of Calvin’s fullest theological logic: S. authenticates itself as through it people are brought to faith in the Lord of whom it speaks and he authenticates himself.  I.e., as Jesus Christ authenticates himself in the power of the H.S., the book by which we heard of J.C. is authenticated too.)




3]  “God in person speaks in it [S.].”  We do not deduce, infer or conclude God from the printed page.  For the Reformers, as for the prophets before them, the inferred God or the deduced God is always an idol, since the true God speaks and acts “in person”, thus rendering inference or deduction beside the point.  An abstract inference is categorically different from encounter with living person.



4]  The internal witness of the H.S. is necessary for S. to bespeak the Word of God (=Jesus Christ).


Since faith is the “proper and entire work of the H.S.” (Inst. 4.14.8), therefore the H.S. secures our trust in S. only as it first secures our trust in Christ.  Note that the logical order is always from Christ to S., even as the temporal order of our coming to faith is from S. to Christ.


5]  Apologetic arguments for S. (i) merely “do things backward” (1.7.4.), (ii) leave us “uninflamed” to obey God (1.7.5.)


6] Word and Spirit, while distinguishable, are never separated (as opposed to the thought of many of the radicals.)  This is bedrock for the Reformed Tradition.


7]  Jesus Christ is the substance of both testaments.  God manifested himself to the patriarchs through the mediator only. (4.8.5.)


8]  Remember Spurgeon’s tiger: why argue (apologetically) about the might of the tiger when all you need do is let the tiger out of the cage?


9] ( The final word for all of us) — so glorious is scripture as that by which we are included in Christ and thereafter formed by him that our articulation of the glory of it all can never do justice to it: “words fall far beneath a just explanation of the matter.” (1.7.5.)