John Calvin and biblical perspicuity
How the French Reformer defended the clarity of Scripture.
03 DECEMBER 2016 · 10:30 CET
John Calvin was just as convinced as Martin Luther regarding the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture. It was the clear teaching of Sacred Writ which led to Calvin’s pro-doctrinal approach regarding the Christian ministry.
His labour in Geneva was marked both by theological rigour as well as an ongoing defence of the Bible as the plain-speaking and self-authenticating Word of God. But Calvin was not content with merely promoting a correct doctrinal understanding of the Word but he deeply desired all of his congregants to be “disciples of Scripture”.
Today we are going to take a brief look at four arguments he used to defend biblical perspicuity in his generation. First we will look at two responses he gives to Roman Catholic thought then at two further replies designed for sceptics (à la Erasmus of Rotterdam).
- The Church does not determine Scripture.
- Scripture determines the Church.
- Profane men promote unbelief.
- The Spirit of God promotes certainty.
Let’s start with the first two arguments.
1.- The Church does not determine Scripture
Calvin protests violently against the idea that the Roman Catholic Church has determined the canonical books of the New Testament. It was never the church’s job to establish the canon but simply to receive it as good gift from God Almighty. He writes, “A most pernicious error has very generally prevailed, i.e., that Scripture is of importance only insofar as conceded to it by the suffrage of the church”.
The Frenchman was concerned about the pastoral applications that such a false doctrine would entail asking, “What is to become of miserable consciences in quest of some solid assurance of eternal life, if all the promises with regard to it have no better support than man’s judgment? On being told so, will they cease to doubt and tremble?” So Calvin searched for some “higher source” than that of human reasoning or ecclesiastical decrees.
He rebuts the whole notion of the church determining Scriptures by retorting, “As if the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men”. By no means does the church lord it over the Word of God.
2.- Scripture determines the Church
How, then, does Calvin go about denying that Rome drew up the canon? He does so by reversing the respective roles of church and canon in Roman thought. No longer is it the church over against the Word but it is the Word over and against church. In other words, the church only exists because of the foundation of Scripture.
Citing Ephesians 2:20, Calvin points out that: “If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist”. And again: “If the Christian church was founded at first on the writings of the prophets, and the preaching of the apostles, that doctrine, wheresoever it may be found, was certainly ascertained and sanctioned antecedently to the church, since, but for this, the church herself never could have existed. Nothing, therefore, can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the church, and that on her nod its certainty depends”.
The church does not formulate or draw up the canon but rather recognizes it as a divine present of grace. “When the church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bound, shows here reverence by an unhesitating assent”.
The church, therefore, is a receiver of Scripture; not a determiner of it. It is in fact the Word which determines the church.
3.- Profane men promote unbelief
Whilst simultaneously taking Catholicism to task over her faulty bibliology, Calvin also keeps the theological sceptics of his day in mind (the forerunners of today’s liberals). Scepticism –following the argument of Erasmus- argued that the Bible was just not perspicuous enough.
It was too difficult to follow which meant that no one could be sure of anything it taught. In that case, religion was just a matter of one’s own taste or personal opinion. In response to such thinking, Calvin wrote: “Profane men think that religion rests only on opinion”.
These profane men were baptized in “ignorance and stupidity” because they refused to see the Bible for what it really was: the true Word of God. Although they often argued and railed against the idea of biblical inspiration, Calvin replied that “it is preposterous to attempt, by discussion, to rear up a full faith in Scripture”. Sceptics will be sceptics! In the last analysis, something more than a philosophical argument is needed to accept the true nature of Scripture.
Luther had stated some years before: “If many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not rise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of truth”. And again, “With the same rashness any one may cover his own eyes, or go from the light into the dark and hide himself, and then blame the day and the sun for being obscure. Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear Scriptures of God”.
As in the case of Calvin, Luther claimed that it was the darkened and ignorant mind of sceptics that kept them from professing faith in Scripture’s perspicuity.
4.- The Spirit of God promotes certainty
If profane men only serve to sow doubts regarding the clarity of Scripture, where can one find assurance that Scripture is what it claims to be? Calvin has one answer which he glories in repeating after the fashion of Martin Luther, that is, the Holy Spirit. Here are just some fascinating quotes:
- “With great insult to the Holy Spirit it is asked who can assure us that the Scriptures proceeded from God”.
- “If, then, we would consult most effectually for our consciences, and save them from being driven about in a whirl of uncertainty, from wavering, and even stumbling at the smallest obstacle, our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments or reasons; namely, the secret testimony of the Spirit”.
- “The testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our own hearts, in order to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely instructed”.
- “Some worthy persons feel disconcerted, because, while the wicked murmur with impunity at the Word of God, they have not a clear proof at hand to silence them, forgetting that the Spirit is called an earnest and seal to confirm the faith of the godly, for this very reason, that, until he enlightens their minds, they are tossed to and fro in a sea of doubts”.
- “Scripture carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit”.
- “Such, then, is a conviction which asks not for reasons [...] the conviction which revelation from heaven alone can produce. I say nothing more than every believer experiences in himself, though my words fall far short of the reality”.
This glorious and intimate work of the Spirit of God, working in harmony with the written Scriptures, helps believers to “feel a divine energy living and breathing” in the Word, i.e. “an energy by which we are drawn and animated to obey it, willingly indeed, and knowingly, but more vividly and effectually than could be done by human will or knowledge”.
The ultimate reason why profane sceptics had no assurance with respect to the perspicuity of Scripture is because they were devoid of the Spirit of God. Whereas Rome had erred upon elevating the church to the detriment of the Word, the liberals were mistaken because they knew nothing of the precious “secret testimony of the Spirit”.
Until that lively faith is installed in our hearts, Calvin reasoned, there is no way we can ever “have a perfect conviction” that God is the author of Sacred Writ.
So when it came to Catholicism or scepticism, Calvin upheld the perspicuity of Scripture as a powerful weapon in the defence of key Protestant principles, namely, the superiority of the Word of God over and against the church and the incomparable testimony of the Spirit of God who bears witness to our spirit that the Scriptures are indeed God-breathed.
Calvin’s great assurance regarding the clarity of the Word of God should encourage us all to hold fast to the doctrine of the Bible in the midst of theological adversaries who seek to diminish the authority of blessed Holy Scripture.
Let us all seek for that certainty which the Spirit alone may give us! And let us keep rejoicing in the cardinal doctrines of the Word and the Reformation: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, solus Christus, sola fide and soli Deo gloria.