Calvin and the Bible

Although Calvin considered the Bible to be of fundamental importance in his theses, he cannot be considered a fundamentalist. The authority of the Scriptures, according to him, called for interpretation : in fact, to refuse this course of action was inconceivable. What was required was to read the texts in such a way that both intelligence and faith played their part, so as not to separate the intellect and the spiritual.

Calvin and "Sola Scriptura"

  • Jean Calvin (1509-1564) © Église réformée de Savoie

What did Calvin mean by “Sola Scriptura” (by Scripture alone) ? Calvin thought that only the Scriptures could lead to a true knowledge of God. Without it, one is condemned to ignorance and sin. “Unless one has been taught by Holy Scripture”, he wrote, “it is impossible to have even a slight taste of sound doctrine”. This statement needs clarification :

  1. Calvin accepted the fact that one could throw some light on the nature of God through looking at the living world around us and through the use of reason. However, this can only lead to an incomplete knowledge of God. Even if we learn that the world has been made by a powerful creator, one who is to be admired, it tells us nothing about salvation. It is possible to be aware of God’s presence in other ways, but it is only when we read the Bible that we see him revealed as a saviour.
  2. Although the Bible gives a true picture of God, it is not a complete one. It does not fathom the intimacy of his being and does not reveal the “secret”. Its scope is limited to what is necessary for our salvation and one must not try to cross this line. Indeed, Calvin disagreed strongly with those who tried to go further than what the Scriptures actually said. He reproached them for being led by their own shallow curiosity (they were seeking unnecessary knowledge) and being sarereligious (because they wanted to penetrate the mystery of God).
  3. There is nothing in Scripture which is useless or superfluous : everything it teaches is necessary. We must not add anything to it (by claiming more than it actually says) and neither must we take anything away (by believing less than it says). Calvin attacked those who found it difficult to accept a teaching which was rooted in Scripture (for example, double predestination) or who considered it to be of little value (that is to say not essential).

A moderately literal interpretation of the Bible

  • Calvin, by Ary Scheffer © Musée Calvin

In spite of the fact that Calvin insisted on the authority of Scripture, he never denied the possibility of it containing mistakes (such infallibility meaning the totals, absence of mistakes). Two things prevented him from considering Scripture infallible.

First, he distinguished between doctrine itself and the way in which it was expressed. The absolute authority of the Bible stemmed from its doctrine, (or to be precise, what was necessary for salvation) and in no way from the exact wording or detail of its narratives. Calvin freely admitted that an author of the New Testament could misquote the Old Testament or that one of the narratives in the Gospels could be slightly inaccurate. He recognised the fact that copyists made mistakes and that what had been handed down to us was a text which could sometimes be distorted. Even Calvin was sometimes inexact when he quoted verses from the Bible ; he did not care much about being close to the text. Although the contents of the Bible were divine, they were written down by men and thus subject to error.

What’s more, for Calvin, when God spoke to us, he came down to our level to do so ; he spoke according to our ideas and way of thinking, in a manner accessible to us. Calvin compared this to a nanny speaking baby language to a child in order to be understood. For example, at the creation, the sun and the moon were presented as the main sources of light in the sky, when in fact, Calvin wrote, we know perfectly well that many other stars existed which were far greater in size. The Holy Spirit inspired the author of this narrative according to the knowledge (or lack of it) possessed by men at the time ; he spoke in a way they were used to, in their language and within the boundaries of their knowledge, so they would understand. This idea of “adaptation” led the way to a cultural reading of the Bible it had to be seen in context and put in perspective (that is to say it had to be seen in relation to its environment and historical setting).

The Word and the voice of God

Calvin was careful to avoid any idolatry of the written word. He said that the Biblical text in itself was “as if dead, devoid of any vigour”. Only the Holy Spirit in our heart and our mind could make it become a living and life-giving word. Reformed theologians who lived after his time distinguished between the “verbum Dei” (the written Word of God), which we could find in the Bible, and the “vox Dei” (the living voice of God) which the Spirit enabled us to hear.

Without the Spirit, the Scripture was a “verbum“, a statement or an account, which was based on a real knowledge of God and from which it was possible to deduce a true doctrine. This did not, however, bring Christ close to us, in our midst, even if it enabled us to discover his teaching. Being a Biblical scholar or exegetist was not sufficient to receive the Word which saves and transforms.

Conversely, without the Scripture, the Spirit cannot say or teach anything at all. Thus Calvin argued against the emotionally inspired who believed that the Spirit taught them by speaking straight to their hearts, and also against the allegorical writers of the Middle Ages who thought that if they were inspired by the Spirit, respect for the Biblical text was no longer necessary. The Spirit could not give knowledge to a believer : he transformed the knowledge to be found in the Bible into existential truth. Faith did not mean it was no longer important to study the Bible as a scholar, an intellectual.

The Word of God was most effective when the verbum and the vox came together in unison. If one had to give careful thought to the intellectual education of the Bible reader, his spiritual inspiration was also important, in the same way as it was for the sacred writers. Calvin said “It is necessary that the same Spirit who spoke through the mouths of the prophets should come into our hearts”. This is why in the Protestant act of worship the reading of the Bible is always preceded by a prayer for illumination, when the Spirit is asked to transform the words being read into the living Word.

Author: André Gounelle

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