Did John Calvin Believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture? Does it Matter?
In the late 1800s, some Christian scholars debated John Calvin’s view of Scripture. The debate was largely fueled by the writings of Presbyterian scholar Charles Briggs. Briggs was later deemed a heretic, but he remained influential across the nation, even after being excommunicated by his denomination. This debate about Calvin’s views was then renewed in the 1970s and 1980s, largely fueled by scholars like Jack Rogers and Donald McKim.
In essence, men like Briggs, Rogers, and McKim sought to prove that John Calvin would have affirmed the divine inspiration of Scripture (the idea that the Bible is from God, therefore it should be esteemed), but that Calvin would have rejected the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture (the idea that the Bible is completely free from errors).
Why Does Calvin’s Belief Matter?
The primary tactic used by Rogers and McKim was to claim that the doctrine of inerrancy was an advent of the modern age. They claimed that few Christians in the early church or the Middle Ages had ever embraced anything like the doctrine of inerrancy. They asserted that the doctrine of inerrancy was invented by the 19th century Princeton theologians (like Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, and B.B. Warfield).
Briggs, Rogers, and McKim (and others) were convinced that if they could prove to modern folks that the most respected leaders from church history did not believe in the doctrine of inerrancy, then that could potentially convince modern Christians to reject the doctrine of inerrancy too… and there’s few leaders from church history that carry the cache of John Calvin.
Positioning Calvin as being anti-inerrancy would be a very effective tactic. This, of course, provokes the question: What did John Calvin believe about the nature of Scripture? That is the subject of this article.
What Did Calvin Believe?
Did John Calvin believe in inerrancy? John Calvin did indeed hold to a position that could be considered comparable to the doctrine of inerrancy. Calvin believed that the Bible was fully trustworthy. Calvin believed that the Biblical authors would have been incapable of error and that all of the propositions in Scripture are fully truthful.
Calvin would not have articulated his position on the nature of Scripture in the same way that modern inerrantists articulate their position. He would have used different vocabulary and different emphases. But his view of the nature of Scripture would, most certainly, be congruent with the doctrine of inerrancy as articulated by modern inerrantists. Theologian Matthew Barrett put it this way:
“Calvin did not explicitly articulate a doctrine of inerrancy with all of the nuancing used today in response to modern and postmodern challenges. But we would be misrepresenting Calvin to say that the basic concept of inerrancy is not present throughout his writings.”
When we examine Calvin’s writings, we see a man who is committed to the veracity and truthfulness of Scripture, even in the smallest of details. We see a man willing to stake his life and soul on the fact that the Biblical authors perfectly represented the preferences and sentiments of God. And what we do not ever see is in Calvin’s writings is any entertaining of the possibility that the Biblical authors potentially erred.
Calvin’s Use of Augustine
In this article, we’ll examine Calvin’s own words. However, before doing that, there’s some value in examining the beliefs of Calvin’s favorite theologian, Augustine of Hippo.
Calvin quoted Augustine more than 1,700 times in his own writings. Calvin said, “Augustine is so wholly within me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”
Calvin didn’t quote Augustine in some obligatory fashion. Calvin quoted from Augustine because he revered Augustine. But he also didn’t wholesale embrace everything Augustine said either. While Calvin clearly respected Augustine, he was also willing to state his disagreements too, which he did several times. One researcher said, “Calvin did not use the opinions of Augustine for the sake of using them. He judged and criticised them, like those of any other Church Father.”
It’s clear that if Augustine said something about the Bible that Calvin disagreed with, then Calvin would have noted that. It’s very unlikely that Augustine would have championed a view of Scripture contrary to Calvin’s own view, and that Calvin would have simply remained silent on that issue. So, with that in mind, we ought to ask: What did Augustine say about Scripture?
Augustine’s View of Scripture
Augustine clearly believed that Scripture is trustworthy and free from errors. We see this in Augustine’s response to Jerome’s commentary on Galatians 2:14.
Jerome had implied that the apostle Paul had relied upon a “white lie.” Augustine responded:
“For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. It is one question whether it may be at any time the duty of a good man to deceive; but it is another question whether it can have been the duty of a writer of Holy Scripture to deceive: is no question at all. For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true.”
Augustine’s response shows his confidence in the veracity of Scripture; he gives no allowance for error on the part of the Biblical authors. Furthermore, in his book The Harmony of the Gospels, he “indicated that he felt obliged to confute unbelievers who denied the harmony of the four Gospels and affirmed the existence of errors in Scripture.” In that book, Augustine later remarked that when a person reads the Gospels, they must “receive [them as] though written by the very hand of the Lord Himself.”
In Augustine’s Reply to Faustus the Manichean, he wrote, “If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, the author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”
Augustine’s views are clear. Historian John Woodbridge said this about Augustine, “Whatever we may think about [his] ‘all or nothing’ logic… it’s clear [he] believed the Bible is ‘true’ through and through. It’s without error, or, if you will, inerrant.”
Calvin voiced his disagreements with Augustine at times—most famously his disagreement with Augustine’s emphasis on allegorical hermeneutics. However, Calvin never asserts any disagreements with Augustine’s commitment to the veracity, historical reliability, and truthfulness of the Scriptures.
As I previously stated in this article, it’s hard to imagine that Calvin disagreed with Augustine on this point but simply remained silent. It’s more likely that Calvin agreed with Augustine.
Reformational Inheritance of the Medieval Mind
The world that Calvin and the Reformers were born into had been greatly influenced by the church fathers and Medieval writers. The church of the late Middle Ages did not question the veracity, historical reliability, or trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Calvin was born into a world where everyone agreed that the Bible was truthful and without errors. Woodbridge writes:
“The doctrine of the infallible authority of Scripture remained a constant while the framework of interpretation shifted away from a strong emphasis on churchly magisterium and tradition to an equally powerful emphasis on confessional norms and on a more closely defined tradition of interpretation. The central debate was not over the infallibility of Scripture—that was taken for granted by both sides—rather the debate was centered on the question of authority, specifically on the authority of interpretation.”
The Reformers were certainly willing to attack the Roman Catholic Church’s view of the Bible’s authority, in contrast with the Pope’s authority. The Reformers were happy to attack any Roman position that they disagreed with. However, the Reformers did not ever launch any attacks against the common Catholic view of the nature of Scripture as being incapable of erring.
If the Reformers believed that the Bible could err, they would’ve said so. Unless a 16th century theologian explicitly states that the Biblical authors have erred, like Erasmus did, then it is reasonable to assume that they inherited and embraced the default position of the Medieval church.
Calvin’s 16th century contemporary, Martin Luther, explicitly asserted that none of the Biblical authors ever “erred.” There were certainly many differences amongst the Reformers on various doctrines, but “there was a consensus that Scripture was to be received as if it were God himself speaking.” If the Scriptures are to be seen as God’s own words, than it is reasonable to assume that those words will never err—if you don’t make that assumption then you’re, essentially, claiming that God himself has erred.
Calvin in His Own Words
Okay, let’s get to the main course. Let’s look at Calvin’s own words regarding the nature of Scripture. In his greatest work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin said:
“Whether God revealed himself to the fathers by oracles and visions, or, by the instrumentality and ministry of men… there cannot be a doubt that the certainty of what he taught them was firmly engraven on their hearts… For if we reflect how prone the human mind is to lapse into forgetfulness of God, how readily inclined to every kind of error, how bent [humans are] on devising new and fictitious religions, it will be easy to understand how necessary it was to make such a depository of doctrine as would secure it from either perishing by the neglect, vanishing away amid the errors, or being corrupted by the presumptuous audacity of men.”
Calvin firmly believes that it is the propensity of all humans to err, therefore humans need the Scripture, and its depository of doctrine, to be implanted into the human soul. Calvin presents similar sentiments in his commentary on Matthew 22, wherein he states that Christians “will be safe from the danger of erring, so long as they humbly, modestly, and submissively inquire from the Scriptures what is right and true.”
In Institutes, Calvin says that he collected evidence and “general proofs” in the employment of defending the Scriptures; he said such evidence and proofs can be “easily gathered out of the writings both of the Old and New Testament” to corroborate the “dignity, truth, simplicity, efficacy, and majesty” of the Scriptures. Calvin also asserted that God has given us the Scriptures to be the “only records in which God has been pleased to consign his truth to perpetual remembrance.”
Calvin’s View of the Divine Nature of Scripture
Calvin contended that whenever a man acknowledges that the Scriptures are indeed the Word of God, then that man ought to give the Scripture all the reverence that he would give to God, otherwise he is “devoid of common sense.” Calvin makes similar comments in his commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16. He writes:
“Accordingly, we need not wonder if there are many who doubt as to the Author of the Scripture… we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.”
If Calvin exhorted his readers to give the same reverence to the Scriptures as they would give to God, and if Calvin asserted that the Scriptures are the vehicle that God has chosen to share the truth about himself, then it is logical to conclude that Calvin would believe that the Scriptures would be free of error, just as God is free of error.
In his commentary on 2 Peter 1:20, Calvin writes:
“[The biblical authors] did not of themselves, or according to their own will, foolishly deliver their own inventions…. [Peter] says that [the prophets]… dared not to announce anything of their own, and obediently followed the Spirit as their guide, who ruled in their mouth as in his own sanctuary.”
Calvin’s confidence is on display. He clearly believes that the words of the biblical authors are divine, and not from human invention.
In Institutes, Calvin continues this sentiment by saying the Scriptures came “down” from God “safe and unimpaired,” and that the Scriptures are the “eternal and inviolable truth of God.” In his commentary on the Psalms, he wrote that the Law of God is the place were men find the “unerring light.”  Calvin later describes the Scriptures as being the “certain and unerring rule” by which men ought to regulate their lives.
Calvin wanted people to allow the Scriptures to govern their lives. However, he also recognized that individuals would not surrender to the Scriptures unless they understood its authority, and Calvin believed that the authority of Scripture was rooted in the fact that the biblical authors were “sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit.” Calvin later wrote:
“So long as your mind entertains any misgivings as to the certainty of the word, its authority will be weak and dubious, or rather it will have no authority at all. Nor is it sufficient to believe that God is true, and cannot lie or deceive, unless you feel firmly persuaded that every word which him is sacred, inviolable truth.”
Calvin rightly understood that it is not enough to say to his readers that God does not lie, as Moses wrote (Num. 23:19; cf. Ti. 1:2; Heb. 6:18) but, for Calvin, it was also essential to say to his readers that the Scripture would never lie either. This cultivates a greater confidence in the hearts of individuals, leading them to yield the authority of the Scriptures.
Calvin: The Scripture Speaks for God
Calvin contended that the Scriptures speak for God, that they “are to be regarded as the oracles of God.” The Scriptures “came to us, by the instrumentality of men,” but they are indeed “from the very mouth of God.” He wrote:
“This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God hath spoken to us, fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestion, but that, being organs of the Holy Spirit, they only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare… [not] delivered according to the will and pleasure of men, but dictated by the Holy Spirit.”
Calvin was convinced that the Scripture itself “exhibits clear evidence of its being spoken by God.” Author Kevin DeYoung said this about Calvin’s perspective:
“[Calvin believed] God so controlled the process of inspiration that Calvin can speak of the Spirit ‘in a certain measure dictating the words’ of Scripture. By this Calvin does not mean the human authors were passive copyists who simply wrote down what they heard from heaven. He means that the process of inspiration was so complete and total as to yield the same result as if the Bible were nothing but dictation. God put into the minds of the men who wrote Scripture what should be written and even directed their pens.”
Since Calvin believed that the Scriptures speak on behalf of God, and that the words came from God, for any person to conclude that Calvin believed the Bible has errors—as some scholars have concluded—would be akin to concluding that Calvin believed God himself is capable of speaking errors. Calvin believed that the biblical authors wrote what they were commissioned from heaven to write, therefore attributing errors to the sacred text would be like attributing errors to the one that commissioned the sacred text.
Reason For Pause: Briggs on Calvin
There is ample evidence to substantiate the claim that John Calvin’s view of Scripture would be congruent with the modern definitions of the doctrine of inerrancy. However, there are some comments from Calvin that cause some to question this—comments that might give some people a reason to pause. It’s unwise to ignore or dismiss those concerns. Instead, they demand humble and objective examination.
The first set of comments from Calvin that we ought to look at are some of the words from Calvin that were cited and leveraged by Charles Briggs. As previously mentioned, Briggs was seeking to prove that Calvin did not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. Briggs pointed to this quote from Calvin:
“But there has very generally prevailed a most pernicious error that the Scriptures have only so much weight as is conceded to them by the suffrages of the Church, as though the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended on the arbitrary will of men… For, as God alone is a sufficient witness of Himself in His own Word, so also the Word will never gain credit in the hearts of men till it be confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit. It is necessary, therefore, that the same Spirit, who spake by the mouths of the prophets, should penetrate into our hearts, to convince us that they faithfully delivered the oracles which were divinely entrusted to them.”
Briggs pointed out that Calvin used the term pernicious error, which Briggs then claimed proved that Calvin did not embrace a concept like inerrancy. However, Briggs’ assessment is flawed. The key phrase from this quote is when Calvin states, “the Word will never gain credit in the hearts of men till it be confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit.” In other words, Calvin knows that a typical human would never (and could never) be able to believe and trust the Scriptures of their own accord. Unless the Holy Spirit first supernaturally works in a person’s heart, they will not trust the Scripture. This is perfectly in line with the teachings of the New Testament.
Furthermore, when Calvin states that there is an error, he clearly does not mean that there is erroneous data within the text of Scripture. He is simply affirming that the Scriptures are not the only instrument that God utilizes to reveal himself. The Spirit intervenes in other supernatural ways too.
Calvin is simply acknowledging that the Scriptures carry a specified “weight” in terms of their role in converting sinners. The Spirit chooses to “penetrate into our hearts,” enabling human beings to believe in God. As Calvin says elsewhere, God is “the author of regeneration.” Briggs’ commentary on Calvin’s use of the word error in this context amounts to nothing more than an egregious example of equivocation.
Briggs’ attempt to denigrate Calvin fails. In fact, as theologian and educator Kenneth Kantzer wrote, all attempts to show Calvin as rejecting inerrancy simply “fall flat upon examination.”
Commentary on Matthew 27:9
Another set of remarks that could cause some to be concerned about Calvin’s views come from his commentary on Matthew 27:9, which reads, “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel.'” (ESV). Calvin writes:
“How the name of Jeremiah crept in, I confess that I do not know, nor do I anxiously concern myself with it. The passage itself clearly shows that the name of Jeremiah was put down by mistake for that of Zechariah (11:13), for in Jeremiah we find nothing of this sort, nor any thing that even approaches to it.”
Calvin believes the appearance of the name Jeremiah was a mistake, and he concedes that he does not know how the incorrect prophet’s name made it into the Bible. However, Calvin does not give a clear explanation for his thoughts, therefore the presumption that Calvin believed that the original autographs were in error is a non sequitur—such a conclusion does not necessarily logically flow from his words.
Calvin never concedes that there was an error by the original author—he never entertains that as an option. Calvin simply believes that the name of Jeremiah was inserted by accident, but whose mistake was it, that is not entirely clear. Calvin does not clearly tell us who he thinks is to blame for this.
It is certainly possible that Calvin believed that this mistake was made by scribes, not by Matthew. This is the position defended by many modern scholars like 20th century theologian John Murray:
“The term [that Calvin] uses earlier when he says ‘How the name of Jeremiah crept in, I confess that I do not know’ is precisely the term Calvin uses with reference to errors that have crept into the text. There is, therefore, not the least warrant to suppose that Calvin is thinking of an error in the work of Matthew, and there is every warrant to judge the opposite. He is thinking of scribal error.”
Prominent 17th century theologian John Owen notes that Augustine believed this was a scribal error, and knowing Calvin’s great appreciation for Augustine, it is quite possible that Calvin may have embraced that view too. Augustine asserted that it was probable that Matthew’s original autograph did not include a prophet’s name at all, but rather simply said, “the prophet” instead of “the prophet Jeremiah.”
Various scholars have argued about Matthew 22 and have come to various conclusions on how to reconcile this supposed error. For example, some scholars contend that Matthew combining prophecies from both Jeremiah and Zechariah in this passage.
But the opinions of other scholars on Matthew 22 are irrelevant to the main point of this article. This article is not seeking to adjudicate all the textual question marks related to Matthew 22. This article is simply pointing out that Calvin himself never considered that this textual issue could be the result of Matthew’s error.
We don’t know precisely how Calvin reconciled this passage, but that’s not necessarily important. What we do know (for sure) is that the possibility of an error in the text was not ever an option that Calvin entertained. The idea that Matthew may have erred was not something Calvin ever considered.
Commentary Acts 7:14
Next, let’s look at Calvin’s commentary on Acts 7:14. In this verse the author of Acts, Luke, records the account of Stephen giving an apologetic defense for the faith. During this narrative, Stephen reports the number of people that had traveled down into Egypt with Jacob the patriarch (cf. Gen. 46-47). However, in Acts 7, Stephen reports that seventy-five people traveled to Egypt, while the original narrative written by Moses in Genesis 46 reports a different number—seventy. Calvin comments:
“[Stephen] agreeth not with the words of Moses; for Moses maketh mention of seventy only. Jerome thinketh that Luke setteth not down, word for word, those things which Stephen had spoken, or that he took this number out of the Greek translation of Moses, (Genesis 46:27)… Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the Greek interpreters set down this number of set purpose, or whether it crop [crept] in afterward through negligence, [mistake;] which (I mean the latter) might well be, forasmuch as the Grecians used to set down their numbers in letters… Therefore, I think that this difference came through the error of the writers which wrote out the books… And it may be that [Luke] himself did put down the true number; and that some man did correct the same amiss out of that place of Moses. For we know that those which had the New Testament in hand were ignorant of the Hebrew tongue, yet skillful in the Greek.”
In this commentary, Calvin acknowledges a discrepancy of sorts. But he is (mostly) merely speculating about the potential reconciliations, and he mentions that there may be others that might embrace the idea of the Scripture erroring, but he himself never embraces that assertion.
Calvin asserted that Jerome potentially had concerns about the veracity or carefulness of Luke’s writings—that Jerome maybe would have questioned whether Luke could err—but at no point does Calvin himself ever entertain or embrace that idea. Calvin is merely mentioning that Jerome had a question, but at no point does Calvin endorse Jerome’s question.
Calvin then begins to speculate a bit, proceeding to give a list of options we might consider in reconciling this apparent discrepancy. But none of the options that Calvin considers happen to include any allowance for Luke having made an error.
In Calvin’s speculation, he gives us a few possibilities. Calvin first speculates that maybe when Luke was recording the Old Testament events, that he may have been utilizing a copy of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and that maybe that specific copy contained an error. If any such error occurred, it would not have been Luke’s error, but that error would have been at the hands of the translators—those that translated the Old Testament Scriptures from its original languages into the Greek. Calvin says that it is possible that Luke was ignorant of the translator’s error, and that he unknowingly quoted from the erroneous translation.
However, Calvin also says that it is entirely possible that Luke actually did indeed know about the error in the translation, but that Luke simply did not feel the need to correct the error while reporting upon Steven’s speech. Calvin remarks that this would have been a “matter of no such weight for which Luke ought to have troubled the Gentiles who were accustomed to the Greek reading.”
In other words, maybe Luke knew that the Greek translations of the Old Testament weren’t perfect, but since Luke knew that his Gentile audience were typically accustomed to reading those translations, he stuck with the translation they would have been familiar with as a strategic move.
Lastly, Calvin suggests that this discrepancy in Acts 7 could simply be a scribal error that happened long after Luke wrote his Gospel. It is entirely possible that Luke recorded the true number, seventy, but that the number seventy-five was an error that crept in many years later. Calvin does tip his hand a bit, giving us the sense that this is probably the position he takes. He expounds upon this position by explaining how this scribal error would have happened, saying that this may have happened because of the manner of formatting of the Hebrew numbers into translated into Greek numbers. Calvin explains that it was customary to use letters in place of numbers, therefore the translation could cause a cropping to take place.
When Calvin uses the word mistake in his commentary of this passage, he is clearly referring to a mistake that happened after-the-fact—a mistake in scribal copying, not a mistake made by Luke himself.
Regardless of the cause of the apparent discrepancy, it is important to note that Calvin had ample opportunity to express some belief or sentiment that the biblical author erred in some fashion. He could have said that Luke made a mistake. However, Calvin never considers it.
In fact, Calvin seemingly exerts significant effort speculating on the possible causes of the discrepancy to ensure that Luke is not blamed. The very fact that Calvin felt the need to even give multiple possible explanations leads us to realize that Calvin was seeking to give his readers reason for why they ought to maintain confidence in the truthfulness and veracity of the Scriptures. If Calvin had no problem with some errors in the original text, it’s hard to imagine that he would’ve spent so much time examining this question.
What About the Tomb in Acts 7:16?
The number of people that came down to Egypt isn’t the only question from Acts 7. Just two verses after the number is in question, Luke records these words: “and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.” (v. 16, ESV). Calvin remarks:
“And whereas he saith afterward, they were laid in the sepulcher which Abraham had bought of the sons of Hemor, it is manifest that there is a fault [mistake] in the word Abraham. For Abraham had bought a double cave of Ephron the Hittite, (Genesis 23:9) to bury his wife Sarah in; but Joseph was buried in another place, to wit, in the field which his father Jacob had bought of the sons of Hemor for an hundred lambs. Wherefore this place must be amended.”
In our contemporary English translations we read that Stephen asserted that it was Abraham who bought the tomb in Shechem. However, the Old Testament tells us that it was Jacob that purchased the tomb.
Take note, in this commentary, Calvin uses the terms mistake and amended. Rogers and McKim claimed that Calvin “discerned technical inaccuracies” in the text, which is why Calvin (supposedly) understood that the text would need to be amended. But it’s not actually clear precisely what Calvin is referring to—it’s not clear who he blames for this mistake, and not clear what exactly needs to be amended. As Woodbridge says, “Calvin does not tell us to whom the error should be attributed; ‘it is manifest that’ is the language of an observation, not an attribution.”
It is entirely possible that Calvin believed that Stephen accurately reported that Jacob had purchased the tomb, and possible that Calvin believed that Luke accurately recorded those words from Stephen, but that there was simply a scribal error later, erroneously replacing Jacob with the name Abraham.
Because Calvin does not tell us exactly what he’s thinking, it’s impossible to make any case (in either direction) from the commentary on this passage. Anyone seeking to use this commentary to prove that Calvin would have rejected inerrancy is on very shaky ground.
Even in this less-than-ideally clear commentary, we still never see any sense where Calvin intends to blame the Biblical authors, nor do we see any willingness to concede that their writings may have erred.
Calvin is usually very precise, therefore, his lack of clarity here is odd and out-of-character (to some extent). But no theologian is perfect. We’re not arguing that Calvin’s writings were infallible. Theologian John Murray even said this: “[T]he language used by Calvin in [this section of the commentary] is ill-advised and not in accord with [his] usual caution when reflecting on the divine origin and character of Scripture.”
Last point here: Calvin was usually precise on his views of Scripture, therefore, we ought to interpret his less clear writings by leveraging his more clear writings. Typically, this sort of hermeneutical wisdom is reserved for the Scriptures. However, as Murray says, this is “a principle that [ought to apply] to the interpretation of theologians as well as of Scripture.”
Paul’s Use of Psalm 51 in Romans 3
Another passage that appears to be problematic to some scholars is Calvin’s commentary on the apostle Paul’s use and quoting of Psalm 51:4 in Romans 3:4. Calvin writes:
“But Paul has followed the Greek version, which answered his purpose here even better. We indeed know that the Apostles in quoting Scripture often used a freer language than the original; for they counted it enough to quote what was suitable to their subject: hence they made no great account of words.”
Here again we have a New Testament author quoting from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, not directly from the Hebrew. As the apostle Paul is making his case for the depravity of mankind, he utilizes the Greek translation of Psalm 51:4. Calvin acknowledges that the Greek translation is not a perfect translation from the Hebrew, but that the apostle Paul utilizes this imperfect “freer” translation anyway. There is no error from the apostle Paul, and no concession of any such error from Calvin either.
Paul’s audience in Rome would not have been fluent in Hebrew (and it’d be unfair to expect that), so it’s completely reasonable that Paul would have used whatever translation the audience was familiar with. This is not much different than any modern preacher utilizing imperfect English translations.
Furthermore, Calvin explicitly mentions that it was common practice for the apostles to only highlight certain segments of any passages; only utilizing whatever parts of the passage were directly relevant to the truth being presented. Therefore, with this practice in mind, it is reasonable to expect for various instances, where Old Testament passages are being quoted in the New Testament, to appear to be misquotations. There is no real error from the biblical author, and certainly no concession from Calvin of any errors on the part of the biblical authors.
Paul’s use of Psalm 68:16 in Ephesians 4:8
In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul leverages Psalm 68, but he doesn’t seem to cite it quite right. This has led some scholars to claim that Paul got it wrong, he made a mistake, and that this is supposedly evidence that the apostle occasionally got some details wrong, therefore, we supposedly ought to reject inerrancy.
However, according to Calvin, the apostle Paul was not in error because it was intentional; Paul “purposely” altered a word to make a point. Calvin says that Paul did not mean to quote all of Psalm 68:16, he only meant to quote one part of it, and then added his own sentiments.
Calvin says that Paul “changed [a] word, and employed it, not as taken out of the Psalm, but as an expression of his own, adapted to the present occasion.”
The apostle Paul had replaced the phrase received gifts with gave gifts. Calvin says that the apostle Paul does not always use “the exact words of Scripture, but, after referring to the passage, satisfies himself with conveying the substance of it in his own language.” In other words, the apostle Paul takes the meaning of a passage and seeks to leverage that meaning into making his own points in his epistles, he’s not necessarily reiterating a point from the Old Testament.
According to Calvin, sometimes when Paul was citing an Old Testament passage, he did not feel compelled to make the same point that the Old Testament author was making in the passage; Paul sometimes uses their words to make other points. Also, Paul does not feel the need to cite entire passages or to quote phrases from those Old Testament with precision or specificity.
Some opponents of inerrancy claim that Calvin supposedly believed that the apostle Paul felt the need to change or alter the Old Testament text because Paul supposedly believed that there was a theological error in the Old Testament text that needed to be amended or modified. They assert that Calvin believed that Paul saw an error in the Old Testament that needed to be corrected. However, Calvin never says anything (even remotely) close to that. Calvin is simply highlighting Paul’s willingness to use parts of the Old Testament to make his own arguments. There’s no evidence that this ought to be seen as a concession of error in the Old Testament text at all—from Paul or from Calvin.
Furthermore, at no point does Calvin assert that the apostle Paul is modifying the Old Testament texts, but instead, in Ephesians 4:8, the apostle Paul is using a “few words [from Psalms to describe] Christ’s ascension” and then Paul adds, in his own words, “and gave gifts.”
According to Calvin, the apostle Paul had a particular goal:
“[Paul sought to draw a] comparison between the greater and the lesser. Paul intends to shew, that this ascension of God in the person of Christ was far more illustrious than the ancient triumph of the church; because it is a more honorable distinction for a conqueror to dispense his bounty largely to all classes, then to gather spoils from the vanquished.”
The apostle Paul is not correcting theological error from the Old Testament. Instead, he is leveraging Old Testament imagery and motifs as the foundation for fresh concepts he is presenting. In this instance, and everywhere else, we never see Calvin seeking to alter the Old Testament text. Calvin never impugned the Old Testament authors and he never suggests that the Old Testament authors somehow erred.
This article has examined the passages of John Calvin’s commentaries where he supposedly questioned the veracity or truthfulness of the Biblical authors, and what we’ve seen is that Calvin never even entertains the possibility of errors within the Biblical texts. He goes to great lengths to give reasonable explanations for apparent discrepancies.
We’ve seen Augustine’s view of Scripture and we know the impact he had on Calvin. We also know how the scholars of the Middle Ages thought about Scripture, and it seems that Calvin and the other Reformers likely inherited much of their way of thinking about the nature of Scripture. And, most importantly, we’ve also seen Calvin talk about the Scriptures as if he believed that they were the very words of God, incapable of ever lying or erring.
Theologian Edward Dowey asserted, “There is no hint anywhere in Calvin’s writings that [he believed] the original text contained any flaws… according to Calvin the Scriptures were so given [by God] that the result was a series of documents errorless in their original form.”
It is true that the term inerrancy itself was not used by John Calvin or the Reformers, and that they used different vocabulary and emphases to articulate their doctrines related to the nature of Scripture, but there is no doubt that the essence and spirit of the term inerrancy was certainly present in John Calvin’s writings.
John Calvin affirmed the doctrine of inerrancy!
Featured image of John Calvin courtesy of Getty Images via www.learnreligions.com.
- Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone—The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught… and Why It Still Matters. Kindle edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2016), 68.
- S.J. Han, “An investigation into Calvin’s use of Augustine,” Acta Theologica Supplementum 10 (2008): 79.
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Calvinism: A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God the Secret Providence of God, trans. Henry Cole (1552; repr., Grandville: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1987), 38.
- Han, “An investigation into Calvin’s use of Augustine,” 79-81.
- Ibid., 81.
- Jerome was an early church Christian scholar and contemporary of Augustine; he was best known for his Latin translation of the Holy Scripture, The Latin Vulgate.
- John D. Woodbridge, “Did Fundamentalists Invent Inerrancy?” Articles, The Gospel Coalition, posted August 2, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/contemporary-challenges-to-inerrancy.
- Philip Schaff, ed., The Complete Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Collection of Early Church Fathers: Cross-Linked to the Bible. Kindle edition (1881-1890; repr., Toronto: n.p., 2016), Kindle locations 47547-47554.
- Woodbridge, “Did Fundamentalists Invent Inerrancy?”
- Augustine quoted by Norman Geisler, “Do You Have to be a Calvinist to Believe in Inerrancy,” in Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate, ed. F. David Farnell (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 110.
- Philip Schaff, ed., Reply to Faustus the Manichean by Saint Augustine (With Active Table of Contents). Kindle edition (1886; repr., n.c.: n.p., 2011), Kindle location 1173.
- Woodbridge, “Did Fundamentalists Invent Inerrancy?”
- Renowned Catholic scholar Erasmus (1466-1536) had opined about an error in the Scripture in his correspondence with Roman Catholic apologist Johannes Eck (1496–1543). Erasmus said, “Nor, in my view, would the authority of the whole of Scripture be instantly imperiled, as you suggest, if an evangelist by a slip of memory did put one name for another, Isaiah for instance instead of Jeremiah, for this is not a point on which anything turns.” Quoted by Christine Christ von-Wedel in Erasmus of Rotterdam: Advocate of a New Christianity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).
- Martin Luther quoted by Geisler, Vital Issues, 110.
- Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Second Edition (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2012), 148.
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Kindle edition, trans. Henry Beveridge (1559; repr., n.c.: n.p., 2010), Kindle locations 1501-1505, 1522-1526.
- John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke (Volume 3). Enhanced version. Kindle edition, trans. William Pringle (1559; repr., n.c.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1993), Kindle locations 951-957.
- Calvin, Institutes, Kindle location 1674.
- Ibid., Kindle location 1565.
- Ibid., Kindle locations 1560-1564.
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Complete Commentaries. Kindle edition (1540-1559; repr., n.c.: E4 Group, 2013), Kindle locations 549399-549404.
- Ibid., Kindle Locations 567709-567716.
- Calvin, Institutes, Kindle location 1569.
- Ibid., Kindle location 165394.
- Calvin, Complete Commentaries, Kindle locations 165930-165935.
- There are multiple translations of this phrase from Calvin’s original work. The original Latin phrase “Certi et authentici Spiritus sancti amanuenses” is translated by Peter Barnes as “sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit,” quoted in John Calvin: Man of God’s Word, Written & Preached (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 3; this translation is also cited by Kevin DeYoung in an article (see footnote 34).
- Calvin, Institutes, Kindle location 10409.
- Ibid., Kindle location 21833.
- Ibid., Kindle location 1649.
- John Calvin, Commentary on 2 Timothy. Kindle edition (Auckland: Titus Books, 2012), Kindle locations 906-910.
- Calvin, Institutes, Kindle location 1628.
- DeYoung, “Did John Calvin Believe in Inerrancy?”, Blogs, The Gospel Coalition, September 22, 2010, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/did-john-calvin-believe-in-inerrancy.
- John Calvin quoted by Briggs, Whither?, 76; cf. Calvin, Institutes, Kindle locations 1570-1575.
- Cf. Mt. 11:25-27; 16:17; Jn. 6:37-40, 44-45, 65; Rom. 8:7-8; Phil. 1:29; Ti. 3:3-5.
- Calvin, Institutes, Kindle location 2743.
- Kenneth S. Kantzer, “Calvin and the Holy Scriptures,” in Inspiration and Interpretation, ed. John F. Walvoord (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans 1957), 142.
- Calvin, Complete Commentaries, Kindle locations 396910-396918.
- Murray, Calvin on Scripture, Kindle locations 336-339.
- Augustine mentions that (during his era) some manuscripts completely omitted the name of the prophet, including manuscripts in Greek, Syriac, and Arabic. It appears possible (or even probable to some) that Matthew never used a named at all, but merely used the term “Prophet” just as he did earlier in the Gospel (vv. 1:22; 2:5, 15; 13:35; 21:4; 27:35); cf. Calvin’s Complete Commentaries, Kindle locations 621015-621038.
- Many scholars have contended that Matthew 27:9 refers to a prophecy built both on Zechariah 11 and Jeremiah 18, that Matthew was referring to a composite of passages from the Old Testament. Jeremiah 18:2-3 refers to Jeremiah traveling to the potter’s house, using language similar to what is seen in Zechariah 11 and Matthew 27. Zechariah refers to thirty pieces of silver as well as the potter but does not refer to the field. In Jeremiah 32 the prophet purchases a field in Anathoth, but the price listed there is seventeen shekels. These similarities have led some scholars to contend that these quotations in Matthew’s Gospel are a composite of Jeremiah 18:2-3 and Zechariah 11:12-13 with an allusion to Jeremiah 32:6-9. Scholar Craig Blomberg has argued that “Rabbis would sometimes create a composite quotation of more than one Scripture but refer to only one of their sources by name, often the more obscure one (though sometimes also the more important one) to ensure that others would pick up the reference;” cf. Craig Blomberg, “Matthew” in G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson’s (eds.) Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 95.
- Calvin, Complete Commentaries, Kindle locations 481465-481486.
- Ibid., Kindle location 481479.
- Ibid., Kindle Locations 481505-481508.
- Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (1979; repr., Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 109.
- John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: Infallibility and Inerrancy in the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 60.
- Murray, Calvin on Scripture, Kindle location 368.
- Ibid., Kindle locations 65-70.
- Calvin, Complete Commentaries, Kindle locations 497254-497261.
- Ibid., Kindle location 532763.
- Ibid., Kindle locations 532763-532768.
- Ibid., Kindle locations 532758-532763.
- Ibid., Kindle location 532763.
- Ibid., Kindle locations 532761-532767.
- Edward A. Dowey, Jr., The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 100-101.
Kenneth E. Ortiz (M.Div.) is a professor and recruiter at Bethlehem College and a pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul, MN. He has 15+ years of vocational ministry experience. He’s also a podcaster, author, and Ph.D. student. Kenneth lives in Bloomington, MN with his wife Malaina, they have one daughter.