Article of the Month




by John Murray


The contention that Calvin’s view of the inspiration of Scripture was not the high doctrine of plenary, verbal inspiration, espoused by the Reformed dogmaticians of the seventeenth century, has emanated from many quarters. It is noteworthy that within the last few years this question has received from students of Calvin thorough and exacting treatment. It is gratifying that the two studies which this present decade has produced and which have brought the most pains-taking research to bear on the question have reached the same conclusion that in Calvin’s esteem the original Scriptures were inerrant. In the words of E. A. Dowey: “There is no hint anywhere in Calvin’s writings that the original text contained any flaws at all.”1 “The important thing to realize is that according to Calvin the Scriptures were so given that — whether by ‘literal’ or ‘figurative’ dictation — the result was a series of documents errorless in their original form.”2 And Kenneth S. Kantzer, even more recently, has written that the evidence in support of the view that Calvin held to the “rigidly orthodox verbal type of inspiration. . . . is so transparent that any endeavor to clarify his position seems almost to be a work of supererogation.”3 “The merest glance at Calvin’s commentaries,” he adds, “will demonstrate how seriously the Reformer applied his rigid doctrine of verbal inerrancy to his exegesis of Scripture” and Kantzer claims that “attempts to discover a looser view of inspiration in Calvin’s teaching fall flat upon examination.”4

Kantzer is to be complimented on his decision not to regard the task of providing the evidence in support of the foregoing conclusions a work of supererogation. He has furnished us with what is perhaps the most complete induction of the evidence drawn from the wide range of Calvin’s works. And, since it was not a superfluous undertaking for Dr. Kantzer, it is perhaps not without necessity that we should devote some attention to the same question on this memorial occasion.

The present writer is not disposed to regard the question, as it pertains to Calvin’s position, with any such attitude as might be described as cavalier. There are passages in Calvin that cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. It is significant that the passages which, in my judgment, occasion the most acute difficulty are precisely those which so able a controversialist as Charles A. Briggs has been wise enough to appeal to in support of his own contention that Calvin did not maintain biblical inerrancy.5 It is well to place these in the forefront for two reasons. First, it is in the interest of fairness in polemics not to suppress what constitutes the strongest argument in support of an opposing position. Second, it is a principle of hermeneutics to interpret more difficult passages in the light of the more perspicuous, a principle that applies to the interpretation of theologians as well as of Scripture.

The passages in mind are Calvin’s comments on Matthew 27:9; Acts 7:14-16; Hebrews 11:21. The first is concerned with the reference to Zechariah 11:13, attributed to Jeremiah, and Calvin comments: “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.”6

The second passage deals with the question of the number of souls reported by Stephen to have gone down into Egypt with Jacob and with the statement that Abraham bought a sepulchre of the sons of Hemor rather than of Ephron the Hittite, as Genesis 23:8-18 informs us. Calvin’s remarks are: “Whereas he saith that Jacob came into Egypt with seventy-five souls, it 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 (Gen. xlvi. 27), either because he himself, being a proselyte, had not the knowledge of the Hebrew tongue, or because he would grant the Gentiles this, who used to read it thus. 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. Augustine, in his 26th book of City of God, [De Civitate Dei,] thinketh that Joseph’s nephews and kinsmen are comprehended in this number; and so he thinketh that the words went down doth signify all that time which Jacob lived. But that conjecture can by no means be received. For, in the mean space, the other patriarchs also had many children born to them. This seemeth to me a thing like to be true, that the Seventy Interpreters did translate that truly which was in Moses. And we cannot say that they were deceived; forasmuch as (in) Deut. x., where this number is repeated, they agree with Moses, at least as that place was read without all doubt in the time of Jerome; for those copies which are printed at this day have it otherwise. Therefore, I think that this difference came through the error of the writers which wrote out the books (librariorum, copyist). And it was a matter of no such weight, for which Luke ought to have troubled the Gentiles which were accustomed with the Greek reading. And it may be that he 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 skilful in the Greek.

“Therefore, to the end (that) the words of Stephen might agree with the place of Moses, it is to be thought that that false number which was found in the Greek translation of Genesis was by them put in also in this place; concerning which, if any man contend more stubbornly, let us suffer him to be wise without measure. Let us remember that it is not without cause that Paul doth forbid us to be too curious about genealogies. . . . .”7

In regard to verse 16 Calvin writes: “And whereas he saith afterward, they were laid in the sepulchre 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 (Gen. xxiii. 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.”8

The third passage (Heb. 11:21) is concerned with the discrepancy between the two statements that Jacob worshipped on the top of his bed and that he worshipped on the top of his staff. The difficulty in itself is by no means acute.9 But Calvin’s statement at this point is the one with which we are concerned. “And we know,” he says, “that the Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect, as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned, who had as yet need of milk; and in this there is no danger, provided readers are ever brought back to the pure and original text of Scripture. But, in reality, the difference is but little; for the main thing was, that Jacob worshipped, which was an evidence of his gratitude. He was therefore led by faith to submit himself to his son.”10 The disturbing remark in this quotation is that “the Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect, as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned, who had as yet need of milk.” For in this instance Calvin is not reflecting upon some error that might have crept in in the course of copying the text of Hebrews 11:21 but upon the practice of the inspired writers themselves to the effect that they were not concerned with precise accuracy in a detail of this kind. If this is Calvin’s thought, then we might say that, in his esteem, an error of historical detail is compatible with the canons which governed the inspired writers and therefore compatible with the inspiration under which they wrote. As far as I am aware, this remark constitutes the most formidable difficulty in the way of the thesis that Calvin believed in biblical inerrancy. We are not, however, in a position properly to interpret and evaluate this statement and the others quoted above until we have made a broader survey of Calvin’s teaching.

Calvin’s greatest work The Institutes of the Christian Religion is interspersed with pronouncements respecting the character of Scripture and we should be overlooking some of the most relevant evidence if we did not take account of them.

“Whether God revealed himself to the fathers by oracles and visions, or, by the instrumentality and ministry of men, suggested what they were to hand down to posterity, there cannot be a doubt that the certainty of what he taught them was firmly engraven on their hearts, so that they felt assured and knew that the things which they learnt came forth from God, who invariably accompanied his word with a sure testimony, infinitely superior to mere opinion.”11 This quotation is of interest because it is concerned with the certification accorded to men who were the recipients of revelation by other modes of revelation than that of Scripture, a certification by which certitude of the truth was engraven on their hearts. This quotation also prepares us for what Calvin regarded as providing the necessity for inscripturation. So we read in the next paragraph, “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 every now and then 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” (I, vi, 3). It is the liability to error, associated with tradition, that makes inscripturation necessary, and the documentation of the “heavenly doctrine” (coelestis doctrina) guards it against the neglect, error, and audacity of men.

We shall have occasion to give examples later on from Calvin’s other works of his characteristic dictum that the Scripture speaks to us with a veracity and authority equal to that of God speaking to us directly from heaven. We do not read far into the Institutes before we come across the most explicit affirmation to this effect. “When that which professes to be the Word of God is acknowledged to be so, no person, unless devoid of common sense and the feelings of a man, will have the desperate hardihood to refuse credit to the speaker. But since no daily oracles are given from heaven, and the Scriptures alone exist as the means by which God has been pleased to consign his truth to perpetual remembrance, the full authority which they obtain with the faithful proceeds from no other consideration than that they are persuaded that they proceeded from heaven, as if God had been heard giving utterance to them” (I, vii, 1).

It is in this same context that Calvin speaks of the Scriptures as the “eternal and inviolable truth of God.” It is in this same brief chapter that the following propositions are plainly asserted. God is the author of the Scriptures. The Scriptures themselves manifest the plainest signs that God is the speaker (manifesta signa loquentis Dei). This is the proof that its doctrine is heavenly. We are never established in the faith of this doctrine until we are indubitably persuaded that God is its author (I, vii, 4 passim). And so he adds: “Being illuminated therefore by him [i.e., the Spirit], we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that Scripture is from God, but, in a way that surpasses human judgment, we are perfectly assured . . . that it has come to us by the ministry of men from the very mouth of God” (I, vii, 5 — ab ipsissimo Dei ore ad nos fluxisse). “We feel the firmest conviction that we hold an invincible truth” (idem). “Between the apostles and their successors, however, there is, as I have stated, this difference that the apostles were the certain and authentic amanuenses of the Holy Spirit and therefore their writings are to be received as the oracles of God, but others have no other office than to teach what is revealed and deposited in the holy Scriptures” (IV, viii, 9). At this stage it is not necessary to quote further from the Institutes, for in these few quotations there is virtually all that can be derived from that source. It is when we turn to other sources that the implications of these statements are brought into clearer focus.

With reference to Calvin’s concept of inspiration and of its effects we should expect that no passages would offer him the opportunity to express his thought more pointedly than II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:20. In this expectation we are not disappointed. In reference to the former he says: “First, he (Paul) commends the Scripture on account of its authority; and, secondly, on account of the utility that springs from it. In order to uphold the authority of the Scripture, he declares that it is divinely inspired (Divinitus inspiratam); for, if it be so, it is beyond all controversy that men ought to receive it with reverence. This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God hath spoken to us, and are fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestion (non ex suo sensu loquutos esse) but that they were organs of the Holy Spirit to utter only those things which had been commanded from heaven. Whoever then wishes to profit in the Scriptures, let him, first of all, lay down this as a settled point, that the law and the prophecies are not a doctrine delivered by the will of men, but dictated (dictatam) by the Holy Spirit. . . . Moses and the Prophets did not utter at random what we have from their hand, but, since they spoke by divine impulse, they confidently and fearlessly testified, as was actually the case, that it was the mouth of the Lord that spoke (os Domini loquutum esse). . . . This is the first clause, that we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it” (nee quicquam humani habet admixtum).

In his comments on II Peter 1:20 he again reminds us that the prophecies are the indubitable oracles of God and did not flow from the private suggestion of men and therefore we must be convinced that God speaks to us in the Scripture. And so he continues: “the beginning of right knowledge is to give that credit to the holy prophets which is due to God. . . . He says that they were moved, not that they were bereaved of mind . . . but because they dared not to announce anything of themselves (a se ipsis) and only obediently followed the Spirit as their leader, who ruled in their mouth as in his own sanctuary.”

Before making remarks respecting the import of these assessments of the origin, authority, and character of Scripture, it may not be amiss to cull from other places a few quotations to elucidate and confirm these statements of his. With reference to Mark as the author of the Second Gospel he says: “Mark is generally supposed to have been the private friend and disciple of Peter. It is even believed that he wrote the Gospel as it was dictated to him by Peter, so that he merely performed the office of amanuensis or scribe. But on this subject we need not give ourselves much trouble, for it is of little importance to us, provided we hold that he is a properly qualified and divinely ordained witness who put down nothing except by the direction and dictation of the Holy Spirit.”12 Respecting the four Evangelists he says that God “therefore dictated to the four Evangelists what they should write, so that, while each had his own part assigned to him, the whole might be collected into one body.”13 On Romans 15:4 Calvin paraphrases Paul’s thought by saying: “there is nothing in Scripture which is not useful for your instruction, and for the direction of your life” and then adds: “This is an interesting passage, by which we understand there is nothing vain and unprofitable contained in the oracles of God. . . . Whatever then is delivered in Scripture we ought to strive to learn; for it would be a reproach offered to the Holy Spirit to think that he has taught us anything which it does not concern us to know; let us then know that whatever is taught us conduces to the advancement of piety.”14

A great deal has been written in support of the thesis that the Bible is infallible in matters that pertain to faith and life, to the doctrine of salvation and the kingdom of God, but not in other matters concerned with history or science. And the teaching of Calvin has been appealed to in support of this distinction. Perhaps you will permit a quotation from one of the ablest and most eloquent of the protagonists of this contention, Charles Augustus Briggs. He writes: “It is well known that Calvin and Luther and other reformers recognized errors in the Scriptures.... But what do these errors amount to, after all? They are only in minor matters, in things which lie entirely beyond the range of faith and practice. They have nothing to do with your religion, your faith in God and His Christ, your salvation, your life and conduct. . . . The Scriptures are pure, holy, errorless, so far as their own purpose of grace is concerned, as the only infallible rule of the holy religion, the holy doctrine, and the holy life. They are altogether perfect in those divine things that come from heaven to constitute the divine kingdom on earth, which, with patient, quiet, peaceful, but irresistible might, goes forth from the holy centre through all the radii of the circle of human affairs and persists until it transforms the earth and man.”15 It is this distinction which Briggs alleges to be implicit in Calvin’s position, and his contention is to the effect that the infallibility predicated of Scripture is, therefore, for Calvin, consistent with the errors, which, he alleges, Calvin admits. But it is not only Dr. Briggs who makes this kind of allegation. No one has been a more painstaking student of Calvin than Emile Doumerguc. On the question of inspiration he has performed the service of exposing the fallacy of R. Seeberg’s contention that Calvin taught mechanical dictation. But Doumergue also maintains that Calvin did not teach literal, verbal inspiration and that for Calvin the important thing was not the words but “the doctrine, the spiritual doctrine, the substance.”16

Here we are brought to the crux of the question. Does Calvin’s position on inspiration fall into line with that espoused and defended by Dr. Briggs? Is it true that Calvin did not consider the words important but only the spiritual doctrine? It is this thesis that I am compelled on the basis of the evidence to controvert. In dealing with the question we shall have to take account of several considerations.

1. It is true that Calvin lays great stress, as we found in the quotations from his works, upon the heavenly doctrine of which Scripture is the depository. It is the liability to corruption on the part of men that made necessary the inscripturation of the heavenly doctrine. Thereby it is guarded against the neglect, error, and audacity of men. But that there is in Calvin the kind of alleged distinction between the heavenly doctrine and the Scripture in which that heavenly doctrine is deposited is a thesis which his own statements do not bear out. He affirms most explicitly that the Scripture is from God, that it has come to us from the very mouth of God, and that in believing the Scripture we feel the firmest conviction that we hold an invincible truth. To insinuate that this conviction has respect simply to the heavenly doctrine, as distinct from Scripture as the depository, is to interject a distinction of which there is no suggestion in the relevant passages. In other words, Calvin identifies the doctrine of which he speaks with the Scripture itself. “The Law and the Prophecies are not a doctrine delivered by the will of men, but dictated by the Holy Spirit,”17 and this is the settled point, he insists, that must be laid down if we are to profit in the Scriptures. And the emphasis is pervasive that we owe to the Scripture the same reverence we owe to God.

2. To say the least, it would be mystifyingly strange that Calvin would have affirmed so expressly that the writers of Scripture “did not utter at random what we have from their hand,” that Scripture “has nothing of man mixed with it,” that the writers “fearlessly testified that it was the mouth of the Lord that spoke” and that the Holy Spirit “ruled in their mouth as in his own sanctuary,”18 if his conception of inspiration did not apply to the details of words and to what we might call random statements. For Calvin, there are no random statements in Scripture because the writers did not speak at random but always by divine impulse. And, furthermore, we must remember that he has warned us against the impiety of thinking that there is anything unprofitable or vain in the Scripture; the Holy Spirit has taught us everything in the Scripture it concerns us to know, and all that is taught conduces to the advancement of piety.

3. When we examine the evidence which Doumergue adduces in support of his allegations that Calvin has not taught verbal inspiration, it is nothing short of exasperating to find how destitute of relevance this supposed evidence is. Under one caption Doumergue says, “Words have been added or suppressed”19 and then proceeds to cite instances. He appeals to Calvin’s comments on Eph. 2:5; Heb. 9:1; I Tim. 1:3; James 4:7. Let us see then what Calvin says at these points.

At Eph. 2:5 Calvin comments, with reference to the words “by grace ye are saved,” as follows: “I know not whether some one else inserted this, but, as there is nothing alien to the context, I freely accept it as written by Paul.”20 It is quite apparent that Calvin is here reflecting simply on the question as to the possibility of addition in the course of transcription. His own judgment is that these words are Pauline and proceeds to expound their import on this assumption. In short, his judgment is that they were not added. This is clearly a question of the proper text and nothing more. It has absolutely nothing to do with the question at issue.

At Heb. 9:1 Calvin says: “Some copies read ‘first tabernacle’: but I think there is a mistake in the word ‘tabernacle,’ nor do I doubt but that some unlearned reader, not finding a noun for the adjective, and in his ignorance applying to the tabernacle what had been said of the covenant, unwisely added the word ‘tabernacle.’ “21 Again, this is purely a matter of what Calvin regards as textual corruption by an unlearned reader and to him alone belongs the error, not at all to the writer of Hebrews. In fact, why does Calvin esteem this to be the work of an unlearned reader? Precisely because he is jealous for the accuracy of the original author. If Calvin were, as Doumergue alleges, not concerned about words but about the spiritual doctrine, he would not have bothered to reflect on the folly of the unlearned reader but would have been ready to attribute what he regarded as an error to the writer of Scripture itself.

On I Tim. 1:3 Calvin says: “Either the syntax is elliptical, or the particle hina is redundant; and in either case the meaning will be clear.”22 This is concerned solely with the question of style. An ellipsis is simply an abbreviated manner of speech in which something plainly understood is not expressed and redundancy is simply a manner of speech by which something is expressed which is not indispensable to the meaning.

On James 4:7 we read: “Many copies have introduced here the following sentence: ‘Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.’ But in others it is not found. Erasmus suspects that it was first a note in the margin, and afterwards crept into the text. It may have been so, though it is not unsuitable to the passage.”23 Surely no comment is necessary to show the irrelevance to Doumergue’s allegation.

Another caption under which Doumergue derives support for his thesis is that “there are differences,”24 meaning, of course, that there are differences between the biblical writers when dealing with the same subjects, and cites Calvin’s comments on Matt. 8:27; Matt. 9:18. That Calvin recognises the differences in the accounts given by the various evangelists we should fully expect. Who with even a modicum of understanding does not observe these differences? But that these differences constitute any evidence of the lack of verbal inspiration or any such judgment on Calvin’s part is precisely what Calvin is most jealous to deny. On Matt. 9:18 he says: “Those who imagine that the narrative, which is here given by Mark and Luke, is different from that of Matthew, are so clearly refuted by the passage itself, that there is no necessity for a lengthened debate. All the three agree in saying that Christ was requested by a ruler of the Synagogue to enter his house for the purpose of curing his daughter. The only difference is, that the name of Jairus, which is withheld by Matthew, is mentioned by Mark and Luke; and that he represents the father as saying, ‘My daughter is dead,’ while the other two say that she was in her last moments, and that, while he was bringing Christ, her death was announced to him on the road. But there is no absurdity in saying that Matthew, studying brevity, merely glances at those particulars which the other two give in minute detail. But since all the other points agree with such exactness, since so many circumstances conspire as to give it the appearance of three fingers stretched out at the same time to point out a single object, there is no argument that would justify us in dividing this history into various dates. The Evangelists agree in relating, that while Christ, at the request of a ruler of the synagogue, was coming to his house, a woman on the road was secretly cured of a bloody flux by touching his cloak; and that afterwards Christ came into the ruler’s house, and raised a dead young woman to life. There is no necessity, I think, for circuitous language to prove that all the three relate the same event. Let us now come to details.”25 Calvin’s own statement on this very subject we may quote again. “He (God) therefore dictated to the four evangelists what they should write, in such a manner that, while each had his own part assigned him, the whole might be collected into one body; and it is our duty now to blend the four by a mutual relation, so that we may permit ourselves to be taught by all of them, as by one mouth.”26

Again Doumergue appeals to the fact that “the order of time is not always observed”27 and instances Calvin’s comments on Luke 4:5 and Matt. 27:51. We all know that the Evangelists do not always follow a chronological arrangement of their narratives and, of course, Calvin does also. But this is a question of literary form and not of verbal inspiration.

Finally, in connection with Doumergue’s contention that for Calvin the words were not important but the “spiritual doctrine,” it is Calvin’s treatment of quotations from the Old Testament in the New that Doumergue relies on chiefly in this connection.28 He appeals to Calvin’s comments on the use made by New Testament writers, particularly Paul, of Old Testament passages. In this connection a distinction must be appreciated. Calvin recognizes, of course, as every one must perceive, that the New Testament writers, in referring to the Old Testament, did not always quote the Old Testament passages verbatim. And Calvin is fully aware of the difficulty that sometimes confronts us in the use made of Old Testament passages. For example, he says with respect to Rom. 10:6: “This passage is such as may not a little disturb the reader, and for two reasons. It seems to be improperly twisted by Paul and the words themselves turned to a different meaning.”28 He appeals to Calvin’s comments on the use made by New Testament writers, particularly Paul, of Old Testament passages. In this connection a distinction must be appreciated. Calvin recognizes, of course, as every one must perceive, that the New Testament writers, in referring to the Old Testament, did not always quote the Old Testament passages verbatim. And Calvin is fully aware of the difficulty that sometimes confronts us in the use made of Old Testament passages. For example, he says with respect to Rom. 10:6: "This passage is such as may not a little disturb the reader, and for two reasons. It seems to be improperly twisted by Paul and the words themselves turned to a different meaning."29 And on Rom. 11:8 he thinks that the words quoted from Isaiah are “somewhat altered” and that Paul does not here “record what we find in the prophet, but only collects from him this sentiment that they were imbued by God with the spirit of maliciousness so that they continued dull in seeing and hearing.”30 And again on Eph. 4:8 he says: “To serve the purpose of his argument, Paul has departed not a little from the true sense of this quotation” (testimonium).31 On the same text with reference to the clause “and gave gifts to men,” he adds: “There is rather more difficulty in this clause; for the words of the psalm are, ‘thou hast received gifts for men,’ while the apostle changes this expression into ‘gave gifts’ and thus appears to exhibit an opposite meaning.”

But the all-important point to be observed is that Calvin in each case goes on to justify the apostle and to show that what appears to be an unwarranted change is one perfectly compatible with the designed use of the passage in each case, a use furthermore in perfect consonance with the inspiration under which the apostle wrote. With reference to the apparently improper use of Deut. 30:12 in Rom. 10:6, Calvin continues: “This knot may be thus untied” and then proceeds to give what he considers to be the necessary resolution of the difficulty. In like manner on Rom. 11:8 he maintains that there is no discrepancy between what Paul elicits from the word of the prophet and what the prophet himself said but that rather “Paul penetrates to the very fountain.” And although on Eph. 4:8 he admits that Paul “deviated not a little from the true meaning” of the Old Testament passage, yet he launches immediately into a defense of the apostle against the charge of having made “an unfair use of Scripture” and protests that “careful examination of the Psalm will convince any reader that the words, ‘he ascended up on high,’ are applied strictly to God alone.” Finally, with reference to the change from “received” to “gave” in the same text, he says: “Still there is no absurdity here; for Paul does not always quote the exact words of Scripture, but, after referring to the passage, satisfies himself with conveying the substance of it in his own language.” In this case, however, Calvin thinks that when Paul says “gave gifts to men” he is not intending to quote Scripture at all but uses his own expression adapted to the occasion.

We are compelled, therefore, to draw the following conclusions. (1) When Calvin recognizes that Paul, for example, does not always quote the Old Testament verbatim, he is as far as possible from insinuating that the actual words of the Old Testament were not important. And he is likewise not insinuating to the least extent that the precise and original meaning of the Old Testament passages, as indicated by their exact terms, was not important. He is not even remotely suggesting an antithesis between the “substance” which the apostle elicits from the Old Testament text and the text of the Old Testament itself, as if the former were important and the latter not. (2) There is not the remotest suggestion that the precise terms used by the apostle in the use of the Old Testament (terms which may deviate from the precise terms of the Old Testament) are unimportant. Indeed, the opposite is the case. It is exactly because Calvin was concerned with the precise terms and words used by the apostle that he entered upon the discussion and resolution of the difference between the terms in the Old Testament and in Paul’s use of the same. In reality the only inference to be drawn from these discussions on the part of Calvin, and particularly from the resolution which he offers in each case, is that in his esteem words and terms were of the greatest importance. (3) What Calvin says is that Paul, in quoting from the Old Testament in these instances, elicited from the passage what was appropriate to his purpose at the time. He does not say or imply that for Paul the exact terms and import of the Old Testament passage were unimportant, but simply that it was sufficient for the apostle to derive from the Scripture concerned the particular truth or application relevant to the subject in hand. And, for Calvin, both are important as providing us with the whole truth, the truth expressed in the Old Testament and that enunciated in Paul’s interpretation and application. The whole belongs to the spiritual doctrine which the Scripture conveys to us.

In these passages, therefore, there is no warrant for Doumergue’s allegation that for Calvin the words were not important but only the spiritual doctrine or substance. This sets up a contrast which Calvin does not entertain and it is a contrast which Calvin’s own express declarations do not tolerate.

4. A great deal of scorn has been heaped for the last seven decades upon what has been called the modern “dogma of the inerrancy of the original autographs” and upon the “modern scholastics who have generated this dogma.”32 This question of the autographs and of the mistakes that have crept in in the course of transmission introduces us to a most important phase of the evidence bearing upon Calvin’s view of Scripture. We have had occasion to quote several passages from Calvin in which he reflected upon these mistakes of copyists and, in one case, upon the blunder of an unlearned reader. It is not necessary to review these passages. It is sufficient to be reminded that Calvin discusses this matter of the proper text of a particular passage and registers his judgment for the very purpose of ascertaining what was the text penned by the original writer, whether it be Luke or Paul or the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews. Calvin was greatly concerned to ascertain what this text was whenever there was occasion to raise any question respecting it. Of this there is copious evidence. Now why this concern? Obviously because he was jealous to be sure of the autographic text. And is it not this jealousy that lies behind the whole science of textual criticism? Scholars differ in their judgments on particular problems. But they all have interest in getting back to the autographic text. Hence the premise of centuries of labor on this question is the importance of the autographic text.

But in the case of Calvin there was much more at stake than the abstract question of the text of the original author. We have found that his interest is also concerned with the question of veracity. He rejects a certain reading in Hebrews 9:1, for example, because that reading would not comport with the facts of the case as he construed them. He attributes the reading to an ignorant reader. Why such reflections? Surely because he is jealous not to attribute this reading to the writer of Hebrews. And that means that the assumption on which he proceeds is that the original writer could not be regarded as susceptible to such an error.

In reference to this interest on Calvin’s part in the autographic text of Scripture our final observation must be that his jealousy for the original text cannot be dissociated from his estimate of Scripture as the oracles of God, that Scripture has nothing human mixed with it, and that in all its parts it is as if we heard the mouth of God speaking from heaven. Errors in scribal transmission Calvin fully recognizes. In some instances he pronounces decisive judgment as to the reason and source of these errors. It is apparent that this jealousy is dictated by his conviction that the penmen of the Scriptures were the amanuenses of the Holy Spirit and could not have perpetrated such mistakes. This is tantamount to nothing less than his interest in an inerrant autograph.

We may with this in view return to the passages quoted at the beginning of this lecture and which were passed over until we should survey Calvin’s teaching as a whole. These are Calvin’s remarks on Matt. 27:9; Acts 7:14-16; Heb. 11:21. On Matt. 27:9 he says that “the name of Jeremiah was put down by mistake or that of Zechanah. In view of what we have found, we cannot now suppose that, in Calvin’s esteem, this mistake was the work of Matthew. And the term he 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.

In reference to Acts 7:16 when he says that there is a fault, that is, erratum., in the name Abraham and concludes by saying, “Wherefore this place must be amended,” analogy would not allow for any other interpretation than that he is thinking of an error in the course of transcription.

In Acts 7:14 the difficulty connected with the number 75 he likewise thinks may have arisen, in the first instance, “through the error of the copyists” of the Greek Old Testament. Here he also entertains the possibility that Luke put down the true number and that some man corrected the same out of the Greek Old Testament where the number 75 appears. Yet he thinks it also possible that Luke may have used the number 75 since it appeared in the Greek version with which readers would be familiar and that “it was a matter of no such weight for which Luke ought to have troubled the Gentiles who were accustomed to the Greek reading.” This latter statement may be considered along with his comments on Heb. 11:21. They both fall into the same category.

With respect, then, to these two statements that the number of the souls who went down to Egypt was not a matter for which Luke should have troubled the Gentiles who were accustomed to the Greek reading and that the writer of Hebrews was not so scrupulous but that he could accommodate himself to the unlearned who had as yet need of milk, what are we to say? Some remarks may help to place the question in proper perspective.

1. Calvin does recognize that the writers of Scripture were not always meticulously precise on certain details such as those of number and incident. And this means that the Holy Spirit, by whom, in Calvin’s esteem, they wrote, was not always meticulously precise on such matters. It must be emphatically stated that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy for which the church has contended throughout history and, for which a great many of us still contend, is not based on the assumption that the criterion of meticulous precision in every detail of record or history is the indispensable canon of biblical infallibility. To erect such a canon is utterly artificial and arbitrary and is not one by which the inerrancy of Scripture is to be judged. It is easy for the opponents of inerrancy to set up such artificial criteria and then expose the Bible as full of errors. We shall have none of that, and neither will Calvin. The Bible is literature and the Holy Spirit was pleased to employ the literary forms of the original human writers in the milieu in which they wrote. If Solomon’s temple took seven and a half years to build, as we can readily calculate (cf. I Kings 6:37, 38), are we to suppose that it is an error to say in the same context that Solomon was seven years in building it (1 Kings 6:38)? Or if a certain king is said to have reigned twenty-two years (cf. I Kings 14:20), we must not impose upon such a statement the necessity of his having reigned precisely twenty-two years in terms of twenty-two times three hundred and sixty-five days.33 He may have reigned only twenty-one years in terms of actual computation and yet twenty-two years in terms of the method of reckoning in use. The Scripture abounds in illustrations of the absence of the type of meticulous and pedantic precision which we might arbitrarily seek to impose as the criterion of infallibility. Every one should recognize that in accord with accepted forms of speech and custom a statement can be perfectly authentic and yet not pedantically precise. Scripture does not make itself absurd by furnishing us with pedantry.

2. We need not doubt that it was this distinction between the demands of pedantic precision, on the one hand, and adequate statement, that is, statement adequate to the situation and intent, on the other, that Calvin had in mind when he said that “the apostles were not so punctilious as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned.” We are not necessarily granting that Calvin’s remarks are the best suited to the solution of the questions that arise in connection with Acts 7:14 and Heb. 11:21. We may even grant that the language used by Calvin in these connections is ill-advised and not in accord with Calvin’s usual caution when reflecting on the divine origin and character of Scripture. But, if so, we should not be surprised if such a prolific writer as Calvin should on occasion drop remarks or even express positions inconsistent with the pervasive and governing tenor of his thinking and teaching. In Calvin we have a mass of perspicuous statement and of lengthened argument to the effect that Scripture is impregnable and inviolable, and it would be the resort of desperation to take a few random comments, wrench them from the total effect of Calvin’s teaching, and build upon them a thesis which would run counter to his own repeated assertions respecting the inviolable character of Scripture as the oracles of God and as having nothing human mixed with it.


  1. Edward A. Dowey, Jr.: The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, New York, 1952, p. 100.
  2. Ibid., pp. 101f.
  3. Ed. John F. Walvoord: Inspiration and Interpretation, Grand Rapids, 1957, p. 137.
  4. Ibid., pp. 142f.
  5. Charles Augustus Briggs: The Bible the Church and the Reason, New York, 1892, pp. 219ff.; cf. pp. 110ff.
  6. Commentarius in Harmoniam Evangelicam, ad Matt. 27:9. Able expositors have found in Matt. 27:9 an allusion to Jeremiah, chapters 18 and 19: cf. E. W. Hengstenberg: Christology of the Old Testament, E.T., Vol. IV, Edinburgh, 1865, pp. 40ff. Hence it need not be maintained, as Calvin alleges, that the name Jeremiah is” here a textual error. As will be shown later, the mistake to which Calvin here refers is, in his esteem, one of textual corruption and not one on Matthew’s part.
  7. Commentarius in Acta Apostolorum ad Acts 7:14; E.T. by Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, 1949, Vol. I, pp. 263f.
  8. Ibid., ad Acts 7:16.
  9. The question turns on the difference of vowels attached to the same Hebrew consonants. If certain vowels are supplied, the term means “bed,” if others, “staff.” There is good ground for the latter alternative, following certain versions and Heb. 11:21.
  10. Commentarius in Epistolam ad Hebraeos, ad 11:21; E.T. by John Owen, Grand Rapids, 1948, p. 291.
  11. In quoting from the Institutes and Commentaries in the remaining part of this lecture, I have made use of the various translations. But I have often given my own rendering when I deemed it necessary to depart from the renderings of other translators. I believe these translations of mine are more pointed and accurate in reference to the subjects being discussed.
  12. “Argumentum in Evangelium Jesu Christi secundum Matthaeum, Marcum, et Lucam.”
  13. “Argumentum in Evangelium Ioannis.”
  14. Comm. ad Rom. 15:4.
  15. Op. cit., pp. 112, 115, 116.
  16. E. Doumergue: Jean Calvin: Les hommes et les choses de son temps, Tom. IV, Lausanne, 1910, p. 78. Doumergue’s discussion, referred to in these pages, is found in the tome cited above in pp. 70-82.
  17. Comm. ad II Tim. 3:16.
  18. Cf. citations given above.
  19. Op. cit., p. 76.
  20. Comm. ad Eph. 2:5.
  21. Heb. 9:1.
  22. Comm. ad I Tim. 1:3.
  23. Comm. ad James 4:7.
  24. Op. tit., p. 77.
  25. Comm. in Harmoniam Evangelicam, ad Matt. 9:18; E.T. by William Pringle, Grand Rapids, 1949, Vol. I, pp. 409f.
  26. “Argumentum in Evangelium Ioannis.”
  27. Op. cit., p. 77.
  28. Op. cit., pp. 78f.
  29. Comm. ad Rom. 10:6.
  30. Comm. ad Rom. 11:8.
  31. Comm. ad Eph. 4:8.
  32. C. A. Briggs: op. cit., p. 97; cf. pp. 98, 114.
  33. For a discussion of such questions cf. Edwin R. Thiele: The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, Chicago, 1951.


John Murray was a graduate of the University of Glasgow (1923) and of Princeton Theological Seminary (1927), and he studied at the University of Edinburgh during 1928 and 1929. In 1929-1930 he served on the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary. After that he taught at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where he served as Professor of Systematic Theology. He was a frequent contributor to theological journals and is the author of Christian Baptism (1952), Divorce (1953), Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), Principles of Conduct (1957), The Imputation of Adam's Sin (1960), Calvin on the Scriptures and Divine Sovereignty (1960), and The Epistle to the Romans (1968).

This article is one of three lectures given under the auspices of the Reformed Fellowship, Inc. in Grand Rapids, Michigan on May 21, 22, 26, 1959 in connection with the commemoration of the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin and the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the definitive edition of the The Institutes of the Christian Religion.


  Please join others who have commented upon this and other topics in our Discussion Group.

      Back to Library 

Return to the Main Highway 

Calvinism and the Reformed Faith Index