In the greatest work of his lifetime, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin addresses a whole gamut of Christian theology, spanning 1800 pages in my McNeill — Battles edition. It’s a heavy read, but definitely worth your time. As I’m working through it slowly over the course of 2016, I will be posting some of my reflections and some of his counsel here and there, similar to a recent piece I recently wrote on John Owen.
Today we will be examining the contents of Chapter Eight of Book One, in which Calvin seeks to demonstrate a variety of “sufficiently firm proofs” for the credibility of Scripture. He spends the chapter outlining compelling arguments and human reasons why we can trust in Scripture as a divine Word, refuting the objections of skeptics and “[the] heinous sacrilege [of] these rascals.”
Calvin opens up the chapter with a few comments on Scripture’s superiority over human wisdom, first explaining the role of faith and certainty in its authority:
Unless this certainty, higher and stronger than any human judgment, be present, it will be vain to fortify the authority of Scripture by arguments, to establish it by common agreement of the church or to confirm it with other helps. For unless this foundation is laid, its authority will always remain in doubt. Conversely, once we have embraced it devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, these arguments — not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds — become very useful aids. (1.8.1)
Calvin contends that we cannot simply argue for Scripture’s authority from external proofs, which would elevate reason as a higher authority than Scripture. Scripture’s authority must attest to itself, which ultimately involves elements of divine revelation and faith. Only then must we use proofs of human reason to further build on this testimony, keeping Scripture’s authority in tact. Calvin succinctly summarizes his position: “Truth is cleared of all doubt when, not sustained by external props, it serves as its own support.”
Calvin’s point is clear: Scripture doesn’t need to prove its authority apologetically divorced from itself, because it itself is the proof. Nonetheless, Calvin recognizes the importance of secondary “external props,” not making them the foundation for the argument, but excellent additional icing for the cake. He then begins to walk through these nine compelling arguments for Scripture’s credibility:
Proof #1: Scripture Affects Us Unlike Any Other.
There is a “deep impression” that Scripture leaves upon us that no human author could possibly replicate. Calvin invites us to test his theory, and is worth quoting at length here:
Read Demosthenes or Cicero; read Plato, Aristotle, and others of that tribe. They will, I admit, allure you, delight you, move you, enrapture you in wonderful measure. But betake yourself from them to [Scripture]…Then, in spite of yourself, so deeply will it affect you, so penetrate your heart, so fix itself in your very marrow, that, compared with its deep impression, such vigor as the orators and philosophers have will nearly vanish. (1.8.1)
Especially speaking broadly in terms of human history, we have witnessed how the affections of humans have been stirred by Scripture over millennia, and how no other work has evoked such widespread response. From those cut to the heart by Peter’s message at Pentecost to John Wesley’s strangely warmed heart at Aldersgate, Scripture has proved to “far surpass all gifts and graces of human endeavor.”
Proof #2: The Thoughts of Scripture Are Humanly Inconceivable.
Calvin asserts that the human mind doesn’t have the capacity to invent the unsearchable wisdom of Scripture. It is “crammed with thoughts that could not be humanly conceived.” He spends some time comparing the complexity of the topics and concepts of Scripture with the simplicity of the human author’s language and education.
Proof #3: The Unsurpassed Antiquity of Scripture.
“Sacred Scripture,” according to Calvin, “outstrips all other writings in antiquity.” His main argument is that no other religion matches Scripture’s ancient times, and that the figures of Moses and the like preceded men like Homer and the ancient philosophers. Further, over the course of the Old and New Testament, we find Biblical figures continually pointing back to Eden, to the days of Abraham, and so forth. The ancient-ness of Scripture is something to marvel at.
Proof #4: The Miracles.
Miracles are seemingly impossible happenings that occur, and the Scriptures are filled with miraculous events from beginning to end. Calvin’s point is that these miracles serve as “confirmations of the law” and “strengthen the authority of God’s messengers.” He spends most of his time talking about the incontestable miracles surrounding Moses. He addresses his objectors here:
If anyone should object that I am taking as fact what is controversial, this subtle objection is easy to answer. Inasmuch as Moses published all these things before the congregation, among eyewitnesses of the events what opportunity was there for fraud? Moses would, of course, have appeared before the people, rebuked them for their unfaithfulness, obstinacy, ungratefulness, and other offenses, and then would have boasted that under their very eyes his doctrine had been authenticated by miracles that they had never seen! (1.8.6)
Proof #5: The Confirmation and Consistency of Prophecy.
This proof is an important one, as we witness how the messages of various prophets, scattered over various times in various places with no ability to know each other, are sending the same messages. The most plausible explanation is that these messages are coming from one divine source. Calvin gives an example, calling this “a proof too clear to be open to any subtle objection.”
Jeremiah and Ezekiel, far apart yet prophesying at that same time, in all their statements commonly agreed as if each had dictated the other’s words. What of Daniel? Did he not so clothe his prophecies of future events almost to the six hundredth year as if he were writing a history of past events generally known?(1.8.8)
Proof #6: The Preservation of the Scriptures.
There is something to be said about not only how quickly Scripture has spread, but how it has been preserved over millennia. Some have claimed that Scripture was simply a fabrication, but Calvin is perplexed by this. “Since Antiochus (they say) ordered all books to be burned (1 Macc. 1:56–57), where did the copies that we now have come from? But I, in turn, ask, in what workshop could they have been fabricated so quickly?” Calvin posits that the Lord played a key role in preserving the contents and spread of the Word.
Proof #7: The Apostles’ Lack of Education.
This seems like a humorous point, but there is a lot of truth in it. The apostles, frankly, were “rude, uneducated men.” They “had learned nothing in the school of men that they could pass on to others.” He reflects on Paul’s bewildering transformation from Saul and how that confirms his point. “These men who, previously contemptible among common folk, suddenly began to discourse so gloriously of the heavenly mysteries must have been instructed by the Spirit.”
Proof #8: Scripture Continues to Prevail.
“The whole power of earth has armed itself to destroy it, yet all these efforts have gone up in smoke.” Lining up nicely with Proof #6, Calvin makes the observation that “human protection alone” could not have protected Scripture from ultimate defeat. Yet, we see “with all human efforts striving against it, still it has of its own power thus far prevailed.” It is not limited to one people group or state, but has prevailed in every corner of the earth.
Proof #9: People Have Gladly Died For It.
I have always personally found this to be one of the most compelling proofs for Scripture’s credibility, and Calvin is sure to hammer it home as well. Martyrs for the Word of God “did not hesistate,” but “courageously and intrepidly, and even with great eagerness, [suffered] death for it.” We have seen countless examples over the course of human history who have died gladly in support of God, which has served like gasoline for our fire. Who would die for a message they knew or felt was a farce? There are many things in life I love that I wouldn’t die for, and I only hope that I would die for my faith like these many men did.