Inerrancy and the Reformers
A few weeks ago I posted something about Calvin and inerrancy. I argued that though he didn’t use the word (it wasn’t around), Calvin did believe what the word inerrancy defends. I posted the same piece on a blog site hosted by my denomination (Reformed Church in America).
Not surprisingly, a number of people (on the other site especially) pushed back, arguing that Calvin and the Reformed confessions do not teach inerrancy. You can go to the site and read the comments for yourself if you like. Since I broke my own rule and started engaging the comments I thought I’d at least turn that work into a blog post. I’ve pasted my responses below. To conserve space I’m not including the whole thread, but I’ve summarized the question or objection before each section. I think you’ll be able to figure out the nature of the questions and comments I’m responding to.
(If Calvin didn’t believe in a mechanical dictation theory of inspiration, why does he use the metaphor of dictation?)
The distinction is important. Conservatives are often charged with holding to a mechanical dictation theory of inspiration. And yet I’ve never know any well-respected evangelical who teaches this. Instead, evangelicals believe in a concursive theory of inspiration. This means that the words are still God’s words, but God used human personalities and skills in writing those words. This is why Paul reads different than Peter or why Luke investigated his history or why the Greek of Hebrews is much more difficult than John’s. The authors were not passive scribes merely taking dictation. And yet, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, their words are nothing less than God’s words. The authority of the text is as if the authors took down divine dictation, while the style of the texts still reflects the men who wrote them.
(Isn’t it true that the Three Forms of Unity–Heidelberg, Belgic, Dort–don’t affirm inerrancy but have a more dynamic view of Scripture?)
There are a lot of points deserving of response, but let me just address one.
I struggle to see how our confessions “clearly do not take the position of inerrancy.” I also fail to see how their approach to Scripture is more “dynamic.” Belgic Confession Article 3 explains that God committed his “revealed Word to writing” and that “we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures.” Does this not equate the Word with Holy Scripture? Calvin and the confessions believed the Bible is the Word of God, and to say that the Bible “contains” the Word of God or “expresses” the Word or “becomes” the Word to us, owes more to Barth than to Belgic. Perhaps we must conclude that Calvin and the Belgic Confession were wrong and Barth was right, but that does not change what our confessions teach.
Likewise, Article 5 says about the canonical books that “we believe without a doubt all things contained in them.” And Article 7 forbids us from adding to or subtracting from the Word of God, which in the next paragraph is equated with “divine writings.” In the paragraph prior we are warned against teaching “other than what the Holy Scriptures have already taught us.” Writings, Scriptures, Word of God are used interchangeably.
And finally, Article 7 calls us to “reject with all our hearts everything that does not agree with this infallible rule.” It’s always seemed straightforward to me that Articles 3-7 teach that the Scripture is the Word of God, and that we must never disagree with anything Scripture affirms for Scripture does not err.
(Haven’t you misread Calvin in thinking he would be comfortable with inerrancy?)
I suppose it goes without saying, but I don’t think I’ve misread Calvin. If we are to embrace without finding fault everything in Scripture, doesn’t that suggest we can never say “Well, that’s a mistake” to the Bible? And if we are to give to Scripture the same reverence we give to God, doesn’t that imply that we should never suggest the Scriptures make mistakes? I’ve always liked what I. John Hesselink said about Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture: “It would be difficult to find a higher view of Scripture than this unless one believed that the authors of Scripture were totally passive and simply wrote down what God dictated to them” (Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary, 56).
Likewise, I agree with Bavinck when he writes, “Calvin regards Scripture in the full and literal sense as the Word of God. While he does not recognize the Letter to the Hebrews as Pauline, he does consider it canonical, and he assumes the presence of error in Matthew 22:9 and 23:25 but not in the autographa. The Reformed confessions almost all have an article on Scripture and clearly express its divine authority; and all the Reformed theologians without exception take the same position.”
Later after noting the human side of Scripture, Bavinck says, “Also in that way there was not the least tendency to detract from the divinity and infallibility of Scripture. The writers were not authors but scribes, amanuenses, notaries, the hands and pens of God.” How can the scribes, notaries, hands and pens of God err?
A little further down Bavinck, commenting on the Reformers view of inspiration, remarks, “Inspiration extended to all chronological, historical, and geographical matters, indeed to the words, even the vowels and the diacritical marks” (Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1, 415). It sure sounds like Bavinck believed the Reformers (e.g., Calvin) believed the Bible was inerrant.
(Isn’t it the case the inerrancy is a modern invention and the reformers and their confessions did not affirm it?)
Zacharias Ursinus, principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism, commenting on Q/A 21, describes “the man who truly believes,” the man with “justifying faith,” saying:
He believes that every thing which the Scriptures contain is true, and from God. (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 111 [pagination may not be the same]).
In a nutshell, this is what I mean by inerrancy. There is nothing false in Scripture, no errors in fact or doctrine, no mistakes in history or theology. Everything in the Scriptures is true, because it is all from God. This is what our confessions teach, the Reformers taught, and how the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout history have understood the Scriptures. It’s also how Jesus and the apostles approached the Old Testament.