Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Calvin on Scripture, Humanity and Sin

Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture

A common theme to these two articles on Calvin[1] is the reference to the inward persuasion of the Spirit of the authority of Scripture. This conclusion is undeniable, considering Calvin’s argument that “our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons; namely, the secret testimony of the Spirit,”[2] and, further, “Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit.”[3] However, Dowey seems to place more emphasis than McGowan on Calvin having a slant toward inerrancy. He argues Calvin’s “doctrine of the testimony of the Spirit points to a miraculous, supernaturally induced, suprarational conviction that is essentially inaccessible to criticism,”[4] and we are convinced of this, not by any proof or reason, but purely by the Spirit. These proofs are helpful but only in a secondary position, once the Spirit has convinced the reader of Scripture’s authority.[5] The Spirit’s testimony is the only possible illumination.

McGowan’s discussion over Calvin’s approach to inerrancy[6] concluded that his approach didn’t fit either position.[7] Instead his doctrine viewed Scripture as deriving its authority solely from the Spirit. No church governance, reason or proof can prove its authority, for it can only be authoritative after an internal persuasion of the Spirit. He argues that once the inward persuasion of the Spirit happens, “the believer no longer doubts the truth of Scripture but accepts it,” and “having been inwardly persuaded of the authority of Scripture by this testimony of the Spirit, the believer can have absolute certainty of both the origin and truth of Scripture.”[8] Scripture is a vehicle through which the Spirit speaks, who inspires and carries it along. McGowan argues that Calvin saw Scripture as authoritative not because of the text itself, but because of the Spirit; “Calvin does not base his high view of the authority of Scripture on the edifice of a perfect autographic text but on the work of the Holy Spirit in the creation, recognition and understanding of the Scriptures.”[9]

Both articles seem to place an overemphasis on the discussion regarding inerrancy.[10] Calvin was less concerned with tedious discussion over minor errors and far more concerned with the Spirit’s ongoing activity. Scripture, in itself, doesn’t – nor was it ever intended to – hold authority, rather this authority comes from the Spirit. Calvin seems to presuppose Scripture’s inerrancy and his argument is primarily that Scripture still has divine authority, over and against the Church. His doctrine was more concerned with the application of the Bible, particularly concerning ecclesiology, than in arguing for inerrancy. Greater discussion should have been given to Calvin’s view of Scripture deriving its authority not from humanity, but from the Spirit, which seems to be the greater emphasis in his argument. Whilst inerrancy seems an alarmingly short-sighted view of Scripture, Calvin effectively reminds the Church of the universality of the Spirit and the truths He can reveal.

Calvin’s Doctrine of Humanity

Calvin’s doctrine on humanity is invariably one of his hardest to understand but from the outset it is vital to understand, as Miles eloquently notes, “Calvin had one central interest which strongly organized his theological work: demonstrating, maintaining, and heightening the “glory of God,” the pervasiveness and finality of God’s ubiquitous will and work in the universe and in human affairs.”[11] In all he does, God’s glory is demonstrable. As we recognize God’s glory we then recognize our sin,

It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity.[12]

It is clear, then, that Calvin’s approach to anthropology begins in an understanding of our place before God, deprave beings, and “none but He…dwell [in] the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness.”[13] This is somewhat contrary to Engel’s understanding, who argues for a “perspectival anthropology,” in that there is no one primary perspective to understanding Calvin’s anthropology, but several, depending on the context of the discussion, i.e. in relation to creation, or to sin, or a combination of both.[14] While parts of her discussion are convincing, Engel’s argument that there is no over-arching theme is not. From the very beginning, Calvin surely recognizes humanity primarily in relation to our position before God.[15]

Our sin has soiled the imago Dei, but has not removed it completely. Calvin states that “the image of God extends to everything in which the nature of man surpasses that of all other species of animals,”[16] and that our mind and our soul, having the ability to contemplate God, reflect his image, while our fleshly body can never be present in the Lord.[17] Neuser notes that “for Calvin, the imago Dei is only fully realized in heaven,”[18] and focussing on the Pauline understanding of the ‘renovated man,’ Calvin concludes that the basis of the imago Dei “is to be discovered in some elevation of the created nature, in some gift bestowed gratuitously on created nature.[19] Calvin’s doctrine of humanity is not found primarily in our being created as imago Dei but that the Spirit transforms us into the imago Dei. Our blessed position as image of God was lost in the fall, destroyed by sin, but some aspect remains, yet not enough to fulfill the definition of imago Dei.[20] Calvin argues,

When treating of the removal of the image…the inference is obvious, that man was conformable to God, but not by an influx of substance, but by the grace and virtue of the Spirit. He says, that by beholding the glory of Christ, we are transformed into the same image as by the Spirit of the Lord.[21]

Calvin’s Doctrine of Sin

It is difficult to ascertain a great distinction between sin and humanity in Calvin’s Institutes. As noted in the above discussion on Calvin’s doctrine on humanity, his starting point for discussing humanity is in recognition of sin; likewise, his starting point is similar regarding sin, in that as we gaze upon God, we inevitably recognize our depravity and our sin.[22] Calvin goes on to say that recognizing our own sin in light of God’s glory brings us to humility[23] and that the tree was a test to see if Adam might prove his submission to God.[24] Adam “possessed freedom of will, by which, if he chose, he was able to obtain eternal life…it was only by his own will that he fell.”[25] On this, Niesel notes that “what man is becomes clear only when he is confronted by the truth itself,”[26] and later argues that we choose our own sin and Christ saves us, not from some “external compulsion,” but by transforming our heart, re-orientating us toward righteousness.[27] According to Calvin, Adam was not given the ability to persevere in that upright state, but does not explain why.[28] He states,

The only explanation which can be given of the expression, “in Adam all died,” is, that he by sinning not only brought disaster and ruin upon himself, but also plunged our nature into like destruction; and that not only in one fault, in a matter not pertaining to us, but by the corruption into which he himself fell, he infected his whole seed.[29]

It is clear to see he is responding against Pelagians of his day, who argued for pious self-salvation.[30] He elsewhere argues that Pelagius, seeking to deny original sin, caused an “error so gross,”[31] and responded by arguing, “We are despoiled of the excellent gifts of the Holy Spirit, of the light of reason, of justice, and of rectitude, and are prone to every evil; that we are also lost and condemned, and subjected to death, is both our hereditary condition, and, at the same time, a just punishment.”[32] By this Calvin can say that even infants are sinful by virtue of their being human.[33]

Therefore, God is not to be blamed.[34] According to Calvin, sin is a parasite; it cannot create, only destroy. Yet, cannot destroy completely, for while there is no good in us that allows us to rise up to God, we can still reflect God’s glory; “For Calvin, then, depravity was total in its extensiveness, not in its intensiveness.”[35] Horton further states,

Fallen human beings are not irreligious, but idolatrous. The image must be suppressed because it is still there. Like a mirror that reveals a reflection that we do not want to see, it must be distorted, covered over, smeared with mud. Because it reflects the God whose existence stands over against us in judgment, the image of God is no longer redolent of high office, but is a burden to be cast off. Precisely because it cannot be eradicated, it is disfigured beyond recognition.[36]


Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries: Genesis. Translated by John King. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.

Dowey, Edward A. The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952.

Engel, Mary Potter. John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1988.

Horton, Michael S. “A Shattered Vase: The Tragedy of Sin in Calvin’s Thought.” In Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, edited by Peter A. Lillback David W. Hall. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2008.

McGowan, A. T. B. “John Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture.” In Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of His Quincentenary, edited by David W. Hall. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing Company, 2010.

Miles, Margaret R. “Theology, Anthropology, and the Human Body in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Harvard Theological Review 74, no. 3 (1981): 303-323.

Neuser, Wilhelm H. Calvinus Sacrae Scripturae Professor: Calvin as Confessor of Holy Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Niesel, Wilhelm. The Theology of Calvin. Translated by Harold Knight. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956.

Reymond, Robert L. “Calvin’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture.” In Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, edited by Peter A. Lillback David W. Hall. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing Company, 2008.

[1] Edward A. Dowey, The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952). Pp. 106-125. and A. T. B. McGowan, “John Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture,” in Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of His Quincentenary, ed. David W. Hall(Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing Company, 2010). Pp. 356-380.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans., Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989). 1.vii.4.

[3] Ibid. 1.vii.5.

[4] Dowey. 123. The point of interest in this quote is his assertion that, according to Calvin, Scripture is essentially beyond criticism. In other words – and he discusses in further detail in his article – that while parts are historically dubious (p.123), the whole is entirely authentic, historical and rational (pp.123-24).

[5] However, Dowey disagrees with these proofs due to contemporary historical criticism contradicting much of what Calvin said, (p.113).

[6] McGowan. Rogers and McKim and Briggs argued against Calvin being an inerrantist; Murray, Woodbridge and Reymond advocated this position (pp.356-57, 360-64).

[7] McGowan argues “that attempting to force Calvin into accepting one or the other of these two positions…has led to a distortion and misinterpretation of Calvin’s own thinking,” (p.357). It does seem, however, that his argument was biased toward a rejection of inerrancy in Calvin’s doctrine.

[8] McGowan. 371.

[9] Ibid. 379.

[10] It seems more likely that Calvin was, in fact, and inerrantist, disagreeing with McGowan, especially considering his view that Scripture was given to correct human error, hence Scripture itself must not have error (Calvin, Calvin states, “Scripture exhibits clear evidence of its being spoken by God, and, consequently, of its containing his heavenly doctrine,” (1.vii.4) and Reymond, having detailed parameters in which Calvin’s mention of minor historical discrepancies do not imply error, argues that “Calvin’s concern was to show that the biblical writers did not commit error…we must in fairness to Calvin declare that he stood with the church of all ages and did in fact believe that the Bible’s original autographs were inerrant,” (Robert L. Reymond, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture,” in Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, ed. Peter A. Lillback David W. Hall(Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing Company, 2008). 63-64. Reymond’s approach seems preferable.

[11] Margaret R. Miles, “Theology, Anthropology, and the Human Body in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Harvard Theological Review 74, no. 3 (1981). 303. She further argued that according to Calvin, humans are simply foils demonstrating God’s glory; our depravity elevates God’s grandeur, (p. 304).

[12] Calvin. 1.i.2. Engel’s argument is valid, when she argues that “Calvin never intended theology and anthropology to be mutually exclusive,” instead they “belong together,” (Mary Potter Engel, John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1988). 189).

[13] Calvin. 1.i.1.

[14] Engel. 189-193. Engel’s argument is essentially that rather than looking at Calvin’s anthropology primarily pessimistically through an understanding of the relationship between humanity and sin; or optimistically through an understanding of the relationship between humanity and creation; or contradictorily through an understanding of the relationship between humanity and a combination of both; we can view Calvin’s anthropology from different perspectives depending on the discussion’s relation to either creation or redemption. In other words, rather than formulating an over-arching doctrine, we can see different perspectives and implications. Rather than a rigid analysis, his doctrine is flexible. In discussing humanity, there is no black and white, and Calvin does not try to make it so. Humanity is mysterious and “must be described from conflicting viewpoints,” (pp. 191-193).

[15] Horton argues that “for Calvin human dignity rather than depravity must be the starting point for anthropology,” (Michael S. Horton, “A Shattered Vase: The Tragedy of Sin in Calvin’s Thought,” in Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, ed. Peter A. Lillback David W. Hall(Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2008). 165). However, this conclusion seems to be misleading when one considers that Calvin’s very first chapter has to do with our sinful state before God’s glory. Human dignity is important and prominent in Calvin’s Institutes, but it seems more likely that his starting point was, in fact, human depravity.

[16] Calvin. 1.xv.3.

[17] Ibid. 1.xv.2-3.

[18] Wilhelm H. Neuser, Calvinus Sacrae Scripturae Professor: Calvin as Confessor of Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). 179.

[19] Ibid. 181. Emphasis mine.

[20] Ibid. 188.

[21] Calvin. 1.xv.5.

[22] Cf. Ibid. 1.i.1.

[23] Ibid. 2.i.1-2.

[24] Ibid. 2.i.4.

[25] Ibid. 1.xv.8.

[26] Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, trans., Harold Knight (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956). 80.

[27] Ibid. 85-87.

[28] Calvin. 1.xv.8.

[29] Ibid. 2.i.6. He further argues, “Original sin…may be defined a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and then produces in us works which in Scripture are termed works of the flesh,” (Institutes. 2.i.8).

[30] Horton. 160.

[31] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Genesis, trans., John King, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984). 154.

[32] Ibid. 155.

[33] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2.i.8.

[34] Horton notes, “Not nature as fashioned by the hand of God, but the wilful decision of the covenant partner to violate the commission entrusted to him, was the locus of misery in the world,” (Horton. 154-155).

[35] Ibid. 160.

[36] Ibid. 158.

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