Calvin on ‘Self-Authentication’

Neal Judisch Jun 08, 2009 21

If the Bible alone is our authority, shouldn’t we be able to prove this from the Bible?  If we can’t, and if we accept it nevertheless, doesn’t that mean that we’re de facto accepting an authority over and above the Bible?  And don’t we have to do this just to delineate which books are Scriptural?  And doesn’t all this business involve us in some sort of self-referential incoherence?

I heard about this problem years ago as a young Reformed Christian and it struck me as one of those “Can God make a stone so big He can’t lift it” quibbles: an annoying question to which somebody or other had the answer but which certainly wasn’t going to consume my time and energy. But after a while I didn’t think it was just a quibble and I wanted to hear what the answer was supposed to be.

As it turned out, there were really just three: (i) Calvin’s misleadingly characterized “Scripture is self-authenticating” response; (ii) the popularly advanced “Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible documents” response; (iii) the “Look, we just need to have faith in the Bible and not bother about this” response – a response which on its most plausible reading just meant we had to have faith in the Church. Here I want to focus primarily on (i), which expresses a response I memorized and subsequently advanced, but which, I think, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Here is the locus classicus of the “Scripture-forms-itself-all-by-itself” position, as advanced in Calvin’s Institutes:

But a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church. As if the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended upon the decision of men! For they mock the Holy Spirit when they ask … Who can persuade us to receive one book in reverence but to exclude another, unless the church prescribe a sure rule for all these matters? What reverence is due Scripture and what books ought to be reckoned within its canon, they say, rests upon the determination of the church … Yet if this is so, what will happen to miserable consciences seeking firm assurance of eternal life if all promises of it consist in and depend solely upon the judgment of men?

It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church and that its certainty depends upon churchly assent. Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to the Scriptures, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial … As to their question – How can we be assured that this has sprung from God unless we have recourse to the decree of the church? – it is as if someone asked: Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.

Let this point therefore stand: those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork!1

Putting to one side his characteristically passionate rhetoric, Calvin’s response is inadequate.

First, he clearly conflates two claims which are crucial to distinguish at the outset by speaking as though an infallible, Spirit-guided recognition of which books were inspired and which were not is equivalent to the Church’s somehow making those books inspired or investing them with a divine authority they didn’t previously possess.  This is a confusion. Whether a book is inspired or not depends solely upon whether the Holy Spirit “moved” its human author to write it or not. If He did, the thing’s inspired and authoritative and it ought, in accordance with God’s good pleasure, to go in the canon. If not, it shouldn’t; case closed. It’s a different question entirely to ask by what means we can tell which of the books in question actually have this inspired status. And if the Catholic claims that the Holy Spirit infallibly led the Church to recognize the right books and thus make the right decision, it by no means follows that which books actually possess this status – which books objectively, apart from anyone’s decision, really do contain the “eternal” and “inviolable truth of God” – somehow depends upon “the decisions of men,” or that the “promises of God” “depend upon their judgment” and must be “rendered authentic” by them. So whatever’s he’s refuting here it’s not the Catholic position.

Second, his own theory simply comes down to the idea that each individual can replace the Church’s activity in this regard – that although it’s demeaning to Scripture and indeed sacrilegious to say that the Spirit can tell the Church in Council which books are inspired and which are not, it’s God-honoring and perfectly pious to say that He does this with each particular person, as a kind of little church standing alone, one by one.

Now Calvin, I honestly believe, didn’t see himself as doing this. But this was because he clouded the issue by assuming (as have many following him) that when something seems clear and evident to him it’s got to be because the Spirit is speaking directly to him, giving him the unvarnished news, as it were, whereas anyone who doesn’t see precisely the same thing must not enjoy that unmediated spiritual insight he has but is instead being blinded by some or other interpretive “filter.” The misled might feel just as inwardly certain about their own beliefs as he does, of course, but if so they’re just deluding themselves, mistaking their own unfounded psychological certainty for the testimony of God Himself.

This is a fairly typical Enlightenment notion to which both philosophers and theologians in that era tended to fall prey, and it is what explains his otherwise perplexing claim that he’s somehow able to set his “reasoning” and “judgment” aside, allowing the Spirit to tell him “inwardly” what’s what in a way that evidently involves no intellectual or cognitive activity of his own. In effect, the idea underlying his thought was that you could eliminate the “middle man” by insisting that you had direct and untarnished access to the truth, while the folks who disagreed with you didn’t see that same truth either because they were not “inwardly taught” by the Spirit, or because they were looking at it indirectly, through an interpretive or traditional grid which blinded and led them astray – a condition from which you yourself couldn’t possibly suffer.

And this, in turn, is what explains how he can say that the Scriptures are “self-authenticating” when the only thing that can mean in this context is “infallibly recognized as authentic by me.” This is of course not to say Calvin consciously believed himself to be infallible, but rather that he believed the Spirit to be infallible, and believed that the Spirit infallibly testified to him personally about the canon, while ensuring that he would infallibly receive the testimony given. (In other words he was a kind of one-man magisterium, sans the obligation to uphold Tradition.)

Once this maneuver is seen for what it is the parallel between the Catholic and the Calvinist position should become obvious. This parallel is obscured by the confusion we noted above, which leads Calvin to lay out the false dichotomy upon which his argument relies: if one says that the Holy Spirit guided the Church by enabling her to infallibly recognize inspired texts for what they are, that is supposed to be equivalent to saying that these texts are “rendered” inspired by the Church and given an authenticity they do not intrinsically have. On the other hand, if one says that the Holy Spirit guides individual Christians by enabling them to infallibly recognize inspired texts for what they are, that’s only to say that the texts are “self-authenticating.”

But there is no principled reason for making this distinction. If Scripture is “self-authenticating” in the latter case it is equally “self-authenticating” in the former, but if it isn’t in the former it cannot be in the latter either. So either (a) in both cases Scripture possesses the marks of divine authorship in itself and the Spirit brings this fact to human attention, thereby testifying to Scripture’s divine source, or (b) in both cases we “vainly pretend that the power of judging Scripture” lies in humans, so that “its certainty depends” ultimately upon human assent. There is absolutely zero reason to think that substituting the individual for the Church could make any difference to this, and it is disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that Catholics, as opposed to Calvinists, just sort of leave the Holy Spirit out of the equation, or that “miserable consciences seeking firm assurance of eternal life” are any better off when they rely on their own “determination” of the canon as opposed to the “determination” of the Universal Church.

Which brings me to my final point. What makes Calvin’s proposal attractive is his rightful insistence that the Holy Spirit provides us with testimony and assurance as to the truth of the Word and its applicability to us, and that this truth “seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” Yet it is a further step to say that any true Christian will therefore be able infallibly to determine what is inspired and what is not quite as easily as they perceive the difference “between white and black.” I don’t think I’m betraying my lack of communion with the Spirit one bit when I admit that my bosom burns just as brightly upon reading Wisdom as it does upon reading Proverbs, and that I frankly get a good deal fewer warm fuzzies from Ecclesiastes than I get from Ecclesiasticus. And I am certain I’m not deficient in this respect. For can anyone truly put their hand over their heart and pretend they see exactly why Esther should be in the canon, whereas Judith obviously shouldn’t? Or why St. Jude’s epistle made it in while St. Clement’s epistle, for instance, had to be left out? And does anyone really want to say that their own personal insight and receptiveness to the Spirit are so much superior to, say, those of St. Augustine, who insisted upon the inclusion of all those deuterocanonical books Protestants like Calvin reject? I, for one, simply cannot bring myself to adopt Calvin’s hypothesis if it means accepting the patently ridiculous inference that men like St. Augustine either are not real Christians or are just too blind to see black and white.

Suppose then we reject the idea that each individual Christian infallibly knows what counts as Scripture and what doesn’t, and suppose we likewise reject the Catholic proposal. This leaves us with the alternative that the decisions reached at Hippo and Carthage (e.g) were possibly, maybe even probably, correct – at least as far as the New Testament goes – but that these decisions weren’t infallibly made, so that neither we nor they can have strict certainty that the decisions reached there were right. This is more or less the solution of R.C. Sproul and others, which they express in the slogan that the Bible is “a fallible collection of infallible books.”2 It is a deeply unsatisfactory solution. One cannot claim that Christians may have complete certainty regarding the words and promises of Scripture while simultaneously denying them certainty about which of the words and promises are Scriptural. Nor can one suggest that the Protestant tradition’s view of the Bible is superior to the Catholic’s, if the Catholic can know with certainty what belongs to Scripture and the Protestant cannot. That’s all I guess I have to say about this.

The final solution is similar in some ways to Calvin’s in that it does not seek to determine the canon by “reasoning” or principled “marks” of genuineness, but it differs in a crucial way. It is represented by Robert Reymond just below:

To such questions [about the canon] no answers can be given that will fully satisfy the mind that desires to think autonomously, that is, independently from Scripture. For regardless of whether or not the Christian scholar thinks he possesses the one right criterion or the one right list of criteria for a given book’s canonicity, at some point – and if at no other point, at least, at the point of the established number, namely, twenty-seven New Testament books, not twenty-six or twenty-eight – the Christian must accept by faith that the church, under the providential guidance of God’s Spirit, got the number and the “list” right since God did not provide the church with a specific list of New Testament books. All that we know for certain about the history of the first four centuries of the church would suggest that God’s Spirit providentially led His church – imperceptively [sic] yet inexorably – when it asked its questions, whatever they were, to adopt the twenty-seven documents that the Godhead had determined would serve as the foundation of the church’s doctrinal teaching and thus bear infallible witness throughout the Christian era to the great objective central events of redemptive history, and that this “apostolic tradition” authenticated and established itself over time in the mind of the church as just this infallible foundation and witness.3

Now on one reading this statement contains a Protestant solution which provides false comfort, and on another reading it contains a comforting response which Protestants cannot comfortably adopt. On the first reading we’re told we should forget about the question and stop trying to think “autonomously,” that we should instead just think according to those books of the Bible whose list and number were decided upon by somebody else. This just pushes the question back a step. The Christians involved in those Councils certainly couldn’t ignore questions about “criteria” and simply “think according to” a list and specific number of documents when that list and number were the very things about which it was their job to decide. On the other hand, he clearly states that the decision they made was providentially and infallibly guided by the Spirit, which is definitely a solution into which I can sink my teeth. The only drawback of course is that it’s the Catholic’s solution. And the only problem with a Protestant proposing it is that Protestantism specifically repudiates the theological underpinning which gives us any reason to think it true. For how can we consistently “accept by faith” that God infallibly guided a Church Council just long enough to get our canon established, only to turn around and try to argue from the canon we’ve just been handed that God doesn’t do that sort of thing, since the canon itself is the only infallible authority we’ve got? And how could our belief in the exclusive infallible authority of the Bible be consistent, if our certainty about what makes up the Bible in the first place inevitably borrows from a piece of Catholic doctrine – even if only temporarily – which is flatly incompatible with that belief?

Does any of this amount to a knockdown argument? I’m not sure. In both theology and in philosophy, the sort of ‘knockdown’ arguments which wrestle you to the mat and compel you to accept some or other conclusion are extremely hard to come by – especially when they are evaluated in isolation from surrounding, salient facts. Still, this at least seems to me to be true. If we are to take a ‘presuppositional-style’ approach, an approach with which many Reformed folks are sympathetic, and ask which overall view (the Protestant or the Catholic) is, for example, most internally consistent and coherent, and which of the views seems to collapse under its own weight, then there is nothing problematic about the Catholic stance vis-à-vis Scripture and Tradition, whereas the Protestant approach appears to be beset with irremediable internal conflicts. On the one hand, we are told that since Scripture’s the only authority we cannot legitimately “go beyond” what it says; yet we have to “go beyond” what it says just to specify which texts are the Scriptures that we are not supposed to go beyond. And once we arrive at these Scriptures, however we ultimately do, we are supposed to hold fast to the thesis that nothing is to be accepted unless it’s Scripturally demonstrable, a thesis which cannot itself be Scripturally demonstrated. So, we again have to go beyond Scripture just to specify that we are not allowed to do that.

To be sure, these theses are indeed integral parts of a theological tradition with respect to which any Christian can justifiably be proud. But pride in the tradition is one thing, and Biblical support for (distinctive aspects of) that tradition is another. And that is precisely what, in the final analysis, the tradition in question most centrally needs. But whereas this tradition is quite right to insist that the Bible gives us the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth – still, it has to make room for the significant fact that Scripture itself must have something relevant in view when it identifies the Church as that Truth’s “Pillar and Support” (1 Tim 3:15).

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.vii.1, 2, 5, John T. McNeill, ed., trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, pp. 75-76, 80.
  2. R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House (1992), p. 22.
  3. Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Thomas Nelson (1998), p. 67.