Inerrancy and Church History: Calvin and Luther

Both Martin Luther and John Calvin spoke often of their view of Scripture. Luther’s understanding of biblical inerrancy, like his predecessors (in the early church and middle ages), grew from his belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture. As Lutheran historian Robert Preus summarizes, “Luther’s notion of biblical infallibility arose from his firm belief that the Bible is the Word of God and that God spoke to him there powerfully and authoritatively” (Preus, “Luther and Biblical Infallibility,” in Inerrancy and the Church, 110).

Also like his historical forerunners, Luther does not dedicate a particular volume or treatise to articulating a formal doctrine of Scripture; his commitment to divine inspiration is assumed throughout his writings. Nevertheless, as Preus observes, “one can find scores of statements of Luther’s in which he expressly asserts that Scripture is God’s Word” (Preus, 110).   Furthermore, Luther’s commitment to biblical inerrancy followed the tradition established in the early church through the middle ages. That is, Luther believed that Scripture could not contradict itself and that it was truthful in all it affirmed—in matters historical, geographical, scientific, and spiritual.

Several statements from Luther illustrate such a commitment. For example, Luther comments, “It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it only appears so to senseless and obstinate hypocrites” (Preus, “The View of the Bible Held by the Church: The Early Church Through Luther,” in Inerrancy, 380). To Luther, Scripture contained no mistakes and was therefore the standard by which to judge the theological statements of others (Woodbridge, Biblical Authority, 53.). Moreover, to attribute error to Scripture would be to impugn God with the attempt to deceive. “Consequently, we must remain content with them [words], and cling to them as perfectly clear, certain, sure words of God which can never deceive us or allow us to err” (Woodbridge, 53). In this last quote, it seems most natural to understand Luther to be classifying error in a comprehensive sense: God does not deceive on any matter.

John Calvin also shared Luther’s commitment with regard to Scripture. Commenting on 2 Timothy 3:16—a crucial text for establishing the doctrine of inspiration—Calvin not only strongly affirmed the divine authorship of Scripture, but also the idea that Scripture is without error.

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, but that, being organs of the Holy Spirit, they only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare. . . . Moses and the prophets did not utter at random what we have received from their hand, but, speaking at the suggestion of God, they boldly and fearlessly testified, what was actually true, that it was the mouth of the Lord that spake (Calvin, Second Timothy).

His conclusion—“that we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it”—underscores the fact that Calvin precluded any human interference between God and the written word. A safe inference here would be that error is one of the human elements that the Holy Spirit kept from Scripture. That is not to suggest that Calvin held to a strict dictation theory of inspiration; indeed, he affirmed that the authors of Scripture freely wrote according to their own style and research.

Such freedom, however, did not diminish divine superintendence or necessitate the introduction of error into the original text. In fact, statements from Calvin strongly imply that attribution of error to human authors would impugn the divine author. For example, in an attempt to deal with an alleged discrepancy in the creation narrative (Gen 1:16), Calvin provides a reason for why Moses would speak of the moon (the lesser light) as second only to the sun (the greater light) when it is clear to astronomers that Saturn is larger than the moon.

If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common   usage . . . . There is therefore no reason why [critics] should deride the unskillfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes (Calvin, Genesis).

Thus, Moses was not in error by calling the moon the lesser light; he was only accommodating himself to his human readers.   As his statements concerned earth-dwellers and their reliance upon the sun and moon for distinguishing signs and seasons, Moses spoke appropriately and accurately. There was an underlying motivation, however, that grew from Calvin’s commitment to the doctrine of inspiration to deal rightly with these apparent discrepancies: to imply that Moses made a mistake when he wrote the Genesis account was to suggest that the Holy Spirit made a mistake. Indeed, it was ultimately the Spirit who accommodated himself to human beings. Regarding the language used in Genesis 1:16, Calvin comments, “[S]ince the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all” (Calvin, Genesis). If Moses made an error, the Holy Spirit made an error. Such an idea was unthinkable for Calvin.

Thus, we see Calvin’s commitment to inerrancy not only in explicit statements, but also in his exegetical practice; namely, in his relentless efforts at harmonizing apparent discrepancies in the text. Attempts to reconcile passages and provide answers to problem passages are found throughout his various writings and were sustained by a commitment to the divine authorship of the Bible. John Woodbridge comments, “Calvin’s own efforts at harmonizing the Scriptures were based on the premise that the ‘truth of God’ undergirded what the biblical authors penned under the influence of the Holy Spirit” (Woodbridge, 58). In certain instances, when Calvin found himself confronted by what he perceived as an error in the text, he, like is predecessor, Augustine, would find resolution to the alleged discrepancies in granting that errors may have crept into subsequent copies of Scripture (Woodbridge, 61). The original text, however, could not contain any error.

It should also be noted that during the Reformation, not only did Reformers like Luther and Calvin express through their various writings that they believed the Bible to be without error, but ensuing Protestant debates with the Roman Catholic Church demonstrated that, despite their differences with regard to soteriology and ecclesiology, both groups held to biblical inerrancy (Woodbridge, 69-72). Such views of Scripture would continue into the post-Reformation and modern period.  We will examine this time period in the next article.

12 thoughts on “Inerrancy and Church History: Calvin and Luther”

  1. I find this so simplistic. I love God and I honor his word, but to say that there is absolutely no human error in scripture anywhere is foolish. What about Paul’s repeated insistence that Jesus was returning within his lifetime, therefore leading him to suggest marriage is more or less in vain, unless you have no self-control? What about the fact that the “hero” Luther HATED Jews, and, in fact, advocated that their synagogues be burned to the ground? I hate this hero worship of mere men like Luther and Calvin. They may have been intelligent, but they were not perfect, so how can we assume that their views are perfect? Ridiculous.

    1. MF, In part I agree with your analysis, that the words of Calvin and Luther are not substantial enough to stand on. However, you assert direct contradiction to their belief that the scripture is free from human error. You make the assumption that all men are corrupt, where do you found this opinion? Is it from scripture? Does that contradict your point? You say Paul said Jesus was returning in his lifetime? How do you know that and what is the basis of that? What are you offering as an alternative? How do you suggest that we decide which words are right and which words are not? What is the nature of the word of God? How do you know? What is the nature of man and how do you know? Are you saying that all scripture is not useful for teaching rebuking correcting and training in righteousness because some are lies. How do you deal with that? Has there ever been a word uttered by the mouth of God? Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. So if there was a word uttered, where was it uttered? Who was it uttered to, and if they wrote it down did it get diminished when it hit the paper. How can we know what the voice of God sounds like? Is there a voice of God at all. Does He have a distinctive character? Can your own voice not be confused with His voice? Please consider these things before you write off generations of believers as being ridiculous and more foolish than yourself for believing God’s word to be without error. It is a very delicate and revealing subject.

  2. It’s probably worth noting that luther thought certain books of the bible- james and revelation, for instance- were not divinely inspired, and thought they should be excluded from the bible. Can hold that opinion and still be considered an innerantist by modern standards?

  3. Irentz,

    The issue of Luther and the two books you mention relates more to discussions of canonicity than inerrancy. Of the books Luther considered canonical, he believed they were wholly without error. With regard specifically to canonicity, we are looking for a general consensus among believers over time. The Holy Spirit has established such a consensus of what books belong in the canon, and occasional divergences throughout history are something to be expected (because we are fallen), not cause for confusion and doubt. For a helpful discussion of matters related to canonicity, see Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited (2012).

    1. Derek, thank you for your reply.

      Are you saying that doubting the inspiration of entire books of the Bible isn’t related to inerrancy? Keep in mind, Luther lived around 1,000 years after Athanasius provided the first listing of the 66 books of the Bible, so it’s not like Luther was taking part in an unsettled debate regarding the canon.

      A question to consider: If a modern pastor said he “affirmed the Bible as the inerrant Word of God… except for the books of Revelation and James”, would you describe him as an example of an inerrantist?

  4. Irentz,

    You bet. I appreciate the interaction.

    I think it might be helpful in furthering the discussion if you explain how you believe canonicity relates to the doctrine of inerrancy.

    Derek

    1. Derek,

      The whole question of inerrancy is moot if I’m able to pick and choose what books or verses are divinely-inspired in the first place.

      But I might be mistaken. Can someone be regarded as holding to inerrancy while doubting the canonicity of the Bible?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s