Adrian Warnock claims that the reformer John Calvin
could easily have signed the Chicago Statement
on Biblical Inerrancy. He bases this claim on a rather short extract from Calvin’s Institutes.
I cannot agree that this claim has been adequately justified. For I note several things in the Chicago Statement (in fact I looked only at the Articles part of this Statement) which Calvin does not affirm in this extract from the Institutes:
We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.
Calvin: no mention of “the very words”, and no suggestion that it is the words of Scripture, rather than the message and meaning contained in those words, which is inspired. The difference should not be an important one, but sadly it is because of the way in which many have abused the doctrine of verbal inspiration, for example by taking it as requiring word for word translation.
We affirm that inspiration, through not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write. … We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
Calvin: no suggestion that inspiration covers matters other than theological doctrine, or that Scripture should be understood to be infallible or inerrant on other matters such as history and science.
Now it may be that Calvin could have affirmed the Chicago articles. But this small extract from his writings falls a long way short of proving that. I have looked through the rest of this chapter (book 1 chapter 7) of Calvin’s Institutes, and there is nothing in it to suggest that Calvin held to any form of verbal inspiration or to infallibility or inerrancy in areas not related to Christian doctrine.
Calvin has more to say about the latter point in book 4 chapter 8 of the Institutes. First, he explains that the doctrinal authority of the church
has two parts: authority to lay down articles of faith, and authority to explain them. … The power of the church is therefore … to be kept within definite limits …
(Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill, Westminster Press, 1960, vol. 2, p.1150.)
Then he compares this authority with those of Moses and the priests, of the prophets, and of the apostles, and makes no suggestion that their doctrinal authority extended to other areas such as science and history.
There is an interesting footnote to this chapter in my edition of Calvin’s Institutes. The translated text reads that the apostles
were to expound the ancient Scripture and to show that what is taught there has been fulfilled in Christ. Yet they were not to do this except from the Lord, that is, with Christ’s Spirit as precursor in a certain measure dictating the words.
(Op. cit., vol. 2, p. 1155.)
The footnote at the end of this passage reads:
“Verba quodammodo dictante Christi Spiritu.” The adverb is, however, a deliberate qualification, discounting any doctrine of exact verbal inspiration. The context has reference to teaching, not words merely, showing that Calvin’s point is not verbal inerrancy, but the authoritative message of Scripture.
(Op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 1155-1156.)
Personally, I have no trouble accepting and agreeing with what Calvin writes in the extract quoted by Adrian, but I cannot accept the Chicago articles.