Was Calvin really an inerrantist?

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.

19 thoughts on “Was Calvin really an inerrantist?

  1. Hi there Peter,

    I came here through a link on Adrian Warnock’s blog. 🙂

    I’ve not had time to read all of the Chicago Statement, but this bit leapt out at me (and, frankly, made me groan):

    We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

    Oh dear. Does this mean that in order to have a high view of Scripture one must be a literal six-day creationist? I beg to differ …

    I have no problem whatsoever with accepting the majestic chapters of Genesis 1-11 as an article of faith. Side by side with that I do not dispute new discoveries about earth history, rather than attempting to shoehorn the Genesis account, clumsily and unconvincingly, into some kind of scientific treatise.

    I’m sorry, but I can’t help having an image of a bunch of biblical inerrantists ignoring the scientists’ findings, sticking their fingers in their ears and going: “La la la, we can’t hear you!”

    I found your post very relevant as I’m reading a very helpful book by Ernest Lucas called Can we believe Genesis today? published by IVP. Lucas is a research biochemist with a high view of Scripture who does not subscribe to a literal six-day creation. He argues that neither Augustine nor Calvin subscribed to a literal word-for-word interpretation of the Genesis account of creation. Which is not to say that they didn’t believe in the authority, inspiration and yes, infallibility, of Scripture, of course! It’s just that Calvin saw Genesis first and foremost as a salvation narrative, not a scientific document (which it isn’t). This is especially interesting as Calvin was living in a time of great scientific discovery, the dawn of the modern scientific age.

    I am not an expert on Calvinist theology, but I do know the guy had an awesome intellect.

    I believe that the scientists can help to tell us HOW. They can’t tell the whole story, of course. Only God can! Which is why Genesis tells us WHY. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Philippa. This is a great comment. I too groaned when I read that part.

    I was just hearing today about a man, a son of a fellow member of my church, who is in all kinds of trouble and far from the Lord. I remember when he was a thoughtful teenager enquiring into the Christian faith, and was told by a Christian girl of his own age that he had to believe in a six day creation and reject most of what he was learning at school in biology etc. So he walked away from the Christian faith, and I can’t blame him. Surely that Christian girl and all who teach as she did will be answerable at the Day of Judgment for that lost soul and many others like him.

  3. Actually Calvin was a 6 day creationist, if you read his commentary on Genesis.
    Also, biology does not have to be rejected to believe in 6 days. The problem area is not biology, it is molecules to man evolution, for which there is not one single piece of evidence, scientific or otherwise.
    Molecules to man evolution is a belief system or rather a faith based system.
    Many non Christian biologists are happy to admit that evolutionary doctrine plays no useful role in their work at all.

  4. Well, Glenn, what Calvin actually says is that “Moses relates that God’s work was completed … in six days”. And it is clear that this is what is written in Genesis, but that Moses wrote this does not imply that it was factually true. Nevertheless, I would not dispute that Calvin, like everyone else in his time, believed in a six day creation. Scientists now know better.

  5. I remember when he was a thoughtful teenager enquiring into the Christian faith, and was told by a Christian girl of his own age that he had to believe in a six day creation and reject most of what he was learning at school in biology etc. So he walked away from the Christian faith, and I can’t blame him.

    Peter … it’s absolutely ridiculous, outrageous and sad. 🙁 What terrible stumbling blocks we sometimes put in people’s paths to faith. 🙁 Totally unnecessary ones. ‘Had to believe in a six day creation’ my foot. As if that was an article of salvation!! And somehow more important than actually believing in CHRIST.

    Glenn, surely the age of the earth and evolutionary theory are two somewhat separate issues. Not wholly unrelated, but nonetheless distinct.

    On evolution: I’m sure there are huge gaps in evolutionary theory but micro-evolution is an observable fact, according to my friends who are scientists. Unfortunately the likes of Richard Dawkins use evolutionary theory as a useful peg to hang their atheism on (and to bash the Christians with). But not every scientist is a Richard Dawkins.

    I don’t buy into the idea that we are descended from apes. And of course, it’s never been proved, LOL. 🙂 Nonetheless I would not be too perturbed if monkeys were described as our nearest evolutionary cousins (as opposed to ancestors). But I do also believe, precisely because I’m a Christian, that there is something wholly distinctive about humankind – we are made in God’s image, whatever Richard Dawkins thinks – and that’s where Genesis comes in.

    As for the age of the earth: well, of course I believe than an omniscient God could have created Earth in six 24 hour days, if He chose! But likewise I completely fail to see how a much older Earth, millenia old, makes Almighty God, the King of the Universe, any less God than He already is! 🙂

    Thanks for a great discussion!

  6. You said “Scientists now know better.” Really? How?
    They weren’t there at the beginning for a start and what about all the scientists who firmly believe in a six day creation and a young earth (although to me there is nothing young about over 6000 years) based on the exact same ‘evidence’ as those who believe in an old earth.
    Billions of years is a problem because it would mean that death and disease entered the world before mankind, yet the Bible tells us that death and disease are a result of the fall of mankind. This would result in God calling death and disease ‘very good’.

  7. Philippa, thank you. I mostly agree with you. I consider that evolution offers a good description of how species have arisen but not a good explanation of why this happened.

    I differ from you that I do believe that humans are descended from apes, or at least from an ape-like common ancestor with modern apes; but God in his providence was in control of that descent through many generations of mutation so that the end result would be the humanity which he had designed. At least, that is a summary of a very complex issue which I won’t go into in detail here.

    Glenn, you are entitled to your opinion. On your point about death and disease, you should not confuse cause with temporal ordering; if people who lived before Christ could be saved as a result of Christ’s death, animals which lived before Adam could die as a result of Adam’s sin. But you are not entitled to make your opinion sound like a condition of salvation.

  8. I in no way indicated that my opinion amounted to a condition of salvation. In fact I challenge you to show where in my comment I made or intimated such a thing.

    You seem very confused today. If death and disease could exist before sin then you still have the situation where God was calling them ‘very good’.
    You may be happy to intimate that God considered death and disease to be a very good thing, but I prefer to go along with what the Bible says on this issue.
    The Bible is quite clear that mankind was created fully formed and there is no mention of starting out as an animal, as such I fail to see where you can garner biblical support for your erroneous claim that we all started out as apes.
    If you are indeed after Truth then I suggest you spend some time on the http://www.answersingenesis.org site and read what is contained in their archives, written by the way by scientists who not only hold PhD’s in their respective subjects, but some of whom are recognised leaders in their fields.

  9. Glenn, I never said you were making anything a condition of salvation. I simply stated that such things should not be made to sound like this. For once you agree with me, but for some reason you insist on turning even your agreement into a criticism of me for agreeing with you!

    I accept that animal death before the Fall is a difficult issue. I’m not sure that I accept that it is not “good” (and I note that “good” became “very good” only after humans were created). After all, if God designed “good” carnivorous animals with the teeth, stomachs etc to kill other animals, how can you say that animals killing other animals is not part of God’s “good” design? I would suggest that animal death, despite our thoroughly modern squeamishness about it (and hypocrisy too, except among vegetarians), is not in fact moral evil. Human death is another matter.

  10. Peter, I asked a few people (male and female) to read your comment and then asked them their opinion. Without exception they all took your comment to mean that you thought I was stating an opinion which implied a condition of salvation.
    As such I would kindly request that you review your communication skills.

  11. Glenn, I started to look at the site http://www.answersingenesis.org which you recommended. But there is far too much material there for me to look through. It would be good if you could mention to me the names and qualifications of a few individual scientists who are “recognised leaders in their fields”, in fields which are relevant to the issue, and support on scientific grounds a young earth and a literal six day creation. I would then be able to investigate what these people are really saying, and distinguish it from the writings of less qualified people like the hydraulic engineer Henry Morris who had at most a minor qualification in geology, although he put himself forward as an expert in the geological aspects of “Creation Science”.

  12. Augustine most certainly did not believe in a six-day creation, and yet he seems to me to count as an inerrantist by the Chicago Statement’s definition. I’m not sure if anyone here was trying to suggest that Calvin and Augustine couldn’t have endorsed the Chicago Statement on the grounds that they denied a six-day creation, but I see no reason why that would follow. I accept the Chicago Statement almost completely. There are a couple things I think they word badly, but I agree with what they meant to say. I also deny a six-day creation and affirm that that’s fully consistent with a complete and total view of inerrancy on everything the biblical text is intended to communicate. The disagreements on that question are not about inerrancy but about hermeneutics.

  13. Well, Jeremy, I took the following in the Chicago statement as implying affirmation of a six day creation:

    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.

    And I expect that that is what at least most of the drafters of the statement intended it to mean. But I accept that it does not quite imply that: if Scripture does not teach a six day creation, then the Chicago statement does not require anyone to believe this. But on this interpretation the sentence I have quoted becomes almost tautologous: Scripture teaches what it teaches.

  14. Peter,
    Below you will find just a few scientists with brief resumes who fit the bill. (there are other, but I don’t want to create a over-long comment.

    You will find that the AIG site has a very efficient search capability and as such should be able to lead you directly to articles etc by the ‘sample’ of scientists who totally support a young earth.
    Sorry for the long entry, but I thought it would help to provide some background on their qualifications etc. I hope that it ids of some help.

    Dr. Emil Silvestru

    Geologist, hydrogeologist & karstologist
    Dr. Silvestru earned his Ph.D. in geology at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania, where he worked as an associate professor in karst sedimentology.
    A world authority on the geology of caves, he has published 30 scientific papers, and co-authored one book. He was, until recently, the head scientist at the world’s first Speleological Institute (speleology = the study of caves) in Cluj.
    His areas of expertise include: Sedimentology of clastic deposits, stratigraphy of limestone terranes, general geology, karst genesis and functioning, cave climate and glaciology, show-cave assessment & designing, ore prospecting and exploration (surface and mining).

    Danny R. Faulkner
    Professor of Astronomy
    (United States)

    Dr Danny R. Faulkner has a B.S. (Math), M.S. (Physics), M.A. and Ph.D. (Astronomy, Indiana University). He is Full Professor at the University of South Carolina — Lancaster, where he teaches physics and astronomy. He has published about two dozen papers in various astronomy and astrophysics journals.
    B.S., Bob Jones University, Greenville, SC, 1976
    M.S., Clemson University, Clemson, SC, 1979
    M.A., Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, 1983
    Ph.D., Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, 1989

    Dr Werner Gitt

    The retired Dr Gitt was a director and professor at the German Federal Institute of Physics and Technology (Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, Braunschweig), the Head of the Department of Information Technology. Three prerequisites must be fulfilled in order for the German Ministerium to award the title ‘Director and Professor’ at a German research institute, on the recommendation of the Praesidium. The person concerned must be:
    A scientist. I.e. it is most definitely an academic title.
    One who has published a significant number of original research papers in the technical literature.
    Must head a department in his area of expertise, in which several working scientists are employed.
    Dr. Gitt has written numerous scientific papers in the fields of information science, mathematics, and control engineering.
    Dr John Hartnett
    Physics, Cosmology
    John G. Hartnett received both his B.Sc. (hons) and his Ph.D. with distinction from the Department of Physics at the University of Western Australia (UWA). He works there with the Frequency Standards and Metrology research group. John’s current work involves the European Space Agency’s atomic clock ensemble in space. His research interests include the development of ultra-stable cryogenically cooled microwave oscillators based on a sapphire crystal, ultra low-noise radar, tests of fundamental theories of physics such as Special and General Relativity and measurement of drift in fundamental constants and their cosmological implications. John has a keen interest in cosmology and how it applies to the creationist worldview. He is also developing new physics that has established that there is no need to assume the existence of dark matter in the universe. He has published more than 100 papers in scientific journals and holds 2 patents.

    Professor D.B. Gower, biochemistry

    Professor Gower is emeritus professor of steroid biochemistry at the University of London, United Kingdom. He holds a B.S. in chemistry from the University of London, a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of London and was awarded a D.Sc. from the University of London for his research into the biochemical mechanisms for the control of steroid hormone formation. Professor Gower is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a fellow of the Institute of Biology and a chartered chemist.

    Dr D. Russell Humphreys, Ph.D.

    Dr Humphreys was awarded his Ph.D. in physics from Louisiana State University in 1972, by which time he was a fully convinced creationist. For the next 6 years he worked in the High Voltage Laboratory of General Electric Company, designing and inventing equipment and researching high-voltage phenomena. While there, he received a U.S. patent and one of Industrial Research Magazine’s IR-100 awards.
    Beginning in 1979 he worked for Sandia National Laboratories (New Mexico) in nuclear physics, geophysics, pulsed-power research, and theoretical atomic and nuclear physics. In 1985, he began working with Sandia’s ‘Particle Beam Fusion Project’, and was co-inventor of special laser-triggered ‘Rimfire’ high-voltage switches, now coming into wider use.
    The last few years at Sandia had seen greater emphasis on theoretical nuclear physics and radiation hydrodynamics in an effort to help produce the world’s first lab-scale thermonuclear fusion. Besides gaining another U.S. patent, Dr Humphreys has been given two awards from Sandia, including an Award for Excellence for contributions to light ion-fusion target theory.
    Dr Humphreys has retired from Sandia and now works with ICR. He still continues to write for TJ and serves as a resource scientist for AiG to assist with questions and information concerning physics, astronomy and cosmology.

    Dr Ian Macreadie

    Dr Ian Macreadie is a highly regarded Australian researcher in the fields of molecular biology and microbiology. Author of more than 60 research papers, he is a Principal Research Scientist at the Biomolecular Research Institute of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and national secretary of the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
    In 1997 he was part of a team which won the CSIRO’s top prize, the Chairman’s Medal. In 1995 he won the Australian Society for Microbiology’s top award, for outstanding contributions to research. He is also adjunct professor of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

  15. I don’t think it’s tautologous to say that inerrantism requires disallowing science to overturn the teaching of scripture. It’s tautologous to say that scripture teaches what it teaches, but not everyone thinks we ought to believe everything it teaches. Inerrantists are saying that we ought to believe everything it teaches. That’s not a tautologous claim.

    I’m convinced that the authors of the Chicago Statement did not mean to imply that those who deny the six-day view aren’t inerrantists. A number of people who signed it are old-earth creationists, for example. There are people who think that view denies inerrancy, but I don’t think the people who came up with the Chicago Statement are among them.

  16. Science cannot overturn the teaching of scripture.
    The word of God is true yesterday, today and tomorrow, but science changes in many ways and what was considered true yesterday is not guaranteed to be considered true today or tomorrow.

  17. Pingback: speleological institute

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image