Cork Free Presbyterian Church, 10 Briarscourt (Annex) Shanakiel, Cork, Ireland Pastor: Colin Maxwell. Email: cfpc@esatclear.ie

CALVIN ON SOLA SCRIPTURA

CHRISTIANITY TODAY MAGAZINE'S CLAIM THAT JOHN CALVIN DID NOT BELIEVE IN THE SUFFICIENCY OF SCRIPTURE REFUTED

Note: Christianity Today is a neo evangelical magazine. It is ecumenical and very sympathetic to the Church of Rome. It lists the present Pope and Mother Theresa among the 20th Century's top Christians. The article below is an attempt to de-Protestantise the Reformers and to bridge the gap between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The original article is in dark blue. My response is in bright red. The original article may be found on

http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2004/jan16.html

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"The Bible Alone"? Not for John Calvin!

When we seek answers to churchly and societal issues in the Bible alone, citing the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, we are actually contradicting the Reformers.

This is a big charge to make. It will be interesting to see how the writer tries to make it stick.


Chris Armstrong | posted 01/09/2004


There's no question that the Bible is at the very center of conservative Christianity in America. When tough legislation limited access to the Bible in our public schools, Christians sought
creative ways around the wall, legal prosecution notwithstanding. When translators set out to "modernize" the Bible's gender language, conservatives kicked up a storm. When lawmakers removed a Ten Commandments monument from a courthouse, Christian protesters mobbed the scene.

All of this activity hearkens back to the Reformation tradition of Sola Scriptura—the belief that the Bible should be the ultimate authority for the church, trumping all human traditions. For many conservatives, this authority is not only unquestioned within the church, but extended beyond the church to society at large. The dream of some evangelicals is a country—perhaps some day even a world—where every moral and political question is submitted to the Bible, which will provide answers both obvious and immediately applicable.

We get to the heart of the matter in the following paragraphs.

Worth asking, however, is whether we really understand what Sola Scriptura means within the church itself. Does this Reformation principle mean that the Bible yields up obvious answers to all our questions?

No it doesn't. Protestants don't claim that the Bible has all the answers. We believe that God has all the answers but that He hasn't chosen to share every last answer with us in the Bible. We have in the Bible all which we need to know here and now. We will know many answers "hereafter" (John 13:7)

That we need not turn to any interpretation of Scripture other than the conclusions each of us draws from our own common-sense interaction with Scripture?

Protestants don't rely on their "own common sense interaction with Scripture" to discover its meaning. We rely on the Spirit of God himself leading us into all truth (John 16:13) claiming the promise that we will be "taught of God" (John 6:45) and praying for the Lord to open the Scriptures to us (Psalm 119:18) Although Romanists charge us with having a "private interpretation" approach to the Bible, this is not so.

That the great teachers in the church's earlier eras—the "church fathers"—should have nothing to say to us today, for they represent nothing but "human traditions"?

Protestants believe that the Church Fathers do have something to say to us today, just as the Puritans did and every Bible teacher worth his salt. Hence we buy commentators, ancient and modern. But the difference is this: Unlike the Church of Rome, we do not elevate human tradition to equality with the Bible (as taught in her various catechisms)

Clearly even the most conservative believers have never been able to live as if they are not influenced by the teachings of other people—past and present—on how to interpret their Bibles. Everybody reads through a set of lenses created by the church, the family, and the schools that have shaped them.

This is, of course, human nature. But the teaching of the Bible itself does not change, which requires us to recognise to have one final court of appeal which is that "which is written" i.e. the Bible itself: 2 Timothy 3:15-17/Psalm 119:128 etc.,

Of course, evangelicals have expended tremendous resources of scholarship on trying to determine the most basic, literal meanings of any given Bible passage. They have rejected outright the fanciful, allegorical interpretations of many medieval exegetes.

True.

But there come issues—more numerous than some are willing to admit—where the Bible yields its direction more reluctantly. For faithfully Biblical answers to these questions, we are thrown back on the resources of church tradition.

True, but only to a point. We might look to see how others interpret the Bible and learn from their insights on certain matters, but we subject their teaching to the Bible itself and reserve the right and indeed exercise the duty of rejecting anything which does not measure up to this final standard. Rome, by her own heretical creed, will not do this.

And here's the shocker (maybe): the very Reformation teachers who created the principle of the supreme authority of Scripture—sola scriptura—not only recognized this need for a strong, churchly tradition of Biblical interpretation, they embraced it. They were just as convinced as we are that the Bible ought to speak to every aspect of life (heavens, they stood on the shoulders of a millennium-long Christendom tradition of church-state alliance!) But they knew that in addressing both churchly and worldly questions, if you wanted to find the "Christian Way" you had to hold a conversation with pious interpreters from past ages.

Especially, at least for Luther and Calvin, this meant attending to the early church fathers.

True, the Reformers consulted the Church Fathers etc., but whether they would have recognised this as a necessity is another matter. It is interesting that there are no quotations from the Reformers as proof for this statement. The charge lies unsubstantiated and therefore is to be rejected until adequate proof is supplied. On the other hand, it is not difficult for us to show that the Reformers taught the sufficiency of the Bible alone. On 2 Timothy 3:17 Calvin wrote:

17. That the man of God may be perfect. "Perfect means here a blameless person, one in whom there is nothing defective; for he asserts absolutely, that the Scripture is sufficient for perfection. Accordingly, he who is not satisfied with Scripture desires to be wiser than is either proper or desirable."

Referring to the Church Fathers, Calvin wrote:

"While we make use of their writings, we always remember that 'all things are ours' to serve us, not to have dominion over us, and that we are 'Christ's' alone, and owe Him universal obedience." (From the Dedication to the Institutes)

Luther likewise contended for the sufficiency of the Bible. In Galatians 1:8 he rebukes the Roman Church for her belief that she is above the Scriptures and says: "For the overthrowing of this their wicked and blasphemous doctrine, thou hast here a plain text like a thunderbolt, wherein Paul subjective both himself and an angel from heaven, and doctors upon earth, and all other teachers and masters whatsoever, under the authority of the Scripture. This queen ought to rule, and all ought to obey and be subject unto her. They ought not to be masters, judges, or arbiters, but only witnesses, disciples, and confessors of the Scripture, whether it be the Pope, Luther, Constantine, Paul, or an angel from heaven. Neither ought any doctrine be taught or heard in the Church besides the pure word of God , that is to say, the holy Scripture; otherwise, accursed be both the teachers and hearers together with their doctrine."

Luther also 'put the Fathers in their place' with these statements:

"Unless you understand these words in this way, you will never understand either this letter of St. Paul or any book of the Scriptures. Be on guard, therefore against any teacher who uses these words differently, no matter who he be, whether Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, Origen or anyone else as great as or greater than they. Now let us turn to the letter itself." (Preface to Romans)

"The more I read the books of the Fathers, the more I find myself offended; for they were but men, and, to speak the truth, with all their repute and authority, undervalued the books and writings of the sacred apostles of Christ. The papists were not ashamed to say, 'What is the Scripture? we must read the holy fathers and teachers, for they drew and sucked the honey out of the Scripture.' As if God’s Word were to be understood and conceived by none but by themselves, whereas the heavenly Father says: ‘Him shall ye hear’, who in the Gospel taught most plainly in parables and similitude's." (Table Talk)

I forbear to multiply statements.

While preparing our Issue 80: The First Bible Teachers, we got a chance to talk with noted Reformation scholar David Steinmetz of Duke Divinity School about this. He reminded us that the Reformers worked hard to ensure their own interpretations of Scripture matched those of the Fathers:

If this were so, an immediate problem arises. What do you do when the Church Fathers disagree among themselves? Should Augustine get the pre-eminence over (say) Chrysostom or Basil etc., Listen to Luther again as he reviews some of those whom he studied. When you have read it, ask yourself: "Why would Luther ensure his interpretations matched those of the Fathers?" "Behold what great darkness is in the books of the Fathers concerning faith; yet if the article of justification be darkened, it is impossible to smother the grossest errors of mankind. St. Jerome, indeed, wrote upon Matthew, upon the Epistles to Galatians and Titus; but, alas! very coldly. Ambrose wrote six books upon the first book of Moses, but they are very poor. Augustine wrote nothing to the purpose concerning faith; for he was first roused up and made a man by the Pelagians, in striving against them. I can find no exposition upon the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, wherein anything is taught pure and aright. O what a happy time have we now, in. regard to the purity of the doctrine; but alas! we little esteem it." (Table Talk)

"The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim. This is one of those things that is so obvious nobody has paid much attention to it—then you look and you see it everywhere.

"The Reformers use the Fathers all over the place. We know Calvin read Augustine, and we discovered recently that Luther read Jerome—he had copies annotated in his own hand. The index of Calvin's Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the Fathers. And in the first preface to that work, addressed to Francis I, Calvin did his best to show his teachings were in complete harmony with the Fathers.

It is one thing to claim the writings of the Fathers but this is a far cry from believing them to be equal with the Scripture…which is what is being effectively claimed in this article. As for "we discovered recently that Luther read Jerome" - those who dined with Luther 450 years ago were well aware of the fact because his "table talk" yields us the following: "Jerome should not be numbered among the teachers of the Church, for he was a heretic; yet I believe that he is saved through faith in Christ. He speaks not of Christ, but merely carries his name in his mouth."

"The Protestants did this because they were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy. 'Ours is the ancient tradition,' they said. 'The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!' They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching.

In this they were simply responding to the taunt of the Roman Church that they were "Johnny-come-latelys" - a charge still levelled by Romanists today i.e. "Where was your church before Luther?" There is nothing sinister in what the Reformers were doing. If God is always going to have a church made up of the faithful as He claimed (Matthew 28:20) then there was going to be evidence and the Church Fathers show from their writings that they were basically sound in the faith which the Reformers later expounded.

"But they also turned to the Fathers because they found them important sources of insight into the text of Scripture. Calvin and Melanchthon both believed it was a very strong argument against a given theological position if you couldn't find authorization for it in the Fathers.

Again, there is no evidence offered for this position. (I am not disclaiming it…just noticing that the writer evidently believes us to believe it because he wrote it.) I wonder though where this all fits in with Calvin's observation on the Papacy where he claimed: "Abandoned by the word of God, they flee for aid to antiquity." (On Necessity of Reforming the Church. Tracts I:218)


"All the Reformers loved Augustine (Luther, remember, was an Augustinian friar). Calvin, though he loved Augustine for doctrine, preferred Chrysostom's approach to biblical interpretation.


"Chrysostom is a verse-by-verse commentator in his sermons. Calvin doesn't mimic Chrysostom, but he appreciates his model. Augustine flies a little too high above the text for Calvin—he is too quick to go to figures of speech, allegory, and so forth. Chrysostom flies at a lower level.

"Finally, the Reformation was not an argument about everything, but about just some things. It was not, for example, about the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. The Protestants had their own slant on these doctrines, but they agreed basically with Roman Catholics. Both confessed the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. And if we ask where these accepted doctrines came from—they came from the Fathers' reflections on the Bible!"

This is an amazing statement with which to end the article i.e. we get our belief in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ from the Church Father's reflection on the Bible. Actually, we (like the Fathers) get them from the Bible itself. Our faith does not stand in the wisdom of men…it stands in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:5)

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

We'd like to know what you think about this article.

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To sum up…we refute this article on the following points:

1) It offers no veritable evidence to back up its main claim that the Reformers did not believe their own maxim of "Sola Scriptura"

2) It's main claim is patently false as I have shown from the quotations given.

3) It gives the impression that Protestants believe that [i] the Bible has the answers to all our questions [ii] that all is needed is a common sense approach to the interpretation of Scripture [iii] the Church Fathers have nothing to offer those who would interpret the Bible. While it may be argued that these assertions were put into question form, yet this rhetorical device fails if the questions are not answered. An unanswered question becomes an insinuation.

4) The amazing statement at the end that we get the doctrine of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ from the Father's reflection on the Bible. Perhaps the article is awkwardly worded, but as it stands, it roots our faith in the Fathers and not in the Bible itself.

Colin Maxwell

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