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Calvin’s Appeal to Scripture

1. Introduction

In his preface to the Olivetan Bible, Calvin praised the Bible in terse, vivid language: it is the “key that opens for us the kingdom of God”, the “mirror in which we see God’s face” and the “testimony to his good will”. It is also the “way”, the “school of wisdom”, the “royal sceptre”, the divine “shepherd’s staff”. And it is the “instrument of his cove-nant”, which God “has made with us by entering, through his free grace, into the obli-gation of being tied to us in eternal covenant” (CO 9.823).

Calvin chose his images well. They bear witness to the great importance of the Bible in Calvin’s theology. And at the same time they indicate what Christians should seek and find in scripture; the Bible opens up for us access to the wholesome realm of God’s rule, just as a key opens an otherwise closed room. It makes it possible for us to attain knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves – an indirect route perhaps, via the testimony of the prophets and apostles, yet clear as looking in a mirror. The Bible guides and supports the community down through the years. Like a royal scep-tre, it points the way, and like a shepherd’s staff, it provides protection and guidance. Calvin understands the Bible entirely in the light of its author; as a testimony to the good divine will, it is not a collection of laws that must be followed. Instead, God him-self beckons us to draw near with his promise of paternal faithfulness (cf. Institutes III.2.27).

2. The Bible as testimony to the one covenant

According to Calvin, the entire Bible testifies to the one covenant of grace that em-braces the Old and the New Testaments. This implies that the Old Testament is also primarily concerned with God’s grace and faithfulness. And still, the biblical history of the covenant is a progressive one. Not everything in the Old Testament retained its validity once Christ appeared. Indeed, God has continually adapted his words to suit people and their changing times. Calvin adeptly illustrated the history of the covenant with the image of a rising sun, progressively increasing in light (cf. Institutes I.13.1; II.9.2; II.11.5). Calvin wrote that “Christ, though known to the Jews under the law [is] only manifested under the gospel” (Institutes II.9).

3. The truth of the Bible

But how can we be certain that the Bible tells us the truth about God and about our-selves? Calvin was able to point to some impressive evidence: to the great age of the biblical writings, to the miracles attested within them and their prophecies, to their impact and power down through the centuries, attested to by the blood of many mar-tyrs. But such arguments can never suffice in the end, and with good reason. If God speaks to us, and if it is really God who is speaking, then only God himself can attest to the truth of his words: “The same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our hearts, in order to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely entrusted” (Institutes I.7.4). A deep conviction in the truth and reliability of the Bible can take on no other form than that of a belief in God’s promise as set forth in scripture. God reveals himself through his word, and through his spirit he brings about faith and a will to obedience in human hearts (cf. Institutes I.7.5).

Calvin did not develop a theory to explain the inspiration of the biblical writings. He encouraged their study through the use of the preeminent humanistic methods of his era. And still he pursued his quest for the word of the living God, taking the precise Hebrew and Greek wording of the texts into careful consideration.

4. Christ as source, centre and soul of the Bible

As Christ is the source of all revelation (cf. Institutes I.13.7), the “only light of the truth” (In Iesaiam 29.11-12), Calvin was able to say not only of the New Testament writings but also of the “entire teaching of Moses” that they point toward Christ in all their parts (in epist.ad Romanos 10.4). For “God never manifested himself to men by any other means than by his Son… From this fountain Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others, drew all the heavenly doctrine which they possessed” (Institutes IV.8.5).

While the Old Testament points forward to the coming of Christ in diverse ways, the New Testament points backward to Christ. The whole Bible is thus centred on the message of Christ, the mediator and reconciler.

This indeed applies wherever we encounter the Bible in the guise of law and com-mand. Without Christ, biblical precepts are all dead letters (cf. in 2.epist. ad Corin-thios 3.17). But divine law can be understood as it should when it is brought to life by Christ, the soul of the law, just as a lifeless body takes shape and acquires strength through a living soul. In this way, the law can be received as valuable divine teaching.

In the words of Calvin, the Bible is, in a variety of ways, a “school” from which the entire Christian community receives instruction to remain connected to God, who be-stows grace on us, and to his Christ.

PD Dr. Peter Opitz, Zurich

Translation of the original text in German