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Luther and Calvin on the Authority of the Bible
Geoffrey J. Paxton 

Luther and CalvinWhat does it mean to say that the Bible is the sole authority? There are some today who would answer by saying that the authority of the Bible is seen in the "Word bearing" quality of the Bible. Only where the church hears the "Word" in the "words" are the Scriptures authoritative. Others would say that "the authority of the Bible is in the great historical events of salvation which it records." Hence, the really authoritative portion of the Bible is found in the sections of holy history. Still others would say that the authority of the Bible is "Christological". The "canon within the canon is Jesus Christ". Scripture is "authoritative in so far as it bears witness to Christ."

What did Luther and Calvin understand by the authority of the Bible? Can they offer us any guidance on this vital matter? We believe they can.

All acquainted with the sixteenth century Reformation know that the watchword was Sola Scriptura "Scripture alone!" This assertion was made over against pope, fathers and councils.

Luther and Calvin's "Scripture alone" meant at least four things: (1) the necessity of Scripture, (2) the authority of Scripture, (3) the sufficiency of Scripture and (4) the perspicuity (essential clarity) of Scripture.

The Necessity of Scripture

Negatively, the necessity of Scripture is because of the blindness and darkness of the human heart and the hold of evil that Satan has over his miserable subjects. Positively, the necessity of Scripture is for the preservation of God's Word for mankind in an objective and self-attesting form. Sinful man desperately needs God's objective and self-attesting testimony.

Luther said that among God's people the rule is not to be a smart-aleck or a nationalistic know-it-all,

but to hear, believe and persevere in the Word of God, through which alone we obtain whatever knowledge we have of God and divine things. We are not to determine out of ourselves what we must believe about Him, but to hear and learn it from Him. —Luther's Works, Vol.13, p.237.

The Bible is a necessity. Sola Scriptura must be seen as both a denial and an affirmation. It is a denial of man's ability to know God as he ought apart from Scripture, and it affirms that the Bible is the only (sola) place where definite knowledge of God is to be discovered. Man is wholly bankrupt of that knowledge which is able to save him. If he is desirous of salvation, he must turn to the written Word of Scripture.

Calvin takes great pains to stress that under both the old and new dispensation, God committed His Word to writing in order to insure a correct knowledge of Himself apart from any oracular mystical experience (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 1, ch. 7.1). ". . . the priests might derive from it whatever they would communicate to the people." — Ibid., Bk. 4, ch. 8.6. When the Reformer speaks of the apostles being authorized to teach what Christ commanded, he says:

    Let this be a firm principle; no other word is to be held as the Word of God, and given place as such in the Church, than what is contained first in the Law and the Prophets, then in the writings of the apostles; and the only authorized way of teaching in the church is by the prescription and standard of his Word.— lbid.,ch.8.8.

Calvin makes it clear that Christ limited the teachings of the apostles "when he ordered them to go and teach not what they had thoughtlessly fabricated, but all that he had commanded them." — Ibid.

Both Luther and Calvin believed in a twofold knowledge of God. They recognized 1.) a knowledge of God which is natural to all men as God's creatures and 2.) a knowledge of God which is a spiritual possession of believers as God's children. In expounding Galatians 4:8 Luther says:

    All men have the general knowledge, namely, that God is, that He has created heaven and earth, that He is just, that He punishes the wicked, etc. But what God thinks of us, what He wants to give and to do to deliver us from sin and death and save us—which is the particular and true knowledge of God — this men do not know. — Luther's Works, Vol. 26, p.399.

Calvin declares:

    Despite [the role of creation] it is needful that another and better help be added to direct us aright to the very Creator of the Universe. It was not in vain that he added the light of his Word. — Institutes, Bk. 1, ch. 6.1.

Without the Bible we have no sure direction or revelation from the Most High which is able to save us from sin and death. Sola Scriptura means the necessity of Scripture.

The ThroneThe Authority of Scripture

The authority of the Bible is implicit in its necessity. The Scriptures are necessary because an authoritative self-revelation of God is necessary for man in his dreadful plight. However, we need to distinguish between authority and necessity. Martin Luther's contemporaries admitted the necessity of the Bible, but it was his insistence upon its authority which brought them into serious conflict with the Reformer. Luther's Sola Scriptura was revolutionary because it attributed to the Bible absolute authority — over pope, fathers and councils! The really offensive concept was Sola Scriptura — Scripture alone! Luther was not content with belief in the relative necessity of Scripture. For him the Bible was the final authority.

In the empire of the church the ruler is God's Word. — Luther's Works, Vol.41, p.134.

We must judge according to the Word of God. — Ibid., Vol.26, p.383.

We must judge and consider all wonder and miracles in the light of God's Word, to ascertain whether they are in accordance and agreement with it. — Ibid., Vol.24, p.75.

Whether in opposition to Rome or the enthusiasts, Luther never tired of asserting Scripture alone!

Likewise, Calvin would not tolerate the subjection of the Word to human authorities. The mark of the church – indeed the sine qua non of the true church – was the rule of the Word. Calvin declares:

    Since the church is Christ's Kingdom, and he reigns by his Word alone, will it not be clear to any man that those are lying words (cf. J. 34.7.4) by which the Kingdom of Christ is imagined to exist apart from his scepter (that is, his most holy Word)? — Institutes, Bk. 4, ch. 2.4.

Both Reformers were all too aware that sinful man seeks to be autonomous. He seeks to set himself up as a judge over that which presents itself to him as "revelation". The Word of God does not come to man in such a way as to recognize his self-claimed autonomy. Rather, it comes challenging his authority and overthrowing his conceited attempt to have the final word. Calvin saw as blasphemous impiety the attempt to maintain the precedence and priority of the "church" over the Word. As Paul declares, the church is founded on the doctrine of the apostles and prophets. We must not speak as though the mother owed her birth to the daughter. Calvin understood that to reject the rule of the Word was to reject the very rule of Christ Himself (Comm. on Isa. 11:4).

"Modern" views on authority do not echo the sentiments of Luther and Calvin. Yet interestingly enough, many of these views are anticipated in the defense of truth made by these two sons of Paul. As previously stated, some today wish to speak of Christ Himself being the "final" authority while they reject the authority of the Word. However, Calvin sees the authoritative reign of Christ in and through, not apart from, the Word (cf. Comm. on Eph. 4:11). So also with those who would claim direct governance by the Spirit. Governance by the Spirit without or instead of the Word would be too vague and unstable. No, Christ has joined the Spirit to the Word to avoid such a vague, unstable government. Word and Spirit belong together—inseparably together (Institutes, Bk. 1, ch. 9.3).

Those (such as John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology) who wish to propound a multiple source concept of authority would do well to hearken to the so/a of Luther. He, like Calvin, repudiated the notion that the Scriptures are created by the church and not vice versa.

    The Church is built on the word of the Gospel which is the Word of God's wisdom and virtue. — D. Martin Luthers Werke, Vol.4, p.189.
    The Word of God preserves the Church of God. — Ibid., Vol.3, p.259.

Indeed the church owes her existence to the Word and is maintained by the same means (Luther's Works, Vol.24, p.362). Nor would Luther be patient with the argument by the sophists, who deduced the "superiority" of the church over the Word because of the supposed "creation" of the canon by the church. The inimitable response of Martin cannot go un-quoted:

    What a splendid argument! I approve Scripture. Therefore I am superior to Scripture. John the Baptist acknowledges and confesses Christ. He points to Him with his finger. Therefore he is superior to Christ. The Church approves Christian faith and doctrine. Therefore the Church is superior to them. — Ibid., Vol.26, p.57.

Surely no more needs to be added. For Luther and Calvin, Sola Scriptura meant the final and absolute authority of the Bible. Their position is but the reflection of Paul's and ought, therefore, to be the pattern of ours.

Luther - Sola ScripturaThe Sufficiency of Scripture

We come now to the sufficiency of Scripture. Once again, this attribute is involved inextricably with the previous two. The interpretation of man is not partly but wholly bankrupt. There is need for no additional interpretation of man to supplement the divine interpretation. The necessity of the Bible had reference to all men; the authority of the Bible had particular reference to the autonomous pretensions of Rome; and the sufficiency of the Word challenged the attempted supplementations of the sectarians.

Sola Scriptura was the denial of any admixture of the word of man with the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is present in the revelation of the Word. Any teaching which does not agree with Scripture is to be rejected "even if it snows miracles every day" (Ibid., Vol.24, p.367).

Luther did not despise the creeds of the church (Ibid., Vol. 37, pp. 185, 186) but accepted them simply because they had Biblical content. Fidelity to the Word was the criterion for Luther, not only for the creeds of the church but for the fathers also. Though he, like Calvin, appealed time and again to the fathers, he would not bow to them when their teachings conflicted with that of Scripture. Declared the Reformer:

    I will not listen to the Church or the fathers or the apostles unless they bring and teach the pure Word of God. — Ibid., Vol.26, p.67.

    The Scriptures are sufficient. In so far as the fathers help us to understand those Scriptures, Luther was happy to appeal to them. However, he never had any notion that Scripture had to be supplemented.

    A council has no power to establish new articles of faith, even though the Holy Spirit is present. Even the apostolic council in Jerusalem introduced nothing new in matters of faith...—Ibid., Vol. 41, p.123.

    A council has the power – and is also duty bound to exercise it –to suppress and condemn new articles of faith in accordance with Scripture and the ancient faith . . . — Ibid.

Calvin takes the same position (Institutes, Bk. 60, ch. 9) when he speaks as follows:

    Furthermore, those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away by frenzy. For of late, certain giddy men have arisen who, with great haughtiness, exacting the teaching office of the Holy Spirit, despise all reading and laugh at the simplicity of those who, as they express it, still follow the dead and killing letter. — Ibid., Bk. 1, ch. 4.1.

    These fanatics, who appealed to the Spirit instead of the Word, showed contempt for that Word. They denied the all-sufficiency and perfection of the Word. However, the Spirit is recognized in His agreement with Scripture (Ibid., ch. 9.2), for the Word and Spirit belong inseparably together (Ibid., ch. 4.3).

Today we are not strangers to claims for authority in charismatic experiences any more than we are strangers to the positing of authority in some locus other than the Word. It needs to be stated again that the Word is sufficient. It needs no supplementation from popes, fathers or councils. It needs no supplementation by enthusiastic fanatics who stand on their own private revelations and visions.

ReaderThe Perspicuity (Essential Clarity) of Scripture

We have considered the necessity, authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Now we come to the perspicuity, or the essential clarity, of the Bible. If necessity was aimed at rationalism, authority at autonomy, and sufficiency at mysticism, then the perspicuity of the Scriptures was aimed at clericalism. Rome confined the Word to ecclesiastical pundits. Luther and Calvin broke the chains which held the Bible to the scholars' bench and gave the Word of God to the humblest peasant. In his comment on Psalm 37, Luther said:

    "There is not on earth a book more lucidly written than the Holy Scripture; compared with all other books it is as the sun compared with all other lights."

Luther accused the papacy of beclouding the inherent radiance of the Word and keeping the people from its unambiguous truth. He objected:

" . . . they take from the Scripture its single, simple and stable meaning; they blind our eyes, so that we stagger about and retain no reliable interpretation. We are like men bewitched or tricked while they play with us as gamblers with their dice." — Luther's Works, Vol.32, p.26.

Erasmus was no better. He erred greatly in Luther's eyes in asserting that, apart from "the precepts designed to regulate our existence," the Bible is, in many places, obscure and impenetrable. In his Bondage of the Will, Luther complains:
    " It is with such scarecrows that Satan has frightened away men from reading the Sacred Writings and has rendered the Holy Scriptures contemptible."

It must not be thought that the perspicuity of Scripture is inconsistent with the Protestant emphasis of the diligent exposition of the Word. Notice these pertinent remarks of Calvin:

    " Since we ought to be satisfied with the Word of God alone, what purpose is served by hearing sermons every day, or even the office of pastors? Has not every person the opportunity of reading the Bible? But Paul assigns to teachers the duty of dividing or cutting, as if a father in giving food to his children, were dividing the bread and cutting it in small pieces." — Comm. on 2 Tim. 2:15.

The minister of the Word must strive to be a scholar! Declares Calvin:

    " None will ever be a good minister of the Word of God, unless he is first of all a scholar." — Sermon on Deut. 5:23-27.

How we need this counsel today! It is as if Calvin were speaking of our day when he says:

    " . . . how many [ministers] does one see who have only superficially glanced at Holy Scripture and are so pitifully poorly versed in it that with every new idea they change their views." — Sermon on 2 Tim. 1:13, 14.

Further, not only must the perspicuity of Scripture not lead us into academic indifference, but it must not lead us to think that, unaided by the Spirit, we can fathom the true intent of God's Word. Commenting on Calvin, R.S. Wallace writes:

    " The authority of the Scripture is authenticated by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. The reverence which the church gives to the Scripture is due primarily to the influence of the Holy Spirit in giving inward testimony to the believer that this Word is the Word of God." — R.S. Wallace, Calvin's Doctrine of the Word and Sacraments (Oliver & Boyd, 1953); cf. Institutes, Bk. 1, ch. 7.5.

Finally, in reference to the perspicuity of Scripture, it must not be thought that the total clarity and comprehensibility of the Word is here being advocated. The perspicuity of Scripture refers to the basic or essential clarity. There are things in the Word which the best of God's children have not been able to fathom. However, by the gracious ministry of the Spirit, that which is necessary for salvation and godliness is clear.

The Reformers' Approach to the Bible

What do Luther and Calvin have to say to the church of today concerning Sola Scriptura? We will note the salient points of their approach to the Bible.

First, both Luther and Calvin, echoing Paul, see man in a dreadful plight. He is lost and unable to come to his own rescue. Man desperately needs the Word from the Most High God if he is ever going to be saved. That there is a general revelation in nature neither Reformer denied, but man is not able to come to a saving knowledge of God apart from the Word. It is this somber reality that underlies the utter necessity of the Bible. The modern church needs to take fresh cognizance of this important fact.

In his article, "Dateline: Bangkok" (Christianity Today, Mar. 30, 1973), Harold Lindsell had this to say about the 1972-73 World Conference on Salvation Today:

    " Apart from listening to the three major papers, participants in the conference and the assembly spent most of their time in section and group meetings. Out of them came a plethora of pronouncements but no clear, unambiguous statement of the meaning of salvation today, yesterday, or tomorrow. The public opinion board did reveal some interesting opinions on the matter: "People matter, people suffer; salvation is in sharing suffering." Following an unscheduled session on China in which one delegate praised Chairman Mao as the saviour, this sign appeared, "Salvation – God save China from 'conversion.' " — p.7.

It is no surprise that in such a stream of thought concerning salvation, the utter necessity of the Bible should have no place. Luther and Calvin speak to such a church. In an age of "a swing to the East" for salvation, the church of God needs to sound the message of a lost world and the utter bankruptcy of non-Biblical religions of both East and West!1

Second, not only do Luther and Calvin speak to the present church concerning man's lost condition and the utter necessity of the Bible. They speak concerning the nature of revelation in the Bible. Generally speaking, contemporary theology posits supreme authority in God alone and gives the Bible only a relative authority (cf. the approaches outlined at the beginning of this article). Contemporary theology bluntly refuses to give absolute authority to the Bible, for it fears that to do so is to rob God of His absolute authority. But we have seen that, for Luther and Calvin, Sola Scriptura meant nothing less than the absolute authority of the Bible. Both Reformers saw the Scriptures as deserving the attribute of absolute authority—not in the place of God but as the expression of the very mind of God. In the words of Bernard Ramm, the two Reformers did not have "a monistic principle of authority." Rather,

"a pattern of authority is visible. This pattern is the intersection of 1.) the authority of Jesus Christ, 2.) the Scriptures as the revealed Word of God, and 3.) the Holy Spirit in His internal witness to Jesus Christ and the Word." (cf. Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Religious Authority)

This is a point of cardinal importance. To select any one principle of authority to the exclusion of others is to fall into a grave mistake.

To select God to the exclusion of the Bible, as much contemporary theology does, is neither true to the Bible nor the Protestant Reformation. This is because God, in His all-knowing wisdom, has designed to speak in and through the Bible by His Spirit. To select Jesus Christ as the normative criterion of revelation in the Bible (cf. Brunner, Revelation and Reason, pp. 127-130; Dogmatics, Vol. 1, p. 107f.) or to select the "new being in Jesus Christ" as that criterion (cf. Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol.1, p. 47f.), is to fall prey to an autonomous and arbitrary selection more indicative of man's need than his wisdom. God speaks in the Bible – His Word through which Jesus Christ rules His kingdom by the Holy Spirit, who constantly testifies to both the living and written Word.

Hence, Luther and Calvin call the modern church back to the absolute authority of the Bible as the Word of God in the church and the world.

Third, Luther and Calvin issue an authoritative call to much evangelicalism. Not least because much evangelicalism has its own way of separating the Holy Spirit from the Word. If contemporary theology posits supreme authority in God to the detriment of the Bible, much present day evangelicalism is in danger of positing supreme authority in the "experience" of the believer to the detriment of the Word. Unless we are badly mistaken, the immediate reaction to theological liberalism (e.g., Schliermacher) also posited supreme authority in experience but made no excuses for giving unabashed formulation to it. Much evangelicalism formally denies this locus of authority but, in actual fact, gives a far greater place to it than is at all desirable.

Luther and Calvin constantly fought against Rome's pretensions to "direct" contact with the Spirit in and through the pope and church councils. Rome admitted that the Spirit spoke in and through the Bible, but claimed this was not the final locus of the Spirit's working. As pointed out earlier, Luther attacked the right of councils to establish new articles of faith (cf. Luther's On the Councils and the Church, 1539). In addition, Luther and Calvin had to defend the absolute authority of the Bible against the enthusiasts, who boasted of immediacy of revelation by the Spirit.

Evangelicalism needs to beware. The miraculous, the unusual, the pragmatically "helpful" may govern our approach to the Word so that what we find is only the confirmation of our experiences. The slogan, "The man with an experience is never at the mercy of the man with an argument," is highly dangerous and can be positively pagan! A miracle, a "changed life," a helped life may be used as the final hermeneutical seal which closes all argument and brings down charges of resisting the Spirit upon those who wish to exercise reserve. But if a position is not in accordance with the Bible, it is wrong—irrespective of experience! Luther insisted that that which does not agree with Scripture is to be rejected "even if it snows miracles every day"! — Luther's Works, Vol.24, p.371. R.S. Wallace comments:

    " There is no more dubious and dangerous practice according to Calvin, than to try to make contact with the Spirit of God by turning to any other source than the Word of God. "It is the spirit of Satan that is separated from the Word, to which the Spirit of God is continually joined." — Wallace, op. cit., p.129.

Fourth, Luther and Calvin challenge both contemporary theology and evangelicalism in their practical demonstration of utter commitment to the final authority of Scriptures. Witness the truly prodigious labors of these Reformers in expounding the Word in preaching, teaching and voluminous writings! This provides a stark contrast to much theology and preaching today. The Bible is sadly and shamefully neglected in so much modern theology and preaching (see Paul Tillich's monumental Systematic Theology, where grappling with Scripture is evident by its absence). Consider much of so-called evangelical preaching. One may encounter pseudo-dramatism. He may hear the imperatives pulverizing the people of God. He may listen to sickeningly glib cliches rolling off the preacher's (?) tongue with the greatest of ease. But where is that careful exegesis of the text? Where is that great concern to represent the message of the passage of Scripture? Ultimately, is not our view of the Word seen more in what we do with it than in what we say about it?

Have we not separated the Spirit from the Word in our foolish notion that scholarship on the part of the minister of God is to be subordinated to emotional attachment, which we call keenness? If we really believe that the Word and Spirit are inseparable, would this not be shown in a high quality of exegesis and exposition? The truly prodigious labors of both Luther and Calvin call the quality of our ministry into question. May God help us to repent of our deprecation of His Word. The Bible is completely sufficient and, under the ministry of the Spirit, essentially clear.

1 It is interesting to note a statement of Vatican Council Il regarding the position of non-Christian Jews, Moslems and atheists. See Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, ch. 2, par. 16, for a thoroughly unBiblical statement.

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