John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion

Institutes of the Christian Religion, 69-81, 94-6

In these passages, Calvin succinctly expounds his understanding of what is often called “special revelation.” What are his basic moves? First, Calvin makes it clear that Scripture is necessary to properly identify God (chapter VI). Though creation points to a god, and though the human person innately recognizes a higher power, it is only through the “spectacles” (70) of Scripture that the true God might be known. Second, Calvin argues that the Scriptures are the Christian’s true authority not because the Church identifies them to be so, but because “God in person speaks in it” (78). It is through the agency of the Holy Spirit in the Christian heart and mind that establishes in that heart and mind a trust in the authority of the Scriptures, and the Scriptures are thus self-authenticating and beyond proof (chapter VII). In chapter VIII Calvin enters into a discussion of the proofs for Scripture and introduces an interesting question as to the interplay between these proofs and self-authentication. Finally, in a key portion of chapter IX, Calvin inseparably links Word and Spirit, such that the Word is authenticated by the work of Spirit and the Spirit is recognized because of the Word.

It is in this linking of Spirit and Word that we are faced with what seems to be a sort of hermeneutical circle.

“For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word” (95).

To rephrase the issue, in order to trust and understand the Scripture we must be convinced of it by the Holy Spirit, and in order to properly recognize the work of the Holy Spirit we must have the reference point of the Word. This circular conundrum is not unlike that which Calvin presents in the opening pages of this work, namely, the mutually necessary knowledge of God and knowledge of the self. These constructions seem to present us with what we understand to be a paradoxical construction, namely, a circle. Perhaps this is because we conceive of each side of these paradoxes as temporal moments to be experienced. Perhaps the way out of these conundrum’s lies in recognizing the prior activity of God. A discussion of temporality is important here. Our human, time-conditioned minds naturally assume that the two sides of the paradox cannot occur at the same time. Perhaps they can. Also, perhaps they occur outside of time in the existence of God.


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