Calvin on the Internal Witness of the Holy Spirit

John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (Translated by Ford Lewis Battles; Edited by John T. McNeill; Library of Christian Classics vol. 20-1; Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960).
“God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.” (1.7.4)

“Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearths through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as a thing far beyond any guesswork!” (1.7.5)
N.B. When Calvin says ‘certain’, he does not mean ‘justified true belief’ in the usual philosophical sense. Rather, he is alluding to a form of knowledge that corresponds with its object – in this case, God. Also, it is a shame that the term ‘self-authenticated’ is used as opposed to sticking with the agency of the Holy Spirit, which is clearly the dominant theme in this material. Finally, my thanks to Shane Wilkins for digging up these quotes. He has recently purchased a copy of Calvin’s Institutes, and I am happy to know that he is digging in to them!


Aric Clark said…
what drives me nuts is that I paraphrased that second quote (1.7.5) at my examination by Presbytery for candidacy when asked about the authority of scripture, I even told them it was from the Institutes, and I got drubbed because they interpreted my statement as a denial of inspiration. Ack!

In my Presbytery if you don't say "the original texts or authors of scripture were divinely inspired to write every word according to God's plan" then you're clearly an atheist.
Andy said…
On the other side of the stream from aric, what if the Spirit testifies to me that Harry Potter flowed from the mouth of God by the ministry of (a) (wo)man? Ok, that's a little cheeky. But what about the Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Thomas, Shepherd of Hermas, Didache? I think Jean is mistaken. Certainly, the inward affectation only takes place through the Spirit, but I have been just as deeply affected (altered, sanctified, even) by reading the Fathers, Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo. Granted, I recognize this sanctification through the prior sanctifying work of the Spirit in Scripture, but the question all of this raises is the question of canonicity. Scripture is not a clear concept. What are the Scriptures? Why do we have a list of 27 NT books? Indeed, the Spirit has worked in and through the Church, not only to produce the Scriptures but also to discern which are most fitting to be called Holy Writ. That is, the Scriptures are not self-authenticating. They were authenticated by the Church--in Council.

Alas, though, I plead my (current) ignorance as to Calvin's position on canon. If someone can better inform me, I may come around.

I don't want to go into a post length response, so I'll just do a little sketching here.

The Spirit which bears witness within us is also Christ's Spirit, which means that the two cannot be separated.

The scope of Scripture is limited to apostolicity. Indeed, the authority of Scripture is directly tied to apostolic succession. Jesus did, after all, authorize the apostles to teach (Matt. 28). What we have in Scripture is the record of the witness of the prophets and apostles.

In terms of how we came to have a certain canonical limit, we need not surrender this process to 'tradition' for we have recourse to the doctrine of providence and a theological interpretation (which resonates with much of the self-understanding of the church in this process) that says that the canon that has been passed to us is that which has been judged to faithfully represent the teaching of the apostles as well as has proved to be the unique instrument of the Spirit.

That said, I have no problem with a canon within a canon, and with blurring some of the outer boundaries. But, the core remains (Pauline letters, Gospels, Torah, Prophets) and the rest is judged on that basis.

Finally, the whole is judged and verified by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.
Andy said…

Thanks for the response.

The question is, what stops you from adding Thomas or any of the Nag Hammadi writings? Apostolicity? Thomas has a much of a claim as John. I don't think apostolicity will save you. That is, I do not think historical work will save you.

Likewise, let us consider Hebrews or Revelation, both contested early in reception history. Why included? Why have we kept them? Not apostolicity. No apostle can be proved to be behind them. So, as for limit, the Spirit can testify, for example, that Hermas or the Didache are resonant with the apostolic teaching. Why not add them? Thomas has as much of a claim to apostolicity, and to many has the sanction of the Spirit for inclusion. Why leave it out?

As for the canon within a canon--there can be no such thing. Or at the very least you must explain to me how the least of the apostles (that is, the last, not one of the twelve) came to have such a privileged position. What of the Writings, what of the Apocalypse, James, Acts, Hebrews, Jude, the Petrine letters? Why should these be judged by Paul? Why should they be judged by the Gospels? Because the Spirit told you so?

In the end, my questions come down to this--how do we test the spirits (1 Jn 4.1)? Or should we not test the spirits since this injunction comes from John?

The (true) Spirit that bears witness within us is indeed the Spirit of Christ, but not every perception of the Spirit is true. Can it be denied?

As for providence--perhaps providence can be used as the catch-all for anything that is still similar between the fractured churches, but if we want to claim providence is active in the preservation of the Scriptures, we must ask why it has not been active in the must more important visible unity of Christ's church.

To put it in very blunt and overly simplistic terms--if the internal witness of the Spirit is all, how do we escape solipsism, which is the end of our subjective perception of the Spirit? How do we rightly perceive the Spirit in our discernment if not in the living tradition?
Ultimately, all these things are a matter of faith - and that is where the internal witness of the Spirit comes it. Historicity is fine, up to a point. But, the willingness to see that historicity as significant (providence) is a matter of faith.

How early a document is accepted by the community, and how widely it circulates, factors in to the tradition's witness to the inward testimony of the Spirit. That is why I think it possible to privilege Paul and the Gospel.

Which brings us to the question of the 'non-canonical' works: How early are they? That is a big deal.

None of this is knock-down, but - like I said - it is a matter of faith.
Shane said…
I've been thinking about this matter quite a lot.

I think the term "self-authenticating" is a poor choice for the greek autopiston. Nothing can 'authenticate' itself because to authenticate something you have to have prior agreement as to the authority of the one who is authenticating. "Self-authenticating" is logically contradictory in a way similar to the term "self-caused".

Instead I would translate it: "believed in itself". I'm not positive about this because I don't have my Greek edition of Aristotle to hand, but I would guess that something like the law of non-contradiction could be called autopiston insofar as you just have to believe it in itself--there is no further ground you can specify in order to demonstrate its truth.

I would affirm that scripture must be taken as authoritative in that sense because there is no further ground upon which to demonstrate their inspiration. But, that does not mean that they lack authority in themselves or that they attain their authority only through canonical recognition by the Church.

It may be that I would not have known the canon without the Church, but the Church is the creature of the Word and not vice versa.

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