2018 June 1 - Calvin's Part in Introducing the Doctrine of Infallibility
Calvin’s Part in Introducing the Doctrine of Infallibility
Kathy L. McFarland, M.Div.
Last Edit: June 1, 2018
The inerrant nature of Scripture is the common stance of Christian conservative and fundamental belief. Inerrancy, the idea that Scripture contains no errors is usually thought to be a critical component of belief that is absolutely necessary for the full understanding of God’s revelations to mankind. Accordingly, inerrancy is often declared essential to belief in God with strong theological support in the foundational doctrines of most conservative Christian churches creeds, councils, and confessions.
At some point in Christian history, the belief that the Bible was completely without error in all matters was challenged to the lesser requirement of a more liberal infallibility belief that claims the Bible does what God intended it to do but is not necessarily fully representative of the truth of science, history, or dating in modern-day understandings. Darwin’s release of his book Origin of Species, led to liberal, neo-evangelism views published in America, which in turn provoked A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield to articulate the meaning of inerrancy to combat the growing liberalism that declared the Bible a faulty historical and scientific collection of books. Philip Schaff claimed “the theory of a literal inspiration and inerrancy was not held by the Reformers” (quoted by B. B. Warfield in, The Independent magazine, July 1893). Even the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. claimed that inerrancy was a newly invented development of fundamentalism that was unknown by the drafters of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Earnest Sandeen (Macalester College) claimed that nineteenth-century Princeton theologians A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield created the doctrine of inerrancy “to combat the burgeoning threat of liberalism.”
Eventually, the inerrancy/infallibility chasm was soundly recognized in modern-day times during the “thirty years’ war” between liberal and conservative Christians in 1955-1985 according to J. L. Packer, at which time great divisions of belief were shaped. Finally, the liberal agenda seemed to be influencing Christians in great numbers in the adoption of the infallibility doctrine. Their strikes accused Princetonian theologians and proto-fundamentalists of inventing the doctrine of inerrancy during the development of neo-evangelism causing their separation from fundamentalism in modern-day times.
This paper will present evidence that at the arrival of the Medieval Period, Augustine and other important Christian leaders believed strongly in the inerrancy of Scripture. Then, an examination of Calvin’s ideas based upon some of his commentaries of Psalms will be analyzed to assert that infallible belief in Scripture possibly began through his accommodation theory when he attempts to define Scripture veracity based upon the needs of stupid readers rather than upon the real Truth of God.
Medieval Period Belief in the Inerrancy of Scripture
Augustine (354-430) helps usher in the Medieval Period with the development of his theological teachings bound to inerrant Scripture.
For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. It is one question whether it may be at any time the duty of a good man to deceive; but it is another question whether it can have been the duty of a writer of Holy Scripture to deceive: nay, it is not another question— it is no question at all. For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true.
It is the canonical Scripture to which Augustine declares his trust in its inerrancy, when he writes:
For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the MS. is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.
affirms the truthfulness of Scripture and his belief that God created the
universe out of nothing with the creation of mankind no later than six thousand
years before his time. He also believes Scripture accurately reports the
worldwide flood and humanity’s salvation through Noah and his ark. Theologian
Gregg Allison declares Augustine’s position in his Historical Theology
Clearly, he believed that biblical inerrancy extended to matters of cosmology, human origins, genealogy, and the like. Scripture’s infallibility also meant that no contradictions exist in the Bible. Accordingly, Augustine underscored that “we are bound to believe” everything in Scripture.
Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse later analyzes Augustine’s belief and influence of Church history through his belief in the inerrancy of Scripture:
During all these [fifteen] centuries no one doubted that the Bible in its entirety was God’s Word, that God was the principal author of the Scriptures, as their human authors had written under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, and that, therefore, these books were free from errors and contradictions, even when this did not seem to be the case. The Middle Ages had inherited this view from the Fathers who had established it in numerous exegetical and apologetical writings.
of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a practitioner of Lectio Divina that treats
Scripture as the Living Word of God to be meditated, prayed, and
contemplated fully. Though these contemplations sometimes led to both a literal
and deeper meaning in his interpretive approach, the surety of Scripture as
God’s Word was fully embraced by him. Martin Luther referenced Bernard over
five hundred times, and quoted William of Saint-Thierry about the meticulous
way Bernard studied Scriptures, classified as vita prima. Bernard
believed, and Luther later believed, that it is Scripture alone that reveals
The Waldensians, a group of pre-protestant Protestants, left the Catholic Church in the twelfth century to give devotion to the Scriptures and its perseverance. They were not enemies of the Catholic Church; rather, they desired a walk with Christ that was based upon the Bible, solely, as the inerrant Word of God.
Aquinas (1225-1274) writes: “Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Writ.” The literal view of the Holy Bible must be based upon the foundational Truth of the LORD God or it is false and not part of Scripture, accordingly.
Calvin’s Camouflaged Belief
John Calvin (1509-1564) knew how to talk the talk of his generation of theologians. Calvin’s words of authority are sometimes used in the modern-day discussion of the belief in inerrant Scripture; for instance, he speaks of Paul’s motivation in writing 2 Timothy 3:16 as the divinely inspired authority of Scripture. This word inspired leads many to assume that Calvin holds the same inerrancy views of Scripture as other Christian leaders during the Medieval Period. But, Calvin’s possible non-belief in the inerrancy of Scripture (based upon his accommodation theories) conflicts with the analysis of many conservative Christian commentators that evaluate Calvin as holding a strong belief in Scripture veracity without error.
It is evident that Calvin thought Paul’s teachings to be “God-breathed” and should be received with a reverence. Calvin often defends the holiness of the words spoken by the prophets in uttered words delivered by the Holy Spirit from Heaven that told them what to say. His strong, judgmental, restrictive presence coupled with his writings that record key words that are often used by conservatives to define modern-day belief in inerrancy, help support a flawed claim of Calvin’s belief in Scripture inerrancy. When Calvin points out that the Prophets recorded only the things dictated to them from the Holy Spirit, it is assumed that Calvin is stressing inerrancy.
Calvin speaks of the deliverance of Scripture to fully come from the Holy Spirit; but, as to the character and nature of the written Word, he moves towards infallible belief, a very rare position taken during the Medieval times. Calvin is knowledgeable enough about the passions of Christian faithful in his time to implement his teachings with a possibly unintentional but camouflaged belief. He seems to manipulate word usage through careful choices that placate the noble inerrant belief in Scripture while still representing his own belief that begins creeping toward the idea of “infallibility” in his understanding of Scripture.
It is quite possible that in his mind Calvin believes Scripture Truth as inerrant. Certainly, there is no hard evidence that Calvin strayed far from this common theological belief. Yet, when his accommodation theories are applied, the very nature of his pointed references towards manipulation of God’s Words so dumb people can understand, tilts solid, hermeneutical inquiries into Scripture into a place of untruth. This leads to the evidence assessment that God accommodates stupid people in his Word by speaking small words that do not capture His full essence. This faulty assessment might then be applied to the Word of God (John 1:1-5) who took form of a human when He was the Son of God glorified. It is faulty thinking that makes the Lord Jesus Christ a reduced human being that speaks only small words for people to understand God. Jesus is not a watered-down introduction to God or man. He is revealed to mankind fully human in full essence of that nature that He one day transfigures into the essence of God once again. If Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, is full essence of His Father, then the Word of God presented in Scripture must reveal the full essence as well. Calvin’s accommodation theories reduce that Truth to human being standards and must be declared faulty thinking when interpretation of Scripture is undertaken.
Calvin’s Accommodation Viewpoint
Calvin’s drifting view of Scripture infallibility, rather than inerrancy is a dramatic change of doctrine that has consequences on faith issues even today. He believes that errors made with concern to scientific and other perceived errors within Scripture were “God’s accommodation of the truth to the limited understanding of men.” Calvin consistently represents the accommodating talk of God with mankind as simple, reduced, child-like word choices that represents the bigger Truth of God. Calvin mentions these accommodations made to man’s understanding by God in the following references in many of his writings; this paper will examine Calvin’s accommodation theories found in his Psalms commentaries:
Psalm 13:3 – (God looking) Calvin writes that the “Holy Spirit purposely accommodates to our understanding the models of prayer recorded in Scripture” with the words reflective of child-like people unable to grasp the full meaning of God’s Words.  Almost all modern-day Christians would agree that God uses metaphors in Scripture as rich figures of speech that embolden the text. However, Calvin’s reasoning of simple talk for simple people belays modern-day principles of hermeneutical analysis that can discover rich ideas contained within the Word of God with special attention paid to the figurative expressions. Many conservative scholars observe Scripture metaphors as forming deeper ideas made apparent through Scripture’s presentation of similes, allegories, parables, and symbols. God’s Words are not just an accommodation for the shallow thinking of immature believers; rather, His Words within Scripture are specifically chosen to capture the fullest Truth that people can find in their seeking of God.
Calvin’s specific analysis of the anthropomorphic qualities expressed in Scripture, as in this instance where God “looks” upon a believer seems to be the crux of his charge of small word ideas used for child-like people. He argues that human functions are used as descriptions by God so some sort of understanding of Him can take place in the limited minds of human beings.
It seems apparent and widely known in modern-day theologian circles that throughout Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, the LORD God can consider, take note, and watch believers. The LORD God can hear believers when they approach Him obediently and faithfully through Christ. Calvin’s explanation of child-like talk by God for the circumstances of small intellect by Scripture readers argues against specifically chosen Words by God used to reflect His Word. It could be likened to calling the sun a “red ball” to a child. If further development of that concept is not forthcoming as the child grows, the child will have a false understanding of the truth concerning the sun. It seems that there is ample proof throughout Scripture that if it is a sun that God would need to represent, then He most surely would use the word “sun” rather than “red ball.” Scripture is written to satisfy God’s will in revealing His Words to mankind and will not be formed upon a simple concept of inferior definition for stupid people. Either the Truth of God reflects perfectly chosen words and their nature fully, or it does not. There does not appear to be any middle ground in the understanding of this principle.
Calvin links the idea of David praying to God to “look” upon him as one that leads to the increased effect of faith, regardless of the metaphor inconsistency restricted by him to show only a limited depth in Scripture. He says that ideas about God that suggest looking and sleeping and lightning the eyes are merely reflective words of easily understood metaphors. Scripture studied upon a cursory, one-level, fundamental review of the Word of God reveals many metaphors that young Christian can easily understand. But, Calvin seems to lack the ability to contemplate the depths of Scripture that brings the mature Christian to find the mysteries of God through the connection and contemplation of these same figures of speech.
Calvin’s accommodation viewpoint that God does not look upon individual believers as recorded in Psalm 13:3 is doubtful upon consideration of the role of Christ as Savior. Christ is part of the Triune God, and He considers each of His followers individually by looking upon them, just as the LORD God considers Him. The verbs of God’s actions that are eloquently developed in the different Psalms bring deeper understanding of the nature of God upon the arrival of His Son when these words of Truth are connected by the Holy Spirit.
The audience of inerrant belief would stress that the Word of God revealed in Scripture chooses the words God wills in the original manuscripts; it is not watered down and made simple so dumb people can understand. There are provisions within the Word of God that make ample direction and enlightenment for mature Christians as they follow the path set forth for them in the study of the inerrant Scripture. If Calvin’s accommodation viewpoint is considered, there seems a conflict towards the error-free representation of Scripture. Simply stated, if Scripture words are written to accommodate child-like understanding, then more truthful, potent words and hermeneutical interpretations are restricted by this constriction. If the words of Scripture accommodate, then the Truth of God is squelched; thus, inerrancy belief is questionable, with only the possibility of infallibility belief assured.
Psalm 51:4 – (verbal quote error) Calvin explains his difficult-to-understand stance of the lack of verbal exactness in New Testament quotes from Old Testament Scripture as a satisfaction that the passage differences achieve the purpose of the apostle that writes them. Specifically, he tries to explain the different ideas and words within Psalm 51:4 as compared to Romans 3:3-4, and whether the bar of human judgment or God’s judgment prevails.
Psalm 51:4 states:
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done this evil in thy sight: That thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest.
Paul alters the Psalm words by saying in Romans
For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.
It is the idea of Scripture
Words changing, from the active judgment of God, to the active escape from
oppressive judgment by Him. One speaks
of God, the other of man. Calvin addresses the different ideas of God’s spiritual
judgment of men, and whether or not both the Psalm and Romans passages can be
true when his interpretation shows contrasting and conflicting ideas.
If the ideas are opposite in meaning, then they are false. But Calvin considers the verbal inexactness
made by Apostles and was satisfied that the differences achieved the purpose
for which the writer desired with strong connection to both Scripture.
According to Calvin’s chain-of-thought, the writer makes accommodation for the
reader in different ways for them to understand and since he is God-directed,
then it is God that makes accommodation.
Calvin’s explanation for these differences comes quite close to
inerrancy support. Those with inerrant belief often explain Scripture quote
differences between the Old Testament and New Testament as a new teaching being
revealed by God through the foundational idea of the Old Testament words and
the New Testament application.
However, Calvin weighs the Old Testament and New Testament passage with the same weight and declares one to represent God’s intentions and the other to be the writer’s intentions to prove his point. It is at that point that Calvin’s accommodation theory becomes false. It would make much more sense to declare that God’s intentions are represented in both cases, rather than to attribute one saying to Him and one saying to the author of the text that is manipulated for stupid people to understand.
Calvin clearly understands the justification for God and man and his commentary on Psalm 51 upholds inerrant Scripture. Mature Christians understand that the old covenants made between God and man seem vastly different from the new covenant expressed through the coming of Christ, His crucifixion, and Resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, even though the ideas progressively apply. Those holding the inerrant view support the integral idea that if any words of verbal quote made in the Old Testament are changed in the New Testament, then it must be recognized to be the exact wordage that God chose to use in that instant. Possibly it is changed to elevate or cause examination to the original quote and guide the believer to a path chosen by Him. Maybe the difference is changed by the new covenant to require the quotation to be lessened in impact or heightened in focused consideration.
Either every word, jot, and tittle are written by the LORD God specifically and intentionally without error, or the different verbal quote errors between the Old Testament and New Testament must be attributed to the author’s assuming literary license, making mistakes, or producing manipulations. Either God placed those difference inside His Word for purposes possibly unknown by readers, or the author used the differences to manipulate the audience in some manner. Calvin’s accommodation theory tries to justify these perceived mistakes by making clear the intentions of the individual authors, rather than fully focus upon inerrant intentions of the LORD God and His Word.
Psalm 69:28 – (Book of Life referenced) Calvin calls the stanza of “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous” as an “improper manner of speaking, but one well adapted to our limited capacity.” Calvin says that the accommodation to the imperfection of human understanding requires God to speak about a big book where are written the names of the saved, and the blotting out of the rejected. He then contrasts that with the revealed knowledge of 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 4, 7 that declares the sanctification of those called, who can never lose their salvation. It is his point that either salvation can be lost, thus having the need to blot out the names of the disobedient, or that salvation is assured forever, and no blotting would take place from the Book of Life. Thus, he charges that the Book of Life is merely a convenient example to help the readers of limited capacity.
The “Book of Life” is an intrinsic arc, from the Psalms in the Old Testament, to the end of days in the New Testament that reveals the things of God given to man in Scripture. It is not merely mentioned as a simplified object that can only be understood by feeble mankind. Those holding the inerrant belief of Scripture are confident that the Book of Life must be accepted as God’s Truth; that there is indeed a book that lists the names of the living and rejects the names of the dead (Revelation 20:12). This book of life is one of other books that are opened at the Day of Judgment by God. It destines those not written within its pages to be cast in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). Any belief that disregards this important object and lessens it to a prop for feeble minds can never declare Scripture truth as inerrant.
Psalm 78:65 – (God’s awaking from sleep) Calvin writes about the phrase the Lord awoke as one asleep:
With respect to God, the metaphor derogates nothing from his glory. If he does not immediately remedy our calamities, we are ready to think that he is sunk into a profound sleep. But how can God, it may be said, be thus asleep, when he is superior in strength to all the giants, and yet they can easily watch for a long time, and are satisfied with little sleep?
The words “Then the Lord
awaked as one out of sleep” is different than if it were written “Then the Lord
awoke from sleep.” The Hebrew letter
kaf creates the
word “as” and changes the meaning from actively sleeping to one that describes
the action of God coming to bear upon the psalmist’s enemies suddenly was as if
He were waking up.
Calvin’s accommodation explanation that these words were used because it was small-intelligent people unable to understand God’s strength reading them. The disregard of the Hebrew word kaf seems likely to have confused them. The rich imagery of the awakening God captures the Psalmist’s awe when one moment the LORD God abhors Israel, then the next, he comes to their defense. The capture of that moment with the words “as [if] He awaked as one out of sleep” allows readers to fully comprehend the amazing turn of events. Calvin’s accommodation theory inaccurately disregards the specific, inerrant Words that created the idea that God intentionally made.
Psalm 86:8 – (God of gods) Calvin writes that when Scripture records David extolling God by declaring “Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord” the crux of the matter is making comparisons that are silly inventions of men. Calvin charges that the “language is employed in accommodation to the ignorance of the generality of men.” It is effrontery and superstitions exaltation of those making gods to themselves and David is correct to declare the LORD God supreme. But, the usage of the words in his exaltation are not toward God but said toward the offenders. Thus, Calvin believes these words to be untrue as far as the purpose of the prayer.
That mankind has created and imagined many different false gods is the truth. That the LORD God is above all other created or imagined gods, or any other potential god yet to come, is above all other gods is His Truth. If you cannot understand that basic fact of the omnipotence of the LORD God, then you are far away from His Truth. Calvin’s suggestion that the language “is employed in accommodation to the ignorance of the generality of men” removes the strong Truth of the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscience natures of the LORD God that are above all others. David’s words are the Truth of God and his motivation for saying the words is unimportant to the analysis of inerrancy. To not consider this superior LORD God, and the lesser gods that His Chosen people and others worshipped in their disobedience removes the consideration of the culture in its time
Psalm 88:5 – (God forgets) According to Calvin, “the prophet speaks according to the opinion of the generality of men” rather than reveal his supposed truth of God that declares His knowing of all people even after death. Calvin supports the idea that to say “God is no longer mindful of man after he is dead” seems more like the language of the heathen rather than the righteous. Thus, once again, Calvin finds fault with the actual words in Scripture, and represents the words that argue against his belief as accommodating the flawed human mind.
Possibly representing Calvin’s ideas well by removing the Truth of God concerning the Book of Life requires God to keep all of the names remembered, even those lost to their deaths. The doctrine that begins Scripture and ends Scripture, the creation of man that leads to the saving and eternal life to some, and the damnation to others, is so central to Scripture, that to remove those ideas, and the book keeping track of them, removes the entire purpose of His written Word. Either the Word of God is fully true or filled with errors that Calvin must fix with his accommodation theories that adapt to stupid readers.
The beginning of leaven smoldering inside the newly formed
breads of Medieval belief in something other than the inerrancy of Scripture
seem at first to be over-stressed representations of Calvin’s words that do not
seem that bad. But the blossomed dough of modern-day Christian belief sometimes
reflects the faulty thinking of an idea first began so long ago. Calvin developed theological arguments of
accommodation that make it easier to believe in the infallibility of Scripture.
Inerrancy conviction cannot allow for this accommodation. Calvin’s
accommodation position ultimately removes the possibility of belief in the
inerrancy of Scripture and is thus flawed in its construction. Should modern-day believers in the
“infallible” word of God realize that it is the accommodation towards their
stupidity that many Scriptures are written according to Calvin, then possibly
Scripture and its inerrancy will be embraced again as it was in the early
Church during Medieval times.
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Kathy L. McFarland is a Becker Bible Studies teacher and author of Guided Bible Studies for Hungry Christians. She has received her Bachelor of Science degree in Religious Studies from Liberty University and the Master of Divinity (Professional Ministries Track) degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary & Graduate School. She is Founder and President of Becker Bible Ministries, Inc., the curriculum developer for Becker Professional Theology Academy, and a teaching faculty member. She also performs duties as Chaplain, and is an endorser for Chaplains and licensing of Missionaries at Becker Bible Ministries, Inc.
 Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume One: Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 504.
 Jason S. Sexton,
"How Far Beyond Chicago?: Assessing Recent Attempts to Reframe the
Inerrancy Debate," Themelios 34,
no. 1 (2009): 29.
 John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers and Mckim Proposal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982).The dedicated scholarship of John Woodbridge in his 1982 paper entitled Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal gives strong, convictive evidence that the doctrine of inerrancy as the dominant view of the early church, before Augustine. His paper critiques faulty scholarship of influential, modern-day theologians Sandeen, Rogers, and McKim because they helped lead belief in the doctrine of inerrancy astray in their claims that inerrant Scripture was not present in earlier church history. Though this paper begins with the Medieval Period, it is important to recognize that until Calvin, most Christian leaders in the Early Church declared strong belief in the inerrancy of Scripture.
 Augustine of Hippo, Letters of St. Augustin in the Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 251-52.
 Moorhead, 80.
 From the Editor - the Waldensians: The Waldensian Motto: Into Darkness, Light, Christian History (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1989).
 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Complete English ed., Summa Theologica (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), Part 1, Question 1, Article 10.
 John Calvin, and William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 248-49.
 Ibid., 285-88.
 Ibid., 73-74.
 Ibid., 273.
 Ibid., 409-11.