Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter VII Section 1-5)
After contemplating why we need a written record of God’s activity in Chapter 6, Calvin goes on to now ask – “how can we be sure that the bible is God’s word?” and “where does the authority of the bible come from?”. His first concern is to refute the error that the authority of the bible is due to its sanction by the church. He also addresses the role of the church in the formation of the canon of scripture. He argues that the church “does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful, but acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as duty bound, shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent”.
Calvin argues that to have our assurance of the bible based on man’s judgement is a mistake and does not provide any real assurance. Rather, the evidence for its inspiration comes from the “secret testimony of the Spirit” confirming in our hearts the truth of its inspiration. The same Spirit that spoke through the prophets must convict us of the truth of their words. Yes, there are “proofs”, which will be considered in the next chapter, that can confirm to the believer the reasonableness of believing in divine inspiration. But these are not sufficient in themselves to convince us that the bible is the very words of God.
Many times in this chapter Calvin delights to exalt the sufficiency of the Spirit alone in bringing assurance to believers. He writes that “the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason” and that we know it is God’s word because “we feel a divine energy living and breathing in it”. This is not the language of some purely rational, cerebral philosopher, but rather a devoted, humble worshiper.
Reading this in the 21st century, you realise just how much the whole landscape of Christianity has been turned on its head. Calvin’s primary concern was that people would not unthinkingly follow what they were told by the powerful religious leaders of his day. Today the influence of the church on society has almost completely waned (in the UK) and even those inside the church often have very little respect for the authority of their leaders. Both positions are extremes and somewhere between the two is the heathy place to be – to respect those who are over you in the Lord, but to test everything against the scriptures.
Following hundreds of years of attack on the doctrine of the divine inspiration of scripture, many believers today are confused about the authority of the bible. Others are better placed than I to mount a defense of this truth, but for me a point Calvin makes is key to starting to understand the bible as God’s word. Calvin says that “our faith in doctrine is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author. Hence, the highest proof of Scripture is uniformly taken from the character of him whose word it is”. For me this is the key, I do not expect those who do not know God to acknowledge the divine authority of the bible. However, for those of us who have come to know the author and have the witness of the Spirit within us, then we have all we need to assure us of this truth.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statues of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord radiant, giving light to the eyes.” Psalm 19.7-8
Father, give us that assurance of faith that comes from the Spirit witnessing with our spirit that your word is trustworthy. Help us to meditate on its truth and allow it to penetrate our heart. Lead us to know for certain that you are speaking to us through your word, and may we respond in obedience, Amen.
One thought on “The secret testimony of the Spirit”
“Whenever, then, the fewness of believers disturbs us, let the converse come to mind, that only those to whom it is given can comprehend the mysteries of God.” – (Institutes, Section 1.7.5)
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted” (NASB, Matthew. 13:10-11).