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John Calvin, the Gnostic Protestant?

How does John Calvin treat the Bible? The answer helped make me Catholic.

It was late summer, 2017. I was a Protestant who several months prior had begun reading the Church Fathers. Their ubiquitous belief in Catholic doctrines had compelled me to dig into whether or not the Catholic faith was true.

To that end, I had just begun reading St. Francis de Sales’s riveting apologetic against Protestantism, The Catholic Controversy. I had heard that the book presented some of the best arguments against Protestantism ever made. It was true: I was stunned by nearly every page, as so many questions I’d had for years were not only taken seriously, but given a serious answer by this zealous priest. Indeed, when it was originally written in the sixteenth century, it helped convert tens of thousands of Protestants back to the Catholic Faith.

In his arguments, Francis often quoted Protestants themselves—the men whom I had grown up seeing as my spiritual fathers. Although I had read a decent amount of Luther and Calvin in my high school and college days, many of the quotes presented in The Catholic Controversy shocked me, especially after several months of reading the Church Fathers.

Perhaps the single most shocking quote was of John Calvin explaining his teaching on the canon of Scripture—the list of books that ought to be considered part of the Bible.

In brief, I discovered that his teaching was entirely gnostic.

For the purpose of this article, I will define an article of faith as “gnostic” if it is imparted to the individual by God directly. This is the opposite of a “public” article of faith, which God imparts to everyone by means of a duly authorized representative—i.e., apostolic (“sent”) authority.

The Christian faith has always been fundamentally public. Christ commissioned the apostles to disciple the nations, and in doing so, he gave them authority to teach, in a public fashion, articles of faith to be believed by all Christians.

Thus, from the beginning, Christians could not claim that God gave them a personal revelation as a means to contradict, add to, or subtract from articles of faith publicly taught by the apostles and their successors as duly authorized representatives of God. If someone claiming to be Christian did make such an assertion, it would be gnostic, as it would amount to the claim that the Christian revelation publicly imparted by authorized representatives had in fact been privately imparted directly to them.

This public nature of the Christian religion is evidenced all over Scripture. Perhaps the most significant example is the Council of Jerusalem, in Acts 15. When a theological controversy was “unsettling [the] minds” of Christians (v. 24), the apostles and elders they had already begun to appoint to succeed them settled the controversy with divine authority, declaring, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” (v. 28). Of the men who had initiated this controversy, they said, “We gave them no instructions” (v. 24).

All succeeding heresies down through the ages have followed the same pattern: a private individual or group of individuals, with no apostolic authority, taught a new doctrine, and the authority of the Church publicly condemned it and re-articulated the truth for all.

The appeal of heretics is therefore always, in some sense, gnostic. The appeal of the true Faith, however, as it has been since the day of Pentecost, is always public.

Francis de Sales showed me that Calvin’s teaching on the canon of Scripture was entirely gnostic—and with it, the basis of my Protestant religion, which had justified itself on the grounds of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”).

In Part 2, Article 1, Ch. 5 of The Catholic Controversy, Francis addresses the Protestant assertion that the canon of Scripture consists of sixty-six books, rather than the Catholic seventy-three. The books in question were from the Old Testament: Tobit, Judith, parts of Esther and Daniel, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach (often referred to as Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch.

The Protestants had eliminated these seven books (and other portions) from Scripture. The reasons why are not within the scope of this article. What intrigued me most was the Protestant argument for the sixty-six-book canon, which Francis addressed by quoting the Calvin-authored French Confession of Faith. I was shocked by what I read:

The following is their protestation of faith presented to the king of France by the French pretended reformers. After having placed on the list, in the third article, the books [of Scripture] they are willing to receive, they write thus in the fourth article:

“We know these books to be canonical and a most safe rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the Church, as by the testimony and interior persuasion of the Holy Spirit, which gives us to discern them from the other ecclesiastical books.” (73).

I was not aware that a Protestant leader as august as Calvin had ultimately relied on what he called “the testimony and interior persuasion of the Holy Spirit” to affirm his sixty-six-book canon.

Given that I had grown up in a town with many Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), among whom were some of my closest friends, I was often exposed to their entreaties to read the Book of Mormon. They said that if I read it while asking God to reveal to me whether or not it was true, I would experience a “burning in the bosom” as confirmation and would simply know that it was true.

It struck me—by now, a beleaguered Protestant—that Calvin was making the exact same sort of argument. I had always believed that if Protestantism had any chance of being true, only the “reformed” tradition had the intellectual wherewithal to make it so. But here he was, the most “reformed” of the “reformed,” essentially falling back on a “burning in the bosom” argument in order to justify a biblical canon that differed from that of the Catholic Church.

I was so shocked by St. Francis de Sales’s quote of Calvin that I initially assumed it was a misquote—just Catholic propaganda, I thought, taken from a source Francis had never bothered to verify. The argument was simply too absurd. It couldn’t be that Calvin hinged his entire case for the sixty-six-book canon on this “interior persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” To do so would make Calvin, and an essential article of his teaching, gnostic.

So I began looking for the source of the quote, and I was horrified to find that it was in fact genuine. Francis had cited it correctly, and its words were exactly as he had quoted them.

Here is how Article 4 of the 1559 French Confession of Faith justifies the sixty-six-book canon, as included in a volume of creeds organized and edited by the reformed Protestant theologian and historian Philip Schaff:

We know these books to be canonical, and the sure rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the Church, as by the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, which enables us to distinguish them from other ecclesiastical books upon which, however useful, we cannot found any articles of faith.

My next defense mechanism was to assume that Calvin had been alone in grounding his argument for the sixty-six-book canon on this “inward illumination of the Holy Spirit.”

Unfortunately, he was not. Virtually identical language is used nearly a century later in the 1647 reformed (i.e., Calvinist) Westminster Confession of Faith (Ch. 1, §5), subscribed to by many Protestants to this day, justifying the same canon:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

Nor was this the only Protestant creed to make this argument. Article 5 of the 1561 Belgic Confession (later revised in 1619) used virtually identical language, as did Chapter 1,  Paragraph 5 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.

Thus, I discovered a horrible truth: not only was Calvin’s argument about the canon of Scripture essentially gnostic, but multiple Protestant creeds, subscribed to by perhaps millions of Protestants to this day, had followed him in making the same argument.

The French Confession of Faith is not the only place where Calvin made this argument. He makes it at length in his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, whose final edition was published in the same year, 1559.

Calvin specifically addresses the canon of Scripture in Book 1, Ch. 7, §2 of his Institutes:

As to the question, “How shall we be persuaded that it [the canon of Scripture] came from God without recurring to a decree of the church?”, it is just the same as if it were asked, “How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter?” Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.

His argument thus amounts to this: you shall know the canon of Scripture because it is obvious what it is. In other words, “my argument is right, because it is obviously right”—so obvious that it can be compared to the difference between white and black, sweet and bitter. Calvin thus appeals to distinctions that are discernible to anyone whose senses are working properly.

But of course, that misses the point, which is that he simply assumes that his theological “senses” are working properly—an assumption for which he provides no argument.

Likewise, he ignores the millennia of saints, martyrs, Church Fathers, and councils who consistently identified as part of the canon of Scripture books he claimed were not. Thus, the necessary implication is that all of them lacked properly working theological “senses.” Otherwise, they would have been able to distinguish between “white and black,” “sweet and bitter,” with respect to the canon of Scripture.

Calvin continues his argument, explicitly asserting that the basis for our certainty about the canon of Scripture cannot rely on anything public (which he associates with “human” authority), but rather from “the secret testimony of the Spirit”:

If, then, we would consult most effectually for our consciences, and save them from being driven about in a whirl of uncertainty, from wavering, and even stumbling at the smallest obstacle, our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons; namely, the secret testimony of the Spirit (§4).

Thus, for Calvin, the canon of Scripture is known to those “who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit.” Arguments are not required. This alone, “the secret testimony of the Spirit,” is the basis for knowing the canon, and only those “who are inwardly taught” will receive this teaching. The teaching is from God himself—and we know this because that is what those “who are inwardly taught” claim.

The argument is not only entirely private (i.e., gnostic), but completely circular.


If you think the above is bad for John Calvin, rest assured that it only gets worse. Part Two of this three-part series will run next week!

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