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Calvin’s View of Canonicity

In Systematic Theology with Bruce McCormack, we spent a few days discussing the foundation of Scripture.  When historical criticism is taken into account regarding the formation of the canon, it can persuade the thinker to account for the reason James is in the canon, and the Gospel of Thomas is not, based upon the grounds of human interpretation at the Council of Nicaea.  The fact that somewhere between 250 and 300 bishops attended the council and definitively “chose” the books that belong in our New Testament can shake the views of some who hold that every word, in its original form, was God breathed.  If we take this council’s “decision” on which books were to be in and which were to be out, we can quite rationally understand the formation of the canon to be a human endeavor.

However, may we be guided in our reasoning by the theologian of the Reformation, John Calvin.  His words in the Institutes shed an incredible light into this issue of canonicity in the early church:

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 to subject it to proof and reasoning.  And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit…it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts 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…that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. (John Calvin, Institutes, I.vii.5)

What light Calvin so generously sheds upon the issue of canonicity.  Rational thought can easily lead to the appalling assertion that man has final choice in what is deemed to be Holy Scripture.  However, we should bank upon the words of Calvin to lead us away from error and to stand upon the providence of God in his “self-authenticated” word.  Thus Scripture was not chosen to be in or out, like a college might over possible applicants, accepting some and rejecting others, instead the working of the Holy Spirit in the writing themselves has authenticated them as the word of God, which has flowed from the pen of man to be used by His Holy Spirit as the witness to Jesus Christ.  God’s word proves itself as God’s word.  We, as humans, neither add nor detract from the word of God.  So too those bishops at Nicaea simply acknowledged what had already been represented to them as Holy Scripture through the power of the Holy Spirit enacted within the writing.  They did not choose, but instead accepted that which had already proved itself over the 200+ years of circulated writings which the Holy Spirit used as a guide to the truth in Jesus Christ.  May we always refrain from putting improper emphasis on man and allowing God to stand wholly as the author of faith. Amen.

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