Calvin on Self-Authentication

From Called to Communion blog:

. . .
Putting to one side his characteristically passionate rhetoric, Calvin’s response is inadequate.

First, he clearly conflates two claims which are crucial to distinguish at the outset by speaking as though an infallible, Spirit-guided recognition of which books were inspired and which were not is equivalent to the Church’s somehow making those books inspired or investing them with a divine authority they didn’t previously possess. This is a confusion. Whether a book is inspired or not depends solely upon whether the Holy Spirit “moved” its human author to write it or not. If He did, the thing’s inspired and authoritative and it ought, in accordance with God’s good pleasure, to go in the canon. If not, it shouldn’t; case closed. It’s a different question entirely to ask by what means we can tell which of the books in question actually have this inspired status. And if the Catholic claims that the Holy Spirit infallibly led the Church to recognize the right books and thus make the right decision, it by no means follows that which books actually possess this status – which books objectively, apart from anyone’s decision, really do contain the “eternal” and “inviolable truth of God” – somehow depends upon “the decisions of men,” or that the “promises of God” “depend upon their judgment” and must be “rendered authentic” by them. So whatever’s he’s refuting here it’s not the Catholic position.

Second, his own theory simply comes down to the idea that each individual can replace the Church’s activity in this regard – that although it’s demeaning to Scripture and indeed sacrilegious to say that the Spirit can tell the Church in Council which books are inspired and which are not, it’s God-honoring and perfectly pious to say that He does this with each particular person, as a kind of little church standing alone, one by one.

Now Calvin, I honestly believe, didn’t see himself as doing this. But this was because he clouded the issue by assuming (as have many following him) that when something seems clear and evident to him it’s got to be because the Spirit is speaking directly to him, giving him the unvarnished news, as it were, whereas anyone who doesn’t see precisely the same thing must not enjoy that unmediated spiritual insight he has but is instead being blinded by some or other interpretive “filter.” The misled might feel just as inwardly certain about their own beliefs as he does, of course, but if so they’re just deluding themselves, mistaking their own unfounded psychological certainty for the testimony of God Himself.

This is a fairly typical Enlightenment notion to which both philosophers and theologians in that era tended to fall prey, and it is what explains his otherwise perplexing claim that he’s somehow able to set his “reasoning” and “judgment” aside, allowing the Spirit to tell him “inwardly” what’s what in a way that evidently involves no intellectual or cognitive activity of his own. In effect, the idea underlying his thought was that you could eliminate the “middle man” by insisting that you had direct and untarnished access to the truth, while the folks who disagreed with you didn’t see that same truth either because they were not “inwardly taught” by the Spirit, or because they were looking at it indirectly, through an interpretive or traditional grid which blinded and led them astray – a condition from which you yourself couldn’t possibly suffer.

And this, in turn, is what explains how he can say that the Scriptures are “self-authenticating” when the only thing that can mean in this context is “infallibly recognized as authentic by me.” This is of course not to say Calvin consciously believed himself to be infallible, but rather that he believed the Spirit to be infallible, and believed that the Spirit infallibly testified to him personally about the canon, while ensuring that he would infallibly receive the testimony given. (In other words he was a kind of one-man magisterium, sans the obligation to uphold Tradition.) . . .

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