If I could give young Christians a few gifts to help them to live steadily amid today’s seismic cultural shifts, one of those gifts most certainly would be the bold humility to take Jesus at his word.
“Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). The Bible is God’s trustworthy voice that guides his children home; God’s authoritative Word for us to obey. Without it we would know little about God or ourselves. The Holy Scriptures are the font from which all learning flows, the nourishing center for all Christian believing and living.
That pillar truth is a legacy from the Reformation. Along with every Protestant leader, John Calvin eagerly confessed that the Bible is God’s sure Word to his people. Each person is to feed on it to receive strength for daily living, and it alone must serve as the measure for reforming the society of Christ, the church. Calvin says, “Certainly when God’s Word is set before us in Scripture it would be the height of absurdity to imagine a merely fleeting and vanishing utterance, which, cast forth into the air, projects itself outside of God. Rather, ‘Word’ means the everlasting wisdom, residing in God, from which both all oracles and prophecies go forth” (Institutes I.xiii.7).
Calvin aimed never to swerve from Scripture’s teachings: “The Word of the Lord is the sole way that can lead us in our search for all that is lawful to hold concerning [God], and is the sole light to illumine our vision of all that we should see of him. . . . The moment we exceed the bounds of the Word, our course is outside the pathway and . . . there we must repeatedly wander, slip and stumble” (III.xxi.2). Straightforwardly and without compromise Calvin declared, “We must speak where the Scripture speaks; we must keep silent where it is silent.”
Calvin chose two metaphors to describe our need for God’s Word: Scripture functions as a pair of eyeglasses to correct our blurred vision, and as a strong thread to guide us through life’s confusing labyrinth.
“Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision . . . can scarcely construe two words [from a beautiful volume] . . . so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds . . . clearly shows us the true God,” Calvin writes. “If we turn aside from the Word . . . we shall never reach the goal. [Returning to God] is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted . . . by the thread of the Word” (I.vi.1-3).
We can anchor our confidence that the Bible is trustworthy in God himself. God’s Spirit bears God’s Word to us. It was he who guided the Bible’s authors to write it (“dictated by the Holy Spirit,” Calvin says). And it is God’s Spirit who also works continually in our hearts to convince us beyond doubt that the Bible is God’s very Word to us. The entire Spirit-directed process, both the writing and the reading, serves to make the Scripture “self-authenticating” to believers. We trust the Bible because we trust the faithful God about whom it speaks.
So eager was God to reveal himself to people, says Calvin, that he “accommodated” himself to our feeble understanding. God “lisped”—used “baby talk.” We ought to be no less eager to listen to God as he speaks. We must make every effort to learn what God’s Word actually says, and not merely to learn that Word for information’s sake, nor to satisfy our curiosities. No, God’s people must prompt their hearts to be ready to take in God’s Word, to be eager to obey it, for that Word has abiding authority over us.
Every generation rebels in its own manner, challenging God’s authority. No age, perhaps, does so more flagrantly and sinisterly than our own. Society today tends to put human beings in the center of things, to elevate our desires to the level of entitlement, and to rationalize away whatever might thwart those desires. Who nowadays likes to be told by another what to believe and how to live?
To a self-maximizing age such as ours, John Calvin issues a sentinel warning: The Word of God—God’s eternal Truth—must remain the criterion over our experience, and not vice versa. That’s the very heart of what it means to be Reformed—indeed, to be Christian.
- If John Calvin is right that the Bible is “the nourishing center for all Christian believing and living,” does that make all other books and sources of knowledge obsolete? What is the right relationship between Scripture and other sources of knowledge?
- Flesh out Calvin’s two metaphors for Scripture. Give examples from your life of how Scripture has functioned like a pair of eyeglasses or like a thread through a confusing labyrinth.
- If in Scripture God indeed stoops down to our level and uses “baby talk,” then why are the Scriptures so difficult to understand and to interpret?
- How is Scripture “self-authenticating”? What does that mean to you personally?
- Is it still possible in this day and age for Christians to claim that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God that proclaims God’s abiding truth for all people?
- If you buy what Calvin teaches about Scripture, do you believe you’re making enough of an effort to read and study it? What might help you to do better?