John Calvin on God’s Spirit and God’s Word

On July 10, 1909, the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, B.B. Warfield declared Calvin as, “pre-eminently the theologian of the Holy Spirit.”[1] How could Calvin, a theologian and pastor whose commitment to Scripture was as precise as a surgeon’s knife, be the preeminent example of a theologian of the untamable Spirit God? Was Warfield being far-fetched on a day of fanfare? If not, how did Calvin maintain unfettered commitment to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God in his writing, teaching, and preaching?

It is especially apparent when reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, that he was a precise, comprehensive, and careful theologian. There seemed to be little that Calvin could not explain with reasonableness and clarity directly from God’s Word, and all that he explained was steeped with Scripture. As such, it may come as a surprise that Calvin also maintained a high level of comfort in attributing a hidden and secret role to the work of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, these two commitments of Calvin—the Word of God as fully authoritative and the Holy Spirit as active—were not at odds with, or competing with, one another.

The relationship between Word and Spirit in Calvin is foundational for understanding his theology.[2] He maintained an inherent and necessary relationship between the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit to teach, illumine, and reveal the Word. Never in Calvin’s theology are the two pitted against one another, but rather Calvin consistently maintained a reliance of one to the other.

Calvin encouraged confidence in Scripture. The Scriptures are dependable and reliable, and Calvin, without reservation, affirmed the Word of God as sufficient to sustain the faith and practice of the believer. At the same time, Calvin was clear, “Thus it [the church] will never doubt that the Holy Spirit is always with it, its best guide in the right path. But it will at the same time be mindful what use God would have us receive from his Spirit.”[3] Calvin was clear that Word and Spirit were not at opposition, because the Spirit will not reveal new truth; he will only affirm what Christ in his Word has declared. In one his letters Calvin explained,

“For seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, he [Christ] declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit; but in order that this government might not be vague and unstable, he bound it to the Word.”[4]This is a wonderful encouragement for the Christian, that the God who cannot be known unless he revealed himself, would not only make himself reveal himself through the person of Jesus Christ, but would then constrain that knowing to revealed words on a page. And how true still is Calvin’s warning that it is “dangerous…to boast of the Spirit without the Word.” No doubt, dangers abound today where claims about the teaching and work of the Holy Spirit impose ideas onto the revealed will of God in the Bible. Calvin’s witness to the authority, sufficiency, and necessity of Scripture in the life of the Christian is a bell tower that must awaken the church again in every generation.

At the same time, it is likely that abuses and false teachings of the person and work of the Holy Spirit have led many today to question or ignore the hidden and special work of the Spirit in the life of the Christian. For Calvin it could not be denied that the Holy Spirit, as fully God, must be at work in a person’s life so that the reading of the Word would work to produce the will of God in the individual. The Holy Spirit has bound himself to Scripture, and he is at work to produce what Scripture has revealed to be the will of God.

Pastors, our preaching must bear witness to the trust and dependence on the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of people, as we are faithful to constrain ourselves to preaching only the authority of God’s Word. We commit ourselves to the teaching of Scripture, and we trust the Holy Spirit is at work in our teaching and in the hearer to accomplish what he wills.

As Christians, we commit ourselves to the truthfulness, sufficiency, authority, and necessity of Scripture, while listening to the Holy Spirit to “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I [Jesus] have said to you” (John 14:26).

In Calvin’s theology there is an indissoluble link between Word and Spirit. Calvin’s emphasis on the Word as authoritative is not at the expense of the role of the Spirit in the church and in the individual Christian, and so much as the Spirit is at work in the life of the Christian and the church, he will only teach what God has revealed in his Word. We are fully committed to Scripture as the true Word of God, and we are fully dependent on the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of the living God—to guide us into all truth and to conform us into the image of Jesus.

[1] B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 484–485.

[2] See I. John Hesselink, “Governed and Guided by the Spirit—A Key Issue in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” Zwingliana 19, no. 2 (1993): 29. See also, H. Jackson Frostman, Word and Spirit: Calvin’s Doctrine of Biblical Authory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962).

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.8.13.

[4] John Calvin, Theological Treatises, “Reply to Sadolet (1539),” 229.

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