The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics, pt. 6

John Calvin

See parts one, two, three, four, and five.

This continues Lecerf’s argument for the necessity of the Church and the trustworthiness of her testimony (such as related to the canon) under certain conditions relative to the doctrine of God, establishing the objective ground for the subjective witness of the Holy Spirit. If you have not read any of these posts, then go back and read part five, where his arguments really begin. This is solid stuff and very interesting. All in all, I think it helps to establish a compelling vision (hermeneutic) for reading the history of the Church and the purposes of God.


But it is important to render to the Church that which belongs to the Church, and to the Holy Spirit that which belongs to the Holy Spirit. To the Church, it belongs to teach.

It it through her that the Reformers learnt the existence of Holy Scripture, the New Testament, the Redeemer, the Incarnation, the Holy Trinity, the heavenly Father. These men were not, therefore, tabulae rasae, nor did they wish to make a tabula rasa of the past. They based their teaching upon the Catholic Christianity in which they were born, and were content to abide in it.

To the Holy Spirit it belongs to teach with certainty of faith those who understand the teaching of their particular Church, which latter remains, in spite of it all, a supernatural fact, and certain of whose teachings, for example, the articles of the Creed, the inspiration of Scripture, the canon of the New Testament, are the affirmation of divine facts and teachings. These spiritual realities, being transcendent to reason and the senses, can only be known in this sense by means of faith which is a supernatural organ, and the faith which believes on the authority of God is the testimony of the Holy Spirit whose mark of origin it bears.

What gave, and gives, in the eyes of orthodox Protestants an importance of the first order to the unanimous testimony of the Church concerning the canon of the New Testament, is the fact that God produces in their religious consciousness the certainty that the existence of the Church is a divine fact. And He produces this certainty by the very preaching of the truth which is already a word of God, as such, susceptible of being sealed in the hearts of the faithful before they have read the Scriptures. This Scripture of the New Testament is given them by their particular Church, the only one that they know directly, basing itself on the consensus of Christian antiquity which, triumphing over previous hesitations, settled its contents at the councils of Hippo Regius and Carthage in the 4th century. The slight deviations of certain heretical communities (Monophysites), or of particular teachings, on these points of detail, are insignificant in the presence of such impressive agreement. By the consent of the Church, our Reformers and their immediate disciples and successors were brought to feel a profound respect for the venerable documents which constitute the New Testament.

But they could not, legitimately, even before their separation from Rome, establish a certitude of divine faith relative to the universal Church, in the sense in which the Tridentine Fathers willed that it should be received, namely, with a respect equal to the word of God, because this tradition does not respond to the required criterion: quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum. [The Vincentian Canon, circa A.D. 450]

This tradition in their eyes had been “believed” practically “everywhere” and “by all,” but they knew very well that it could not command the epithet “always.” Calvin, as an exegete, was not ignorant, for example, of the difficulties which had been experienced by the Epistle to the Hebrews or 2 Peter in gaining admission to the canon, and he was familiar with most of the reasons which can be urged against the attribution of these epistles to the authors assigned to them by tradition. And Luther knew as much about this matter as his brilliant successor.

They could not legitimately base this faith on the decision of an infallible oecumenical council, for the excellent reason that, to their knowledge at least, no oecumenical council had sanctioned the canon in detail. The Council of Trent did so, indeed, but this was either after the death of the Reformers or several years after they had consummated their rupture with Rome. And when the Council of Trent, assembled, there were reasons which, in their eyes, as in ours, disqualified it from meriting the title oecumenical.

Finally, they could not have based their faith on the decision of a pope speaking ex cathedra, even supposing one to have existed. The Vatican Council had not yet assembled, and it was not until 1870 that Roman Catholics knew that it was de fide that such decisions must be considered articles of faith.

Is this equivalent to saying that Roman Catholics at the time of Luther and Calvin were unaware of the existence of the New Testament? Certainly not. Those who were sufficiently instructed knew this fact perfectly well and indeed it was in the New Testament that Luther found the word which delivered him from the terrors which assailed his conscience. He had been told that God spoke through this book. He heard and believed, he knew henceforth by a direct experience that his teachers had not deceived him in this matter. It was in this way that the testimony of the Holy Spirit was engraven on his soul.

But one difficulty presented itself to which, under the pressure of the moment, they had to find a reply. It was in the reforming book itself that their adversaries sought for weapons with which to defend the errors from which the Reformers were delivering the Church. To the sola fide of Luther was opposed the Epistle of James. Zwingli, condemning the invocation of angels, was shown the angel in the Apocalypse causing the prayers of the faithful to ascend to heaven in the smoke of incense.

From such difficulties, the importance of which was exaggerated, the first two Reformers saw no other way of escape than to distinguish in the teaching of Scripture between that which is, and that which is not, canonical. Zwingli’s criterion was the glory of God; Luther’s, the plan of salvation. Without wishing it, as their subsequent attitude to the illuminati showed, this was to introduce subjectivism into the heart of the formal principle of the Reformation. Great honour has been paid to them on this account, but, for our part we deplore this stupid error of the pioneers of the Reformation. We would not throw a stone at such men, however, for they rendered too great services to peace of conscience and purity of worship for us to do aught but honour their memory.

They were not able, however, to see clearly the testimony of the Holy Spirit in all its fullness. It was given to the courageous and balanced genius of Geneva to visualize the situation as a whole. He had, of course, the immense advantage of succeeding Zwingli and Luther and of being able to gauge the extent of the danger with which “fantastic spirits” menaced the future of the Reformation.

Following the example of our Reformer, we start with these two immediately verifiable facts: there exists a New Testament, recognized by the Roman Church, in whose bosom the Reformers were born, as given by divine inspiration; which, moreover, must be received, on the confession of that Church, as testimony of the Occident is corroborated by that of the Oriental Churches, abstracting as to points of detail from certain heretical communions.

We are aware, of course, that in the case of the deuterocanonical books of the New Testament this agreement ws not established at first glance. The formation of the canon, as we know it, was the result of a slow and gradual process, the practical conclusion of which was demonstrated at the synods of Hippo and Carthage.

This process may be represented in the following manner. First, the Churches read in public the writings which their leaders and people acknowledged as prophetic or charismatic by reason of their apostolic origin or, in default, of their antiquity and utility; in other words, of their intrinsic value as historic witnesses or as instruments of edification. Several of these writings no longer figure in the present canon: those alone remaining by a constant tradition. In the second class were those which could not be rejected without offending the piety of which they were the objects on the part of brethren whose feelings in the matter had a right to be respected. Presumed apostolic authority, mediate or immediate, was doubtless an important factor, but not until after A. D. 265 did it become a conditio sine qua non. The proof of this is to be seen in the fact that Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, who died in that year, simply to humour the sentiments of men whom he respected, sought to safeguard the canonicity of the Apocalypse by attributing it to another John than the Apostle.

The consensus in question is thus the conclusion of an historic process, but henceforth nothing can prevent it from being what it is. The individual scholar may indeed ascertain that in this canon there are secondary parts less firmly attested by the external critique than the others. But he must acknowledge that the mass is cemented and that it has been proposed finally for the acceptance of the Church, which has recognized, and recognizes, that God has spoken to her in and through this Holy Scripture.

In regard to this social fact, nothing can be changed: the Church has received the canon of the New Testament as it is today, in the same way as the Synagogue had bequeathed to it the Hebrew canon. The canon cannot be remade for the simple reason that history cannot be remade. The Council of Trent had an humiliating experience in regard to this question when it wanted to add the Apocrypha to the Hebrew canon.

Auguste Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 1981), pp. 324-328



  1. in the same way as the Synagogue had bequeathed to it the Hebrew canon [i.e. in Greek, as cited by the New Testament authors]

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