Calvin on the Providential Preservation of Scripture
By Jeffrey Riddle
In his classic systematic theological work The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the foundational Reformer John Calvin articulates the doctrine of the providential preservation of Scripture (see Book One, Chapter VIII).
As part of his historical survey of how God has preserved his Word through the ages, Calvin discusses the time when the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes “ordered all the books to be burned” (as recorded in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees). Calvin observes:
….let us rather ponder here how much care the Lord has taken to preserve his Word, when, contrary to everybody’s expectation, he snatched it away from a most cruel and savage tyrant, as from a raging fire. Let us consider how he armed godly priests and others with so great constancy that they did not hesitate to transmit to their posterity this treasure redeemed, if necessary at the expense of their own lives; and how he frustrated the whole fierce book hunt of rulers and their minions. Who does not recognize as a remarkable and wonderful work of God the fact that those sacred monuments, which the wicked have persuaded themselves had utterly perished, soon returned and took their former place once more, and even with enhanced dignity?
He later adds:
By countless wondrous means Satan with the whole world has tried either to oppress it or overturn it, to obscure and obliterate it utterly from the memory of men—yet, like the palm, it has risen ever higher and has remained unassailable.
Calvin held not only that God had inspired his Word but that he also had preserved his Word in all ages. This understanding of the providential preservation of Scripture came to be reflected in the classical Reformed confessions like the Westminster Confession and the Second London Baptist Confession when they affirm that the Scriptures “being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them” (2LBCF, Chapter One, “Of the Holy Scriptures”). Though traditional and evangelical Christians in the modern age have generally articulated and defended the divine inspiration of the Bible, they have been less confident and clear in their defense of its providential preservation. Let us be vigilant to uphold both these vital doctrines.