“You believe that a snake talked, and a man walked on water?! The Bible is just a collection of myths, fables, and stories. I don’t know how any thinking person could believe that stuff in this day and age!” Perhaps you have heard things like this before. Maybe in a college classroom. Maybe from someone with whom you work. Or perhaps you saw a suggested video on the sidebar on YouTube, “Proof the Bible is not the Word of God,” and you clicked.
God’s people face rhetoric and arguments against the inspiration and authority of the Bible in this day much more often than they faced such things even a generation ago. How do we handle these attacks? Some of God’s children struggle for a time in deep doubt after hearing these things. For others, a bit of nagging doubt lingers for years, causing a limp in an otherwise regular Christian walk.
It would be nice if we all had the confidence of Calvin, who said, “If I were struggling against the most crafty sort of despisers of God, who seek to appear shrewd and witty in disparaging Scripture, I am confident it would not be difficult for me to silence their clamorous voices.”1 Easy for him to say; he’s Calvin! But at least what Calvin says here shows us that God’s people have always faced the same kinds of challenges to the authority of the Word of God, even if we hear them more often than in years past. And at least this is not all Calvin says, for he goes on to help us have his confidence as he treats the doctrine of Scripture in the first part of the Institutes.
Calvin reminds us that the power that initiated, formed, and now maintains our belief in Scripture as the inspired Word of God is not human, but divine. “The Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets, must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.”2 The Spirit alone convicts men of the divine authority of Scripture. And the Spirit always maintains the work He has begun all the way to the end. This is why the apostle did not pray that God would give the Ephesians merely a list of arguments that might convince them they can trust the Scriptures, but rather “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit [Spirit!] of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know….” (Eph 1:17–18).
The relation between Scripture and the one who believes Scripture is the same as the relation between light and the eye. The Scriptures are the light of God’s revelation. Whether anyone sees that or believes that does not change the fact of it, just as whether or not anyone sees physical light has no effect on whether or not light is there. If no one believed the Bible was the Word of God, it would still be. But the Spirit who inspired the book also gives God’s people the eye of faith that they might see its light. It is not simply, then, that believing or not believing depends upon our intelligence or lack thereof, or emotional connection to the Bible, or lack thereof. Seeing Scripture’s light depends on the Spirit giving spiritual eyesight. And because that is so, when He gives it, we may be confident that He will also preserve that sight of faith. For God will not take the Holy Spirit from His child, even if that child sees some YouTube videos that give him doubts.
The way the Spirit gives this conviction about the Word of God, and maintains it, is not by putting an inexplicable glow around the Bible that only some people can see. Rather, even here, the Spirit works through the Word itself. As the believer reads and studies the Word personally, and listens to the Word preached faithfully, the Spirit deepens and maintains this conviction. By this we come face to face with God Himself revealed in the Bible, which is the key. “The highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it.”3 This means that Scripture itself is the power in the hands of the Spirit to convince God’s people of its own divine authority. Calvin described this as the self-authenticating nature of the Bible.4 The ground for the Scriptures’ authenticity is not outside of the Scriptures but in the Scriptures themselves.
How could it be otherwise? If the Word of God truly is the Word of God, on what basis other than itself could it claim to be what it is? The Scriptures themselves tell us that everyone and everything in this world, have been affected by sin and the curse. It tells us that even man’s mind, whereby he perceives truth, has been affected by the Fall. For the Scriptures then to base their authority on anything outside of themselves would be for them to set themselves before a jury, the authority of which it has already denied!
But, in order to gain recognition and dominion, it asks for no one’s assistance. It does not need the strong arm of the government. It does not need the support of the church and does not conscript anyone’s sword and inquisition. It does not desire to rule by coercion and violence but seeks free and willing recognition. For that reason it brings about its own recognition by the workings of the Holy Spirit. Scripture guards its own authority.5
This is why the Scriptures simply assert their divinity and authority, and do not really spend time trying to prove it. They explain how it is so that they are divine and authoritative (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21, etc.). They incidentally end up proving it (this is what we will talk about in the next number of articles). But they do not waste words attempting to convince men to believe they are divine. That would be beneath the dignity expected of a divine word. It would be like a president, instead of being president, and doing presidential things, spending his entire presidency trying to convince the public that he is the president.
On the other hand, if someone were dropped into the United States in the middle of a president’s term, what would show that person that the president was indeed the president? It would be the very business of the president in carrying out the office. So too, the very business of the Scriptures in carrying out their divine purpose is what helps us see they are in fact divine.
This is still part of the Scriptures’ self-authenticity. That the Bible is self-authenticating is not only that it claims to be the Word of God, though that is certainly part of it. Neither is it only that in the Bible we meet God, though this is the climactic point. But the self-authenticating nature of the Scriptures is also that the Scriptures show themselves to be the Word of God as they do their work. Just as the creation itself, while doing what it was made to do, reveals it is from God by its majesty and complexity (Ps. 19; Rom. 1:20), so the Scriptures, doing what they were made to do, reveal that they are from God by their majesty, unity, power, and other attributes. By this they defend themselves from all detractors and distinguish themselves from all competitors.
This is why Calvin goes on in the Institutes to explain the internal qualities of the Bible that give evidence of its divine origin.6 Certainly, as Calvin says, if we use these things, “to prove [emphasis added] to unbelievers that Scripture is the word of God, [we] are acting foolishly, for only by faith can this be known.”7 You can give evidence of light and color to a blind man, but he still cannot see unless his blindness is dealt with. Nonetheless, Calvin adds, “If godly men take these things to heart, they will be abundantly equipped to restrain the barking of ungodly men; for this is a proof too clear to be open to any subtle speculation.”8 Ah, just what we were looking for. The Scriptures themselves give evidence for what they claim about themselves. And so clearly so, says Calvin, it is not a matter of speculation. Just what you would expect from a divine word.9 Some of “these things” that Calvin is referring to in the above quote, I hope to consider in the following articles.
1 Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960) 1.7.4, 79.
2 Institutes, 1.7.4.
3 Institutes, 1.7.4.
4 “Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, attains by the testimony of the Spirit,” Institutes, 1.7.5.
5 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1. Ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 465.
6 Chapter 8 of the Institutes. See also Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1. Ed. James T. Dennison (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishers, 1992), 89.
7 Institutes, 1.8.14.
8 Institutes, 1.8.8.
9 The Belgic Confession, Article 5: “The Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves.”