Previous article in this series: February 15, 2020, p. 227.
We have been following John Calvin as he teaches us the evidences Scripture carries within itself of its divine origin. Learning these things, says Calvin, we “will be abundantly equipped to restrain the barking of ungodly men; for this is a proof too clear to be open to any subtle objections.”1 So far in this series we have treated the relation of these evidences to the internal work of the Spirit in our hearts; we have examined the fact that Scripture correctly foretells things no humans could foretell; and we have discussed the astounding unity amidst diversity evidenced in the Scriptures. These evidences are objectively present, and part of the illuminating work of the Spirit is that He opens our eyes to see and acknowledge what is right before us.2
The excellency of Scripture
Tatian was a pagan man born in AD 120. Later in his life he was converted to the Christian faith, becoming a student of the early church father Justin Martyr. When asked why he believed the Bible was the Word of God, he pointed to some of the marks of the divine source of Scripture. “I was led to put faith in these [Scriptures] by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, and the excellent quality of the precepts.”3 The last aspect of Scripture Tatian refers to, “the excellent quality of the precepts,” is part of the evidence known as the “excellency of Scripture.” It is the quality of the Bible Calvin refers to when he speaks of “the completely heavenly character of its doctrine, savoring of nothing earthly.”4 Calvin says this leads us to conclude that “the teaching of Scripture is from heaven.”5
Think of the fact that Scripture’s commands are pure and elevated in comparison with the undignified and even immoral commands of other “holy” books. Think of how they so perfectly, comprehensively, and righteously regulate not merely the outward morality of man but his inner life. Think about how they pierce a man’s soul and heart to the quick.6 Think also of the doctrines contained in Scripture that are so heavenly and beautiful, and that give a substantial hope that answers perfectly to the misery of this world after the Fall. Think, too, of the doctrine of the Trinity, which is so lovely in comparison to the doctrine of the one-dimensional god of Islam; and showing God is reasonable yet incomprehensible, as God ought to be. Think also of the wonder of how biblical truth combines holiness and mercy, declaring a wondrous God who maintains the dignity of justice and yet loves by bearing that justice Himself. No man or angel could have thought so perfectly of a resurrection hope in which the body crumbles into microscopic pieces and yet arises again, not a different creation but the old made new. And yet, not only the body, but in the end all things made new in Jesus Christ!
Put all of the teaching of Scripture together, and see how it all attaches to itself as one majestic and beautiful whole, and you conclude this “could have been discovered by no sharp-sightedness of reason,”7 and “Sacred Scripture…clearly is crammed with thoughts that could not be humanly conceived.”8 Every other world religion, including corrupted Christianity, does not have this character.
It is for this reason that the following are the responses of the godly to Scripture: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps. 19:7-8). “Thy testimonies are wonderful, therefore doth my soul keep them” (Ps. 119:129).
Scripture ascribes excellence to God: “Let them praise the name of the Lord: for his name alone is excellent” (Ps. 148:13). We would expect His revelation of Himself and all things He has done to be excellent too. And so it is.
The power of Scripture
We would also expect Scripture to have an astounding power.9 We are told in Scripture that God is all powerful. “The Great, the Mighty God, the Lord of hosts, is his name” (Jer. 32:18). His voice is described as powerful in Psalm 29:4, “The voice of the Lord is powerful.” And therefore we would expect a book that claims to be from Him and to be His voice to also carry His power. Indeed, the Scriptures themselves justify such a thought: “For the word of God is quick, and powerful” (Heb. 4:12).
How many have not testified to Scripture’s power! Scripture is indeed “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Calvin, speaking of the most lauded of human writings, says,
But betake yourself from them to this sacred reading [Scripture]. Then, in spite of yourself, so deeply will it affect you, so penetrate your heart, so fix itself in your very marrow, that, compared with its deep impression, such vigor as the orators and philosophers have will nearly vanish. Consequently, it is easy to see that the sacred Scriptures…breathe something divine.10
The Scriptures have an explanatory power. Think of how the truth of the Trinity explains the unity in diversity we see in creation. All things are both one and many at the same time in different ways, just as the triune God is. The triune God of fellowship also explains why communion and fellowship are at the heart of all created reality. Additionally, think of the way Scripture explains the universality of sin and misery that we find around us and in ourselves. If Scripture did not tell us of original sin, we would have to assume something like it anyway. What else could truly explain the misery and sin in which man persistently finds himself? Think of how incisively Scripture diagnoses the human problem as this sin, provides the cure, and introduces the only possible Physician. All human beings know the guilt of sin. And try as men might to find an answer for their guilt in drink or money or pleasure, nothing satisfies. Only the scriptural gospel explains a true satisfaction for the guilt of the conscience, and the hope that that guilt cannot steal away from God’s people in Christ. Every other “holy” book and every other religion answers guilt with man’s effort, not God’s grace, and thus never provides true peace.
The Scriptures have power to confront personally, heal, and direct men’s lives. How many testify to its power to direct life from a lovely inward compulsion to an outward order. It “calm(s) all the passions of the mind, and fill(s) it with indescribable peace and joy, bringing it into such subjection, that it is compelled under a sweet, yet more powerful influence, to obey the laws of God.”11 The testimony of former atheist A.S.A. Jones is the testimony of all true believers: “This book was reading me as surely as I was reading it!”12 Bavinck points out that this witness to the power of Scripture, though it is not given by humanity as a whole, is a witness given by a large body out of the human race, the Christian church.
It is a mighty witness that the church of all ages has borne to scripture as the Word of God…. What really causes us to believe [Scripture] is not the insight of our intellect, nor a decision of our will, but a power that is superior to us, bends our will, illumines our mind, and without [outward] compulsion still effectively takes our thoughts and reflections captive to the obedience of Christ.13
When you think of the power of Scripture in men’s lives, think of the “number, constancy, and condition of the martyrs” who sealed this testimony to its power by their blood.14 All types, classes, races of men, women, and children are represented here. And in such a different manner do they die than martyrs for Islam or any other world religion! These others so often die with bombs or knives or guns in their hands.15 The martyrs for Christ die powerless (even those in positions of earthly power!), with patience and a calm confidence in the Word. In fact, think of how Christianity has spread by human weakness from the time of the completion of the Scriptures. “Were its teaching not divine, it would hardly have been possible for Scripture to have spread its message across the world in so short a time, in the persons of such weak and unschooled disciples, given both the absence of support for its teachings in the world around it and the presence of such opposition from princes and magistrates.”16 How contrary to Islam and other religions!
It is for this reason that these are the responses to Scripture: “Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies” (Ps. 119:98). “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105). “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). “This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me” (Ps. 119:50). “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59–60).
This book is majestic and it is alive! I do not breathe life into it; it breathes life into me! Do you not add your own voice to the testimony of this vast and diverse number proclaiming Scriptures’ excellency and power?
1 Calvin, Institutes, 8.8.
2 I say “part of the illuminating work of the Spirit,” because the Spirit can and most often does illumine as to the divine origin of Scripture without that reader having a cognizant understanding of these evidences. This will be further explained in a later article.
3 Address to the Greeks.
4 Institutes 8.1. The Westminster Confession picks up on this from Calvin in the first chapter, section five, “…the heavenliness of the matter….”
5 Institutes, 7.4.
6 Compare to the teachings of the Koran, the baseness of which is well-documented.
7 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elentic Theology, 1, GeorgeGiger, tr., James T. Dennison, ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), 63.
8 Calvin, Institutes, 8.2.
9 The power of Scripture is technically classified as an external evidence of Scripture’s divine origin, though Scripture itself claims this power. Later Reformed thinkers made the distinction between purely internal and external evidences. Calvin was less strict here.
10 Institutes, 8.1. The Westminster Confession picks up on this from Calvin in the first chapter, section five, “…the efficacy of its doctrine….”
11 B. Pictet as found in Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 270.
13 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, John Bolt, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 591.
14 Turretin, Institutes, 63.
15 Read of Mohammed’s immorality and violence and you can see why Islam’s martyrs die as they do. Read of how Joseph Smith died while shooting a gun attempting to kill others.
16 Turretin as quoted in Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 279.