Why Do We Acknowledge Scripture’s Authority?

The major portion of Article 5 is devoted to a setting forth of the reasons why the Reformed believer acknowledges the authority of Scripture. The article states: “We receive all these books . . . not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts, that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling.”

The subject treated in this part of the article is a very interesting one, and receives a good deal of attention and attempted explanation on the part of those who comment on and expound our Confession, as well as on the part of those who deal with the subject of the authority of Scripture in general. I am afraid, however, that there is also a good deal of misunderstanding not only as to the meaning of the various reasons mentioned in this article, but also as to the relation between the three reasons, or grounds, given. And there is also misunderstanding in regard to the sense and intention of these grounds—a failure to see that these are uniquely the grounds of faith. For, certainly, if one would expect to convince a man logically, rationally (or should I say rationalistically?), of the supreme authority of Scripture on the grounds given in this article, he is certain to be disappointed.

Let me explain, therefore, first of all, the sense and intent of this statement of our Confession. Secondly, let us pay attention to the three grounds mentioned here, and try to understand their meaning and relationship. And let us, at the same time, note some of the errors and misunderstandings connected with the truths set forth here. Before we do this, let us distinguish the various elements in the grounds mentioned by this article. They are the following:

1. The Church receives and approves these books as holy and canonical. It is sometimes claimed that this is not a proper ground; and the explanations of our Confession sometimes virtually ignore or deny this ground as being out of harmony with the spirit of the Reformation and as being too Romish. Without going into this at the moment, let us nevertheless note that our Confession presents this as a ground, even though somewhat negatively and, so to speak, “left-handedly.” It does not say, “not at all,” but, “not so much.” And the implication of this “not so much” is certainly that it ispartly because the Church receives and approves these books that we also receive them as holy and canonical. The meaning of this, and the question whether this is proper and in harmony with the teachings of the Reformation, we shall discuss later.

2. The Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that these books are from God. This seems to have the emphasis in our Confession: for in connection with this ground the article uses the expression, “more especially because . . .” This is usually referred to as the subjective ground.

3. The evidence of Scripture itself. This is usually referred to as the objective ground. And in connection with this objective ground the striking statement is made: “For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling.” But the question arises whether this last statement is intended to emphasize how strong and clear that evidence of Scripture itself is, or whether it is intended to emphasize how necessary the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts is. To this also we must attend presently, therefore.

Now in connection with the above, our first question is: what is the sense and intent of this statement of the grounds of our receiving Holy Scripture as authoritative?

Our answer is that, in general, we must remember that these are the grounds of faith. That this is true can hardly be questioned. For in this article you have a confession of faith: we, that is, the believers, and the believing church organically, receive all these books as holy and canonical, believing, without any doubt, all things contained therein. And it is therefore faith which sets forth its reasons here.

And this makes a vast difference. What you have in this article is not faith trying to convince itself or someone else, but faith giving account of itself. And the order is not thus, that first a number of cogent reasons must be given for accepting the authority of Scripture, and that then the conclusion is reached that it is proper and necessary to believe that Scripture is authoritative. Faith does not originate thus, that a man says: “This is true, and this is true, and this is true: therefore I believe.” And once begun, faith does not even assure itself thus. Nor can faith ever convince the unbeliever of its validity by using the reasons adduced in this article. Unbelief exactly scorns and despises these reasons. It will undoubtedly reply that the church was altogether wrong in receiving and approving these books. It will certainly hold up to scorn the very idea that the witness of the Spirit in your heart is a ground of your faith concerning the authority of Scripture. After all, that testimony of the Spirit is a subjective thing. And the unbeliever might in broadminded tolerance concede you the right to believe that you have such a testimony, but he will insist that it cannot be proved and that it cannot constitute a proof for the authority of Scripture to him. And the same is true of the evidence of Scripture itself. Unbelief will reply that such evidence is “self-serving.” When the Lord Jesus testified of Himself, His enemies replied, “Thou bearest witness of thyself: thy witness is (by that very fact, therefore) not true.” And so unbelief replies against Scripture’s claim to be the Word of God. And it will array all its evidence over against the truth of Scripture, in order to prove that Scripture is not inerrant and not reliable.

No, we must understand that the whole issue is not a mere intellectual one, but a spiritual one. This is plain too from the fact that while the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold by Scripture are being fulfilled, they nevertheless do not believe. Thus it is always with faith and unbelief. What faith believes is undoubtedly the objective truth, but subjectively it is true only to faith, not to unbelief. And faith itself accepts this objective truth and the testimony of that truth not because of cold logic, but because it has spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear. The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God. He is blind. He cannot receive these things because they are only spiritually perceived. Thus it is with all the things of the kingdom of God. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. And thus it is also with the Word of the kingdom.

No, faith in its act of believing is completely spontaneous, not mechanical, not logical, not reasoning. And even as all assurance of faith is not a matter of a syllogism, so it is with this particular aspect of faith’s assurance. Faith simply says, “I believe.” And after it believes—nay, in the very power of that belief, it will give account of itself. Faith perceives spontaneously that the authority of Scripture is that of God Himself. It perceives that there is nothing to do but to bow before that authority: and it gladly bows. It perceives that Scripture does not approach a man as its equal, to persuade, to reason, to convince the mere mind, to discuss and talk things over. Faith experiences that the Word demands, that it insists, that it approaches the heart, that it has authority without first attempting to convince. And faith renders its obedience—gladly, willingly, freely, unreservedly. And if then such faith is called upon to give account of itself and to explain why it holds the Scriptures to be authoritative, it “explains,” knowing full well that unbelief will never accept that explanation: “I know that the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible tells me so. And the Spirit testifies in my heart that the Bible is true. And the testimony of the believing church throughout the ages sustains me in this assurance, for the Spirit has always wrought that same testimony in the hearts of believers.”

Such is the assurance of faith.

Unbelief shakes its head in dismay at such “foolishness.” But faith remains undaunted, and insists that the Word of the cross always is and always has been foolishness to the world, and a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.

And this is the life of faith too, is it not? The Christian life is not thus, that as a child grows up, he passes through a long process of persuasion and reasoning, and finally comes to the conclusion that the Bible is true and authoritative. Not at all. He believes that Bible and accepts its authority already when he is a little child. He cannot yet explain why he does so. He simply does so in an altogether naive and unreasoning way. If you ask him, “How do you know the Bible is the Word of God and that it is true?” he simply states flatly, “I just know it.” A little later in life he will probably, in that same naive way, state, “I know it because the Bible itself says so.” If at that stage you inquire further and ask, “But how do you know that what the Bible says about itself is true?” he will reply again, “I simply know it and believe it.” And you will not sway him from that simple faith—even though at a still later stage you may be able to plant some seeds of doubt in his soul, and even though as a youth that same child may pass for a while through a desperate struggle and period of temptation in regard to the Scriptures. And it is as a rule only when that little child has reached a mature faith, has overcome the wicked one, is strong, and has the Word of God abiding in him, that he can give a full account of his faith that Scripture is the sole, authoritative Word of God. Then he realizes that the spontaneous faith in the Word of God which he always had was the fruit of the inward testimony of the Spirit in connection with the objective testimony of the Scriptures and in connection with that same Spirit-produced testimony in the church of all ages.

This brings us rather naturally to the question concerning the relationship between the three grounds mentioned here. As we indicated, there is a good deal of misunderstanding on this question. On the one hand, there is a tendency to shy away from the first ground mentioned here—a tendency that is motivated by a dread fear of Romanism. And, on the other hand, there is always a good deal of discussion concerning the question which of the other two grounds is primary, the subjective testimony of the Spirit in our hearts or the objective testimony of Scripture itself. And in connection with both of these items an appeal is made to the position of the Reformers of the sixteenth century. It is frequently claimed that with the Reformers the weight of emphasis was upon the second ground mentioned here, namely, the witness of the Spirit in the hearts of believers. And it is also claimed that the Reformers put no stock whatsoever in the ground that the church receives and approves these books as canonical and authoritative.

Now it cannot be denied that our Confession makes no effort to explain these things and that it says nothing as to the relationship between the various grounds mentioned. Nor can it be denied that in Article 5 our Confession makes a rather negative formulation of that first ground, and seems, therefore, to deprecate it somewhat. We shall therefore examine this matter carefully, and try to come to a better understanding of it.