The Belgic Confession, Article V (continued)

Why Do We Acknowledge Scripture’s Authority?(cont.)

Rather than lose ourselves in scholastic wranglings over the question which of these three grounds is primary and which is secondary, which is of greater significance and which is of less importance, we ought to see that these grounds, all three of them, belong together and can in no wise be separated. One is of no value without the other two and could not possibly serve as a ground. We may, in fact, say that these three are but three aspects of the one ground of the believer’s faith concerning the authority of the Scriptures. If the believer is called to give account of his faith concerning Scripture’s authority, he could not possibly give such account by citing only one of these three items. If he were to answer, when asked concerning that faith, “I accept these books as authoritative because the church receives and approves them?” that would be only partially true. In such a case he would certainly face the problem whether the church is correct in receiving and approving these books. Besides, he would then be confronted with the question: does the authority of Holy Scripture rest upon the church and upon the authority of the church? Is the Bible for its authority dependent upon the church, or is the church dependent on the Word of God? If, however, when he must give account of his faith, the believer says, “I receive all these books as holy and canonical, and believe without any doubt all things contained in them because the Holy Ghost witnesses to that effect in my heart,” he may well be confronted with the question: how does the Holy Ghost thus testify? How do you know that the Holy Ghost so testifies? And how do you know that that testimony of the Holy Ghost is true? But if, further, the believer restricts his ground of faith in the authority of Scripture solely to the testimony of the Scriptures themselves—to the so-called objective ground—then there are also problems. In the first place, how is it, if that objective evidence for the authority of Scripture is so clear, that not all are compelled to receive and acknowledge the authority of the Bible? Why, if that evidence is so compelling, does the vast majority of men refuse it? In the second place, supposing that other writers come with the same claim of authority, and, apparently at least, with the same supporting evidence for that claim: why are the Scriptures accepted, and these other writings rejected? In the third place, is not the objection logically cogent that this self-authenticating testimony of Scripture is self-serving? Cannot the objection that was raised by the unbelieving Jews against our Savior also then be raised against the Scriptures: “Thou bearest witness of thyself: thy witness is not true”?

In the light of all this it should be evident that the believer’s faith concerning the authority of Scripture rests not on three separate grounds, nor on any of these grounds individually, but on a three-fold ground. And that three-fold ground is presented in this fifth article of our Confession. Three aspects of one ground are mentioned here. And this will become further evident when we consider the meaning and the significance of these grounds.

There is, therefore, in the first place, the objective aspect of our faith concerning the authority of Scripture. The Scriptures, as our Confession has it, “carry the evidence in themselves” that they are from God. This is the objective ground. According to this statement of our Confession the Bible is in itself the authoritative Word of God. It is God’s Word even though the whole world should say that this is not true. It is God’s Word even though men do not believe it. The denial of that authority does not detract from it in the least. In fact, it should not surprise us that the natural man does not believe the Scriptures and will not accept them as authoritative. We may know this from the Word of God itself. We need not be amazed, therefore, when men do not believe the Scriptures. In fact, we may even take this as evidence that unbelief, in spite of itself, must testify to the very authority of the Word of God and to its truth. Moreover, that the Scriptures carry the evidence in themselves that they are the Word of God need not be proved by a few isolated texts, although such texts may be cited and although we have referred to them repeatedly in our discussion of the whole subject of the Scriptures. This self-authentication of the Scriptures runs throughout the Bible. It is the current claim of Scripture. It is the constant approach of Scripture. Always the Bible comes simply—almost with ndivet6, we would say—on the basis that it is the Word of God, that it is authoritative, and that it is to be believed for that reason. It permits men no choice in the matter. It simply says, “Thus saith the Lord.”

But this article says more in this connection. When it states that the Scriptures carry the evidence in themselves that they are from God, it is evident that it has in mind not only the fact that the Scriptures come simply with the authoritative claim that they are the Word of God; but they carry evidence of this in themselves. That is, the Scriptures “ring true,” so to speak. You may read any other book, by any other author, and it will never compare with the Scriptures. You do not have to analyze those Scriptures in order to note that this is true. When you sit down and read the Bible, you feel at once, you know spontaneously, without any particular effort at analysis, that here is an altogether other book, that here is a book that spontaneously rings true in your consciousness. The facts and the parts of this book fit together. They are perfectly one. They bear the same testimony. They do not contradict each other. There is no error, no flaw, in the entire book. And the article of our creed under discussion points to a particular aspect of this evidence in the last sentence: “For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling.” Here, of course, the article refers to the predictive element of the prophecy of Scripture, and calls special attention to the fact that its predictions are evidently fulfilled. They are so evidently fulfilled that the very blind are able to see this. And by the blind here the article refers to those who are spiritually blind, those who do not believe, those who have no insight into the things spiritual. It refers, in other words, to the natural man. He is corrupt. He is unregenerate. He is so blind that he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. He will never acknowledge the truth of Scripture. He will not bow to those Scriptures, Nevertheless, he can see naturally, and he can see very clearly. He can see with the natural eye, and he can perceive with the natural understanding. And with his natural eye and his natural understanding he can very clearly see that the things predicted in the Scriptures are true. They take place. The predictions of Scripture are fulfilled. Thus it was already with the prophecies of the Old Testament. Long years, and even centuries, before things came to pass, the word of prophecy foretold these things. This is true of many historical events of the old dispensation. They were foretold in the Scriptures. The apostasy of Israel and Judah, the historical development of the kingdom and of the kingship, the fall and captivity of Israel and Judah, the scattering of Israel, the return of Judah, the rise and fall of the various kingdoms of this world—all these were foretold in Scripture, sometimes in minutest detail. Think—to mention only one example—how, centuries before he appeared on the scene of history, the mighty emperor Cyrus was mentioned by name in the prophecy of Isaiah. All these prophecies of the Old Testament concerning old dispensational history were fulfilled without fail. Secondly, we may refer to the predictions of the Old Testament concerning events of the new dispensation. In this connection we think immediately, of course, of the Messianic predictions—predictions of the coming and birth of Christ, of His suffering and death and resurrection and exaltation, of His outpouring of the Spirit. These also were predictions which entered into minute details concerning the Messiah. And they were all fulfilled. But, in the third place, there are also the predictions of the New Testament. And it would seem that this article of our Confession has these in mind particularly. For it speaks in the present tense: “The very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling.” In other words, the article has in mind the prophecies, especially of the New Testament, concerning the last things, concerning the signs of the times. It has in mind the things, the predictions, that are being fulfilled before our very eyes with increasing clarity and with increasing rapidity and frequency. Before the very eyes of us, upon whom the ends of the ages are come, these things are being fulfilled. And they are being fulfilled so clearly that even the blind themselves, those who cannot see spiritually, can nevertheless perceive this and must admit it to themselves and are convicted of it in their souls, so that they cannot escape the truth.

Thus it always has been, and thus it always will be. Thus it must necessarily be with the wicked and unbelieving. The things of God and of the kingdom of God are nor a matter simply of the natural understanding. They are not a question of one’s intelligence or lack of intelligence. They are spiritual. And for this very reason, both for believer and unbeliever it must be plain beyond a shadow of a doubt, it must be inescapable from an objective point of view, that the Word of God is true and that it is indeed the Word of God, breathing divine authority. In the judgment of God the unbeliever must not be able to say, “I did not have sufficient light. I could not see that the authority of Scripture was the authority of God. There was not sufficient evidence. It was not proved to me. I could not believe the Scriptures because there was not sufficient evidence that they were from God.” This divine authority of Scripture must, from an objective point of view, be so abundantly evident that the very blind are convicted of it and that it is very clear that the question is a spiritual one, a question of the heart and not of the mind. It must be and is so clear objectively, that the unbeliever shall have to admit in the judgment of God, “I knew that the Scriptures were the Word of God, but I denied those Scriptures because I was wicked and because I hated the living God.”

Of this fact, that the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in the Scriptures. are being fulfilled, and of the general truth that this is not only true of the predictions of Scripture, but of all the Scriptures, so that the wicked: and unbelieving natural man knows very well, and must testify and reveal, in spite of himself, that he knows that the Scriptures are the Word of God, there are clear examples in Holy Writ. A striking example of this you have in connection with the parable of the wicked husbandmen, recorded in Matthew 21. It was, of course, in general true of all the parables that in them our Lord spake concerning the things of the kingdom of heaven in order that the wicked seeing might see, and not perceive, and hearing might hear, but not understand. And this becomes very plain in connection with the parable mentioned. When the Lord had spoken this parable and had finally drawn the picture of the householder at last sending his son for the fruits of the vineyard, and of the wicked husbandmen saying, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance,” and had drawn from the chief priests and the Pharisees the admission that the lord of the vineyard, when he returned, would miserably destroy those wicked husbandmen and would let out his vineyard unto others, who would render him the fruits in their season, He applied the parable in verses 42 and 43, with a reference to Old Testament prophecy, as follows: “Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.”

And what was the effect of this parable? Was the difficulty herein, that the chief priests and the Pharisees did not understand? Was it that they were not able to perceive that the things foretold in the scripture cited by Jesus were being fulfilled? The very opposite was true. The Savior quoted from theirScriptures, from the Scriptures of which these chief priests and Pharisees prided themselves that they were the custodians and interpreters of them, that they knew them and understood them. They acknowledged that those Scriptures were divine. The difficulty lay not with their understanding and with their intelligence, but with their heart. They refused to bow before that divine authority of the Word of the Savior in wickedness and unbelief. And their very hatred of the Lord and their anger was proof positive of this fact and a testimony against them. For we read in Matthew 21:45, 46: “And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet.” Presently Christ’s own prediction in the parable would be fulfilled by them, and they would say of Him, the Son, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.”

Moreover, we must remember that this was indeed a question of authority according to the context of this parable and of that of the two sons. They themselves had made it a question of authority, although when the Lord pinpointed the question and placed them before the concrete question of the authority of the baptism of John, they had attempted to evade it and had answered Jesus’ question concerning the authority of John’s baptism by saying, “We cannot tell.” But Jesus was determined to make them tell and to force them to admit that they were not really and spiritually interested in the question of authority whatsoever. And this He did in these two well-known parables.

What, then, makes the difference? What causes the distinction between those who in faith receive all these books as the very Word of God and those who will not receive them and who deny that they are the Word of God?

This brings us to the second element mentioned in this article, namely, that “the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts, that they are from God.” Upon this the article lays stress. It is especially because the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that we receive these books. And it was also upon this internal testimony of the Spirit concerning the authority of Scripture that the Reformers of the sixteenth century laid stress. They, the Reformers, did so in opposition to the hierarchy of Rome, which elevated itself above the authority of the Scriptures. When the corrupt institute of the Romish hierarchy interposed itself between the Word of God and the people of God and was itself no more subject to the Scriptures, but said in effect, “We only can and do tell you what the Word and the will of God is,” and when it elevated to a position of equal and even superior authority the traditions and words of men, it became necessary for the believers to appeal to a higher authority, to an authority that transcended and superseded all other. And they appealed not merely to conscience, but to their sanctified conscience, to their conscience as the Holy Ghost witnessed with it and in it. They said very boldly: “The church, that is, Rome, that is, the pope, is not the ultimate authority. It cannot in last instance tell us what the will of God is. It has no business putting traditions alongside the Word of God and above it. It has no right to contradict the Scriptures and to declare a supposed will and revelation of God contrary to the Scriptures. We do not believe part or all of the Scriptures simply because the church receives and approves part or all of those Scriptures. We bow before the Word of God. The Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that these Scriptures are the only and supreme authority, that these Scriptures are from God, and that they are indeed the very Word of God.”

You understand, of course, that this internal witness of the Holy Ghost is not something apart from the Scriptures. It is never thus, that the Holy Ghost whispers by some voice in our hearts that the Bible is the Word of God, that He gives us a mystical, separate revelation that the Scriptures are the Word of God. And the relation is not even thus, that He separately testifies in our hearts, apart from the actual contents of the Scriptures, that this Bible, or this portion of the Bible or that portion of the Bible which we happen to be reading, is authoritative and that we must bow before it. Nor is our faith concerning the authority of Holy Writ separate from the activity of saving faith in general. But the Holy Ghost always witnesses in connection with His own Scriptures. Always He binds those Scriptures upon the hearts of the elect in such a way that they experience internally and must acknowledge the intrinsic, divine authority of the Scriptures and of whatever portion of the Scriptures is read by them or to them, or proclaimed to them. He illumines their minds, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God. By the efficacy of His grace, in connection with the objective testimony of the Scriptures, He pervades the inmost recesses of the man. He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart. And He infuses new spiritual qualities into the will which is by nature dead and, evil and disobedient and refractory. And the result is that by faith the elect, regenerated sinner bows before the Word of God and embraces that Word as the Word of God, Who is really God. We may, therefore, take note of the fact that in this article we confess a divine work, a work of sovereign grace. That we receive all these books, that we believe, without any doubt, all things contained in them, that we confess that they are from God, that we confess that they carry the evidence of this in themselves—all this is not due to us in distinction from those who do not believe and confess this. Faith, also the faith that bows before the authority of Holy Scripture, is not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.

Thus, finally, we may understand the first reason that is mentioned in a negative way in this article, namely, that we receive all these books “not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such.” We must remember, in the first place, that this is not the primary, but the approximate and secondary reason why we believe and receive all these books as divine. In the second place, when the article speaks here of the church, it certainly does not refer to the corrupt institute of Rome, nor, in fact, in general to the church as institute at all. But it refers to the organism of the church as it is always present in the world and comes to manifestation and expression in the body of believers. It may be and is often true that what lives in the bosom of the church is also officially expressed in the pronouncements of the church institute, that is, as long as that institute is pure and lives and acts in obedience to the Word of God. But the article has in mind the testimony of the church of all ages. And this testimony is indeed of significance for faith. In the first place, not to the individual believer all by himself, but to the church, and to the individual believer only in the fellowship of the church are the Scriptures delivered. And it is only in that fellowship of the church that the individual believer is inducted into the knowledge and faith of the Scriptures. Apart from that church there are no Scriptures and there would have been tie Scripture’s. And apart from that church the individual believer does not possess and cannot believe and bow before the authority of the Scriptures. And, in the second place, we must remember that the guidance of the Holy Spirit was promised to the church and it is under that guidance of the Spirit, Who leads the church into all the truth, that the body of believers has always, received and approved these books. It is, therefore, in fellowship with the church of all ages that the believer has the testimony of the Holy Spirit in his heart that these books are from God. And it is in the fellowship of the church of all ages that he knows and confesses that these books carry the evidence of this in themselves. And thus also, it is certainly of importance for the assurance of faith that the believer knows that his faith concerning the Scriptures and their authority is in harmony with, yes, is the faith, has always been the faith, of the church of all ages.