WHENCE THE HOLY SCRIPTURES DERIVE THEIR DIGNITY AND AUTHORITY
We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, formation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.
Following on the previous article, which lists the canonical books of the Bible, this article affirms the ‘dignity and authority’ of these writings. In doing so, it deftly addresses a major source of controversy during the 16th century–and one that has gained traction again in recent years.
The claim it rejects is the notion Scripture holds its place of significance and authority in the community of faith only because the church has ascribed these things to it. This position–that the church looks to the Scriptures it has canonized for “the regulation, formation, and confirmation” of what it believes–is really, then, a piece of circular reasoning that goes like this: the church has decided which books are a part of the canon and are therefore, authoritative; because these books are authoritative, the church then uses them to derive doctrine. In short, the claim is that the church submits itself to an authority that it delineated for itself.
This is a legitimate criticism of the position of the Roman Catholic Church, which, then and now, claims that Scripture has the authority it has only because the church has officially and ecclesiastically sanctioned it as the Word of God. The position of the Reformers was the exact opposite. Instead of saying that Scripture has authority because the church had declared it to be authoritative, the Reformers insisted that the church merely recognized what was true, i.e. that the inspired Word of God is inherently authoritative, and the church joyfully and humbly confesses that to be true.
The ‘whence’ of the dignity and authority of Scripture, therefore, is not to be found in the pronouncements of any ecumenical or ecclesiastical councils. The dignity and authority of Scripture, instead, comes from the fact that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that the very same Spirit testifies to this dignity and authority by ‘witnessing in our hearts that the Scriptures are from God’.
Theologians call this the testimonium internuum spiritu sanctu, which means “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit”. It is a belief that the same Spirit who inspired the writing of Scripture also works to convince us of its authenticity, authority, and divine origin. In Calvin’s words, “the highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it…the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of Himself in His Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit” (Institutes, I.vii.4).
Still, claiming that our certainty of the authority of Scripture ultimately rests on something as seemingly subjective as ‘inward conviction’ appears to some to be an indefensible cop-out of circular reasoning, similar to answering the question, “why?” with the answer, “because I said so.” This is not the case, however. There are foundational truths affirmed when we understand the importance of ascribing to God the work of testifying to His own Word.
God is God and we are not. We cannot say why or how or to whom God will grant a conviction regarding the dignity and authority of Scripture, but we can say unashamedly that attributing that work to God gives him even greater glory and augments our motivation for prayer and praise. We depend on God to reveal himself to us and to give us minds to understand that revelation. This view maintains a proper perspective between Creator and creation.
In short, it takes a work of God to firmly convince us that the canonical Scriptures are the Word of God. Herman Bavink put it thus: “The entire application of salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit; and the witness to Scripture is but one of the many of his activities in the community of believers.” (Reformed Dogmatics, I.v.16)
In addition to this, the article also points to the “evidence…in themselves” that Scripture contains, briefly hinting at the fulfillment of God’s prophecies and promises as yet further proof of the origin, dignity, and authority of Scripture. Nevertheless, the principle means by which the dignity and authority of Scripture are derived from the agency of the Holy Spirit, who works to not only inspire the Scriptures but also to illuminate it by bearing “witness in our hearts that they are from God”.