We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, 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. (Belgic Confession, Article 5)
The Authority of Scripture
Article 5 deals with the Authority of Holy Scripture. Only the canonical books (see Belgic Confession Article 4) are the final standard & authority “for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.” The Westminster Confession of Faith likewise also affirms this, saying that only the canonical books of Scripture “are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (1.2).
The ancient ecumenical creeds (such as the Apostles’ Creed) and Reformed confessions (such as the Belgic Confession) are not our final or ultimate authority for faith and practice. Rather, they are what we would call “subordinate standards.” That is, they are subordinate to Scripture. And that is because the Scriptures alone are the very Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
The Source of the Authority of Scripture
The authority of Scripture is often called the “formative principle” of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, in distinction from its “material principle,” which was justification by faith alone. The surface issue (so to speak) that was debated was justification, while the foundational concern underlying that debate was the issue of the authority of Scripture.
Where does Scripture derive its authority from, and why does it matter? Another way of framing this question would be to ask, which comes first, the church or the canon of Scripture? Does the church create or decide the canon of Scripture, or does the canon of Scripture create the church? The official Roman Catholic position is that the church decided or determined the canon of Scripture. In stark contrast to that, the Reformed faith has instead taught that the church is founded upon the Scriptures, rather than vice-versa.
The Scriptures themselves teach this very thing:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:19–21, ESV, Italics added)
That is why article 5 (above) states that we receive and believe the Scriptures to be holy, canonical, and authoritative, “not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such” (the Roman Catholic position), but rather because she recognizes them as the Word of God.
Of this subject John Calvin writes,
“Many people commit the fatal error of believing that Scripture has only such value as the church agrees to accord it, as if God’s eternal and inviolable truth depended on men’s good pleasure!”1
“So when the church receives and assents to Scripture, it does not confer authenticity on what was before doubtful or uncertain. Because it acknowledges it to be its Lord’s truth, it at once reveres it, as indeed it should.”2
Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states:
“The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” (1.4)
We must reject any teaching that implies, affirms, or otherwise states that it is somehow the church that confers authority upon the Scriptures. This is to get things quite backward.
The Proof of the Authority of the Scriptures
The Belgic Confession specifies two (2) reasons3 or proofs as to why we receive and believe the Scriptures as being the authoritative Word of God:
“ . . . 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.”
The first reason given here is the inner witness or testimony of the Holy Spirit Himself. It is the Spirit of God (the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures – 2 Peter 1:20-21) who “witnesses in our hearts that they are from God,” leading us to recognize the voice of God in the Scriptures.
Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states:
“ . . . yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. ” (1.5)
Ultimately we believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and receive them as such precisely because that is what they, in fact, are, and because the Author of the Scriptures attests to them as being His Word. The Apostle Paul says this very thing in one of his epistles to the church at Thessalonica:
“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV, italics added)
The second reason given here is the self-evidencing nature of the Scriptures. The Confession adds that we also receive and believe the Scriptures as the Word of God, not only because of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, but “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.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith again likewise states:
“And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God . . . .”
The Scriptures themselves are their own best evidence and self-authentication. The fulfillment of prophecy, the truthfulness of the Scriptures, the “consent of all the parts” – how the Bible not only does not contradict itself, but rather speaks with a united voice, despite being comprised of 66 different books, having been written over a period of over 1,500 years by approximately 40 human authors, in different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), on different continents, and in varying circumstances and cultural settings.
The Bible has been described as ‘an anvil that has worn out many hammers.’ It has withstood the constant attacks of skeptics and atheists alike down through the centuries. God has supernaturally preserved His Word to this very day, and that will never change.
The message of the Bible, primarily being centered on the promise of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27) has saved and transformed an untold multitude of sinners, and will no doubt continue to do so (Revelation 7:9). And that is because it is the Word of God and the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), which never returns to God void, but always accomplishes His will (Isaiah 55:8-11).
The best cure for doubt or skepticism regarding the Bible is to read the Bible. If someone persists in unbelief or skepticism, it is not for a lack of evidence to the truthfulness of Scripture, as the Belgic Confession puts it, “For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”
2 Ibid., p.19