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The Reformed Doctrine of Inspiration (3)

Category Articles
Date December 2, 2005

How a Sinner Comes to Recognise the Inspiration of the Bible

How do we become assured that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? If we depend on faith rather than reason for our conviction that the Bible is the Word of God, what is the difference between Christianity and other religions which claim a “holy book”?

1. The testimony of the Church is not to be discounted. That we have been led by the Church and by our parents to grow up accepting that the Bible is the Word of God is part of the Lord’s providential kindness toward us. William Whitaker, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge (1579-1599), whose Disputation on Holy Scripture (1588) evidently influenced the construction of chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession, [1] says that “the authority of the Church may at first move us to acknowledge the Scriptures: but afterwards, when we have ourselves read the Scriptures, and understood them, then we conceive a true faith”. Cornelius van Til, in his little publication, Why I Believe in God, written to challenge an atheist or agnostic acquaintance, makes a similar point in response to the accusation that his belief was the result of his early home life: “You know as well as I that every child is conditioned by its environment. You were as thoroughly conditioned not to believe in God as I was to believe in God . . . . To be ‘without bias’ is only to have a particular kind of bias. The idea of ‘neutrality’ is simply a colourless suit that covers a negative attitude towards God”.

Those whose early “conditioning” is in accordance with truth have much reason to be thankful. What they see of the effect of Scripture in the lives of those whom they love and respect has its own evidential value. In no realm other than religion would critics dismiss the benefit of being reared in an environment where the influences were for good rather than evil.

As a result of God’s providential working in the history of the Church we are not left to search for documents to recognise as the Word of God. We have a Book historically recognised by the Church as composed of documents received by the original recipients as inspired Scripture. The unity of the Old Testament is such that genealogies and histories which might not in themselves convey the impression of inspiration to even a spiritual reader are recognised as inspired because they are integral parts of a volume with all the marks of inspiration. The unity of the New Testament, which consists of books written by different persons in different circumstances over half a century, is a remarkable fact on the same level as the unity of the Old Testament and the unity between the Old Testament and the New. The coherence between all parts of the Bible means that to be assured of the inspiration of any part is to be assured of the inspiration of it all.

The Church did not give these books their status or authority but only recognised it. The Church received as inspired Scripture those books presented to it as such by the Apostles or by apostolic men and acknowledged as such by the original recipients because of this origin and the divine authority which impressed them upon their souls and minds and consciences. Robert Shaw, in his Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, says: “The task of searching the records of antiquity has been undertaken by learned men, and executed with great industry and zeal”. They discovered “that the books now included in the New Testament were received as inspired by the primitive Church, and numerous passages were quoted from them by the earliest Christian writers; that catalogues of these books, which coincide with ours, are inserted in the works of different authors who flourished in the third and fourth centuries; and that these books were publicly read in Christian congregations, and were continually appealed to by Christian writers as the standard of faith, and the supreme judge of controversies”. By God’s providential work in the Church we have a Book which claims to be the Word of God. In “The Authority of the New Testament”, [2] N B Stonehouse makes the point that “the testimony which the Scriptures themselves bear to their own authority” and which is intrinsic to themselves “established itself in the history of the Church through the government of its divine Head”.

2. The rational arguments for the inspiration of the Bible have a function to perform. The truthfulness of Scripture is sometimes argued from the correspondence between what is written in the Bible and those aspects of reality which can be tested by human observation or experiment. John Blanchard quotes from the conclusion of a 1974 article in Time magazine: “After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived – and is perhaps better for the siege. Even on the critics’ own terms – historical fact – the Scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack.” He comments that “the Bible’s prophetic element adds an impressive dimension to its integrity and presents an enormous problem to the sceptic”. [3] Such arguments may clear objections from honest minds. But as Adolph Saphir puts it: “God did not leave a matter of such vital importance as the authority of Scripture to depend upon minute investigation, for which only the learned have leisure and ability; nor upon abstruse and metaphysical argument, for which the mass of mankind have no aptitude. There must be something about the Scripture obvious and tangible, to prove its authority and demonstrate its high origin.” [4]

The Confession concentrates on arguments drawn more directly from the character and effects of the Bible and specifies “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” as “arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God”. George Gillespie, considered the source from which this description was derived, specifies as additional factors the Bible’s irresistible power over the conscience, the holiness and honesty of the penmen, its confirmation by miracles, the fulfilling of prophecies and its conservation over against enemies. The significance of the evidences enumerated by the Confession is that they are available to the reader of Scripture without access to anything external to Scripture or dependent upon historical or other human research.

Wayne Spear quotes Whitaker to the effect that “to persuade our souls thoroughly, it is not these or any other arguments of the same kind that can avail, but only the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking inwardly in our hearts”. Spear adds that “in coming to faith, no one is dependent on the ability to follow sophisticated reasoning like that of the Schoolmen. God deals directly with the heart by the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit, who, in effectual calling, enlightens the mind to perceive the truth and beauty of the Scripture, and persuades and enables us to embrace it”. In keeping with the Confession, E J Young asserts that “in themselves, however, these arguments do not bring us to full persuasion that the Bible is God’s Word, and the reason for this is that the human understanding is darkened by sin”. [5] As B B Warfield puts it, “their failure to produce ‘sound faith’ is due solely to the subjective condition of man, which is such that a creative operation of the Holy Spirit on the soul is requisite before he can exercise ‘sound faith'”. [6]

3. The conclusive evidence for the inspiration of the Bible comes from “the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. . . . The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), and the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.” [7] The primary reason for believing that the Bible is the inspired Word of God is that it claims to be such. The difference from other books which claim to be the Word of God is that the claim of the Bible is validated, particularly by the work of the Spirit causing the soul to concur in the claims which the Bible makes for itself.

John Owen, in The Divine Original, Authority, Self-evidencing Light, and Power of the Scriptures [8] says of the Bible that “we do so receive, embrace, believe and submit unto it, because of the authority of God who speaks it, or gave it forth as His mind and will, evidencing itself by the Spirit in and with that Word unto our minds and consciences: or, because that the Scripture, being brought unto us by the good providence of God, in ways of His appointment and preservation, it doth evidence itself infallibly unto our consciences to be the word of the living God”. He compares the Scriptures to light and power. Drawing attention to 2 Corinthians 4:2-4, he says that “to give us an infallible assurance that, in receiving this testimony, we are not imposed upon by cunningly devised fables . . . the Scriptures have that glory of light and power accompanying them, as wholly distinguisheth them by infallible signs and evidences from all words and writings not divine; conveying their truth and power into the souls and consciences of men with an infallible certainty”.

John Murray [9] makes the point that “rational demonstration is not the ground of faith. . . . The nature of faith is acceptance on the basis of testimony, and the ground of faith is therefore testimony or evidence. In this matter it is the evidence God has provided, and God provides the evidence in His Word, the Bible. This means simply that the basis of faith in the Bible is the witness the Bible itself bears to the fact that it is God’s Word, and our faith that it is infallible must rest upon no other basis than the witness the Bible bears to this fact.”

How does the Holy Spirit convince a sinner that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? Not by justifying the claims of Scripture at the bar of reason, so that man rather than God is the foundation of faith, although He will show that acceptance of these claims is most reasonable. Not by directly impressing upon the soul the proposition that the Bible is the inspired Word of God – though that conviction may be entertained rationally by a sinner before he submits to these claims. Louis Gaussen suggests that the Reformed Confessions teach that “to every truly converted Christian the Bible is presented in some way to his soul, with evidence, as a miraculous book – as a living and efficacious word, which ‘pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit’; illumines in a moment the inmost depths of his being and reveals to him the features, hitherto unknown, of his inner man; softening, persuading and subduing it with incomparable power. . . . Henceforth the soul can no longer be under a mistake about it. To it this book, in the whole or in part, is certainly from on high. The seals of the Almighty are attached to it. But this ‘witness of the Holy Spirit’, of which our fathers spoke, and which every Christian has more or less acknowledged when he has read his Bible with vital efficacy – this witness may at first be heard by him only in a single page of the Scriptures; but this page suffices to spread over the book which contains it an incomparable lustre in his eyes.” [10]

John Murray makes a similar point: “The Confession represents the authority of Scripture as resting not upon the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit but upon the inspiration of the Spirit, a finished activity by which, it is clearly stated, the sixty-six books enumerated were produced and in virtue of which they are the Word of God written. It is, however, by ‘the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts’ that we become convinced of that authority. The authority of Scripture is an objective and permanent fact residing in the quality of inspiration; the conviction on our part has to wait for that inward testimony by which the antecedent facts of divinity and authority are borne in upon our minds and consciences.”

R L Dabney, speaking of the Scripture’s self-evidencing light, says that “the literary evidences of its divine origin, drawn by the learned from antiquity, have their value; but wherever the Bible is read with honesty, it presents, within itself, sufficient proof to evince that its claims are reasonable. Only on this supposition can its lofty and imperative attitude be justified.” [11] As Thomas Halyburton puts it: “The Word, by a God-becoming manifestation of the truth . . . dives into the souls of men, into all the secret recesses of their hearts, guides, teaches, directs, determines and judges in them and upon them in the name, majesty and authority of God. And when it enters thus into the soul it fills it with the light of the glory of the beamings of those perfections upon it, whereby it is made to cry out, ‘The voice of God and not of man’ (Heb 4:12; 1 Cor 14:24).”

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes of the connection between the rational proofs and the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit: “In vain were the authority of Scripture fortified by argument, or supported by the consent of the Church, or confirmed by any other helps, if unaccompanied by an assurance higher and stronger than human judgment can give. . . . On the other hand, when recognising its exemption from the common rule, we receive it reverently and according to its dignity, those proofs which were not so strong as to produce and rivet a full conviction in our minds become most appropriate helps.”

After indicating several weighty arguments for receiving the Bible as the Word of God, he concludes: “There are other reasons, neither few nor feeble, by which the dignity and majesty of the Scriptures may be not only proved to the pious, but also completely vindicated against the cavils of slanderers. These, however, cannot of themselves produce a firm faith in Scripture until our heavenly Father manifest His presence in it, and thereby secure implicit reverence for it. Then only, therefore, does Scripture suffice to give a saving knowledge of God, when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Still the human testimonies which go to confirm it will not be without effect, if they are used in subordination to that chief and highest proof, as secondary helps to our weakness. But it is foolish to attempt to prove to infidels that the Scripture is the Word of God. This it cannot be known to be, except by faith. Justly, therefore, does Augustine remind us that every man who would have any understanding in such high matters must previously possess piety and mental peace.” [12]

1. See, for example, W R Spear, “The Westminster Confession of Faith and Holy Scripture”, in To Glorify and Enjoy God.
2. The Infallible Word, p 140.
3. Does God Believe in Atheists, pp 404,410.
4. “Holy Scripture its own Evidence”, in Truth Unchanged, Unchanging.
5. “The Authority of the Old Testament”, in The Infallible Word.
6. “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”, in his Calvin and Augustine.
7. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:4,5.
8. In Works, vol. 16.
9. “The Attestation of Scripture”, in The Infallible Word.
10. The Canon of the Holy Scriptures, pp 416,417.
11. “The Bible its own Witness”, in vol. 1 of his Discussions.
12. Vol. 1, chapter 7: “The Credibility of Scripture Sufficiently Proved, in so far as Natural Reason Admits”.

From the Free Presbyterian Magazine, December 2005, by permission.

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