The Self-Authenticating Witness of the Bible
I’ve been discussing inerrancy with a friend and particularly what view Jesus held about the inspiration of the Old Testament in the context of Matthew 5:17-20. There is a compelling argument to adopt a high view of the trustworthiness of the Bible from the statements Jesus made about the Old Testament. However, I do not believe that this is the primary grounds by which we come to accept the the authority of Scripture. Therefore, before I make a stab at exegeting the Matthew passage and its implications, I wanted to first set out some preliminary thoughts on how it is we do come to trust the Bible.
Authority and the nature of knowledge
We are all confronted with the issue of authority. Bumper-stickers might protest otherwise, but each one of us must assess and ultimately decide which source of authority to rest our confidence in. We may come to believe things on the basis of our own experience, but many facts about the world lie beyond the reach of our own investigation. This is the connection between trust and authority that Augustine, the yoda of medieval theology, elucidated. When we cannot know if something is true on the basis of our set of perceptions of the world, we must believe the testimony of others. So for Augustine, faith is ultimately grounded in an authority, where things that are not directly or immediately known are adopted on the basis of an authentic or authoritative testimony.
For most Christians, the Bible functions as the supreme locus of authority. Because Scripture reveals the mind and will of God, it therefore claims this principal role in the way we come to adjudicate truth. But on what basis do we decide that the Bible should function this way for us? Even Augustine recognized that there are many sources of authority that we have available to us. He suggested that there must be certain signs (indicia) of credibility that evince the perspicuity of an authority to us. How then, do we determine Scripture’s authority?
Evidence of the authority of Scripture
If the Bible is from God, if it is the communication of God Himself, it’s authority cannot be derived or conferred. For there is no higher standard then God – God is the highest authority and embodiment of truth (Rom 13:1, Heb 6:13, John 14:6). The authenticity of the Bible is not established by an independent authority with a more privileged epistemic position (John 5:34). This is what John Calvin, who deserves his own place in the pantheon of the theologically gifted, argued in the Institutes:
Therefore illumined by [the Spirit’s] power, we believe neither by our own nor anyone elses judgement that Scripture is from God; but above human judgement we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. ( Institutes, I, vii, 5)
Only God can bear witness to divine truth. The noetic and spiritual inability of humanity undermines our efforts to arrive at or even test ultimate truth (John 8:15, 1 Cor 2:14). God, therefore, must provide both the content and the validation of the revelation. As Calvin explains, it is through the internal activity of the Holy Spirit, opening our minds to the truth and making available the content of Scripture to us that we see the authority of Scripture (2 Cor 4:6, 1 John 5:7, 2:20,27). The Spirit does not proffer extra data, but witnesses to the internal evidence of the Bible, showing that it is God’s very words. This self-authentication is immediate and direct – in the sense that it is not mediated through a chain of inferences that might begin with natural theology, history or even the judgement of the church. It is more akin to sense-datum; just as we might perceive the roundness or sharpness of an object, so we directly perceive the glory of God in the text of Scripture, as the Spirit draws us into a life-transforming encounter with our Saviour (John 16:13, 2 Cor 3:17-18). Because this perception is not anchored in the quicksand of outside human testimony or in accretions of probabilities, it is a much superior guarantee of truth. Calvin, again:
The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his word, the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit therefore who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded . . . because until he illumines their minds, they ever waver among many doubts (I, vii, 4)
This does not mean that we cannot use external evidence or that there is no place for separate lines of argument for the authority of Scripture. The process by which the Holy Spirit draws us to behold the glory of the Gospel is a rational process and therefore can be defended against objections. We, in fact, should be open to utilise other forms of external data but must realise that these can only support or clarify the original Spirit’s witness. The central foundation for our confidence in the authority of the Bible, just as the salvific apprehension of Christ as the Saviour of the world, however is the sovereign work of God Himself.