I recently bought Samuel Waldron’s expository commentary on the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. It is lengthy, and deserves to be, as the Confession takes sides on many issues that warrant deep evaluation. But today I was reading, naturally, through chapter 1. The Confession begins by speaking about the Bible, and has me motivated to say something here about the Bible’s unique claim to reveal truth at the elementary level.
The question is, Why should the Bible believed? Reformed Christianity gives the somewhat startling answer that “it is to be received because it is the Word of God” (BCF 1.4). That is, “the authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, depends […] wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof” (BCF 1.4). This, of course, assumes the Bible is right in saying God authored it. The Confession goes on to say that we may be persuaded to esteem the Bible for many good reasons or evidences; however, the Bible is in fact self-authenticating. That is, it is its own evidence. There is no need to appeal to any outside corroboration to verify the Bible as being God’s true Word, and this is also what I now believe.
To believe otherwise would be to deny that the Bible is sufficient for its own purposes, because it would need to lean upon something extraneous to itself in order to be validated. Rather, the Bible is true because it is God’s word, which we know because it says this of itself, and it is trustworthy because God said it.
My objection to this in the past (and how strongly I would have objected!) is that this is circular reasoning. It begs the question. Indeed it is circular reasoning, but this is its strength. In this singular case, I beg the question without reservation, not because there are no good extrabiblical reasons for trusting the Bible, but because those reasons cannot be incited without first begging some question or another. Most people, Christians included, when seeking something to corroborate the Scriptures would necessarily appeal to evidence and reason. They appeal to these things because in nearly all other cases, evidence and reason are higher authorities; they constitute the courts in which cases must be decided. But to what higher authority can you appeal than God’s Word to verify God’s Word? It is like God, when He swore to Abraham, swore by Himself since He could swear by nothing higher! In the same way, “the entity to which appeal is made to attest the Bible tends to replace the Bible as one’s practical authority” (Waldron 42). Of course this is true. If you appeal to evidence or reason to attest the Bible, you are judging the Bible by them, rather than vice versa, thereby making reason the real standard, the real benchmark, whereas I make the Bible the standard to verify reason, so that I can confidently use reason to evaluate all other things. In other words, those who appeal to reason as final also beg the question, but in their case, they beg it in respect to reason. “How do you know reason is reliable?” I may ask. They cannot give a good defense without calling upon reason itself, and therefore presuming its usefulness. “It’s only reasonable,” they say. Exactly. So we all have base assumptions that we use to build up other beliefs. All those starting, bedrock assumptions can only be defended by begging the question, by circular reasoning, but that’s not necessarily illegal.
But the Bible is a much better foundation than reason, for the Bible can buttress reason, and then, in fact be itself subjected to an internal critique using reason. The Bible teaches truths that would validate the use of reason. But if your ultimate authority is reason, how do you know it is reliable, particularly if God did not put it in place? Therefore I believe the Bible is true, not only for its own sake, but because it explains everything else and makes the world intelligible. You may wonder at this point, how I know the Bible is reliable, and remind me that we’re both simply presuming either reason or the Bible to be true, so it’s unfair to ask how you know reason is reliable. But the axiomatic nature of Scripture is properly understood only in the context of a “trilogy of doctrines” (Waldron 38). It is based upon the self-authenticating nature of general (natural) revelation. That is, the revelation given by God to human beings in creation, both externally (the world around us) and internally (the law of God imprinted on the image of God in human beings). The Bible is self-authenticating because as man is daily confronted with a clear revelation of God in nature, the Scripture would naturally ring true as a more detailed and personal extension of that revelation. Two, “the Scripture exhibits as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things of their taste” (Calvin, qtd in Waldron 40). If this is true, then why do many people reject the Bible? Sin. Which leads us to the final point, which is, the Bible is self-authenticating to Christians. This is because of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The Confession says, after listing a litany of good reasons one might be convinced of the Bible’s veracity, that “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” (BCF 1.5). This, friends, is how I am certain the Bible is true.
It may not be unfair at this point to say that if the Bible is attested to by the Spirit, then it really isn’t self-authenticating. But let me say three things about that. First, the Bible tells us that it is the living Word of God. Its life is animated by the Spirit–this liveliness is part of the nature of Scripture. It is living. Two, the Spirit works not only “with the Word” but “by the Word.” The Word itself is the means God’s Spirit uses to convince people of it. It is in the nature of God’s Word to be accompanied by the testimony of the Spirit. And finally the need of the testimony of the Spirit only exists because human beings are fallen and suppress the truth in their own minds. Waldron clarifies, “The testimony of the Holy Spirit, therefore, has for its nature the removal of that evil ethical disposition which blinds man to the light of divine revelation. The testimony is thus an ethical operation. It does not consist in some new revelation in addition to that which is contained in the Scriptures.” That is to say, the testimony of the Holy Spirit by and with the Word in the hearts of believers is an act of removing impedances to seeing God’s Word as self-evidently beautiful and true, rather than of whispering to the believer other reasons to believe. He does not debate; He merely opens the eyes so that the Bible can work its magic all by itself.
For me, then, the ultimate authority, the supreme court, is the Bible, not logic, reason, or evidence. However, I use logic, reason, and evidence to evaluate everything else, but do not need them or ask them to validate the Bible. I do not need to put the Bible on trial, for what could judge it? Even if something confirmed it, that confirmation would elevate that standard above the Bible, as though it had the authority to confirm the Scriptures. That to me would be backward. As it is, I trust reason because the Bible attests to its usefulness and trustworthiness. I trust reason because the Bible confirms it and gives it permission to be used to resolve other inquiries.