The Westminster Confession of Faith contains a majestic statement on the authority of Scripture:
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) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to a high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture. 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: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority there-of, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (WCF 1.4–5)
These words reflect the consensus of thought of the Reformed churches on how we are to understand the authority of Scripture. In short, the authority of Scripture does not depend on the decision or decree of any church or any man. Rather, Scripture is authoritative because it is the Word of the living God.
The Reformed Doctrine of the Authority of Scripture
The same teaching is found in the writings of the earliest Reformed theologians and in the earliest Reformed confessions. John Calvin (1509–64), for example, explains that “a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church” (Institutes 1.7.1). He is speaking here of the prevailing sixteenth-century Roman Catholic opinion. Calvin argues rather that Scripture is authoritative because “God in person speaks in it” (1.7.4). William Whitaker (1548–95), in his masterful Disputations on Holy Scripture (1588), concisely states the view of the Reformed churches on this matter:
The sum of our opinion is, that the Scripture is autopistos, that is, hath all its authority and credit from itself; is to be acknowledged, is to be received, not only because the church hath so determined and commanded, but because it comes from God; and that we certainly know that it comes from God, not by the church, but by the Holy Ghost.
The earliest Reformed confessions are united in teaching the same view. Article 5 of the French Confession (1559) says regarding Scripture: “We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God, and receives its authority from him alone, and not from men.” Article 19 of the Scots Confession (1560) affirms:
As we believe and confess the Scriptures of God sufficient to instruct and make the man of God perfect; so do we affirm and avow the authority of the same to be of God, and neither to depend on men nor angels. We affirm, therefore, that such as allege the Scripture to have no other authority but that which it hath received from the church, are blasphemous against God, and injurious to the true church.
Article 5 of the Belgic Confession (1561) explains the authority of Scripture in the same way:
We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing, without doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling.
The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) explains that the Holy Scriptures “have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God Himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and speaks yet unto us by the Holy Scriptures.”
We see in all of these the close connection between the inspiration of Scripture and the authority of Scripture. Each of these theologians and confessions rightly observes that Scripture is God’s Word. It is precisely because Scripture is “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16) that it is authoritative. There is and can be no higher authority than God. Scripture carries God’s authority, the highest authority, because Scripture is God’s very own Word.
Why did the sixteenth-century Reformed theologians and confessions have to belabor this point? Did the Roman Catholic Church not believe that Scripture is the Word of God? Yes, Rome believed and taught that Scripture is the Word of God, but in the face of the challenges raised by the Reformers, Rome charged the Reformers with inconsistency. “You Protestants appeal to the Scripture,” they said, “but you have no right to do so because you would not even know what Scripture is apart from the declaration of the church.”
Some of the sixteenth-century Roman Catholic apologists were more nuanced in the way they explained their view. Others, as noted by Whitaker, were disturbingly crass. The Roman theologian Johann Eck, for example, claimed that “the church is more ancient than the scriptures, and that the scripture is not authentic but by the authority of the church.” Albert Pighius asserts similarly: “All the authority which the scripture now hath with us, depends necessarily upon the authority of the church.” Cardinal Stanislaus Hosius went so far as to say, “The Scriptures have only as much force as the fables of Aesop, if destitute of the authority of the Church.” As the Reformers rightly understood, those are fighting words.
The sixteenth-century debate over the relationship between the authority of Scripture and the authority of the church became focused to a great extent on the question of the biblical canon. Scripture is necessary if Christians are to know the will of God regarding what we are to believe and what we are to do. Rome argued, however, that without the prior authority of an infallible church, we would not know which books belong to the canon of Scripture and which do not. We do not have an inspired table of contents, the Roman apologists argued. In other words, Rome asserted, you Protestants cannot appeal to Scripture if you do not know what Scripture is, and only the Roman Catholic Church has the authority to tell you what Scripture is. Only Rome can provide you with an infallible table of contents. Thus, the authority of Scripture rests on the authority of the church.
This is a challenging criticism. It is a particularly challenging criticism for those Protestants who rejected the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and opted instead for a view of biblical authority that denies the subordinate but real authority of the church and creeds. The roots of this view are found in the Radical Reformation. The Radical Reformers, while differing among themselves on various details, insisted that Scripture is not only the sole infallible authority but the sole authority altogether. Not only were unbiblical medieval traditions disregarded, but tradition in the good sense of the regula fidei, the testimony of the fathers, the traditional interpretation of Scripture, and the corporate judgment of the church were often discarded as well.
In other words, the Radical Reformers advocated what may be termed nuda Scriptura, as opposed to the Magisterial Reformers’ doctrine of sola Scriptura. The Magisterial Reformers, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Martin Bucer, insisted that Scripture was the sole source of special revelation, the sole infallible authority, but that it was to be interpreted in and by the church according to the regula fidei (the “rule of faith” found in the creeds of the church). The Magisterial Reformers did not reject the authority of the church and the creeds as understood properly as subordinate authorities. What they rejected was any attempt to place the authority of the church or the creeds on the same level as the authority of God.
But how did the Protestant advocates of sola Scriptura respond to Rome’s challenge? First, they pointed out that Rome’s claim to infallible authority was invalidated due to the fact that Rome’s Old Testament canon was incorrect. Rome argued that the Old Testament canon should include the so-called apocryphal books. The apocryphal books were included in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible because they were found in later editions of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Jerome (347–420), who translated much of the Vulgate, translated some of these books but argued that they were noncanonical because they were not included in the Hebrew Old Testament. Over time, however, they were included in most editions of the Vulgate.
We have to recall that the Septuagint was completed sometime in the early part of the second century B.C. The apocryphal books were all written between 185 B.C. and A.D. 100. This means that most (if not all) of the apocryphal books were written long after the Septuagint was completed. The Protestants noted that the Hebrew Old Testament had never contained the additional apocryphal books found in the Roman Catholic Old Testament. Instead, the books in the Hebrew Old Testament correspond exactly to the books found in the Old Testament used by Protestants. Only the numbering and ordering of the books is different.
The second observation made by Protestants against Rome’s claim that an infallible church is necessary if we are to have a functionally authoritative canon is that Israel was not infallible. Why does this matter? Because God entrusted the Old Testament oracles to the Jews (Rom. 3:1–2). Despite the acknowledged fact that the Jews were not infallible, they managed for more than a thousand years to preserve the Old Testament canon of Scripture. Jesus and the Apostles used this Old Testament canon without giving any indication that the Jews had failed to accomplish this task for which they had been chosen. If an infallible church was not necessary for the establishment and preservation of the canon before Christ, an infallible church is not necessary for the same now.
The question at the heart of the debate between Rome and the Protestants regarding the canon and the authority of Scripture may be stated as follows (using Michael Kruger’s terminology): Is the canon of Scripture community determined or is it self-authenticating? According to Rome, the authority of Scripture depends upon the authority of the church. The most fundamental problem with this view, however carefully it may be nuanced and qualified, is that it unavoidably and inevitably places the authority of God beneath the authority of the church. It completely reverses the true state of affairs. If we are to believe in the authority of Scripture, according to Rome, we must assume the authority of the church. But why should we accept the authority of the church? Is it self-authenticating? No, Rome says, and she appeals to Scripture to establish the authority of the church just as she appeals to the church to establish the authority of Scripture. The circular nature of this appeal has been pointed out since the Reformation.
To say that the canon and authority of Scripture is self-authenticating is to say what the Reformed confessions say. It is, to use the words of William Whitaker, to say that “the Scripture is autopistos.” It has “all its authority and credit from itself.” Why? Because it is the Word of the living God, and God does not have to appeal to the church in order to establish His own inherent sovereign authority. God is God. The church is not God.
So, how is it that the church has come to recognize the right books and only the right books? Jesus Himself gives us the answer when He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). As Roger Nicole has pointed out, the best way to describe the way in which we know the canon is “the witness of the Holy Spirit given corporately to God’s people.” Recognition of the canonical books is due to the action of the Holy Spirit’s enabling God’s people to hear His voice.
Contemporary Rejections of Biblical Authority
While traditional Roman Catholics and Protestants fought over the relationship between the authority of the Scriptures and the authority of the church, they agreed that the Scriptures were the inspired and infallible Word of God. Since the Enlightenment, that assumption has come under heavy fire. Rather than Scripture and/or the church, human reason became the arbiter of truth. Scholars influenced by Enlightenment philosophy began to attack the veracity of the biblical accounts. Miracles were rejected out of hand. The response of some in the church was to recast Christianity in a form believed to be more appealing to post-Enlightenment Europeans. Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, grounded theology upon human experience and feeling rather than upon the authority of Scripture. Subjective feeling, he believed, is immune to the arguments of critics.
In the twentieth century, liberal attacks on the authority of Scripture continued, leading to intense battles in several churches. In the 1920s, J. Gresham Machen summed up the thinking of many when he declared that liberalism “is not only a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions.” Theological liberalism was criticized not only by traditional Protestants such as Machen, but by Neoorthodox scholars as well. Karl Barth, for example, said of Schleiermacher’s views that “one can not speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.” And H. Richard Niebuhr is well-known for his summary of the liberal gospel: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Although Neoorthodox scholars such as Barth and Niebuhr rightly saw the deadly dangers of theological liberalism, they too had a flawed understanding of biblical authority. For Barth, it is incorrect to identify Scripture with God’s Word. Instead, the Bible “must continually become God’s Word.” The Bible becomes God’s Word when God freely and sovereignly chooses to use it as such. By introducing this conceptual distinction between the Word of God and the Bible, Barth (and those Neoorthodox scholars who followed him) emptied the Bible itself of any inherent divine authority. The influence of liberal theologians such as Schleiermacher and Neoorthodox theologians such as Barth continues to this day in various forms.
When confronted by Satan and by other adversaries, Jesus Christ repeatedly appealed to the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God. There was no question in Jesus’ mind that what Moses said, God said; that what the prophets said, God said. For Jesus, the words “it is written” settled the argument. As followers of Christ, we should have the same attitude toward Scripture that He did. All Scripture is inspired by God. It is theopneustos, “breathed out by God.” When we hear Scripture, we hear the very voice of almighty God. There is no greater authority.