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From the very beginning, Christians have plainly affirmed that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God. That much is clear. But looming in the background of such an affirmation is a question that won’t seem to go away: How do we know that these books are from God? It’s one thing to say that they are from God; it’s another thing to have a reason for saying it.
Of course, critical scholars have long challenged the Christian view of Scripture at precisely this point. It’s not enough to merely claim that these books are inspired. Christians need to have some way of knowing whether they are inspired. As James Barr liked to point out, “Books do not necessarily say whether they are divinely inspired or not.”
Over the years, Christians have offered a number of answers to this question. Certainly, the Apostolic origins of a book can help identify it as being from God. If a book can be traced to an Apostle, and Apostles are inspired, then we have good reasons to think that the book is from God.
But this is not all that can be said. Christian theologians—especially in the Reformed world—have long argued that there is a more foundational way that we can know that books are from God: the internal qualities of the books themselves.
In other words, they have argued that these books bear certain attributes (Latin indicia) that distinguish them as being from God. They argue that believers hear the voice of their Lord in these particular books. In modern theological language, they believe that the canonical books are self-authenticating. As Jesus said in John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
Anyone familiar with Reformation-era authors will know that this was the core argument given by the likes of John Calvin, William Whitaker, and John Owen in some of the key discussions on Scripture. Moreover, the idea of self-authentication is expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which holds that the Bible does “evidence itself” to be from God by its own internal qualities:
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. (1.5)
Beyond this, the concept of a self- authenticating Bible played a central role for later Reformed thinkers, particularly Herman Bavinck, as they sought to explain how we know that books are from God.
But some will wonder, Is this whole idea of a “self-authenticating” Bible just a novel invention of the Reformers? Did they invent the idea just as a tool in their fight against Rome? Not at all. When we look back even in the patristic period, we see that this concept was there from the beginning. Here are a few examples.
Origen (died c. AD 253) is quite clear that the divine qualities of books play a role in their authentication: “If anyone ponders over the prophetic sayings . . . it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them his mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and he will recognize the words he is reading are not utterances of man but the language of God.” Origen also insists that Old Testament prophets “are sufficient to produce faith in any one who reads them” and that thereby the gospel offers “a demonstration of its own.”
Elsewhere, Origen says similar things. He defends the canonicity of the book of Jude because “it is filled with the healthful words of heavenly grace” and defends the canonical gospels because of their “truly venerable and divine contents.” He even defends the canonicity of the book of Hebrews on the ground that “the ideas of the epistle are magnificent.”
Tatian (died c. AD 180) is very clear about the role of the internal qualities of these books: “I was led to put faith in these Scriptures by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts.”
Jerome (died c. AD 420) defends the epistle of Philemon on the grounds that it is “a document which has in it so much of the beauty of the Gospel,” which is the “mark of its inspiration.” He also appeals to the power of Scripture’s words when he defends the epistle of Jude against its critics. Those who reject Jude, he writes, are “failing to understand what power and wisdom lies hidden underneath each of the words.”
John Chrysostom (died c. AD 407) declares that in the gospel of John there is “nothing counterfeit” because the gospel is “uttering a voice which is sweeter and more profitable than that of any harper or any music, . . . something great and sublime.”
Right before citing Matthew 4:17 and Philippians 4:5, Clement of Alexandria (died c. AD 215) says that you can distinguish the words of men from the words of Scripture because “no one will be so impressed by the exhortations of any of the saints, as he is by the words of the Lord Himself.”
After Clement says that God’s own voice is the surest demonstration of Scripture’s divinity, he illustrates this principle by appealing to the story of the Sirens: “The songs of the Sirens displayed a power that was more than human, that fascinated those who came near, and convinced them, almost against their will to accept what was said.” The point can’t be missed: the power of God’s Word, in a nearly irresistible fashion, convinces people to accept it.
These examples (and more could be added) are sufficient to show that the early church fathers believed that evidence for the canonicity of books can be found in the books themselves. In other words, canonical books are self-authenticating.
Of course, at this point one might object: If the internal qualities of these books really exist, then how do we explain why they are rejected by so many? Why don’t more people see these qualities?
The answer lies in the role of the Holy Spirit in helping people see what is objectively there. Due to the noetic effects of sin (Rom. 3:10–18), one cannot recognize these qualities without the testimonium spiritus sancti internum, the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.
Needless to say, the non-Christian will find this explanation largely unpersuasive. “Isn’t it a little suspicious,” he might object, “that Christians claim they are the only ones who can see the truth of these books and everyone else is blinded to it? That seems enormously self-serving.”
This objection is understandable. But if Christian doctrines concerning the fall, original sin, and the corruption of the human heart are true, then it naturally follows that a person without the Spirit cannot discern the presence of the Spirit (such as whether He is speaking in a book).
Moreover, it is not all that different from the reality that some people are tone-deaf and therefore unable to discern whether a musical note is “on key.” You can imagine a tone-deaf person objecting, “This whole ‘on key’ thing is a sham run by musical insiders who claim to have a special ability to hear such things.” But despite all the protests, the truth of the matter remains: there is such a thing as being on key whether the tone-deaf person hears it or not.
In the end, the church fathers teach us a very important truth. The New Testament canon that we possess today is due not to the machinations of later church leaders or to the political influence of Constantine but to the fact that these books imposed themselves on the church through their internal qualities. In other words, these books were used the most because they proved themselves to be worthy of that use.
Or as Harvard professor Arthur Darby Nock used to say about the formation of the canon: “The most traveled roads in Europe are the best roads; that is why they are so heavily traveled.”