How can I be sure the Bible is the Word of God? Among evangelicals who believe that Scripture really is God’s Word, the immediate answer is often: “Because the Bible says it is the Word of God.”
But is this an adequate biblical response? And does it end all discussion? In itself it raises two questions. Some might see them as objections, and indeed they are often expressed as such. But in fact these questions can stimulate richer biblical convictions about the Scriptures.
SCRIPTURE’S OWN CLAIM REALLY?
The first question is this: Does the Bible actually claim to be the Word of God? Before shooting back a sharp “Of course. 2 Timothy 3:16. Issue settled” it may help to think of this as the friendly inquiry of a fellow believer rather than a sceptical rejection of biblical authority (notoriously illustrated in our own time by the Old Testament scholar James Barr in his attempted “hatchet job” book entitled Fundamentalism).
So, let us try the question again. Does the Bible itself claim to be the Word of God? Barr’s prima facie objection to this was in essence: “How could it, since until the ink dried on Revelation 22:21 there was no such object as ‘The Bible’ to make such a claim?” In this sense what would be required to enable us to say “The Bible claims to be the word of God” would be a closing note at the end of the last book of the Bible informing us that the books and letters listed by the author claim to be God’s Word.
Raising the question in this way underlines that we need a more sensitive New Testament answer than simply “2 Timothy 3:15: The Bible claims to be the Word of God.” This involves fleshing out at least the following four principles:
1: The Lord Jesus, our Divine Authority, placed his imprimatur on the Old Testament as the word of God. For him it was “the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). What came from that mouth and became Scripture “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). It was written in to his attitude to Scripture that anything it said must come to pass. His view of the Old Testament is reflected in 2 Timothy 3:14-17.
2: As our Divine Authority the Lord Jesus called and equipped his apostles to add to Scripture. This was inter alia what he had in view when he taught them in the Upper Room.1 For this purpose he later breathed his Spirit on them (John 20:22) and commanded them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:18-20) as his witnesses (Acts 1:8). Indeed, logistically this small apostolic band could take the gospel to the ends of the earth only if their message were written down and disseminated in that form.
3: In light of this the apostles were conscious that Jesus had equipped them to be his shaliachim and promised his Spirit to enable them to speak and write on his behalf and with his authority.
Shaliach (the singular) is the Hebrew equivalent of the New Testament’s word apostolos. The nearest English equivalent is “Power-of-Attorney”—someone given full authority to act on behalf of another. This principle explains a number of otherwise puzzling statements in the Gospels (for example Matthew 10:40 and John 20:23). The Christ who, by his Spirit, gave the Old Testament Scriptures through his shaliachim whom he empowered by his Spirit (1 Peter 1:11; 2 Peter 1:21) now equipped the apostolic fellowship as his shaliachim and empowered them by the same Spirit to author the New Testament.
4. The apostles themselves were conscious of this aspect of their office. Hence Paul’s insistence on his apostolic calling (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8-11). This undergirds Paul’s comment that the Thessalonians received the (apostolic) word “not as the word of men, but as it really is the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). This was true whether the word came by mouth or by letters (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Throughout the New Testament the authors give various hints that they are consciously communicating revelation that matches the authority of the Old Testament while possessing fuller content. They consciously function as those appointed “Power-of-Attorney to the Lord Jesus.”
Thus throughout the New Testament we are confronted by (i) our Lord’s confirmation that the Old Testament is the word of God, and in addition by (ii) the apostles’ consciousness of their speech and writing constitute nothing less than the word of God. As Peter famously comments, Paul’s letters belong in the same category as what he calls “the other Scriptures.” 2
Thus the Scriptures of both Old and New Testaments exude a self-conscious awareness that they constitute the very word of God. In this sense (contra James Barr), the Bible does indeed “claim” to be the word of God.
But we need to say more, for this leads directly to the second question.
From one point of view it is not sound or convincing logic to say: “The Bible is the word of God because it claims to be the word of God.” After all, we would challenge any logic that stated: “We believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God because it claims to be the word of God.” Expressed thus these syllogisms involve the fallacy known as petitio principii, i.e. the argument is circular; the conclusion needs to be smuggled into the premise to make the argument work.
A more biblical approach is suggested by the words of Paul earlier cited from 1 Thessalonians. The Thessalonians accepted the word of God as the word of God as it really is. To use the language of the older theologians, the Bible “doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God”4 and therefore it is appropriate for us to recognise that this is indeed the case.
This is often referred to as the autopistic character of Scripture. The Bible provides us with self-conscious indications that it is God’s word. These not only include the claim of “thus says the Lord” and the apostolic consciousness of adding to Scripture, but also the more specific statements made by Jesus and the apostles.
The [Westminster] Confession of Faith expresses this succinctly notes that, "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."
As has often enough been pointed out, the difference between inspiration and mere authorial perspiration is immediately obvious when one reads the writings of the earliest post-New Testament authors. The Bible does indeed possess objective indications of its unique character.
This aspect of the doctrine of Scripture goes hand in glove with another vital element, namely the internal testimony (or witness) of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, The Confession of Faith rightly adds that while
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the holy scripture . . .
Yet, notwithstanding, 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.
THE SPIRIT’S WORK AND WITNESS
The central biblical basis for this testimony is found in Paul’s powerful discussion of the Spirit’s work in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16. Using a human analogy he reasons that just as a person’s thoughts are known only by the person’s spirit, so only the Spirit of God knows the mind of God (he does not mean here to exclude the Son of God). We therefore need to receive the Spirit’s help if we are to bow to Scripture as the word of God.
But there is a complication. For I am a “natural (psuchikos) person, and not a “spiritual (pneumatikos)” one. As a result I am incapable of accepting spiritual reality; indeed it seems foolish to me. I cannot understand “the things of the Spirit of God” because they are spiritually discerned. Or, to use Paul’s language in Ephesians, because I am “dead in . . . trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) I therefore need more than the words of Scripture in order to believe that it is the word of God. I need a spiritual resurrection that will give me new life and also enable me to grasp, appreciate, and receive that to which I was blind and indifferent. Just as we need “a spirit of . . . revelation (= illumination) in the knowledge of Christ, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Ephesians 1:17-18), we need a parallel internal work to be sure that the Scriptures are indeed God’s word.
But how does the Spirit give this testimony? Does he speak to each of us immediately (i.e. without mediation)?
The parallel between the assurance that Christ is our Saviour and the assurance that Scripture is God’s word is helpful here. Just as “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3), it is also true that “No one can say ‘Scripture is God’s word’ except by the Spirit.” Yes, in both cases we can utter the words, but we cannot be convinced and assured in our hearts..
But the parallel goes further yet. For the Spirit convinces us about Christ by taking what belongs to him and showing it to us (John 16:14). Thus the Spirit works in such a way that it is who and what Christ himself is that convinces us about Christ! The Spirit adds nothing to Christ; rather through his ministry our eyes are opened to see who he really is.
In the same way the testimony of the Spirit to Scripture does not add anything to Scripture. While distinct, it is not separable from Scripture. There is no voice whispering to us “You can be sure the Bible is the word of God”. His testimony comes to us through the Scriptures which he himself inspired, and thus their divine character becomes clear to us.
In this context it would be poor psychology as well as bad theology to think that we simply “decide” to believe that Scripture is God’s word written. For when the Spirit employs the word to open our eyes to its divine authority we cannot but believe it. In this sense we are compelled by the Scriptures to believe in the Scriptures.
Abraham Kuyper, the multi-talented theologian who became Prime Minister of the Netherlands, was already a young minister before he experienced this himself. Here is his description of what happens:
The veil is gradually pushed aside. The eye turns toward the Divine light that radiates from the Scripture, and now our inner ego sees the imposing superiority. We see it as one born blind, who being healed sees the beauty of colours, or as one deaf, whose hearing being restored, catches the melodies from the world of sounds, and with his whole soul delights in them.
Among Rembrandt’s best known works is his “Portrait of the Prophetess Anna Reading the Bible” for which his mother sat as the subject. One of the most impressive features of the painting is the way in which the Bible she is reading appears to be the source of the light by which she is reading it. This wonderfully (and deliberately) captures the point. The Spirit does not add to Scripture in order to persuade us of its divine origin and character. Nor does he speak apart from, or even alongside Scripture to bring us to this persuasion. He speaks through the Scriptures themselves. In its light we see light. Or, as John Calvin put it:
Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their colour, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.
This is why many Christians, when asked how they came to believe the Bible is the word of God simply say: ‘I was reading it (or hearing ir preached) one day, and it all began to fall into place. The words came to me now with power and authority. I understood, and I trusted. Once I was blind—the Bible was a closed book to me. Now I see.’
This is what happens when the Spirit who inspired Scripture through the prophets and apostles also bears witness to our spirits through those self same Scriptures that they are the word of God. We then bow in humble reverence, faith, and worship because we know we are hearing the living voice of God.10