Jesus’ illustration of the rich man and Lazarus in the afterlife brings home the powerful point that the Word of God is authoritative (Luke 16:22–31). The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his family to warn them of hell (Luke 16:27–28). But Abraham responded in a provocative way: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). The Old Testament prophets constantly called the people of God back to the Law of God, the Word of God (Deut. 17:10; Isa. 8:20). Jesus constantly called His disciples and His opponents back to the Scriptures (Luke 16:29; Matt. 4; 19:28; 22:29; John 5:39; 10:34–35; Acts 17:2, 11; 18:28; 26:22). The apostle Peter points us to the Word, not to himself as the supposed pope (2 Peter 1:19). We know the story of the Bereans (Acts 17:11), whom Paul described as noble because they searched the Scriptures to determine if Paul’s words were true. The rich man in Luke 16 responded: “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (Luke 16:30). Abraham’s reply? “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
The Scriptures are authoritative. The authority of Scripture is the inherent right they posses that makes it necessary for us to believe every truth and to obey every command. This is why the Westminster Confession says, “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” (1.4).
I want you to think about this question with me: How do we know the Scriptures are authoritative? The debate between Rome and the Reformation on this question was and continues to be: Do we come to this persuasion primarily through the church’s testimony or through the testimony of the Scriptures themselves? We say the authority of the Word of God is demonstrated primarily by God Himself and His Word and secondarily by the church. The Westminster Confession of Faith said it like this:
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an 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 thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (WCF 1.5)
The Spirit’s Witness
The Word of God clearly evidences and testifies of its own authority. And the way we recognize this is the Spirit’s witness. It is important to recognize the Spirit is behind the Word as the cause of its authority. The church’s witness is important, too, but it is only the means by which the Word is proclaimed so that the Spirit can do His work.
We read of the Holy Spirit’s internal testimony in our hearts that we are children of God (e.g., Rom. 8). And as He testifies to us that we belong to God, He does so in His Word. Jesus calls His words “spirit and life” (John 6:63). But what is the inner witness of the Spirit? Is it the same thing that Mormons teach when they say all we have to do is read and pray and we will have a burning in the bosom? No. This internal testimony of the Holy Spirit is not spiritual ecstasy or enthusiasm. It is a certainty that convinces our mind of the reasons implanted in the Word itself.
The Word’s Own Witness
The Spirit bears witness to us through the means of the Word of God. This is why we say that the Word is autopistis, that is, self-testifying. This means that the authority of Scripture is derived from its origin and source, which is God Himself. One illustration of this is to think about a jewel. Take a diamond, for example. Its refraction of light, its glowing brilliance in the sun, and its ability to cut glass all testify that it is a diamond. It has this ability to testify of itself.
In what ways do the Scriptures testify of their own authority, that they are from God? The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5 mentions six. Let me just briefly list them for you to write.
Q. 4. How doth it appear that the Scriptures are the Word of God?
A. The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very Word of God.
First, the heavenliness of the matter. We are dealing here not with myths and old wives’ tales but with a message from heaven to earth. In the Scriptures we read God’s own address to us.
Second, the efficacy of the doctrine. This means that the doctrines have an effect upon us. When we learn of sin, we come to know why things are the way they are. When we learn of Jesus Christ, we come to put our trust in Him. When we hear of the law, we seek to obey.
Third, the majesty of the style. This doesn’t mean that it is so incomprehensible that it has to be from God, but that there is something elevated in the poetry and prose that evidences its divinity. There is something about the doctrines, as well. Reason cannot produce the doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, satisfaction, and resurrection of Christ, and fulfillment of prophecy. This must be a book from another source and not from man.
Fourth, the consent of all the parts. There is harmony in the one Bible between the two Testaments, which were written over several thousand years, by many authors, in multiple languages, and in different continents. We see this in the prophecies that are fulfilled.
Fifth, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God). This is not a self-help book or a means to an end. This is a book about God. This is why medieval Christians described the task of theology, saying, “Theology is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God.”
Sixth, the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation. No other book offers the like the Bible.
The Church’s Witness
Let’s finally come to the church’s witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the one who convinces us of the authority of the Word through the Word. As a secondary means, the church and other external witnesses help us to see this as well. But it has to be in this order: Spirit and Word and then church. Men like Francis Turretin said the church was an introductory and ministerial means of bringing us to believe the authority of the Word (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:87–88). This is why Ephesians 2:20 is so key to us as Christians. What we learn there is that the church is built upon the Scriptures and then gets any authority it has from the Scriptures. This means that the Scriptures did not come to be because of the church.
Conclusion: One Main Application versus Rome
Let me conclude with one main application versus Rome’s understanding of this issue. What all this means is that the church discerns the Word of God and distinguishes it from other false books, but the church doesn’t make these books the Word of God.
Rome bases its whole claim upon a circular argument: Why do we believe the Bible is divine? Because the church says so. Why do we believe what the church says? Because the Bible says it is authoritative. And how do we know that this teaching of the Word is true? Because the church says so. And the circle never ends. This is why John Calvin once wrote, “Against opposing arguments they will set up this brazen wall—who are you to question the interpretation of the Church?” (Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote, 69).
The Scriptures, therefore, are our supreme judge in all doctrinal controversies. At the great Council of Nicea, Emperor Constantine said, “Therefore laying aside warring strife, we may obtain a solution of difficulties from the words of inspiration” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2, 3:44). And while the church will always have error until Christ comes again (1 Cor. 11:19), we ultimately listen to God speaking in the Scriptures more than we listen to popes and even our own theologians.
Rev. Daniel Hyde
is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA.