Wednesday, 21 September 2005

Does Scripture derive its authority from the church?

Does Scripture derive its authority from the church? This was a pressing problem faced by Protestant theologians in the sixteenth century. In his Institutio, Calvin condemned the notion that “the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men,” and he called this a “great insult to the Holy Spirit (magno cum ludibrio Spiritus sancti)” (1.7.1).

In Calvin’s view, “to subject the oracles of God to the judgment of men, making their validity depend upon human whim, is a blasphemy which deserves not to be mentioned (blasphemia indigna est quae commemoretur)” (4.9.14).

And he adds that “these ravings (rabulae) are admirably refuted by a single expression of the apostle. Paul testifies that the church is ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets’” (1.7.2)—not that the testimony of the apostles and prophets rests on the church.

How then can we place our confidence in the authority of Scripture? How can we be sure that Scripture is truly the Word of God? Here Calvin rightly appeals not to evidence or reason, but to the witness of the Holy Spirit—that is, to God’s own self-witness in Holy Scripture. “Our faith,” Calvin writes, “is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author. Thus the highest proof of Scripture is ... the character of God whose speaking it is (a Dei loquentis persona sumitur)” (1.7.4).

We become certain of the authority of Scripture only when we hear God’s voice in Scripture—i.e., when we hear God himself personally speaking the gospel. Certainty comes from hearing this voice. To look for certainty anywhere else—in rational proofs, or in the authority of the church—is to betray the authority of Scripture. And to betray the authority of Scripture is to betray the authority of God himself.

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