Monday, 3 October 2005

Scripture and certainty

One of the points that I have most emphasised over the past couple of weeks is this: God's Word depends solely on God himself, and not on any ecclesial authorisation or confirmation. From an epistemological standpoint, the argument is circular: we know that Scripture is the Word of God because God speaks.

It has long been recognised that exactly this circularity is essential to the Protestant theology of Scripture. It was exactly this circularity that liberated Scripture from a subservience to ecclesial tradition in the sixteenth century; the reformers' assertion of sola Scriptura was intimately connected to this circularity.

D. F. Strauss was thus quite justified to criticise this circular affirmation of the Word of God as “the Achilles' heel of the Protestant system.” The point of this criticism is that the Protestant understanding of Scripture allows no room for any objective certainty about Scripture itself—so that here the whole “Protestant system” threatens to collapse like a house of cards. (Counter-Reformation Catholic theology, in contrast, was specifically calculated to provide objective certainty: the church guarantees for us that Scripture is the Word of God.)

The Protestant conception of Scripture is summed up by Karl Barth, when he says that “the statement that the Bible is the Word of God is an analytical statement, a statement which ... must either be understood as grounded in itself and preceding all other statements, or it cannot be understood at all. The Bible must be known as the Word of God if it is to be known as the Word of God. The doctrine of Holy Scripture in the Evangelical Church is that this logical circle is the circle of self-asserting, self-attesting truth” (CD I/2, p. 535).

There is therefore no prior ground to which we can appeal for certainty. For there is no greater certainty than the certainty of faith itself—i.e., the faith that hears God's own self-witness in Scripture. Thus Barth perceptively notes that although this lack of objective certainty appears to be the “weakest point” of Protestant theology, it is in fact its point of “indestructible strength” (p. 537). And Herman Bavinck makes just the same observation when he notes that faith is grounded solely in God's own self-witness, so that faith possesses the spontaneous certainty of self-evidence—which, in contrast to all “objective” forms of certainty, is truly and unshakeably certain (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1).

Let me leave you with this suggestion: If we present the doctrine of Scripture in such a way that it does not seem to be threatened by the problem of “objective certainty,” then we have simply failed to grasp the one essential point of the doctrine of Scripture. This essential point is that the Word of God is God's Word. We know it is God's Word because God addresses us and claims us with this Word through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are certain of all this, because this Word calls forth faith from the depths of our being.

Theological reflection on Scripture cannot end with such self-attesting assertions; but it has to start here, if it is truly to be the reflection of faith.

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