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.


Anonymous said...

I would disagree with you and the eminent Protestant theologians you quote. Jesus is the Word of God and as such we have faith in him. He is the subject of our faith and this is, IMHO, the primary statement of the Christian faith that is "grounded in itself and preceding all other statements."

Now, the words of God have been written down by men as a means to preserve an historical witness to that statement; and, in time, the Church has recognized that those words are inspired and so they have chosen to make them authoritative; the Holy Spirit has been active on both counts, in the inspiration and in the canonization of those words. Historically, this is what happened so I find it difficult to be moved from this perspective by an argument that functions on a purely theoretical level. It seems to me that your definition was for the Reformers a way to liberate themselves from the Catholic church and a poor one at that.

Anyways, that's the way I see it.

Ben Myers said...

I suspected you would differ with me on this, Ken. Having said that, I would certainly agree with your statement that "Jesus is ... the subject of our faith and this is ... the primary statement of the Christian faith that is grounded in itself." In fact, this is exactly the point of the quotation from Barth.

I don't think I clarified this enough in this post -- but the whole time I was presupposing that Scripture is the "Word of God" only in a derivative sense, i.e., only because it witnesses to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is precisely because he is encountered in Scripture that Scripture is said to be "self-attesting."

Here too, then, I'm thinking not of the biblical texts in a formal sense, but of the evangelical message and witness of these texts.

Am I being too optimistic, Ken: or do we have at least a tenuous agreement on this point?

Anonymous said...

I'm not entirely sure. The idea of the functional inspiration of Scripture is intriguing to me and I have to mull that over more. We certainly can agree that Scripture is only the word of God in a derivative sense. I like to demarcate the difference either by capitalization or by using the plural to refer to Scripture.

I certainly enjoy reading your blog and posts. They are stimulating my thinking on the subject in a way I hadn't confronted in a while. Indeed, yours is my favourite blog right now.

tchittom said...

Ben, I'm really enjoying reading your meditations on Scripture. I wonder if you and Ken are not excluding the Trinity from your discussion. After all, the Scripture is God-breathed, meaning that it is a function of the Spirit. It is a Trinity-begotten text. Thus, one can say "Jesus is the Word, not the Scripture," as Ken did, but I wonder if that isn't parsing too narrowly the truth and running the risk of dividing the economic work of the Trinity. We confess "Jesus is our savior," but salvation is a trinitarian event (Ephesians 1:3-14). The hair splitting is pretty fine here, but I think we have to include the Trinity if we are going to have a proper doctrine of Scripture.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for this excellent observation, Thom. I think you're absolutely right about the trinitarian context of the doctrine of Scripture, and I think this is one of the basic deficiencies with my whole series of posts.

The trinitarian context was at least implicit in my own understanding of the "gospel", but somehow it never became explicit. If I was doing the series all over again, I would need to try to make this trinitarian context explicit right from the start. And I think I would try to do this by making "Holy Spirit" the very first words spoken.

Anonymous said...

For me, the Trinitarian concept pervades my formulation. Jesus is the Word; the Spirit is the divine advocate of that Word, who inspired men to write Scripture and inspired the Church to canonize it. Here is the way I formulate my confession on my website:

I confess that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, a complete and perfect revelation; that the Holy Spirit is the divine advocate of that revelation; that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative historical witness to that revelation; and, that the universal Church is the representative and trustee of that revelation.

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