The Self-Attestation of Scripture

Paul Helm
Monday, March 1st 2010
Mar/Apr 2010

Scripture's capacity to testify to itself is at the center of the Christian faith. An emphasis on this capacity and a clear expression of it is one of John Calvin's great gifts to the church. For example, Calvin said:

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated (autopiston); hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit….Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by any one else's judgment that Scripture is from God; but above all human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the very majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork! This we do, not as persons accustomed to seize upon some unknown thing, which, under closer scrutiny, displeases them, but fully conscious that we hold the unassailable truth! Nor do we do this as those miserable men who habitually bind over their minds to the thralldom of superstition; but we feel that the undoubted power of his divine majesty lives and breathes there. By this power we are drawn and inflamed, knowingly and willingly, to obey him, yet also more vitally and more effectively than by mere human willing or knowing!

Some Possible Misunderstandings

Despite Calvin's clarity and eloquence, the idea of self-attestation is frequently misunderstood, and on the basis of these misunderstandings it is criticized and set to one side. So we shall take a moment or two to clarify the idea of self-attestation.

First, Calvin is not stating that Christians ought to base their confidence in Scripture on a mere leap of faith, and Scripture does not function by prompting us to make such a leap. Christianity is not a fideistic religion in which men and women seek to be convinced about certain matters by an act of the will, closing their eyes and ears to any evidence there may be for or against the issue. Calvin is emphatic that self-attestation has to do with evidence, the evidence that Scripture itself presents to us, and with a true appreciation of that evidence. As a consequence, the Scripture's attestation to itself involves the senses and the understanding. It is through this involvement that "we are drawn and inflamed, knowingly and willingly." The will is engaged as we come to appreciate that Scripture is itself the Word of God.

But what exactly is this evidence through which Scripture authenticates itself? Here it is possible to make another mistake. Self-attestation does not take the form of hearing an inner voice convincing us that what we are reading in the Bible is God speaking, nor is it a vision of a page of Scripture glowing as a halo whenever we begin to read it. It is not that when we begin to read the book of Job, we hear an inner voice whispering to us, "This is indeed the Word of God" or "The writer of this book was indeed inspired by the Spirit" or (as we read Matthew) "Matthew did indeed write the Gospel of Matthew." When you think about it, such a voice would not be the self-attestation of Scripture; it would be an attestation of Scripture by something other than Scripture, namely, by the whispering voice. If we listened to the voice, we would be placing our confidence primarily in it and only secondarily in Scripture.

Word and Spirit

Self-attestation has to do with the Bible's own testimony to itself. (In Calvin's day, the crucial question was whether the Scripture was subordinate to the councils of the church or the church governed by Scripture. It is clear, I hope, what Calvin's answer was.) The conviction that Scripture is the Word of God does not come in a mystical or magical way, but that conviction is formed (by the Holy Spirit, according to Calvin) as we read (or hear) and understand (in a measure) what we are reading. As we read and understand, if Scripture attests itself to us, we get something like the gut conviction that what we are reading is indeed God's Word to us and to the world. What Calvin is actually referring to is not the self-attestation of Scripture in some purely formal way, but the self-attestation of the gospel that for us comes in the form of Holy Scripture. This gut reaction may be suddenly formed, but it is much more likely to be formed over time. For it is as we appreciate the message of Scripture, the bearer of the good news of a Savior for a sinful race, that we come to recognize that this is God given and is nothing other than the saving truth of God. The Spirit does his work by shining like a torch, lighting up the Bible's own message.

The best way of having that conviction formed then is to start at the heart of the Bible, its account of the person and work of Jesus the Messiah, and the saving effects of that work. This is the center, the heart of the matter. As we fan out from this center and appreciate the coherence of the overall character of Scripture, the conviction that it is nothing other than the Word of God begins to cover the entire library of sixty-six books. As we cover that ground, we will undoubtedly read things that are difficult to understand, and even parts that puzzle us and even deeply offend us. What do we do in such cases? If we are wise, at such points we show patience, hoping and believing there is a way in which what puzzles us does in fact cohere with the heart of the matter. We may become convinced that some of what we read is the Word of God without altogether understanding what it means or what its full implications are. We may have our puzzlement lessened by taking advice, from reading a commentary or from hearing a sermon or lecture, or by talking to other Christians. But even if not, this need not be too upsetting, because it is part of the Bible's teaching that we sometimes have to hold on to what we cannot fully grasp. The willingness to do this is part of the childlikeness of Christian faith.

Calvin saw this attitude to Scripture as the paradigm case of the way in which Christian faith always operates. For in Scripture, faith is reliance upon the word or promise of God. Think of Abraham and the whole team of the faithful summarized for us in Hebrews 11. They believed God. That is, they believed his word of promise, even though as they believed there were many things these faithful men and women did not understand. (The Bible routinely contrasts faith-and hope-with sight. It never contrasts faith and reason.) So believing that the Bible is the Word of God, resting on it, taking what we read to be God's word of promise, is to treat it as a grand narrative of God's promises and the as-yet partial fulfillment of them. This is the Word of God to us that will find final fulfillment in the life to come. We walk by faith, not by sight.

The self-attestation of Scripture is the classic expression of the way in which the Reformers linked together Word and Spirit. For forming the conviction that the Bible is the Word of God through reading it and becoming familiar with its content is not like reading Jane Eyre or an engineering manual. It is not simply an exercise of common sense, intelligence, and sympathy with a text. The appreciation that the Bible is God's Word, the forming of that conviction, comes as a result of the illuminating work of the Spirit. It is "spiritual" and supernatural in the best sense. But as we have noted, the Spirit is not a separate, extra-biblical source of light. The Spirit's torch-like work is a light focused not on itself, such as the light and color of fireworks, which may entertain us but draws our attention away from itself to whatever it is the torchlight reveals. The Spirit is the self-effacing Spirit of Christ, revealing the things of Christ to our spirits as no one else can. In fact, we might even think of the Spirit-torch as oscillating between ourselves and the text. For his work is intensely personal. As we read Scripture with Spirit-given illumination, we not only come to have an understanding and appreciation of Christ but also (at the same time) a new understanding of our need of him. So the Word and Spirit together produce in us (as Calvin also famously said) the true knowledge of God and of ourselves.

Paying Attention

Does this emphasis on Word and Spirit, and the forming of the conviction that the Bible is indeed the very Word of God as we have been describing, mean that we do not need to pay any attention to biblical languages or biblical background, or to the objections that skeptics and liberal Christians may make to the authority and God-givenness of Scripture? Not at all! Understanding some of the details of the original languages of Scripture will also fine-tune our understanding of the text of Scripture, while knowledge of the biblical background-the cultural settings of the various epochs of revelation-helps us develop a more coherent understanding of the whole and may clear up puzzles over aspects of the text. But the results of interrogating such sources ought never to supplant the main spine of Scripture that gives it its authority in the first place, "the great things of the gospel" (as both Jonathan Edwards and Alvin Plantinga have put it).

These other sources are not separate authorities, not even subordinate authorities, but subordinate helps that must give way when their alleged "findings" clash with the self-attesting Scripture. In a different vein, our understanding of Scripture and its application to life should be enhanced by commentaries on Scripture and the ministry of faithful pastors. (The test is: Do these helps take us back to the text, seeing new aspects in it and new applications of it, or do they direct us somewhere else, to our own feeling or self-image, or to some other extra-biblical source of authority? Do they enhance the authority of the gospel and the authority of Scripture that conveys this authority to us, or do they detract from that authority?)

This underlines something else, which even strong defenders of the Bible's authority and its "inerrancy" sometimes (so it seems to me) forget. Biblical inspiration or inerrancy or infallibility is not a formal property of the Bible, in virtue of which we trust the Bible in whatever it might teach. Holding a high view of Scripture does not mean we are to hold to the Bible in whatever it might be made to mean. Such an attitude would certainly be bibliolatrous or something close to it. Rather we esteem and revere the Bible because of what it in fact teaches. It cannot be stressed too strongly that what the Bible attests to is not first and foremost its own inspiration or inerrancy, but to the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. Being convinced of this (if we are) leads us to recognize that the Bible is all the other things-an inspired, infallible guide. Our basic attitude to Scripture should therefore echo Peter's attitude to the incarnate Word: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68).

The evidence we may have of the settings of the various books of the Bible, the geographical, historical, and cultural contexts of the various epochs of the divine revelation, may also have an apologetic use. The defense of the Bible in this way has a real though limited value, what is nowadays sometimes referred to as "negative apologetics." The data provided by such contexts do not support the gospel directly but indirectly by meeting some of the objections to it that arise from the culture. If the Bible is God's truth then we can expect it, over time, to cohere with the data of geography and cultural history in which its message is situated. But the facts of geography and cultural history do not prove that the Bible is the Word of God.

The Bible, by the help of Christ's Spirit, presents its teaching to the believing mind and comes to exercise supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice in the lives of those who come to rely on it. That authority ought not to be subordinated to other sources of data.


One currently fashionable objection to the self-attestation of Scripture is to accuse such an approach to the Bible and its supreme authority of foundationalism. This term, "foundationalism," is an academic codeword and slur for "a product of the Enlightenment" or "rationalistic." It is widely held to have been discredited as a way of thinking about how our knowledge is formed. It is currently claimed, by "post-foundationalists" and others, that knowledge does not and cannot have foundations, but is more like a story or a narrative set within a particular context. And so the charge is that any account of the Bible's supreme authority, which rests upon its self-certifying or self-authenticating character, cannot be the authentically Christian way to go because it is mere "Enlightenment" philosophy. Such an approach to our faith, it is alleged, cannot be held in the postmodern world in which we currently live. Rather, that approach derives instead from the rationalism of eighteenth-century modernity.

There are several problems with this reductive criticism. First, such a charge is anachronistic, as we have already seen. The sixteenth-century Reformation, during which the doctrine of Scripture's self-authentication was re-crafted and developed, occurred a hundred years or more before the onset of the Enlightenment. Second, these so-called "postmodern" critics set up a false antithesis between foundations (or propositions) and stories (or narratives), when the two cannot be mutually excluded. Finally, and most importantly, Christianity is necessarily foundationalistic, although not in the sense of modern Cartesian "foundationalism." We should not fail to appreciate the significance of the fact that Scripture portrays our faith as being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). And the apostolic writings, as well as the Old Testament Scriptures, testify of him. If Christian thought is not securely rooted in such a foundation, then it is highly likely to become the plaything of the latest cultural fad, one approach to religion among many equally valid approaches.

Maintaining Our Confidence in Scripture

So how do we gain and maintain our confidence in Scripture as God's Word? We have already noted some of the helps available to us. But the chief answer to that question is simple, though often not so simple to carry out. It is by allowing Scripture (not some vague impression of Scripture, but Scripture in all its detail) to present itself to us by continually giving ourselves to its pages, reading, marking, and inwardly digesting them and responding to them. And in this way, in Luther's phrase, we make our consciences captive to the Word of God.

Monday, March 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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