The topic for this morning’s discussion is the general topic of Sola Scriptura. Specifically speaking, the topic is the doctrine that Calvin developed known as the self-authenticating Word.
But before I begin I would like to elaborate a little on the parallels between our day and Calvin’s. As you may well know, the Reformation is known as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) back to the Bible movements in history. This period of history was unique because it experienced the proliferation of the Scriptures in their written form, of course due to the printing press and the invention of the movable type. And so, people, for practically the first time in the history of the world, were able to begin to study the Bible on their own and in their own homes.
Now I do not wish to downplay the fact that Bibles now were being disseminated at such a rapid pace. Neither do I want to pooh-pooh the personal and individual study of the Bible. But the most significant development of the Reformation was a renewal of the corporate reading of Scripture in worship, and more importantly, the return of the pure preaching of the Gospel.
I would suggest to you that the mass production of Bibles would have been little or no worth if it had not been for the restoration of the pulpit ministry. For it was there that men began to hear the call of God once more. It was because God raised up men who expounded the Scriptures that people began to recognize the authority of the Scriptures and the importance of the law of God for one’s daily life.
Just prior to the Reformation the great cathedrals that had been erected in the preceding centuries were rapidly becoming nothing more than ecclesiastical tombs. Pews were becoming more and more vacant. And this is mainly for two reasons. On the one hand most all of the services were conducted in Latin (a language that was no longer the common tongue). On the other hand, if a sermon happened to be preached in the native tongue, it was most likely a short word from a prior scheduled lectionary. If I might be a bit anachronistic and use some phraseology from our contemporary linguistics: the church services at that time were no longer “relevant.” God did not speak my language, and, if he did, he had nothing of real significance to say to me.
Within this context a Swiss minister by the name of Zwingli announced on January 1st that the following Sunday he would begin a series of sermons on the book of Matthew. His plan, then decried and objected to quite heavily, was to begin with the first verse and continue to the next verse and to the next and to the next, and so on, until he finished the entire book. The discourses might be considered crude as they were marked by such simplicity. Sound scholarship certainly underlined the messages, but, as one has said, “the only real ornaments were the conviction and fervor with which they were spoken.” But upon hearing the first of those sermons one man reported to have felt like he had been lifted up by his hair and suspended in air. That is how radical and exhilarating the experience was. The reaction must have been contagious because those who had formerly ceased attending once again became regular churchgoers. And this happened all over the continent of Europe as the pulpit became once again a place where God’s word was preached.
Now certainly you can begin to draw parallels for yourself to our contemporary day. Today we have an immense proliferation of Bible resources. We have more ready access to Bibles, Bible helps, and Bible literature than any other period in history with publishing houses, distributing centers, and the internet. But despite this tremendous blessing, we are seeing in our day a huge decline within the church. Most of you know all to well how the mainline churches are experiencing staggering declines in membership year after year. Reports are also coming out that those quaint country churches which once thrived with church going folk are now closing their doors or considering ways of combining with neighboring churches in order to sustain their existence. Studies are also showing that a significant number of children who grow up in homes where the family regularly attends church end up leaving the church after their freshman year of college. And most recently, we have witnessed the great decline in those who label themselves Christians.
What we are seeing is that people are once again deserting the ranks of the church. And, unless the Lord intervenes and ministers renew their interest in the regular reading and pure preaching of the gospel, the churches that line the streets of America will turn into monuments to a long past generation.
I understand that I am not alone in discovering this, for many others are seeking to plug the attendance leak in the church. Many means are being used in order to bring people into the church and keep them in the pews. Because of this fact we have seen the rise of dramatizations and videos, significant developments with regard to the musical side of worship, and a focus on pithy topical messages that prefer addressing one’s felt needs rather than meaty doctrinal issues. With these developments the contemporary church movement has sought to halt this vast ecclesiastical drain that we are seeing in our day.
But, if we are honest, we will admit that these efforts have failed. They have not increased our numbers or the level of piety in our day. Rather we have only seen our members drift off into the sea of secularism, humanism and pluralism.
For this reason I would like to urge each of those gathered here to heartily return to the Reformational notion of the pulpit ministry. Or, as Paul exhorted his beloved disciple Timothy, Preach the Word.
I understand that this exhortation might not readily find an audience today and the words might fall to the ground like a load of bricks. This is mainly because we do not have a high confidence in the Scriptures. This is not to say that people do not deem the Bible important. If you would ask them they would say that the Bible is the “Book of Books.” Rather our problem is that we do not believe in the effectiveness of the Bible. We do not believe that it is a sufficient means of changing a secularized, humanistic and pluralistic culture.
A quote might prove helpful here. A minister in my hometown recently posted a blog that created a bit of a stir among its readers. One of the comments reveals the attitude that I’m talking about. A lady said this,
I don’t think merely hearing God’s word is what changes people. A preacher could do a good job of preaching at me, but if I have deep wounds that need to be healed, or not an open mind, it is not going to bring me to the Lord by hearing some dude talk about Jesus.
Now I do not doubt that this girl loves Jesus and believes the Bible. But you see in that quote how some view the Scriptures. They see it as lacking the ability to effect change. This sentiment seems to be not only characteristic of the laity, but also of the clergy. Rather than being the main weapon in the Christian’s arsenal, the Scriptures are to be jettisoned for something more effective when it comes to reaching the lost.
What we need to understand is that the real remedy for today’s ecclesiastical ills is the simple reading and preaching of the Bible. And if we grasp what Calvin taught in the doctrine of the Scripture’s self-authentication, we will be more inclined to do just this very thing. For this doctrine is key for boosting our confidence in the inherent power of God’s word.
If I might put it another way: this doctrine will have two consequences. First, it will lead us to preach the word with greater tenacity. Secondly, it will lead to more people feeling like they are being lifted out of their pews by their hair.
With that said, let us dig into the subject at hand.
Calvin points out that if men are going to be saved they must first be convinced of the authority of the Scriptures. And basically he says that the only way to convince them that the Scriptures are authoritative is by reading and preaching them with holy boldness. Simply put, we should not be afraid to use the truth of Scripture because Scripture authenticates itself.
What we are dealing with here is the unique power of Scripture to prove itself to be what it is: the very word of God.
A Question of Epistemology
The question that is being addressed is an epistemological one. Epistemology is simply the study of knowledge. Specifically it deals with how we know what we know. The question at hand regards the authenticity of the Scriptures: how do we know that the Bible is indeed the word of God?
And the question is an important one for our contemporary context. For we have a whole host of books that claiming to be the word of God. We have the Quran which claims to be of heavenly origin. The Mormons have the Book of Mormon and a number of other holy writings that they claim to be divine in nature. And we could go on to name every other religion in the world because they all have writings that they claim are sacred because they claim to be the word of God (or of some god).
So the question facing us is important one because it has to do with certainty. How can we be sure that the Bible is indeed the word of God? If we are going to acknowledge the Scriptures as our supreme authority for life and faith, then we must first be convinced that they are indeed the very words of God. If we are not persuaded that God is their Author, then the Scriptures will not mean anything to us. It will only be a book like any other, containing fanciful stories like Moby Dick or perhaps a work similar to Plato’s Republic.
So the question that remains to be answered is: How do we come to this conviction that the Bible is the word of God?
Only the Spirit Can Convince the Unbelieving of the Bible’s Veracity
Someone might posit that the way we get this conviction and affirm this belief in others is by simply laying out a list of arguments that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is so. We might even draw an analogy to a courtroom situation. The Bible’s authenticity is on trial. The defense, an upstanding Christian who is zealous to commend the faith, stands to make his case before the judge and jury (i.e. any given unbeliever). He then begins to make his case. As in a trial we understand that the more arguments the attorney makes, the more convincing his position becomes. So our Christian friend begins to articulate various proofs to make his case.
For instance, he will talk about the antiquity of the Scriptures and how they were put together over so many hundreds of years by various authors. And he might point out that many people throughout history have died for its doctrines. His eloquence is beyond comparison, and he masterfully demonstrates that the Bible is undeniably divine in its origin with one proof after another.
Now, let’s think about the implications of this approach. If we take such a tactic, what have we done to the unbeliever? I would suggest to you that what happens is that we elevate the unbeliever to a position that he does not rightfully occupy. That is to say, We have made him the judge of the word of God! Rather than submitting himself to the Supreme Judge of men, we have put this lowly man (a wicked man at that) in a position to decide whether or not God’s word is true. I hope you understand that this is a complete flip flop of roles and a direct attack on Christianity.
But this is exactly what happens. As a matter of fact, you might have heard of the books by Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict. On the cover of these books you typically find a gavel sitting over top of a Bible. The implication is: You are the judge! I’m also told that the cover of one of these books (perhaps an earlier addition) had a picture of a courtroom taken from the judge’s bench. So you saw the gavel laying on the bench, then overlooking the bar you saw the rest of the courtroom. The picture is quite telling! You are the judge and God is the one who is on trial.
But that is not the way it is to be. Man is not to judge God or his word, but to submit to the Judge and let His word do the judging.
So you see then that the very nature of this tactic undermines God’s authority. But another thing could be said about this tactic of trying to prove the Bible by these various evidences. (This might be considered a more pragmatic approach) In the end, if we use such a tactic, will it work?
That is to say, Will we have convinced our unbelieving listeners of authenticity of the Scriptures? We can easily imagine a scenario where, after having endured the litany of proofs a man simply turns and walks away very much unaffected.
I can take you back to our McDowell books again. If you do a simple search on his books, you will come up with many critiques, many of them by atheists. One of the critiques mocked McDowell with its title, “Evidence that Demands a Refund.” In other words, after reading McDowell’s book, he is no closer to accepting McDowell’s position than when he first began.
Indeed, this is where Calvin stands. Calvin would affirm that no matter how many of these proofs may be added add to one’s argumentation, they would still elicit the same response. In his own words, he says,
If we desire to provide in the best way for our consciences…we ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is in the secret testimony of the Holy Spirit.For Calvin the answer to this question of how we know the Bible is the Word of God is quite simple and straight forward. If I could sum up his answer it would go something like this: We know that the Bible is the Word of God because the Spirit of God convinces us of it as it is read or preached.
Throughout this section of his Institutes Calvin uses unique phrases to communicate this idea. He uses phrases like “the testimony of the Spirit” or “the inward testimony of the Spirit.” He also mentions “the witness of the Spirit” and “the persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” Calvin affirms that a greater proof is needed than the testimony of men. We need something that transcends the logic of orators and the stubborn faculties of their hearers. And that is what happens when Scripture is read. The Spirit of God impresses upon our hearts that what we are hearing is not the word of men, but it is, in fact, God speaking in his word.
Calvin poses a similar situation to the courtroom illustration that I just mentioned. He though concedes even more ground that I did. He says, “Men may proceed by arguments and advance many things that would [be] easily proved by arguments, such as that the law the prophets and the gospels come from God.” Calvin even says that those who are the most adverse to the Bible might even be refuted so well that all of their cavils regarding Scripture can be dashed to pieces. But Calvin says, “even if anyone clears God’s Sacred Word from man’s evil speaking, he will not at once imprint upon their hearts that certainty which piety requires.” In other words, even though Joe Unbeliever might admit that his scruples have been eradicated, he still will not be any more ready to receive the Scriptures as authoritative for his life. This will not happen until the Spirit sovereignly moves his heart to accept it.
This is what leads Calvin to say, “The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word so also the Word will not find acceptance in the men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.”
Proofs Do Have a Place
Certainly Calvin does not denigrate any of these “evidence” based arguments (or what he calls “external proofs of Scripture”—as opposed to the internal proof of the Holy Spirit). He himself outlines many of these external proofs in his Institutes and says that they have their place. For instance, he speaks of the style of the Scriptures as wholly incomparable to any other book in the world. He says that when you read the Bible it is sure to delight you more than any of history’s greatest works; be it Cicero, Plato, Aristotle or a host of other writers. He says of its style that “it is easy to see that the Sacred Scriptures…breathe something divine.”
He also speaks of how the Bible has survive throughout history as a proof of its divine origin. No doubt that the Bible has been attacked like no other book in history, but yet no other book continues to remain intact and at the top of the best seller list.
Calvin mentions many other such arguments that men might use to certify the “divineness” of Scripture. And, as I said, he speaks highly of them all. Things like fulfilled prophecies, the consensus of the church, the majesty of the content of Scripture and the consent of all its parts; these have their place. But their place is limited to the realm of those who are already Christians—that is, those who the Spirit has already convinced.
I might present my wife as a good example here. My wife is a dedicated God-fearing lady. But she occasionally struggles with this question. Sometimes she will turn to me and ask, “With all the other religions in the world how can we be sure that these Scriptures are God’s Word.” And I am sure that many other mature Christian people have the same question cross their minds on more than one occasion. Do we doubt whether they are a Christian? Calvin would say no. It is just that the Spirit of God has allowed them to become weak and question their faith.
We might use the analogy of a candle. There are times when the candle’s flame burns large and with great brilliance, but there are other times when the flame can become quite diminished in size. But no matter how small it may become, the flame is still visible.
Similarly, the Christian’s certainty of the Scriptures may frequently burn large and bright. But there can be other times when their faith is greatly diminished. But no matter how small it might get, the flame of their certainty is still glowing. That is to say, with the Spirit still in their hearts they are still convinced that the Bible is the word of God. But their conviction has ebbed to a lower point. It is in these times, says Calvin, that these external arguments can be used to bolster one’s faith…to fan the flame so to speak.
But we must remember the distinction that Calvin makes. While these proofs can help to substantiate faith that already exists, they cannot create that faith where it does not exist (i.e. the unbelieving). Or to put it another way, these evidences can confirm in believers that the Bible is God’s Word, but they cannot convince unbelievers of that fact.
Persuasion Intimately Related to Regeneration
Regarding the external proofs he says,
Of themselves these are not strong enough to provide a firm faith, until our Heavenly Father, revealing his majesty there, lifts reverence for Scripture beyond the realm of controversy. Therefore Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainly is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.What is Calvin saying here? Basically it is this: men can do nothing in and of themselves to prop up the word of God in the minds of the unbelieving. The only way they will come to this conviction, as I said before, is through the testimony of the Spirit in their hearts.
Those of you who are familiar with Calvin and Calvinism might see that Calvin’s doctrine of the self-authentication of Scripture goes hand in hand with his doctrine of regeneration. While he doesn’t make that connection in his Institutes, you can readily see that they overlap. Both doctrines assume that the hearts of men are so adverse to God that they will not naturally embrace anything divine (1 Cor. 2:13). It is not until the Holy Spirit regenerates the heart and produces faith that unbelieving man will accept these teachings. When the Holy Spirit changes the heart he also opens the mind. So at one and the same time the person becomes convinced that what the Bible teaches is true and puts his faith in Christ alone for his salvation.
This all might seem a bit esoteric to you. But really, it is the experience every one of us has had if we are a Christian. Some of you most likely grew up in the church and in a Christian home. You most likely had a minister who stood in the pulpit and said time and again that the Bible is the word of God. Your parents most likely reinforced this at home. And those of you who have gone to seminary may very well have studied all the evidences that point to the Bible being the Word of God. But at some point you had to believe it for yourself; not because someone told you it was so. You might have even come to believe this very early on in life. You may not even remember when you came to believe it. But you did. You believed it for yourself and not because anyone else told you so.
On the other hand, some of you might have become a Christian much later on in life. But you still may have had many people testify (‘til they were blue in the fact) that the Bible was the Word of God. But you did not believe it. But at some point you changed your mind. You came to believe it was so. What accounts for this change? Calvin would say that it was the Spirit’s working in your heart with and through his Word.
Perhaps the story of one man in particular will illustrate this a bit more vividly. Ronald Wallace was a professor of Biblical Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary a few years back. But when Ronald Wallace was a young man growing up in Scotland he was an atheist. He thought Christianity was stupid and he loved atheism. As a matter of fact, he would go to all the conferences on atheism. And one time there was a big atheist speaker coming to his area to speak. Wallace could hardly wait for this conference to get some more ammunition to rip apart Christianity.
When the time came for the conference, Wallace took his seat in the auditorium. And the conference was doing everything Wallace wanted it to, it was ripping apart Christianity. In the middle of the lecture the speaker said, “To show you how absurd Christianity is, I want to read to you this section of the New Testament.” So with a tone of mockery he reads this section about the death and resurrection of Jesus out of the New Testament. As soon as that passage was read Dr. Wallace was converted.
Funny, isn’t it? He hadn’t come to be converted. He didn’t want to be converted when he entered. But right there in the midst of all the mockery, God’s Spirit persuaded him that the Bible was indeed 100% true. No evidences were given. As a matter of fact, you can pretty much guarantee that they pulled out all the stops to try and show that Christianity wasn’t true and that the Bible was nothing but a bunch of rubbish. But at that moment, when it was read, Wallace came to believe that that book was in fact, the very Word of God. The Spirit had done its work.
Preach the Word
This of course leads me back to the main point of my message. You remember that I began with the exhortation to return again to the regular ministry of the pulpit: the preaching and reading of the Bible. And this can be our only conclusion: If the Spirit of God convinces us that the Word of God is the Word of God, then should we not make it possible for the Spirit of God to do his work? If, as Calvin says, “The highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it”, then should it not follow that we should saturate our services with the Bible? Furthermore, does it not follow that the reading and preaching of the Bible be the central emphasis of our evangelistic endeavors?
Charles Spurgeon is certainly one of the greatest evangelists that ever lived. I believe he summed up Calvin’s doctrine in perhaps the best way—at least the most illustrious way I’ve heard. When talking about his evangelistic methods, he was once asked how he defends the Bible. He responded by saying, “I don’t defend the Bible. You don’t defend a lion, do you? Of course not. You just let the lion out of the cage!”
This is certainly is true of the Bible. We do not need to defend it. We do not need to prop it up in the minds of men. We only need to unleash it and allow the Holy Spirit to do his work. We only need to read it and allow the Spirit to impress upon men’s minds that the Book that He wrote, is in fact from Him.
Westminster Confession of Faith, particularly Chapter I, sections 4 and 5.
Westminster Larger Catechism, particularly question and answer #4.
Morecraft, Joe. “Sermons on the Westminster Larger Catechism: Reality of Divine Revelation.”http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=2708152499
Calvin’s Institutes. Book I Chapters vii-ix
Calvin’s Institutes: A New Compend. Hugh T. Kerr, editor.
Paul Helm. John Calvin’s Ideas. Oxford University Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=QUVlxBhfdGQC&pg=PA247&lpg=PA247&dq=calvin
Selected Scripture Texts Dealing with the Scripture's Self Authentication
Isaiah 54:21—The Spirit is upon thee and His words are put in their mouths
John 16:13-14—He is the Spirit of Truth
1 Cor. 2:10-13—see quote at beginning
1 John 2:20,27—Received an anointing and that anointing teaches all
Matt 13:11—Only those to whom it is given can comprehend the mysteries of God
 John Thomas McNeil. History and Character of Calvinism, Oxford University Press, US, p. 30.
 Related by Joe Morecraft in “The Reality of Divine Revelation, Pt 7 WS058.” http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=2708152499
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