The Knowledge of Scriptural Authority

Question 6: How does the authority of the Holy (divinus) Scripture become known to us? Doesit, either in itself or on our part, depend upon the witness of the Church? Negative, against the Roman Catholics.


I. The purpose of the Roman Catholics, in this and other controversies which they maintain over the
Scripture, is not obscure, namely, to reject the judgment of Scripture, in which they cannot find enough
sanction to protect their errors, and to appeal to the church, that is, to their pope, and so become judges
of their own case. Thus, when formerly doctrine was debated on the basis of its agreement or
nonagreement with Scripture, now debate has begun on Scripture itself-whether it is proper for religious
controversies to be settled by its authority and witness. A severe struggle has been carried on concerning
its origin, necessity, perfection, and perspicuity, for the purpose of diminishing them

[Scripture’s authority
and witness], if not completely rejecting them. Quite properly what Irenaeus said of the heretics of his
day may be applied to them [Roman Catholics]: “When opposed by Scriptures they became opponents of
the Scriptures, as if they were incorrect or without authority.”

II. It must be noted that some of them go to extremes and some speak more moderately in this matter.
Some indeed simply deny the authority of Scripture, in itself and apart from the church, and hold it to be
no more worthy of faith (I shudder to say it) than the Qur’an or the works of Livy or Aesop. Those who
began to dispute the authority of Scripture with our [theologians] in the past century uttered this
blasphemy. Of this the impious words of Hosius, in his work against Brent, are an example, when he
declares that it is possible to assert in a reverent sense “the Scriptures have only the weight of Aesop’s
fables if they are deprived of the authority of the Church,” and Eck declared, “Scripture is not
authoritative except by the authority of the church… .” Because it seemed to others that this blasphemy
had been rightly attacked by our [theologians], they spoke more carefully, expressing their teaching in
such a way as to admit that absolutely and in itself Scripture is authoritative and of divine quality, since it
comes from God the source of all truth, but they hold that relative to us its authority exists only on the
witness of the church, through whose ministry it becomes known to us and is understood as of divine
quality. From this arose the distinction between authority as to its nature (quoad se) and as to our
understanding (quoad nos), which Bellarmine, Stapleton, and others have since brought forward.

III. But however they present their teaching, if we think of the matter correctly, it will be obvious that this
distinction results in confusion, and hides the evil of an impious doctrine, rather than clarifying the truth
of the matter. For since the authority is that of communicators and relationships, it cannot be understood
absolutely, but relatively; therefore; Scripture cannot be authoritative in itself unless it is so also to our
understanding, for whatever arguments demonstrate its authority in itself ought also to move us to
agreement, so that it will be authoritative to our understanding. If the authority of Scripture for our
understanding depends on the witness of the church, as if that were the formal ground on account of
which I believe that it has a divine quality (esse divinam), then of necessity its authority in itself depends[on such witness], which some admit fully. Nor is any other teaching easily derived from the other
controversies that they keep up, for how can they deny the perfection, perspicuity, or purity [of Scripture] if they believe it to be truly of divine origin (authenticus)?

IV. That the state of the question may be clear: (1) It is not a question of whether the Holy Scriptures are
authentic and of divine quality; this our adversaries do not deny, or at least they want to seem to believe
it. But [the question is] how are they known to us to be of such quality, or by what argument can this
divine quality (divinitas) be demonstrated for us? The Roman Catholics make it depend on the witness of
the church, and want the chief cause by which we are moved to believe the authenticity of Scripture to be
the voice of the church. On the other hand, although we do not deny that the witness of the church has
its value, as will appear later, yet we maintain that primarily and essentially Scripture is to be believed by
us of divine quality on account of itself, or of the marks imprinted upon it, not on account of the church.

V. (2) It is not a question of the principle, or efficient cause, of faith by which we believe the divine
quality of Scripture, that is, of whether or not the Holy Spirit produces it in us. This belongs to another
question concerning the freedom of the will, and adversaries, such as Stapleton and Cano, agree with us.
But here the question is about the argument or chief means which that Spirit uses to convince us of this
truth; is it a direct (inartificialis) witness of the church, as the Roman Catholics hold, or a rational
(artificialis) one based on marks (notae) in Scripture itself, as we maintain?

VI. Just as it is possible to speak of a threefold cause of the manifestation of anything–objective,
efficient, and instrumental–so a threefold question can be framed about the recognition of the divine
quality of Scripture: first, the argument on account of which I believe; second, the principle, or efficient
cause, by which I am led to belief; third, the means and instrument through which I believe. The
threefold question is answered in a threefold manner. Scripture, in its marks, becomes the form of
argument on account of which I believe; the Holy Spirit becomes the means or the efficient cause and
principle by which I am made to believe; the church is the instrument and means through which I believe.
So if it is asked why or on account of what I believe Scripture to be of divine quality, I will reply that this
happens through Scripture itself which proves itself to be such by its marks. If it is asked how or by what
it happens that I believe, I will reply, by the Holy Spirit, who produces this faith within me. Finally, if it is
asked by what means or organ I believe this, I will reply, through the church, which God uses in giving me Scripture.

VII. (3) There is no question concerning the means whose service the Holy Spirit uses in convincing us of
the authority of Scripture; we readily grant that this is the church. But the question concerns the primary
argument and cause whereby we are led to faith, not human but God-based (divinus), which they [Roman
Catholics] place in the church; we believe it is not to be sought outside Scripture itself.

VIII. (4) There is no question that divine revelation is absolutely and simply the formal ground of our
faith. Our adversaries acknowledge this with us. But what is that first and clearest revelation which ought
to be accepted by us through and on account of itself, not on account of anything else which is better
known to us, and which is therefore the most universal and primary basis of faith through which all ought
to be proved but which itself [is proved by] nothing beyond it: is such revelation to be sought in Scripture
or in the church? We hold that such revelation is found only in the Scripture, which is the first and
infallible rule of faith. The Roman Catholics maintain that it is to be sought in the word and witness of the
church. Stapleton says, in his book On the Authority of the Church Against Whittaker, book 1: “The
supreme external witness on earth is the voice of the church” (chap. 8), and, “God, when he speaks by
the church, does not speak in any other manner than if he were speaking in visions and dreams, or in
whatever other form of supernatural revelation God may have spoken through” (chap. 9), and “The entire
formal ground of our faith is God revealing through the church” (chap. 14). . . .

IX. The question is therefore reduced to these terms: Why or on account of what do we believe Scripture
to be the Word of God? or, what argument does the Holy Spirit use primarily to convince us of the divine
quality of Scripture? Is it the witness or voice of the church, or the marks and criteria imprinted in
Scripture itself? Our adversaries assert the former, we the latter.

X. That the authority of Scripture does not depend, either in itself or with regard to our understanding, on
the witness of the church, is proved (1) because the church is founded on Scripture (Eph. 2:20), and all
its authority is received from Scripture. This our adversaries cannot deny, since, when the question is
raised they can go nowhere but to Scripture for an answer. Therefore [the church] cannot produce the
authority of Scripture either in itself or with regard to our understanding, unless we maintain that the
cause depends on the effect, the beginning on that which has been begun, and the foundation on the
superstructure. Nor should it be objected that both conclusions can be true; the church receives its
authority from Scripture, and Scripture in turn from the church, as John [the Baptist] bore witness to
Christ, who gave witness to John. For it is one thing to give witness to another as a servant, in which way John is a witness to Christ-one through whom the Jews might believe (John 1:7), but not on account of
whom. It is quite another matter to offer authority as a lord, which Christ did toward John. (2) [If Roman
Catholic doctrine were true] the authority of the church would be prior to that of Scripture and so the
primary matter of belief, on which from the first our faith would depend and into which it would ultimately
be resolved, [a doctrine] which our adversaries do not accept, for they wish the authority of the church to
depend on Scripture. (3) Obviously it is to argue in a circle when the authority of the church is proved by
Scripture and then the authority of Scripture by the church. (4) Our adversaries have never agreed on
what is to be understood by the church whether it is the contemporary church or that of antiquity, the
whole church or its representatives, particular or universal; or what will be the act that witnesses to the
authority of Scripture–whether it is certified [at a given time] by some judicial decision, or made effective
through a continual and unbroken tradition. (5) A fallible and human witness, such as that of the church,
cannot establish supernatural faith (fides divina). Nor, if God does speak through the church today, does
it follow that the church is infallible, because special and extraordinary, inspiration, such as kept apostles
and prophets free from error, and of which Christ spoke strictly when he said that the Holy Spirit would
lead the apostles into all truth (John 16:14 [13]) is one thing, but common and ordinary [inspiration] is
another, which does not produce [apostolically] inspired pastors.

XI. That Scripture becomes known to us through itself is proved (1) by the nature of Scripture. For just as
the law does not receive its authority from the lower judges who interpret it, nor from the heralds who
proclaim it, but only from the prince who establishes it, and as a will obtains its weight from the wishes of
the testators, not from the notary by whom it is drawn, and as a measuring rod (regula) determines
measurement because of its own perfection, not because of the workman who uses it, so Scripture, which
is the law of the -highest prince, the will of the heavenly Father, and the undeviating rule of faith, cannot
hold its authority over us from the church, but only from itself. (2) [By] the nature of final categories and
first principles. For as these are known of themselves and are undemonstrated [principles] which cannot
be proved from any others, which would lead to an infinite regression–“it is necessary that the beginning
of every branch of knowledge be what cannot be investigated,” says Basil–so Scripture, which is the first
principle in the supernatural order, is known by itself, and there is no way in which it can be
demonstrated and made known to us by arguments sought outside it. If God placed marks in all the
principles by which they may be known by all, there can be no doubt that he placed such in this sacred
principle which is supremely necessary for salvation. (3) By analogy. As sense objects are recognized and
known without any other external argument, from the inner relationship and the inclination of the faculty
to the object, provided that the faculties of sensation are healthy-light by its own splendor, food by its
own flavor, odor by its fragrance, are immediately recognized by us even in the absence of a witness-so
the Scripture, which with respect to the new creation is described for us in a spiritual sense by the symbol
of glorious light (Ps. 119:105), delightful food (Ps. 19:10; Isa. 55:1- 2; Heb. 5:14), and most fragrant
perfume (Song of Sol. 1:3), is easily recognized through itself by the senses of the new man and shows,
itself to them, and demonstrates itself by its own light, pleasantness, and fragrance, so that there is no
need to seek elsewhere for what this light, food, and perfume teach that they are. (4) By the testimony of
adversaries [Roman Catholics], who demonstrate the divine quality of Scripture by its marks. Bellarmine
says, “As to the Holy Scriptures, which are contained in the writings of prophets and apostles, nothing is
more knowable or more certain, so that it must be a most stupid act to fail to have faith in them” (De
Verba Dei 1.2)….

XII. We do not deny that many functions of the church with respect to Scripture are proper. (1) That it be
a guardian of the oracles of God, which were entrusted to it, who protects the authentic record of the
covenant of grace with the highest fidelity, like a notary (Rom. 3:2). (2) A guide which points to the
Scripture, and leads toward it. (3) A defender (vindex) who protects and vindicates it by distinguishing
the genuine books from the corrupted, in which sense the church is called Scripture’s bulwark (I Tim.
3:16 [15]). (4) A herald, who preaches and proclaims it (II Cor. 5:19; Rom. 10:16). (5) An interpreter
who investigates and makes plain its true meaning. But these functions are all ministerial, not magisterial,
so that indeed we believe through the church but not on account of the church, as those who believed in
Christ believed through John the Baptist, not on account of him (John 1:7), and Christ became known to
the Samaritans through the Samaritan woman, not on account of her (John 4:39).

XIII. The formation of faith, considered objectively, with regard to the facts to be believed, is one thing,
and another when considered subjectively with regard to the act of believing. The first is in’ Scripture and
the external witness of the Holy Spirit expressed in Scripture; the second in the Spirit’s internal witness
impressed on the conscience and speaking in the heart. Since both the setting forth of truth in the Word
and its application in the heart are necessary for the engendering of faith, the Holy Spirit operates in
both, in the Word and in the heart. Therefore he is properly said to witness in the Word, objectively, by
means of the argument on account of which we believe. Also, less properly, he is said to witness in the
heart efficiently, through the means of the principle in virtue of which we believe, in which sense the
Spirit who presents internal witness of the divinity of Christ and the truth of gospel is said to “witness,
because the Spirit is truth” (I John 5:6 [7]); that is, the Spirit, acting in the hearts of the faithful;
witnesses that the teaching of the gospel handed down by the Spirit is true and of divine quality.

XIV. When the French Confession says (article 5), “We believe the books of Scripture to be canonical, not
so much by the common consent of the church as by the witness and internal urging of the Holy Spirit,”
by “Holy Spirit” must be understood the Spirit speaking both in the Word and in the heart. So the same
Spirit, acting objectively in the Word to set forth the truth, acts also efficiently in the heart to impress this
truth on our minds, and so is very different from fanatical enthusiasm (Spiritus Enthusiasticus).

XV. A personal decision of the Spirit, which is such with regard to the person (subjectus) whose it is, is
one thing; but a personal decision which is such in terms of its origin (originaliter) , because it depends on
the individual will of a human being, is another. We grant that the first is involved here, but not the
second, because the Spirit that witnesses in us concerning the divine quality of Scripture is not limited to
individuals with regard to his principle of operation and origin, but is common to the whole church, and to
all believers in whom he has engendered the same faith, although he is such subjectively in regard to
each individual, because given personally to individual believers.

XVI. Although the church, considered formally and in connection with the act of writing, is older than
Scripture, it cannot be called such materially and with respect to the substance of teaching, because the
Word of God is older than this church, since it is its foundation and seed. (1) The dispute is not over the
witness of the church of the ancient patriarchs who lived before the Scripture, but of the contemporary
church, which is much more recent.

XVII. Although believers are convinced of the divine quality of Scripture by the witness of the Holy Spirit,
it does not follow that all who have this Spirit should agree in accepting particular books equally, because,
since he is not given to all in the same measure, so neither does he endow all with the light of equal
knowledge either with regard to the essential (principium) of religion or of its dogmas, or move them to
consent with equal effectiveness. Therefore some Protestants have been able to doubt the canonicity of
one or another canonical book, because they were not yet sufficiently illumined by the light of the Holy

XVIII. It is not always necessary for one thing to be proved by another. Some matters are self-evident,
according to the philosophers, like the ultimate categories of things and final distinctions and first
principles, which cannot be externally demonstrated but are evident in their own light, and so are
presupposed as certain and not to be doubted, and if anyone does question them, he is not to be
answered with arguments, but delivered to those responsible for him or coerced by punishments, as one
who by the testimony of the philosopher lacks either reason or discipline. Thus in the Posterior Analytics
he says that anything is axiomatic which has no external cause for its truth, “which must both exist and
be known by itself;” that is, which is not only self-evident, but which also simply cannot be honestly
denied by anyone whose reason is sound. Since Scripture is a first principle, and primary and infallible
truth, what is strange in proving it by itself? (2) Scripture can prove itself, either a part proving the rest,
as when we debate with Jews on the basis of the Old Testament, or the whole proving the whole, not by a
direct argument of witness, but by a rational and logical one, because in it are found the divine marks which are not present in the writings of humans. This is not special pleading, for these criteria are
separate from Scripture, not materially but formally, as adjuncts and properties which can be
demonstrated with regard to the subject; nor is it a demonstration of an unknown through something
equally unknown, because the marks are better known to us, just as we demonstrate a cause by its
effects, and a subject by its properties. (3) The argument of the Roman Catholics, that Scripture cannot
be proved by itself, because the better known and less known would be the same, can with greater force
be turned back against the church.

XIX. If there are those who do not acknowledge the divine quality of Scripture, it is not because the
object itself — is not knowable or understandable, but because they lack a healthy faculty of reception;
from these the gospel is hidden because Satan has blinded their eyes (II Cor. 4:4), — like those who deny
the existence of God, who is supremely knowable, because they are lacking in understanding, or who do
not see the sun because they are blind, as in Seneca’s writing a woman who had lost her eyesight kept
complaining that the sun had not risen; nonetheless the sun always sends forth its rays, as those who
have eyes know from the phenomenon itself.

XX. It is one thing to recognize and proclaim the canon of Scripture; another to establish this canon and
make it authoritative. The church cannot do the latter, which is solely the privilege of God, the author. It
can do the former, because it is servant, not lord. As a goldsmith who separates dross from the gold, or
who seeks gold in the ore, does indeed see the difference between the true and the false, but does not
make the true either for himself or for us, so the church by her investigation separates the true canonical
books from the noncanonical and apocryphal, but does not make them [canonical], nor could the decision
of the church give authority to books which do not have it in themselves, but it proclaims the authority
already present by means of arguments from the books themselves.

XXI. Obscure knowledge of the matter is one thing, but distinct knowledge is another. By obscure
knowledge the church can be known before Scripture but distinct knowledge of Scripture ought to come
first, because the truth about the church can be grasped only from Scripture. Before [we know] Scripture
the church may be known to us by “human faith,” as an assembly of people using the same forms of
worship, but it can be known and trusted as the assembly of the faithful and the communion of the saints,
by “divine faith,” only after the marks of the church which Scripture supplies have become known.

XXII. When the apostle says that faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17) he means only that the ministry of
the church ought to be present as the ordinary means of awakening faith in adults, but he does not
therefore teach that the church is more knowable than Scripture.
XXIII. It is one thing to raise questions about the number, authors, parts, and particular words of the
books of Scripture, and another to raise questions about the fundamental teachings contained in these
books. The second form of knowledge, but not the first, is given to every believer, and he who has
questions as to who wrote the Gospel of Matthew does not thereby imperil his salvation, if only he
believes it to be authentic and of divine quality. Knowing who is the primary author of a book is one
thing; knowing who was his secretary is quite another. The latter is a question of historic faith; the
former, of true religious faith (fides divina).

XXIV. Although, in the language of the philosophers, the “circle” is a sophistic argument, by which
something is proved by itself, [an argument] which is developed in a closed series using the same kind of
cause recurring within itself, we cannot be accused of such circular reasoning when we prove the
Scripture by the Spirit and then prove the Spirit by the Scripture. For there are two different questions,
and two different middle terms or kinds of causes: we prove the Scripture by the Spirit, as efficient cause
by which we believe, but we prove the Spirit from the Scripture as from the object and argument on
account of which we believe. In the first case the question answered is “why, or in virtue of what, do you
believe that the Scripture is of divine quality?” In the second, the question is “how, or on account of what, do you believe that the Spirit within you is the Holy Spirit?” The answer is, on account of the marks of the
Holy Spirit that are in Scripture. But the Roman Catholics, who accuse us of circular reasoning, obviously
fall into it in this matter, when they prove Scripture by the church and the church by Scripture; this is
indeed done by the same middle term and the same kind of cause. If we ask them why, or on account of
what, they believe the Scripture to have divine quality, they answer, that the church says so. If we ask
further why they believe the church, they answer that the Scripture attributes infallibility to it, when it
calls it the pillar and bulwark of truth. If we continue, asking why they believe the witness of Scripture to
be trustworthy, they reply that the church has made them sure of it. Thus the argument is brought back
to where it started, and can go around and around forever, and cannot be fixed in any first believable
point. And these are not different kinds of questions; each deals with the ground and argument on
account of which I believe, not with the faculty or principle through which I believe.

XXV. The church is called “pillar and bulwark of truth” (I Tim. 3:15), not because it keeps truth from
falling and provides authority for it, since truth is rather the foundation of the church, upon which it is
built (Eph. 2:20), but [1] because [the Scripture] offers itself and shows itself to the sight of all in the
church as on a bulletin board. So “pillar” is used not in its architectural meaning, as pillars “‘ are placed to
hold up a building, but in its forensic and political meaning, as the edicts of the princes and the decrees
and laws of the magistrate used to ‘be posted on pillars in front of the curias and praetoriums, and the
doors of [secular] basilicas, so that they might become known by everybody, as Pliny and Josephus report
(Historia Naturalis 6.28 [(32) 152]; Antiquities 1.4 [book 1. 69 – 71]). So the church is the pillar of truth
both in the matter of its proclamation, for it is obliged to proclaim the laws of God, and the heavenly truth
is posted on her so that it may be known by all, [and pillar] also in the sense of guardian, who not only
proclaims the Scripture but also vindicates and protects it, and so it is called not only “pillar,” but also
“bulwark” (I Tim. 3:15), a support (firmamentum) by which known truth is vindicated and preserved,
whole and safe against all corruptions, but not a foundation (qemelion; fundamentum), which gives truth
itself its hypostasis and the basis on which it stands. (2) That which is called pillar and bulwark of truth is
not for that reason infallible. The patristic writers (veteres) gave this designation to those who surpassed
others by excellence of doctrine, or by” holiness of life, or firmness of faithful living, and who confirmed
the doctrine of the gospel and the Christian faith either by teaching or by example. Thus the believers in
Lyons give the designation to Attalus the martyr, according to Eusebius (Church History 5.1). Basil gives
it to the orthodox bishops who struggled against the Arian heresy-“the pillars and the bulwark of truth”
(epistle 120). And Gregory of Nazianzus designates Athanasius in this manner. In the same sense honest
and uncorrupted judges in the civil state are called pillars and bulwarks of the laws. (3) This text [I Tim.
3:15] teaches the duty of the church, but not its infallible privilege; what it is supposed to db in the
proclamation and defense of truth against all corruptions of its adversaries, not, however, what it ~ways
will do, as names are often based on a duty rather than on what is actually done. Malachi 2’:7 says that
the lips of the priests guard knowledge, which it is their duty to do, although it is not always done, as
verse 8 teaches. (4) Whatever is here attributed to the church is attributed to the local church of Ephesus
(I Tim. 1:3) to which the Roman Catholics do not attribute the privilege of infallibility, and it refers to the
collective church of believers, in which Timothy ought to be included, not the representative one of
pastors, much less to the pope, to whom alone they attribute complete freedom from error. (5) Here Paul
refers to the use of pillars in the sanctuaries of the pagans, to which either images of the gods, or laws
and moral teachings, or oracles, were attached, as Pausanias and Athenaeus tell us, to oppose these
pillars of lies and falsehoods, where nothing was present except fables and images of false gods, to the
mystic pillar of truth, on which the true image of the invisible God is shown (Col. 1:15), and the heavenly
oracles of God are set forth. He also refers to that memorable pillar which Solomon was responsible for
setting up in the temple, which is mentioned in II Chronicles 6:13 and II Kings 23:3, upon which, as a
platform, the kings mounted whenever they wished to speak to the people or discharge some important
responsibility. It was therefore called “the royal pillar” by the Jews. So truth sits in the church like a
queen, not as if she derived her authority from it, just as Solomon did not receive his from this pillar, but
because truth is set forth and preserved in the church.

XXVI. The text in Augustine, “I would not be believing the gospel unless the authority of the church
convinced me” (Against the Epistle of Mani Which Is Called Fundamental 5), does not support the Roman Catholics. (1) Because Augustine speaks of himself while still a Manichean, not yet a Christian, and [here] uses the imperfect where the pluperfect would be expected, “I would not be believing” and “the church
convinced” rather than “I would not have believed” and “the church had convinced,” a common usage,
scholars have noted, among African writers; for example, “if I was desiring those fruits” for “I had
desired” (Augustine, Confessions 2.8). (2) The authority of which he speaks is not that of law and political
power, as our adversaries hold, as if he had believed because the church was telling him to, but an
authority of worthiness, founded on the wonderful and most glorious arguments from divine providence
which can be seen in the church, such as miracles, antiquity, consensus of different peoples, and
continuity, which can lead to faith, but not awaken it as first cause. (3) It is to be noted here, therefore,
that it is an external thrust toward faith, and not an infallible source of belief, that Augustine advocates in
looking for truth alone, when he tells us that truth is to be preferred above all things, if it is completely
proven and cannot be brought into doubt (chap. 4), and when he says, “Let us follow those who invite us
first to believe what we cannot yet understand, that, made stronger by this very faith, we may reach the
point of knowing what we believe, our minds internally directed and illuminated not by men but by God
himself” (chap. 14). So Pierre d’Ailly understands it, and Cano, Gerson, Driedo, and Durand may be
understood as upholding the primitive and apostolic church, not the contemporary one, whose authority is
here argued. See our disputation on the authority of Scripture.

About the Author:

I hold to the historic Confessional view of Scripture as found in Chapter 1 of the WCF/2LBCF. I reject Restorationist Textual Criticism and affirm Preservationist Textual Criticism

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