How Do We Know the Bible is True and Authoritative?

p66john1Editor’s Note: Posted originally on the Old HB September 14, 2007

Christopher wrote to discussion list to ask how we know the Bible is true and how our appeal to the internal testimony of the Spirit is different from the Mormon “burning in the bosom.” This reply is slightly revised from the one that appears there.

It’s important to put the question carefully. There are ways of asking and answering this question that end up subverting what they intend to defend.

If we ask the question “Is there a way to demonstrate that God is so that we remove all uncertainty” or “is there a way to demonstrate the truth of Scripture that removes alluncertainty?” the answer is no. We are creatures, not the Creator. We always know things the way creatures know them, not the way God knows them. We know things as they are revealed to us in nature and in Scripture. If we set up a burden of proof that means we know as God does, with that sort of certainty, then Scripture (or any revelation) becomes redundant. Indeed, God becomes redundant or at best, a sort of complement to our our deified knowledge.

Can we have certainty appropriate to creatures, that Scripture is the Word of God? Yes. How do we go about making this case?

First, we have to admit that when it comes to ultimate questions of this sort, questions of final authority, if we try to leverage that authority with another (e.g., our own) then we’ve defeated ourselves before we begin. In other words, if we appeal to another authority outside of Scripture to validate it, then Scripture isn’t really what it claims to be: the final authority.

So, given those constraints, within which all humans have to live, can we do it? Well, the autonomous atheist appeals to himself and others like him to validate his autonomy. He doesn’t appeal to the Bible! So we appeal to the Bible to validate our conviction that the Bible is true. When we do this, when we enter this necessarily circular argument, it not as if we don’t appeal to evidence. We do. There is evidence intrinsic to Scripture itself that it is what it says it is. This is appropriate. If Scripture didn’t have such evidence our claim would be that much less reasonable. There is also extrinsic evidence. This is why the comparison to the Mormon subjectivism fails. We start with real history, tested, including witnesses to actual history that has been validated by archeology and other investigation repeatedly.  The Mormons start with a con man who stuck his face in a hat and claimed a revelation from an angel named Moron(i).

The first claim we make is not a burning in the bosom – vague, indeterminate subjective experience to which one imputes meaning. I had a burning in my bosom all last night but after about 12 Rolaids I was better. I interpret my burning as heartburn and they interpret it as a sign from God. They’re whole religion is premised on goofy interpretations of fraud and natural phenomena. The farmer sees “PC” in the sky. Does it mean “Preach Christ” or “Plant corn”? That’s the problem of natural revelation. It reveals some of God’s attributes so that we’re under the law by nature and without excuse before God but it doesn’t generate saving knowledge of God.

Is there evidence within Scripture that it is what it says it is? Yes. Take Luke/Acts. It is the most careful historical record of the period. At every point where the critics have said the Luke got something wrong, we come to find that he got it right down to the last detail. He’s more accurate than comparable histories and historians. When we ask if the Pentateuchal history is accurate, the answer is yes. In other words, the more we learn about the context in which the biblical books were given our confidence in Scripture is confirmed.

There are other ways of going at this. The textual history of Scripture is very impressive. As I recall, there are but a few copies of Plato’s Republic but, as you know, dozens and hundreds of good copies of the text of the gospels and epistles that say the same thing with only minor, inconsequential textual variants. If the textual history is that good and if we can trace the provenance of these texts, in some cases, to within only a few years of the life of our Lord, and if they are making public claims about historical events, then isn’t it reasonable to have confidence in the claims Scripture makes for itself to be the Word of God?

Then there is the intrinsic evidence such as the internal coherence. The Bible was written over a 1600 year span from Gen (c. 1500 BC) to Rev (c. 93 AD) in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), in sixty-six books, with multiple of authors, many of whom are unknown to us and yet they whole story of Scripture coheres, it hangs together, it testifies of a unity of authorship and purpose and outlook behind the diversity of languages, authors, and intentions. The most recent documents from the canon, the NT gospels and epistles, certainly read the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures to have this sort of unity of authorship. Whenever the critics have tried to tear apart Scripture, examination of their methods has shown that they prove too much, that they set up tests that no document can survive. It turns out that the critics are often unhistorical, that they don’t pay attention to the details. Yes, the vocabulary of Paul’s epistles sometimes changes or there are apparent seams in Pentateuchal or prophetic books but those are explicable when we put the literature in historical context and pay attention to details. Take the relations between 1 and 2 Peter. The theology is the same but the vocabulary and grammar differs, Why? One obvious answer that the critics miss is that Peter used different secretaries with very different styles but that there is a unity of authorship is evident in the theology of the books. The critics don’t have time for these sorts of investigations because they don’t fit the paradigm (e.g., “all reasonable people know that the Bible can’t be

We can appeal to the coherence of the promise and fulfillment structure of revelation. Throughout the typological revelation, the Bible promises and typifies many future events and the events promised and typifed occurred or were explained in the more recent literature.

Finally, is there a place for a subjective appeal, an appeal to the internal witness of the Spirit that, in fact, what we’re reading is true? Yes. However reasonable it is, the Christian faith is not the result of dry, rational calculations — though it certainly involves our rational capacities. We are not fideists. We don’t believe the faith blindly.

We are making claims about God and ultimate realities such as hell, heaven, and salvation. It would be odd if the persons (i.e., the Trinity) about whom we’re making claims were uninvolved in the process of confirming the truth of Scripture.

If that we’re true it would put us back on the footing of appealing to another ultimate authority to validate this one.

If the Triune God is and if he reveals himself and operates in the world, why would we exclude him from testifying to the truth of his own revelation? We don’t appeal in the first instance to the testimony of the Spirit, but we do include that in our claims for the trustworthiness of Scripture. This goes back to the first point that there’s no way to defend the faith or Scripture properly without beginning with the thing we intend to defend. The question is whether our appeals are reasoned.

In the case of Mormonism or Islam the claims unravel in the light of history.

That isn’t true of Scripture. The Mormons resist historical investigation. We welcome it. The Muslims resist critical inquiry and we embrace it. Bring it on. We’re confident that our truth claims can withstand scrutiny because ours is a public faith about public events. Hundreds of people saw the risen Christ. The soldiers were interviewed. Known figures are invoked. These are all things that could have been challenged. Matthew was conscious that there was controversy over the resurrection thus his explanation about what the unbelieving Jews were saying.

So, our faith is reasonable without being rationalist and it is faithful without being fideist. It is reasonable to believe the Bible but the authority of Scripture does not rest, ultimately, upon autonomous reason. Our confidence in Scripture rests first of all in Scripture but is confirmed by extrinsic and intrinsic evidence.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Scott,

    Regarding one thing you wrote:

    In other words, if we appeal to another authority outside of Scripture to validate it, then Scripture isn’t really what it claims to be: the final authority.

    The truth of this claim depends on what is going on with that word ‘validate’. When the Apostles testified to Jesus being the Christ, they didn’t take away from Christ’s authority. An authorized witness can give an authoritative testimony to an authority greater than himself, otherwise no one could have come to believe in the deity of Jesus through the authority of the Apostles’ testimony. The order of authority need not be conflated with the authority of knowing. In other words, just because a person comes to believe in Jesus through the authoritative testimony of the Apostles, it does not mean that the Apostles’ authority is therefore greater than Jesus’ authority. The Apostle’s authority was derived from Christ, and therefore subordinate to Christ. So in the order of authority, the Apostles’ authority is second to Christ’s, which is first. Yet for us, in the order of knowing, the Apostles’ testimony is first. We come to Christ through the testimony of the Apostles, even though the Apostles’ are subordinate in authority to Christ. The order of knowing and the order of authority need not be the same; they can be (and in this case are) the opposite. This is what lies behind that one word ‘validate’. If by ‘validate’ we mean “give authority”, then obviously the Apostles cannot give authority to Christ. But if it means “authoritatively reveal a higher authority,” then it is possible for something of lesser authority to “validate” Scripture, without undermining the authority of Scripture, just as it is possible for the Apostles to reveal authoritatively an Authority greater than themselves, without undermining His authority.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    • Bryan; excellent summary the picture of which, is eminently displayed in the story of the woman at the well. Re-read how the townspeople believed and then heard it from Jesus’ own lips and attested twice: once by testimony then by the Author. This is how we KNOW Him: by testimony (faith cometh by hearing)…then His Spirit witnesses with our spirit (and hearing by the Word of God).


  2. The Apostle’s are indeed writing, and we accept that sort of mediate authority. We even accept the preacher’s authority.

    The real question is, whose Voice is behind those words? “My sheep hear my Voice, and they know me.” Jesus’ lambs recognize his Voice. “If they speak not according to this Word, it is because they have no light in them.”

    • The church, of course, is the entity which has discerned that the New Testament books are inspired and canonical, and she continues to discern that they are inspired and canonical each and every time she confesses her faith (at least this is true of our Reformed confessions, which contain lists of which books belong to the canon).

      When she (the church) does this, however, she is doing so in the posture of RECEIVING them as inspired, rather than in the posture of DETERMINING that they are inspired, as if she were standing over the text and deciding from a position of authority over and against that of the Scriptures.

  3. Dr. Clark,
    “If we ask the question “Is there a way to demonstrate that God is so that we remove all uncertainty” or “is there a way to demonstrate the truth of Scripture that removes alluncertainty?” the answer is no. We are creatures, not the Creator.”
    Is Richard Muller’s definition below helpful?

    “Theologia non est habitus demonstrativus, sed exhibitivus
    Theology is not a demonstrative, but an exhibitive habit; theology, considered as a human capacity or disposition, does not follow philosophy in attempting to demonstrate its truths rationally but rather exhibits or explains its truth to the world. The maxim in this form is Lutheran, but the Reformed scholastics concur, particularly in distiguishing theological certainty and from the genus of philosophical certainty and from the genus of philosophical knowledge.”

    -Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological terms, p. 303

  4. I don’t see how the Creator/creature distinction does not preclude absolute certainty. My knowledge might be finite, limited, and creaturely, but I don’t think that means that I cannot unreservedly believe that it is true finite knowledge. In fact, I don’t see how I could have even a little bit of uncertainty about the authority of God’s word unless I adopt an apostate epistemology, impose its standards on the Bible, and decide that it doesn’t measure up to the requirements for absolute certainty. Isn’t it required of me to embrace wholeheartedly anything that God says, simply because it was God who said it?

    Of course, it is a good thing that I am saved by Christ and not by living up to that requirement, because my faith is weak. But that is a result of sin, and not something necessarily inherent in human nature as it was created. Thus, it is not a consequence of the Creator/creature distinction alone. I hope to one day be cleansed of all doubts about God this life of sanctification is finished.

    Anyway, that is how I have thought about uncertainty in the past. What do you think, Dr. Clark? Am I missing something about the Creator/creature distinction?

  5. This question has been definitively answered by Gordon Clark in God’s Hammer. Anything having to do with epistemology, or apologetics for that matter, Gordon Clark must be consulted. To not do so would be negligent. The “Creator/creature” distinction is irrelevant to this issue.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you this is am important subject, by understanding the role that the New Testament plays in fixing apostolic teaching and the place the New Testament canon has in redemptive history I have been better able to express my rejection of Mormon prophets and the Book of Mormon to my Mormon family members in a gentle yet firm manner. Understanding the canon helps explain that the Book of Mormon is ahistorical and falls outside of redemptive history and the progressive revelation found in the Bible.

    My brother, a BYU senior and returned missionary, is unable to explain why that if the exile and the restoration shows the justice and redemptive work of God and the great extremes He will go to, what exactly is the redemptive purpose of taking the family of Nephi out of Judah prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. Another example I have used is that by the anachronistic use of the teachings of Jesus Christ to people in the 7th century BC (in meso-America?) Joseph Smith has ripped these revelations out of their historical context and redemptive history. 1 Nephi 13 has teachings strait out of the Second Great Awakening on the Bible, Church, gentiles, the Holy Ghost etc all conveniently dated to between 600 and 592 B.C.

    I am not going to claim that this has produced any fruit with my family but it seems to be a better approach than talking about polygamy.

  7. hi dr. clark, thnx for this nudge to really wrestle with these issues. what would the response be to Sproul’s claim that this sort of argument regarding the petitio principium fallacy committed in the equivocational use of the word “authority”?
    is there anywhere i can go for further reading regarding your post in more detail?

  8. B.C. said, “When she (the church) does this, however, she is doing so in the posture of RECEIVING them as inspired, rather than in the posture of DETERMINING that they are inspired, as if she were standing over the text and deciding from a position of authority, over and against that of the Scriptures.”

    The Church in the 21st Century can look back with hindsight since she already has the authorized canon of Scripture. But what of the first four centuries?

    If Scripture needed no objective witness as to its veracity, then why were the Councils of Carthage and Hippo necessary? Was it already self-evident and perspicuous what writings were infallibly inspired and which ones were not? What sort of criterion did these bishops have at the councils in order to come to a concensus as to what writings should be in the Canon of Scripture and which ones could not pass the test? And why is it that the list of infallibly inspired writings included the Deuterocanonicals, which the Reformed do not acknowledge as such?

    If the decision of these councils was accepted by the entire Church, and that we know is true from history, then why do the Reformed Churches only accept part of the council’s imprimature on Scripture? How can you trust that certain writings are inspired, yet the Deuterocanonical books are not when the bishops at these councils came to a consensus that they were/are? And if you only trust that the 66 books are inspired, upon what belief system do you base that trust? What gives you the authority to accept only part of the council’s decisions? How do you even know their decision concerning the rest of Scripture is credible if you have given yourself the right to pick and choose?

    I ask these questions sincerely because they are needful. Over the course of my life, I have encountered varous questions/comments from unbelievers as regards the Bible such as, “The Bible is just a book written by man.” or “If the Bible is so clear and trustworthy, why do so many understand it differently?” and “There are so many translations, how do you know which one is right?” Even I, when I first became a Christian, had no idea what I was reading when I first began the task of understanding the Scriptures. I remember underlining everything in the gospels that I couldn’t quite figure out. Those pages were full of pen marks. Most every paragraph was underlined. Scripture wasn’t perspicuous to me at that time.

    Anyway, I sure would like to hear your comments.

    • Darlene,

      You cite regional councils. The whole church has often disregarded the work of regional councils. Protestants accept the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian, the Chalcedon because they are genuinely ecumenical.

      The Canon is a difficulty for everyone but there’s no evidence that any one or two councils determined the canon. The OT canon was fixed before the 1st century. The Hebrew Bible is what it is. The church gradually received the NT canon on the basis of apostolicity (either direct or indirect apostolic authorship) and on the basis of the intrinsic, self-attesting qualities of the books themselves. Who made Jesus the Word? No one. He just is. We have a difficulty with this idea in our nominalistic age but the early church didn’t have the same problem. In our age we think that we must name everything but they didn’t think so. They recognized things for what they were. The church no more “made” books canonical than the church made Jesus the head of the church. The same way we submit to Jesus as head, we submit to Scripture as the Word. Did the process occur overnight? No, but we can trace the gradual reception of, e.g. Hebrews. We can see the canon becoming clearer in Athanasius’s 39th Festal Letter, we can see the church replying, before Athanasius to the false canonical lists promulgated by the gnostics. The Protestant canon is Jerome’s canon. If Rome has a problem with that, let them take it up with the doctor of the church.

      As to translations, it’s not a problem because, as with any translated lit, there are better and worse translations. We’re fortunate to have several good ones. I read Greek and Hebrew and I’m comfortable with a range of translations.

      Here’s a resource:

  9. Dr. Clark,

    You said, “So we appeal to the Bible to validate our conviction that the Bible is true. When we do this, when we enter this necessarily circular argument, it not as if we don’t appeal to evidence. We do.”

    Why the circular argument? Have you ever considered a gospel hermeneutic to determine what is scripture and what is not? I dislike having to trust in what a council of men about 1600 years ago decided as scripture to be scripture. Instead I use the gospel as the test of what it truely inspired by God or not. The Gospel was oral before it was written. It was proclaimed before it was documented. Would not this lead us to view all subsequent written documents through the lense of the Gospel of Christ and in doing so determine which of the books are to be determine as scriputure. I have done this and the result is that 65 out of 66 books of the bible pass the test. The only one which fails as it stands alone is the bane of Luther, the epistle of James. Some will instantly call me a heretic for rejecting James. However, I say that if you want some council and years of tradition to determine your scripture go for it. I will keep to the Gospel alone.

    • How is it that you think you have access to “the gospel” apart from reading and receiving it in and through the canon?

      • What if I can’t read? Won’t the elect of God know the Gospel when they hear it? How do you think Paul shared the Gospel? He would preach it! Sometime he would point to the OT Scriptures but still most were illiterate. The gospel message is written on the hearts of the elect and when they hear it they understand the truth of it.

    • Jimmy,
      You do remember that Luther preferred to keep James’ epistle in the Bible?

      That he judged that the problem he was having hearing distinctly the Gospel in it was more likely due to defectiveness in his own hearing, than 99% of the church having a contrary “defect” for 1500 years?

      That he worked through a reconciliation of James and Paul?

      Luther once called James “an epistle of straw” in his 1520 preface to translating the book, a statement he removed entirely from later editions of his NT. He seems to have considered James to be primarily a work that dealt exclusively with “law”, having in mind 1Cor.3:12, and the wood/hay/stubble.

      Luther even preached from James. That should be enough to demonstrate he thought it was the Word of God. Here’s a link to some thorough answers on Luther’s global view of James:

      If I thought I was “not hearing” the Voice of the Good Shepherd where the vast majority of the church had heard Him for 2000 years, I would check my hearing, before I quit listening.

      I would doubt even more my wisdom in hearing Him speak where few if any ever heard him before.

        • Jimmy, that’s an interesting method to determine which is Scripture. Marcion used it too.

          Although I’m not convinced that you’re as consistent as Marcion. Why does James get ejected, but the Proverbs get to stay, based on your “gospel hermeneutic”?

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