The Witness of Scripture to Itself

May 14, 2018

by Lane Tipton

Herman Bavinck’s magnum opus, his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, offers a stunning synthesis of reflection upon the teaching of Scripture. It is arguably the finest multivolume Reformed systematic theology available in the English language. His theological formulations and biblical exposition are lucid and penetrating, offering stimulating insights on every topic he treats.

In this essay, I will survey Bavinck’s doctrine of Scripture, focusing on how Scripture’s self-witness relates to so-called problems or phenomena, both inside and outside of Scripture. Bavinck’s constructive insights will help us avoid contemporary errors regarding the mishandling of alleged problems within Scripture, as well as inappropriate uses of extrabiblical evidence.

The God-Breathed Word

Scripture, Bavinck argues, is the written word of God. Basing his argument on 2 Timothy 3:16, Bavinck observes that “the term ‘divine inspiration’ serves as a summary of what Scripture teaches concerning itself.” The sense of inspiration (theopneustos in the Greek text) is “breathed out by God,” underscoring the divine origin (and implying the divine authority) of Scripture. This critical insight is derived from Scripture’s self-witness, that is, from Scripture’s teaching with regard to its own essential nature.

God is the primary author of Scripture, while the human agent is the subordinate author of Scripture.

Bavinck further argues that Scripture teaches an organic, as opposed to a mechanical, doctrine of inspiration. By “organic,” Bavinck means that God uses fully the humanity of the secondary human authors in the supernal act of producing Scripture. Therefore, “Scripture is totally the product of the Spirit of God, who speaks through the prophets and the apostles and at the same time totally the product of the activity of the human authors.”

This means that God (specifically God the Holy Spirit) is the primary author of Scripture, while the human agent is the subordinate (or secondary) author of Scripture. The biblical text is therefore breathed out by the Spirit of the living God and is divine in its origin and authority, even though God fully engages and employs human agents in the production of Scripture.

Biblical and Extrabiblical Phenomena

Bavinck’s formulations are critical for a proper understanding of the doctrine of Scripture, particularly when we take into account his polemical context. With the rise of critical Protestantism and its rejection of biblical supernaturalism and its advocacy of higher-critical methodologies, Scripture’s self-witness was increasingly called into question by the alleged difficulties in the biblical text that appear to conflict with the Bible’s self-witness.

How, then, should we relate the self-witness of Scripture to the phenomena of Scripture? According to Bavinck, “The so-called phenomena of Scripture cannot undo this self-testimony of Scripture and may not be summoned against it as a party in the discussion.” Scripture’s witness to its divine inspiration and inerrancy cannot be contradicted by the problems or phenomena in Scripture. Rather, the phenomena of Scripture confirm and clarify the self-witness of Scripture. This formulation supplies a rule that should guide us in developing the doctrine of Scripture.

Moreover, Bavinck warns against similar problems in forming a doctrine of Scripture when it comes to extrabiblical phenomena (i.e., ancient material external to Scripture, with related subject matter). Some biblical scholars who fail clearly to distinguish biblical phenomena (i.e., all that is in Scripture, except for its explicit self-witness) from their own historical research (i.e., an investigation into the extrabiblical milieu of Scripture) run into great problems in constructing a doctrine of Scripture. Bavinck explains:

Those who make their doctrine of Scripture dependent on historical research into its origination and structure have already begun to reject Scripture’s self-testimony and therefore no longer believe that Scripture. They think it better to build up the doctrine of Scripture on the foundation of their own research than by believingly deriving it from Scripture itself.

Bavinck clearly delineates two options for arriving at a doctrine of Scripture. On the one hand, we can derive our doctrine of Scripture from Scripture’s own self-witness. On the other hand, we can build our doctrine of Scripture on the foundation of historical research into the origin and structure of Scripture. The difference between the two approaches cannot be overstated.

Scripture, as the Word of God, possesses the sole authority to tell us what Scripture, as a whole, is.

Bavinck detects unbelief in the theologian who would build up a doctrine of Scripture based on historical research into the external context of Scripture, rather than the self-witness of Scripture. He uses such strong language because only God has the authority to tell us infallibly the nature of his word. Scripture, as the Word of God, is the only infallible rule that reveals to us the nature of Scripture. Put differently, only Scripture—the written word of God—is authoritative when it comes to developing a doctrine of Scripture.

How, then, ought extrabiblical evidence to function in building our doctrine of Scripture? Bavinck is again characteristically lucid:

Theologians who want to arrive at a doctrine of Scripture based on such (historical critical) investigations in fact oppose their scientific findings to the teaching of Scripture about itself. But by that method one never really arrives at a doctrine of Scripture. Historical-critical study may yield a clear insight into the origination, history, and structure of Scripture but it never leads to a doctrine, a dogma, of Holy Scripture. This can, in the nature of the case, be built only on Scripture’s own witness concerning itself.

At stake in this discussion is the locus of authority when it comes to constructing a doctrine of Scripture. Should we rest our doctrine of Scripture on the self-witness of Scripture as our authority for doctrinal formulation? Or should we instead base our doctrine of Scripture on a historical-critical reassessment of extrabiblical evidence?

Bavinck gives us the clearest possible answer. Scripture, as the Word of God, possesses the sole authority to tell us what Scripture, as a whole, is. Extrabiblical evidence may be informative, but such evidence cannot determine our doctrine of Scripture in any normative way, because doctrine derives from the teaching of Scripture itself. Theologians who deny this basic point, as do thinkers in the historical-critical tradition, and allow historical research to determine their doctrine of Scripture, “substitute their own thoughts for, or elevate them above, those of Scripture.”

. . . continue reading at New Horizons.


Lane Tipton

Dr. Tipton (PhD, Westminster) is professor of systematic theology at WTS.

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