(The Need for Biblical Authority in Ethics)
Ultimately, the problem deals with the question of final authority. Basically, there are only three to which the appeal for final authority may be made.
There is, first of all, reason. This is a very popular authority today. But, then, it almost always has been. For man likes to trust what he thinks is his good common sense even though reason is, as the Reformer, Martin Luther, said, a harlot. For it attractively promises man much but in the end only delivers despair. Reason has become so limited in giving modern man satisfaction for answers to final questions he seeks, that increasingly he resorts to mysticism and superstition as is characterized by the New Age religion and similar religions. Wise men today are increasingly ready to acknowledge the limitations of reason as a final authority.
Secondly, there is the expert as a final authority. In our age of increasing specialization, appeal to the expert has become an acceptable alternative even for many in the church. This in actual fact, besides making such little different than the adherents of Rome who have always been taught to trust the pope's expertise, puts such at the mercy of human fallibility. And how wrong the expert oftentimes is! No wonder that the Reformers delivered their followers from such "authority". No, the expert may have more knowledge in his field than others. But this makes him no expert in other fields even though he may seek to pontificate in them, as some scientists seek to do in religious matters today. And even in his field, the expert may be wrong -unless he is divinely inspired - which we may confidently say that he is not.
Thirdly, there is the Word of God as the final authority. But is it possible that our trust in it as such may, after all, be misplaced? It is true that God's people through the ages have unhesitatingly believed that the Bible is God's infallible and inerrant Word to man. But were they justified in doing so? And why did they believe it to be such? Two Reformed confessions give us the answers that we seek in this regard.
The Belgic Confession, in article 5 which is entitled, "Whence the Holy Scriptures Derive Their Dignity and Authority", says this on behalf of the people of God: "We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled."
Here one has both of the unique features of Scripture plainly set forth, namely, its self-attestation (autopistia) that it is the Word of God; and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit speaking to the heart of God's child and telling him that what he reads in Scripture is the very Word of God.
And just as plainly put is the statement of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Chapter 1, Article 5, says: "We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to a high and reverend esteem of the Holy Scripture, and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts."
Here, too, we see the twin pillars of the Bible's authority plainly put, namely, the objective authority of the proof its contents gives the reader (self-attestation or autopistia), and the subjective authority of the Holy Spirit's witness that its contents are nothing less than the Word of God.
God's Abundant Provision For Man's Need
The two confessions beautifully summarize this with their references to both the Bible's external evidence and the Holy Spirit's inward illumination.
1. External evidence
Both confessions mention the testimony of the church. This should be recognized, not only as a reference to the testimony of God's people down through the ages that they believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but it is also a testimony to their very existence as the people of God. For they themselves are living proof of the Lord's promise, "I will build my church; and the gates of hades (the powers of evil, darkness, and death) will not overpower it" (Matt.16:18).
A second external evidence is the very nature of Scripture itself. Both creeds speak of the Scriptures carrying "the evidence thereof in themselves that they are from God", which the Westminster Confession defines further in a number of ways. Firstly, "the heavenliness of the matter and efficacy of the doctrine." It is an undeniable historical fact that wherever the Bible goes, light replaces darkness, truth replaces ignorance and superstition, and purity and holiness replace filth and moral degradation in a people who, united to Christ in repentance and faith, become the redeemed people of God.
Next, the Westminster Confession speaks of "the consent of all the parts." Here we are reminded that the Bible, although written by over forty authors over a period of 1,500 years, nevertheless has as its grand, all-pervading theme the redemption of fallen man through Christ, which is truly a remarkable fact and properly explainable only from the fact that the Bible's actual Author has been the Holy Spirit who used the instrumentality of the various human authors over the years to impart the divine revelation which has become bound up in the sixty-six canonical books of Scripture.
Following on, mention is made of "the full discovery (Scripture) makes of the only way of man's salvation." We have already referred to this unique fact and so we do not need to say more about it here.
The Belgic Confession gives another external evidence which the Bible gives that it is the Word of God, and this is the matter of fulfilled prophecy. About this the Belgic Confession strikingly says: "For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in (the Scriptures) are being fulfilled." In this connection, it is well to remind ourselves that, roughly speaking, about half of the Old Testament was unfulfilled prophecy at the time it was written. Prophecies of Christ alone, for example, which were fulfilled by His first advent number more than twenty, and include the place of His birth, that He would be born of a virgin mother, that He would ride into Jerusalem upon a donkey, that He would be rejected by His own people and betrayed by one of His own disciples for thirty pieces of silver, that He would be crucified and rise again from the dead after three days, etc. It should not be wondered at, therefore, that the Belgic Confession points us to the future as well as to the past with regard to prophecy as a proof of the Bible's truth, for the things which have come to pass should create an indisputable conviction within us, not only that yet unfulfilled prophecy will also indeed come to pass, but that this inexplicable phenomenon about the Bible (from the human standpoint) can be accounted for only by the fact that it is the very Word of God.
A final external evidence to which the Westminster Confession may be alluding with its phrase, "many other incomparable excellencies", is Scripture's record of supernatural divine activity by way of miracles. Only God can work genuine miracles, for as Lord of the natural He is also the Lord of the supernatural. Therefore, on occasion, in order to reveal His power or to confirm the reality of His otherwise impossible promises, He can and does work miracles. The Lord Jesus repeatedly appealed to His miracles as indisputable evidence that He was the divine Saviour (cf. John 5:36; 10:37-38). Therefore, rather than apologizing for the miracles we see in the Bible, we should recognize in them the power of God to save His people and give them eternal life. For nothing less than divine, supernatural power can do this.
2. Inward illumination
Both Confessions go on to stress this second pillar as being of major importance. The Belgic Confession says: "But more especially, because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that (the Scriptures) are from God"; while the Westminster Confession says: "Yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority (of Scripture), is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts."
The necessity of inward illumination of the heart by the Holy Spirit as a prerequisite if man is to discern Scripture as the Word of God brings us to the crux of the whole matter. Why is not the unbeliever generally and the post-modern pagan particularly persuaded by the self-attestation (external evidence) which the Bible gives of itself that it is the very Word of God? Simply because the effect of sin is such that it not only blinds the mind of man to the truth of the evidence, but it makes him utterly hostile to the evidence as well. And because the Bible is the Word of God, it speaks about this fact also. For it reminds us that "the man without the Spirit (i.e., unregenerate natural man) does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned"(I Cor.2:14, cf. Rom.8:7-8).
We should therefore not be surprised that this natural hostility of the old nature of unregenerate man expresses itself by the attacks of critics upon the Bible, indifference of the masses to God's Word, and even sinful doubts about the Word of God to which believers themselves at times may be subjected. The answer to all this has been given by the Lord Jesus Himself: "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own" (John 7:17). Hence, go to the Scriptures and sincerely seek its light, for "in God's light we see light" (Psa.36:9).
The challenge for Christians today in a post-modern society is both to break with the spirit of apostasy which ever seeks to raise false problems about Scripture that are born of hostile naturalistic presuppositions, and to expose as erroneous the so-called scientific (and rationalistic) attitude that, instead of taking the Bible and its message for what it is, God's Word to man, seeks to re-interpret the clear text of Scripture and then proceeds subjectively to nullify the authority of Scripture.
The Bible as God's Word has been given by God to lost mankind for two specific reasons (2 Tim.3:15-17). We need the Bible: 1) in order to be saved from our sinful lostness through faith in Jesus Christ; and 2) that by means of it we may grow to spiritual maturity and Christ-likeness, thus being "thoroughly equipped unto every good work."
This brings us once again to the matter of ethics: i.e., what God wants His people to do, and the way He wants them to live so that in all things He may be glorified. This includes matters in ethics about which the Word of God may not directly speak but which nevertheless gives us principles by which to deduce answers to these problems.
Prof. and Principal Emeritus of Reformed Theological College.
(Professor Zorn went home to be with the Lord this year).
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / firstname.lastname@example.org / revised July
2000 / Copyright 2000