The Divine Authority of Scripture

by Louis Berkhof

The divine authority of Scripture was generally accepted until the chill winds of Rationalism swept over Europe and caused the enthusiasm of faith to go down to the freezing point. This means that in the days of the Reformation the Church of Rome as well as the Churches that parted company with it, ascribed divine authority to Scripture. But in spite of the fact that Roman Catholics and Protestants had the principle of authority in common, they were not altogether agreed as to the nature of this authority. There was a very important difference of opinion with respect to the ground on which it rests. On the part of Rome there was an ever-increasing denial of the autopistia of Scripture, that is, of its inherent authority. It maintained that the Church temporarily and logically precedes Scripture, and therefore does not owe its existence to Scripture, but exists in and by itself, that is, through Christ or the indwelling Spirit of God. Scripture rather owes its existence to the Church, and is now further acknowledged, preserved, interpreted, and defended by it. Without the Church there is no Scripture, but without Scripture there is still a Church.

Over against this position of Rome, the Reformers emphasized the autopistia of Scripture, the doctrine that Scripture has authority in and of itself as the inspired Word of God. They did not hesitate to ascribe great importance to the testimony of the Church to Scripture as a motivum credibilitatis, but refused to regard this testimony of the Church as the final ground for the acceptance of Scripture. They firmly maintained the position that the Bible must be believed for its own sake. It is the inspired Word of God and therefore addresses man with divine authority. The Church can and should acknowledge the Bible for what it is, but can in no sense of the word make it what it is. The Protestant principle is, says Thornwell, "that the truths of the Bible authenticate themselves as divine by their own light."

In Protestant circles, however, a dispute arose in the seventeenth century respecting the authority of Scripture. While Scripture as a whole was recognized as the only and sufficient rule of faith and practice, the question was raised, whether every part of it should be regarded as authoritative. In seeking an answer to this question it became evident that it was necessary to distinguish between the Word of God in a formal and in a material sense, and between an auctoritas historica and an auctoritas normativa. Scripture has first of all historical authority, that is, it is a true and absolutely reliable record, and as such is entitled to a believing acceptance of all that it contains. But in addition to that it also has normative significance, as a rule of life and conduct, and as such demands absolute subjection on the part of man. And in connection with this the difficult question arose, in how far the normative value that is ascribed to Scripture as a whole also belongs to its separate parts. Do the historical parts of the Bible, do the laws of Moses, and do the words of the speakers that are introduced in Scripture have normative significance for us? Happily, we need not grope about entirely in the dark here, for the Bible itself teaches us to make distinctions with respect to this point. It does not demand that we keep every one of the precepts which it contains. It disapproves of some and calls attention to the temporary character of others. Reformed theologians never attempted to lay down hard and fast rules by which we can be governed in this matter. Heppe gives some examples of the manner in which they dealt with the matter. Voetius says that absolute normative significance must be ascribed to the words and works (a) of God, (b) of Christ as God and man, and (c) of the angels. Moreover, he regards those words of the prophets and of the apostles as normative, in which they as public teachers, orally or in writing, edify the Church. He ascribes normative authority to their deeds only when they are approved by Scripture. On the other hand, he does not regard all the words of Job as normative, nor the words of the friends of Job. Others explicitly exclude the words of the devils and of wicked persons. Voetius holds that the writings of the Old Testament are just as normative as those of the New Testament. Grosheide calls attention to the fact that absolute normative significance must be ascribed to those statements or commands of God which are clearly intended for all ages, and to all positive statements of an ethical or dogmatical character; but that no such authority can be ascribed to the words of Satan, of wicked persons, or even of the pious, except when they are clearly speaking in the name of God or make statements that are fully in harmony with the moral law; nor to purely historical narratives pertaining to the things of every day life. In general it will not be difficult to determine, whether a certain part of Scripture has normative value for us. Yet there are cases in which the decision is not easy. It is not always possible to say, whether a certain Scriptural precept, which was clearly normative for the original readers, still has normative significance for us. On the whole it is well to bear in mind that the Bible is not exactly a code of laws, and is far more interested in the inculcation of principles than in the regulation of life by specific precepts. Even the laws of Moses and the history of Israel as the Old Testament people of God embody principles of permanent validity. Sometimes we may come to the conclusion that, while certain laws no more apply in the exact form in which they were cast, yet their underlying principle is just as binding today as it ever was. In dubious cases we shall have to be guided to a great extent by the analogy of Scripture and by the moral law.

In modern liberal theology very little remains of the normative significance of the Bible. Schleiermacher denied the normative character of the Old Testament altogether, and regarded only the New Testament as a norm for the Church. And he ascribed this significance to the New Testament, not on account of its supernatural inspiration, for he did not believe in this, but because he saw in it the record of the religious experiences of men, who, as the immediate associates of Jesus, enjoyed a special measure of spiritual illumination. Ritschl did not ascribe normative significance even to the New Testament, but saw in it only a valuable historical record of the beginnings of Christianity, and in no sense of the word a rule of faith. He felt free to reject all those elements which did not harmonize with the postulates of his own system and had no real value for the revelation in Christ as the real founder of the Kingdom of God, nor for the Christian life, as he conceived of it. In general it may be said that these two men determined the attitude which modern liberal theology assumes with reference to the Word of God. Strange to say, some present day Dispensationalists, who are strongly opposed to all Liberalism, also maintain that the Old Testament is not normative for us. They fully recognize the inspiration of the Old Testament, and consider it to be normative for the Jews, but not for New Testament believers. Cook expresses himself very clearly on this point, when he says that "in all the Old Testament there is not a sentence that applies to the Christian as a Rule of Faith and Practice—not a single command that is binding on him, as there is not a single promise there given him at first hand, except 


Source: Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof

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