The Reformed Doctrine of Inspiration

by Hugh Cartwright

The title refers to the inspiration of the Bible, the holy book from which the Christian faith is derived and in which it is expounded. The Reformed doctrine of inspiration explains how we are justified in regarding the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God, so that we can be sure that, wherever we turn in this book, God is speaking to us.

1. Why is this teaching described as the Reformed Doctrine of Inspiration?

By the Reformed doctrine is meant the doctrine of the Churches of the Reformation, particularly the doctrine of the Reformed Churches found, for example, in our Westminster Confession of Faith and other Confessions related to it. The term Reformed distinguishes this doctrine from that of Romanism and from those of what may for convenience be called liberal Protestantism and liberal Evangelicalism. We claim that the Bible’s own doctrine concerning its inspiration is found in the Reformed statements and not in Romanism, liberal Protestantism or liberal Evangelicalism.

It may be alleged that the credal statements of Romanism teach the inspiration of the Bible, with whatever measure of ambiguity the Council of Trent dealt with the subject. But as in the case of other doctrines held by Romanism, the truth is perverted and effectively denied by the error associated with it. The definitive place given to the Roman Church and to tradition, even if it were confined to an alleged interpretation of Scripture, denies in effect the unique authority, clarity and sufficiency belonging to Scripture in virtue of the fact that it alone is the inspired Word of God.

A variety of views may be found in liberal Protestantism and Evangelicalism. Some deny completely any divine revelation or inspiration – the Bible is just a record of some men’s search for God or the ultimate reality. Others admit that God revealed himself to chosen men but claim that He left them to communicate that revelation, or the fruit of their reflection on it, as best they could themselves. Others allow for varying degrees of inspiration, some suggesting that parts of the Bible are inspired by God and other parts are the products of the research or reflection of the writers. Some distinguish between the Word of God and the Bible and claim that the Bible is not the Word of God, though it may testify to the Word of God and things written in the Bible can become the Word of God to readers – there may be a kind of “inspiration” for the reader though not for the writer.

People holding some of these views may subscribe to the formula that the Word of God is contained in the Scriptures, meaning that it can be found there along with other elements which are not the Word of God. It is clear from the teaching of the Westminster Divines that, when the Westminster Shorter Catechism (answer 2) uses the expression “the Word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments”, it means that only in the inspired Scriptures can we hear the infallible word of God – that it is not found in the Apocrypha or tradition of the Romanist, in the inner voice of the mystic or in any extra-biblical “revelation”. In all of these cases man sits in judgement on the Bible; and what, if anything, is the Word of God is determined either by the “infallible” Church, the critical scholar or the inward consciousness of the reader.

The Reformed doctrine of inspiration is in keeping with the whole scheme of Reformed doctrine, which is centred upon God, who is “a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth” (The Shorter Catechism, answer 4) – whose sovereignty finds expression in the revelation of Himself as a God of mercy to His people. God not only purposed their redemption but has done everything necessary for its accomplishment and application. This includes providing the infallible Word through which, by regeneration and the teaching of His Holy Spirit, they come to know Him and the truth concerning Him. The inspiration of men to record infallibly the revelation of God’s grace is as much a fact in the scheme of redemption as any other revealed fact. Like every other fact in the scheme of redemption it emphasises that salvation is of the Lord, that the initiative and the power in every aspect of salvation belong to Him. The doctrine of inspiration fits in with the supernatural, God-centred character of the Reformed Faith. It is perhaps significant that, as a matter of historical fact, it was within the Reformed, or Calvinistic, wing of the Reformation Church, rather than the Lutheran, that prominence was given to Scripture alone “as an objective standard of truth and source of authority” (James Bannerman, Inspiration, p.136).

2. What is the Reformed Doctrine of Inspiration?

Two closely related but separate works of God must be noted at this point – revelation and inspiration. We are dependent upon God’s revelation of Himself for all the knowledge we have of God. And we are dependent upon God’s inspiration of the writers of Scripture for the infallible and unerring communication of that revelation to us. James Bannerman summed up the relation between revelation and inspiration: “A supernatural communication of truth from God is a revelation; the supernatural transference of the truth to the spoken or written word is inspiration” (Inspiration, p.151).

God can only be known in so far as He reveals Himself. Man cannot find out God by his own searching. Revelation of God’s goodness, wisdom and power, sufficient to leave man without excuse, has been given in the light of nature and in the works of creation and providence, but that revelation is not sufficient to give the knowledge of God and of His will which is necessary for salvation. If men are to know God as Saviour, it is necessary that He make Himself known. God made known to chosen men what He intended to reveal of Himself. (See Westminster Confession 1:1)

Inspiration is God’s method of ensuring that those, to whom He revealed Himself and the mystery of His saving purpose, communicated that revelation precisely as He wished it to be communicated. It is something very different from the “inspiration” felt by poets. It is something other than the gracious enlightenment which is given by God to all whom He purposes to save. Recording what God revealed was not left to the natural, or even the gracious, abilities of men. God took steps to ensure that not only were His revealed thoughts conveyed to us in a generally accurate way, but in words which precisely communicated what was in His mind. “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:20,21). They were not left to interpret as best they could what God revealed to them, but God moved them – carried them along – in such a way that the words they used give the precise record of His revelation which God intended.

Had good men been left to themselves to communicate the revelation God gave them, we would have a human, fallible account and could not be sure of the divine truth of what was written. But God gave them not merely the thoughts, but also the words, which convey these God-given thoughts in the best possible way, so that when we read their words we are reading the very words of God. They were the mouth through which God spoke His own words. The Holy Spirit of God so controlled the writers of Scripture that their words were the words spoken by the Holy Spirit. All of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation – in its words as well as its thoughts – is the product of a supernatural work of God which ensures that it is inerrant, infallible, wholly trustworthy.

The Bible was written by men, not by machines. The circumstances, experiences and characteristics of these men come through in many of their writings. Even the style of one is different from that of another. When they wrote they were generally exercising their own faculties, although there were times when they wrote things by the direction of God which were well beyond their own comprehension. That is why Peter could speak about “the salvation of your souls, of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into” (1 Pet 1:9-12).

But the men, their circumstances, characteristics, experiences and faculties were prepared by God. God made Moses what he was, and used Moses to write the law. God made Paul what he was, and used Paul to write his various epistles. God took these men whom He had prepared and carried them along supernaturally so that they wrote exactly what He intended them to write. It was their writing, but it was God’s words that were written.

God the Holy Spirit brought directly to bear on the writers of Scripture a divine influence which ensured that, as long as they thought and spoke and wrote under this influence, all their statements accurately conveyed what God revealed to them of His mind. Thus we have the thoughts of God infallibly communicated to us in what are the words of God as well as the words of men. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim 3:16) – it is God-breathed – the exact formulation of what God wished us to know. Inspiration preserved the writers from error, which would be natural to them as sinful men, and guided them in their expression of thoughts and use of words so that what they wrote is God’s own Word – “making the voice of God speak to us in a human accent, and His Word to address us in our own tongue”, as Bannerman puts it.

It is one thing to say what inspiration is – it is something else to explain the divine mode of inspiration. The Bible defines inspiration but does not explain what we might call the mechanics of it. The exercise of their own faculties was harnessed and controlled by the Holy Spirit, so that the human authors spoke the pure truth of God. The manner in which the Spirit’s activity and the writer’s faculties combined in this work has not been revealed to our finite minds. Even on the human level we can be influenced by others in ways which affect our thoughts and utterances.

How presumptuous it is for man to think that God cannot, without doing violence to the nature of the penmen, influence His own creatures so as to ensure that they will convey precisely what is in His mind in the terms in which He wishes it to be conveyed. “He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that formed the eye, shall He not see?” (Ps 94:9). Shall He who made man and gave him his faculties be unable to work through these faculties in a way which ensures that the outcome is exactly as He intends? God’s grace and wisdom and power are manifested in providing us with a record of His revelation which comes in thoughts and experiences and words that speak to us as human beings, but which is no less His own infallible word to us. It is therefore entirely appropriate that we should, for example, say, “Let us read the Word of God. Let us read the Epistle of Paul to the Romans.”


2. The Reason for Believing It

The fundamental reason is that it is taught in the Bible. This is not unwarranted circular reasoning. We are dependent on the Bible for all we know of God’s special revelation of Himself. If we cannot believe what the Bible says about itself, we cannot believe what it says about anything. If it is trustworthy at all, it is trustworthy in what it says about itself. The divine Word carries its own authority, and all who are given spiritual perception believe it on account of that authority. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). Scripture does not depend on something outside itself for testimony or verification. If it did, we would be putting our confidence in that “something” instead of in the Word itself. The inspired Word has authority in itself, whether or not we recognise it, though we need to be enlightened to that fact. “The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:4.).

Scripture bears witness to its own character. This does not mean that human testimony does not corroborate the truth and authority of the Word of God. In all areas in which men have any competence to ascertain truth the Bible emerges with its integrity intact. Every human means of testing what can be tested by human means testifies to the integrity of the Bible. And the testimony of the Spirit in the souls of His people promotes “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof” ([1]Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:5).

What is the Bible’s testimony to itself?

Two passages summarise the biblical account of the origin of Scripture: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim 3:16); “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:19-21). These passages refer to “all scripture”, the “word of prophecy”, and every “prophecy of the scripture”. The prophets were God’s spokesmen, and the Scriptures are the written record of what they spoke in God’s name. Without twisting these statements, no one can deny that the Bible teaches that Scripture has been breathed by God, that holy men, chosen and equipped by God, produced it when God moved and directed them, and that the end product of their inspiration by God is our possession of the revelation which God wished us to have in the terms in which He wished it to be expressed.

The Old Testament bears witness to its own inspiration.

This appears from its testimony to the prophetic function to which its authors were called. God spoke through the prophets. They were moved to speak only the words which He gave them. Isaiah often expressed his sense of divine inspiration by using such terms as “thus saith the Lord”. Jeremiah is introduced as one “to whom the word of the Lord came” (Jer 1:2). Calling him to his work, God said: “Whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. . . . Then the Lord put forth His hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put My words in thy mouth” (Jer 1:7,9). “The word of the Lord came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was there upon him” (Ezek 1:3). What was true of the prophets applied to the law and to the psalms. In Malachi 4:4 we read: “Remember ye the law of Moses My servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgements”. In 2 Samuel 23:2 the sweet psalmist of Israel says: “The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and His word was in my tongue”.

Our Lord testifies to the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures.

He did not refer specifically to each book of the Old Testament, but in His time the canon, or content, of the Old Testament Scriptures was not in doubt and His statements applied to the entire Old Testament canon. When accused of blasphemy for calling God His Father, He referred His accusers to the Psalms (Ps 82:6), described as their law. He thus referred them to the authority of the Old Testament and made this appeal: “If He called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; say ye of Him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?” (Jn 10:34,35). The Word of God coming to men is the Scripture which cannot be broken. Scripture is infallible and cannot fail of fulfilment or be rendered irrelevant. The authority of Scripture was upheld by Him after His resurrection, when He impressed on the disciples that what was spoken by the prophets and written in the Scriptures – in the law of Moses and in the prophets and in the psalms – had to be fulfilled (Luke 24:25-27,44-46). He referred to specific Old Testament passages and identified the words of the human speakers as the words of God. For example, “David himself said by the Holy Ghost, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit thou on My right hand” (Mark 12:36).

This view is the teaching of the Apostles.

This view of the Old Testament Scriptures as inspired and infallible is also set forth by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament in the teaching of the Apostles. They refer to God speaking through men. “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet” (Matt 1:22). “Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas” (Acts 1:16). “Lord, Thou art God . .. . who by the mouth of Thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage . . . ?” (Acts 4:24,25). “The gospel of God (which He promised afore by His prophets in the holy scriptures)” (Rom 1:1,2). “God . . . spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets” (Heb 1:2).

They ascribe to men what was spoken by God.

“Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth, and honoureth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me” (Matt 15:7,8). “For Moses saith, Honour thy father and thy mother” (Mark 7:10). “For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, that the man which doeth those things shall live by them. . . . First Moses saith, I will provoke you to jealousy by them that are no people. . . . But Esaias is very bold, and saith, I was found of them that sought Me not” (Rom 10:5,19,20).

They say that Scripture spoke when it was God who spoke.

“For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up” (Rom 9:17). “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham. . . . But the scripture hath concluded all under sin” (Gal 3:8,22). “Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son” (Gal 4:30).

They quote what is spoken in Scripture by man as spoken by God.

“Wherefore He saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 13:35). “Wherefore, as the Holy Ghost saith, Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Heb 3:7,8).

They refer to the Old Testament Scriptures as the oracles of God.

“Our fathers . . . received the lively oracles to give unto us” (Acts 7:38). “Unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2). “Ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God” (Heb 5:12). If one wishes an authoritative word from God, one must go to the Scriptures – that is where God’s voice is heard.

The New Testament, referring to the Old, manifests a high view of the divine origin and infallibility and authority of Scripture. The New Testament witnesses to itself as part of Holy Scripture, with the same divine origin, infallibility and authority as the Old Testament. A significant passage is 2 Peter 3:15,16: “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction”. Peter includes Paul’s epistles with the “other scriptures”. His view of the other scriptures is seen in 2 Peter 1:19-21: “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost”. It has been observed that in 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul refers to a passage in Deuteronomy and to a passage in Luke’s Gospel, describing both as scripture: “For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward” (Deut 25:4; Luke 10:7).

The view of the New Testament Scriptures taken by their writers is clear.

1 Corinthians 2 is relevant, particularly verses 9-13 and 16: “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him. But God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual . . . we have the mind of Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 14: 37 Paul writes: “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord”. In 1 John 4: 6 we read: “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error”.

We can reasonably assume that God, having taken such care in communicating His revelation in Old Testament times, a revelation preparatory to the coming of Christ, took equal care with the fuller revelation accompanying that coming. The Old and New Testaments are parts of the one revelation of God. We need the same authority for believing what is written in the New as for believing what is written in the Old. That this is no mere assumption is clear when Paul writes in Ephesians 3:2-7 of “the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel; whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of His power”.

The inspiration claimed by Paul was promised by the Lord to His apostles. “These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (Jn 14:25,26). “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth: for He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak: and He will show you things to come. He shall glorify Me; for He shall receive of Mine, and shall show it unto you” (Jn 16:12-14). Christ being the subject of the Old and New Testaments, God ensured by inspiring prophets and apostles that the record concerning His Son accords perfectly with reality.

The New Testament, like the Old, is Scripture given by inspiration of God, not the personal reflection of men to whom God revealed Himself but the words of holy men moved by the Holy Ghost to express the thoughts of God in the words which the Holy Ghost taught them. The New Testament, like the Old, is Scripture which cannot be broken. Significantly, the supernatural revelation given to apostles and communicated by them to others under the influence of divine inspiration was accompanied by miracles as was the case with the Old Testament revelation (Heb 2:4).

Many objections are raised against the biblical doctrine of Inspiration. Critics once spoke confidently of the “factual errors” of the Bible, but the progress of human knowledge has swept many of these allegations away. Those who dismiss inspiration as mechanical, and inconsistent with the rationality and personality of the writers, unwarrantably restrict the power and wisdom of God, the creator of man’s personality and rational faculties, and ignore the fact that they counted it their highest honour to be chosen as spokesmen for Jehovah. Those who object to the science, morality or religion of the Bible, and maintain that it therefore cannot be inspired, do not let the Bible speak for itself. They approach it with the anti-supernatural presuppositions and prejudices of ungodliness and unbelief. The objections cannot stand before the authority of Scripture or before the persuasion of the Holy Spirit when He graciously enlightens a mind in the truth or even before such evidence as men can properly summon in such a case, as will be indicated in the next article.

How a Sinner Comes to Recognise the Inspiration of the Bible

How do we become assured that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? If we depend on faith rather than reason for our conviction that the Bible is the Word of God, what is the difference between Christianity and other religions which claim a “holy book”?

1. The testimony of the Church is not to be discounted. That we have been led by the Church and by our parents to grow up accepting that the Bible is the Word of God is part of the Lord’s providential kindness toward us. William Whitaker, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge (1579-1599), whose Disputation on Holy Scripture (1588) evidently influenced the construction of chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession, [1] says that “the authority of the Church may at first move us to acknowledge the Scriptures: but afterwards, when we have ourselves read the Scriptures, and understood them, then we conceive a true faith”. Cornelius van Til, in his little publication, Why I Believe in God, written to challenge an atheist or agnostic acquaintance, makes a similar point in response to the accusation that his belief was the result of his early home life: “You know as well as I that every child is conditioned by its environment. You were as thoroughly conditioned not to believe in God as I was to believe in God . . . . To be ‘without bias’ is only to have a particular kind of bias. The idea of ‘neutrality’ is simply a colourless suit that covers a negative attitude towards God”.

Those whose early “conditioning” is in accordance with truth have much reason to be thankful. What they see of the effect of Scripture in the lives of those whom they love and respect has its own evidential value. In no realm other than religion would critics dismiss the benefit of being reared in an environment where the influences were for good rather than evil.

As a result of God’s providential working in the history of the Church we are not left to search for documents to recognise as the Word of God. We have a Book historically recognised by the Church as composed of documents received by the original recipients as inspired Scripture. The unity of the Old Testament is such that genealogies and histories which might not in themselves convey the impression of inspiration to even a spiritual reader are recognised as inspired because they are integral parts of a volume with all the marks of inspiration. The unity of the New Testament, which consists of books written by different persons in different circumstances over half a century, is a remarkable fact on the same level as the unity of the Old Testament and the unity between the Old Testament and the New. The coherence between all parts of the Bible means that to be assured of the inspiration of any part is to be assured of the inspiration of it all.

The Church did not give these books their status or authority but only recognised it. The Church received as inspired Scripture those books presented to it as such by the Apostles or by apostolic men and acknowledged as such by the original recipients because of this origin and the divine authority which impressed them upon their souls and minds and consciences. Robert Shaw, in his Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, says: “The task of searching the records of antiquity has been undertaken by learned men, and executed with great industry and zeal”. They discovered “that the books now included in the New Testament were received as inspired by the primitive Church, and numerous passages were quoted from them by the earliest Christian writers; that catalogues of these books, which coincide with ours, are inserted in the works of different authors who flourished in the third and fourth centuries; and that these books were publicly read in Christian congregations, and were continually appealed to by Christian writers as the standard of faith, and the supreme judge of controversies”. By God’s providential work in the Church we have a Book which claims to be the Word of God. In “The Authority of the New Testament”, [2] N B Stonehouse makes the point that “the testimony which the Scriptures themselves bear to their own authority” and which is intrinsic to themselves “established itself in the history of the Church through the government of its divine Head”.

2. The rational arguments for the inspiration of the Bible have a function to perform. The truthfulness of Scripture is sometimes argued from the correspondence between what is written in the Bible and those aspects of reality which can be tested by human observation or experiment. John Blanchard quotes from the conclusion of a 1974 article in Time magazine: “After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived – and is perhaps better for the siege. Even on the critics’ own terms – historical fact – the Scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack.” He comments that “the Bible’s prophetic element adds an impressive dimension to its integrity and presents an enormous problem to the sceptic”. [3] Such arguments may clear objections from honest minds. But as Adolph Saphir puts it: “God did not leave a matter of such vital importance as the authority of Scripture to depend upon minute investigation, for which only the learned have leisure and ability; nor upon abstruse and metaphysical argument, for which the mass of mankind have no aptitude. There must be something about the Scripture obvious and tangible, to prove its authority and demonstrate its high origin.” [4]

The Confession concentrates on arguments drawn more directly from the character and effects of the Bible and specifies “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” as “arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God”. George Gillespie, considered the source from which this description was derived, specifies as additional factors the Bible’s irresistible power over the conscience, the holiness and honesty of the penmen, its confirmation by miracles, the fulfilling of prophecies and its conservation over against enemies. The significance of the evidences enumerated by the Confession is that they are available to the reader of Scripture without access to anything external to Scripture or dependent upon historical or other human research.

Wayne Spear quotes Whitaker to the effect that “to persuade our souls thoroughly, it is not these or any other arguments of the same kind that can avail, but only the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking inwardly in our hearts”. Spear adds that “in coming to faith, no one is dependent on the ability to follow sophisticated reasoning like that of the Schoolmen. God deals directly with the heart by the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit, who, in effectual calling, enlightens the mind to perceive the truth and beauty of the Scripture, and persuades and enables us to embrace it”. In keeping with the Confession, E J Young asserts that “in themselves, however, these arguments do not bring us to full persuasion that the Bible is God’s Word, and the reason for this is that the human understanding is darkened by sin”. [5] As B B Warfield puts it, “their failure to produce ‘sound faith’ is due solely to the subjective condition of man, which is such that a creative operation of the Holy Spirit on the soul is requisite before he can exercise ‘sound faith'”. [6]

3. The conclusive evidence for the inspiration of the Bible comes from “the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. . . . The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), and the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.” [7] The primary reason for believing that the Bible is the inspired Word of God is that it claims to be such. The difference from other books which claim to be the Word of God is that the claim of the Bible is validated, particularly by the work of the Spirit causing the soul to concur in the claims which the Bible makes for itself.

John Owen, in The Divine Original, Authority, Self-evidencing Light, and Power of the Scriptures [8] says of the Bible that “we do so receive, embrace, believe and submit unto it, because of the authority of God who speaks it, or gave it forth as His mind and will, evidencing itself by the Spirit in and with that Word unto our minds and consciences: or, because that the Scripture, being brought unto us by the good providence of God, in ways of His appointment and preservation, it doth evidence itself infallibly unto our consciences to be the word of the living God”. He compares the Scriptures to light and power. Drawing attention to 2 Corinthians 4:2-4, he says that “to give us an infallible assurance that, in receiving this testimony, we are not imposed upon by cunningly devised fables . . . the Scriptures have that glory of light and power accompanying them, as wholly distinguisheth them by infallible signs and evidences from all words and writings not divine; conveying their truth and power into the souls and consciences of men with an infallible certainty”.

John Murray [9] makes the point that “rational demonstration is not the ground of faith. . . . The nature of faith is acceptance on the basis of testimony, and the ground of faith is therefore testimony or evidence. In this matter it is the evidence God has provided, and God provides the evidence in His Word, the Bible. This means simply that the basis of faith in the Bible is the witness the Bible itself bears to the fact that it is God’s Word, and our faith that it is infallible must rest upon no other basis than the witness the Bible bears to this fact.”

How does the Holy Spirit convince a sinner that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? Not by justifying the claims of Scripture at the bar of reason, so that man rather than God is the foundation of faith, although He will show that acceptance of these claims is most reasonable. Not by directly impressing upon the soul the proposition that the Bible is the inspired Word of God – though that conviction may be entertained rationally by a sinner before he submits to these claims. Louis Gaussen suggests that the Reformed Confessions teach that “to every truly converted Christian the Bible is presented in some way to his soul, with evidence, as a miraculous book – as a living and efficacious word, which ‘pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit’; illumines in a moment the inmost depths of his being and reveals to him the features, hitherto unknown, of his inner man; softening, persuading and subduing it with incomparable power. . . . Henceforth the soul can no longer be under a mistake about it. To it this book, in the whole or in part, is certainly from on high. The seals of the Almighty are attached to it. But this ‘witness of the Holy Spirit’, of which our fathers spoke, and which every Christian has more or less acknowledged when he has read his Bible with vital efficacy – this witness may at first be heard by him only in a single page of the Scriptures; but this page suffices to spread over the book which contains it an incomparable lustre in his eyes.” [10]

John Murray makes a similar point: “The Confession represents the authority of Scripture as resting not upon the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit but upon the inspiration of the Spirit, a finished activity by which, it is clearly stated, the sixty-six books enumerated were produced and in virtue of which they are the Word of God written. It is, however, by ‘the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts’ that we become convinced of that authority. The authority of Scripture is an objective and permanent fact residing in the quality of inspiration; the conviction on our part has to wait for that inward testimony by which the antecedent facts of divinity and authority are borne in upon our minds and consciences.”

R L Dabney, speaking of the Scripture’s self-evidencing light, says that “the literary evidences of its divine origin, drawn by the learned from antiquity, have their value; but wherever the Bible is read with honesty, it presents, within itself, sufficient proof to evince that its claims are reasonable. Only on this supposition can its lofty and imperative attitude be justified.” [11] As Thomas Halyburton puts it: “The Word, by a God-becoming manifestation of the truth . . . dives into the souls of men, into all the secret recesses of their hearts, guides, teaches, directs, determines and judges in them and upon them in the name, majesty and authority of God. And when it enters thus into the soul it fills it with the light of the glory of the beamings of those perfections upon it, whereby it is made to cry out, ‘The voice of God and not of man’ (Heb 4:12; 1 Cor 14:24).”

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes of the connection between the rational proofs and the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit: “In vain were the authority of Scripture fortified by argument, or supported by the consent of the Church, or confirmed by any other helps, if unaccompanied by an assurance higher and stronger than human judgment can give. . . . On the other hand, when recognising its exemption from the common rule, we receive it reverently and according to its dignity, those proofs which were not so strong as to produce and rivet a full conviction in our minds become most appropriate helps.”

After indicating several weighty arguments for receiving the Bible as the Word of God, he concludes: “There are other reasons, neither few nor feeble, by which the dignity and majesty of the Scriptures may be not only proved to the pious, but also completely vindicated against the cavils of slanderers. These, however, cannot of themselves produce a firm faith in Scripture until our heavenly Father manifest His presence in it, and thereby secure implicit reverence for it. Then only, therefore, does Scripture suffice to give a saving knowledge of God, when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Still the human testimonies which go to confirm it will not be without effect, if they are used in subordination to that chief and highest proof, as secondary helps to our weakness. But it is foolish to attempt to prove to infidels that the Scripture is the Word of God. This it cannot be known to be, except by faith. Justly, therefore, does Augustine remind us that every man who would have any understanding in such high matters must previously possess piety and mental peace.” [12]

1. See, for example, W R Spear, “The Westminster Confession of Faith and Holy Scripture”, in To Glorify and Enjoy God.
2. The Infallible Word, p 140.
3. Does God Believe in Atheists, pp 404,410.
4. “Holy Scripture its own Evidence”, in Truth Unchanged, Unchanging.
5. “The Authority of the Old Testament”, in The Infallible Word.
6. “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”, in his Calvin and Augustine.
7. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:4,5.
8. In Works, vol. 16.
9. “The Attestation of Scripture”, in The Infallible Word.
10. The Canon of the Holy Scriptures, pp 416,417.
11. “The Bible its own Witness”, in vol. 1 of his Discussions.
12. Vol. 1, chapter 7: “The Credibility of Scripture Sufficiently Proved, in so far as Natural Reason Admits”.


4. The Relevance of the Doctrine for Today

Many professing to be Christians and leaders in the Christian Church would regard this discussion as completely irrelevant. They have no place in their thinking or in their lives for an infallible revelation communicated to us by God. The doctrine of the divine inspiration of infallible Scripture has repercussions in every area, and no doubt that is why the ungodly and lawless spirit of man rebels against it. Rejection of the divine inspiration of Scripture removes from Scripture its unquestioned authority over the faith and life of man. Rejection of the divine inspiration of Scripture leaves us with a fallible and erring Bible and with a fallible and erring Christ, if any Christ at all.

The fundamental significance of the doctrine of the divine, full, verbal inspiration of the Scriptures today, as in every age, is that it makes all the difference between a Bible which is inerrant and authoritative on every matter with which it deals and a Bible which is subject to the judgement of man and leaves man as the infallible authority. Either man is to sit in judgement on the Bible and accept its teachings, not because they are given by the Word of God, but to the extent that they fit in with his own view of things; or man is to sit before the Word of God and bow to the authority of God who speaks there – his belief and experience and action being determined by the revelation given by God.

The Reformed and Biblical doctrine of Inspiration means that we must be dependent upon, and submissive to, the Bible in its entirety as God’s Word and as our only “rule of faith and life”. [2] As soon as it is clear what the Word of God says, we must concur with it in our thinking and practice, “casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). An inspired Bible is the last word on every subject with which it deals, the last court of appeal in every controversy.

The inspiration of the Bible is of fundamental relevance to the principles applied in the translation of the Scriptures from the languages in which they were originally given. It is also of fundamental relevance to the choice that is made of a version of Scripture. Scripture ought to be translated to give, not only the thought, but also the very words of God. We should be concerned to have a version of Scripture which we can depend upon as an accurate translation of God’s words – a translation which reproduces as closely as possible the grammatical and idiomatic forms of the original text, a translation based upon the principles of formal equivalence rather than dynamic equivalence. This we have in the Authorised Version.

The continuance of the Reformed, Protestant Church depends upon the maintenance of the Reformed doctrine of Inspiration and upon the maintenance of such theology and preaching and practice and discipline as depends upon the Word of God for its authority. Romanism is bolstered by tradition and by the authority of the Church itself. Liberalism puts the self-proclaimed scholar in place of the priest. Large sections of the professedly-Evangelical Church have been carried away either with pluralism or mysticism. The Reformed, Protestant Church was built upon the supreme, sole and sufficient authority of the inspired Word of God, and when it loses that it loses the reason for its existence and loses its divine strength.

Indeed, the continuance of Christianity as we have known it depends upon acceptance of the divine inspiration of the Bible. When men move away from submission to the authority of the Divine Word, whether they replace it with the dogmas of an infallible Church or the theorising of scholars or the human consciousness of men, they lose the doctrine and the life of Christianity. A trustworthy Bible provides us with a definite system of theology. Take away confidence in the Scriptures as the infallible and unerring Word of God, and there is no basis for asserting the truthfulness of the Christian religion. Men left to themselves will come up with a gospel very different from that proclaimed in the Bible. In the nineteenth century, professedly Evangelical and Calvinistic churchmen thought that they could undermine the inspiration and authority of the Word of God and yet retain their gospel. History has shown the folly of that notion. If men do not accept what the Bible says about itself, why should they accept what it says on any subject?

What is Christianity? It makes all the difference whether one seeks the answer to that question from an inspired, infallible Bible or somewhere – anywhere – else. The Christianity which obtains when the Bible is supreme is very different from the Christianity so-called which will prevail when anything else takes that place and subjects the Bible to it. The one is genuine and the other is false, even if they happen to correspond in some of their ideas.

The effectiveness of the Church in the world as an instrument for the accomplishment of God’s purposes of grace depends upon her possession and use of an inspired Bible. On what other basis can the Church demand the attention of men for what those in a state of nature regard as foolishness or find to be a stumbling block? The inspired Word of God determines the message of the Church to the surrounding world. It determines the methods which the Church is to use in her attempts to make that message known.

It is itself the great instrument which the Church is to use; she is to spread the Word of God and preach that Word faithfully. The possession of the inspired, infallible Word of God is a large part of the strength which the Church possesses in her endeavour to fulfil her mission. Her mission is, in essence, to bring the Word of God to bear upon men, to summon men to hear the Word of God and to submit soul and mind and morals to it. Her preachers have much encouragement to proclaim the message of the Bible accurately and faithfully in the assurance that it is divine truth itself, and that the conviction of this is wrought in the souls of sinners by the power of the Holy Ghost. We can see the effects today on her message, of the professing Church departing from the inspired and infallible Word of God, and also on her methods and her warrant for demanding the attention of men. And even where the truth is maintained in these areas, the Church may suffer a crisis of confidence because she is not living as she should in the realisation of the significance of having in her possession the inspired, infallible Word of God. We do not have to apologise for the inspired Word of God but only publish and preach it.

As far as our approach to those who do not bow to the authority of Scripture is concerned, the doctrine of Inspiration suggests that we should not deal with them in such a way that they are made to feel that they have the capacity or the right to judge the credentials of the Word of God. While we should endeavour to remove any doubts, more or less honestly held, which are capable of being removed by human testimony or evidence, we should begin with them from the assumption that God is and that God has spoken. We should encourage them to read the Bible for themselves. D A Carson wrote in 1996: “Two years ago I gave a series of evangelistic talks to a small group of scientists near Chicago, all with earned doctorates. From previous experience, I went in expecting that two-thirds would not even know that the Bible has two Testaments. I discovered that my estimate was a trifle low.” He suggests that “surely part of the effort to find out what Scripture is requires that we read Scripture and see what it says of itself”.[3]

On the personal level, the doctrine of inspiration provides us in the Word of God with a divine foundation for our faith and with a divine authority for our lives. It gives us direct access to what God has spoken. It brings the Word of God directly to bear upon us. It searches us to the depth of our being. It provides us with a basis for the most sure hope. It makes it possible for us to have fellowship not only with the writers of Scripture in their beliefs and experiences and way of life but also “with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 1:3). It is the means of making possible in this twenty-first century a personal religion that is identical in every essential aspect with that of the first disciples of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and all those down through the preceding centuries who were looking for His appearing. True personal religion in all its aspects is a response to the Word of God – faith, repentance, love, obedience, hope and every other Christian grace is wrought in the regenerate soul by the Holy Spirit through the instrumentality of His Word.

The relevance of this doctrine to us will manifest itself supremely in our own attitude to the Scriptures. As we seek to contend for the doctrine of inspiration, “we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders and with divers miracles and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will?” (Heb 2:1-4). “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently; being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the Word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Pet 1:22-25). “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:19-21).

1 The final article in the series.
2 Westminster Confession 1:2.
3 The Gagging of God, pp 42,162.


From the Free Presbyterian Magazine, January 2006
Website of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland:

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