The Authority of Scripture

Man does not establish authority; he acknowledges it. This is the proper procedure, though seldom observed, Man wants to acknowledge only that authority which he himself establishes or at the least gives consent to, All other authority is offensive to his sense of autonomy and ultimacy, As a result, the claims of Scripture are particularly offensive to the natural man, because so much is involved in the admission of their truth.


To recognize the claims of Scripture is to accept creaturehood and the fact of the FalL The Fall necessitates an infallible Savior and an infallible Scripture, as Van Til has shown (C, Van Til: The Psychology of Religion, p. 124). Moreover, the concept of the infallible Word involves and requires the idea of God’s complete control over history (C. Van Til: A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 14), This means that God is self-contained and ultimate, controlling all reality, with all reality revelational of him, knowing all things exhaustively because he controls completely. To accept fully the concept of the infallible Word is to claim all facts for God and to insist that reality can be interpreted only in terms of him and his Word. This runs counter to the natural man’s claim to be the point of reference and the source of ultimate interpretation of factuality. But it is this sin of man which makes Scripture necessary. Scripture speaks to man with authority, and with sufficiency, that is, as a completed Word. It speaks with perspicuity, clearly and simply telling man who he is, what the nature of his sin is, what his remedy is and where it is to be found. The attributes of Scripture are thus: necessity, authority, perspicuity, and sufficiency (C. Van Til: An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 1952 ed. pp. 139ff.).

All this the Christian must boldly affirm, without any hesitancy with regard to the charge of circular reasoning. As Van Til points out,

The only alternative to “circular reasoning” as engaged in by Christians, no matter on what point they speak, is that of reasoning on the basis of isolated facts and isolated minds, with the result that there is no possibility of reasoning at all. Unless as sinners we have an absolutely inspired Bible, we have no absolute God interpreting reality for us, and unless we have an absolute God interpreting reality for us, there is no true interpretation at all. (Ibid., p. 152)

All authority and all knowledge are at stake in the doctrine of the infallible Word. Van Til traces and analyzes its history and doctrine in its various forms in A Christian Theory of Knowledge. Scripture claims to be self-authenticating and declares that man lives by the absolute authority of God. In the non-Christian view of things, God and man are both involved in a principle of continuity that embraces all being, and again both God and man are beset with a principle of discontinuity which is in essence chance. In all this, man is the interpreter and the point of reference.

There can be only one final reference point in predication. If man is taken to be this final reference point his environment becomes dependent upon him, and any other personality that may exist is not more ultimate than he. Therefore there is no God on whom he can feel himself dependent. He is his own god (C. Van Til: A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 143).

No refuge from the authority of Scripture can be found in natural theology or common grace. Too frequently now these two areas are stressed as though an independent area of authority or witness existed. But all creation gives a common witness to God. All creation is revelational of him, and its witness a unitary one. To escape this revelation, as Van Til has pointed out, to escape the knowledge of God, man would have to destroy himself. But he cannot escape ·into any non-being, and as a result he has no escape; he finds himself confronted with one resounding witness in all heaven and earth, and even in himself he is confronted with God. Precisely because this is a world which is revelational of God, and because common grace is real, the authority of Scripture is inescapable and binding. As Van Til so cogently summarizes it, “Only in a universe that is unified by the plan of God can there be a once-for-all and finished act of redemption, affecting the whole race of men. And only on the basis of a world in which every fact testifies of God can there be a Word of God that testifies of itself as interpreting every other fact” (Ibid., p. 179). The Christian-theistic position, with all that it involves and without any concessions at any point, is the only position which does not destroy knowledge and reason and does not annihilate intelligent human experience. And basic to this position is the authority of the infallible Word, an authority derogatory to man as god, but basic to man as man, destructive of reason as god but determinative of reason as reason. As Van Til states it,

…it must be affirmed that a Protestant accepts Scripture to be that which Scripture itself says it is on its own authority. Scripture presents itself as being the only light in terms of which the truth about facts and their relations can be discovered. Perhaps the relationship of the sun to our earth and the objects that constitute it, may make this clear. We do not use candles, or electric lights in order to discover whether the light and energy of the sun exist. The reverse is the case. We have light in candles and electric light bulbs because of the light and energy of the sun. So we cannot subject the authoritative pronouncements of Scripture about reality to the scrutiny of reason because it is reason itself that learns of its proper function from Scripture.

There are, no doubt, objections that occur to one at once when he hears the matter presented so baldly…

All the objections that are brought against such a position spring, in the last analysis, from the assumption that the human person is ultimate and as such should properly act as judge of all claims to authority that are made by anyone. But if man is not autonomous, if he is rather what Scripture says he is, namely, a creature of God and a sinner before his face, then man should subordinate his reason to the Scriptures and seek in the light of it to interpret his experience. (C. Van Til: The Defense of the Faith, p. 125)

Neo-orthodoxy cannot tolerate a doctrine of Scripture in which God speaks infallibly and objectively, because it cannot tolerate a God who by his eternal decree has ordained all things and has spoken authoritatively concerning them. Of Scripture Barth has said, “A human document like any other, it can lay no a priori dogmatic claim to special attention and consideration.” (Karl Barth: The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 60) Of miracles and the resurrection, he states, “it is beside the point even to ask whether they are historical and possible.” (Ibid., p. 91.) And yet Barth “believes” in verbal inspiration and affirms the orthodox doctrine, but only by pouring new meaning into the idea. He condemns the orthodox doctrine of an objective and direct revelation as presumptuous and as an attempt on man’s part to control revelation. Yet it is Barth who makes inspiration subjective. Scripture is the Word of God only when men accept it as such, as witnessing to the revelation of God. But God is free, unpredictable, hidden and hence cannot be bound to the written Word, which can only be the means of hearing the hidden word or inner text. In this he truly hears the God who is exhaustively present in the process of revelation, which is itself redemptive.

The gist of all this is that man actually hears himself when Barth claims he is hearing God; subjectivism triumphs, because no objective Scripture and no true and finished revelation is possible unless there be a self-contained and autonomous God. Without such a God, there can be no systematic theology, because God is too full of unrealized potentialities to be predictable or his revelation trustworthy. Without such a God, Scripture cannot be the infallible Word, a direct and finished revelation. The offense in the orthodox doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture is not in Jonah’s experience or in problems of chronology; it is in the God who makes Scripture possible and speaks authoritatively in and through it. To underrate the nature of this offense is to trifle with the claims of God and to evade the central issue of authority.