What We Believe

The Witness of Scripture to Itself

Lane G. 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.[1]

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."[2] 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.

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."[3]

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.[4]

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."[5] 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.[6]

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.

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.[7]

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."[8]

At this point, Bavinck prepares the way for Cornelius Van Til's critique of contemporary theology, which enshrines the Kantian (and, more basically, fallen Adamic) autonomous mind. Such theology attempts to reconstruct a doctrine of Scripture based on the supreme authority of human reason. As Van Til taught, when the human mind does not submit to the supreme authority of God speaking in Scripture, it is inevitable that something other than the triune God becomes the authority, whether that be reason, experience, or pragmatic utility. In the case at hand, historical-critical research into the origin of the Bible becomes the authority with regard to forming a doctrine of Scripture. No longer is the doctrine of Scripture based on Scripture's self-witness; rather, extrabiblical evidence becomes the new norm for adjudicating the nature of Scripture. And how will this extrabiblical evidence be assessed?

Bavinck contends that the criteria of assessment for both biblical and extrabiblical evidence will be the "thoughts" of the theologian engaged in historical-critical research. That is, the would-be autonomous man will subordinate the self-witness of Scripture to his own independent historical research. In such a case, the interpretation of the extrabiblical evidence will be guided by presuppositions determined by autonomous human thought. These presuppositions range from the naturalistic criterion that all texts are the product of merely human authorship (classical liberalism and neo-orthodoxy) to the notion that no historical document, including Scripture, can convey a message that transcends its cultural-linguistic context (classical historicism). Such approaches rule out from the beginning the uniqueness of the biblical text and ensure that theological conclusions conform to a preconceived philosophical viewpoint. The significant point is that the theologian himself remains autonomous when interpreting the extrabiblical evidence he will use to arrive at a doctrine of Scripture.

The theologian who builds a doctrine of Scripture on historical-critical research has already begun to reject Scripture's self-testimony and therefore no longer believes Scripture. But subordination of the word of God to extrabiblical criteria is as old as the Fall, isn't it? Was it not the serpent in the garden of Eden who called into question the goodness of God and the authority of his word? Was it not Adam who began to treat evidence external to God's word as a norm in terms of which he could assess the veracity and determine the nature of God's spoken word? The problem of subordinating the word of God to external "evidence" is as old as Adam's original sin.


Bavinck's insistence that the self-witness of Scripture determine our doctrine of Scripture is not merely an academic issue. The methodology Bavinck insists upon when formulating a doctrine of Scripture accents the Creator-creature distinction and reminds us that the Spirit of God speaks with absolute authority in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Nothing external to God's Word can compete with the self-witness of Scripture in constructing the doctrine of Scripture (or any other doctrine, for that matter). To deny this is to reject the Word of God in favor of the autonomous mind of man.

May we who confess Jesus Christ as Lord hold fast to the absolute authority of the self-attesting, triune God, as he speaks in his inscripturated and inerrant Word.


[1] For an example, see Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 13-14. Enns misappropriates extrabiblical evidence in an attempt to reassess the doctrine of Scripture, thereby failing to allow Scripture's self-witness its proper role in the construction of the doctrine of Scripture.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 425.

[3] Ibid., 435.

[4] Ibid., 414-28.

[5] Ibid., 424.

[6] Ibid. (emphasis added).

[7] Ibid. (emphasis added).

[8] Ibid., 423.

The author teaches systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2008.

New Horizons: October 2008

Herman Bavinck

Also in this issue

Herman Bavinck: His Life and Theology

The Legacy of Herman Bavinck

Getting Serious about Worship

Helps for Worship #33: What to Do after Worship

The Breadth of Grace and Infant Baptism

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