There is a profound question at the heart of all thought and discourse: what is the authority governing our knowledge? Some philosophers would say that only what can be physically observed may be really known, while others would say that reason dictates what we may know. However, the answer of the Reformed Baptist is that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. As creatures, we must be instructed in how to properly think of the world around us, and the Scriptures are God’s revelation to us concerning His glorification of Himself, our salvation, and how we are to properly function in His creation. The next logical question to ask is: what is the basis of the authority of Scripture? How we answer this question has significant impact on our thinking not only in regard to theological questions, but also in regard to how we deal with social and cultural questions. The writers of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF) answered this question in chapter one, paragraphs four and five, found here.
The authority of Scripture is founded on the person and character of God Himself. The Bible is God’s revelation to us; it is His Word to us regarding Himself, His creation, and who we are. It is authoritative because He is authoritative. He is the Creator, so His knowledge and sovereignty have no limitation. He is truth itself: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The Apostle writes, “it was impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). We do well to heed what the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah: “To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Lord” (Is. 40:25). When the Lord God speaks, it is not like the speech of men. There is no room for question or doubt: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” (Rom. 9:20). So then, the authority by which we are to trust the Sciptures “dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God” (LBCF 1.4). We say this contrary to the teaching of the Romanists, who say that we are to “read the Scripture within ‘the living Tradition of the whole Church'” (Catholic Catechism, Part I, Sec. 1, Ch. 2, Art. 3, III, 113; found here). The Romanist would have Scripture be subservient to their Traditions, thus making their Traditions the authority by which the Scriptures are interpreted. But the Christian knows that the authority of the Bible comes from its Author, not any man or institution.
The issue then becomes one of content. How do we know what is and what is not Scripture? The Lord Jesus said, “And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice” (John 10:4). The LBCF states: “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof [the Scriptures], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” There are external and internal evidences that may bear witness and strengthen our faith in the Scripture, but the basis for knowing what is the Word of God comes from the testimony of the Holy Ghost. “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 shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (John 16:13-14; cf. 1 John 2:20-27). The Apostle wrote: “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” (1 Corinthians 2:12). This does not mean that each individual decides for himself what is, or what is not, Scripture; rather, it means that the true believer will recognize the Word of God.
This is contrary to the teaching of modern textual criticism. The modern textual critic supposes that we can only what is Scripture by the physical evidence which we presently have. A perfect example of this is the notation in the ESV regarding the ending of Mark: “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20.” Apart from the fact that the notation is a misrepresentation of the facts, the underlying assumption here is that the only evidence we have for Scripture is physical evidence. In other words, one of the problems of modern textual criticism is that it is inherently naturalistic. This has a very significant theological implication. Consider, for example, the first epistle of John. There is scant early evidence for the letter. There are only two papyri that contain portions of the letter: P9 and P74, and P74 is dated between 600 and 700 A.D. P9, dated between 200-300 A.D., contains only six verses of 1 John 4. If we were to base our determination solely on physical evidence, the evidence would suggest that most of 1 John is not authentic. In fact, if I were a Secularist, I would argue that the majority of 1 John was written well after the writing of the rest of the New Testament.
The theological implication of a purely naturalistic approach to this subject is that our reasoning and rationalizing of physical evidence becomes the authority on the which the Scriptures depend. Thus, the authority of Scripture is valid only as far as the physical evidence allows. So, based on physical evidence, the Secularist has every ground to question the authority of 1 John. But my confidence in the authority of 1 John is not based on physical evidence, but by the testimony of the Spirit of God, who has confirmed its authority in the church. Christianity is not naturalistic. We know that there is both the natural and the supernatural; there is the physical and the spiritual. This may appear to be “indefensible,” but the reality is that a naturalistic approach is frankly unbiblical. Our apologetics should not determine our theology; our theology should determine our apologetic. At the end of the day, we must say with John the Apostle: “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son” (1 John 5:9-10).