The Authority of Scripture and the Testimony of the Church

The Authority of Scripture and the Testimony of the Church

Although “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 (1 Thes 2:13; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19, 21; 1 John 5:9)” (WCF 1:4). Yet, the Westminster Confession (1.5) also recognizes that “we may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture (1 Tim. 3:15)…

What does it mean that we may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church? What authority does the Church have with respect to Scripture? We must avoid extremes on both sides of this question, not taking away legitimate authority of the Church, and not giving it too much. This post will answer these questions and focus on 1 Timothy 3:15 and a commonly misinterpreted quote from Augustine.

The formal cause of the authority of Scripture as the complete and sufficient rule of faith and life is Scripture itself because it is the Word of God; the Holy Spirit, as the efficient cause, impresses the truth upon the heart of the believer “bearing witness by and with the Word” (WLC Q. 4; WCF 1:5), yet it is the forensic duty of the universal Church to proclaim the truth of God’s Word to the nations, which makes it an instrumental cause of the authority of Scripture. The Church testifies, and the Holy Spirit convinces, that Scripture ought to be believed and obeyed because it is the Word of God.

The Declarative Authority of the Church.

This declarative authority of the Church was referred to by Augustine:

“For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichaeus, how can I but consent?”

Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, ch. 5.

Roman Catholics have misinterpreted this quotation as if Augustine meant that the authority of the papal church is the primary means to cause us to believe the Word of God. Several Reformed theologians corrected this flawed interpretation of Augustine and explained the proper relationship of the authority of Scripture and the testimony of the universal Church. Edward Leigh elaborates:

“These words [of Augustine], saith Whitaker[1], are so well known to the Papists that one can hardly exchange three words with them, but they will produce them. It is true indeed, that we may at the first be much moved to receive and hearken to the Scriptures, because the Church gives testimony of them, as the woman of Samaria by her speeches of Christ was a means of moving the Samaritans to believe, but when the men of Samaria had heard Christ himself speak, they believed in him more for his own words than the woman’s (John 4:39-41). In which sense those words of Augustine (so frequently quoted by the Papists) are to be interpreted. Augustine spake this of himself being a Manichee; when he was a Manichee he was first moved by the authority of the Church to believe the Gospel. His meaning is, that he had never believed the Gospel, if the authority of the Church had not been an introduction unto him, not that his faith rested upon it as a final stay, but that it caused him so far to respect the word of the Gospel to listen unto it, and with a kind of acquisite [i.e. acquired] and human faith to believe it, that he was thereby fitted to a better illumination, by force whereof he might more certainly believe it to be of God. But that the testimony of one father in one place, in a matter of such consequence, should be of that force, it is strange.

We deny not the ministry of the Church as an external means to move us to embrace the word of God, but we deny the authority of the Church to be the principal means. When we call the Scriptures Canonical, we call them not so passively, because they are received into the Canon by men, and accepted of; but actively, because they prescribe a Canon and rule to us.

The office of the Church in respect of the Scripture stands in four things:

1. To distinguish Canonical Scripture from that which is not Canonical; although the determination of the Church be not the only or chiefest cause why the Apocrypha are rejected.

2. To be a faithful keeper of those books which are inspired by God, like a notary which keepeth public writings.

3. To publish, declare and teach the truth, as a crier with a loud voice ought to pronounce the Kings edicts, but to pretermit [i.e. omit], add, or alter nothing (Mat. 28:19, 20. Acts 8:35; 1 Tim. 3:15). This Church here [“…the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” 1 Tim. 3:15] is not that Church which the Papists make to be the Judge of controversies, neither the Church representative, which is a general council; nor the Church virtual, which they imagine to be the Pope; but the Church essential: the congregation of all faithful believers, “the House of God,” as he calleth it. The Apostle here speaks of a “pillar,” not more Architectonico [in an architectural manner], understanding by it some essential piece of the building, but more forensi [in a forensic manner], such a post or pillar on which Tables and Proclamations used to hang. In old time the Gentiles used to write their Laws in Tables, and so hang them upon pillars of stone, that the people might read them, as Proclamations are nailed to posts in market Towns. The Apostle describing the Church, likeneth it to one of these pillars, whose use was to shew what hung thereon. It is pillar, not because it holds up but holds forth the truth.

4. To interpret the Scripture by the Scripture. Since many things in Scripture are doubtful, and hard to be understood without an Interpreter (Acts 8:31) it doth belong to the Church to expound the same, to interpret and give the sense (Neh. 8:8-9; Luke 24:27) provided that this exposition be by the Scriptures.

Some of the Papists say that the Church may condere articulos fidei & facere canonicum quo ad nos [establish articles of faith and make them canonical to us], and though they talk of Councils and Fathers, yet all is as the Pope concludes.

The testimony and tradition of the Church, especially the Primitive Church, is necessary to know that the Gospel of Matthew is divine Scripture by an historical and acquired faith, to know this by a divine and infused faith (besides the authority of the Church), the matter, character, and contents of every book, and comparing of it with other Scriptures do serve as an inward cause to produce the said infused faith.”

A Treatise of Divinity, I.ii.

Historical Faith vs. Feeling Faith.

William Tyndale, treating on the same topic, explains the distinction between these two types of faith although using the term “feeling faith” rather than “a divine and infused faith.

“There are two manner of faiths, an historical faith and a feeling faith. The historical faith hangeth of the truth and honesty of the teller, or of the common fame and consent of many… So now with an historical faith I may believe that the Scripture is God’s, by the teaching of them; and so I should have done, though they had told me that Robin Hood had been the Scripture of God: which faith is but an opinion, and therefore abideth fruitless… But of a feeling faith it is written (John 6), “They shall all be taught of God.” That is, God shall write it in their hearts with his Holy Spirit… And this faith is none opinion; but a sure feeling, and therefore fruitful. Neither hangeth it of the honesty of the preacher, but of the power of God.”

An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, pp. 50-51.

Thus, the church’s testimony is helpful for an “historical faith,” but not a “feeling faith,” that is, the church’s testimony to the authority of Scripture is instrumental, but it is not efficient in itself to make Scripture authoritative. “The Holy Ghost is the author of faith, and not the church, except as an instrument, an external and ministerial medium” (William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture, p. 297).

The Instrumentality of the Church.

“Necessity requires that they [i.e. those ignorant of godly things] first be moved by some authority to submit to teaching (doctrina), the spirit and understanding of which they are not immediately able to grasp until their faculties are prepared to understand the things in which they should be instructed. Authority, therefore, ought to be viewed as the gate through which all must pass in order to attain the knowledge of those things that must be learned.”

Musculus, Loci Communes, xxi, (Commonplaces, p. 354, col. 2), (cited from Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 364).

Musculus distinguishes between “everlasting and highest” authority, that is, God, and “temporal and lesser” authority which is derived and bestowed from God, that is, that of parents, magistrates, and ministers. The temporal and lesser authorities, according to their places and callings may be used instrumentally to persuade, but not from their authority as such (ibid.). This is why ministers of the Church use the keys of the Kingdom, parents raise children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), catechize them, discipline them, etc., and civil magistrates punish evil, praise good (Rom. 13), protect and promote the institutional Church (Isa. 49:11), etc. The Church’s authority is temporal and delegated, it is externally persuasive but not efficient to accomplish anything in itself.

“Furthermore, we cannot receive the testimony of the church unless we acknowledge her to be the true church. Thus, we do not believe the Word to be the Word of God because the church affirms it, but on the contrary, we believe the church to be the true church because the Word validates her as such.”

Wilhelmus a Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service I:29.

Tyndale explains how the testimony of the Church was instrumental to Augustine’s salvation:

“The earnest living of the Christian, according unto their doctrine, and the constant suffering of persecution and adversity for their doctrine’s sake, moved him [i.e. Augustine], and stirred him to believe that it was no vain doctrine; but that it must needs be of God, in that it had such power with it. For it happeneth that they which will not hear the word at the beginning, are afterward moved by the holy conversation of them that believe: as Peter warneth Christian wives that had heathen husbands, that would not hear the truth preached, to live so godly that they might win their heathen husbands with holy conversation (1 Peter 3). And Paul saith, “How knowest thou, Christian wife, whether thou shalt win thine heathen husband?” (1 Cor. 7). With holy conversation, meant he: for many are won with godly living, which at the first either will not hear, or cannot believe. And that is the authority that St. Augustine meant.”

An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, p. 50. [2]

Thus, it is clear that Augustine is not making a metaphysical statement about the priority of the Church over Scripture, rather, he is making an important point about the Church’s role in reaching the lost and spreading Christ’s Kingdom across the world. The church does not give Scripture divine authority, rather it testifies to the divine authority it already has by virtue of being God’s Word. Turretin concludes:

“So if it is asked why or on account of what I believe Scripture to be of divine quality, I will reply that this happens through Scripture itself which proves itself to be such by its marks. If it is asked how or by what it happens that I believe, I will reply, by the Holy Spirit, who produces this faith within me. Finally, if it is asked by what means or organ I believe this, I will reply, through the church, which God uses in giving me Scripture.”

Institutes of Elenctic Theology,

See also: Jerusalem Chamber Podcast, Episode 1.4: The Authority of Scripture.

[1] William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture, Question 3, Chapter 8, p. 320.

[2] Calvin likewise defends Augustine from the cavils of the papists:

“Augustine, therefore, does not here say that the faith of the godly is founded on the authority of the Church; nor does he mean that the certainty of the gospel depends upon it; he merely says that unbelievers would have no certainty of the gospel, so as thereby to win Christ, were they not influenced by the consent of the Church… [he] had no intention to suspend our faith in Scripture on the nod or decision of the Church, but only to intimate (what we too admit to be true) that those who are not yet enlightened by the Spirit of God, become teachable by reverence for the Church, and thus submit to learn the faith of Christ from the gospel. In this way, though the authority of the Church leads us on, and prepares us to believe in the gospel.”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.3.

9 thoughts on “The Authority of Scripture and the Testimony of the Church

  1. “The church shows the Scripture by her ministry and a posteriori, as the effect the cause and a light the candlestick; the Scripture shows the church by her authority and a priori, as the cause the effect.” —Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology XVIII.xii.xxi, vol. 3, p. 94.


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