This article is the ninth in the series called “The Theology of the Text,” designed to cover the topic of the text in short, accessible articles.
The Theology of the Text: What Does it Mean to Have Certainty in Scripture?
The most important experiential practice for a Christian when they read their Bible is believing that what they are reading are the words of God. This requires certainty that the words on the page are the right words. In the first place, if certainty means, “I know 100% that these words are original based on evidence,” then nobody can have certainty in any word in the text of Holy Scripture, because humans are not omniscient. There is no observable, continuous stream of manuscripts dating back to the first century and the originals are gone. So if certainty is a term that is defined by what one can prove based on empirical science, certainty is impossible.
That being said, the amount of certainty a Christian has in the words of Holy Scripture is not determined by what they can prove to be original by way of manuscript analysis. If this were the case, there is not one line of Scripture that Christians could safely be certain in. Yet the Scriptures present the reality the they are the means that God is speaking to His people today. When Christians read a translation which faithfully and accurately sets forth the immediately inspired original languages, that translation too is inspired. Not by virtue of the translators, but by virtue of the words accurately setting forth the immediately inspired text. If this were not the case, then every Christian ought to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek so that they can read God’s Word. Assuming that the translation is accurate to the original languages, Christians can, and should have certainty that those words are God’s words.
Many people today have issues with the word “certainty,” despite God saying that certainty is expected for a Christian.
“These things I have written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the Son of God.”1 John 5:13
“And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end.”Hebrews 6:11
“Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which is was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us. Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.”
Saying that one cannot be certain about the Scriptures is the same as saying that one cannot be certain about their salvation. Certainty then, is something that Christians can have, not by virtue of their own knowledge, but because God gives that certainty and faith. Salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end, and so is the preservation and reception of His Word. So any certainty that the Christian has in Scripture, or anything pertaining to faith of the True God, is worked in the believer by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, that having certainty in the Word of God is an act of the Holy Spirit working in the believer, not empiricism. The certainty of the Scriptures is not based on the certainty of the person reading them, it is based on the fact that the Scriptures themselves are the “only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (LBCF 1.1). Christians can have certainty because the Scriptures themselves are certain.
When a Christian approaches the text of Holy Scripture with the mindset that they cannot be certain that a verse is or isn’t the Word of God, he is really saying that the Word of God itself is not certain. If it is the case that the Word of God is only certain to the extent that it can be proved to be the Word of God by empiricism, then the Word of God is uncertain, and the church has no rule of faith. Theologically and practically this must be the case. That being said, it may be helpful to describe the kind of certainty that Christians have towards the words of Scripture. The kind of certainty that a believer has in the Scriptures can be divided into two categories, functional and experiential. The first is derived from observation, and the second is worked in the believer by the Holy Spirit. Both proceed forth from faith, and should not be separated from one another.
These categories are necessary due to the fact that some have taken issue with the terminology “absolute certainty” because it seems to imply that one must be omniscient or perhaps they believe that one particular edition of Scripture has been reinspired. Since neither of these are true, “absolute certainty” in this sense is not based on a person being omniscient or believing in reinspiration. In order to bring clarity to the conversation, terms such as “functional certainty” or “maximal certainty” have been employed in the place of “absolute certainty” to explain that while a Christian cannot “prove” the certainty of the Scriptures, he has no reason to doubt every line.
These qualifiers may serve to prevent pointless, circular conversations regarding the nature of certainty. The point is this – the Scriptures do not say to be “as certain as you can be,” they say “All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God.” If Christians cannot be certain about something given by God, I’m not sure what they can be certain of. In any case, distinguishing between certainty which comes from within a man’s reasoning and certainty which comes from the work of the Holy Spirit may be helpful. In this sense, observational certainty may be called functional certainty, and certainty given to the believer by God may be called experiential certainty. Both work in harmony, and are a function of each other. A Christian believes the Scriptures are the Word of God by the work of the Spirit, and can observe that God has preserved those Scriptures in time by simply looking at God’s providential work in history.
All Christians are to read the Bible, knowing it is the Word of God. They are to let the Scriptures examine them, try them, refine them, teach them, and build them up. The real question to answer as it pertains to certainty then is not, “Can I prove that my certainty in Word of God is warranted?” The appropriate question is, “What reason do I have to doubt that this is the Word of God?” There are many cases where it is appropriate to doubt that something is the Word of God, like Homer’s Iliad or the Shepherd of Hermas, for example. In the case of the received canon of Holy Scripture, however, Christians have no good reason to doubt the canon and text which has been received by the people of God and vindicated in time.
In the 21st century, the extant evidence does not provide enough insight to begin to do this. This is the purpose of functional certainty. The functional certainty that a Christian has in the Received Text then is not derived from the evaluation of extant data, it is a warranted certainty which is derived by simply looking at what God has done in time with that text. The most important kind of certainty that a Christian is commanded to have is certainty while reading the Scriptures. This certainty is worked in a believer by the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by experiential certainty. The Christian knows he is reading the Word of God because the Word of God is certain. The first is observational derived from the subject, the second is supernatural derived from the object, and both proceed from faith and are necessary to have certainty in the correct Scriptures.