Chapter I, Article IV of the Westminster Confession (1647) reads:

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.

This is very similar to Article I in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978):

WE AFFIRM that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God.

WE DENY that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.

But nowhere does Scripture define its own composition.

Would not some extra-Biblical source or sources have to be credited here as a relevant "testimony of man or Church" upon which the authority of Scripture itself must somehow depend? Such sources would include Church Fathers, Church councils, consensus within one's denomination or branch, trust in the Bible publisher(s), or, at the very least, personal belief or intuition.

Is this a valid point? Has it ever been addressed by those who hold to the Westminster Confession? If so, how is it addressed?

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    The paradox so-called could also apply to anything, like Tradition. IOW, exactly what confirmation could satisfy the paradox? However, we know from Josephus what constituted an inspired Hebrew text of the OT (a valid line of prophets), but that is hardly the list of books per se that are in fact in the OT canon, although we could address this. So, if you could give some further grounds of acceptability, then an answer might come forthwith.
    – SLM
    Jan 29, 2018 at 18:46
  • @SLM - I'm not looking for an explanation of what justifies certain books being in the canon, if that is what you had in mind. That's pretty well hashed. I am looking for something someone - a theologian, a pastor, etc. - has said in defense of the bible canon itself not resting on Scriptural authority. Even something from a private individual would suffice if no one "of note" had ever said anything, but I find it hard to believe that no one noteworthy never addressed the issue.
    – guest37
    Jan 29, 2018 at 18:56
  • @SLM - as you point out, this is probably more of an issue for the New Testament than the Old, but even there the canon does not originate from within Scripture itself, nor was there universal understanding of what books should actually be in the Old Testament - including at least one non-deuterocanonical book (Esther).
    – guest37
    Jan 29, 2018 at 19:00
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    @guest37 just so we're clear, your paradox portrays that neither Tradition or Councils or Pope's pronouncements of office (ex cathedra) have any source of authority either, right? Each of these things would claim, and do claim, God's authority, but none can produce a God written ledger of content, such as you're asking for in the OP; hence the paradox of authenticity. If this is acceptable, we can attempt to answer as regards Scripture from which of course comes the rest, rather than vice-versa. I'd start with Athanasius who essentially agrees with the Westminster Confession.
    – SLM
    Jan 30, 2018 at 6:19
  • @SLM, you're reading too much into the question. I'm not addressing the source of the canon. I'm addressing the apparent paradox in the Westminster Confession about the canon. If you don't believe there is a paradox, then feel free to point out the flaw in my assumption in an answer. Otherwise, I am looking for something like, "Writing in 1815, James Bridlebrook addressed those who objected to I.IV with respect to the Bible canon itself not being declared in Scripture. He wrote ...".
    – guest37
    Jan 30, 2018 at 14:19

4 Answers 4


Yes, the Westminster Confession of Faith answers this apparent, but not real, circularity as follows. In Chapter 1 Paragraph 5, we read:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

The last clause (starting with "yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion...") is the key. The Holy Spirit convinces the believer that the Bible is true. This is the epistemology of the Christian. It is not circular, because it has an infinite reference point starting with God. God has to reveal himself before anyone knows anything about him.

Incidentally, the Bible actually does talk about itself, particularly in Luke 24, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and 2 Peter 3:16. If you mean that the Bible does not define its own Table of Contents exhaustively, I would agree with you. The early church recognized the canon, it did not define the canon. This is consistent with John 10:27. There is a good lecture series by Richard Gaffin on how the canon originated.

  • Adrian, thank you for attempting an answer. But it seems to me that I.5 is talking about the truth of Scripture and not how its canon originated. Can you help me here?
    – guest37
    Jan 30, 2018 at 15:46
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    Well, how the church recognized the canon is a complex topic, worthy of entire courses. I once listened to a whole series of lectures on the subject by Richard Gaffin and found it helpful. You can listen yourself here: students.wts.edu/resources/…. Jan 30, 2018 at 16:16
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    Thank you, I will check it out. I have posted some of my own thoughts here, here, and here. I could in turn recommend the Search the Scriptures podcasts of Dr. Eugenia Constantinou relating to the canon, beginning with Part I here.
    – guest37
    Jan 30, 2018 at 16:29
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    Thank you for your links. I have added mine to my answer. Jan 30, 2018 at 17:17
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    @aska123 This is not a place to debate Catholicism vs. Protestantism. Comments are for clarifying or otherwise improving answers, not expressing your disagreement with other theological systems. Feb 6, 2018 at 19:10

The Westminster Confession of Faith and its associated catechisms (collectively referred to as the Westminster Standards) are designed to teach the Reformed faith, but not necessarily to defend it. Even the inclusion of the footnoted scripture proofs was at the request of the English House of Commons and would not have been included otherwise (it was adopted without amendment by Scotish General Assembly).

The Westminster Standards were designed to be teaching tools and governing documents for the church bodies who adopted them to the point that through the modern era they are binding in the church constitutions. Rather than trying to anticipate and respond to all conceivable objections, they wanted to summarize the theological system of the Reformed faith itself and leave its defense to ministers, evangelists, and teachers. As decently and orderly ministers, they kept full minutes in the assembly which are still available today. This means that if you have the will for it, you can examine the reasoning behind why the documents were written the way that they were.

As an integral part of the church constitution, it actually makes for a more powerful document to keep the beliefs separated from their defense. It also makes the didactic aspect more flexible, since in different times and places learners will have different hangups, and the inclusion of specific defensive arguments would likely seem antiquated, foreign, or irrelevant. It leaves room for the teacher to teach.

As for the alleged paradox of the canon, it only really shows up in the context of an exaggerated form of sola scriptura that divorces scripture from the Author. In the Reformed system of doctrine, scripture derives its authority from the divine author. The question of how Christians know which books are scripture has nothing to do with scripture's authority. Scripture is ultimate only because it proceeds from the Ultimate.

There are other divine revelations that are not in the Biblical canon, and are still the word of God. A few examples of non-canonical words of God are the prophetic utterances in the congregational worship of the New Testament church, the prophetic office during the Israelite theocracy when the words were not recorded, some of the Mosaic case law, and the primordial revelation that predated Moses but allowed people like Seth, Enoch, Noah, and Shem to live in fellowship with God. All of this material is "lost" to us, according to the plan of God, because its significance was not for us. Like the canon itself, these revelations did not depend upon the canon to affirm them. The only reason they are not a part of the Reformed system of doctrine that we don't have them.

Scripture does not require an inspired table of contents in order to have a foundation for knowing the books because scripture's authority is not self-referential.

As others have mentioned, there are reformed argument for the Protestant canon that will address these topics in greater detail. Adrian Keister suggested the Richard Gaffin series, and I would add Michael J. Kruger, the current president of Reformed Theological Seminary Charlotte, whose research is centered on this question and he also has a lay level book titled "Canon Revisted."

As Adrian Keister also mentioned, WCF:I.5 demonstrates the Westminsterian distinction between what makes scripture of divine origin (God speaking through human authors) and how a person comes to be convinced of it. Notice the importance of this distinction. As finite creatures, we can only become convinced of things. We cannot know them directly as God does. God knows what the true canon is and he expects us to be able to reliably apply that knowledge to read scripture devotionally. This gives us all the more reasons to examine the arguments for the canon. It also justifies our use of the Bible in testing our view of the canon without being circular, since our apprehension of the correct canon does not determine the actual truthfulness of the canon. Though it may sound obtuse to use the canon to confirm the canon, it is eminently practical. You can instantly eliminate the gnostics writings since they are incompatible with the gospels, Paul, and the Old Testament.

One basic argument (Michael J Kruger's) is that you can examine the books by criteria: divine qualities, apostolic origin, and community reception. Again, this argument is not itself present in the Westminster Standards directly, but it should be valuable to learn how experts on the Westminster Standards and the canon have addressed the question. Of course, there is more detail in the books.

  • Ben, thank you for your well thought out answer
    – guest37
    Jan 31, 2018 at 13:51
  • Regarding your statement, "Scripture does not require an inspired table of contents in order to have a foundation ...". Is this really true? Marcion considered only Luke (or something like Luke) and Paul's Epistles "canonical" (though the term probably wasn't in existence at this time). His table of contents held for a few hundred years with a large number of Christians.
    – guest37
    Jan 31, 2018 at 13:53
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    Marcion's canon was never really an ecumenical canon. He was rightly condemned as a heretic. The biggest problem with Marcion's canon was not its inclusions but its exclusions, namely, the whole Old Testament. Marcionism was self-defeating since the books in the Marcian canon affirmed and depended on the Old Testament. Feb 4, 2018 at 2:33
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    No, because broad ecumenical reception would be one of the criteria. Protestants would deny that the church can itself vest scripture with authority, but the corporate reception is one of the testimonies of canonicity. On a really simple level, if God gave us scripture and wants us to follow it, God's people will hear his voice and by-and-large agree on it. The nearly universally affirmed books can then be additional confirmations of the less certain books. Feb 4, 2018 at 3:06
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    This is a bit beyond the original scope. I think this should probably be a new question Feb 4, 2018 at 4:08

Frankly, but only in my opinion, I think you may be over-complicating things a tad.

To say there is an inherent paradox in Chapter I, Article IV of the Westminster Confession (hereafter, WC) is simply not accurate.

In writings generally and not just in religious writings, for there to be a paradox there needs to be either a real contradiction or an apparent contradiction. What is contained in the Westminster Confession and other universally agreed upon statements of faith (e.g., The Apostles' Creed) is not a paradox but a defense of a presupposition; namely, the Bible is God's Word, and its authority derives ultimately from God.

What has been given short shrift in the WC is the role and instrumentality of the writers of Scripture, who because they were, in large part, prophets (in the Tanakh) and apostles (in the New Testament), the books which found their way into the canon of Scripture did so because they were recognized by literate Jews and Christians to be the Word of God, and not just the word of men.

Peter realized this fact when he said,

So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:19-21 NASB, my emphasis).

Additionally, Peter recognized the apostolic authority which resided in the apostles' teachings in general and in the words and teachings of the apostle Paul in particular because those teachings came from the Master directly and sometimes indirectly. As for the Master's deeds, the disciples and apostles were eyewitnesses (see, for example, Luke 1:2 and 2 Peter 1:16). First, the prophets and apostles in general:

This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles (2 Peter 3:1-2 NASB, my emphasis),

We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19-21 NIV, myemphasis).

Interestingly, Peter considered the "prophetic message" as contained in the Tanakh's Law, Prophets, and Writings to be on a par or even superior to his own eyewitness testimony! Peter, in my opinion, was not just being modest in his apparent discounting of his testimony as an eyewitness but was simply reflecting the confidence which Jews at the time had in the Tanakh.

Now, for Paul's apostleship in particular:

Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:14-16 NASB, my emphasis).

Peter may not have known that his two letters would one day find themselves in the canon of Scripture, but he certainly did know with full conviction and assurance that the apostle Paul's teaching had the apostolic ring of truth to it. Peter put Paul's teaching on the same level as "the rest of Scriptures." (A good question to ask at this juncture would be, "To Peter, what constituted 'the rest of Scriptures'?" but let's not complicate things any more than they need to be!)

In short, though the canon of Scripture came to fruition over the course of centuries, what constituted its various parts as being God's Word was the acknowledgment of the church universal (beginning in Jerusalem, of course) that some writings were "Scripture" simply because they originated in the apostles' teaching.

We must not forget at this point, however, that God was at work through his Holy Spirit in the early days of the church in the dual processes of the inspiration of his Word and the preservation of his Word. In a sense, what God did by first providing and preserving his Word in the Tanakh, he simply repeated by inspiring and preserving his Word in the New Testament writings.

The process by which the canon of Scripture was codified, preserved, and transmitted faithfully over the centuries, a process which included the creation of creedal statements such as the WC and The Apostles' Creed, may seem to smack of circular reasoning at best and paradox at worst, but I believe it does not. Positing a belief (and the statements which support that belief) on bedrock assumptions or presuppositions, as the writers of the WC did in Article I, Chapter IV, did not involve a statement that is self-contradictory or logically untenable, which is at the heart of a true paradox. Rather, the positing of that belief was based on a valid deduction from acceptable premises.

By and large, the writers of Scripture claimed either to be speaking and writing on God's behest ("Thus saith the LORD," the original prophets said repeatedly) or they claimed to be repeating the words, teachings, and deeds of Jesus faithfully and with the corroboration of all the apostles. Once the apostles, disciples, and other eyewitnesses of the life and teachings of Jesus had died, God was obviously at work in preserving his church by preserving his Word and the faithful transmission of it through each successive generation of Christians.

False teachers arose in the first century AD within years of Christ's ascension, but faithful teachers, preachers, translators, copyists, church councils (and much later, printers!) then made sure that subsequent generations of Christians would have a faithfully transmitted copy of God's precious and eternal Word. This process does not involve paradox or circular reasoning; it's just the way God decided to reveal his Word to the world.

  • Would not your statement, "the books which found their way into the canon of Scripture did so because they were recognized by literate Jews and Christians to be the Word of God", not imply that in some sense the authority of Scripture depended upon the testimony of some men (i.e. literate Jews and Christians). In other words, had not these literate Jews and Christians affirmed that a certain book of the Bible should, in fact, have been included in the Bible, then no one would be reading it in the first place; and, hence, it would effectively have no authority.
    – guest37
    Jan 31, 2018 at 13:46
  • I struggled with using the word "paradox" when I wrote the question, but I couldn't think of a better term. I think your argument is along the lines that there exists something called Scripture, which satisfies, among other things, the description given in I.IV irrespective of what any man (or the Church) may say about it. Then the practical issue, I suppose, is how do we know that what is in the Bible is "Scripture" in this sense.
    – guest37
    Jan 31, 2018 at 13:49
  • @guest37: I'm not sure I'm picking up what you're laying down! The church universal has the Scriptures today because God chose to preserve them through the testimony of faithful men (and women). Being a rhetorician, I guess I should say that the "human factor" involved in the transmission of God's Word boils down to the ancient Greek concept of ethos, which when applied to the transmission of God's Word amounts to a prophet's or apostle's credibility/believableness, trustworthiness, virtuous character, and intelligence. (See 2 Timothy 2:2). Jan 31, 2018 at 16:59
  • @guest37: As for what constitutes Scripture, we must not overlook the element of faith and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in each believer. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." As an apologist for the Scriptures I can defend its historicity, but I cannot "prove" that it is God's infallible Word. By faith, we Christians simply believe that God communicates his truth to us through his Word via the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is also present in the transmission process, which involves factors both big (e.g., church councils) and small (copyists' accuracy). Jan 31, 2018 at 17:06

The Westminster Confession, I.1, speaks first of the testimony about God in the works of his creation, but how that is not sufficient, in and of itself, to give men knowledge of God's will and his means of salvation. When the Church was formed, God caused this to be committed to writing, "to propagate the truth" especially as God' ways "of revealing his will unto his people being now ceased."

Section I.2-5 claims that God has "permanently inscripurated" his revelation, that "it is now complete", "that it is contained in the sixty-six canonical books" and "that this is evident from the fact that they are inspired as no other writings are." There is no paradox evident to the writers of the Westminster Confession, so one would not expect them to deal with what is only a paradox to those who accept other writings in addition to those sixty-six Holy-Spirit inspired books.

They point out the harmony of the New Testament writings with the Old Testament writings, how often Jesus and the apostles quoted from the latter to prove claims in the former. They point out the themes of God's will being done, and his plan of salvation. There are no contradictions there, in any of the sixty-six canonical books. Further, that

God's written word "must possess divine authority within itself." And, therefore, "it cannot and need not depend on anything else (other than God). Authority can depend only on that which is higher than itself. The authority of man can depend on the authority of man, but only if the authority depended upon is higher. (Luke 7:7,8)." The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, pp.1-7, G.I. Williamson, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1964

Now, this is where the Study book I'm quoting from deals with how Catholicism clashes with that, by including the Deuterocanonical writings (and other writings).

"Rome says that the Bible is the word of God. But it also says that the certainty of this is dependent upon the testimony of the Church. Thus the Baltimore Catechism (Q. 1327) states that 'it is only from Tradition (preserved in the Catholic Church) that we can know which of the writings of ancient times are inspired and which are not inspired.' Concerning the testimony of the Bible, God's Word, that the Bible is God's word, found in many texts, a recent Roman Catholic textbook says this: 'Even though these texts from Scripture are exceedingly clear, they cannot possibly be our main proof that the Bible is the inspired Word of God' ("This Is The Faith", Catholic Theology for Laymen, by F.J. Ripley, p. 41). Much more important than what God says about his Word, according to Rome, is what the Church says. 'The Scriptures needed a guarantee of authenticity. The Church alone could give that guarantee; without the Church it cannot exist' (ibid., p. 45). Note that Rome does not hesitate to say that God cannot guarantee His own word: only man, collective man (the Church) can. What is this but to put the creature above the Creator?" (Ibid. pp.7-8)

This is a main reason for Catholics seeing a paradox regarding the Protestant Bible canon. It is because they accept the authority of the Church, in its decisions as to what writings should be authenticated as God's word, and thus they have added to the sixty-six books of the canon. Note from the early paragraphs what forms the stamp of authenticity in the Westminster Confession:

God's word gives men knowledge of God's will and his means of salvation and that those sixty-six books are inspired as no other writings are. Also, evidence of Holy Spirit inspiration is key to deciding the canon. There are, indeed, other ancient writings that have spiritual worth, but that does not prove they were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

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