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The Self-Attesting God

** This is an article I wrote back in December, 2003. Slightly Revised.

Someone may ask you how you know that the Bible is true? How do you know that Christ was God or that he was even born at all or many other doctrines of Faith? The Confession of Faith says, "We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church of God to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, and 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, and many other incomparable excellencies, and entire perfections thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God" (London Baptist Confession 1689, 1.5; also Westminster Confession 1.5). This is called "self-attestation." The ultimate reason why we know these things are true is because God has taught us them himself. Thus, it finishes, "... 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." Ultimately, this comes down to God’s word against ours. Consider these reflections on the validity of the word of God from Greg Bahnsen.

“Who is in a position to tell us what the proper indications of divinity would be when it comes to a purported revelation from God? If an opinion poll discloses that sixty-three percent of Americans believe the Bible to be God’s word in some special sense, does that count as relevant evidence for the conclusion that it is God’s word? Should the percentage rather be at least eighty-five? Should those surveyed rather be Asians or Europeans? One person has the opinion that the Bible’s ‘beautiful and comforting words’ indicate that it came from God, while another takes such features as a kind of contrived and self-serving artificiality that lacks the rough realism or (alternatively) the ecstatic frenzy that one would ‘expect’ of inspiration. Who is in an authoritative position to say? The answer is that only God could tell us reliably and authoritatively what qualities mark out His word as really His. But where would God say this? If some document purported to be God’s word answering this crucial question, what adequate evidence could man have that this second message is a divine message to us? At some point, the message claiming to be from God would have to be its own authority, and there is no reason, then, why that should not be at the first point. Thus, only God is adequate to bear witness to Himself or to authorize His own words. As Heb. 6:13 teaches, God can swear by nothing greater than Himself, in which case His word can be truly authorized only by His own word. God’s word is the ultimate authority, and as such it can be authorized only by itself. Thus, the Confession rightly says: ‘The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth . . .wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God’ [WCF/LBC 1.4]. The fundamental evidence that Scripture is the word of God is its own testimony to that effect. Thus… the Bible is self-attesting.

Some have argued that a self-attesting truth is truth that cannot be questioned. A good example would be a statement like "All bachelors are unmarried men." But this needs to be rethought, for the ability to question a thing is not a defining mark of a self-authenticating truth. Individuals can (and have) questioned the truth or certainty even of ‘"All bachelors are unmarried men." Even if those who question such a thing are poorly trained students, muddled thinkers, or not yet adept at English, the claim is questioned nonetheless.

Rather, it is more proper to say that this claim cannot be ‘rationally’ questioned. It cannot properly be questioned within the context of certain fundamental convictions or linguistic stipulations (certain presuppositions). A self-evident truth does not gain its self-evidency from the impossibility of questioning it or the impossibility of being confused over it’s meaning. The fact that non-Christians irrationally’ question biblical authority, and the fact that Christians sometimes misinterpret the Bible’s meaning, takes nothing away from the Scripture’s own possession of self-attesting authority.

Whenever God reveals Himself, He does so with persuasive evidence and authority. God does not mumble. The evidence is directly apprehended, and it is persuasive – leaving men without any excuse (Rom 1). Scripture’s divine quality is perceived directly, just as the sweetness of candy or the wetness of water is immediately experienced without discursive argumentation. When Christ speaks, the very words themselves carry the justifying evidence that they are God’s, which is obvious to men and is acknowledged by God’s people (John 10:4, 27)… Even his miracles and resurrection do not in themselves imply deity (think of the other miracle workers in Scripture); they constitute evidence of divine status only because He authoritatively interprets them as such.”

Why do men and women not believe that God's claims about himself? It is because their faculties to apprehend the sweetness are not working properly. What is to us the "fragrance of life" is to them "the smell of death" (2Cor 2:16). They need the good news as much as they need our arguments. For the Gospel is the power of God to change our faculties and make them rightly aligned to perceive and understand God's word. The gospel begins with that little baby in that stable manger. It tells us of his death for sin and his resurrection to life. And promises that we can be incorporated into his death and life forevermore by faith and that those who trust in him will never be put to shame.

Doug Van Dorn

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