What Is the Foundational Authority of Scripture?

The Divine Origin of the Scriptures

1. That the whole authority of the Scripture in itself, depends solely on its divine original, is confessed by all who acknowledge its authority. The evincing and declaration of that authority, being the thing at present aimed at; the discovery of its divine spring and rise, is in the first place, necessarily to be premised thereunto. That foundation being once laid, we shall be able to educe our following reasonings and arguments, wherein we aim more at weight than number, from their own proper principles.

The Original of the Old Testament

2. As to the original of the Scripture of the Old Testament, it is said, God spoke πάλαι ἐν τοῖς προφήταις (Heb. 1:1); “of old,” or “formerly in the prophets.” From the days of Moses the lawgiver, and downward, unto the consignation and bounding of the canon delivered to the Judaical Church, in the days of Ezra and his companions, הגדולה כנסת אנשי the “men of the great congregation,” so God spoke. This being done only among the Jews, they as his church, ἐπιστεύθησαν τὰ λόγια τοῦ θεοῦ (Rom. 3:2; 9:4), were “entrusted with the oracles of God.” God spoke, ἐν τοῖς προφήταις; 1 ἐν for διά2 “in” for “by”: διὰ τῶν προφητῶν, “by the prophets,” as Luke 1:70, διὰ στόματος τῶν ἁγίων προφητῶν, “by the mouth of the holy prophets”; but there seems to be somewhat further intended in this expression.

3. In the exposition, or giving out the eternal counsel of the mind and will of God unto men, there is considerable3 his speaking unto the prophets, and his speaking by them unto us. In this expression, it seems to be, that כיל 4 or filia vocis, 5 that voice from heaven that came to the prophets which is understood. So God spoke in the prophets, and in reference thereunto there is propriety in that expression, ἐν τοῖς προφήταις, “in the prophets.” Thus the Psalms are many of them said to be, to this, or that man: לדוד מכתם” A golden psalm to David”; that is, from the Lord; and from thence their tongue was as the pen of a writer (Ps. 45:1). So God spoke in them, before he spoke by them.

The Church, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments

John Owen, Andrew M. Leslie

Volume 28 of The Complete Works of John Owen explores Owen’s work on topics including the integrity of Scripture, the nature and celebration of the sacraments, and practical church matters.

Several Ways of Immediate Revelation

4. The various ways of special revelation, by dreams, visions, audible voices, inspirations, with that peculiar one of the lawgiver under the Old Testament, called אל־פנים פנים” face to face” (Ex. 33:11; Deut. 34:10): and אל־פה פה6 (Num. 12:8); with that which is compared with it, and exalted above it (Heb. 1:1–3) in the New, by the Son, ἐκ κόλπου τοῦ πατρός, “from the bosom of the Father” (John 1:17, 18),7 are not of my present consideration, all of them belonging to the manner of the thing inquired after, not the thing itself.

The Peculiar Manner of the Revelation of the Word and Considerations Thereon

5. By the assertion then laid down of God “speaking in the prophets of old,” from the beginning to the end of that long tract of time, consisting of one thousand years, wherein he gave out the writings of the Old Testament; two things are ascertained unto us, which are the foundation of our present discourse.

6. First,8 that the laws they made known, the doctrines they delivered, the instructions they gave, the stories they recorded, the promises of Christ, the prophecies of gospel times they gave out, and revealed, were not their own, not conceived in their minds, not formed by their reasonings, not retained in their memories from what they heard not by any means beforehand comprehended by them (1 Pet. 1:10, 11), but were all of them immediately from God; there being only a passive concurrence of their rational faculties in their reception, without any such active obedience, as by any law they might be obliged unto. Hence,

7. Secondly, God was so with them, and by the Holy Ghost so spoke in them, as to their receiving of the word from him, and their delivering of it unto others by speaking or writing, as that they were not themselves enabled by any habitual light, knowledge or conviction of truth, to declare his mind and will, but only acted, as they were immediately moved by him. Their tongue in what they said, or their hand in what they wrote, was סופר עט9 no more at their own disposal, than the pen is, in the hand of an expert writer.

8. Hence, as far as their own personal concernments, as saints, and believers did lie in them, they are said ἐρευνᾶν, to make a “diligent inquiry” into, and investigation of the things, which ἐδήλου τὸ ἐν αὐτοῖς πνεῦμα χριστοῦ, “the Spirit of Christ,” that spoke “in themselves did signify” (1 Pet. 1:10, 11). Without this, though their visions were express, so that in them their eyes were said to be open (Num. 24:3, 4); yet they understood them not. Therefore also, they studied the writings and prophecies of one another (Dan. 9:2). Thus they attained a saving useful habitual knowledge of the truths delivered by themselves and others, by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, through the study of the word, even as we (Ps. 119:104). But as to the receiving of the word from God, as God spoke in them, they obtained nothing by study or meditation by inquiry or reading (Amos 7:15). Whether we consider the matter, or manner of what they received, and delivered, or their receiving and delivering of it, they were but as an instrument of music, giving a sound according to the hand, intention, and skill of him that strikes it.

9. This is variously expressed. Generally, it is said היה דבר” the word was” to this, or that prophet, which we have rendered, “the word came” unto them (Ezek. 1:3) דבר היה היה it “came expressly;” essendo fuit; 10 it had a subsistence given unto it, or an effectual in-being, by the Spirit’s entering into him (Ezek. 1:14).11 Now this coming of the word unto them, had oftentimes such a greatness, and expression of the majesty of God upon it, as filled them with dread and reverence of him (Hab. 3:16), and also greatly affected even their outward man (Dan. 8:27). But this dread and terror (which Satan strove to imitate in his filthy tripods, and ἐγγαστρίμυθοι12) was peculiar to the Old Testament, and belonged to the pedagogy thereof (Heb. 12:18–21). The Spirit in the declaration of the New Testament, gave out his mind and will in a way of more liberty and glory (2 Cor. 3). The expressness and immediacy of revelation was the same; but the manner of it related more to that glorious liberty in fellowship and communion with the Father, whereunto believers had then an access provided them by Jesus Christ (Heb. 9:8; Heb. 10:19, 20; Heb. 12:23–24). So our Savior tells his apostles (Matt. 10:20) οὑχ ὑμεῖς ἐστε οἱ λαλοῦντες; 13 “you are not the speakers” of what you deliver, as other men are, the figment and imagination of whose hearts are the fountain of all that they speak; and he adds this reason τὸ γὰρ πνεῦμα τοῦ πατρὸς τὸ λαλοῦν ἐν ὑμῖν; 14 “the Spirit of the Father (is) he that speaketh in you.” Thus the word that came unto them, was a book which they took in, and gave out without any alteration of one tittle or syllable (Ezek. 2:8–10; Ezek. 3:3; Rev. 10:9–11).

10. Moreover, when the word was thus come to the prophets, and God had spoken in them, it was not in their power to conceal it, the hand of the Lord being strong upon them. They were not now only on a general account to utter the truth they were made acquainted withal, and to speak the things they had heard and seen, which was their common preaching work according to the analogy of what they had received (Acts 4:20); but also the very individual words that they had received were to be declared. When the word was come to them, it was as a fire within them, that must be delivered, or it would consume them (Ps. 39:3; Jer. 20:9; Amos 3:8, Amos 7:15–16). So Jonah found his attempt to hide the word that he had received, to be altogether vain.

Various Expressions of That Way (2 Pet. 1:20–21)

11. Now because these things are of great importance and the foundation of all that does ensue; namely, the discovery that the word is come forth unto us from God, without the least mixture or intervenience15 of any medium obnoxious to fallibility (as is the wisdom, truth, integrity, knowledge, and memory, of the best, of all men), I shall further consider it from one full and eminent declaration thereof, given unto us (2 Pet. 1:20–21). The words of the Holy Ghost are; τοῦτο πρῶτον γινώσκοντες, ὅτι πᾶσα προφητεία γραφῆς, ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως οὐ γίνεται, οὐ γὰρ θελήματι ἀνθρώπου ἠνέχθη ποτὲ προφητεία, ἀλλʼ ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἁγίου φερόμενοι ἐλάλησαν οἱ ἅγιοι θεοῦ ἄνθρωποι, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation; for the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke, as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”

12. That which he speaks of is, προφητεία γραφῆς; the prophecy of Scripture, or “written prophecy.” There were then traditions among the Jews, to whom Peter wrote, exalting themselves into competition with the written word, which not long after got the title of an oral law, pretending to have its original from God. These the apostle tacitly condemns; and also shows under what formality he considered that, which (2 Pet. 1:19) he termed λόγος προφητικός, the “word of prophecy”; namely as written. The written word, as such, is that whereof he speaks. Above fifty times is ἡ γραφή, or αἱ γραφαί, 16 in the New Testament put absolutely for the word of God. And כתב17 is so used in the Old for the word of prophecy (2 Chron. 21:12). It is the ἡ γραφή, that is θεόπνευστος (2 Tim. 3:16); “the writing,” or “word written,” is “by inspiration from God.” Not only the doctrine in it, but the γραφή itself, or the doctrine as written, is so from him.


  1. Gk. “in the prophets.”
  2. In the text: (Chrysostom, Theophylact).—Owen. Owen appears to be referring to the commentaries of John Chrysostom and Theophylact of Ohrid on Hebrews 1:1. See John Chrysostom, Opera omnia, t. 12, ed. J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca 63 (Paris: Migne, 1862), 13–14; Theophylact of Ohrid, Opera, t. 125, ed. J P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca 125 (Paris: Migne, 1864), 187–90.
  3. Owen’s expression means “there is to be considered.”
  4. As per original. It should read קול.
  5. Heb., Lat. “the daughter of a voice.” Owen is referring to a Jewish expression for the mode of revelation that was by direct address to a prophet from God without a mediator (e.g., an angel).
  6. Heb. “mouth to mouth.”
  7. Owen’s Greek citation varies slightly from the text of John 1:18 in Novum Testamentum Graece, which has εἰς τὸν κόλπον (“in the bosom”). Novum Testamentum Graece, ed. B. Aland et al., 28th rev. ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012). Hereafter cited as NA28.
  8. “1.” in the original, but altered to be consistent with verbally numbered list that follows.
  9. Heb. “the pen of a writer” (an allusion, perhaps, to Ps. 45:1).
  10. Lat. “it was in being”—that is, it (the word of the Lord) came to inhabit the prophet.
  11. Owen is likely referring to Ezek. 1:12.
  12. Gk. “ventriloquists.”
  13. With slight variation from the Greek original of Matt. 10:20. See NA28.
  14. With slight variation from the Greek original of Matt 10:20. See NA28.
  15. I.e., intervention.
  16. Gk. “the writing”; “the writings.”
  17. As per original. Goold has ב ָתָּ ְכ ִמ.

This article is adapted from The Church, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments (Volume 28) by John Owen and edited by Andrew M. Leslie.

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