Scripture – the source of special revelation

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A while back, someone visited our church and, after the sermon, came to speak to me.  He thanked me for what I’d said, but then said, “I’d rather you had spoken from the heart, not a book.”  Now, it’s important to check on what someone means when they offer critique.  It could well be that my talk was exceptionally dull that morning or that I was just speaking at an intellectual level about things that I didn’t seem to be passionate about.  I don’t claim to have the oratorical gifts of a fiery Welsh preacher, so maybe it was that.  However, from the conversation, it seemed that his problem really was with me speaking “from a book.”  You see, I had stood there with my Bible open and constantly referred back to specific verses in the Bible passage.  This man wanted to hear my thoughts and opinions, as became clearer during follow-on conversations. But no, I insisted that I would stick with telling him what “the book” says.  Why?  Well, simply, because as we have seen, this is the source of Special Revelation where God speaks to us clearly and authoritatively.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the only place that Christians should be going to and expecting God to speak.

The classic Bible text for helping us to understand the place and role of Scripture is 2 Timothy 3:16-17. 

All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

We’re going to use these verses to guide us through our thoughts, but first of all, let’s set them in their context.  Timothy was one of Paul’s companions and co-workers as he went around planting and establishing churches.  Paul leaves Timothy behind in Ephesus in order to ensure that the fledgling church there is built up and guarded from falling into error.  To make this happen, Timothy had to appoint trustworthy church leaders and make sure that they were well taught so that they could discern truth from error.  Paul wrote two letters to Timothy which are now in the Bible, encouraging him in this task. 

Here, towards the end of the second letter, he reminds Timothy again of his own example.  He says “you… know all about my teaching, my way of life” (3:10).  Paul had set an example of perseverance.  He had faced opposition from those who attempted to physically stop him.  He had encountered mobs, been thrown into prison and been beaten and stoned to within an inch of his life.  He had also risked his life travelling, surviving several shipwrecks.  He had needed to challenge false teachers who sought to distort the Gospel and, as a result, was slandered (see 3:10-11). 

Now, Paul says that Timothy and those he is responsible for can expect the same because

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and imposters go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (3:12-13).

It’s important to see this because 2 Timothy 3:16 is so well known that it is in danger of sounding quite tame.  We can think of Bible reading as a comfortable thing: something we do for interest or pleasure.  We might end up simply reading the Bible for intellectual stimulation or even because it seems to awaken some kind of emotional or spiritual experience within us.  This is far from the case.  Timothy is being reminded to stick with Scripture because the instruction he will find there is vital for anyone who wants to live for Christ.  Scripture is for those who find themselves in dangerous situations: for those who have to take risks at times.  Scripture is for those who find themselves the lone voice in the crowd.  Scripture is for those who genuinely love Jesus and want to be like him. 

“All Scripture is God breathed”

The first thing Paul tells us about Scripture is that it is from God – all of it.  We use the word “Inspiration” to capture the sense of God breathing it.  What does it mean to say that Scripture is “inspired”?

Well, first of all, let’s state what we don’t mean.  We don’t mean that God magically provided us with a book already written.  Inspiration has the sense that God works through human agents to bring his words to us.  So, throughout the Bible, we find people who are chosen to speak for God and to write things down: lots of different people from all across society, from Kings and their courtiers to fishermen and country folk.  Note as well that we are not talking about “mechanical dictation” where God simply uses humans as his secretaries.  There are times when he gives the specific words for someone to write down or to speak out.  However, quite often, what we discover is that the link is much more subtle; we see someone like Paul writing a letter with instruction, but it stands out from any other letters that he writes and people know that this is God’s Word.  We find Luke, carefully researching, talking to eye witnesses so that he can write down his account.  Then you have scribes like Baruch who worked with the prophet Jeremiah so that his oracles would be edited together into a book that also told the story of his ministry.  It seems that, at times, you would even have people gathering together and compiling sayings that were well known outside of the community of God’s people and bringing them into Scripture (see Proverbs 22:17-24:34).  John Frame comments:

The writers bring their own style to it but God is in control and is able to ensure that his words are communicated accurately. “It is like dictation because what Luke writes is exactly what God wants us to hear.[1]

In other words, the writers bring their own gifts and style to the table so that what they produce is genuinely their own work.  You can recognise their personality shining through in their writings, but this never takes away from the fact that God is in complete control of what they write. This is important because it also guards us from the opposite error to presuming mechanical dictation.  Some people have focused so heavily on the human nature of Scripture that they treat it as merely an attempt by people to write about what they believe God to be doing and saying.  For them, Scripture is a useful record of their observations, thoughts and feelings, but no more than that.  It may even contain wisdom from God that we can use, but all of that will be tainted by human error: there will be mistakes and misconceptions that have to be detected and removed so that the truth can be mined out.

Frame helpfully defines inspiration “as a divine act that creates an identity between a divine word and a human word.”[2] It is that act which is important.  It ensures that the human words will communicate exactly what God wants to say without error.  This means that we can describe Scripture as “inerrant” and “infallible.” These two words are used by theologians to describe Scripture’s quality as being both “without error” and denying “the possibility of error.”[3]

Technically, these descriptions are applied to the original manuscripts, allowing for the possibility that someone can make an error in copying and translating.  Where errors in copying have occurred, the volume of ancient manuscripts means that careful textual criticism helps us to detect them and have a high level of confidence about what the original manuscripts said.  Additionally, a distinction is made when talking about inerrancy between truth and precision.  Inerrancy does not mean that the writers use technical language (for example with regards to science), rounding up and rounding down, hyperbole etc.  Frame offers the following helpful illustration.

Outside of science and mathematics, truth and precision are often much more distinct.  If you ask someone’s age, the person’s conventional response… is to tell how old he was on his most recent birthday.[4]

So “all Scripture is God breathed.”  All of it!  That little three letter word “all” is vital here.  In other words, all of the books in the Bible are to be treated as authoritative.  We cannot pick and choose. This is what we refer to as canonicity.  The canon of Scripture is all of the books and writings that can be trusted as authoritative Scripture.

This also means, of course, that some writings are excluded from Scripture.  For example, the Gnostic Gospels such as the Gospels of Thomas, Barnabas and Peter are excluded.  In fact, it does not take too much of a look at these writings to see that they are not of the same type, value or authority as the four canonical Gospels.

It took time for the church to reach an agreed view of what the full canon was.  This isn’t surprising.  Different letters and Gospels would have initially gone to different places first and some may have reached a wider circulation quicker than others.  However, as Frame comments,

The early church was divided by many controversies concerning basic doctrines, including the Trinity and the person of Christ.  There were differences among the churches, too, as to what books were canonical.  But it is remarkable how little they fought about this.  Some of the differences had to do with geography: some books reached parts of the church before other parts.  But remarkably, when in AD 367 Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria published a list of books accepted in his church, there was no clamor (sic).[5]

When deciding what to affirm as Scripture and what to deny, the early church used objective criteria such as apostolic authorship or at least indirect influence and certification (e.g. Mark/Luke).[6] “Other criteria used by early Christians were antiquity, public lection (those read in worship), and orthodoxy of content.”[7]

Scripture is designed to point us towards Jesus and his sufficient work on the cross.  The fact that God has finally and fully spoken in Jesus means that there is no more need for additional Scripture and so the canon is closed (cf Heb 1:2; 2:2).

“Is useful for teaching…”

Here’s a question: do you “teach/explain the Bible” or does it “teach us”?  Scripture is clear that God has appointed people to teach.  In fact, this ability to teach and “rightly divide Scripture” is a necessary qualification for church leadership.  However, sometimes we can talk about this teaching role as those it is primarily about taking an obscure, seemingly irrelevant book and explaining its difficult to understand content in a way that makes it relevant.  If that were true, would Scripture really be useful for teaching?

So, under this heading, I want to highlight something known as “the clarity of Scripture” or if for the sake of irony you would prefer a more obscure word “the perspicuity of Scripture.”  Scripture is useful because it is clear.  God has communicated in a way that all can hear and understand so that we are without excuse.  Psalm 119:105 talks about Scripture and says “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”  It is the world around us, our circumstances, the future and the decisions of others that are unclear, in the dark, needing the clarity and illumination that comes when God’s Word lights things up.

Frame identifies a few important qualifications to our understanding of Scripture’s clarity.  First of all, he notes that

“This level of clarity does not apply to everything in Scripture.  It pertains ‘those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for Salvation.[8]

In other words, some parts of Scripture will be easier to understand than others.  Generally speaking, we can say that the more vital the truth, the greater the level of clarity.  This is true to our experience.  John 3:16 is much easier to grasp than some chapters in Daniel.

Furthermore, clarity is not for everyone.  Clarity comes as God’s Spirit illuminates God’s Word to our minds (c.f. Romans 8:4-5).  In other words, hearing and understanding is dependent on faith.  Jesus talks about how his parables exclude some even as others are drawn in closer to seek out the truth of the Kingdom (Matthew 13).  This is not about how simply things are put though because often these things are hidden from the wise (Matthew 11:25).

The clarity of the Word, therefore is selective.  It is for some, not all.  It is for those with whom God intends to fully communicate.[9]

Frame also notes that clarity is relative.  We grow in our understanding of Scripture and we need help to do this.[10]  “The clarity of Scripture is relative to the responsibilities that God places on each person” For example, a small child’s understanding will be different to an adult believer’s.[11]  “Scripture is always clear enough for us to carry out our present responsibilities before God.”[12]

In fact, what I think we are seeing here is that the issue of clarity is not so much to do with Scripture itself as it is to do with our own weaknesses as a result of being human and fallen.

“Thoroughly equipped for every good work”

The all-encompassing nature of Scripture’s effect is drawn out by the second half of verse 16 and then verse 17.  Scripture is useful not just for teaching so that people acquire intellectual knowledge but also for “rebuking, correcting and training.” Sometimes people need to be taught facts on which to base their decisions, sometimes they need to be encouraged, sometimes they need to be shown how to do something.  Sadly, all too often, they need to be corrected when they are getting something wrong (for example, they have listened to the deceit of one of the false teachers) and rebuked when they are in the wrong and falling into sin.  It is Scripture that does these things and this in itself should be a corrective to us.  Nothing that we can come up with will be more loving and encouraging than Scripture.  At the same time, no matter how frustrated or cross we are, rebuke is God’s domain and we should let the Holy Spirit use Scripture to bring conviction and repentance.

The result of Scripture’s “teaching, correcting, rebuking and training” is that God’s people will be thoroughly equipped.  This means that in Scripture they have everything they need to live fruitful lives in God’s service.

We talk about these things under two headings: the Necessity of Scripture and the Sufficiency of Scripture.

Scripture is necessary to our spiritual lives, in that without trusting Scripture we have no spiritual life; and it is sufficient in that if we have trusted Scripture, we have spiritual life.[13]

In other words, you cannot live the Christian life, pleasing to God, without hearing, knowing and understanding Scripture.  Christians need to be regularly reading their Bibles and churches need to ensure that their gatherings are saturated in Scripture.  It is no use simply to have one or two short readings.  Time needs to be given to preaching so that Scripture is opened up and proclaimed, so that those who need help to grow in their understanding are helped, so that all are reminded again of its teaching, correction and rebuke.  We need to be singing and praying Scripture.  Our liturgy, if we use liturgy, needs to be rich in Scripture too.

Francis Turretin makes some careful distinctions when talking about necessity.  He says that when talking about Scripture as written mode, this is not in and of itself necessary.  We know this because people in the past survived without Scripture.  God gave them enough revelation for their time through General Revelation and through Special Revelation delivered orally.  However, he says that Scripture as “doctrine delivered” is necessary because God has ordained that this is how we are to know him and hear him speak.[14]  In other words, God is sovereign and could choose, and in the past has chosen to reveal himself in various ways, but he has sovereignly chosen to reveal himself to us through written Scripture.  “God is not bound to Scriptures but he has bound us to them.”[15]

Frame says that Scripture is necessary because of the covenant nature of our relationship with God[16]

People often claim to have a personal relationship to Christ, while being uncertain about the role of Scripture in that relationship.  But the relationship that Christ has established with his people is a covenant relationship and therefore a verbal relationship, among other things.  Jesus’ words today are found only in Scripture.  So if we are to have a covenant relationship with Jesus, we must acknowledge Scripture as his word. No Scripture, no Lord.  No Scripture, no Christ.[17]

Sufficiency reminds us that if Scripture is what we need for Spiritual life, then we don’t need anything else either.  This is important when we remember again the context.  Christians facing difficult situations may at times be tempted to look elsewhere for guidance and encouragement.  The church going through a period of opposition may want their preacher to stand up and rather than give a simple exposition to share a new vision or even a special word from the Lord for the way forward.  The couple whose marriage is in trouble may turn to a secular counsellor hoping that the latest therapy will help.  Yet, if we are to take Paul seriously here then for both these circumstances, it is Scripture that is needed and it is Scripture that will do.

[1]John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 142.

[2] Frame, DWoG, 140.

[3] Frame, DWoG, 169.

[4] Frame, DWoG, 171.

[5] Frame, DWoG, 136.

[6] Frame, DWoG, 137.

[7] Frame, DWoG, 137.

[8] Westminster Confession of Faith 1:7, cited in Frame, DWoG, 203.

[9] Frame, DWoG, 205.

[10] Frame, DWoG, 203.

[11] Frame, DWoG, 207

[12] Frame, DWoG, 207.

[13] Frame, DWoG, 210.

[14] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, II.II.ii. (Giger, 1:58).

[15] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, II.II.ii. (Giger, 1:58).

[16] Frame, DWoG, 211.

[17] Frame, DWoG, 212.

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