This particular doctrine is one I have joyously poured over for years, here I offer you a taste, a summary, a beginning. Very thick tomes have been written on this, but you and I can grow in our understanding of this doctrine from some very reasonably sized books! This is the third in our series of introductions to the various branches of theology which began here.
This doctrine is not just “how to read your Bible” but rather answers questions such as “Did God speak? What is the Word of God? How were the writers involved? How can I know what is the Word and what is not? And what does Jesus, the Word made flesh, say about the Word of God?”
Before we begin I will tell you my favorite resource on this doctrine, a book by J.I. Packer titled God Has Spoken. On page 90 he sums up what I believe is most helpful for us to begin with:
“God’s Word written…what Scripture says, God says (the Word of God)…the Scriptures together make up a total presentation of God’s message to mankind (the Word of God);…the Scriptures constitute a message addressed directly by God to everyone who reads or hears (the Word of God).”
Scripture is the Word of God Written
Has God spoken? Yes; and were His words ever recorded? Yes. We begin our understanding of Scripture by realizing that we cannot possibly know all things, not with our finite minds. We also know the Scriptures are different from any other book. We appreciate the literary styles, genres, and grammar rules. Yet, we approach the text relying on the indwelling Holy Spirit to teach and guide. We do not come to the text asking “what does this mean to me?” Yet we trust the Spirit to lead us in applying His Word to our lives.
We cannot come to the text apart from our Union with Christ, consider for a moment:
And the Father who sent Me, He has testified about Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. Also you do not have His word remaining in you, because you do not believe Him whom He sent. You examine the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is those very Scriptures that testify about Me; and yet you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. John 5:47-40
All truth is God’s truth, yet not all truth is His divine revelation with the purpose of drawing His people to Himself. All that we need to know concerning Who God is, and how He is working out His plan of redemption has been written, is sufficient, and is powerful. There are many things God does not reveal, and some things we know that He spoke to a person that was for them alone (see Deuteronomy 29:29). We know from Paul that he had a vision that he was instructed not to record. But what we have been given will never fade away.
Where to Begin?
The Westminster Confession chapter 1 point 2 states: “Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testament…” This is a simple and beautiful beginning! Consider the following passages that should shape our view of, and our approach to the Scriptures. When we read, remember, meditate on, or hear the Word preached, we do so knowing it is God who is speaking to us in the Scriptures.
Hebrews 1:1-4 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom He also made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, to the extent that He has inherited a more excellent name than they.
2 Timothy 3:15-17 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man or woman of God may be fully capable, equipped for every good work.
Luke 16:29-31 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Luke 24:27 Then beginning with Moses and with all the Prophets, He explained to them the things written about Himself in all the Scriptures.
1 Thess 1:5; 2:13 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sakes.
For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of mere men, but as what it really is, the word of God, which also is at work in you who believe.
Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, even penetrating as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
All of the Westminster Confession Chapter 1 is helpful in understanding this doctrine, but let us consider here point 6: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.m Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word:n and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”
Note then the scope of Scripture, its completeness, its unchanging truth. God will never send a word that contradicts Scripture. Rather, we come to a greater understanding as we read and see how one passage will shed light on another, and our knowledge of God grows as we read the full text.
Galatians 1:8-9 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, even now I say again: if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
Acts 17:11 Now these people were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. (see also Psalm 119 as you consider the attitude and posture toward the Word of one who humbly and joyously worships God. This Psalm is so beautifully life changing, I cover it more extensively here .)
Deuteronomy 30:10-14 if you obey the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. “For this commandment which I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you could say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and get it for us, and proclaim it to us, so that we may follow it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you could say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us and get it for us and proclaim it to us, so that we may follow it?’ On the contrary, the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may follow it.
Matthew 5:18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter shall pass from the Law, until all is accomplished!
Some theological terms to consider
Canon, which I discuss a bit more at length here. The Canon of Scripture is a list of books that are recognized as God’s own witness, His own words. The Canon is closed, it will not be added to.
Inerrancy, a word discussed at length in Packer’s book, God Has Spoken. Infallible, a word closely related; in the Westminster Confession the Word of God is said to be infallible, meaning that the truth it teaches is unchanging and unfailing. These two terms denote the trustworthiness and authority of the Scriptures as our rule for faith and living.
Hermeneutics, or the science of how to interpret the texts. One particularly helpful book in this area is How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. We must read each of the sixty-six books according to its genre, with the cultural implications in mind, the historical background in mind, and its relations to the other books of the Bible as well. But all this is only part of what it means to interpret Scripture, for we also need to
The Theology of the Word of God was precious to the Reformers. Under Roman Catholicism people were kept away from the Word, unable to know, unable to read, unable to meditate in it day and night, banned from clinging to it as the Scriptures teach us to. Instead, the Roman Catholic authorities insisted that they alone distill it, and in so doing they added, took away, and twisted the meaning of the Scriptures.
William Tyndale (whose name rhymes with ‘spindle’) was the man who translated the Greek texts into English, so that we could actually read the Bible for ourselves. He was called to a council and accused of heresy and endless sermon making (ha!). Tyndale’s response:
Do you know as much as Tyndale’s plowman? Abide in His Word, beloved!