This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book on the Holy Spirit.
The Bible as the Community’s Witness of God’s Revelation
The cornerstone principle in our view of the Scriptures is that the Bible is what it claims to be. Another way of putting this is that the Bible’s claims about itself are true. Thus, when 2 Timothy 3:16 says that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work,” we take it at face value.
But why do we take the Bible’s claim about itself at face value? The Qu’ran also claims that it is the word of God, but we don’t take that claim at face value. What makes the Bible unique in that sense? What makes the Bible unique is that it is the Word of God according to the witness of a community. The Qu’ran, by contrast, was written by one man in a cave. The Bible, on the other hand, was written over time and its claims affirmed and verified by a community of firsthand witnesses to the claims that it makes. When God revealed himself in real time and space in word and deed it was in the presence of a community of individuals who uphold the witness of the viability of the Bible’s claims. The witness of the community is what makes the Bible unique and trustworthy. Thus, when the Bible says about itself that it is the Word of God, then we believe it because it has the backing of witnesses.
The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture
The most important claim that the Bible makes about itself is that it is inspired by God. Once again, 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” This means that the Bible is God breathed, which is a metaphor for that fact that the Bible is from God; God is the source or origin of his self-revelation in the Scriptures.
That God is the source and originator of the Bible implies its authority. It carries the very authority of God in itself. As the holy, infinite Creator, God has the power and is entitled to give orders, and the Bible carries that same power and entitlement. Isaiah 45:9–12 says,
“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’” Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: “Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands? I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.
Because God is the source of all things (including human life), he alone has the prerogative and privilege to give commands; and, because God is the source of the holy Scriptures, the Bible itself has authority. Disobeying the Bible is the same as disobeying God himself.
The doctrine of the inspiration of scripture is also why Christians believe that the Bible is a living document. Hebrews 4:12–15 says,
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
The Word of God is alive because God breathes life into the Word, as well as into believers who read the Word with the intention of loving and obeying God. As we will explore in detail in Chapter 7, the Holy Spirit is always associated with the life-giving activity of God. When we say that God breathes life into something (e.g., the Word) or someone, it is the Holy Spirit who gives life. With this, we can say that God not only inspires the writing of the Word, but also that God inspires readers of the Word (more below in the section on the Doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture).
The Inerrancy of Scripture
The doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is in some ways very straightforward, and in other ways rather complicated. The doctrine simply stated is that the Bible does not affirm anything that is contrary to that which is true. In other words, the Bible does not contain any falsehoods. This doctrine is directly related to the doctrine of inspiration. If the Bible is inspired by God (meaning that God is the source of the Bible), and God (1) knows all things and (2) does not lie, then an error in Scripture means that God is either lying or limited in his knowledge, both of which the Scriptures refute. Let’s unpack this a bit more.
First, the Bible clearly says that God knows all things (i.e., God is “omniscient”). Scripture tells us that God’s understanding is beyond measure (Psalm 147:5), that he knows everything (1 John 3:20), that the hairs of every human head and the stars are numbered (Matt. 10:30 and Psalm 147:4), and that no creature is hidden from God’s sight and that all things are laid bare to God’s eyes (Heb. 4:13). In short, God is omniscient, meaning “all knowing”. There is nothing that God does not know or understand.
Second, the Bible also definitively declares that God doesn’t lie (Num 23:19; Titus 1:2). Hebrews 6:18 says, “so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” God is honest, true, and reliable.
What does God’s omniscience and honesty have to do with the Bible being without error? If the Bible contains falsehood, or unreliable information, then God either (1) doesn’t know any better, or (2) is giving misinformation (i.e., lying). Put another way, if God knows everything, then to declare a falsehood would be a lie. Likewise, if God does not lie yet declares a falsehood, then he does not know everything. To suggest that the Bible affirms things that are not true or contrary to fact implies that God is either limited in knowledge or not trustworthy; both of which the Bible refutes.
One of the major dangers of rejecting the inerrancy of scripture is that to do so makes the Bible an inferior standard for measuring truth. It diminishes the reliability of scripture. To make the Bible inferior to anything else (e.g., human reason) as a standard for measuring truth is to undermine the supremacy of God, his sovereignty, his authority, and truthfulness; all of which directly contradicts the very commands of scripture. To reject the inerrancy of scripture is to God as he has revealed himself in the Bible.
The Unity of Scripture
The doctrine of the unity of scripture states that the Bible is unified in its message. In other words, the Bible does not contradict itself. Once again, this doctrine stems from the doctrine of inspiration. If God is the single source of the Bible, then the Bible reflects the single, comprehensive, unified mind of God. The Bible, like its source, is consistent and coherent. The doctrine of the unity of scripture is why we interpret scripture using scripture. That is, we rely on the whole council of the Word of God to gain clarity on its overall message. When we encounter two passages in scripture that seem as if they are contradictory, then we must look for insight from other parts of the scripture to help reconciled what seems to be contradictory.
For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the phrase “firstborn of the creation” in Colossians 1:15 to mean “first created.” The problem with this interpretation is that other parts of scripture definitively declare that Jesus is not a created being; that Jesus is eternally pre-existent (John 1:1, John 8:58; Heb. 1:1–4; Rev. 21:6). Since other parts of the Bible clearly state that Jesus, being co-equal with God the Father, is not a created being, then “firstborn of the creation” cannot mean “first created”. In this case, “firstborn of the creation” means “preeminent among the creation” or “having first place among the creation.”
The Sufficiency of Scripture
The doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture says that the Bible contains all that is necessary for people to live a life that is wholly pleasing to God. There is nothing missing from scripture and nothing that needs added to the scripture to live in complete obedience to God. Psalm 119 is the most comprehensive declaration on the sufficiency of scripture. The doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture is reinforced by the curses against those who take away from or add to the scriptures. Revelation 22:18–19 say, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” This strong warning is because on the one hand, taking away from the scriptures means preventing people from living a life that is fulling pleasing to God. On the other hand, adding to the scriptures is to require more of people than what God himself requires for righteousness.
The sufficiency of scripture as special revelation is in contrast with the insufficiency of general revelation. This means that while we can know about God through nature and the moral conscience, nature and the moral conscience cannot take individuals to a personal relationship with God. The Bible, on the other hand, is sufficient for a personal relationship with God.
The Clarity of Scripture
Psalm 19:7 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” This means that even the simple can understand the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible commands believers to teach their children the scriptures (Deut. 6:7). If the Bible can make wise the simple and even children can understand it, then the message of the text must be clear. More precisely, the doctrine of the clarity of scripture states that the Holy Spirit makes clear the message of the text to those who read it seeking to love and obey God. The first thing to note here is the role of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has a very important connection to the Word of God throughout all the Scriptures. For starters, the Holy Spirit is the agent by which the Word of God is created. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God that carries the Word into time and space. The Holy Spirit and the Word are inseparable. The Holy Spirit, then, interprets the meaning of the Word to the hearts of believers as well as help believers accept the Word as good and true. Faith is a gift of God that is administered by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit not only helps readers to understand the Word, but also to believe and obeythe Word.
The question that arises in response to the doctrine of the clarity of scripture is what happens when Christians disagree about the meaning of the Bible? When Spirit-filled Christians disagree about the meaning of the text, the assumption is that there is not a deficiency in the text, or in the Holy Spirit, but in the believer(s). In 2 Peter 3:16 Peter says that there are things that Paul writes in his letters that are hard to understand. Note that Peter does not say impossible to understand. Nonetheless, when the message of the text is hard to understand, there is often time room for human error of interpretation. Peter points to this in the same verse where is says, “as he [Paul] does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”