Faith in Focus

On Reflection : What is the Bible ?


In this article we will look at some of the teaching of the Westminster Confession, Chap.I: 2 & 3;

Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testament (and then they are listed as we Protestants accept them). All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.

The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are not part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings. (Cf. Belgic Arts 3, 4, 6)

It is important to remember that, at the time of the Reformation, the Reformers did not argue with Rome about every doctrine in the Bible. There was no argument between the two over the Trinity or about the Deity of Christ. Rome had drawn a bead on Servetus every bit as much as the Protestant Council of Geneva. In certain respects that is still true today. How often has it been that the Roman Catholic Church has been the lone spokesman for Christian morals while Liberal Protestants have been leaders in the new 'morality'? In fact, the Reformers argued as much against the ana-baptists and enthusiasts (a pretty wild variety of charismatics) as they did against Rome.

The reason for that is that Rome finds the essence of the Church in the outward, visible organisation. Baptists (and Baptists are still ana [again]-baptists) find it in the individual, with a susceptibility to mystical, private communion with God. The emphasis then falls on the (so called) invisible Church. Because of the covenant God made with Abraham we can agree with neither. In the Covenant we find that the outward, visible Church and sacraments are important ("So shall my covenant be in your flesh." Gen.17). But we find that the individual believer is also important. We cannot be saved by the Church as Rome teaches. But we ought not seek to be saved without the Church as the Anabaptists taught and the Belgic Confession prohibits (Art.28). The Bible's approach is, within the framework of the Covenant Church which brings the Gospel and the sacraments, the means of grace, the believer must do personal business with God.

So too, at the Reformation and now, there is no argument with Rome about the inspiration of the Bible or its infallibility. But that does not mean we see the Bible in the same light. The Roman Catholic Church sees the Bible as truly the Word of God, but it does not see it as essential. For Rome, the Church could get along without the Bible because, of course, the Church produced the Bible anyway and then there are the equally important and equally authoritative Oral Traditions alongside the Bible.

According to the Westminster Confession, the Bible, the Word of God written, was given the better to preserve the Church and proclaim the Gospel and comfort believers. Over against that Protestant idea, Rome has said as recently as 1974 that "the church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scriptures alone.... Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal feelings of devotion and reverence (p.755, Vatican Council II)." The Jesuit, CC Martindale, is even more explicit and says in his The Faith of the Roman Church (an officially approved book); the Church "does not draw her doctrine from the Bible, but that which the Bible teaches will necessarily be Catholic doctrine and therefore can in many ways be used to illustrate it, and even to 'prove' it in the sense of showing that dogma is not at variance with the doctrine of the first Christian generation" (which really comes down to us through the oral traditions). Again, "... what God's Spirit inspired and taught in Scripture cannot conflict with what the same Spirit teaches through the Church (p.51f., written in 1949)." And there is the heart of our argument with the Roman Church. God wants us to find our hope and security in the infallible Scriptures on which the Church is built. Rome would have us find our hope in the infallible shepherds of the Church who, as a matter of fact, never have been infallible and whom Paul warned us might even prove to be at times wolves in sheep's clothing. Which is perhaps a good way of getting into our subject: what are the Scriptures that in them we should find our hope and certainty?

1. THE BIBLE IS THE WORD OF GOD

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that "all Scripture is inspired by God." It is better translated by the NIV which says "all Scripture is God-breathed." Peter tells us that "no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet.1:20f.)." This passage is not prohibiting a single person interpreting the Bible and coming to a private interpretation even though that is not a wise thing to do. What it is saying is that Scripture was not written, for that matter, no true prophecy ever came about, because the prophet looked at the world, or what was going on in history or Israel or the Church or whatever and, himself, understood the times, interpreted the trends of the day or the spirit of the age and said, "Because you're doing this and that, therefore God will do thus and so or God says such and such." No, true prophecy always had its origin in the will of God. Prophecy, of which the Bible is made, is not then the record of man's experience of God; it is not even merely "the doctrine of the first Christian generation" (Martindale). It is the living and enduring Word of God which stands forever over against men who are like grass and whose glory is like the flowers of the field which very soon wither and fall (1 Peter 1:23). That is why, again over against Rome, we do not accept the Apocrypha. They are simply other merely human writings, one of the better of which admits that there was not a true prophet in Israel at the time of its writing (2 Maccabbees 14:41).

So the first thing we believe about the Bible is that it is the very Word of Almighty God. Not that we believe this Word of God was merely taken down by dictation. Actually, I've never been able to understand why people get so upset about such a possibility but, nevertheless, that idea is often thrown at us in scorn when we speak about verbal (or plenary) inspiration: every word inspired by God. As far as I know, that dictation idea has only ever been held by Rome; it was confessed by the Council of Trent. I suspect Liberals are shying at a straw man when they try to throw that one at us. I've never heard anyone, even in my fundamentalist upbringing, who believed it. My own grandfather, EW Rogers, wrote in the thirties or forties, when fundamentalism was in full swing (and he was a fundamentalist);

What then is inspiration? It is that process which resulted in a perfectly accurate and authoritative compilation of literature which everywhere bears the hallmark of divine origin. The process will ever remain a mystery.... (But) it is not mechanical dictation, for everywhere in Scripture the human element is discernable.... The tears of Paul, the zeal of Peter, the mysticism of John and the multitudinous human traits of the other penmen of Scripture are manifest in their writings which constitute the book truly human; yet in every part the voice of God is to be heard which shows it to be really divine. (Short Papers on Some Fundamental Truths, p.8)

That is just what Peter said. When men were prophesying, they spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. That is a nautical term - a ship is carried along by the wind as the air fills her sails. Every sailing ship is built to do a different job and has, therefore, different characteristics. Many ancient ships could only sail downwind. A clipper was built to carry a lighter load fast upwind or down. A little trailer-sailer is great for nipping around sheltered harbours, but don't enter one in the Whitbread; for that you need an ocean-going yacht. Just so, as each human writer of the Bible has his own temperament and character and different life-situation, when the Holy Spirit filled his sails, he spoke with all that in mind. Indeed, he probably spoke without it in mind; it was simply part of who he was and it influenced, without him thinking about it, how he wrote. But don't let us forget either what Peter said about the Bible being the living Word of God - indeed, it is the life-giving Word of God. Therefore we may go on to say;

2. THE BIBLE HAS BEEN GIVEN TO BE THE RULE OF FAITH AND LIFE.

First of all, Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3 that the sacred Scriptures breathed out by God are able to make us wise unto salvation. God has given His Word to bring us to faith - not on its own, of course; without the Spirit, it is a dead letter. But just as the Spirit moved over the face of the waters as God spoke the plants and animals into being in the beginning; just as the Spirit came upon Mary as God spoke the Word of promise to her that she would be the mother of Jesus, just so must we be born again by the Spirit that we might have that faith which comes also by hearing the Word (Romans 10). Just as true is it that "unless you are born again (by the Spirit), you cannot see the kingdom of God", so true is it also that "you are born, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God (1 Peter 1:23)."

And it would be good for us to let that sink in. In all our contending for the faith (and pray that our contending truly is for the faith and not merely contentiousness), let us remember that it is all very well to believe rightly what the Scriptures are. But what good will that do us unless they perform in us what God intended them to do? Timothy knew the Scriptures. From childhood he had learned them from his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. And he had become wise to salvation from sin and hell and judgment because not only did those two women teach him a knowledge of the Scriptures; the Scriptures lived in them. Paul had earlier spoken of their sincere faith. Which brings us right to the other aspect.

Not only are the Scriptures a rule of faith, but also of life; not just that we might be saved but that we might live the saved life. Some very good evangelicals often speak of the Bible as a manual for life. The funny thing is, their arch-enemies, Liberals, often see it rather similarly, as a book of ethics, a textbook on morals. Perhaps that is because both groups, at a more basic level, make the same mistake (I can hear my evangelical friends gagging in horror at the suggestion even as I write). But both views are man-centred; both come at the Bible with the same question in mind. Now the Bible certainly is to do something to us - it is to make us wise unto salvation. But even before that it is simply a revelation of God, of His dealings with His people down through history; it testifies of Christ (Luke 24:44); it is the revelation of a Person, not principles. And that is something that we as Reformed people must always bear in mind. We in this twentieth century are very quick to come to the Scriptures with all our questions. Perhaps this is why counselling has assumed such importance in the life of the Church too. And therefore preaching must be practical, to help us handle life. Actually though, the most practical thing in the world sometimes, the best counsel we can get, is to have our minds lifted out of this world for a bit; to have them directed for an hour to things above where our life is hid with Christ in God. Sometimes our biggest problem is that we spend so much time trying to solve our problems. You have heard that it hath been said, "So and so is too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use." Try lining Abraham and Isaiah and Jesus and Paul up against that. For that reason the Reformed preacher will be careful about responding too quickly to this or that pastoral situation or the so-called great events in world affairs. Who says they are great events anyway? Omri was a far bigger gun than his son, Ahab, in the records of ancient secular history, but he gets only a few verses in the Bible. Could God be telling us something by that? We must let God set the agenda. Perhaps with our questions and the things we think are important, we are barking up the wrong tree more often than we realise.

Nevertheless, God has revealed Himself through the Bible to bring glory to Himself, firstly, by saving us and, secondly, by leading us on in holiness without which no-one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). As Paul says in Ephesians 1, God has chosen to save us "before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight ... to the praise of His glory." And even that history of God's dealings with His people in the OT are there for us to learn from. "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, ... so that if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall (1 Cor.10)." But not just to warn us. Returning again to Romans 15:4, "Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." So while it is much more, the Bible certainly does provide us with Basic Life Principles. Jesus commented on the Jews who "searched the Scriptures, for in them you think you will find eternal life." They did right in that. And to live that life pleasing to God, to show true thankfulness for His saving grace, we must still search the Scriptures.

Rev. John Rogers (North Shore)

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised March 96 / Copyright 1996