Why Must Christian Theology Conform to Scripture?

Mark R. Talbot
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
Jan/Feb 2003

Christian theologians have always viewed Scripture as the authoritative repository of true Christian faith. As J. N. D. Kelly, in Early Christian Doctrines, states:

Christianity came into the world as a religion of revelation, and as such claimed a supernatural origin for its message…. God Himself, all the early theologians acknowledged, was the ultimate author of the revelation; but He had committed it to prophets and inspired lawgivers, above all to the apostles who were eye-witnesses of the incarnate Word, and they had passed it on to the Church. Hence, when asked where the authentic faith was to be found, their answer was clear and unequivocal: in a general way it was contained in the Church's continuous tradition of teaching, and more concretely in the Holy Scriptures.

This reverence for Scripture was natural, given Christianity's Jewish roots, with its own strong tradition of scriptural authority (see John 5:39; 10:35; Acts 17:2, 11). Their reverence for Scripture was only increased by the distinctively Christian insights that these early theologians believed had been given to the apostolic writers by the Holy Spirit as they wrote the New Testament (see John 16:13; Col. 1:25, 26; 1 Pet. 1:10-12; 2 Pet. 1:19-21).

As Kelly observes, this led almost all of the church's early theologians to view Scripture as "not only exempt from error but [also as containing] nothing that was superfluous;" as "sufficient, and more than sufficient, for all purposes;" and as "consonant in all its parts, and [such] that its meaning should be clear if it is read as a whole." Indeed, Scripture was taken as the formal norm of Christian faith so that anyone deviating from it "could not count as a Christian."

These early affirmations of the doctrines of the Bible's inerrancy, necessity, sufficiency, and clarity represent the historic Christian position because Christians have historically accepted this view of Scripture as the one that Scripture, as God's written revelation, has of itself. The Bible's supreme and final authority in Christian thought and life follows from this.

Scripture affirms its own authority by presenting itself as being entirely God's words. This is as apparent in its assumptions as in its outright assertions. Scripture often asserts that "Thus says the Lord" (Isa. 37:6; cf. Mal. 1:4; Rom. 9:14-15; Rev. 1:8) or that someone in Scripture is speaking in God's name (see 1 Kings 14:18; Zech. 7:4-12). It also asserts that God has inspired all of itself (see 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). Yet, more significantly, our Lord as well as other New Testament speakers and writers assume that each biblical word is a word from God. At Matthew 19:5, our Lord places the words of Genesis 2:24, which are not spoken by God in Genesis, in God's mouth (cf. Mark 7:9-13). In Acts, Peter identifies the words of two psalms as what "the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas" (Acts 1:16, 20 with Pss. 69:25 and 109:8; cf. Neh. 9:30; Acts 4:24-26; Heb. 3:7). He inserts a present-tense "God declares" into a prophecy originally made by Joel (Acts 2:17). And Paul refers to the gospel that God "promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures" (Rom. 1:2; cf. Matt. 1:22; Luke 1:70; Acts 3:18, 21).

Indeed, some New Testament passages actually obliterate the distinction between God and Scripture. Romans 9:17 finds Paul saying that "the Scripture"-not God through Moses, as found in the original context (see Exod. 9:13-16)-"says to Pharaoh: 'For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth'." Here, as John Stott notes, "God says" and "the Scripture says" are functioning as virtual synonyms. At Galatians 3:8, Paul writes that "the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed'" (see Gen. 12:1-3). Scripture here foresees what God will do, although foreseeing is a species of knowing, which is only properly ascribed to persons. Scripture elsewhere affirms that God alone has unerring foresight (see Isa. 42:8.9; 46:3-11; Rom. 16:25-27); and so Paul's attributing foresight to Scripture probably shows, as F. F. Bruce remarked on this passage, that Paul regards Scripture as "an extension of the divine personality." As B. B. Warfield observed, acts like foreseeing and preaching "could be attributed to 'Scripture' only as the result of such a habitual identification, in the mind of the writer, of the text of Scripture with God as speaking, that it became natural to use the term 'Scripture says,' when what was really intended was 'God, as recorded in Scripture, said.'"

Our Lord and his apostles assume that we must believe everything Scripture claims (see Luke 24:25-27, 44; Acts 24:14; 28:23-28). Paul tells Timothy to continue in what he has learned and become convinced of, because he has known "the sacred writings" from infancy and these sacred writings-meaning primarily the Old Testament-"are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15). He then declares that all of Scripture is "breathed out by God" and thus "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16; cf. Matt. 5:17; Luke 16:17; John 10:35; Rom. 15:4).

Elsewhere it is assumed that Christian faith is to be based entirely in the Scriptures. Paul defends himself before King Agrippa by claiming that he is saying nothing more than what Moses and the prophets had said (see Acts 26:22). Luke commends the Bereans for receiving Paul's message eagerly and then examining the Scriptures to be sure of its truth (see Acts 17:11; cf. Isa. 8:20). Some Old Testament passages prohibit God's people from adding to or subtracting from its words (see Deut. 4:1-2; 12:32; Prov. 30:5-6), and some New Testament passages suggest that the same holds for it (see Rev. 22:18-19; cf. Gal. 3:15-22).

Additionally, each of the New Testament's fifty or so instances of the Greek word graphe-translated as "Scripture" or "Scriptures" at places like Acts 17:11, Romans 9:17, Galatians 3:8, and 2 Timothy 3:16-refers to some Old Testament passage. But two of these instances-2 Peter 3:16 and 1 Timothy 5:18-also refer to words or writings that were to become part of God's New Testament. (In the former passage Peter ranks Paul's letters with "the other Scriptures" and in the latter Paul quotes what was to become known to us as Luke 10:7 as part of what "Scripture says.") This suggests that the New Testament's writers were constantly aware of the boundaries of what could be called "Scripture" as well as of the fact that some of their own writings would receive the same status.

Scripture, then, presents itself as being, in whole and in each of its parts, God's own words. This authorizes it to set the bounds of Christian faith. In fact, its divine status implies that disbelieving or disliking or disobeying any of it is equivalent to disbelieving or disliking or disobeying God himself, as Scripture itself corroborates (regarding disbelief of God's Word, see Luke 1:18-20; regarding disobedience of God's Word, see 1 Sam. 15:1-23 and 1 Kings 20:35-36; and regarding being disaffected with God's Word, see Isa. 30:8-14 and Jer. 6:10-11). We who have been born again of God's Holy Spirit through hearing or reading God's special revelation are moved by him to take Scripture for what it is-God's own words, including God's own claims-and its complete truthfulness and rightfulness should become increasingly apparent to us as we hear and read it (see Pss. 119:160; 19:7-11; John 17:17). Indeed, its truthfulness and rightfulness should become axiomatic for us, including whatever it asserts or assumes theologically.

1 [ Back ] Adapted from Mark R. Talbot, "Does God Reveal Who He Actually Is?," in Douglas S. Huffman and Eric L. Johnson, eds., God Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002). Used by permission.
Wednesday, May 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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