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Redemptive History and the Attributes of Scripture

Nature and Scripture, or general and special revelation, are a unit. By the Lord’s design, they are mutually informative. Accordingly, one’s conceptions of the purpose and significance of Scripture imply correlative conceptions of the purpose and significance nature. That is, as the realities so also our concepts of them are mutually informative. We tend to this mutuality with varying degrees of consistency, but the implications are there regardless.

So for example, if we say that the Bible is a treatise on the Christian interpretation of reality, we run the risk of granting implicitly that reality, prior to biblical Christian interpretation of it, is a-religious or a-theological, even non-Christian. And so long as we treat Scripture in this way, the notion of a pre-interpreted a-theological world will haunt us. Or we might say that the Bible is the presentation of and an invitation into the Christian narrative. This approach offers a captivating incorporation of reality into the Bible’s ‘worldview’ or ‘drama’, simultaneously constituting reality and constituting it Christian, and there is much to be said for this approach culturally and hermeneutically. But at the same time, this approach may easily concede, in a similar manner, that reality is up for grabs, that reality rests uninterpreted until incorporated by an individual or community into a people-defining story line, or even that reality just is the Christian or any other world-constituting narrative.

Conversely, the coordination of nature and Scripture means that if in our reasoning we adopt a methodology which treats nature as a-religious or a-theological, as many versions of ‘realism’ in fact do, our methodology implies rather pointedly the non-necessity of Scripture as a rule of life and confession. Scripture remains true and uniquely important but becomes in some areas—‘realism’, for example—dispensable. So nature and Scripture are a unit, and their coherence and coordination should be approached with care.

Here the tradition of Geerhardus Vos distinguishes itself. Biblical theology in the Vosian tradition incorporates the doctrines of general and special revelation in both pre- and post-lapsarian contexts into the eschatological trajectory of redemptive history, even of creation itself. It recognizes there is a protological general-special coordination and that after the fall this coordination remains in place. So the Vosian tradition specializes in constructive sensitivity to the correlation between nature and Scripture.

For the Vosian, Scripture is re-interpretation of reality. By ‘reality’ we mean ‘nature’ or ‘the world’ or ‘the cosmos’, or the image-bearer’s context as a whole—creation itself. By ‘re-interpretation’ we mean not a repeated interpretation but an explanation of reality that is corrective of false interpretation, and in this sense redemptive.

Vos’ view of Scripture is an alternative to those views, explicitly articulated or implied in method, which uproot Scripture from its native soil in nature and history, or which, in one way or another, obscure, dissolve, or misconstrue the distinction-in-relation between nature and Scripture. For the truthfulness and trustworthiness of special revelation, it is essential to affirm the prior revelatory abundance of non-verbal general revelation as the context for forthcoming speech from God in creaturely language.[1] And the fact that special revelation was a necessary presupposition for the creature’s righteous, integrity-confirming interpretation of general revelation even before the fall, makes all the difference. Before the entrance of sin, special revelation was essential to a correct and Creator-honoring interpretation of the world, an interpretation prioritizing the Creator’s Lordship primarily in the garden-temple and by implication in all of creation and all aspects of life. Only this interpretation could have been covenant-confirming. The point is that nature and Scripture constitute by divine institution an interpretive unit, an organic whole, the rendering asunder of which represents sin, transgression, and covenant-breaking in its most primal form.

This is all somewhat abstract. I hope in what follows to substantiate this line of thinking through an investigation into the classical ‘attributes of Scripture’—authority, necessity, perspicuity, and sufficiency (the order is not important)—employing a Vosian view of the coordination of nature and Scripture, and referring often to the very rich treatment of these themes in chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession. This is what I attempt here: a discussion of redemptive history and the attributes of Scripture.

I. Authority

Westminster Confession chapter 1, on Holy Scripture, concludes with this statement on the authority of Scripture:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

So the last word of WCF chapter 1 is a resounding declaration of the supremacy of Scripture in the life of the church in all matters. And here section 1.10 the confession casts the authority in practical terms, naming even specific occasions in which its authority should be carefully heeded. But Scripture is not simply a more authoritative voice. Its authority it not distinguished primarily by degree but by kind.

The authority of Scripture is Scripture’s self-authentication, self-attestation, or self-attested trustworthiness (Bavinck’s term). To affirm the authority of Scripture is to affirm that Scripture bears authority because it is the word of God, and additionally to affirm its uniqueness on this count. Scripture alone is self-authenticating or self-attesting—because no one bestows authority upon God, nor is divine authority subject to authentication by a third party. He is the eternal I AM and Lord of all.

Self-attestation, in other words, is authority understood as an attribute of Holy Scripture, as an implication of Scripture’s nature as divinely authored special revelation. Scripture has divine authority because it is the Word of God, because its primary author is God.

Self-attestation is the core of biblical authority; it is its particular nature. Self-attestation means that the authority of Scripture is of a distinct category, not an exceptional degree—not more but another kind of authority. The implication of Scripture’s uniqueness as the very speech of God is that it is self-attesting.

Generally speaking, authentication or attestation means the confirmation or verification of the genuineness or trustworthiness of something. Recently, a cashier betrayed a seriously unwound sense of humor by asking to see my ID when I attempted to purchase a bottle of wine. The cashier was requesting verification (authentication, etc.) of my legal entitlement to make that purchase. But Scripture authenticates itself. When God speaks, no one asks for his ID. There is no need. There is no court of authentication in which God may be required to vindicate or explain himself, since the Lord is the judge of judges and the king of kings. There is no measure of veridicality by which the trustworthiness of Scripture ought to be evaluated. Notice that to appeal to an external authority even in positive defense of the trustworthiness of Scripture is to subject Scripture to that external authority; this is to treat Scripture as less than divine. This subjugation—again, even in defense of Scripture—re-arranges the structure of Christian epistemology at ground level, and it violates the most basic fact of Christian religion: the unqualified ontological supremacy of God a se.

John Locke argued that we ought to believe anything that God says on the basis of the fact that God has said it, and that this, taking something as true on the basis of the authority of the speaker or author, is the core of faith. And it is easy to sympathize with his view. But then he also argued that all claims to divine authorship must be established by sufficient evidence. And so, while appearing to affirm a healthy doctrine of revelational authority, by delegating to empirical realism this role of adjudication, Locke undermines the self-attesting authority of Scripture, rendering it a matter of subjective evidentialist autonomy; and there is no recovery from a position like that. As a river never runs higher than its source, so the conclusion can never exceed the nature of the evidence. Self-consistency for Locke will undermine all supernaturalism. By contrast, we affirm that if God says it, it is true; and by the nature of the case, that is, according to Christian-theistic principia (versus subjective, univocal, empiricist principia), God’s speech is not subject to external authentication of any kind. Scripture attests to its own authority. Thus maintaining consistently the coordination of our ontology with our method leads to a sound notion of the self-attestation of Scripture.

Much more can be said. In order to dig a bit deeper, I propose we distinguish between individual and ecclesial dimensions of self-attestation.

I. a. Self-attestation and the church

On the ecclesial side, it is important to affirm a proper church-Scripture prioritization: the self-authenticating Scripture precedes and gives existence to the church. In Roman Catholicism, the recognition by the church of Scripture as authoritative represents Scripture’s having authority. After I defended my dissertation, a faculty member performed the investiture of the degree of doctor; he wielded the power of the university and of the college of deans, and by extension the authority of the ministry of education, and so on. Before the ceremony I was ABD; after, by the power of ceremony and pronouncement, I was officially Dr. Shannon. Likewise, recognition and official ecclesial pronouncement is what makes a piece of writing Holy Scripture.

‘Recognition’ is perhaps not the most helpful term here, since we may say both that we recognize something which precedes our recognition of it and that the recognition of something constitutes the thing. We might say that Rome treats its recognition as bestowal; the Reformed, by contrast, as ‘acknowledgement’ or ‘confession’. But however we nuance the terminology, the Roman church holds that the ‘community’, or the church, is endowed with revelatory authority, and that this communal endowment precedes the authority of the Scriptures.

We should note that in some sense, the Reformed view is similar—we speak of ‘apostolic teaching’, the teaching of a fixed group of individuals as such, as the authoritative teaching. We say “Paul believed” this or that, or “Peter emphasized” this or that; and we mean that indeed the Lord himself teaches these things in the Bible. But to alter slightly the terms, as the Roman Church does, so that the community precedes the authority of the text, makes all the difference. We rather affirm that Spirit-inspired, Scripture (OT)-bound teaching constituted the authoritative, apostolic dispensation and constitutes the true church today. We can see this in the fact that Paul defends his apostolicity by demonstrating consistency in what he taught with what the leaders in Jerusalem were teaching. And at one point he even calls Peter out. The church is the work of the Spirit; the church does not wield the Spirit. So however nuanced the discussion becomes—and it does indeed require care and precision—the Reformed maintain priority of the self-attesting Scripture over the image-bearers who acknowledge the Bible’s authority. Bavinck writes, “[a]ll of them explain the continued existence of the church in terms of the leading of the Holy Spirit, the indwelling of Christ, but this has its organ, the pope in the case of Rome, the organism of the church in the case of Schleiermacher, and for Anabaptism, in every individual believer.”[2]

Admittedly, this story of Roman Catholic doctrine is rather haphazardly told and retold, and often superficially. That is, if you read Roman Catholic literature on the authority of Scripture, you will encounter a lot more complexity, and you may wonder whether the narrative I’ve just recycled is trustworthy. We might point to Eph 2, which says that the “household of God” is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (2:19, 20). But what does this text really say? Is the church built on community, on the persons of the apostles? In some distinct ways, I think it is.

In fact there is widespread agreement on the ‘authority of Scripture’, generally speaking, but it is construed variously, accounted for in multiple distinguishable ways, and observed in hermeneutics with varying degrees of consistency. But anyway, the point is that Scripture, by virtue of its divine nature and authority, gives life to the church, even creates the church, and not the other way around. The Bible itself is explicit about this, but anyway this is simply to say that the church must be founded upon true, revealed confession; it is the truth of God upon which the church is built. “On this rock I will build my church” – the rock is Peter’s confession, revealed to him by the Father in heaven, not Peter’s confession (Matt 16:18). Bavinck’s observations are helpful:

In virtually all theologians today, one can now find the idea that the church existed before Scripture and can therefore also exist independently of Scripture. The church rests in itself, lives from itself, i.e., from the Spirit, who dwells in it. Holy Scripture, which proceeded from the church at its beginning in the freshness and vitality of its youth, though its norm, is not its source. The source is the personal living Christ who indwells the church. Dogmatics is the description of the life, the explication of religious consciousness, of the church. In that process, as its guideline, dogmatics has Scripture, which interpreted the life of the church first and most clearly. Hence the church is actually the author of the Bible, and the Bible is the reflection of the church.[3]

My point is that consistent affirmation and application, particularly at the hermeneutical level, of biblical authority in the form of self-attestation, sets Reformed ecclesiology apart.

I. b. Self-authentication and the individual believer

The individual dimension of self-authentication also deserves attention. How do you know that the Bible is the word of God? Put differently, why do you believe that the Bible is the word of God? Self-attestation makes this question a favorite of critics of the faith. To critics, self-attestation sounds something like ‘I call out of bounds any unwelcome inquiry into the rationality of my religious beliefs’; or ‘I refuse to allow my Christian beliefs to be questioned or critiqued’; or ‘The Bible says so (or at least I think it does, on my interpretation), so I don’t have to listen to anyone else’s opinion on the matter’.

No doubt, well hid behind the superficiality of the wording, lie concerns which deserve our attention, but the issue here is whether Scripture is self- or other-authenticated. To pierce the façade of this challenging line of questioning, we must recognize the essential distinction between, on the one hand, private, personal, subjective epistemic experience or epistemic account, and on the other, the intrinsic authority of inscripturated divine speech. We might call this a subjective/objective distinction. Herman Bavinck hints at this distinction when he says, “there is a difference between a motive for believing and the final ground for faith.”[4]

Objectively speaking, Scripture bears unique, intrinsic authority, reflecting the authority and even the ontological uniqueness of God himself. On account of this authority, the Bible ought to be believed. But subjectively, the individual Christian is often led by the Spirit to recognize the authority of Scripture by means of various kinds—ordinary means, in most cases, such as the testimony of the church. So Augustine: “I indeed would not have believed the gospel had not the authority of the Catholic church moved me.”[5] Where Augustine says, ‘I believe because the church led me to believe’, he speaks of his own, private epistemic experience. He is describing the means which the Spirit used to lead him to the truth, to conviction and the confession that the Bible is the Word of God. This is what Bavinck calls a “motive” for believing. Notice that this is part of Augustine’s personal testimony; it is not his doctrine of Scripture.

Alternatively, the “final ground for faith,” the objective ‘reason’ for believing that what the Bible says is true, is the Scripture’s own divine authority. No other reason—no other more ultimate account for Scripture’s claim on our allegiance—can be given. Bavinck puts it this way:

The church with its dignity, power, hierarchy, and so forth always made a profound impression on Augustine. It continually moved him toward faith, supported and strengthened him in times of doubt and struggle; it was the church’s firm hand that always again guided him to Scripture. But Augustine does not thereby mean to say that the authority of Scripture depends on the church, that the church is the final and most basic ground of faith. Elsewhere he clearly states that Scripture has authority of itself and must be believed for its own sake.[6]

The doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration teaches that Scripture is the Word of God and that all of the words of the Bible are God’s words. The Bible is inspired and trustworthy in its every word. So we deny a distinction between Scripture and the Word of God, such as is found in the thought of Karl Barth. Bavinck says that dividing between the word of God and Scripture “renders the authority of Scripture completely illusory.”[7] And indeed maintaining this distinction undermines the authority of preaching. Anywhere where this distinction is taken seriously, the ‘encounter’ with the Word of God will be subjectivized and true religion undermined.

In my view, the rending asunder Scripture and the Word of God makes theological knowledge impossible. We must affirm that Scripture reveals but also that Scripture is revelation. Without the divine, revelatory nature of Scripture, we are not obliged—and not even able—to think God’s thoughts after him. So without the divinity of Scripture, without identifying Scripture with the Word of God—God’s very own words—religion takes decisive steps toward subjective mysticism. In Bavinck’s view, “[w]ithout this certainty,” the certainty that comes from affirming the divine origin of Scripture, “there is no comfort in either life or death.”[8] If he means to draw our attention to question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism, he means that there is no salvation.

Much of this is neatly packed into two sections of Westminster Confession chapter 1. Section 4 names the objective or final ground of trust in Scripture: God himself.[9] Section 5 describes various evidences—features and characteristics of Scripture—as persuasive indications of its uniqueness, and as the means by which the Spirit may bring us to acknowledge the divine origin and authority of Scripture.[10] Notice, then, that the Confession makes this distinction: by evidences we may be “moved and induced” to reverence of Scripture, but “full persuasion and assurance” is by the inward work of the Spirit. Evidence is the means by which we may be stirred and challenged; only the Spirit of Christ can humble the sinner before the Bible. One’s attitude toward Scripture is a covenantal, soteric matter, since its authority is derived from the ontology of its triune author. The authority of Scripture is not a question of brute ‘science’, adjudicated in terms of neutral factuality, evidentialism, or one brand or another of autonomous ‘realism’. And the apologetic implications can’t be missed either: the persuasive means available to human apologists and evangelists are clearly defined and clearly distinguished from the Spirit’s role of convicting and converting. Accordingly, Westminster Confession 1.6 affirms that soterically efficacious Spirit-indwelling is the necessary condition for subjective acknowledgment of biblical authority and self-attestation: “we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God as necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.”

‘How do you know that the Bible is the word of God?’ is an ambiguous question. It means either (or both), how did you come to believe that? and on what grounds should it be believed? I might answer: “I was indeed moved by the testimony of the church, the power of preaching, and by the efficacy of the Scripture’s teaching—that is, by the real change that I saw in people and experienced in myself, wrought by the teaching of the Bible. But ultimately God changed my heart so that I see in the Bible the very words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

II. Necessity

The key in terms of necessity, as for other attributes of Scripture, is to put our backs toward abstract notions. Scripture is not ‘abstractly’ necessary. It bears a particular kind of necessity: redemptive-historical necessity.

The opening sentence of the Westminster confession affirms the clarity of general revelation and its sufficiency for revealing God and convicting the sinner, but also the insufficiency of general revelation for redemption. Thus, here in the very first sentence of the confession we see the redemptive necessity of special revelation, the indispensability of a redemptive word from God.[11] And the following sentence, speaking of “the better preserving and propagating of the truth,” represents concern for what we might call ‘practical’ or even ‘historico-practical’ necessity. And so, the Westminster Confession opens with a dual affirmation of what I shall call the practical and the redemptive necessity of Scripture.

II. a. Historico-practical necessity

The necessity of Scripture is redemptive-historical. Accordingly, when we speak of the necessity of Scripture we have in mind the movement of redemptive history, and most specifically our own post-apostolic context in which the canon of Scripture is closed. So, to paraphrase the confession, Scripture is necessary for the preservation and faithful proclamation of the gospel, that Word of God that is constitutive of the people of God. Notice, however, that Scripture is necessary in this sense given God’s redemptive purpose, which is free and uncompelled; this necessity is not absolute or generic. Historical necessity is conditional upon particular circumstances of history, and this history, of course, proceeds by God’s Word (common) grace only. So we could say, in God’s plan for and sovereignty in redemption, he has given us his inscripturated Word, even the very words of eternal life, for the safe-keeping and preservation of and by the church, until he brings all his enemies under his feet and the number of the elect is complete. “Seek the Lord while he may be found” (Isa 55:6) means, in part, ‘read your Bible’.

The necessity of Scripture for this practical purpose, the preservation and propagation of the gospel, implies the necessity of Scripture for the preservation and faithfulness of the visible church itself as the institutional means for gospel proclamation. We may develop then, now with necessity in mind, what we have already said about the authority of Scripture relative to the church. Above I put authority in ecclesiological terms; the question of necessity is a more obviously practical one, having to do with gospel faithfulness and soundness of ministry. So necessity is a matter of method, and of the consistent and persistent application in the life of the church of the Scriptures as authoritative. The ‘necessity of Scripture’ says that this application, and consistency in it, is the divinely instituted means for the ministry to and perseverance of the visible body of Christ. This is no small matter, and since it is a practical matter we are open to creaturely though Scripture-bound oversight on the one hand, while we affirm unattenuated biblical authority on the other.

It should not escape our attention that this practical necessity of Scripture has significant implications for how we view history itself. As noted at the outset, one’s view of Scripture and one’s view of history are mutually informative. And in this case, we should emphasize that the practical necessary of Scripture implies a thoroughly redemptive view of history.

Bavinck points out that “Scripture, like revelation, is an organic whole that has gradually come into being; the mature plant was already enclosed in the seed, the fruit was present in the germ.”[12] Scripture, as special revelation, is organic and progressively unfolding because revelation itself is, too, and so is the Lord’s redemptive work in history. As the revelation of the gospel unfolds, so Scripture is augmented and enriched, and these two—revelation and inscripturation—track with the historical progress and development of revelation itself. So Bavinck: “Revelation and Scripture both kept pace with the state of the church, and vice versa.”[13] And since these are coordinate, says Bavinck, “one can never draw conclusions for the present based on conditions prevailing in the church in the past.” So the necessity of Scripture in the historico-practical sense is a reflection of the redemptive-historical context. In our case, in the already-not-yet, revelation is concluded and canon is closed; so the Scripture is necessary. And so, Bavinck concludes, for this dispensation Scripture is not only useful and good but also decidedly necessary “for the being (esse) of the church.”[14]

The implication, again, is that the necessity of Scripture is not absolute or generic; there are conditions on its necessity. Those conditions are redemptive-historical, so that for the sake of precision we might say that Scripture is necessary as what it is: the mode of God’s maintaining his church and preserving his gospel in the already-not-yet. This qualification is important because, conversely, the necessity of Scripture is a tenuous notion when it is not considered within a biblical understanding of redemptive history or even of history as itself the history of redemption. Scripture is necessary with the full force of the call, “repent and believe, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” with the full force of eschatological anticipation. As Jesus warns, “as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:38–39). And crucial part of the believer’s anticipation and readiness is discernment (Matt 24:23-28), for which inscripturated revelation is essential.

Indeed, without the eschatological anticipation of the biblical view of history, Scripture floats whimsically above the created order like dispensable fiction. In such a rootless state, the necessity of Scripture becomes paper-thin and Christian truth claims dissolve into pluralism. So on the one hand, if history itself is taken as impersonal and purposeless, or as static and ‘taken for granted’, the necessity of Scripture becomes a kind of pointless abstraction. And on the other hand, where the necessity of Scripture is construed abstractly, severed from the historical movement of redemption and eschatology, as nothing more than ‘a most important book’, a gap between religion and reality takes shape.

An important implication of this understanding of necessity as redemptive historical is that one cannot affirm the necessity of Scripture and then understate the necessity of missions, evangelism, and the active preservation of sound teaching. So we can’t say that the Bible is necessary but then sympathize with any notion that salvation—the saving work of the Spirit—will operate independently of the truth-content of Scripture, or that the expansion of the kingdom will proceed apart from the sound preaching and teaching of churchmen. In Acts 4, Peter preaches that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” This is not an emotional outburst on the part of Peter; it is a soteriological reality, both terrifying and wonderful.

The necessity of Scripture puts before us the mystery of the Lord’s working salvation through ordinary means. In the execution of his sovereign and immutable determination to save, the Lord deigns to contend with the forces of history. By placing the hope of redemption in the seed of the woman, the proto-gospel ordains marriage and procreation as an essential ordinary means for the building of the kingdom of God, the arrival of the second Adam, and the completion of the number of the elect (Gen 3:15). And this genetic housing of the promise displays throughout Scripture not divine racial favor, but rather a priestly mediatorial function for the sake of all people (Gen 12:1–3; Ex 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9; Rev 5:9). Consequently, the faithful preaching of the word by finite men serves both evangelism and the purification of the church as she looks forward to glorification (1 Cor 1:21; Rom 10:14–15). That the word of God is “living and active” is crucial to the biblical doctrine of the necessity of Scripture, and in fact lies at the heart of Christian theism.

Once again, Bavinck summarizes nicely: “The brevity of life, the unreliability of memory, the craftiness of the human heart, and a host of other dangers that threaten the purity of transmission all make the inscripturation of the spoken word absolutely necessary if it is to be preserved and propagated.”[15] So, Scripture is necessary for the preservation and proclamation of sound doctrine, and even for the movement of the gospel itself and the kingdom, until the return of Christ.

II.b. Soteric necessity

In this second sense, Scripture is necessary we might say as an interpretive or re-interpretive interruption. Without an authoritative and corrective and even judging word from God, man will always suppress the truth in unrighteousness by interpreting autonomously both himself and the world.

As Kuyper taught, the sinner’s basic assumption is that the abnormal is normal, even that the fallen is normative. The sinner takes his own moral, religious, scientific self as trustworthy and regulative.

This assumption is fundamentally wicked and sinful; it is of the essence of sin and covenant breaking. As Oliphint argues, following Van Til, it is the essence of irrationality and cognitive disarray.[16] This interpretive autonomy begins when “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen 3:6). Eve’s autonomy represents a breakdown in the creational, revelatory organism of the covenant between God and man. That is, general revelation even in the pre-lapsarian context was on the one hand sufficient to declare much about the divine nature and God’s requirements for man, but on the other hand it is incomplete. General is the context for special, even in the pre-lapsarian order. The prohibition which the Lord speaks to Adam in Gen 2:17 is the specific covenantal and probationary statute according to which Adam is to interpret everything that surrounds him: all is given of God to man, to enjoy and to keep (Gen 2:16), save the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). Adam’s remaining and indeed growing in covenantal integrity before the Lord consists in his acknowledging, preserving, and participating in the perfect interpretative coordination of general and special revelation. But autonomy interrupts, and in a single interpretative adjustment man declares “I am lord.”

The Lord’s response to sin, by his uncompelled, de-merited favor, is the crushing of the incarnate Son on our behalf. We see on the cross both grace and judgment, or grace through judgment. In the same way, Scripture itself as redemptive word represents the soterically necessary judging and redeeming interruption of the sinner’s interpretive self-worship. As God’s soterically efficacious interpretation of his saving deeds, Scripture is necessary because the sinner’s primary endeavor in life is to explain away God and the sinner’s own beholdenness to his Creator. Van Til says somewhere that the “unbeliever is a busier man than he appears to be.” The sinner’s chief occupation in all that he does is the suppression of the truth in unrighteousness. Since this truth surrounds the image-bearer and even calls to him from his own moral self-consciousness, obscuring the knowledge of God is no easy undertaking. So the normal in fact is the abnormal, and fallen man can no more reason toward a true interpretation of himself and the world than dry bones can take on flesh and breathe new life into their own nostrils. Truth and life come from God. Thus the soteric necessity of Scripture.

Van Til brings together nicely the historical necessity with this soteric or regenerative necessity: “If an authoritative interpretation were not given to the redemptive facts, if the interpretation were left to men, it is certain that the redemptive revelation of God would not be able to reach the ends of the earth and maintain itself to the end of time.”[17]

III. Perspicuity

It may help to distinguish three aspects of the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. First, Scripture is meant for all. The notion of the perspicuity of Scripture stands for the simple affirmation that Scripture is clear and intelligible, that reading and interpretation of the Bible is not the exclusive domain of the clergy or the academy, and that only the Lord judges the consciences of men. Scripture is clear and accessible. Westminster Confession 1.7 reads:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

So the Reformed insist that Scripture is perspicuous, or clear, and this much is implied by the necessity of Scripture, as we have understood it. We affirmed above that Scripture is necessary for the faithful preservation of the apostolic teaching, and even for salvation itself. How ‘necessary’ for such purposes could a text be if it were opaque and impenetrable? If the Bible were unclear, it could not possibly be necessary, much less the ordained means for the faithful preservation and propagation of the gospel. So in one sense to say that Scripture is intelligible is simply to affirm an implication of its necessity.

Notice also that there is named nowhere in Scripture an authoritative interpreter of created nature. The final section of WCF chapter 1 affirms what is an implication of this generally accessibility, that the Bible neither names nor needs a designated, authoritative interpreter. So WCF 1.10 subjugates all competing voices, “all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits,” to Scripture, and to the pious interpretation of Scripture by individual regenerate Christians, interpreting Scripture with the aid of the regenerating Holy Spirit, or more cautiously, “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”

Rome has traditionally inveighed against the impious and corrosive individualism of Protestantism. A large part of what they have in mind are these implications of the perspicuity of Scripture. Van Til says that perspicuity is opposed to clericalism and the “Roman Catholic notion that no ordinary member of the church may interpret Scripture for himself directly.”[18] And Bavinck says that “the denial of the clarity of Scripture carries with it the subjection of the layperson to the priest, of a person’s conscience to the church.” “It alone,” that is, the clarity of Scripture, says Bavinck, “is able to maintain the freedom of the Christian; it is the origin and guarantee of religious liberty as well as of our political freedoms.”[19]

Second, in WCF 1.9 we find what is called the ‘analogy of faith’: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” Perspicuity also means, in other words, that where there are difficult passages, these may be interpreted in light of those passages which are more easily understood. This aspect of perspicuity is an implication of the idea that Scripture is a self-consistent unit. Scripture, says the confession, “is not manifold, but one” (1.9). Scripture in a sense talks to itself, and our task as interpreters is to step into the seamless unity Scripture’s self-witness.

It is important to note that the analogy of faith and the self-interpretation of Scripture are affirmed, we might say, a priori; they are not hypotheses confirmed inductively, by sufficient evidence, and thus relegated to the whims of subjective experience. If the primary author of Scripture is the one true God, one essence in three persons, perfect and self-existent to all eternity, then his Word must also be self-consistent and unified, even in its richness and complexity. Contradictions and discrepancies are apparent only, though they may persist. It is a basic part of Christian theism that God is one and faithful. And since this is true, God’s Word is clear and intelligible, unified and unbreakable, even if it is at many points mysterious to the finite image-bearer. This theological unity, which lies behind the notion of perspicuity, is why we say that no doctrine should be built on a single verse. (Nor, in fact, may infallibility be challenged a posteriori. Such a challenge represents a confusion of categories.) It is a disservice to perspicuity and Christian principia to build a doctrine on sparse textual evidence. In fact, every theological dogma, every claim of systematic theology, should have the full support of the whole text of the Bible. Scripture interprets Scripture.

Third, by affirming the clarity and intelligibility of Scripture, the doctrine of perspicuity declares in the face of the great mystery of divine truth delivered in created media that God can be known and that theology is possible. It is of the essence of the doctrines of revelation and of Christian theism that God comes to man and makes himself known. The lord in this sense condescends, and accommodates divine truth to our finite capacities. And the possibility of true religion and the truth of Christian confession depend on this accommodated knowledge, this accommodated theology, being a re-statement, in creaturely form, of divine self-knowledge, rather than a re-interpretation. Between archetypal and ectypcal knowledge of God there must be a measure of common domain, or Christian theism is severed from true theology. We affirm a dual notion of truth, distinguishing between God-as-he-is-in-himself and God-as-he-reveals himself, unto the squandering of biblical truth. So in light of perspicuity, theologico-epistemological priority falls to the plain, self-interpreted meaning of Scripture. God reveals himself in fisherman’s Greek, without the need of an erudite interpreter—indeed, despite the erudite interpreter (1 Cor 1:18–31). If the creature cannot by repeating what Scripture says or by affirming what Scripture implies say true things about God, nothing true about God can be known or affirmed. “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile” (1 Cor 3:20).

Scripture gives us clear, self-consistent, positive (kataphatic) knowledge of God and his saving truth; but the rich truth given in Scripture will always resist our efforts at a clean and comprehensive systematization—because we are finite, not because God’s truth benefits for our conceptual tidying.

The great mystery here is that inscripturated revelation depends upon our knowledge of created things. Special revelation draws freely from the lexicon of creaturely existence. So can the Bible really give us truth about an infinite God, if its vocabulary is limited to the stuff of creaturely experience? The danger here is that the divinity of Scripture dissolves into the soil of a finite world. If this happens, Scripture could not vindicate any claim to positive, contentful knowledge of God. We would not in the end have revelation, but only non-referential religious talk and religious non-realism.

To avoid this corruption of creatureliness, we might emphasize the heavenliness of Scripture. But there is a danger here, too: we might exaggerate the self-interpretation of Scripture so that it sounds like self-referentiality. Scripture becomes hermetic, self-referential divine speech. When we read the Bible we are eve’s dropping on private divine conversation. Doing theology would be like attempting to interpret a private divine language. God says things, but this is all we know, that he says them, and even the idea of God ‘speaking’ must be re-interpreted in mystical fashion. So the claim that Scripture’s self-interpretation is impenetrable and inaccessible to the creature ends in mysticism: there is a God, but we cannot know anything about him. Theological predication is equivocal and thus meaningless.

Conversely, we might concede the worldliness of revelatory means while extoling the divine otherness of Scripture’s true content. The notion of accommodation works like a sieve, catching the misrepresentations that encumber worldly modes of expression. Different from metaphor, which Scripture uses self-consciously, creaturely anthropomorphisms are like helpless revelatory indicators, pointing upward into the boundless, ineffable heavens—to what, no one knows.

We believe that Scripture is clear and self-interpreting as special revelation within a context of general revelation. The world that we know by experience is given by God, created by God, filled with God, revelatory of God—including ourselves as creatures of God and even more acutely as image-bearers. So when Scripture uses human language, it borrows from a lexicon of created things, yes, but these created things are already revelatory. The principle reason that this use by God in Scripture of created things—words and concepts and things—does not undermine the possibility of true knowledge of God or reduce God to a creature is that the world is revelatory of God in the first place; the world is given-of-God, and the innate coordination of general and special revelation is by prelapsarian, protological design. The lexicon God borrows from is his own.

What is foreign in this context is the sinner’s autonomous, self-glorifying interpretation of himself and his world. In other words, Scripture is not a divine word dropped into a brute and godless, non-divine world. Scripture is inspired interpretation of God’s redemptive activity in history and in his own revelatory creation. We must maintain throughout the full scope of Christian theism, and the clarity of God’s written Word.

IV. Sufficiency

To keep things interesting here in this closing section, I will say first what the sufficiency of Scripture is not. Sufficient does not mean comprehensive; it is not the case that everything the church will ever need—articles of government or organization, for example—can be found in the Bible. Westminster Confession 1.6 confirms 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 preserved.”

Nor is Scripture an encyclopedia of apostolic or prophetic deeds and utterances. Much is left unrecorded (Jn 20:30, 21:25). Nor does it mean that the Bible an the exhaustive collection of inspired writings. We know that apostolic writings have been lost, and there is no reason to deny the possibility that some of this may have been inspired. But all that is needed for salvation is contained in Scripture; all truth necessary for eschatological peace with God and consummate covenant communion with our Creator and judge is given in Scripture. So Bavinck: “Quantitatively revelation was much richer and more comprehensive than Scripture has preserved for us; but qualitatively and in terms of substance, Holy Scripture is perfectly adequate for our salvation.”[20] And the confession: “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 . . .” (1.6)

Notice the implication of sufficiency for confessionalism: the stark distinction between authoritative, divinely inspired revelation and ‘authoritative’ human tradition, between the ‘norming norm’ and the ‘normed norm’, is affirmed in our confession. The Westminster Confession is is self-limiting. The confession includes a list of the books of the Bible (1.2) as the closed (1.6) canon of inspired and authoritative biblical texts, and specifically excludes the apocrypha (1.3). The confession affirms the authority of Scripture over all traditions of men (1.10) and relegates those things not addressed in or by Scripture to “Christian prudence and the light of nature” (1.6). So the confession itself gives us a clear philosophy of confessionalism, in which secondary literature is subordinated to the canonical Scriptures; and it offers even this very notion of tradition as part of its summary of the teaching of Scripture. In this sense the confession is aware of its own secondary status and of that status as established by the Bible.

Notice of course that Scripture developed over the course of redemptive history. For a time, there was no Scripture. And the text of Scripture grew as redemption approached the fullness of time. But at each point along the way, whatever Holy Scripture the people of God possessed was sufficient. Though this does not mean that still today, any smaller portion of Scripture than the whole of it is sufficient, that for example we could dispense with the NT and still have a redemptively sufficient Bible. As Vos writes, “[w]hen cut loose from what went before and came after, Jesus not only becomes uninterpretable, but owing to the meteoric character of His appearance, remains scarcely sufficient for bearing by Himself alone the tremendous weight of a supernaturalistic world-view.”[21]

The NT records and interprets the redemptive work of the incarnate Son, the messiah of the OT—who was sent in the fullness of time, who spoke in “these last days,” who is the eschatological priest, the final prophet, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises, and the sum of all things. The Holy Spirit no longer adds, but only enlightens and applies. Jesus in fact says that he must leave so that he can send the Spirit (John 16:7). So there is a shift here in God’s redemptive activity, and it is a shift from accomplishment to application. Accordingly, revelation will now turn from deed to explanatory word. As Bavinck says,

In Christ God’s revelation has been completed. In the same way the message of salvation is completely contained in Scripture. It constitutes a single whole; it itself conveys the impression of an organism that has reached its full growth. It ends where it begins. It is a circle that returns into itself. It begins with the creation of heaven and earth and ends with the recreation of heaven and earth.[22]

I close with a quote from another Dutch Reformed writer, highlighting the organic and unified nature of Scripture—even as this unity and perfection is implied in the redemptive purpose of inscripturated special revelation—and thus, we hope, of our understanding of it:

All these matters overlap and are involved in one another, and it is well to see that they do. The four attributes of Scripture are equally important because if we did not have them all, we would have none. The whole matter centers on an absolutely true interpretation that came into a world full of false interpretation.[23]

Notes

[1] See Vern S. Poythress,“Rethinking Accommodation in Revelation,” Westminster Theological Journal 76, no. 1 (2014): 143–156.

[2] Bavinck, RD I, 469.

[3] Bavinck, RD I, 468. The biblical notion of tradition, writes Bavinck, is of “the doctrine and practices that had been received from the apostles and were preserved and reproduced in the churches” (RD I, 483). See Herman Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures.

[4] Bavinck, RD I, 457.

[5] Augustine, “Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manicheas,” 5,6:PL 42,176

[6] Bavinck, RD I, 457.

[7] Bavinck, RD I, 461.

[8] Bavinck, RD I, 461.

[9] WCF 1.4 reads, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”

[10] WCF 1.5 reads, “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”

[11] In addition, notice in WCF 1.1 (quoted below) that the Westminster divines understood Scripture as representing finality, but not uniqueness in terms of redemptive-historicity. The “former ways,” whose obsolescence occasioned inscripturation, also bore redemptive-historical necessity. Their very passing into disuse is a function of this redemptive-historical modus on God’s part and demonstrates the redemptive-historical essence of special revelation in any and all its forms. WCF 1.1 is as follows: “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.”

[12] Bavinck, RD I, 471.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bavinck, RD I, 471.

[16] See “The Irrationality of Unbelief: An Exegetical Study,” in Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton, eds. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007).

[17] Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 225.

[18] Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 226.

[19] Bavinck, RD I, 479.

[20] Bavinck, RD I, 491.

[21] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 302.

[22] Bavinck, RD I, 491.

[23] Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 227.

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