Usually I write posts about whatever strikes my fancy. But this time I have been requested by our distinguished proprietor to write on the topic of the written Word, and specifically about the characteristics of its necessity, clarity, authority, and sufficiency. As I have been most helped in thinking through these topics by Herman Bavinck and Francisco Turretin, a good bit of what I say here is freely drawing on them, but of necessity each point can only be touched on briefly. These are meant to be pointers, not exhaustive descriptions or defenses.
So first, the necessity of the written word. What do we mean by that? It’s true that the church existed for thousands of years without the complete written word as we now have it, and in all probability even for a time (in the days of Abel at least, if not all the way until Moses) with no written word at all. In the new heavens and new earth the church will be without need for the written word as well. There have been millions of Christians who have lived and died without ever even learning to read at all, much less possessing a Bible for themselves. It must be recognized that the kind of daily devotional Bible study we tend to see as so necessary for maintaining a healthy spiritual life was simply not possible for the majority of Christians before the printing press—that is, for the vast majority of the church’s history. Most Christians, in fact, have lived and died by tradition in the general sense that they have simply been taught the Christian faith by word of mouth.
With all that admitted, in what sense could we say the written word is necessary for the New Testament church today? We should note first that, even though the church hasn’t always had the complete written word, it has still never been without the word. God spoke to Adam, he spoke to Noah, he spoke to Abraham and the patriarchs and it was his word that established and directed their spiritual lives. The church was never without a revelation of God’s will for that time. So if we can take it as a given that the church depends upon the revelation of the word of God—certainly at least for its conscious life—the vital question is, in what form does the New Testament church today have access to that revelation?
The only answer can be that we possess the word of God most surely and certainly in the canonical Scripture. For a long time, God spoke to the fathers in various ways, yes, but in the last of these days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1). Christ the Son was the climactic revelation of the word of God, and so the inspired apostolic witness to that Word can’t be superseded or added to, and is the necessary word by which the church must regulate its life. In fact, the further removed we get from the apostolic age, and the more memory slips, error creeps in, and sects multiply, the more necessary the written word becomes as the standard by which to judge all things. As Herman Bavinck put it, the necessity of Scripture is “not a stable but an ever increasing attribute.”
Second, there is the clarity of the written word. The technical (and ironically more obscure) word for this is perspicuity. It doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is easily comprehensible or equally straightforward, certainly. Peter himself says there are some things in Paul that are hard to understand. The real question, as defined by Turretin, is this: “[W]hether the Scriptures are so plain in things essential to salvation…that without the external aid of tradition and the infallible judgment of the church, they may be read and understood profitably by believers.” To that question, the answer can only be “yes.” Herman Bavinck explained it like this (emphasis mine):
“[T]he truth, the knowledge of which is necessary to everyone for salvation, though not spelled out with equal clarity on every page of Scripture, is nevertheless presented throughout all of Scripture in such a simple and intelligible form that a person concerned about the salvation of his or her soul can easily, by personal reading and study, learn to know that truth from Scripture without the assistance and guidance of the church and the priest. The way of salvation, not as it concerns the matter itself but as it concerns the mode of transmission, has been clearly set down there for the reader desirous of salvation.”
Taken in that (genuine) sense, the clarity of Scripture really can’t be doubted. The Law was published for all Israel; the prophets spoke even to the common people; Jesus preached freely to the crowds, and the apostolic epistles were addressed to whole congregations. In Acts 17:11, it’s even taken for granted that the common people of Berea could examine the Scriptures for themselves to see if what the apostles were saying was true, and that this was a noble activity. So Chrysostom says, “The Scriptures are so proportioned that even the most ignorant can understand them if they only read them studiously.” And likewise Irenaeus, “The prophetic and evangelic Scriptures are plain and unambiguous” (and in context he meant that in regard to God the Creator, against Gnostic teaching. Which is the true God certainly one of the essential things).
Much more can be said on this topic. After all, it might be argued that the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture lies at the root of, and is contradicted by, the endless multiplying of divisions and denominations in the church. Well, it doesn’t and isn’t. Pride is at the root of division, and to whatever extent the divisions are not rooted in pride, neither are they as deep or serious as they are often made out to be. But it’s a serious charge, and deserves a fuller response than I can give here. On the other side, it’s the denial of this doctrine that lets the Roman Catholic Church maintain its claim to be the necessary and infallible interpretive authority (which interpretations for some reason are not thought to themselves need interpretation, and which to properly understand require at least as much study as the Scriptures themselves do). But as Jonathan wanted roughly 800 words, and my ticker puts me already past 900, I’d better move on.
Third is Scripture’s authority. If Scripture is confessed to be the voice of God, no believer will deny its authority. Controversy on this point within the church has therefore focused on the nature and ground of that authority, and how it relates to other legitimate authorities that God has established. To go into all those issues would make this post exceed all reasonable length. So I’ll take the easy way out and quote Bavinck again, and just assert what seems to me necessarily to be the case, as soon as we confess Scripture to be God’s very word:
“Before it, all else must yield. For people must obey God rather than other people. All other [human] authority is restricted to its own circle and applies only to its own area. But the authority of Scripture extends to the whole person and over all humankind. It is above the intellect and the will, the heart and the conscience, and cannot be compared with any other authority. Its authority, being divine, is absolute. It is entitled to be believed and obeyed by everyone at all times. In majesty it far transcends all other powers. But, in order to gain recognition and dominion, it asks for no one’s assistance. It does not need the strong arm of the government. It does not need the support of the church and does not conscript anyone’s sword and inquisition. It does not desire to rule by coercion and violence but seeks free and willing recognition. For that reason it brings about its own recognition by the working of the Holy Spirit. Scripture guards its own authority.”
Fourth and finally, the sufficiency of Scripture. This does not deny the place or inevitability of forms and traditions alongside the word. It’s simply the denial that any tradition outside of the written word can be binding on the conscience (Romans 14:4-12; Colossians 2:16-23, etc.), and the claim that in Scripture, we have all the divine words that the church needs for its life.
This point can be misunderstood. As John Frame puts it, we are not talking here about a “sufficiency of specific information but sufficiency of divine words.” In other words, the Bible may not tell us everything we need to know absolutely considered, but it does give us all the words from God that we need for life and godliness. This applies across the board: to pastors as well as auto mechanics. Written Scripture is all the divine testimony that the mechanic needs, and all the divine testimony that the church needs.
As with the necessity of Scripture, so the sufficiency of Scripture is a doctrine that becomes clearer and more important to maintain the further removed we get from the apostolic age. The Bible does recognize the validity of tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15, etc), but it can’t be shown that the traditions in view here or elsewhere are anything other than the teaching of the gospel as it is expounded for us now in the written word. After all, at this distance, how can we be certain that any extra-scriptural “traditions” are truly apostolic unless there is testimony to them in Scripture, or are deduced from Scripture?
In reality, the opposite doctrine of the insufficiency of Scripture, that church tradition is a necessary augment to the Bible and of equal authority with it, really only has the function of justifying teachings and practices that can find no basis in the written word. After all, if they can truly be found in the word, what’s the point of holding to an infallible oral tradition in the first place? And if they can’t be found there, what we have is simply a custom that cannot be demonstrated to have any divine authority at all. The Roman Catholic doctrine of tradition has no reason for being except to justify Roman idiosyncrasies, or to sanctify the existing state of affairs.
And so, we hold that the written word of God is the necessary word for us to know the way of salvation God has opened for us in Christ. It is the clear word, spoken in human language and given as the common property of mankind. It is the authoritative word, that the wisdom of man cannot contradict or sit upon in judgment. And it is the sufficient word, whose riches are searched out more deeply, but not augmented or added to.
In an upcoming Thursday post, we’ll add a bit to this post by Danny as we tackle more of why these attributes of the word necessarily exist. The truths of Scripture outlined above by Danny are so vitally important. We hope this post was helpful for you as you seek to become a more fully devoted worshiper of the Trinity.