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The Four Characteristics of Scripture: Authority

The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority


How do we know that the Bible is God’s Word?

In the previous chapter our goal was to determine which writings belong in the Bible and which writings do not. But once we have determined what the Bible is, our next step is to ask what the Bible is like—what are its characteristics? What does the whole Bible teach us about itself?


Q1 - What does Grudem state as the four characteristics (or attributes) of Scripture?


The major teachings of the Bible about itself can be classified into four characteristics (sometimes termed attributes):


(1) the authority of Scripture;


(2) the clarity of Scripture;


(3) the necessity of Scripture; and


(4) the sufficiency of Scripture.


With regard to the first characteristic, most Christians would agree that the Bible is our authority in some sense. But in exactly what sense does the Bible claim to be our authority? And how do we become persuaded that the claims of Scripture to be God’s Word are true? These are the questions addressed in this chapter.


EXPLANATION AND SCRIPTURAL BASIS


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Q2 - Define the authority of Scripture:


The authority of Scripture means that all the words in Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God.


This definition may now be examined in its various parts.


A. The Bible Claims that All Its Words Are God’s Words


1. Hundreds of Verses Claim that the Bible’s Words Are God’s Words


Whether or not someone begins with a conviction that the Bible’s words are God’s words to us, every interested reader should at least acknowledge that the Bible frequently claims that its words are God’s very words.


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Q3 - What does the Bible claim when it uses phrases like “Thus says the Lord”?


In the Old Testament, this is frequently seen in the introductory phrase, “Thus says the Lord,” which appears hundreds of times .


In the world of the Old Testament, this phrase would have been recognized as identical in form to the phrase “Thus says king …,” which was used to preface the edict of a king to his subjects, an edict that could not be challenged or questioned but that simply had to be obeyed.


Therefore, when the prophets say, “Thus says the Lord,” they are claiming to be messengers from the sovereign King of Israel, namely, God himself, and they are claiming that their words are the absolutely authoritative words of God.


When a prophet spoke in God’s name in this way, every word he spoke had to come from God, or he would be a false prophet.


In the New Testament, a number of passages indicate that all of the Old Testament writings are thought of as God’s words. As 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.”


Paul here affirms that all of the Old Testament writings are “breathed out by God.” Since it is writings that are said to be “breathed out,” this breathing must be understood as a metaphor for speaking the words of Scripture. This verse thus states in brief form what was evident in many passages in the Old Testament: Paul is claiming that the Old Testament writings are God’s Word in written form.


In Matthew 19:5, Jesus quotes the words of Genesis 2:24 as words that God “said.”


In Mark 7:9–13, the same Old Testament passage can be called interchangeably “the commandment of God,” or what “Moses said,” or “the word of God.”


Words of Scripture are thus said to be spoken by the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:16–17, in quoting “what was uttered through the prophet Joel” in Joel 2:28–32, Peter inserts “God declares,” thus attributing to God words written by Joel and claiming that God is presently saying them.


Many other passages could be cited, but the pattern of attributing to God the words of Old Testament Scripture should be very clear.




2. We Are Convinced of the Bible’s Claims to Be God’s Words as We Read the Bible


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Q4 - How, according to Grudem, are we convinced of the Bible’s claims to be God’s words?


It is one thing to affirm that the Bible claims to be the words of God. It is another thing to be convinced that those claims are true.


Our ultimate conviction that the words of the Bible are God’s words comes only when the Holy Spirit speaks in and through the words of the Bible to our hearts and gives us an inner assurance that these are the words of our Creator speaking to us.


Just after Paul has explained that his apostolic speech consists of words taught by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13), he says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Apart from the work of the Spirit of God, a person will not receive spiritual truths and in particular, will not receive or accept the truth that the words of Scripture are in fact the words of God.


But for those in whom God’s Spirit is working there is a recognition that the words of the Bible are the words of God. This process is closely analogous to that by which those who believed in Jesus knew that his words were true. He said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Those who are Christ’s sheep hear the words of their great Shepherd as they read the words of Scripture, and they are convinced that these words are in fact the words of their Lord.


It is important to remember that this conviction that the words of Scripture are the words of God does not come apart from the words of Scripture or in addition to the words of Scripture. It is not as if the Holy Spirit one day whispers in our ear, “Do you see that Bible sitting on your desk? I want you to know that the words of that Bible are God’s words.” It is rather as people are reading Scripture that they hear their Creator’s voice speaking to them in the words of Scripture and realize that the book they are reading is unlike any other book, that it is indeed a book of God’s own words speaking to their hearts.


3. Other Evidence Is Useful but Not Finally Convincing


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Q5 - What distinction does Grudem make between the Holy Spirit’s evidence for the legitimacy of Scripture and other claims for the legitimacy of Scripture as God’s words?


The previous section is not meant to deny the validity of other kinds of arguments that may be used to support the claim that the Bible is God’s words. It is helpful for us to learn that the Bible is historically accurate, that it is internally consistent, that it contains prophecies that have been fulfilled hundreds of years later, that it has influenced the course of human history more than any other book, that it has continued changing the lives of millions of individuals throughout its history, that through it people come to find salvation, that it has a majestic beauty and a profound depth of teaching unmatched by any other book, and that it claims hundreds of times over to be God’s very words. All of these arguments and others are useful to us and remove obstacles that might otherwise come in the way of our believing Scripture. But all of these arguments taken individually or together cannot finally be convincing.


As the Westminster Confession of Faith said in 1643–46,


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. (chap. 1, para. 5)


4. The Words of Scripture Are Self-Attesting


The fact that we are convinced that the words of Scripture are the words of God as we are reading the Bible means that the words of Scripture are “self-attesting.” They cannot be “proved” to be God’s words by appeal to any higher authority. For if an appeal to some higher authority (say, historical accuracy or logical consistency) were used to prove that the Bible is God’s Word, then the Bible itself would not be our highest or absolute authority: it would be subordinate in authority to the thing to which we appealed to prove it to be God’s Word. If we ultimately appeal to human reason, logic, historical accuracy, or scientific truth as the authority by which Scripture is shown to be God’s words, then we have assumed the thing to which we appealed to be a higher authority than God’s words and one that is more true or more reliable.


5. Objection: This Is a Circular Argument


Someone may object that to say Scripture proves itself to be God’s words is to use a circular argument: we believe that Scripture is God’s Word because it claims to be that. And we believe its claims because Scripture is God’s Word. And we believe that it is God’s Word because it claims to be that, and so forth.


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Q9 - How does Grudem respond to the circular argument objection? What might you add to the case against that objection?


It should be admitted that this is a kind of circular argument. However, that does not make its use invalid, for all arguments for an absolute authority must ultimately appeal to that authority for proof; otherwise the authority would not be an absolute or highest authority. This problem is not unique to the Christian who is arguing for the authority of the Bible. Everyone either implicitly or explicitly uses some kind of circular argument when defending his or her ultimate authority for belief.


Although these circular arguments are not always made explicit and are sometimes hidden beneath lengthy discussions or are simply assumed without proof, arguments for an ultimate authority in their most basic form take on a similar circular appeal to that authority itself, as some of the following examples show:


• “My reason is my ultimate authority because it seems reasonable to me to make it so.”


• “Logical consistency is my ultimate authority because it is logical to make it so.”


• “The findings of human sensory experiences are the ultimate authority for discovering what is real and what is not, because our human senses have never discovered anything else: thus, human sense experience tells me that my principle is true.”


• “I know there can be no ultimate authority because I do not know of any such ultimate authority.”


In all of these arguments for an ultimate standard of truth, an absolute authority for what to believe, there is an element of circularity involved.8


How then does a Christian, or anyone else, choose among the various claims for absolute authorities? Ultimately the truthfulness of the Bible will commend itself as being far more persuasive than other religious books (such as the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an) or than any other intellectual constructions of the human mind (such as logic, human reason, sense experience, scientific methodology, etc.). It will be more persuasive because in the actual experience of life, all of these other candidates for ultimate authority are seen to be inconsistent or to have shortcomings that disqualify them, while the Bible will be seen to be fully in accord with all that we know about the world around us, about ourselves, and about God.


6. The Divine Authorship of the Bible Does Not Imply Dictation from God as the Sole Means of Communication


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Q6 - True / False: God dictated every word of the Bible to the human authors.


The entire preceding part of this chapter has argued that all the words of the Bible are God’s words. At this point a word of caution is necessary. The fact that all the words of Scripture are God’s words should not lead us to think that God dictated every word of Scripture to the human authors.


When we say that all the words of the Bible are God’s words, we are talking about the result of the process of bringing Scripture into existence. To raise the question of dictation is to ask about the process that led to that result or the manner by which God acted in order to ensure the result that he intended. It must be emphasized that the Bible does not speak of only one type of process or one manner by which God communicated to the biblical authors what he wanted to be said. In fact, there is indication of a wide variety of processes God used to bring about the desired result.


Yes, a few scattered instances of dictation are explicitly mentioned in Scripture. When the apostle John saw the risen Lord in a vision on the island of Patmos, Jesus spoke to him as follows: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write …” (Rev. 2:1); “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write …” (Rev. 2:8); “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write …” (Rev. 2:12). These are examples of dictation pure and simple. The risen Lord tells John what to write, and John writes the words he hears from Jesus.


Something akin to this process is probably also seen occasionally in the Old Testament prophets. We read in Isaiah, “Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: ‘Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city’ ” (Isa. 38:4–6). The picture given us in this narrative is that Isaiah heard (whether with his physical ear or with a very forceful impression made upon his mind is difficult to say) the words God wanted him to say to Hezekiah, and Isaiah, acting as God’s messenger, then took those words and spoke them as he had been instructed.


But in many other sections of Scripture such direct dictation from God is certainly not the manner by which the words of Scripture were caused to come into being. The author of Hebrews says that God spoke to our fathers by the prophets “at many times and in many ways” (Heb. 1:1). On the opposite end of the spectrum from dictation we have, for instance, Luke’s ordinary historical research for writing his gospel. He says,


Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus. (Luke 1:1–3)


This is clearly not a process of dictation. Luke used ordinary processes of speaking to eyewitnesses and gathering historical data in order that he might write an accurate account of the life and teachings of Jesus. He did his historical research thoroughly, listening to the reports of many eyewitnesses and evaluating his evidence carefully. The gospel he wrote emphasizes what he thought important to emphasize and reflects his own characteristic style of writing.


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Q7 - Circle (Writing in the sand)


In between these two extremes of dictation pure and simple on the one hand and ordinary historical research on the other hand, we have many indications of various ways by which God communicated with the human authors of Scripture. In some cases Scripture hints at these various processes: it speaks of dreams, of visions, of hearing the Lord’s voice or standing in the council of the Lord, of people who were with Jesus and observed his life and listened to his teaching, of people whose memories of these words and deeds was made completely accurate by the working of the Holy Spirit as he brought things to their remembrance (John 14:26). Yet in many other cases the manner used by God to bring about the result that the words of Scripture were his words is simply not disclosed to us. Apparently many different methods were used, but it is not important that we discover precisely what these were in each case.


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Q11 - What role should biblical backgrounds play in interpreting Scripture?


In cases where the ordinary human personality and writing style of the author were prominently involved, as seems the case with most of Scripture, all that we are able to say is that God’s providential oversight and direction of the life of each author was such that their personalities, their backgrounds and training, their abilities to evaluate events in the world around them, their access to historical data, their judgment with regard to the accuracy of information, and their individual circumstances when they wrote10 were all exactly what God wanted them to be, so that when they actually came to the point of putting pen to paper, the words were fully their own words but also fully the words that God wanted them to write, words that God would also claim as his own.


B. To Disbelieve or Disobey Any Word of Scripture Is to Disbelieve or Disobey God


The preceding section has argued that all the words in Scripture are God’s words. Consequently, to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God. Thus Jesus can rebuke his disciples for not believing the Old Testament Scriptures (Luke 24:25). Believers are to keep or obey the disciples’ words (John 15:20: “If they kept my word, they will also keep yours”). Christians are encouraged to remember “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). To disobey Paul’s writings was to make oneself liable to church discipline, such as excommunication (2 Thess. 3:14) and spiritual punishment (2 Cor. 13:2–3), including punishment from God (this is the apparent sense of the passive verb “he is not recognized” in 1 Cor. 14:38). By contrast, God delights in everyone who “trembles” at his word (Isa. 66:2).


Throughout the history of the church the greatest preachers have been those who recognized that their primary task was to bring the powerful words of God in Scripture to bear on the hearts and minds of the hearers. They have recognized that the actual words of Scripture have more spiritual power than any merely human words or human wisdom, and therefore their sermons have focused on explaining the text and then relating real-life stories not merely to entertain but rather to illustrate how the text has made a difference in their own lives and the lives of other believers.


In this way, week after week, the people who hear such preaching regularly experience how “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” (Heb. 4:12). It is “like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:29). It is the very word of God, which, God says, “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).


C. The Truthfulness of Scripture


1. God Cannot Lie or Speak Falsely


The essence of the authority of Scripture is its ability to compel us to believe and to obey it and to make such belief and obedience equivalent to believing and obeying God himself. Because this is so, it is necessary to consider the truthfulness of Scripture, since to believe all the words of Scripture implies confidence in the complete truthfulness of the Scripture that we believe. Although this issue will be dealt with more fully when we consider the inerrancy of Scripture (see chapter 5), a brief treatment is given here.


Since the biblical writers repeatedly affirm that the words of the Bible, though human, are God’s own words, it is appropriate to look at biblical texts that talk about the character of God’s words and to apply these to the character of the words of Scripture. Specifically, there are a number of biblical passages that talk about the truthfulness of God’s speech. Titus 1:2 speaks of “God, who never lies,” or (more literally translated) “the unlying God.” Because God is a God who cannot “lie,” his words can always be trusted. Since all of Scripture is spoken by God, all of Scripture must be “unlying,” just as God himself is: there can be no untruthfulness in Scripture.11


Hebrews 6:18 mentions two unchangeable things (God’s oath and his promise) “in which it is impossible for God to lie.” Here the author says not merely that God does not lie but that it is not possible for him to lie. Although the immediate reference is only to oaths and promises, if it is impossible for God to lie in these utterances, then certainly it is impossible for him ever to lie (for Jesus harshly rebukes those who tell the truth only when under oath: Matt. 5:33–37; 23:16–22). Similarly, David says to God, “You are God, and your words are true” (2 Sam. 7:28).


2. Therefore, All the Words in Scripture Are Completely True and without Error in Any Part


Since the words of the Bible are God’s words, and since God cannot lie or speak falsely, it is correct to conclude that there is no untruthfulness or error in any part of the words of Scripture. We find this affirmed several places in the Bible. “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Ps. 12:6). Here the psalmist uses vivid imagery to speak of the undiluted purity of God’s words: they are like silver that has been through a fiery purifying process “seven times” (and seven is the number of perfection in Scripture). Therefore there is no imperfection in these words of God. In Proverbs 30:5 we read, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” It is not just some of the words of Scripture that are true, but every word. In fact, God’s Word is fixed in heaven for all eternity: “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Ps. 119:89). Jesus can speak of the eternal nature of his words: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). God’s speech is placed in marked contrast to all human speech, for “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Num. 23:19). These verses affirm explicitly what was implicit in the requirement that we believe all of the words of Scripture, namely, that there is no untruthfulness or falsehood affirmed in any of the statements of the Bible.


3. God’s Words Are the Ultimate Standard of Truth


In John 17 Jesus prays to the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). This verse is interesting because Jesus does not use the adjectives alēthinos or alēthēs (“true”), which we might have expected, to say, “Your word is true.” Rather, he uses a noun, alētheia (“truth”), to say that God’s Word is not simply “true,” but it is truth itself.


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Q8 - What is the difference between saying God’s words are true and that God’s Word is truth?


The difference is significant, for this statement encourages us to think of the Bible not simply as being “true” in the sense that it conforms to some higher standard of truth but rather to think of the Bible as being itself the final standard of truth. The Bible is God’s Word, and God’s Word is the ultimate definition of what is true and what is not true: God’s Word is itself truth. Thus we are to think of the Bible as the ultimate standard of truth, the reference point by which every other claim to truthfulness is to be measured. Those assertions that conform with Scripture are “true” while those that do not conform with Scripture are not true.


What then is truth? Truth is what God says, and we have what God says (accurately but not exhaustively) in the Bible.


4. Might Some New Fact Ever Contradict the Bible?


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Q10 - What should the relationship be between Scripture and scientific fact? How does Grudem describe their relationship?


Will any new scientific or historical fact ever be discovered that will contradict the Bible? Here we can say with confidence that this will never happen—it is in fact impossible. If any supposed “fact” is ever discovered that is said to contradict Scripture, then (if we have understood Scripture rightly) that “fact” must be false, because God, the author of Scripture, knows all true facts (past, present, and future). No fact will ever turn up that God did not know about ages ago and take into account when he caused Scripture to be written. Every true fact is something that God has known already from all eternity and is something that therefore cannot contradict God’s speech in Scripture.


Nevertheless, it must be remembered that scientific or historical study (as well as other kinds of study of creation) can cause us to reexamine Scripture to see if it really teaches what we thought it taught. The Bible certainly does not teach that the earth was created in the year 4004 BC, as some once thought (for the genealogical lists in Scripture have gaps in them).12 Yet it was in part historical, archaeological, astronomical, and geological study that caused Christians to reexamine Scripture to see if it really taught such a recent origin for the earth. Careful analysis of the biblical text showed that it did not teach this.


D. Our Final Authority Is Written Scripture, not Academic Speculations about Background Topics


It is important to realize that the final form in which Scripture remains authoritative is its written form. It was the words of God written on the tablets of stone that Moses deposited in the ark of the covenant. Later, God commanded Moses and subsequent prophets to write their words in a book. And it was written Scripture (graphē) that Paul said was “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Similarly, it is Paul’s writings that are “a command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37) and that could be classified with “the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).


This is important because people sometimes (intentionally or unintentionally) attempt to substitute some other final standard than the written words of Scripture. For example, people will sometimes refer to “what Jesus really said” and claim that when we translate the Greek words of the Gospels back into the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke, we can gain a better understanding of Jesus’ words than was given by the writers of the Gospels. In fact, it is sometimes said that this work of reconstructing Jesus’ words in Aramaic enables us to correct the erroneous translations made by the gospel authors.



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Chapter Review

1. What does Grudem state as the four characteristics (or attributes) of Scripture?

1.

2.

3.

4.

2. Define the authority of Scripture:


3. What does the Bible claim when it uses phrases like “Thus says the Lord”?


4. How, according to Grudem, are we convinced of the Bible’s claims to be God’s words?


5. What distinction does Grudem make between the Holy Spirit’s evidence for the legitimacy of Scripture and other claims for the legitimacy of Scripture as God’s words?


6. True / False: God dictated every word of the Bible to the human authors.


7. According to the Bible, which of the following processes did God not use to inspire the human authors of Scripture? (Circle your answer.)

dictation

writing in the sand

historical research

dreams

visions

8. What is the difference between saying God’s words are true and that God’s Word is truth?


THINKING CRITICALLY

9. How does Grudem respond to the circular argument objection? What might you add to the case against that objection?


10. What should the relationship be between Scripture and scientific fact? How does Grudem describe their relationship?


11. What role should biblical backgrounds play in interpreting Scripture?


12. Pick two doctrinal views of liberalism from the “Christianity and Theological Liberalism” appendix chart, and briefly respond to them using relevant passages.


PERSONAL ENGAGEMENT

13. When you hear “to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God,” how does your heart respond? Are you inclined to believe Scripture? Why or why not?


14. How do you respond to the preaching of God’s Word? Do you find yourself submitting to it?


15. Close your time in this chapter in prayer, thanking God for his Word, which is truth, and asking him to help you learn to treasure and submit to it rightly.