Where Does God Speak To Us? The Bible (Part 1)

Recently, someone visited our church and, after the sermon, came to speak to me. He thanked me for what I’d said, but then said, “I’d rather you had spoken from the heart, not a book.”  Now, it’s important to check on what someone means when they offer critique.  It could well be that my talk was exceptionally dull that morning or that I was just speaking at an intellectual level about things that I didn’t seem to be passionate about.  I don’t claim to have the oratorical gifts of a fiery Welsh preacher, so maybe it was that.  However, from the conversation, it seemed that his problem really was with me speaking “from a book.”  You see, I had stood there with my Bible open and constantly referred back to specific verses in the Bible passage.  This man wanted to hear my thoughts and opinions, as became clearer during follow-on conversations. But no, I insisted that I would stick with telling him what “the book” says.  Why?  Well, simply, because as we have seen, this is the source of Special Revelation where God speaks to us clearly and authoritatively.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the only place that Christians should be going to and expecting God to speak.

The classic Bible text for helping us to understand the place and role of Scripture is 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

We’re going to use these verses to guide us through our thoughts, but first of all, let’s set them in their context. Timothy was one of Paul’s companions and co-workers as he went around planting and establishing churches.  Paul leaves Timothy behind in Ephesus in order to ensure that the fledgling church there is built up and guarded from falling into error.  To make this happen, Timothy had to appoint trustworthy church leaders and make sure that they were well taught so that they could discern truth from error.  Paul wrote two letters to Timothy which are now in the Bible, encouraging him in this task.

Here, towards the end of the second letter, he reminds Timothy again of his own example. He says “you… know all about my teaching, my way of life” (3:10).  Paul had set an example of perseverance.  He had faced opposition from those who attempted to physically stop him.  He had encountered mobs, been thrown into prison and been beaten and stoned to within an inch of his life.  He had also risked his life travelling, surviving several shipwrecks.  He had needed to challenge false teachers who sought to distort the Gospel and, as a result, was slandered (see 3:10-11).

Now, Paul says that Timothy and those he is responsible for can expect the same because

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and imposters go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (3:12-13).

It’s important to see this because 2 Timothy 3:16 is so well known that it is in danger of sounding quite tame. We can think of Bible reading as a comfortable thing: something we do for interest or pleasure.  We might end up simply reading the Bible for intellectual stimulation or even because it seems to awaken some kind of emotional or spiritual experience within us.  This is far from the case.  Timothy is being reminded to stick with Scripture because the instruction he will find there is vital for anyone who wants to live for Christ.  Scripture is for those who find themselves in dangerous situations: for those who have to take risks at times.  Scripture is for those who find themselves the lone voice in the crowd.  Scripture is for those who genuinely love Jesus and want to be like him.

“All Scripture is God breathed”

The first thing Paul tells us about Scripture is that it is from God – all of it. We use the word “Inspiration” to capture the sense of God breathing it.  What does it mean to say that Scripture is “inspired”?

Well, first of all, let’s state what we don’t mean. We don’t mean that God magically provided us with a book already written.  Inspiration has the sense that God works through human agents to bring his words to us.  So, throughout the Bible, we find people who are chosen to speak for God and to write things down: lots of different people from all across society, from Kings and their courtiers to fishermen and country folk.  Note as well that we are not talking about “mechanical dictation” where God simply uses humans as his secretaries.  There are times when he gives the specific words for someone to write down or to speak out.  However, quite often, what we discover is that the link is much more subtle; we see someone like Paul writing a letter with instruction, but it stands out from any other letters that he writes and people know that this is God’s Word.  We find Luke, carefully researching, talking to eye witnesses so that he can write down his account.  Then you have scribes like Baruch who worked with the prophet Jeremiah so that his oracles would be edited together into a book that also told the story of his ministry.  It seems that, at times, you would even have people gathering together and compiling sayings that were well known outside of the community of God’s people and bringing them into Scripture (see Proverbs 22:17-24:34).  John Frame comments:

The writers bring their own style to it but God is in control and is able to ensure that his words are communicated accurately. “It is like dictation because what Luke writes is exactly what God wants us to hear.[1]

In other words, the writers bring their own gifts and style to the table so that what they produce is genuinely their own work. You can recognise their personality shining through in their writings, but this never takes away from the fact that God is in complete control of what they write. This is important because it also guards us from the opposite error to presuming mechanical dictation.  Some people have focused so heavily on the human nature of Scripture that they treat it as merely an attempt by people to write about what they believe God to be doing and saying.  For them, Scripture is a useful record of their observations, thoughts and feelings, but no more than that.  It may even contain wisdom from God that we can use, but all of that will be tainted by human error: there will be mistakes and misconceptions that have to be detected and removed so that the truth can be mined out.

Frame helpfully defines inspiration “as a divine act that creates an identity between a divine word and a human word.”[2] It is that act which is important.  It ensures that the human words will communicate exactly what God wants to say without error.  This means that we can describe Scripture as “inerrant” and “infallible.” These two words are used by theologians to describe Scripture’s quality as being both “without error” and denying “the possibility of error.”[3]

Technically, these descriptions are applied to the original manuscripts, allowing for the possibility that someone can make an error in copying and translating. Where errors in copying have occurred, the volume of ancient manuscripts means that careful textual criticism helps us to detect them and have a high level of confidence about what the original manuscripts said.  Additionally, a distinction is made when talking about inerrancy between truth and precision.  Inerrancy does not mean that the writers use technical language (for example with regards to science), rounding up and rounding down, hyperbole etc.  Frame offers the following helpful illustration.

Outside of science and mathematics, truth and precision are often much more distinct. If you ask someone’s age, the person’s conventional response… is to tell how old he was on his most recent birthday.[4]

So “all Scripture is God breathed.” All of it!  That little three letter word “all” is vital here.  In other words, all of the books in the Bible are to be treated as authoritative.  We cannot pick and choose. This is what we refer to as canonicity.  The canon of Scripture is all of the books and writings that can be trusted as authoritative Scripture.

This also means, of course, that some writings are excluded from Scripture. For example, the Gnostic Gospels such as the Gospels of Thomas, Barnabas and Peter are excluded.  In fact, it does not take too much of a look at these writings to see that they are not of the same type, value or authority as the four canonical Gospels.

It took time for the church to reach an agreed view of what the full canon was. This isn’t surprising.  Different letters and Gospels would have initially gone to different places first and some may have reached a wider circulation quicker than others.  However, as Frame comments,

The early church was divided by many controversies concerning basic doctrines, including the Trinity and the person of Christ. There were differences among the churches, too, as to what books were canonical.  But it is remarkable how little they fought about this.  Some of the differences had to do with geography: some books reached parts of the church before other parts.  But remarkably, when in AD 367 Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria published a list of books accepted in his church, there was no clamor (sic).[5]

When deciding what to affirm as Scripture and what to deny, the early church used objective criteria such as apostolic authorship or at least indirect influence and certification (e.g. Mark/Luke).[6] “Other criteria used by early Christians were antiquity, public lection (those read in worship), and orthodoxy of content.”[7]

Scripture is designed to point us towards Jesus and his sufficient work on the cross. The fact that God has finally and fully spoken in Jesus means that there is no more need for additional Scripture and so the canon is closed (cf Heb 1:2; 2:2).

[1] Frame, Doctrine of the Word of God,  142.

[2] Frame, DWoG, 140.

[3] Frame, DWoG, 169.

[4] Frame, DWoG, 171.

[5] Frame, DWoG, 136.

[6] Frame, DWoG, 137.

[7] Frame, DWoG, 137.