What is Scripture?
This post is adapted from a paper I wrote for my Systematic Theology class at Redeemer Seminary, and posted during our #LightToMyPath series at The Well.
What is Scripture?
Scripture is the God-breathed revelation of the identity and will of God, centered on the person and work of Jesus, through which he exercises his authority to form, shape, and equip his covenant people for accomplishing his redemptive purposes in the world.
This is the nature and authority of Scripture according to Scripture itself, seen in both explicit statements about itself, as well as narrative accounts that implicitly present the nature and authority of Scripture in this way. This understanding of Scripture is also developed and informed by other Christian thinkers throughout the history of the Church who are smarter and more well-read than me, who have catalogued their own convictions about Scripture in various books and works which we have examined in our class, and have been helpful to me as I form my own understanding of Scripture.
The remainder of this postÂ will unpack and expand upon four specific points of my opening sentence, giving a defense for my position on the nature and authority of Scripture.
1. Scripture is God-breathed revelation of the identity and will of God
The Apostle Paul tells us explicitly that all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16), meaning that it is not merely the product of the human author, but it is ultimately from the mouth of God himself. The words of Scripture are not just the words of men, they are the words of God. Scripture does not originate with the will of man, for no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). Peter expressed this dual-authorship of Scripture well when he said, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David (Acts 1:16).
So Scripture is breathed out by God through men who are carried along by the Holy Spirit, and therefore the words of Scripture are true revelation from God himself. God reveals himself in general through creation, for the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork (Psalm 19:1), and his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Romans 1:20). What John Calvin says is true, that humanity is placed in this most glorious theatre to be a spectator of God’s works, and also that wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. In Scripture, however, God reveals his identity and will in a special way that gives us more insight into who he is personally, and his specific will for us in the world.
“In Scripture, however, God reveals his identity and will in a special way that gives us more insight into who he is personally, and his specific will for us in the world.”
Now, because revelation has its origin in God and not man, it must be acknowledged that God reveals himself only to the extent of His good pleasure and [knowledge] of God is possible therefore only on the basis of a revelation from God’s side. A knowledge of God is available to man only when, and in so far as, God freely chooses to reveal himself.1 There is the reality that the secret things belong to the Lord our God (Deuteronomy 29:29), and some of his ways are unsearchable and judgments inscrutable (Romans 11:33). So the words of God in Scripture reveal the identity and will of God in a more specific (yet still limited) extent, in order that he can be known truly and personally (though not comprehensively) by those whom he speaks to through his word.
2. Scripture is centered on the person and work of Jesus
The sixty-six books of the Bible that we call the Scriptures are not just a collection of loosely related texts, but are all part of one cohesive story that is most clearly seen and understood in the person and work of Jesus. While each book of the Bible has its own unique context, as well as nuances from the personal characteristics of the human author and his specific historical audience, it is the same Divine Author of every book who has breathed out the words of Scripture to progressively reveal one unfolding story centered on Jesus, who is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Hebrews 1:3). This Christ-centered, redemptive-historical view of Scripture is rooted in the words of Jesus and the Apostles themselves.
“This Christ-centered, redemptive-historical view of Scripture is rooted in the words of Jesus and the Apostles themselves.”
Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, introduces himself as an Apostle set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son (Romans 1:2-4). The gospel of God, the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus for the redemption and resurrection of his people, was promised by God through the prophets in the Old Testament Scriptures. It was promised somewhat mysteriously in the Old Testament, but is now revealed to the saints through Christ himself and through the teaching of the Apostles and the New Testament Scriptures.
In the Gospels, Jesus makes this clear in various ways throughout his ministry by interpreting himself as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. He does this at the beginning of his ministry when he reads from Isaiah claiming that his presence is the fulfillment of God’s word through Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21). He also rebukes the Pharisees for searching the Scriptures and yet not understanding that they bear witness about Jesus, and bid people to come to Jesus for life (John 5:39-40).
Most explicitly though, Jesus explains the Christ-centered hermeneutic of the Scriptures through conversations he has with a couple groups of people after his resurrection. In his conversation with a few men on the road to Emmaus, Luke records that, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27). Shortly after this, Jesus explains to his disciples that a summary of his teaching is that everything written about [him] in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled (Luke 24:44). Jesus was very clear that all the Scriptures bear witness about him, and are fulfilled in him; specifically that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,Â and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:46-47).
The New Testament follows the pattern of the Old Testament in its Christ-centeredness. While the Old Testament looks forward to the coming of Christ, the New Testament looks both backward at the New Covenant established with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ’s first coming, and also looks forward to the resurrection of the dead and renewal of creation at Christ’s second coming. Indeed, the New Testament bears that authority as the one gospel whose authority derives from one central point “the activity of God that encompasses the world and history in the coming and the work of His Son, Jesus Christ.2 So Christ is the center of Scripture’s content, and that means there is a single, unifying theme and purpose in Scripture as a whole. Scripture is essentially narrative in form. All other forms of address in Scripture “prayer, poetry, moral imperatives, and so on “receive their fullest sense when seen in light of the overarching universal story that is the heart of Scripture.3
“There is a story to be told about who God is and what he is doing in the world, and Christ is the point.”
There is a story to be told about who God is and what he is doing in the world, and Christ is the point. Christ is the answer to the problems seen in Scripture that were brought about by sin and the cruse, and he is the fulfillment of the promises of God in Scripture to bring restoration and justice and salvation. Scripture is God-breathed revelation that is centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
3. Scripture is a means through which God exercises his authority
God is the sovereign Creator and King of the heavens and the earth. By his word, all things in heaven and on earth were created (Genesis 1), and he continuously upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 12:3). God has complete authority over all of heaven and earth as its Creator and Sustainer, and there is nothing that happens in all of creation that takes place outside of or apart from the sovereign rule of God. God brings about his purposes in the world by exercising his authority over his creation in various ways, from natural disasters or phenomena, to hardening or softening the hearts of people to act in certain ways, ordering and commanding angels for certain purposes, permitting the acts of Satan and the demonic forces, causing the rise and fall of nations and kings. In all these things, God exercises his authority to do all that he pleases (Psalm 115:3).
One of the primary ways that God exercises his authority is through the Scriptures. Scripture is not only a record or narrative of the ways God has previously exercised his authority in the world, or how he will exercise his authority in the future, but is also the means by which God exercises his authority in the present. In Isaiah 55:10-11 we read:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it 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.
The word of God has efficacy. When God speaks, his word successfully brings about a purpose that God intends for it to accomplish. Just as God said, â€œLet there by light and there was light (Genesis 1:3), God continues to exercise his authority through his word to successfully bring about his purposes. Because all Scripture is indeed God-breathed, the reading, preaching, and study of Scripture, which is centered on the person and work of Christ, is used by God as a way of exercising his authority in the lives of those who are presently engaged with it.
4. Scripture forms, shapes, and equips God’s covenant people for his redemptive purposes
When God exercises his authority through Scripture, he does so in a way that is directed at a certain purpose: the forming, shaping, and equipping his covenant people for his redemptive purposes of rescuing his people and renewing the world.4So not only is all Scripture breathed out by God, but it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The God-breathed nature of Scripture is tied to the authority of God to accomplish a certain purpose with his word, and that purpose must be related to Christ (who is the central focus of Scripture). So God exercises his authority through Scripture by bringing the life-changing reality of the person and work of Jesus Christ to bear on his people in order to shape and equip them for good works.
This shaping and equipping is directed at the people of God, who belong to God according to his covenantal love and commitment. The intended recipients of Scripture have always been those whom God has already graciously chosen to belong to himself by means of a covenant. For instance, the Ten Words begin with a statement from God, where he declares his relationship to those who would receive his written word: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:2). The recipients of the first written account of God’s word were those whom God had already claimed as his own; he was their God, and he had established a covenant with them as his already rescued people (Exodus 19:5). The recipients of the Ten Words were a people whom God had chosen to be his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:6).
When the Scriptures were given to Israel, they were the place where, and the means by which, Israel discovered again and again who the true God was, and how his Kingdom-purposes were being taken forward.5 Scripture is given to the covenant people of God to remind them of God’s kingdom purposes and energize and equip them for their role in accomplishing those purposes in the world. Indeed, God maintains and administers the kingdom “his sovereign rule over all things “through covenant means.6
Jesus established a New Covenant with his death and resurrection (Luke 22:20), which was promised by God through the prophets in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:31, Hebrews 8:8). This New Covenant expands the people of God to include people from every tribe and nation. John the Baptist declared Jesus to be the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), not just the sin of Israel. The high priest in Jesus day rightly prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad (John 11:51-52). The people of the New Covenant are all those who have faith in Jesus Christ, and together are known as the Church of God. The Old and New Testament Scriptures then operate as a covenant document for the Church.
“The people of the New Covenant are all those who have faith in Jesus Christ, and together are known as the Church of God.”
So the Scriptures are breathed out by God as a covenant document with one unifying and central focus of Jesus Christ, which God authoritatively uses to shape and equip his chosen, redeemed, covenant people for accomplishing his redemptive purposes in the world as we anticipate the return of Jesus and the renewal of all things. So Christians, the New Covenant people of God, the Church of Jesus Christ, are urged by the Scriptures to embody the life of heaven within the present world as they look forward to the revealing of the glory of Christ.7
For this reason, Paul urges Timothy to preach the word in 2 Timothy 4:2. The task of a pastor must be the preaching of Scripture, so that the people of God will be shaped and equipped for the work of God. But Paul also instructs Timothy to do the work of an evangelist a few verses later (2 Timothy 4:5). The work of an evangelist would be the proclamation of the gospel not only to the Church, God’s covenant people, but also to the world. For in addition to shaping and equipping God’s covenant people, God also uses Scripture to form his people. It is the preaching of the word of God that brings about faith in Christ, and thereby initiates people into the New Covenant as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Those who believe the gospel are born again by the Spirit of God into the family of God (John 3:1-8). So God has brought us forth by the word of truth (James 1:18), for faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). As Martin Luther said, Holy Scripture is the garment which our Lord Christ has put on and in which He lets Himself be seen and found.
Therefore it is in the church, the people of God, that God intends the power of the kingdom to be concentrated and visible, as he draws in all of his redeemed children from every nation through the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel, the word of God. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures brings the Church into existence and empowers the Church for God’s mission in the world (Acts 1:8, Acts 2). So the Scriptures are used by God in the ministry of the Church, to both form faith in those who do not know Jesus, and shape and equip the Church to grow in Christ-likeness and continue the mission of advancing God’s kingdom in the world.
In conclusion, my understanding of the nature and authority of Scripture is informed by what the Scriptures say about themselves, and what they say about the nature and authority of God himself, with the help of other great thinkers throughout the history of the Church (past and present) whom God has given gifts of teaching and wisdom to. The synthesis of all of that is that I believe God has graciously revealed himself by breathing out the words of Scripture through human authors, who each bring their unique contribution to a grand narrative that culminates in Jesus, and that God uses his Scripture to exercise his authority to shape and equip his covenant people for participation in his redemptive mission in the world.
What this means for the Church in general is that the Scriptures must be central to the life and ministry of the Church. If it is true that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19), then the Church has a Christ-centered mission and message that needs to be embraced by the entire Church and taken to the entire world. Jesus Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14), in order that we may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
For us to live out this mission and proclaim this message, we must commit ourselves and our churches to the Scriptures, so that God might shape and equip us for the good works he has for us to do in this world as Jesus builds his Church and advances his kingdom for the glory of his name.
1. Our Reasonable Faith, Herman Bavinck, p. 34.
2. Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, Herman Ridderbos, p. 76.
3. Far as the Curse is Found, Michael Williams, p. 273.
4. Scripture and the Authority of God, N.T. Wright, pg. 27.
5. Scripture and the Authority of God, N.T. Wright, p. 34.
6. Far as the Curse is Found, Michael Williams, p. 56.
7. Far as the Curse is Found, Michael Williams,Â p. 301.