A confessing community: The Scriptures revealed

South African Airways (SAA) buys 1.5 million bottles of Valpre water a year. The wholesale price of these bottles is R2.75 each. SAA, however, does not buy directly from the producer. It buys them from an empowerment company set up by ANC cadres and pays R17.50 per bottle!

This shocking bit of information started spreading across the Internet in early 2017. It was just another example of corruption in South African government, and South Africans were understandably up in arms. At least, those who didn’t bother to verify the claims were up in arms.

A bit of cursory research revealed that the claim (which was circulated on Twitter without citing any sources as proof) was complete bogus. That did not stop it from being circulated far and wide (it still pops up every now and again as if it is breaking news), but for anyone concerned to learn the truth behind the claims, it was further evidence that we should not believe everything we read.

We are taught from a young age not to believe everything we are told, yet in the day and age in which we live, that lesson seems to have been forgotten. With the rise of social media has come the near compulsion of many to be the first to spread news (particularly, though not exclusively, bad news), whether or not the spreader has taken the time to verify the information.

Sadly, while many unquestioningly believe and willingly spread fake news across social media channels, many of the same people consider the Bible—the very truth of God—to be a collection of fairytales. Many people in our culture think it very strange for normal, seemingly well-adjusted individuals to take the Bible seriously. The Confession we have been studying is, however, unapologetic:

God has revealed himself and his gospel fully and finally in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:14, 18; Hebrews 1:1–3). This revelation is preserved for us in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments—the Bible (Luke 24:25–27, 46–47; Romans 1:1–2; 2 Peter 1:12–21; 1 John 1:1).

 

The Bible in its original autographs is a supernatural, verbal revelation, given by the plenary inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God is its author and it is therefore infallible, inerrant and authoritative (Exodus 20:1; 2 Samuel 23:1–2; 2 Kings 17:13; 2 Chronicles 34:21; 36:21; Nehemiah 9:30; Isaiah 8:20; Jeremiah 1:9; 36:1–2; Ezekiel 1:3; Zechariah 7:12; Malachi 4:4; Matthew 21:42; 22:31–32, 43; 26:54, 56; Mark 12:24, 36; Luke 1:70; 24:44; John 1:23; 5:39; 10:34–35; 14:26; 16:13; 19:36–37; 20:9; Acts 1:16; 3:18; 7:38; 13:34; 28:25; Romans 1:2; 3:2; 4:23; 9:17; 15:4; 1 Corinthians 2:12–13; 6:16; 9:10; 14:37; Galatians 1:11–12; 3:8, 16, 22; 4:30; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2:13; 2 Timothy 3:15–17; Hebrews 1:1–2; 3:7; 4:12; 9:8; 10:15; 2 Peter 1:18–21; 3:16; 1 John 4:6; Revelation 14:13; 22:19). By God’s singular care and providence, his word to us has been faithfully preserved through the centuries. (Sola 5 Confession 2.1–2.2)

The Confession opens with a big claim: “God has revealed himself and his gospel fully and finally in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This revelation is preserved for us in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments—the Bible.” At this point, we recognise two distinct things that Scripture refers to as the word (or Word) of God. When our English Bibles speak of God’s written (or spoken) word, they use a small w (Luke 11:28; John 10:35), while the incarnate Word of God (i.e. Jesus Christ) carries a capital W (John 1:1, 14; Revelation 19:13). The Word of God was God’s fullest revelation of himself, which is preserved for us in the word of God.

As we saw previously, God has revealed himself partially in creation, providence, the inner consciousness, in conscience. However, these revelations only tell us a part of what there is to know about God. God began to reveal himself more fully in the written Scriptures of the Old Testament, but everything written about God was most fully realised in the incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews tells us quite plainly that Jesus was “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Jesus so reflected the character of his Father that to see him was to see the Father (John 14:8–11). God’s revelation in Scripture is a reflection of his character, but Jesus Christ is the ultimate reflection of divine character.

Jesus was God’s revelation to humanity “fully” and “finally.” Despite the false teachings of some cults, Jesus Christ provides everything we need in order to believe and receive the gospel. Nothing can be added to the work that he has done; nothing can be removed from it. We need nothing more than the completed work of Christ for the salvation of our souls and for a healthy understanding of the character of God.

The Confession further affirms that “this revelation is preserved for us in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments—the Bible” and that, “by God’s singular care and providence, his word to us has been faithfully preserved through the centuries.” Jesus taught that the full witness of the Old Testament Scriptures pointed to him (Luke 24:25–27, 46–47). Paul echoed this conviction when he wrote that God’s “prophets in the holy Scriptures” recorded promises “concerning [God’s] Son” (Romans 1:1–2). These Scriptures, written as “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16–21) all pointed to Jesus Christ, “the word of life” (1 John 1:1).

It may be helpful at this point to briefly note the difference between inspiration and preservation. The doctrine of inspiration teaches that God breathed out his revelation (2 Timothy 3:16–17) in such a way that the writers, in the original autographs, recorded, precisely and without error, exactly and minutely what God wanted them to record “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16–21). Strictly speaking, the doctrine of inspiration applies only to the ORIGINAL documents written by the biblical authors. The doctrine of preservation teaches that, even while the original autographs no longer exist, God has preserved his written word in such a way that we can have a high degree of confidence in the manuscripts that remain. A translation from the original languages that is faithful to the existing original-language manuscripts can be trusted as the word of God.

With all Protestant churches, the Sola 5 Confession affirms that God’s preserved word remains “in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.” The subject of the canon of Scripture is often presented as a very complex one, and certain traditions add writings to the Bible that Protestants do not receive as authoritative. In reality it was never as complex as it is made out to be. By the time of Jesus, the 39 books of the Old Testament had long been settled. The 27 books of the New Testament were received by the church and accepted as authoritative as early as the first century. The apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books rose 100–150 years later to challenge these widely received books. The criteria used to assess whether or not a book was authoritative were: (1) apostolicity—was the author an apostle?; (2) antiquity—was the writing dated to the first century?; (3) orthodoxy—did the writing align with (and not contradict) received Christian teaching?; and (4) universality—was the book in question received by every tradition of the church (East and West)? The sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible meet all these criteria; the additional books do not.

The Confession deliberately recognises “the Old and New Testaments” as the authoritative “Bible.” All Scripture—including the Old Testament—is inspired by God and is profitable. While Christians today do not live under the old covenant, the Old Testament remains the word of God. There are times when the New Testament explicitly nullifies certain Old Testament laws (e.g. Mark 7:18–19), but this does not mean that the Old Testament is irrelevant for the church today. The Old Testament reveals the character of God, and therefore its moral requirements are normative for all time. Insofar as they have opportunity, Christians should immerse themselves in both Testaments.

Since “God is its author,” the Bible is “infallible, inerrant, and authoritative.” The divine authorship of Scripture is one of the most prevalent doctrines in the Bible. Time and again, the writings of the biblical authors is ascribed to God himself (e.g. Exodus 20:1). David claimed in 2 Samuel 23:1–2ff that the Lord was speaking through him, and the historian recognise that God spoke through the prophets (2 Kings 17:13). Paul taught that the Scriptures are “words … taught by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:13). The Confession contains a long list of Scriptures that point to divine authorship, and there would be value in reading and meditating on each of them.

Because God is the Bible’s divine author, it is “infallible, inerrant, and authoritative.” These terms often go together, and the first two are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference worth noting.

Infallibility means that, because God guided them, the writers of Scripture were incapable of making error when they penned the original writings that God inspired. In every facet, God guided the writers so that what they recorded was incapable of error.

Inerrancy holds that the Bible is without error. Inerrancy is the logical outworking of infallibility: Since the authors could not err, theydid not err. As he inspired it, therefore, God’s written word was without error in all its parts.

Authority means that the Bible is our final rule for all matters of faith and practice. While the Bible does not tell us all there is to know, it tells us all we need to know, and what it tells us carries with it divine authority. To disobey Scripture is to disobey God.

Of course, there are some challenging things to think about when it comes to these matters. For example, since we affirm the infallibility of the original manuscripts, we do not necessarily carry that infallibility to translations. Translations, which often differ from each other, can and do err, but the Christian equipped with a good translation of the Bible can read it with a high degree of confidence that he is reading the authoritative word of God. Happily, the English language contains several excellent translations of the Bible, including the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, and the Christian Standard Bible.

One more brief note may prove helpful at this point: Apparent contradictions in the Bible are not the same as actual contradictions, and therefore the Bible should not be written off as error-ridden or irrelevant because the reader cannot (for the moment) reconcile an apparent contradiction. Of the three ascriptions, authority is perhaps the most important. Even if you find a minor seeming contradiction that you cannot resolve, you should approach the Bible with inherent trust that it is the very word of God and authoritative in what it teaches.

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