Every age has had its religious leaders who have claimed to receive direct divine revelation, apart from Scripture. Our age is no different—and, in fact, it may be more prevalent in Africa than in many places in the world. African churches are filled with prophets and apostles and bishops who claim to be God’s direct spokespersons to those whom they lead. In stark contrast, historic Reformed theology and the Sola 5 Confession of faith recognise the Bible alone as God’s authoritative and sufficient word for his people in all ages.
All of God’s special revelation to man in the present day is found in the Bible. (This statement is supported by the biblical theology of revelation; the following references should be read in relation to one another: Hebrews 1:1–2; Acts 1:21–22; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:7–8; Ephesians 2:20. See also §6.2.) The Bible is sufficient, revealing all we need to know for salvation and godly living (Isaiah 8:20; Luke 16:29–31; Ephesians 2:20; 2 Timothy 3:16–17). Nothing must be taken away from Scripture and nothing added to it. The Bible alone is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice; our consciences are bound by it alone, not by any council, creed, individual or supposed new revelation (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Isaiah 8:20; Matthew 15:1–9; 22:29, 31–32; Acts 17:11; 28:23–25; Revelation 22:18–19). (Sola 5 Confession 2.3)
“All of God’s special revelation to man in the present day is found in the Bible.” When we think of “all of God’s special revelation to man,” we are to think neither of everything that there is to know nor of everything we would like to know. There are a great many things that other fields of learning—science, biology, geography, etc.—have given to us that the Bible has not. The Bible, however, gives to us everything that we need to know to live a life honouring to God.
The purpose of God’s “special revelation to man” is not to satisfy our curiosity or to enable us to answer speculative questions. Instead, God’s special revelation is designed to completely equip his people for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16–17). God’s special revelation equips us to work for God, not to craft clever answers to difficult questions. If God’s revelation does not spur you to godly living, you are not using it as God has designed.
The Bible is God’s special revelation “in the present day.” It should be obvious that, while God’s written word has always been authoritative, there was a time before the completion of the full canon that God spoke in other ways to his people (cf. Hebrews 1:1–2ff). We, however, live on the other side of the completed canon and so we look to Scripture alone as our source of divine revelation.
The Confession goes on to make two important affirmations about Scripture. They are related, but distinct, and speak to the sufficiency and the authority of Scripture.
First, “the Bible is sufficient, revealing all we need to know for salvation and godly living.” To say that “the Bible is sufficient” means that it is enough to provide everything for which God has given it. As noted above, there is much to which Scripture does not speak (for example, the inner workings of a diesel engine). Nevertheless, it speaks sufficiently to every matter that God has given it to speak to. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “the Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” Scripture, then, is all we need in order to learn who God is and how we are to relate to him. As Grudem says, the Bible “contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.”
Jesus illustrated this truth in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. When the rich man asked Abraham to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers about God’s judgement, Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” When the rich man persisted in his request, Abraham replied, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:19–31). The Scripture is “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” of which Paul writes (Ephesians 2:20). Scripture alone is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
“Nothing must be taken away from Scripture and nothing added to it.” This is because Scripture contains everything we need to know God and how to please him. When we add our own ideas to what Scripture reveals, or ignore its teachings that we don’t like, we are guilty of taking away from or adding to it. Modern Bible translations are often accused, usually by KJV-onlyists—of taking away from Scripture because they omit certain verses. This is hardly a fair accusation. Translations translate the text they have before them, and if the source text omits or includes a verse, the translation will omit or include the verse. At some point, some scribe added to or removed from the Scripture, but it is not the contemporary translator who is guilty of this.
As an aside, we should recognise that the temptation to add to Scripture is as strong as the temptation to take away from Scripture. Therefore, we should be thankful for textual critics who do the hard work of trying to determine what the original text actually looked like.
Second, “the Bible alone is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice; our consciences are bound by it alone, not by any council, creed, individual or supposed new revelation.”
“Final authority” does not means only authority.The Bible as our FINAL authority recognises that other authorities exist, but that no other authority has the right to speak where God has already spoken. All other authorities—parents, governments, church leaders, employees, etc.—are subservient to Scripture and may only operate in the sphere that God has granted them authority.
The Bible’s “authority” is limited to “all matters of faith and practice.” Wherever the Bible speaks, it speaks with full authority, but there are areas where the Bible does not speak, and we should not assume that it is authoritative on matters on which it is silent. But Scripture does speak to matters of faith and practice, and it is therefore authoritative in these matters.
The Confession affirms that “our consciences are bound by it alone, not by any council, creed, individual or supposed new revelation.” This is why it is forbidden to add to or remove from God’s word (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32). Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his day for exalting their traditions above God’s written revelation (Matthew 15:1–9). In effect, they did not know God’s word (Matthew 22:29) because they elevated their own traditions above divine revelation. On the other hand, the Bereans, who diligently searched the Scriptures to see if Paul’s teaching was accurate, were commended (Acts 17:11). For his part, Paul was committed to Scripture on his missionary travels (Acts 28:23–25).
As we have seen, the Bible is our final authority. At the same time, we recognise that the Bible was not given to an individual but to the church. The Bible is best interpreted in the context of community rather than by any one individual. Councils and creeds represent the wisdom of the church over centuries in interpreting Scripture.
Councils and creeds carry authority to the extent that they accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture. While they should not be quickly cast aside or ignored, their interpretation of Scripture must be carefully examined to see if it is accurate. Where faithful exegesis of the biblical text differs from what a council or creed teaches, our conscience is bound to God’s word alone. Councils and creeds are helpful, but they are not infallible.
Scripture also holds authority over “individual or supposed new revelation.” When someone claims to have received direct revelation from God that contradicts Scripture, or renders existing Scriptural revelation irrelevant, they have ignored God’s revelation in favour of their own. However, in more conservative contexts, we might be guilty of this in a slightly different way: by elevating our own private interpretation of Scripture above the collected wisdom of God’s people. It is very unlikely—might we suggest, impossible?—that God will reveal something completely new to you from his word that he has never revealed to anyone else in two thousand years of new covenant history. We must be wary of pursuing novel interpretations of Scripture.