Seminar 6: The Attributes of Scripture

Emmanuel Training and ResourcesModule T1.1 Introduction and the Doctrine of Revelation

Seminar 6: The Attributes of Scripture


In this seminar we continue our study of the doctrine of Scripture, turning to the topic of the so-called Attributes (i.e. properties) of Scripture. In effect, we’re exploring the implications of the divine authorship of Scripture, asking this question: Since the Bible is the word of God, what qualities should we expect it to have?

We’ll be reading chapter 4 of Tim Ward’s book Words of Life (Nottingham: IVP, 2009). This is a creative articulation of the classic Reformed and evangelical doctrine of Scripture that takes into account some significant developments in the philosophy of language that took place during the 20th century known as Speech-Act Theory. It’s not necessary to understand Speech-Act Theory in order to appreciate the section that we’ll be reading, though we may touch briefly upon it during the seminar. If you want to explore the subject in more detail then reading the rest of Tim Ward’s book would be a great place to start, as he clearly has a strong grasp of the subject.

A great strength of Ward’s work is his deep familiarity with a range of important theologians in many different historic Christian traditions from the early church to the present day. For example, in chapter 4 alone you’ll find references to Reformed theologians such as John Calvin, Francis Turretin, Herman Bavinck, G. C. Berkouwer and Richard Muller, as well as Martin Luther, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas Aquinas, and church fathers such as Augustine, Athanasius and Basil of Caesarea. This wide-ranging historical awareness is very helpful in helping us to place our own theological position in its historical context, and highlighting lines of continuity and discontinuity with our forefathers in the faith.

Traditionally, as Ward explains (p. 98), Reformed and evangelical expositions of the doctrine of Scripture have tended to focus on four main attributes of Scripture: necessity, sufficiency, clarity (sometimes called perspicuity), and authority. After a brief introduction, Ward’s exposition follows these four headings, exploring their meaning, their biblical and theological basis, and their implications for approaching Scripture today. The study questions below are grouped so as to highlight these four sections of Ward’s work.

This chapter of Ward’s book self-consciously builds on the biblical and theological background he has established in the previous two chapters (which are not set as preparation for this seminar). If you find yourself at times yearning for more in the way of biblical and theological background to the issues we’ll be talking about, you may want to read the rest of the book. It’s well worth the time and effort.

For what it’s worth, I personally disagree with what Ward says at just one point in this chapter. I won’t tell you exactly where in the questions below; I’ll leave you to work through the issues for yourself at this stage. If you’d like to know where I would put things a little differently, we can talk about this in the seminar. I should highlight that my disagreement doesn’t relate to the doctrine of Scripture itself (at least, not directly), but rather to the connections that Ward makes to other doctrines. To my mind, his exposition of the doctrine of Scripture itself is profoundly helpful.

Questions to think about

a. Why do you think God chose to ensure that his revelation to the world was written down? Could he have done it any other way? How might our lives as Christians have been different if God’s word had not been written down?

b. Do you think there are any important moral issues that are not addressed (either directly or indirectly) in Scripture? If so, can you give any examples?

c. How well do you think you understand the Bible? Would you say the Bible is clear in its teaching?

d. Do you think the Bible is true in what it teaches (1) about God; (2) about moral issues; (3) about historical and scientific matters? What are the implications of your answer?

Study questions

1. Ward explains that “a doctrinal statement” (such as an evangelical summary of the attributes of Scripture) can sometimes be “picked up [and] passed on ... and in the process [lose] in many people’s minds its biblical and theological underpinnings” (p. 98). What does he mean by this? What “two unfortunate effects” can result (pp. 98-99)? What is the “one danger [that] then always lurks” (p. 99)?

The necessity of Scripture (pp. 100-108)

In the first major section of the chapter, Ward turns to the first attribute of Scripture under discussion, the necessity of Scripture. The first couple of pages will probably sound somewhat familiar, as they draws on sections of Calvin’s Institutes that we have discussed previously.

2. Ward (following Calvin), explains that “we must identify Scripture as the necessary Word of God because without such a Word our knowledge of God would be insufficiently grounded, unreliable, and even... subjective” (p. 101). How have people criticised such views in more recent times (p. 101)?

3. Though these may be some truth in this charge of “rationalism”, Ward nonetheless has a significant response to this criticism. What were “Calvin [and] many of his theological heirs... primarily concerned with” (p. 101)?

4. Ward points out that “Scripture speaks regularly of a right kind of certainty in faith” (p. 102). What kind of “certainty” is he talking about (p. 102)? How do the following biblical texts support Ward’s argument (p. 102-103)?

  • 1 John 5:13
  • Luke 1:4
  • Exodus 17:14
  • Ezekiel 43:11

For reflection: Do you ever feel the need for this kind of “certainty”? How should we approach Scripture in order to find such certainty?

Ward now turns to Francis Turretin, who expands on some of the points made by Calvin. On p. 103 Turretin distinguishes between verbal revelation (revelation in words) and written revelation (revelation in written words).

5. According to Turretin, in what sense is written revelation “necessary” (p. 103)?

6. Ward highlights an aspect of explains that points out an implication of Turretin’s teaching that “remains a vital one in the contemporary church” (p. 105). What contemporary issues does Ward have in mind (p. 105)?

For reflection: Bearing in mind what you’ve now read about the necessity of Scripture, how would you seek to address these contemporary issues?

The sufficiency of Scripture (pp. 108-117)

Ward turns now to the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.

7. What do the following biblical texts (cited on p. 109) imply about what Scripture is sufficient for?

  • Psalm 119:1
  • 2 Timothy 3:15
  • Revelation 22:28-19

Ward highlights a distinction on p. 110 between the material sufficiency of Scripture and the formal sufficiency of Scripture that might be worth clarifying:

The material sufficiency of Scripture is the claim that “Scripture contains everything necessary for faith and life” (p. 110).

The formal sufficiency of Scripture is the claim that “Scripture [is] its own interpreter” (p. 110); i.e. by reading the whole of Scripture we’re able to understand what the individual parts mean. This idea is “very close to the idea of the clarity of Scripture” (p. 110; see further pp. 117-129).

8. Despite being accepted “in the early centuries of the church” (p. 109; see the quotes from Athanasius and Augustine), the material sufficiency of Scripture was gradually undermined and eventually denied during the Middle Ages. What “two views” discussed on p. 111 were responsible for this denial?

9. When the Reformers re-stated the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture (see the quotes on pp. 111-112), they were seeking “to make a point against opponents on both sides” (p. 112). Who were these two groups of opponents, and what points were the Reformers seeking to make (p. 112)?

10. Having stated his own definition of the sufficiency of Scripture on p. 115, Ward explains a number of points that his definition does not imply (pp. 115-116). Can you identify and explain what these points are? (Hint: I can count at least five, perhaps six, distinct points.)

For reflection: Do you find any of these points particularly illuminating? Why? Do you disagree with any of them?

The clarity of Scripture (pp. 117-129)

11. “Luther made an important distinction between what he called the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ clarity of Scripture” (p. 118). Can you explain this distinction (pp. 118)? How does it help us to explain why we don’t always find Scripture easy to understand (p. 118)?

On p. 123, Ward begins to explain “what the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not imply” before turning to “what it does imply”. Let’s look first at what the clarity of Scripture does not imply:

12. “The doctrine does not, first of all, imply that preaching is unnecessary” (p. 123). Why not (pp. 123-124)?

Still on the subject of what the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not imply, Ward turns to the issue of disagreements between Christians.

13. “What are we to make of disagreements between Christians who hold to the clarity of Scripture?” (p. 125).

For reflection: How should the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture affect your own personal Bible reading?

The authority of Scripture (pp. 129-142)

Finally, Ward turns to the doctrine of the authority of Scripture. In this section, he addresses both the infallibility and the inerrancy of Scripture, two themes that have become rather controversial in some evangelical circles in recent years.

14. “The phrase ‘the authority of Scripture’ must be understood to be shorthand for ‘the authority of God as he speaks through Scripture’” (p. 130). What does Ward mean by this? How does the “Highway Code” illustration help (p. 130)?

15. According to Ward, what do the terms “infallible” and “inerrant” mean (p. 132)? (Note, as Ward himself says, that other people have offered different definitions of these terms.)

For reflection: Do you find this distinction between infallibility and inerrancy helpful?

16. Can you outline the “three aspects of the mainstream inerrantist position” (p. 133) that Ward outlines on pp. 133-136?

17. “If we subscribe to inerrancy, what should our approach be to apparent or alleged errors within Scripture?” (p. 140). What two points does Ward make in answering this question (pp. 140-142)?

For reflection: Do you believe that the Bible contains any errors?