If you read any worthwhile Systematic Theology book you’ll undoubtedly discover a chapter on the doctrine of Scripture. When theologians talk about the Bible, they often use terms like inspiration, inerrancy, authority, sufficiency, and so on. Do you know what these terms mean?
Below you’ll find a definition of many of the terms often associated with the doctrine of Scripture, along with how to apply this material to your life. Curiously, there is endless debate about how to define these terms, and even debate as to whether or not we should use them. My aim here is not to say everything there is to say about each term, but to merely provide an introductory level look and what the terms even are, and how they are, generally speaking, defined in an evangelical context.
The Bible Is . . .
Inspiration: The inspiration of Scripture basically means that although God penned his truth through human authors, the ultimate origin of Scripture derives from God himself. Sometimes theologians refer to the “verbal plenary inspiration” of Scripture. According to The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, this means that “the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.” That’s another way of saying all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16).
The origin of Scripture is divine; it comes from God himself. But the means by which God accomplishes is purposes is often through human beings. In this case, then, it means that God inspired human beings to write down the words of Scripture, taking into account their personality, intended audience, life experiences, and personal intelligence. “. . .men spoke from God,” Peter writes, “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21). In a supernatural and admittedly somewhat mysterious way, the Holy Spirit superintended the entire process of Scripture writing.
Inerrancy: Inerrancy means that the Bible is without error. 1 The inerrancy of Scripture is captured well by Irenaeus who says, “The Scriptures are perfect, seeing that they are spoken by God’s Word and His Spirit.” God makes zero mistakes. And since the ultimate origin of Scripture comes from God, you should have the utmost confidence in the accuracy of the Bible you own.
Authority: The Bible is our highest standard of right and wrong. As the EFCA Statement of Faith says, it is “the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged.” This doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only kind of literature that Christians are allowed to read, but that “. . . nothing outside of Scripture comes to us with the same universally binding divine authority . . . ” (Evangelical Convictions, p. 66-67). Our highest authority is not church tradition, the random thoughts of your favorite preacher, not any kind of non-revelatory prophecy, no human reason, or internal prompting. No, the Christian’s highest authority is the Bible.
Sufficiency: The canon is closed. As it’s been said, the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we want to know, but it does tell us everything we need to know. The pages of Scripture are adequate enough to tell us what we need to know about God and ethical Christian living. This principle, of course, flows from sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) — which means Scripture alone is the ultimate authority over God’s people. Scripture is sufficient — everything we need for life and godliness can be found there (this is, as you can see, closely connected with the authority of Scripture).
Infallible: If inerrancy means the Bible is without error, then infallibility means the Bible is incapable of making an error.
Necessity: Comes from the word “need.” The Scriptures teach us who God is and how God wants his people to live. Conscience and creation are good, but not enough. We need the Bible.
Clarity: Or the more confusing, perspicuity. Stated differently, the perspicuity of Scripture means that God’s revelation of himself and what God requires of his people can be clearly understood in Scripture. This doesn’t mean you’ll know everything about the Bible, that you won’t have questions, or that you won’t make non-heretical errors. But it does mean any ordinary Christian can read the Bible and get the gist of God’s character and how God commands you to live. (By the way, am I the only one who thinks a confusing word like “perspicuity” is an odd way of talking about the clarity of Scripture?)
What Does This Mean?
There are a host of applications, but I’ll suggest three:
1. Cherish God’s Word. Trust the Bible, love the Bible, read the Bible, and obey the Bible. It will create joy in your heart when you stop to consider the ways in which God has made himself known in the Old and New Testaments. Make consumption of God’s Word a regular part of your week.
2. Open your Bible to the text upon which the preacher is preaching on Sunday mornings. Listening to a sermon is an active thing, not a passive thing. Don’t just take the preacher’s word for it (although I certainly hope you can). Make it a habit to prop your Bible open to the text when you’re sitting in your chair or pew. This discipline will help you to measure all spiritual things said against God’s Word.
3. Read a book on the Bible. This will help you to love the Bible more. If you want an accessible book on the subject, consider Kevin DeYoung’s book, Taking God At His Word.
May we be like the Bereans who “. . . received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
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- Many responsible theologians attach the expression “in the original manuscripts” to the definition of inerrancy. I have decided not to include that in the definition provided because it would require a full-length post to unpack. For a discussion on why some theologians say that inerrancy means the Bible is without error in the original autographs, see Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, p. 90-104 ↩