Scripture as Divine Revelation
Scripture is the written form of God’s special revelation for his people, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, which provides them with an enduring, permanent witness through which the Spirit brings them into union with the resurrected and ascended Christ.
Divine revelation, which is a remarkable and gracious gift of God, comes in both general and special ways. General revelation is given to everyone everywhere is broad (though far from empty) in what it says about God. This kind of divine revelation is found in creation and in every person’s conscience. Special revelation, on the other hand, is specific in its content and omnipotent in its effect. Through this revelation, God communicates the mysteries of the faith and personal knowledge of Christ to his people. Scripture is the written form of special revelation, providing God’s people with an enduring witness to the work of God in Christ. This Scripture has been “breathed out” by God through his Spirit, carrying along the authors of Scripture as they wrote.
Divine Revelation is Extraordinary
As Christians, we take God’s revelation of himself for granted. But if we think about who God is, it is nothing short of remarkable that he has spoken. This is true for a number of reasons. To begin with, he is the infinite, eternal, and incomprehensible Creator. We, on the other hand, are finite creatures. God is not merely greater in size, as if he is bigger but nevertheless still within our sphere of creaturely experience. No, this God is immeasurable in essence; he is a different type of being altogether. This fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creature pervades the storyline of the Bible because, as the prophets repeatedly point out, it is what distinguishes Yahweh from the created gods of the surrounding nations. Idolatry is a confusion of the creature with the Creator. All that to say, there is an infinite distance between God and man because God is not a created being.
How incredible it is, then, that this incomprehensible Creator would stoop down to make himself known to us brittle creatures, so that in turn we might know him truly, even if never comprehensively. As John Calvin said with such eloquence, God is like that nurse who lisps to a new born babe. Such accommodation is supernatural, but also fitting since God chose to make us in his own image.
But there is yet another reason divine revelation is extraordinary. His holiness not only sets him apart as the infinite, transcendent One, but his holiness also sets him apart as the righteous One. That, however, poses a problem. For we are not righteous but sinners, guilty and corrupted, stained by sin in every component of our being. If it is not astounding enough that the infinite, eternal God created and spoke to those whom he made, he continued to do so even when they fell into sin’s grip. He would have been right to remain silent when Adam and Eve rebelled, and his silence would have resulted in total separation and condemnation. But he did not remain silent; he spoke, and he spoke a redeeming word. Ultimately, that initial word of promise in Genesis 3:15 reached its culmination in the Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14), the revelation of God personified. That Word was none other than the Lord Christ Jesus himself, the eternal Son of God made incarnate for us and our salvation.
For these reasons, revelation is a gift, and an extraordinary one at that.
The Heavens Declare the Glory of God: General Revelation
We should distinguish, however, between two types of revelation. First, there is general revelation. It is called general because it (1) is given to everyone everywhere and (2) is broad (though far from empty) in what it says about God. General revelation, for example, does not communicate the mysteries of the Trinity or the person and work of Jesus Christ, but it does reveal God as Creator of the cosmos and manifests many of his divine attributes (transcendence, majesty, power, sovereignty, etc. (see Pss. 198:3–4; 29:4; 93:2; 104:24; Acts 14:15–17; 17:24–27; Rom. 1:20, 32; 2:15–16). And it does so not to a specific people only but to all people in all times. The reason for its universal scope is found in the medium itself.
So, by what medium does a person receive this general revelation? There are two ways: (1) through man’s internal conscience, and (2) through the created order (e.g., nature). Man is created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), which means the divine imprint marks him. In “our minds,” says Calvin in his Institutes (1.3.2), lie the “seeds of religion,” so much so that man is characterized by a sensus divinitatis, a sense of the divine. Man cannot escape, no matter how hard he tries, the morality embedded within his very makeup as a creature made to reflect his Creator (Rom. 1:32; 2:14–16).
Yet creation, too, bears witness that there is a Creator. Listen to David in Psalm 19:1–2:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
One should also consult Psalms 8, 93, and 104, which make similar statements. Paul, too, says this much. God’s “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” (Rom. 1:20).
The problem is that as sinners we suppress this general revelation, which means it may be sufficient to condemn us (see Rom. 1:20–21; 2:14–16), but it is not sufficient to save us. What is needed, then, is a special revelation, one that is not only specific in its content but omnipotent in its effect, taking root in a particular people through faith. We know God as Creator and Judge due to general revelation, but unless there is special revelation, we will never know this Creator as our Savior.
From Creator to Savior: Special Revelation
Being gracious, God has provided special revelation in a variety of ways. A brief look at how God reveals himself to his people, Israel, in the OT demonstrates that God’s special, saving revelation is rich, communicated through a mosaic of mediums, including theophanies, dreams, visions, angels, direct speech, miracles, and ultimately Christ himself. In fact, all previous revelation pointed to the revelation of God which was none other than the Son of God himself. Jesus not only came, like the prophets of old, to communicate a revelation from God, but Jesus himself is the revelation from God because he is God incarnate (Heb. 1:1; John 1:1). He does not merely bring a message; he is the message.
But as important as each of these mediums may be, God determined—in his wise providence—that his enduring, permanent witness to himself should come through a written word, namely, the Scriptures, what we Christians call the Bible. Even Christ ascended into the heavens after his resurrection from the dead. Scripture, however, is the Spirit’s enduring, ever-present gift to God’s people, and one through which the Spirit brings us into union with the resurrected and ascended Christ, our Lord. We do not know Christ apart from the word of Christ inscripturated; it is through this inspired text that the Spirit makes Christ known to us in a saving way. So, although Scripture may be but one form of special revelation, it is the permanent form God intends his people to possess and live by for faith and practice.
The Inscripturated Word: Inspiration
However, we should not forget that this written word from our triune God did not fall from heaven all at once. Rather, it was revealed progressively over the course of history and through human hands. God’s plan of redemption was revealed through the Scriptures, but at first only in seed form. It then blossomed further as God chose to reveal how that plan of redemption would eventually culminate through the death and resurrection of his Son. This occurred within the context of God’s saving covenants. For example, it was at Sinai that God entered into a covenant with his people, Israel. The constitution of that covenant—the treaty by which Israel was to live by—was given to Moses, written with the very finger of God on tablets of stone (Deut. 9:10).
As the story progresses, God provides further written revelation through his prophets. Not only do they speak the word of God to the people of God, but at times they are told to write it down, serving as prosecutors of the covenant against a people bent on covenant infidelity (see the book of Jeremiah, for example). It’s little surprise, then, that when the promised Messiah arrives—the one the Old Testament Scriptures promised and prefigured—this Messiah intends to pass on the good news of the gospel to his disciples. As his ambassadors, they will spread the good news of salvation about Jesus through their proclamation (see the book of Acts) but also through the writing of letters, letters inspired by the Spirit and for the instruction and edification of the church.
To clarify, these Scriptures, which we now call the Old and New Testaments (Testament meaning covenant), were not typically produced unlitarerally, as if, for example, Zechariah or Peter had to ascend Sinai like Moses to bring down God’s written word. Actually, Sinai would prove the exception, not the norm. God often worked in ordinary ways through ordinary human beings whom he set apart for his work of inspiration (e.g., David, the shepherd boy turned king wrote Psalms; fisherman turned disciples wrote letters to churches).
That word “inspiration” is key. It does not mean the human authors of Scripture merely recorded their religious experience, as if they saw what God did and were so excited that they wrote it down only for God to come along and adopt it as his own. That may be the common use of the word “inspired” today but that is not what the Bible itself means by the term. For example, consider Paul’s words to Timothy about Scripture, and not just some parts but all of it: “All Scripture is breathed out (θεόπνευστος) by God…” (2Tim 3:16). In other words, the Scriptures do not originate with the human authors but with God himself.
Inspiration as Concursus
How did God breath-out the Scriptures? That may be something of a mystery, but Peter gives us a glimpse into that mystery when he says, “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 Pet. 1:21). B. B. Warfield called this concursus, meaning there is a simultaneous operation between the human author and the divine author, though the divine author is primary. That much is apparent when Peter indicates that it was the Spirit that “carried along” the prophets of old. Much like a ship at sea driven along by the wind (e.g., Acts 27:15, 17), the Spirit worked in and upon the human authors in such a way that what they said was exactly what God himself said and intended.
Peter is not alone in this belief, but it can be seen in Jesus’s own teaching whenever he refers to the OT author and the Spirit synonymously (see Mark 12:36-37 for example). The assumption across the New Testament is that the Scriptures of Jesus and the apostles (the Old Testament) is none other than God’s inspired word to his people. And they assume the Scriptures are inspired not just in its overall message but in its totality, down to the very words (inspiration is verbal and plenary).
Assurance of Inspiration: The Gospel
While Paul may say this much explicitly (2 Tim. 3:16), Jesus and the Gospel writers indicate the same but by his constant refrain that the Scriptures have been fulfilled in his person and work (e.g., Luke 4:21; also see Matthew’s Gospel which is full of this “fulfillment” language). The covenant promises of God in the Scriptures have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and that is the greatest testimony to their divine origin. Should one seek assurance that the Scripture is nothing less than divine revelation one need look no further than the gospel itself. God has come through on his word.
- B. B. Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration
- D. A. Carson, ed., The Enduring Authority of Christian Scripture
- E. J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth: Some Thoughts on the Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration
- Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. See an author interview here and here.
- Matthew Barrett, Twenty-one lectures based on God’s Word Alone.
- Matthew Barrett, Ten videos on the doctrine of Scripture.
- Matthew Barrett, Canon, Covenant, and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel, New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson (InterVarsity Press).
- Peter Williams, Video interview: Why is divine authorial intent so important for biblical interpretation?