The Necessity of Scripture
In order for humans to understand their judicial standing before God, and to know how to establish and maintain a saving relationship with him, God had to reveal that information. Though God can reveal himself in many forms, he chose to address our relationship with him in Scripture. This is information humans desperately need but have access to nowhere else. Hence, given the moral universe God created, with its rules for a proper relation to him, it was and is necessary for God to give us Scripture.
One of the attributes of Scripture that theologians have identified is Scripture’s necessity. Through natural revelation we can know of God’s existence and of some of his attributes. We cannot know for certain what our judicial standing is before God. Though God might have revealed that to us through some other form of special revelation, he has done so most clearly and thoroughly through Scripture. Without it we would know only a few things about God, and we might suspect that we have broken moral rules and as a result are due punishment. But in Scripture we have these things confirmed, and we have God’s plan of salvation revealed. No other form of revelation gives to all humanity in an enduring fashion God’s answer to the human predicament.
Protestant theologians have identified four attributes that Scripture possesses. They are Scripture’s clarity, sufficiency, authority, and necessity. What is meant by the “necessity” of Scripture is that if humans are to understand properly their condition before God and to learn of God’s remedy for their desperate estate. While God could have chosen to appear to each person individually and divulge this information, instead he has given us Scripture.
The Human Situation
In order to understand this point, we must understand the human situation. God created all things, including humankind. Through his creation of the natural universe and everything in it, it is possible for humans to reason that a God exists, one with various divine attributes such as knowledge, power and love. As a result, no one can say that they would have worshiped and obeyed God if only they had known that he exists and what he requires. The apostle Paul says that from the natural world, including humans’ minds and moral sensibilities, they do know that there is a God and they have some idea of what he requires. (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:12-15).
But all mere humans are finite in intellect. Before they fell into sin, Adam and Eve didn’t know everything, nor could they, given their finite minds. Even if they had never sinned, by the light of reason alone as applied to the natural world around them, they would still have had a limited understanding of God and of humans’ relation to him. Nor would they know much, if anything, about God’s plans for the future, including what would happen to them after living in natural bodies. In fact, they would not know how long they might live, nor would they know experientially what it means to age and die in their physical bodies. Some may reply that without sin they would not have needed to know such things. True, but that still would not inform them about what to expect would happen to their minds and physical bodies as time passed by.
Sadly, the human race did fall into sin. From natural revelation humans may understand that they have broken God’s law and are worthy of punishment. But natural revelation does not reveal the penalty for their offense. Nor can they know from it whether there is a remedy for their situation, and if so, what it is. So, they may wish to have a relationship with the God they sense exists, even if only to avoid punishment for disobeying him, but from natural revelation they have no idea of what must be done to satisfy him. Even more, they don’t know whether they must do something, whether God must do something, or whether both must do something to establish and maintain a positive relationship with one another. Without this information, the human condition is utterly hopeless. Humans depend on a positive relationship with God, but without divine revelation, no one can know with certainty that this is so. Nor, if it is so, can they know the remedy for their situation.
The Provision of Special Revelation
So, how can humans learn what they so desperately need to know? If they are to learn the truth about their relationship with God, including how to establish and sustain it, some form of special revelation must tell them. But, most forms of special revelation don’t answer these questions either. Miracles grab our attention, but they cannot per se always clarify whether God is the doer of the miracle or not, and they don’t address the other more fundamental questions about the human condition. Other divine acts that do not include miracles may give evidence of God’s intervention in human affairs, but those actions don’t answer questions about humans’ need for a right relation to God. Jesus is the highest form of revelation of God, but we don’t live when he was on earth so that we could ask him these questions. Jesus preached to many people, but those who heard him have died, and most did so without recording a word he said on any topic, let alone on this one.
It seems clear that if no one ever recorded in writing what Jesus said and did and if no one ever recorded what God said and did to his Old Testament and new Testament people, we would be left only to guess what he requires in any area of life, especially what he requires to have a positive relationship with himself. So, recording and preserving what God wants humankind to know is the way to have God’s authoritative word about any topic God chooses to address. And, that’s where Scripture comes in for it is God’s inspired, inerrant, and authoritative word on everything it discusses. Without Scripture we would be left to guess what God desires of us, and even more fundamentally, we would have a very meagre view of who God is and what he is like if our only source of information about him is the natural world around us.
For the reasons mentioned, Protestant theologians have maintained that it was necessary for God to inspire and preserve the writing of Scripture. Scripture contains everything that can be learned from natural revelation, but it also contains information that is nowhere available to the human race as a whole or to individuals in particular, and yet it is just that information that every human who has ever lived so desperately needs to know.
Scripture also tells us how God expects us to behave in our relations with him and with other people. These rules of conduct are incumbent not only on believers but on all people. When these rules are broken, Scripture also clarifies that fellowship between God and the believer is broken, and it tells us how to restore that fellowship.
It is also in Scripture that we learn how God wants us to set up a local church and run it. That includes revelation about specific officers and their duties, and it also contains information on the ordinances/sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And Scripture also contains our Lord’s instructions on how to handle matters of church discipline in a local church. Undoubtedly, if none of this information were available, believers would make decisions about each of them, and there would be some rules to maintain order and to minister. But there would still be questions about whether the procedures and policies followed would at all be what God wanted or very different from what he would prescribe about running a church. Of course, having this information in Scripture does not mean that everyone will properly interpret and apply it, but it is surely better to have God’s authoritative word on these matters than to be left to follow one’s own thoughts and intuitions about them.
Finally, God has revealed in Scripture something of his plans for the future. He has not filled in all the details of every end-time event, but he has revealed enough for us to know the major events that will occur. And, most encouraging, he has divulged the fact that his cause will ultimately win in the battle with Satan and evil. And, believers are on the winning side! This gives great confidence to pursue life in a world that is increasingly hostile and dangerous to God’s people.
As for the future for individuals, Scripture tells us something of what to expect. For example, neither in natural revelation nor any other non-Scriptural source do believers have God’s authoritative word on what happens to people after they die. Contemplating death and eternity can be frightening even for those who know Christ as savior. But without God’s revelation about the afterlife and eternity, God’s people who should be confident and encouraged about what God has in store for them after death might be terrified by the fear of the unknown. Of course, there are still many mysteries about life after death that have not been revealed, but our caring heavenly Father who knows that contemplating such matters can be stressful, has given us enough information so that it is possible for us to obey Jesus when he tells us, “Let not your heart be troubled” (John 14:1).
Scripture is necessary for humanity for all the reasons mentioned. There is also a sense in which it is necessary for God himself. Having created the universe with human creatures in it, God could have decided to give us no instructions about himself and his expectations for how we should live and relate to him. Because we sin, we would need the information contained in Scripture, but an indifferent God who didn’t care about us could forego divulging that information. But, on the contrary, a loving and compassionate God wouldn’t establish a world-order in which humans are certain to be guilty and condemned for breaking God’s laws but have no information on how to remedy their helpless estate. And, the God of Scripture surely has the power and wisdom to know the best way to get the needed information to the most people. God’s revelation in written form is not the only way God could transmit his truth, but his giving it in this form and then preserving it through the centuries makes abundant sense. So, given the world God created and the circumstances of his human creatures as creatures and as sinners, God deemed it necessary to give us his truth in Scripture.
- John Murray, Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture. This article is one of three lectures given under the auspices of the Reformed Fellowship, Inc. in Grand Rapids, Michigan on May 21, 22, 26, 1959 in connection with the commemoration of the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin and the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the definitive edition of the The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
- James I. Packer, “The Necessity of the Revealed Word,” in The Bible—The Living Word of Revelation, by Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968)
- Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville:Thomas Nelson, 1998)
- Nathan Shannon, “Redemptive History and the Attributes of Scripture,” Reformed Forum
- The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.1
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