The Doctrine of Scripture: An Overview

God has revealed Himself to humankind in two ways: First, He’s revealed Himself primarily in Jesus Christ and in the Christian Scriptures, referred to as special revelation.[1] Second, He’s also revealed Himself externally in the created order and internally in the human conscience and heart, referred to as general revelation.[2] This article will highlight the importance of the doctrine of Scripture and provide an overview of the Free Will Baptist position on it.

The Paramount Importance of the Doctrine of Scripture

Our doctrine of the Christian Scripture is of paramount importance for everything else that we believe. This doesn’t mean that the Scriptures are, in some way, higher than God. It’s simply an acknowledgement that we don’t know anything about God, beyond those vague hints offered through general revelation, but for the Scriptures.

An example of this is that we, although fallen, can know some things about God through human discernment. But this ability is limited. For example, general revelation can teach us that someone or something created the cosmos, but it can’t teach us about the three persons of the Godhead. It can teach us that something is badly wrong with the world, but it can’t teach us about Adam, Eve, and a beguiling serpent, or about the salvation that’s offered in Jesus Christ. For these particular truths, we require something more for instruction.

Historically, Christians have looked to the two testaments in the Christian Scriptures as God’s special revelation to humankind. However, we mustn’t take even that belief for granted. What we believe about the nature of these writings is crucial. Are these Scriptures the sufficient, infallible, inerrant Word of God? Or are they the words of man, perhaps containing the Word of God but nonetheless subject to error?

Consider: If you believe that the Scriptures neither deceive nor err and that its words are meaningful, then you believe that its laws and principles are authoritative. The practice of homosexuality, accordingly, is a sin. On the other hand, if you don’t believe these presuppositions, then its laws and principles may not be authoritative in today’s world.[3] Thus, even if God’s followers say that homosexuality is wrong in, say, a Hebrew culture (Lev. 18:22, 20:13) or a Greco-Roman culture (Rom. 1:18-32), this doesn’t mean that it’s wrong in our modern culture. This illustrates that what we believe about the nature of the Christian Scriptures is paramount. Our answer to this question has vast implications for our belief and our practice.

The Free Will Baptist Teaching on the Doctrine of Scripture

What, then, do Free Will Baptists teach about the Christian Scriptures? Space will not permit anything beyond a cursory overview of the Church Covenant and Treatise.

The Free Will Baptist Church Covenant

The Covenant begins by stating, “Having given ourselves to God, by faith in Christ, and adopted the Word of God as our rule of faith and practice, we now give ourselves to one another by the will of God in this solemn covenant.”[4] Consequently, those who covenant with Free Will Baptists affirm that they’ve placed themselves under the authority of God and His Word. To adopt God’s Word as our rule of faith and practice means that we rely upon it as our authority for life and godliness. The Christian Scriptures aren’t simply a collection of the writings of men, but God’s special revelation to humankind. Free Will Baptists, then, should read, imbibe, and obey this Word.

The Covenant states further, “We agree faithfully to discharge our obligations in reference to the study of the Scriptures.”[5] Study of God’s Word is not a one-time affair or seasonal engagement; it’s a lifelong commitment. It occurs in our private devotion, family devotion, academic study, and corporate worship.

The Free Will Baptist Treatise

For this reason, the Christian Scriptures are central in our lives. In fact, they’re foundational for everything else that we believe, including what we believe about God. The Free Will Baptist Treatise seems to recognize this when it devotes its first chapter to the Scriptures.

Scope

First concerns the Scripture’s scope: “These are the Old and the New Testament.”[6] Testament means “covenant” or “agreement.” The Old Testament contains thirty-nine books and is revealed primarily through Israel; the New Testament contains twenty-seven books and is revealed through the Church.

Authorship

Second regards the Scripture’s authorship and thus authority: “They were written by holy men, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and are God’s revealed word to man.”[7] The Treatise offers two passages for support. Second Peter 1:20-21 states, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”[8] The second passage is 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

The Scriptures, then, are mysteriously both written by human beings and yet inspired by the Holy Spirit. Free Will Baptists thus affirm the “plenary, verbal inspiration of the Bible.” By this, we mean that God’s inspiration of the Bible is “full and complete” and “extends to the very words of the Scriptures, not just to the thoughts and ideas expressed by human authors.”[9]

That which God has revealed in His Word, then, is not simply the product of human ingenuity. It’s the revealed Word of an eternal, holy, good, wise God through the human author.[10] Sometimes people distinguish between the words of Jesus and the other words in the Scriptures, as though Jesus’ words carry more weight or are somehow more inspired. But if all of the Christian Scriptures are God’s Word, to which the Treatise attests, then such distinctions are potentially misleading. After all, Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, uses that comprehensive, or perhaps even exhaustive, word all concerning which Scriptures are inspired.[11]

Nature

Third, the Treatise references the nature of Scripture: “They are a sufficient and infallible rule and guide to salvation and all Christian worship and service. Since the Bible is the Word of God, it is without error in all matters upon which it speaks, whether history, geography, matters relating to science or any other subject.”[12]

To be sufficient means to be enough. The background of this doctrine is the belief in sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone. That doesn’t mean, though, that “we ignore tradition, disregarding the wisdom of the saints and martyrs of the Christian past,” according to J. Matthew Pinson in Free Will Baptists and the Sufficiency of Scripture. Additionally, sola Scriptura doesn’t mean that we disregard the role of either tradition or culture in the interpretive process. It just means that the Christian Scriptures are our ultimate authority. Pinson continues, explaining that the sufficiency of Scripture recognizes that man is “too finite” and “too depraved to ascertain how God wants to be worshiped and served in His house” and that “liberty of conscience demands that people not be asked to do things for which religious leaders can provide no Scriptural warrant.”[13]

God’s Word is not only sufficient but also infallible and inerrant. This means that it’s “without error and trustworthy in all its teaching.”[14] By this, Free Will Baptists specifically distance themselves from those “in the theological world [who] have claimed to believe that the Bible is an infallible rule of faith and practice, while at the same time professing to believe that the Bible contains errors which were a part of the original manuscripts.”[15]

The Christian Scriptures, then, don’t simply contain the Word of God. They are the Word of God. Critics of this view of Scripture sometimes suggest that it’s tantamount to making the Bible an idol. However, this argument is a straw man. Holding a high view of Scripture isn’t idolatry; rather, it’s the result of holding a high view of God Himself.[16]

The Scriptures aren’t God’s Word because they’re infallible and inerrant. Rather, they’re infallible and inerrant because they’re God’s Word. Not only is that what the Treatise teaches, it’s also the historic position of General-Free Will Baptists.[17] Thomas Helwys explained that the Scriptures should “be used with all reverence, as containing the Holy Word of GOD, which is our only direction in all things whatsoever.”[18] Similarly, F. Leroy Forlines writes, “I believe it to be a self-evident truth that any book that would be the Word of God would be inerrant. . . . Our whole being is repulsed by the idea of a book that is the Word of God being less than inerrant.”[19] God is without error, and He is trustworthy. It follows, then, that His Word is the same.[20]

Conclusion

One’s view of the doctrine of Scripture is vitally important. It’s the foundation for our beliefs about Who God is and what He says. If we get this doctrine wrong, we’re liable also to get many other doctrines wrong. What, then, are we to do? We affirm that the Christian Scriptures are God’s inspired, sufficient, infallible, inerrant Word to humankind. It’s our rule and guide of faith and practice for all of life. Indeed, it’s food to our hungry souls: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4; quoting Deut. 8:3).

____________________

[1] In addition to Jesus Christ and the Scriptures, other forms of special revelation may include visions, theophanies, and other such events.

[2] See John 1:14; Romans 1:18-23, 2:14-16; 2 Timothy 3:16; and 2 Peter 1:18-21.

[3] Even the person who believes that the Bible is infallible and inerrant believes, at least, that certain laws and customs in the Scriptures are no longer normative today, whether due to living under a different operative covenant or in a different culture. As an example of the first, under the Mosaic covenant, children of God were required to abstain from eating pork and shellfish (Lev. 11). However, God’s children no longer live under Jewish dietary laws (Mk. 7:17-23). An example of the second can be seen in Paul’s instruction to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16). However, many Christians, though not all, don’t interpret Paul’s instruction as binding, but as cultural.

What, then, is the difference between, say, pork and holy kisses on the one hand and homosexuality on the other? In part, those rules and principles that transcend varying covenantal eras or different cultural circumstances are more likely normative than those that don’t. In addition, as Al Mohler puts it,

We must always remember that the interpretive community of Scripture is not the individual—the interpretive community of Scripture is the believing church. This does not mean we should adopt a Roman Catholic notion of an authoritative magisterium within the church. Nor does this suggest an anointed priesthood. Instead. The New Testament points to the believing congregation as the interpretive community of Scripture. It is simply not enough to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture propositionally. One must also stand with today’s faithful believers and those throughout the ages in their reading of and obedience to God’s Word. Albert Mohler, We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong (Nashville: Nelson, 2015), 169.

At the same time, Mohler’s statement shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that the church through space and time is always right, or that the Holy Spirit doesn’t move and work in today’s interpretive communities. Undoubtedly, this is a complicated issue and beyond the purview of this article. For more on this topic, see Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2012), 93-105; and Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, eds, Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2013), 19-24, 27-30.

[4] A Treatise of the Faith and Practices of the National Association of Free Will Baptists 
(Nashville: Executive Office, National Association of Free Will Baptists, 
2008), 1; hereafter Treatise.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 3; in-text citations removed throughout.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Treatise lists also vv. 18-19.

[9] Treatise, 18. 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21; 1 Corinthians 2:13; 2 Samuel 23:2; and Jeremiah 1:9 are offered for support.

[10] See Treatise, 3-4.

[11] Some interpreters interpret all in 2 Timothy 3:16 to refer only to the Old Testament (OT) writings but not to the New Testament (NT) writings. Others interpret it to refer both to the OT writings and to the NT writings that had been written by that point. Still other interpret all to refer both to all OT writings and to all NT writings, whether they’d been written yet or not. Ultimately, each of these interpretations hinge on what Paul means precisely by all, which he doesn’t otherwise explicitly qualify. Coupled with other Pauline passages such as 1 Timothy 5:18, not to mention passages like 2 Peter 1:20 and 3:14-16, as well as, more generally, Hebrews 1:1-2; John 14:26; 15:26; and 17:18—passages that speak both to the understanding of Paul himself, concerning this question of inspiration, and to the understanding of the broader theological community—I believe that Paul could be referring to all OT writings and, at the very least, those NT writings that had already been written, if not those that would be written after that point as well.

[12] Ibid, 3. The Treatise offers Exodus 4:15, Psalm 32:8, and Hebrews 1:1-2 to support this point.

[13] J. Matthew Pinson, Free Will Baptists and the Sufficiency of Scripture, Free Will Baptist Heritage Series: Foundations of Faith and Practice (Nashville: Historical Commission of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, 2014), 4.

[14] Treatise, 18. John 10:35 and Matthew 5:17, 18 are offered for support.

[15] Ibid., 20.

[16] For more regarding this general content of this paragraph, see Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man: The Crisis of Revealed Truth in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), itself a response to the problematic Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (1928; repr., N. York: Harper and Brothers, 1957). See also Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009).

[17] This is also the position of the church universal, but that’s beyond the purview of this article, either to prove or to illustrate.

[18] Thomas Helwys, “A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland” (1611), in Joe Early, Jr., ed., The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2009), 73. Helwys, in his use of “contain,” does not mean that same thing that modern Christians have meant by the word. He means simply that it is the Word of God, sufficient for all of life, which is illustrated by the subsequent phrase.

[19] F. Leroy Forlines, Inerrancy and the Scriptures (Nashville: Commission on Theological Liberalism, National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1978), 11.

[20] The affirmations in this paragraph illustrate the essentially presuppositional posture, as opposed to an evidentialism, that General-Free Will Baptists adopt in their doctrine of Scripture. Additionally, for more on the doctrine of Scripture within the broader evangelical interpretive community, see “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 25, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 1-10.

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

Share This Post On

What do you think? Comment Here:

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

SUBSCRIBE:

The best way to stay up-to-date with the HSF

You have Successfully Subscribed!