WCF Chapter 1 | Of the Holy Scripture
If you were going to introduce Christianity to someone where would you begin? You might start with God and his holiness. The first fact is that “there is one simple spiritual being, whom we call God.”[i] Or you might lead with our need for God to deliver us from Satan’s tyranny.[ii] Both approaches are valid.
Here is another idea. Start with the basic notion of revelation. How can we move beyond nature’s evidence for God and truly know him? This is how the Westminster Confession of Faith begins its magisterial summary of Christianity. What we believe about Scripture shapes how we think, not just about faith but about all of life. The ten sections of this first chapter—aptly, the confession’s longest—beautifully articulate four attributes of Scripture as God’s written revelation.
Scripture Is Necessary (1.1–1.2, 1.10)
God has always been revealing himself. From both the evidence in nature and our divine image-bearing God’s deity is obvious (Rom. 1:19–20). But because of sin general revelation asks a question it cannot answer: how can sinners be saved? The frustration of fallen creation tells us that we need redemption, but not how to be redeemed. We need God to tell us how we can be cured of the disease of original sin. From the beginning of this broken world, God has been seeking out his people, telling a simple message: your sins have made you dirty. But if you trust me I will wash you (Is. 1:18). His prophets constantly told this message both inside and outside of Israel. His holy law and its ceremonies stressed his purity and his willingness to purify.
But, so that his truth could be shared with all people without corruption God caused his word to be written in sixty-six books. Our Bibles are “a more sure word of prophecy” (2 Peter 1:19 KJV). Only these writings are the very breath of God and must inform everything we believe and all that we do. Scripture is God’s final way of speaking to us in this present age (Heb. 1:1–2). It records the final redemptive work of God in the ministry of Jesus.
Scripture Is Authoritative (1.3–1.5)
There is no agency above Scripture that grants it authority. The Bible is authoritative because God breathed it; it is his actual word.
But we come to know it as God’s authoritative word in several different ways. The church urges believers to a “high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures.” The church has always heard God’s voice in his word. The true church directs people not to human leaders but to the Bible.
Scripture’s uniqueness also proves its authority. The Bible is not the kind of book humans could or would write. Authors from a variety of cultures over many centuries wrote a fully harmonious record of human fallenness and divine redemption. Its remedy for sin is beyond comprehension—what is a God-man? Moreover, the doctrine of Scripture is efficacious; it does what it wants regardless of human willingness (Heb. 4:12–13).
But “Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” Scripture is true. But only the Spirit’s regenerating work can make us believe it.
In these three ways the differences between Scripture and apocryphal books is plain. Unlike human writings God has preserved from error Scripture’s authority.
Scripture Is Sufficient (1.6)
Nothing more is needed besides Scripture to do what Scripture is meant to do. The Scriptures alone are able to govern our faith and life, to make us wise to salvation (2 Tim. 3:16), to help us fight temptation, and to answer our hardest questions. Scripture is a rule (Gal. 6:16). It isn’t the only rule in the sense that we need respect no other authority. But by Scripture alone do we test every spirit, every authority, every teaching.
Scripture is adequate to guide our lives in three ways. First, some truths are “expressly set down in Scripture.” The first and leading tactic of the devil is to question even what God has clearly said (Gen 3:1). But if we do not believe God we condemn ourselves (John 3:18).
Second, some truths may be deduced “by good and necessary consequence.” Christ used deduction to argue for the resurrection (Matt. 22:39–32). If God is the God of Abraham, then Abraham must be alive even though he died. Both Scripture’s obvious proof texts and its logic must compel us.
Third, some questions are answered by a combination of “the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word.” The Bible doesn’t say what time a worship service should start or how long it should last. But Scripture and nature inform such decisions.
Scripture Is Clear (1.7–1.9)
Scripture isn’t like a mystery novel or a complex code only solvable by the most cunning. The Bible is a revelation, an unveiling. Anyone who reads the Bible from start to finish will understand its basic message: All people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the creator-God. The due penalty for sinning against an infinite God is eternal separation from his kindness upon death. But God does not wish any to perish (2 Peter 3:9). He has sent his Son to be our Mediator. If we trust in his perfect life and substitutionary atonement, turning from our sins, we will be saved. In fact, this truth can be gleaned from reading only a few chapters, or even verses, of Scripture. Its message is plain.
But Scripture is unintelligible to the unenlightened. When the disciples preached “the mighty works of God” some thought they were drunk (Acts 2:11–13; cf. 2 Cor. 3:14). “The inward illumination of the Spirit of God [is] necessary for the saving understanding” of what Scripture reveals. And even for the enlightened there are means and rules for proper interpretation. The main interpretive rule is to honor Scripture’s unity. The Bible’s less plain parts must be interpreted in light of the plainer parts—it is all one speech of the Spirit. “All parts of the Bible are in conversation with other parts.”[iii]
So what should we do with this knowledge of Scripture’s necessity, authority, sufficiency and clarity? We should trust God’s word. We can be sure that Scripture is right even if we feel differently or if a consensus of confident and convincing people tell us otherwise. And we won’t simply trust Scripture the way we trust that a compass truly points north. We use this compass to point us in the right direction and to worship God as he desires. We read it, hear it preached, and study to know its big ideas and smallest insights. Through all this the Scriptures give us hope. All is not well yet. But the truth-telling God has promised that all will be well for believers. Let’s trust his word as we wait for that day.
[i] So begins the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561).
[ii] So begins the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).
[iii] Chad VanDixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 27.