What the Bible Is
“Do you have any drugs, guns, pornography or Bibles?” Guards at the Romanian border asked this question as we attempted to pass through the Iron Curtain to minister to Christians living under the persecution of an atheistic communist dictatorship. Our training and the language barrier, together with some Swiss chocolate and a carton of American cigarettes, enabled us to proceed through the border crossing without lying and without incident. This time our cargo was not discovered. The Bibles would eventually make it to our contacts throughout the country—contacts who under great danger to themselves would in turn distribute them to grateful believers in their churches, villages, and towns. I remember the excitement of my Bible-smuggling days as if it were yesterday rather than twenty years ago. I remember clandestine deliveries, clever hiding places and ingenious smuggling systems, all for the purpose of getting the Holy Scriptures into the hands of brothers and sisters who so desperately needed them.
The Spirit worked in miraculous ways to make our efforts successful, and I never tire of relating some of the remarkable stories I heard from others and experienced myself. Of all those experiences, however, one image has stayed most vividly in my memory: an elderly white-haired man with thick dark-rimmed glasses who embraced me and wept on my shoulder when he saw the bags of Bibles we had just delivered and unpacked on a bed in the back room of our contact’s home. To this precious saint these Bibles were spread out before us like a priceless treasure. His joyful emotional reaction left me with a profound sense of how important and valuable this book is for the people of God.
Events and experiences like these lead us to ask the simple question, “What is the Bible?” What is this book that people would risk their possessions, their freedom, and even their lives to read; this book that persecuted pastors would hide under the floorboards of their churches, that whole communities would secretly share by exchanging single chapters at a time; and that believers would pay up to a month’s wages to own? What is this book that mighty dictators fear, that is banned, confiscated, burned, and even turned into toilet paper, and that is judged to be as dangerous to society as drugs, guns, and pornography? Evangelical Christians have historically answered the question, “What is the Bible?” with something like, “The Bible is God’s Word to humanity.” What exactly is meant by this sort of answer is the focus of our attention here. In order to get a clearer idea of what the Bible is, we will examine its nature and function as God’s Word in the broadest sense by placing it in the context of the meaning of revelation in general, and then in the narrower sense by examining the objective and subjective dimensions of special revelation. This insight can then be applied to a discussion of Holy Scripture as personal and propositional special revelation that will give us a richer and more complete understanding and appreciation of what the Bible is and the indispensable role it plays in our relationship with God.
The Meaning of Revelation
The central assumption undergirding the concept of revelation, especially for an evangelical theological orientation, is the unapproachableness or transcendence of God: “God is in heaven and you are on earth” (Eccles. 5:1-2). The prophet Isaiah establishes this same point more bluntly, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isa. 55:8; cf. Matt. 11:7; John 1:18; 1 Cor. 1:20-25; 2:9-16; 1 Tim. 6:16). An important implication of this assumption is that knowledge of God cannot arise merely from humanity’s own efforts to discover who God is. Revelation is not a human achievement. The distinction and difference between finite humanity and incomparable Deity is such that unless God presents himself to us, we cannot truly know him. For this reason an evangelical concept of revelation should affirm at least two key characteristics.
First, because it is linked to the notion of God as a person, the knowledge we receive from revelation should be seen as parallel to our knowledge of other persons, especially as distinguished from that of things. Our knowledge of things depends exclusively upon what we do to obtain it, such as investigation and experimentation. With another person, however, we are encountering a reality which is, strictly speaking, beyond the reach of our efforts to know. Knowledge of the other person depends primarily upon the other’s intentional actions that reveal or unveil who they are. For we could not know the other, they would remain fundamentally transcendent to us, unless the other is willing and able to reveal him- or herself. This characteristic of revelation affirms that God exists personally, that he is conscious of himself, and that he both can and does make himself known to creatures. All our knowledge of God is a knowledge of a transcendent divine person, and therefore depends all the more on his own activity of self-revelation.
The second key characteristic further defines the knowledge we receive from this divine activity of revelation as something that was previously unavailable to humanity, whether it is truths, facts, or events. This follows from the idea of “uncover,” “reveal,” “disclose,” or “unveil” conveyed in Scripture by the Greek word apokalupto, which means to unveil something that was previously hidden or to bring into view something that before was out of sight or unknown. The term connotes a disclosure where the one doing the disclosing has assumed an active role, and furthermore that it is only because of the discloser’s activity that this revelation actually occurs. Scripture draws attention to this character of revelation in the following way: “Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (Rom. 1:19); “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly” (Eph. 3:2-3); “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
When we speak of revelation then, the emphasis here is upon God actively disclosing something that was not previously available and not available in any other way. Taken together these two characteristics of an evangelical concept of revelation affirm that before human thought and speech have anything to respond to and anything to describe concerning God, the reality of God’s own revelation has to be made present by the gracious creative work of God himself: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Whether it is general revelation (where God tells us he exists, we are his creatures, and he is the provider, sustainer, and moral law-giver), or special revelation (where God confirms the truth of all this, and tells us much more about himself, about humanity, and especially about his work in our history as Redeemer), the most basic point for evangelical theology is that knowledge of God is not founded on our freedom and capacity to know God, but on God’s freedom and capacity to make himself known to us. In evangelical theology, therefore, God is the Principium Essendi (principle of being), meaning that the essential foundation of our knowledge of God in revelation is God himself.
The Two Dimensions of Special Revelation
With this basic understanding of the evangelical concept of revelation in view, we can now look more closely at the unique category of special revelation. Much more than merely the disclosure of additional information, it is the fact that special revelation also establishes personal communion with God that distinguishes it most significantly from general revelation. Unlike general revelation, where God is evidenced through certain features of creation, in special revelation God communicates himself to us.
In the speech and acts of special revelation, God, through the ministry of the Word, both confronts us personally and tells us who he is and what he has done for us. Here revelation indeed makes available a knowledge of something (someone!) new and unexpected as it draws us into a knowledge of our transcendent God in the fuller biblical sense that includes an experienced personal relationship (Eph. 3:14-19; Phil. 3:8-11; 1 John 2:4). There is an objective and subjective dimension further defining special revelation in a way that will help us see its relationship to Holy Scripture more clearly and fully.
Objectively (that is, where God is the object), in this special revelation we receive a knowledge of God made possible by the Incarnation. An objective knowledge of God is what Scripture demands when it describes Jesus Christ as Immanuel, the incarnate one: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14); “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:1-3). By this objectively revealed Word we come to know the redemptive truth that we are sinners and that God is gracious to the sinner. We know this because Jesus tells us so, and because we sense it by his presence (Luke 5:1-11, 24:25-32; John 3:16-17, 11:25-26; 2 Cor. 4:6).
Furthermore, the special revelation Jesus brings consists of redemptive acts that culminate in his own atoning work. Because this revelation deals with these redemptive truths and acts, because it involves salvation, it is not bad news of only judgment and punishment, but rather it is the gospel that brings grace and reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19).
Although we must speak of humanity as the subject of this knowledge of God, the apprehension of the objective knowledge of special revelation should not be understood as a possibility naturally given to humans. Rather, humanity may become the subject or the knower of God through special revelation only because God enables us to become this subject. In the subjective dimension of this special revelation humanity is given a newly created capacity to apprehend the objectively revealed Word, a newly created capacity to be the knower of God that is called faith. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). Through this quickening activity of the revealed Word, our sinful and distorted concepts of God are broken (Isa. 55:10-11; Heb. 4:12; Rom. 10:17). We are no longer blinded and enslaved by our sin and by the lies for which we have exchanged God’s truth (Rom. 1:25). We are made free to cry “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). In these two dimensions of this divine activity of special self-revelation, God’s downward condescension makes possible our upward apprehension—objectively we come to know the Truth and subjectively this Truth makes us free (John 8:32; cf. John 5:24-26, 14:6; 2 Cor. 3:17).
But how does God communicate these objective and subjective dimensions of his special revelation in Jesus Christ to us today, now that our Lord is no longer present here on earth in the flesh? Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned when he went to be with the Father. He assured us all that the special revelation God has made possible in him would continue on earth through the ministry of the Holy Spirit:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:13-15).
The Holy Spirit, who abides with us and in us (John 14:17) continues God’s activity of special revelation in both its objective and subjective dimensions. Objectively the Holy Spirit produced what is called in evangelical theology the principium cognoscendi externum (external principle of knowing). This external cognitive foundation of special revelation is the written Word of God or Holy Scripture as it rests on the Spirit’s work of inspiration. Subjectively (that is, where humanity is the subject) the Holy Spirit produces what is called in evangelical theology the principium cognoscendi internum (internal principle of knowing). This is the newly created capacity of faith that knows the external Word as it rests upon the internal testimony or illumination of the Spirit. Thus the two dimensions of special revelation are secured in the Spirit’s work of inspiration and illumination that make possible a continuing divine self-communication to us that is properly called the Word of God. In this special revelation the risen Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, continues to both encounter us personally and tell us who he is and what he has done for us. Through inspiration we receive verbal propositions (the text of the Bible) that gives us the new and unexpected knowledge of Jesus Christ and his gospel, and through illumination we are drawn through faith into a knowledge of God in Christ as an experienced personal relationship. We will now look more specifically at how this two-dimensional work of the Spirit is related to Holy Scripture as personal and propositional special revelation.
Holy Scripture as Two-Dimensional Special Revelation
As the Word of God, we understand Holy Scripture to be the normative and unique deposit of God’s special revelation because it is God himself who speaks and reveals himself in, with, and through these writings as they confront us as God’s own words and as having God’s own authority. More precisely, we can understand Scripture as the Word of God in the objective dimension of special revelation insofar as it both reveals Jesus Christ and tells us who he is and what he has done for us. The Holy Spirit accomplishes the latter by depositing and preserving special revelation in the form of Scripture that has a clear, rationally comprehensible propositional content. Its primary purpose is to bear witness to Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel in both the Old and New Testaments (Deut. 18:15, Acts 3:22; Luke 24:25-27; John 20:30-31; Acts 17:2-3).
The Spirit’s work of inspiration establishes an identity between special revelation and the teachings of Scripture that secures its authority and infallibility, and allows us to affirm that “when Scripture speaks, God speaks.” But because the Spirit’s purpose in producing Holy Scripture is not only to communicate verbal information about Christ and his gospel, we should also acknowledge that it reveals Christ himself. By the testimony of the church’s own experience, both initiating and sustaining her very existence, this biblical text is and continues to be an effective vehicle for personal encounter with him to which it infallibly testifies: the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Also in the objective dimension of special revelation, then, the Bible serves to reveal God himself to us—not too unlike a burning bush before Moses in the wilderness, or a bright light before Paul on the road to Damascus; or as Martin Luther put it, like swaddling cloths lying in a manger.
The emphasis here is that the knowledge of God communicated in, with, and through Holy Scripture as objective special revelation must concern both the acting and speaking of God—it must be related to both God’s acts that make himself known and God’s speaking that tells us how to understand or make sense of those actions. John Calvin makes this point beautifully, “This, then, is the true knowledge of Christ, if we receive him as he is offered by the Father: namely, clothed with his gospel” (Institutes, III.ii.6). Thus, the external cognitive foundation of special revelation is the written Word of God, or Holy Scripture as it rests on the Spirit’s work of inspiration. But because God’s purpose for this written text is to bring about salvation for his people, Holy Scripture should be understood in the fullest sense of an objective special revelation that also places us in a personal encounter with God himself. In this encounter, we are forced to make a decision to obey God or reject God, which makes this special revelation indeed something personally experienced as a startling new reality, a reality that summons us and changes us (1 Cor. 2:4-5).
The subjective dimension of special revelation also comes in, with, and through Holy Scripture. Just as the objective dimension of Scripture as special revelation is secured by the Spirit’s work of inspiration, the subjective dimension is secured by the Spirit’s work of illumination. The purpose of inspiration is to preserve the biblical writers from error, so that God is able to use the text of Scripture to communicate both himself and his truth to us. The purpose of illumination is to enable us to truly perceive, comprehend, and apprehend the One of whom this biblical text testifies. While there are certainly aspects to the biblical text that are simply available to reason—such as historical and scientific data, and even the clear facts of the gospel—there is also another realm or sphere that is accessible only to those who have faith. Again, as John Calvin aptly puts it, “Faith rests upon the knowledge of Christ. And Christ cannot be known apart from the sanctification of his Spirit” (Institutes, 3.2.8).
To know and accept Scripture in the fuller relational sense as God’s own self-communication in Jesus Christ, we must perceive and understand it through a creative act of God that allows us to receive it that way. The Holy Spirit must open our minds and hearts to it: “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:11-14; cf. 2 Cor. 3:12-18, 4:3-7).
Objectively, revelation is the inspired text, which must be subjectively apprehended through the Holy Spirit’s work of illumining our minds and hearts unto faith. The same Spirit who spoke through the mouths of the prophets speaks in, with, and through the verbal propositions of the Bible to our minds and hearts, giving us an inner certainty that this is the Word of God speaking to us. Therefore the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit is critical for discerning the revelatory and redemptive meaning and content of Scripture, as well as for truly acknowledging its divine authority. And in this way, both the objective and subjective dimensions of the special revelation God has made possible in Jesus Christ continues on earth through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Toward a More Complete Understanding of What the Bible Is
In this article, we focused on what is meant by evangelicals when they refer to the Bible as God’s Word to humanity. We sought to get a clearer idea of what the Bible is by examining its nature and function as God’s Word in the broader sense of the meaning of revelation, and in the narrower sense of the objective and subjective dimensions of special revelation. The insight gained from this discussion should lead us to affirm Holy Scripture as the Word of God in its more complete meaning as both personal and propositional special revelation. Not only will this balanced, twofold view give us a richer and fuller understanding and appreciation of what the Bible is and the indispensable role it plays in our relationship with God, it will also help to keep us from drifting into the theological and practical problems that arise from stressing one dimension over the other.
By holding consistently to Scripture as both personal and propositional special revelation, we will avoid the attempt to read the Bible without prayerfully seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Praying for the Spirit’s illumination reminds us that Holy Scripture is not merely another historical document or document of religious literature. Apart from the gracious, sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit we come to the Bible only to find out what Paul and John claimed about Jesus Christ, but not to actually perceive that reality of salvation for ourselves.
The Bible is God’s Word to humanity in the most complete sense only when we know what Paul said about Jesus, and also that what Paul said is true, since we perceive that very same reality—the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, God’s own redeeming and reconciling presence. Furthermore, by holding consistently to Scripture as both personal and propositional special revelation will also avoid the risk of treating Scripture as merely an instance of special revelation that is given by God not through verbal communications, but only through historical events (such as the crucifixion or a personal encounter). If God does not explain these events to us, then how can we understand their meaning, how can we understand God’s purposes? For instance, as Jesus Christ’s death was only one of many Roman crucifixions, how could anyone guess the significance of that event unless God had told us? Thus, God’s self-revelation must include cognitive content or we would be left to furnish it for ourselves, and from where would we get this content if not from the authoritative and infallible inspired text of the Bible? Therefore evangelicals answer the question, “What is the Bible?” with something like, “The Bible is God’s Word to humanity.” And what we mean is that the Bible is God’s special revelation in the most complete and consistent sense of personal and propositional revelation.
With this we affirm that God’s special revelation as the inspired text of Holy Scripture is not redemptively apprehended, and therefore not appropriately comprehended, apart from the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit; and with this we affirm that God’s special revelation by the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit does not come apart from the inspired text of Holy Scripture. God’s special revelation in, with, and through the Bible is both inspired verbal propositions that Christians study with their minds and a personally-encountered, redeeming, living Word that Christians receive with their hearts. The Bible is where the church learns who God is and what God has done for her, and where the church meets God in the risen Lord Jesus Christ by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is impossible to overstate the importance and value of the Bible for the church, and easy to see why the forces that are arrayed against God’s church are equally set against the Bible. For it is the nature and function of the Bible, most clearly, completely, and consistently understood as the priceless treasure of special revelation, that caused the reformers to cry, “sola Scriptura!”—and that elderly Romanian Christian to weep with joy on my shoulder.