What are the key elements of the doctrine of Scripture?
While there is no official list, there is general consensus. This article simply summarizes them. It is not an attempt to wade into any debates, only to refresh our minds and point out helpful resources for further learning—including a new documentary on the authority of Scripture.
Here are those traditional categories succinctly stated, followed by brief commentary.
Inspiration: The linchpin of the doctrines of Scripture, inspiration means that all the words of Scripture are God’s words (2 Tim. 3:16). John Frame says that inspiration “means that God takes words of human beings and makes them his own…. [It] is a divine act creating an identity between a divine word and a human word” (Systematic Theology, 594).”
Authority: Because Scripture is God’s Word, it is authoritative. It carries the weight of God’s command as ruler over all creation. The Westminster Confession of Faith says in chapter 1, article 2, that Scripture is “given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (referencing Luke 16:29, 31; Eph. 2:20, Rev. 22:18–19; and 2 Tim. 3:16).
Infallibility: Because Scripture is God’s Word, and God cannot lie, Scripture is incapable of erring (Ps. 119:43, 142, 151, 160). God’s very nature is truth, so his word tells the truth. As Jesus says to the Father in John 17:17, “Your word is truth.”
Inerrancy: Closely related (and hotly debated), inerrancy traditionally holds that Scripture is free from error—or as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy puts it, “free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.” Stated positively, Scripture is completely truthful. Most people who deny inerrancy do so outright; naturally, non-Christians have no reason to confess inerrancy. But when Christians debate the topic, often they end up exploring the relationship between precision and truth. Does inerrancy require that the Bible speak with absolute precision about every detail? John Frame offers this wisdom: “[Scripture] has a level of precision sufficient for its own purposes, not for the purposes for which some readers might employ it.”
Clarity: In brief, Christians can make sense of Scripture. I like the way the Westminster Confession of Faith links clarity, sufficiency, and the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit. Article 6, chapter 1, has more to do with clarity, the assertions in article 7 with sufficiency (which we’ll tackle next):
- All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: (2 Pet. 3:16) yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (Ps. 119:105, 130)
Sufficiency: In the words of John Frame, sufficiency means “Scripture contains all the divine words needed for any aspect of human life.” For example, Scripture is sufficient to reveal God, save, and teach one to live righteously (2 Tim 3:15–16). Again, the Westminster divines explain with wonderful precision and nuance:
- The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men. (2 Tim. 3:15–17, Gal. 1:8–9, 2 Thess. 2:2) Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: (John 6:45, 1 Cor 2:9–12) and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (1 Cor. 11:13–14, 1 Cor. 14:26, 40)
Necessity: Related to sufficiency, but slightly different, this doctrine holds that “the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’s character and moral laws” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 116). This gets at the difference between special and general revelation. Scripture alone provides special revelation: knowledge of God’s will and salvation (Rom. 10:13–17, Acts 4:12).
- John Frame, Systematic Theology
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology
- Westminster Confession of Faith
- Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
If you found this article interesting, you may enjoy The God Who Speaks, a feature-length documentary on the nature of Scripture featuring D. A. Carson, Kevin DeYoung, the late R.C. Sproul, and over a dozen other scholars.