Theological Footnotes 17 - What is the Bible?


Theological Footnotes

I am a pastor-theologian and author creating resources to help you grow as a disciple of Jesus. My goal is to make Christian theology comprehensible so that it will build up the church. I write and publish books through Peniel Press.

Hello Reader,

Thank you for sticking with here at Peniel Press. Like it probably was for many of you, Advent and Christmas were very busy. We had worship, family visits, school responsibilites, and several funerals that meant we needed to delay this next issue until 2024. As we begin the new year, we are excited to reset and look back at a great year of writing to build up the church and look forward to what we have planned for the future.

In this issue, I want to share a section from one of the books we are planning to publish in 2024 (more on on the other two books we hope to put out this year below). In this section of The Sinews of Scripture, I explore our core convictions about the Bible. Drawing from the Protestant Reformers and Scholastics, I lay out four key properties of the Bible that shape how we receive and read it as God's Word. This section is part of a larger chapter where I lay out a theological reading of Scripture that is fitting with the broad consensus of the Reformed tradition. Some of the discussion of the place of language and archaeology are specific to my work on genealogies, but hopefully the larger point comes across.

We are still in the planning stages for a theological conference in 2025. We will be looking at dates and potential speakers to invite this spring, but one of the most important tasks is deciding on a name. "Brantford Theology Conference" is accurate, but not very inspiring. If you have any name ideas, please send them along to us.

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What is the Bible?

The Bible is the very word of God, the means by which God reveals himself. Drilling down a bit deeper, we can identify and defend specific properties of the Bible that shape how we read and understand it. Every theologian had a slightly different set or terminology, but they largely fell into four categories.

First, there is the truth, certainty, or infallibility of Scripture. Scripture reveals God truly and reliably. The seventeenth century Dutch theologian, Petrus van Mastricht, sums up our position nicely: “This general truth [about Scripture] implies certain specifics: its doctrinal and historical statements are most accurately consistent with the matter and the facts; its practical statements with the will of God; its prophecies, promises, and threats with the future event - no differently and no less than if they had been eyewitness testimonies. And that is the case because it has the God of truth as its author; Christ as the very truth it contains, and as its faithful witness; and the Holy Spirit, truth’s infallible inspirer, as its guide.” In van Mastricht’s time and ours, there are differences about how to handle more thorny issues in the Bible, but the initial assumption should always be that the Bible is a true and reliable witness.

Second, there is the purity, holiness, perfection, and sufficiency of Scripture. In the Belgic Confession, Article 7, we confess that “We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it.” We can know true things about God in Creation (known as the ‘Book of Nature’), but it is only through the Book of Scripture that we come to know salvation in Jesus Christ. When it comes to knowing who God is, what he has done, and who we are to be in light of God, we have a strong conviction of the sufficiency of God’s Word and the insufficiency of looking anywhere else to come to truly know God. If the first property says the Bible is reliable, this one says the Bible is enough. It is holy and lacks nothing that we need for life and salvation. As John Calvin says, “it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it.” The ‘enough’-ness of the Bible does not mean we do not engage with tradition, or logic, or experience. But we never consider these as separate or independent sources of knowledge of God. Reason, tradition, and experience can, at times, be helpful guides, but it is never Scripture & Reason, Scripture & Tradition, or Scripture & Experience that forms our basis of knowledge of God and ourselves. This is what was meant by sola scriptura. Scripture alone is sufficient for knowing God and his salvation.

Third, there is the perspicuity or efficacy of Scripture. A less used, but perhaps better term is clarity. I like what Herman Bavinck says here, “Scripture speaks in the language of life, of the heart, of immediacy, of inspiration, and is thus understandable for every man, going forth into every generation, never growing old in its time, and therefore classic in the highest sense, in an utterly unique sense of the word.” Understanding Scripture is not limited to the educated and the elite. This is one of the reasons that we will not be directly appealing to the original languages or archaeological discoveries in this book. One way people can read the genealogies profitably is to work to understand the meaning of the names and even make connections to the archaeological record. There is much to gain from that method (and I have personally been enriched by it), but we want to present a method that can be employed by those without specialized knowledge. When our methods of reading scripture, particularly the hard passages, depend too much upon specialized linguistic knowledge, then we undermine the confidence of Christians to be able to read the Bible. This is not a critique of expertise at all, but I am setting aside this valuable discipline in order to ask “What would help my mother’s bible study to read these genealogies profitably?” How can we read the Bible well in such a way that demonstrates our trust in its clarity.

For the Bible is not a labyrinth that can only be navigated by specialists, but is the clear thread that leads us out of the confusing labyrinths of our (mis)understandings of God. The image of Scripture as the thread leading us out of the labyrinth comes from John Calvin: “For we should so reason that the splendor of the divine countenance, which even the apostle calls ‘unapproachable’ is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted into it by the thread of the Word; so that it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it.” Calvin is drawing the picture from the story of Theseus in Greek Mythology. The hero Theseus was placed in a labyrinth with a Minotaur. The labyrinth was dark and complicated and created so no one should be able to get out. However, the princess Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of red thread that he unrolled as he walked through the labyrinth. After killing the Minotaur, Theseus was able to follow the thread back and find his way out. For Calvin, left to ourselves, our knowledge of God is like a labyrinth. It is full of twists and turns, truth and error, and something we can never escape on our own. By our own wit or wisdom, we cannot come to know God truly. In our sin we will constantly twist any truth about God into something else. It is only if we are given a thread, the Word of God, will we be lead out of the labyrinth into knowledge of God. In addition to the labyrinth, Calvin talks about a man limping and running. It is better to limp along according to God’s word than the run apart from it. It is not about the speed at which you move, but whether you are moving according to God’s Word, according to the only means provided for you to come to God. Why is Scripture the only means? Because it holds forth Christ, our Redeemer and the one through whom we have access to the Father. So even if you are limping in the Word, that is much better than to run with all your might anywhere else.

While we value education and the use of original languages and grammar in studying the Bible, we also believe that the truth of Scripture is fundamentally clear and not hidden. The Bible’s message is simple and clear enough for a child to understand, but deep enough that scholars can spend a lifetime studying it. This property guards against the Bible being metaphorically taken out of the hands of the people and kept only in the hands of the clergy.

Fourth, there is the authority of Scripture. We see this in Belgic Confession, Article 5, where the books of the Bible are received “for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith.” The content of our faith and shape of our life as disciples is ruled by the Word of God. It is the norm, the standard, for our faith and life as Christians. We are governed, not by the whims of culture or our feelings or our desires, but by God’s Word. For Christians, Scripture is also the final authority, the final court of appeals, so to speak, in any controversy on what we believe or how we live. In practical terms, if I read God’s Word and through study am confident that I understand it correctly, but I still don’t like what it says, then the problem is with me and not with the Word of God. That’s one way that this authority of Scripture can function.

I was recently invited by Heidi De Vries to a roundtable discussion at Redeemer University in Ancaster, ON. By 'roundtable,' I mean, we literally sat around a table and drank coffee and ate muffins. It was a fun and free-flowing theological conversation about reformed theology, church, catechesis, discipleship, education, and more. Even more exciting than the conversation was the opportunity to meet, in person, two people whose work and minister I had appreciated from afar: Jessica Joustra (Assistant Professor of Religion and Theology at Redeemer) and Bill DeJong (Chaplain to the Faculty at Redeemer). Jessica had done me the honor of endorsing All Things Hold Together, where she said:

Rather than rid ourselves of “worldview,” in All Things Hold Together, Shaffer offers readers an alternative, holistic account of Christian worldview – worldview remixed, or perhaps more rightly, worldview restored. With a pastor’s heart and a keen eye to the challenges of this cultural moment, Shaffer offers readers a faithful and accessible guide to the insights of the 20th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, among others, and their import for our own, all too often frenetic and fractured, time.

With that kind of endorsement, you should probably pick up a copy if you haven't already. Hopefully this roundtable discussion won't be a one-time thing.

Our children's imprint, Peniel Kids, is almost ready to publish its first book: How to Dress a T-Rex by Eden DeVries. It has lovely illustrations (as you can see by the cover) and is a humorous and imaginative story fo a child wondering "how hard can really it be to be a parent?" Eden wrote this book back when she was 10 years old and we are delighted to be able to bring it to print. We have finalized cover and layout and are working to have the final proofs of the text finished soon. Hopefully the book we be available at all fine online booksellers by the end of February.

Writing Updates

One of my goals this year was to hit 100,000 words of writing, translating, and editing for Peniel Press in 2024. That is a lofty goal with full-time ministry, three kids, and various other commitments, but hopefully this goal will keep us moving forward in this exciting work. As of writing this issue, I have done...(drum roll)

6,602 words/100,000 = 6.6% done!

I am almost exactly on pace to finish this year. All of that word count has come in translating sections of The Body of Doctrine by Zacharius Ursinus. Part 1 (hopefully out in late 2024) will cover the first section of the book on the misery and sin of humanity. I have translated over 24,000 words so far, but I have probably another 16,000 to finish Part 1. I am pushing hard to finish the first draft of this in the next month or so. Once that is done, I will turn my full attention to editing The Sinews of Scripture, with the hope of it coming out sometime this summer.

Thank You/Milestones

We appreciate your prayers for the work we are doing in providing theological resources for the church. One of the best ways to support us to buy our books and tell your friends to do the same. However, if you'd like to contribute in other ways, you can always buy me a coffee.

From the desk of

Stephen C. Shaffer

Author, Pastor-Theologian


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Theological Footnotes

I am a pastor-theologian and author creating resources to help you grow as a disciple of Jesus. My goal is to make Christian theology comprehensible so that it will build up the church. I write and publish books through Peniel Press.