Revelation, Inspiration, and Infallibility (14): What the Bible Says about the Bible: The New Testament Epistles

Previous article in this series: June 2015, p. 398.

Introduction

In our most recent articles we have been considering Scripture’s self-authentication, that is, Scripture’s own testimony to its divine inspiration and infallibility. For centuries the self-witness of Scripture has been the linchpin in the church’s argument for Scripture’s inspiration and authority. If Scripture disavowed all claim to authority or made no claim at all, Christians would have no basis for their contention that Scripture is the Word of God. But since Scripture does make this claim—makes it clearly, pervasively, and forcefully, the Christian church has echoed the claim. Scripture is the Word of God as Scripture itself alleges.

Last time we examined the self-witness of the gospel accounts and the book of Acts. We demonstrated that Jesus viewed the Scriptures as the Word of God. Every part of Scripture and Scripture in its entirety is God’s Word. For Him, Scripture was the ultimate court of appeal. All His instruction, both His positive presentation of the gospel and His polemic against error and false teachers, He grounded in Scripture. What His disciples must believe, as well as what they must reject, is determined by the revelation of God in the sacred Scriptures.

In this article we want to conclude our examination of what the Bible says about itself by considering the testimony of the New Testament epistles. How did Paul and Peter, James and John view Scripture? What does their use of Scripture reveal about their view of Scripture? What was their attitude towards the Old Testament? And how did they regard their own writings?

Basically, the New Testament epistles fall into two main categories. There are the Pauline epistles, that is, those epistles written by the apostle Paul. Some of these epistles were written to churches as, for example, the epistles to the Corinthians, the Galatians, and the Ephesians. Other of his epistles Paul addressed to individuals, like Philemon. Included in Paul’s epistles addressed to individuals are those addressed to pastors: I and II Timothy and his letter to Titus. These epistles are commonly known as the Pastoral epistles.

In addition to the Pauline epistles, there are the Catholic or General epistles. The later are really all the non-Pauline epistles of the New Testament, most of which were written either by one of Jesus’ disciples or by one of His brothers. The one exception is the epistle to the Hebrews, the human writer of which is unknown to us.1 Among the General epistles, Peter and John, the human writers of the epistles that bear their names, were both disciples of Jesus. James and Jude, the human writers of the two epistles that bear their names, were Jesus’ brothers.

Earlier we gave special consideration to the two classic passages of the New Testament that set forth the doctrine of biblical inspiration: II Timothy 3:15-17 and II Peter 1:19-21. The liberals characteristically dismiss the doctrine of divine inspiration with a wave of the hand, alleging that it is based on a couple of outdated “proof texts,” by which they mean the passages in II Timothy 3 and II Peter 1, rather than on the overall testimony of the New Testament. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the careful reader of Scripture cannot but be impressed with its pervasive testimony to the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. As pervasive as that testimony is throughout Scripture generally, so pervasive is it in the New Testament epistles specifically.

The Testimony of the Epistles with regard to the “Scriptures” of the Old Testament

To begin with, the apostles use the same terms and categories to refer to the Old Testament Scriptures as did Jesus and the Jews of Jesus’ day. They refer to the same tripartite division of the Old Testament: “the law, the prophets, and the Psalms.” They quote “the Psalms,” in such passages as I Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13. They cite “the prophets,” in such passages as Romans 1:2; 3:21; 16:26; Ephesians 2:20; Hebrews 1:1; James 5:10; I Peter 1:10; II Peter 3:2. And they appeal to “the law,” in such passages as Romans 2:12-27; 3:21; 7:1-9, 12, 14, 16, 21-25; 10:4, 5; 13:8, 10; I Corinthians 7:39; 9:8, 9; Galatians 3:17-19; Hebrews 7:5, 12, 16, 19, 28; James 2:8-12; 4:11. It is true that Paul often takes a negative view of the law, when he is contending against those who trust in their own works of obedience to the law for their righteousness before God. But never once does Paul question whether the law is God’s holy Word, the perfect expression of His righteous will. For Paul the law is “holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). It is holy, just, and good because the law, like the Psalms and the prophets, is the Word of God.

In addition, the apostles refer to “the scriptures” as a final court of appeal and as an ultimate authority. In Romans 1:2 the apostle Paul refers to the gospel as that which God “had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures.” In demonstration of the truth that Abraham was justified not by works but by faith, Paul asks in Romans 4:3, “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” In I Corinthians 15:3 and 4 the apostle teaches that Christ died for our sins and rose again the third day “according to the scriptures.” And in Galatians 3:22, Paul says that “the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.” (Confer also such passages as Rom. 9:17; 10:11; 11:2; 15:4; 16:26; Gal. 3:8, 22; 4:30; I Tim. 5:18; II Tim. 3:16; James 2:8, 23; 4:5; I Pet. 2:6; II Pet. 1:20; 3:16.) Like Jesus, the apostles often introduce their quotations of the Old Testament with phrases that imply its ultimate authority, such as “It is written.” Paul does this in Romans 1:17, where he quotes Habakkuk 2:4: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (emphasis added). He does the same thing in Romans 3:4, “God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightiest overcome when thou art judged” (emphasis added). Here Paul is quoting Psalm 51:4. The fact that in Psalm 51:4 “it is written” settles the issue in the mind of the apostle. There are many more instances of this same sort of evidence.

A Testimony to the Historicity of the Old Testament

In recognizing the authority of the Old Testament, the New Testament epistles confirm the truthfulness of the history and historical figures that are recorded in the Old Testament. They do not find ways to explain away that history: popular myth; tales of the neighboring nations that gradually became incorporated into Jewish folklore; stories invented to make provocative the truths (lessons) they intend to teach. Nothing of the sort. On the contrary, without embarrassment or apology, the apostles in the New Testament cite persons and events out of the Old Testament in support of or as illustrating particular truths that they are defending. All the while it is presumed that these people really existed, that what is recorded of their history really happened, that therefore they were really real—to speak redundantly.

To illustrate this point, Jude makes reference to Adam and to Enoch (Jude 14), as well as to Cain (Jude 11), by implication to Noah (Jude 14 and 15), and distinctly to Moses (Jude 9). The apostle Paul makes reference to Adam and to Eve in I Timothy 2:13-15. In II Corinthians 3:13 he speaks of Moses putting a veil over his face because “the children of Israel could not stedfastly look” on his face after he came down from the mount after talking with God face to face. Noah is referred to by the apostle Peter in both of his epistles (I Pet. 3:20, 21; II Pet. 3:5-7). Balaam, the prophet whose ass spoke to him, is mentioned in two different places in the New Testament: Jude 11 and Revelation 2:14. Korah, who along with Dathan and Abiram, were swallowed up whole by the earth that opened up beneath them—they, their wives and children, their livestock, and all their possessions—are mentioned by name in Jude 11. The patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah are mentioned time after time in the New Testament epistles: Romans 4:1-19; 9:7-9; 11:1; II Corinthians 11:22; Galatians 3:16-29; 4:22-31; James 2:21-23; I Peter 3:6; Hebrews 2:16; 6:13; 7:1-9; 11:8-17. Job is referred to in James 5:11 and Elijah in the same chapter (v. 17). David, the great king and ancestor of the Lord Jesus, is referred to repeatedly, as in Romans 1:3; 4:6; 11:9; II Timothy 2:8; Hebrews 4:7; 11:32; Revelation 3:7; 5:5; 22:16. Nowhere in the epistles is there ever any suspicion cast on the history that is recorded in the Old Testament.

In more than one place the apostles defend the relevance and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures for the instruction of the New Testament church. In Romans 15:4 Paul says, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” In I Corinthians 10:11 the apostle calls upon New Testament saints to view the Old Testament people of God as our examples, with the result that what happened to them happened for our instruction. “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” Clearly, the apostle’s view of the enduring value of the Old Testament Scriptures rests on the fundamental truth that those Scriptures are inspired of God and therefore are authoritative in every age.

The Apostles’ Testimony Concerning Their Own Writings

Just as the apostles honor the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures, so do they recognize the inspiration and authority of their own writings. In Colossians 4:16 Paul requires that his epistle to the Colossians “be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.” It is true that he requires that the non-canonical epistle he wrote to the Laodiceans also be read in the congregation at Colosse. Like the epistle to the Colossians, the epistle to the Laodiceans, though not included in the New Testament Scriptures, was written with apostolic authority. Then, in addition to that, the epistle to the Colossians was also divinely inspired. He requires that his epistle be read “in the church.” Undoubtedly, the reference is to the public, corporate worship of the congregation on the Lord’s Day. Clearly, that the epistle was to be read during a worship service could only be due to the fact that the apostle regarded what he had written to be divinely inspired Scripture. We find a similar injunction in I Thessalonians 5:27, “I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren.” “All the holy brethren” certainly includes the members of “the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 1:1). But “all the holy brethren” would seem to include many more than only the members of the congregation at Thessalonica. At the very least, it would include “all the holy brethren” in Macedonia and Achaia, the region of Greece in which Thessalonica was found.

In the congregation at Corinth there were those who arose during the church’s public worship services claiming to be prophets with messages from God for the congregation. Paul says of them in I Corinthians 14:37, “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.” No one proclaiming himself to be a prophet sent from God might deliver a message in conflict with what the apostle had written in his epistles. The obvious implication is that Paul regarded what he had written to be the infallibly inspired Word of God.

So convicted was the apostle Paul that he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that his writings belonged to the authoritative Scriptures, that he even called for the church to discipline those who disregarded or disobeyed what he wrote. He writes in II Thessalonians 3:14 and 15, “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” Clearly, the apostle’s instruction to the church here is based on Paul’s conviction that the words that came from his pen were the very Word of God.

And then there is Peter’s commendation of Paul’s writings in II Peter 3:15 and 16:

And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation: even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

Paul wrote some things “hard to be understood,” to be sure. But that does not take away from the fact that what he has written, he has written “according to the wisdom given unto him” by God, with the result that “all his epistles” are included in the Bible along with “the other scriptures.”

All in all, there can be no doubt that like the Lord Jesus, the apostles regarded both the Old Testament Scriptures and the New Testament Scriptures as the Word of God—the Word of God in the words of men.


1 Interestingly enough, the Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 4 ascribes the Epistle to the Hebrews to Paul. When mentioning the books that belong to the New Testament, the Belgic Confession says: “…the fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul, viz.: one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, one to the Ephesians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, one to Philemon, and one to the Hebrews….” Although I happen to believe that a good argument can be made that Paul is the human writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the fact of the matter is that the epistle is anonymous.