Previous article in this series: September 15, 2016, p. 490.
“I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.” So writes Job in Job 23:12. Food is necessary, absolutely necessary for us. Without food we die. So it is and even more so, teaches Job, spiritually. What corresponds in the spiritual realm to food in the natural realm is the Word of God, our meat and drink to life eternal. As necessary as food is for the body, so necessary is the Word of God for our souls.
We are at present considering Scripture’s perfections. Since Scripture is the Word of God, Scripture partakes of the perfections of God. Among those perfections that Reformed theology has identified is Scripture’s necessity. If God has given us Scripture, has seen to the infallible inspiration of Scripture, and throughout the ages has preserved Scripture so that until Christ comes again the church has Scripture, plainly Scripture is necessary.
That which is necessary is indispensable. Something that is necessary is something without which we cannot do. We simply must have it. If something is necessary, it cannot be replaced by anything else. There is no substitute for that which is necessary. It is essential and it is imperative that we have it. The Scriptures speak of the necessity of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the absolute necessity of the saving work of Christ. Apart from the saving work of Christ, there is no possibility of salvation. Similarly, the apostle Paul says about his calling to preach the gospel that “necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (I Cor. 9:16). It was absolutely necessary that the apostle preach the gospel. God laid that necessity upon him. He could do nothing else than preach, because this was God’s will for the apostle. In a similar way, we can speak of the necessity of Scripture.
We can distinguish three kinds of necessity. There is, first of all, intrinsic or essential necessity. In this sense, food and water are necessary for the life of every human being. They are intrinsically and essentially necessary. Without them we languish and die. God has created us with a dependency upon these things.
Second, there is moral, ethical necessity. This is the compulsion of conscience. It is the necessity of conformity to the revealed will of God. Sticking with the example of food and water, we say it is necessary to give these to the hungry and thirsty whom God places across our path of life. For them, food and water are intrinsically necessary, while our help of them by providing them with these necessities is the calling that we have as the children of God.
And, third, there is that which is necessary according to the counsel and will of God. Something is necessary simply because God wills it and has from eternity determined that it shall come to pass. We have an example of this sort of necessity in John 4:4: “And he [Jesus] must needs go through Samaria.” It was necessary that Jesus go through Samaria. This was not an essential necessity. We know that there was a different road between Jerusalem and Galilee, the way that the Jews customarily took because they despised and avoided all contact with the Samaritans. This alternative route skirted the eastern banks of the Jordan River. It was the way that Jesus had taken when going to Jerusalem from Galilee some days before this. Neither was this the right way for Jesus to take from a moral, ethical point of view. Jesus did not have a moral obligation to go through Samaria on His return to Galilee, as though it would have been wrong to take some other way. Rather, the necessity on account of which Jesus “must needs go through Samaria” was the necessity of the eternal will and counsel of God, which Jesus knew because He is the Son of God. According to His counsel, God had determined the salvation of the Samaritan woman, and others in Samaria as well. Having elected her unto salvation, God had also determined the means unto her salvation, which means was the hearing of the gospel from the mouth of Jesus. For that reason, in submission to what He knew to be the will of God, Jesus “must needs go through Samaria.”
It is in this latter sense that Scripture is necessary. The necessity of Scripture rests in the free and sovereign will of God. God has determined to reveal Himself through Scripture. God has determined to make Himself known to human beings through the written word. He has determined to save His people, both initially and continually, by means of Holy Scripture. He has decreed the place that Scripture shall have in the life and worship of His people. He has determined that the preaching of these Scriptures will be the means for the working and the preserving of faith. He has determined that all their life, from the beginning to the end of their pilgrim’s journey, God’s people will be guided on their journey by the standard of His Word. For this reason mainly, that it is the will and good pleasure of God, the Word of God must be put into the words of men. Scripture is necessary because it has been decreed by God.
The Necessity for the writing of scripture
Scripture is the Word of God in written form. It is the Word of God in the words of men. This, in fact, is what “Scripture” means. What our King James Bible translates as “scripture” is literally “the writing.” Both in II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:20 “scripture” is “the writing.” That is also the significance of the word “Bible.” Our word “Bible” is derived from a word that refers to the material (papyrus) on which writing was done in ancient times. The writing material on which much of Scripture was written has become the name by which we today refer to the sacred writings themselves: the Bible.
This, then, has been God’s will for His people throughout much of history, that they have His Word in written form. This was His will for His people from the time of Moses, the first instrument of divine revelation and human writer of the first five books of the Bible. Prior to that, through the time of the patriarchs, God was content to speak His word directly. But with the growth of His people into a nation, the nation of Israel, God determined that His Word should not only be spoken, but also written.
Dr. Abraham Kuyper, in his book Principles of Sacred Theology, gives four characteristics of the written word over the spoken word. At the same time, these are the reasons for the divine preference for the written word. Writes Kuyper: “[I]n comparison with the spoken word the written word is entitled to claim the four characteristics of durability, catholicity, fixedness and purity….”1
With regard to the first characteristic, durability, Kuyper has in mind the fact that the written word endures or is lasting, in comparison with the spoken word that is gone as soon as it is uttered. “Writing,” says Kuyper, “relieves the spoken word of its transitoriness. ‘The word that is heard passes away, the letter that is written remains.’” A bit later, he observes that “[o]ur voice creates words, but lacks the ability to hold them fast…. “But by writing, “the word or thought spoken is lifted above transitoriness. It is taken out of the stream of time and cast upon the shore, there to take on a stable form, and after many ages to do the same service still which it performed immediately upon its first appearing.”2
The written word also exhibits a catholicity that the spoken word lacks. At times, the spoken word is heard only by one other individual. At other times, the spoken word is heard by a group. But always those who hear the spoken word are relatively few in number in comparison to the multitudes who over time are able to read the written word. And then if that written word is translated into different languages and published throughout the world, it is read by even more people. Clearly, the written word has the advantage of a catholicity that the spoken word lacks.
And the written word is characterized by fixedness. There is a permanence about that which is written. Any who have experimented with this are easily convinced of its truth. In a group of twenty or thirty people, begin by whispering a sentence into the ear of the first person, who in turn whispers what was whispered into his ear into the ear of the next person. By the time the sentence is whispered into the ear of the last person and he is asked what the original sentence was, invariably it is different—usually drastically different—from that which was spoken into the ear of the first person. By committing the word to written form, it is permanently fixed and preserved from one age to the next. Fallen human beings are simply incapable of preserving oral tradition without corrupting it. Putting the word into written form assures its preservation. Says Kuyper:
Since Divine revelation directs itself against the mind and inclination of the sinner, sinful tendency could not be wanting, to represent that revelation differently from what it was given. Not merely did forgetfulness and individualism threaten the purity of tradition, but the direct effort also willfully to modify what was revealed according to one’s own idea and need; which psychologically is done the sooner, if one knows the revelation only from tradition, and thus thinks himself entitled to mistrust its certainty. One begins by asking whether the revelation might not have been different, and ends in the belief that it was different … thus, in order to come down to us in the least possibly falsified form, the Divine revelation had to be written.3
For all these reasons, God saw fit to cause His Word to be committed to writing. And He saw fit to connect to the written Word a saving necessity.
Two factors underscore the necessity of Scripture. First, there is the inadequacy of general revelation, or God’s revelation in the creation. From that revelation of God there cannot be derived a saving knowledge of God. For that purpose it is altogether inadequate. Although it is sufficient to leave men without excuse, it is insufficient to be the means of God unto salvation. Something more is needed, and that something more is Holy Scripture. Second, the cessation of special revelation must also be factored in. With the passing of the apostles and with the completion of the canon of Scripture, God does not any longer reveal Himself directly. Instead, God reveals Himself in Holy Scripture. For these reasons, the Westminster Confession of Faith is right when it affirms that “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation … are 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” (WCF, 1.7).
In a beautiful passage in the Institutes, Calvin reflects on the necessity of Scripture:
Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. This, therefore, is a special gift, where God, to instruct the church, not merely uses mute teachers but also opens his own most hallowed lips.4
Because God has ordained that by means of Scripture we receive the saving knowledge of Him and of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Scriptures are necessary. Because God has ordained that the Scriptures contain His will for how we shall live and what kind of a people we shall be, the Scriptures are necessary. Because, according to the will of God, the Scriptures contain fully what is necessary for us to know for the right worship of God, both privately and publicly, the Scriptures are necessary. Because they are necessary for all these things, we ought diligently to read and continually to study the Scriptures.
We conclude with another quote from Abraham Kuyper, taken from his book The Work of the Holy Spirit:
With the dawn of the Day of days the Sacred Volume will undoubtedly disappear. As the New Jerusalem will need no sun, moon, or temple, but the Lord God will be its light, so will there be no need of Scripture, for the revelation of God shall reach His elect directly through the unveiled Word. But so long as the Church is on earth, face-to-face communion withheld, and our hearts accessible only by the avenues of this imperfect existence, Scripture must remain the indispensable instrument by which the Triune God prepares men’s souls for higher glory.5
This is Scripture’s necessity. For the present, seeing now through a glass darkly before we see face-to-face, the Scriptures are necessary. He is a fool who ignores them, rejects them, abandons them, or replaces them. For the time-being they are necessary, absolutely necessary “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16b, 17).
1 Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, trans. J. Henrik De Vries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 405.
2 Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, 405.
3 Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, 411-12.
4 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1.6.1; 1:70.
5 Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, trans. Henri De Vries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, repr. 1975), 70.