Scripture is no book of formulated doctrines
Scripture, although not a book of formulated doctrines, is, of course, the source of all doctrines. The Bible is not merely a revelation of a truth. Christianity, we understand, is not simply a religion or another religion. It is not true, of course, that Christ proclaimed truth, but that Confucius and Mohammed, etc., also proclaimed truth. The Bible is the revelation of the truth. It is the Lord’s own and only inspired revelation of Himself as the God of our salvation. The works of God’s hands, which certainly reveal Christ, reveal Him symbolically and can speak to us of the Christ only in the light of the Holy Scriptures. Hence, the Word of God alone contains the truth. Besides, it contains all the truth. Whatsoever is necessary for us to know how to live and conduct ourselves in the midst of the world unto the glory of the living God is contained for us in the inspired Word of God. Hence, it lies in the very nature of the case that all doctrine must be based upon Scripture. This applies also to our Confessions. Confessions and Scripture are not equal in importance. The Romish Church advocates the theory that tradition is of equal importance with the divine Scriptures. However, the Scriptures alone are for us the rule of faith and life. This does not imply that we may ignore our Confessions or interpret them as we please. If we do not agree with the Confessions or a church’s interpretation of them, we are under the moral obligation to voice our objections in the proper ecclesiastical way. However, our Confessions must always remain our interpretations of Holy Writ and must therefore be weighed constantly in its light. Confessions do not exist for their own sake but are the Church’s interpretation and maintaining of the truths of the Word of God.
This, however, does not alter the fact that the Scripture is no compilation of ready-made doctrines. It is no dictionary or encyclopedia. Neither is the Bible a Dogmatics. The Word of God does not present to us a list of dogmatical distinctions and definitions. In fact, many of us are acquainted with the fact that the word, “Trinity,” is not even found in the Bible. We cannot therefore turn to the Bible and look up the definitions on various doctrinal subjects, such as: Election, reprobation, Trinity, grace, mercy, truth, righteousness, atonement, the promise, etc. Would it not be interesting if this were possible? Would not much trouble and confusion be avoided and averted? Would the Church of God not be spared considerable confusion and distress if the Word of God were such an encyclopedia? To this we answer in the first place, that the child of God is not in need of such a doctrinal dictionary. The Spirit, Who is the Author of the Holy Scriptures, also lives within the Church, and enables the Church of God to discern and recognize the true distinction from what is false. The Bible is not an encyclopedia but a living Word; its truths live in the heart and consciousness of the child of God, and the Lord speaks to him through that Word. And, secondly, it would never convince the carnal mind inasmuch as the natural man does not love the truth and will, of course, never embrace it.
What is the Scripture?
We may define the Scriptures as the historic-organic revelation of the God of our salvation in Christ Jesus.
What do we mean with this definition? This means, in the first place, that it has pleased the Lord to reveal Himself in Christ Jesus as the God of our salvation. Christ Jesus is the revelation of the living God as He saves His people. Christ Jesus does not merely tell us who saves us but also how He saves us. Jesus is God as He saves us, in the way of death and the resurrection and ascension, and this, we understand, as emphasizing the Scriptural truths of God’s justice and righteousness, unchangeable love and mercy. Jesus, saving His people, is the revelation of God Himself.
Secondly, the historic-organic revelation of the God of our salvation in Christ Jesus emphasizes the truth that God reveals Himself, as such, historically-organically. From the beginning it is Christ who, as the eternal God to become flesh in the fullness of time, reveals Himself throughout the historical development of God’s covenant and through the organism of the Church as the one who is the sole heir of the promise and Redeemer of His people. He reveals Himself through the prophets, priests, and kings of the Old Dispensation. He speaks concerning Himself because it is He who, by His Spirit, operates in and through these Old Dispensational types. He speaks concerning Himself in the shadows and symbols of Israel’s ceremonial life, in all the shadows and symbols of the temple service. And the purpose of this historical-organic revelation is the revelation of God as the God of our salvation in Christ Jesus.
Thirdly, this historic-organic revelation of the God of our salvation is progressive, is characterized by historical development. God’s eternal and sovereign purpose to save a people whom He loved from before the foundation of the world is not revealed to the Church at once in all its glory and fullness, but progressively. The veil is not lifted at once and completely so that the Church is immediately given a full glimpse of the salvation of God in Christ Jesus, but gradually. God’s covenant, we understand, is the same. The Lord does not reveal Himself differently in one period of the world’s history than in another. There are, e.g., not various decrees of salvation as the Remonstrants would have us believe. Salvation was the same in the Old Dispensation as it is today in the New Testament. But the revelation of that salvation does develop and becomes increasingly richer as the ages hasten to their appointed conclusion. This is true, e.g., in the life of Abraham. The Lord does not reveal all His covenant blessings to the father of believers at once. First He reveals to Abraham that He will make a great nation of him and give him the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. Then, the father of believers is told that his seed will be as great as the sand along the seashore and the dust upon the ground and the stars in the heavens. Thereupon Abraham is informed that his seed must pass through a period of affliction. And, finally, he is told that God’s covenant with him and his seed is established centrally in Christ Jesus, and, unto that end, he receives the sign of circumcision. Throughout the Old Dispensation the veil is lifted more and more, and the revelation of God in Christ Jesus becomes increasingly richer. Moses and Joseph are not only historical figures, but also types of the Christ. When Joseph is sold by his brethren and exalted in Egypt to be the governor of the land after he had been cast into prison, and when Moses is rejected by his own brethren when he thought the time had come for him to deliver them, then we have in these historical incidents a symbolical portrayal of the Christ who was to come. Finally, Christ Himself enters our flesh and blood. He reveals to us more fully the secret counsel of God concerning our redemption. He does this in word but also in deed. After His death and resurrection He inspires the apostles to write concerning Him as the Savior of His people, Who redeemed them through the blood of the cross, is even now gathering His Church by His Word and Spirit out of every tribe, nation, land, and tongue, and will culminate His work of redemption in the new heavens and upon the new earth.
Finally, in this historic-organic revelation of the God of our salvation, God reveals Himself. This means that the Bible is true to this divine revelation of Himself. God is the God of absolute Light and perfection. He seeks and maintains Himself as the highest and absolute Good. The Lord is never in conflict with Himself. The Word of God does not give us a catalogue of His perfections accompanied by their definitions. God’s historical revelation of Himself is always true and wholly in harmony with the central Scriptural thought that God is God alone and that He does all things for His Name’s sake. Man is pictured as dead in sins and trespasses and having fallen according to the eternal will and counsel of the alone living God. Christ is revealed as the sole Redeemer and Savior of His elect people, who alone saves us from the beginning even unto the end. The redeemed Church is held before us in holy writ as called by God out of darkness into the light to declare His virtues and to walk antithetically in the midst of a world that lies in darkness. The exalted Christ is described as the Lord of His own and also as the supreme Lord over all. And all things will culminate in the new heavens and new earth. Any doctrine which is not in harmony with God’s revelation of Himself (with the truth that the Lord is God alone and always reveals Himself as such) is necessarily false and contrary to the Word of God.
This means, however, that, because Scripture is no book of formulated doctrines, doctrines, therefore, have a history. The Bible, we have observed, is no catalogue. Inasmuch as doctrines are definitely formulated truths as reflected in the believing consciousness of the Church and officially approved and adopted by the Church, these doctrines pass through a historical process. If it be true that God’s revelation of Himself in Christ Jesus is characterized by progressive development, it is equally true that the Church’s understanding of this Divine revelation is also characterized by historical development. The Church does not see everything at once. The wonderful truths of God’s Word crystallize gradually in the believing consciousness of the Church. This is one reason why doctrines have a history.