From Evangelical Action, April-May 2012.
I was recently asked by a friend to comment on the Bible as the only source of divine revelation for Christianity. Put another way, are there differing sources — written or otherwise — of revelation that Christians have myopically overlooked? Such a question is not uncommon in our postmodern age: an age which prides itself on the perceived virtues of tolerance and pluralism. The implication of the question itself often intimates that Christians should inclusively consider that other religious writings might have something to offer today’s postmodern Christian. Naturally, the converse is equally implied, that Christianity’s promotion of the Bible to the exclusion of other sacred writings, smacks of dreaded exclusivism.
So how should a Bible-believing Christian respond to the assertion that the Bible should not be deemed the sole source of authority for one’s faith and practice? While not an exhaustive treatment of the pluralist’s creed, the following six considerations serve as an introduction to the topic.
To begin responding appropriately to the dilemma presented by multiple sources of revelation, one must examine the following: the purpose of the Bible, the biblical warnings related to amending the word of God, Jesus’ own usage and emphasis of the OT Scriptures, the significance of biblical sufficiency, then one must assess the process that determined the canonicity of the various books of the Bible, and finally the utter uniqueness of the biblical message must be evaluated in light of other proposals.
The Bible’s Purpose
So what is the primary purpose of the Bible? It certainly isn’t to tell us all that we want to know, but, rather, it is meant to tell us what we need to know. In short, the Bible is God’s verbal self-discloser to a sinful humanity. Scripture progressively details and divulges the God of creation and redemption to a fallen race that otherwise would remain in the dark. Like a picture postcard from some exotic port of call, the Bible verbally and propositionally defines the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and ultimately the New Covenant.
Apart from God choosing to reveal Himself in written form, how would we learn of Him? How does a fallen, finite creature discover the indiscoverable and inscrutable God, unless He chooses to unveil Himself in some tangible and objective way? Psalm 19:1-14 bears testament to two ways in which God delights in disclosing His person to humanity — first, through the marvel of God’s sovereign work via creation itself, as the brilliance of God’s handiwork reflects something of the power and splendor of God (19:1-6), but creation is limited in what is disclosed; then, secondly, and more specifically, the word of God details the goodness and greatness of God (19:7-14), as the psalmist evaluates himself against this more detailed codified backdrop of divine revelation.
In keeping with God’s self-discloser to man, Hebrews 1:1-3 declares that God’s ultimate revelation to cursed creatures is Jesus Christ Himself (1:2-3), with the Old Testament paving the way for God’s pinnacle of revelation: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets (i.e. Old Testament) in many portions and many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son …” (Hebrews 1:1-2a). There is no mention or allusion to any other written source serving as a record of God’s exposition to man, for there was no other ancient literature that could conceive of such a God giving such a gift! Doubtless, false prophets made extravagant claims about speaking on God’s behalf, but these claims could be immediately measured by the written standard that was already in existence — the Old Testament.
Beyond the thoughtful reflection of the Bible’s purpose, one must further contemplate the warnings of the Bible not to amend what God has already disclosed.
The Bible’s Warnings
How does one reconcile proposed claims of additional sources of revelation with the biblical passages that strongly exhort against tampering with what was previously recorded? If, as those with postmodern proclivities assert, divine revelation is to be had from a number of cisterns, how does one safeguard the Scriptures when one is going beyond what has already been revealed?
In Deuteronomy 4:2 Moses warned ancient Israel “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” Other similar warnings are demarcated in Deuteronomy 12:32; Proverbs 30:5-6; Daniel 12:4 concerning the sealing up of Daniel’s prophecy; and Revelation 22:18-19. One thing is certain, God does not endorse any form of biblical math-a-magics, which seeks to add, or subtract, amend, or append the revelation already recorded.
Here it must be duly noted that after every warning above, save Revelation 22:18 and 19, subsequent books were added to the biblical canon. But this subsequent revelation met the strict criteria surveyed under the fifth consideration of this essay — namely, these books all achieved the standards of biblical quality assurance, so do not in any way contravene the issued warnings. In short, their God-breathed status was recognized.
If one entertains alternative springs of divine revelation, of whatever sort, there is no way to avoid altering the written word of God. It is then only a matter of time before the doctrine of God is rearranged to accommodate that altered word. The above passages exude an air of certainty and absoluteness about the biblical message. The nature of God’s discloser is fixed and not to be corrupted with competing claims of divine revelation. These passages serve as no trespassing signs to warn the would-be vandal to peddle his pluralism elsewhere, but not here.
This internal attestation to the Bible’s uniqueness is not to be fiddled with. As the no trespassing sign continues, after the initial warning, “Violators will be prosecuted”. In like manner, God’s word issues a similar caution.
The Bible and Jesus
Did Jesus reference any other texts beyond the Old Testament to validate His extraordinary claims, and authenticate His redemptive message?
On the contrary, Jesus, when He was tempted by the Devil after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, combated the Devil’s cabal with recitations from the Old Testament (Matthew 4:1-11). When contesting with the Pharisees, Jesus informed them “You search the Scriptures (Old Testament) because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:39 cf. 5:46 & 47). The Old Testament serves as a herald of the coming King, from Genesis to Malachi. The overriding implication being that it is only in the Bible that one can receive this heaven sent revelation.
In a post-resurrection appearance to some of the disciples on the Emmaus road, Jesus expounded the significance of what had just happened with His crucifixion and resurrection, reasoning exclusively from the Old Testament: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained (exposited) to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures … Now when He said to them ‘These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled’” (Luke 24:27 & 44).
It is no wonder, in John 10:35, Jesus said that “Scripture cannot be broken”. In other words, the Old Testament witness cannot be annulled, or repealed. The weight of this Old Testament authority cannot be invalidated from within or without. In this there is a clear suggestion of sufficient preservation of the Old Testament text, which was to serve as a lone beacon pointing to Christ.
Jesus’ strong and constant reliance on the Old Testament Scriptures signifies their unparalleled uniqueness and importance in paving the way for the Messiah. No other writings are accorded such pride of place.
When preparing His disciples for His departure, Jesus informs them that though He is leaving, yet, He will send another comforter (parakletos) who will guide them into all truth concerning Himself (John 15:26-16:11). Upon Christ’s ascension, the Holy Spirit guided the apostles in divinely recording what they remembered about Christ, as they penned the New Testament Scriptures under the influence of the Holy Spirit. There is not even the slightest inference that any other literature will be granted this level of divinely bestowed authority and fidelity.
The example that Christ established during His earthly ministry was that the word of God was and is completely reliable and authoritative. Jesus upheld the veracity of the Bible. Further, Christ promoted and conveyed absolute truths on a variety of subjects using the medium of human language to do so. Jesus obviously thought human language sufficient enough to convey God’s discloser of Himself. Thus, the testimony of Jesus Himself is unequivocal, God’s word, in both the testaments, is the sole arbiter of God’s written record concerning Himself. No rivals or viable alternatives are entertained.
The Bible’s Sufficiency
Does the Bible need to be supplemented? The query that seeks to promote multiple sourced revelation evidences a high degree of suspicion regarding the integrity of the biblical record, by implying the Scriptures need to be “complemented” from various streams of thought beyond Christianity. But the crux of this logic nullifies the complete sufficiency of God’s word. The doctrine of sufficiency maintains that the Bible is a finished and comprehensive revelation, and is entirely sufficient for its divinely intended purpose. Therefore, it requires no additional supplementation from other external informants.
For one to claim that other books, or literary extracts, are of equal value and import to the Bible is a tacit denial of biblical inspiration (God-breathed word), infallibility (indefectible authority), and inerrancy (accuracy). The whole issue of biblical authority is eroded by such an assumption, as this contention shifts the locus of divine authority from the Bible to various tributaries alien to Scripture.
In turn the burden of proof for demonstrating the existence of other reliable sources of revelation is on the multi-source advocates. Certainly Jesus put full faith and confidence in the Bible alone without even a hint of entertaining any other possibility. Jesus assuredly believed the Old Testament was entirely sufficient as a guidance system for pointing to Himself. Postmodern detractors would do well to emulate Jesus in this!
The Bible Test
What criteria were used to determine whether a book was canonical, or not? In other words, why was one book incorporated into the biblical corpus while another was omitted? This question must be asked for it addresses the contention that there might be various sources of divine revelation beyond the Bible. If true, do these other sources meet the same criteria used to govern the biblical text itself? If these proposed sources do not meet with the established criteria that decided the 66 biblical books, then the multi-sourced proposal comes short and falls flat.
So what was the litmus test the ancients used for deciding whether or not a book was to be included in the Bible? While this list is certainly not exhaustive, nor detailed in any way, it nevertheless represents the basic paradigm that was used to evaluate a book to ascertain if it should be included as Scripture:
1. Authorship: In the instance of the Old Testament the Jews asked whether a particular book was written by a verified prophet, or an established designated leader of ancient Israel. Hence, by 400 B.C. the Old Testament was well established and has never been in question. By the New Testament era, the early church first verified whether the human author of the book or epistle was an apostle or a close associate of an apostle — in the case of Luke, he was a bonafide colleague of the apostle Paul. In like manner, Jude and James were both the half-brothers of Jesus, with established reputations amongst the early church. So human authorship was one of the preliminary requirements considered before a book was deemed canonical.
2. Universal Christian acceptance: Put another way, how did the early church view a specific piece of literature or letter from an apostle? Did they read it in public, or not? Did they later teach from it? All of which were indications that a book or epistle was inspired.
3. Test of inspiration: Was the book thought to be inspired, that is to say God-breathed? It is crucial to note that inspiration only extends to the writing itself, not to the human author. So how was the matter of inspiration settled? In the following way:
To verify if a specific book was inspired by God, the internal integrity of the writing was scrutinized and examined carefully, evaluating how a book presented both the person and work of Christ. The message about Christ had to be wholly unique in its portrayal of the Lord and His ministry. The book’s depiction of Christ and God had to be consistent with what was already recorded in the Bible. Much of what is written in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Gnostic Gospels presented Christ and other persons in a trite and shallow way, sometimes bordering on the sensational and mystical. Christ was not some side-show freak who put on a grand demonstration as a child for the neighbors by turning clay pigeons into the real thing (Gospel of Thomas 2:1-4).
Further, a book’s moral and spiritual effect was considered: Did the said book transform thought and aid in amended behavior on the part of the recipients? In contrast, many of the Christian books written today produce spurious responses that border on the novel and faddish, without lasting effect. The Prayer of Jabez is a good illustration. A whole industry sprung up around this book. It was the toast of the town, and on the lips of many believers. A few years later on and many have never even heard of the book. Such a book would not be considered for the biblical canon in antiquity because its effect was short lived. Of course The Prayer of Jabez never claimed revelational status, but it does illustrate the point.
Finally, the inspiration of a book was discerned through the historical testimony of the early church. As the early church weighed up all the various criteria, there had to be universal agreement that a New Testament book was Scripture, or not.
It is critical to understand that biblical canonicity was a process, not a single event. Through providential means God led the early church through the prolonged procedure of finalizing which books would comprise the New Testament, and which would be omitted.
Many books were thought unbiblical because of false teaching, like salvation by works (Tobit 12:9), or prayers for the dead (2 Macc. 12:45-46). Other stories were viewed as extra-biblical because they were farfetched, more closely resembling ancient folklore and myth, like the Christ child bringing clay pigeons to life. Some teaching from the Apocrypha fell short of the established standards because it condoned lying in places, much like the Koran does today. This promotion of sub-biblical thought was a disqualification from the canon.
Thus, the canon is closed and has been for 2000 years, so no new Scripture is being added today (Revelation 22:18 & 19). We have all the special, divine revelation God is going to give us. The church’s problem is not that we don’t have enough revelation, but that we are not rightly dividing and passionately proclaiming the revelation we already have. What is needed is more Spirit-filled illumination (1 Corinthians 2:14-16), not more divine revelation. One wonders if those desiring multi-sourced revelation just aren’t satisfied with what God has graciously revealed to us in His word. Or maybe the multi-source proponents are embarrassed by the Bible and are seeking to distill the offending portions with additional revelation?
The contention that the church has been wrong for not sipping from other revelational streams for over 2000 years, insinuates that for two millennia the church has gotten it all wrong. This is a claim one would expect from Mormonism, or some other cult, but not from the redeemed. So even if the canon were not already closed, any claims of divine revelation from other quarters would have to be in accord with the established paradigm, as outlined above.
The Bible’s Message
If alternative forms of revelation exist, then that proposed revelation would have to conform to the inimitable and peerless message of the Bible. The Bible’s message is quite distinguished from any other plot-line known to man. Unlike any other piece of religious literature, the Bible exclusively portraits a very unflattering picture of the depth and extent of human depravity. This is a depravity so comprehensive in scope, that it renders man constitutionally incapable of meriting any favor with the aggrieved God. Man’s sinful estate is such that attempts at self-reformation are like one trying to perform one’s own heart transplant without aid from a cardiologist and thoracic surgeon — this is as ill-advised as it is ill fated. Similarly, the word of God declares that, given man’s perverse plight and estrangement from God, the only remedy for sin is a salvation which is utterly by grace through faith alone!
In concert with the above thought, Ephesians 2:1-10 stencils the same scenario — one who is dead in their trespasses and sin cannot earn approval from God by self-righteous acts. On the contrary, Ephesians 2:8 & 9 records this supremely distinctive truth: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The Bible chronicles what no other religion in the history of the world has, that one does not work for their salvation, rather, one works from their salvation (Ephesians 2:10), which is circumscribed entirely by grace. Indeed, Scripture affirms that there is only one Lord, one faith, one body, and one baptism. Further, it is only the Scriptures that mediate these truths accurately, clearly, and effectively. All multi-sourced proposals to the contrary are fallacious and fraudulent.
It was Jesus Himself who made exclusive claims regarding His work in John 14:6, which was/is predicated on His irrepressible person. In similar vein, Luke restricts the way of salvation to no other than Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12): “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Hence, salvation is landlocked by a single Savior offering an exclusive sacrifice.
In final analysis, if faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:14), where does this leave the proposal of multi-sourced revelation? Simple, lodged on the shoals of faulty assumptions and wishful thinking. While other ancient literature often has valuable historical and informational value, it is not divinely revealed and, therefore, cannot address issues of eternity, the soul, and salvation with the precision Scripture demands.
Given the inimitable purpose of the Bible, the stern biblical admonitions against altering God’s written record, the undeniable reliance of Jesus on the Old Testament, the magnitude of biblical sufficiency, the established methodology for determining biblical canonicity, and the superlative uniqueness of the Bible’s message, the believer can confidently assert that the Bible is the supreme standard for Christianity. The Bible stands peerless and unrivaled in relation to the petition for multi-sourced revelation.
For this reason, like Jude of old, the believer should “earnestly contend for the faith (the revealed word of God), which was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The Christian’s call to arms is precisely in relationship to the warning to defend the objective faith — the written word of God — from any counter claims. As Maxwell Coder rightly explains Jude 3: “The faith set before us in the word of God was once delivered to the saints. Therefore any claim to further revelation in these last days is, in itself, an evidence of apostasy.”[i] (Emphasis added) The Christian’s posture regarding the Bible (the faith), according to Jude, is one in which the believer ardently strives to uphold, and tirelessly defend the word of God, and ultimately the God of the word, from the numerous assaults of apostates. All with the confident acknowledgement that (Isaiah 40:8), “The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever”!
[i] Coder, S. M. Jude—The Acts of the Apostates (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1958), p. 18.