God's Eschatological Word
Robert L. Broline, Jr.
In the very first paragraph of the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the Holy Scripture, the Confession states:
In addition to the well known texts of 2 Timothy 3 and 2 Peter 1, one of the texts inserted by the authors of the Confession in support of this paragraph is Luke 1:3-4. The authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith (the Divines) recognized that at the heart and soul of the biblical religion is the written Word of God. The placement of their doctrine of Scripture first in the Confession speaks volumes as to the exalted and authoritative position that the Bible occupies in setting forth their theology of that written Word.
In verses 3 and 4 of the prologue to his gospel, Luke places center stage the written Word of God. Luke wrote out his account of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ for Theophilus in order that he might not fall, and that he might continue and grow in the certain and exact knowledge of the things that he had been taught concerning all that Jesus began to do and to teach (Lk. 1:1-4; cf. Acts 1:1).
Interestingly, you may have noted that Luke does not make any explicit claim to divine inspiration in his Prologue in describing his method of inscripturation. Liberal biblical scholars pounce on this point, and many argue that the "glaring omission" of any direct claim to inspiration here in Luke's own description of his writing activity supports their view that the Bible is at best a fallible and inferior witness. On the other hand, many conservative biblical scholars, like Dr. Ned B. Stonehouse, have pointed out that this is not at all out of the ordinary. Many books of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, make no explicit claim to divine inspiration. Nevertheless, in Luke 24, the Lord Jesus Christ in affirming the Old Testament as Scripture included several books in the Old Testament canon which make no direct claims of divine inspiration as such. "Inspiration may be a fact even where there is no specific claim" (Stonehouse, The Witness of Luke to Christ, 45). In light of this observation, Dr. Stonehouse writes the following concerning Luke's own description of his writing enterprise:
Although Luke does not make an explicit and plain declaration of inspiration, it is implied, as has been argued. Further, the divine inspiration of Scripture is testified to by other parts of the New Testament—most notably 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21. In these passages especially, the Scripture testifies plainly to its own divine inspiration and authority. It is inspired by God (literally "God-breathed") and therefore is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It is written by holy men moved by the Holy Spirit as they spoke from God. (2 Pet. 1:21).
This Reformed doctrine of divine inspiration is not only implied by Luke in his Prologue as he describes his writing activity, but it is actually central to Luke as he lays out for us his method of inscripturation—his writing activity. Luke is telling us in his own unique way that the writing enterprise stands at the heart of Biblical religion. And, that the Biblical religion actually moves toward the inscribing of God's Word.
In a simplified way, here is an illustration of this movement from the Old Testament (there are various other ways to illustrate this movement, but here is one). Think about prophecy to Israel. Prophecy for Israel was primarily a spoken enterprise, as opposed to a scribal or written enterprise. You are familiar with the writing prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah and the minor prophets who wrote down their prophecies from God, often at the express command of God. But what about those men who came long before these writing prophets who were also called prophets by the Scriptures?—who as prophets were preachers of God through his Spirit to the people. I have in mind, for example, Abraham—he was called a prophet yet we have no writings by him. And then who can forget the extraordinary ministry of the prophets Elijah and Elisha—yet again we have no inspired writings by these prophets of God.
So there is this movement, this progress in the Old Testament revelation from the speaking prophets to the writing prophets—those who wrote down their prophecies. From this one example in the history of revelation in the Old Testament, we see how the Biblical religion moves towards the writing down of God's Word.
Further, in the writing down of God's Word there is a permanence attached to it. There is a sense in which the spoken word by its very nature had a vapor-like character. It was spoken, and then it was gone—but when it is written down there is a permanence attached to it. This century has been characterized by those who say the written Word is an inferior mode of revelation. Many say that writing it down makes it static, and gets in the way of my own direct revelation and encounter with God. Not the Bible, but experience is the most important thing for my spiritual health—that is what brings vitality and spontaneity to my faith and life as a Christian. Such people (most notably liberals) contend therefore, that the written Word is inferior to the oral tradition that stands behind the written Word of God.
But in accordance with Luke's Prologue, the opposite is actually the case. The written Word is in actual fact the superior mode which replaces the spoken word because it carries with it the indelible mark of eternity, permanence and heaven. In this way, Luke's Prologue to his gospel account proves to be Prologue to the rest of the New Testament Scriptures specifically in terms of its emphasis upon the permanent, eternal, and heavenly character of the Scriptures.
The permanent, eternal, and heavenly character of the Bible as the written Word of God is demonstrated for us in Luke's Prologue in the movement from the oral accounts (to which Luke refers) to his written account of the gospel. Luke specifically lays out for us the transition from the period in which the New Testament church relied upon the eyewitness-ministers's oral accounts of the acts and teachings of Jesus to that subsequent period in which the New Testament church relies upon the written record of Jesus' acts and teachings. This movement from one period to another is underscored by what we might call the gap between the time the acts and teachings of Jesus actually took place and the time they were written down. Luke in laying out his method of inscripturation reveals to us this gap between the time and event of Christ's deeds and words and the actual time and event of Luke's writing enterprise.
We know from even the earliest dating of the writing of Luke's gospel that it was not written down until about 32 years after Christ's death, resurrection and ascension. In fact, even the earliest date for any of the New Testament writings was not before A. D. 50 (probably James). This means that we have a gap of 20 to 30 years. For the gospels, if Mark was first, the earliest date was not before A. D. 54. Thus, the writing enterprise with respect to the four written accounts of the gospel of the Lord Jesus that we have did not take place until at least 25 years after the time of Christ, and toward the later years of the time of the apostles. The widespread and predominant use of oral transmission which preceded the written account is alluded to by Luke in verse 4.
In verse 4, Luke says that he writes his account down that Theophilus "might know the exact truth or certainty of the word which you have been taught." This last verbal phrase ("have been taught") in the Greek may be better translated and understood as "were orally instructed in." Thus, this movement in Luke's Prologue from the period of the spoken word to the period of the written Word is underscored for us in the relationship of those who were "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" to those who were not (Lk. 1:2). For example, you will note that Luke does not include himself in the group that he calls "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Lk. 1:2). Rather, Luke presents himself as a "second-generation" Christian in the sense that he was not an eyewitness and minister of Jesus' life and ministry upon earth. Now the era that pertains to this group of those who were "eyewitnesses and ministers" of Christ's ministry is known as the apostolic era. By Scripture's own definition, an apostle is one who was an "eyewitness and minister" in the time of Christ's earthly ministry—with the special exception of the apostle Paul, to whom Christ made a special appearance. On the other hand, Luke together with Theophilus are "second-generation" Christians and as such they are part of the generation that belongs to the post-apostolic era.
Do you see what Luke is doing in his Prologue with respect to this transition from the oral accounts of the gospel to the written accounts? He matches up the movement form the oral to the written Word of God to the movement form one era to another era with respect to the church's faith and life. He matches up this movement form the oral accounts to the written accounts with the transition from the apostolic era to the post-apostolic era. And it is specifically this transition from the apostolic era to the post-apostolic era that stresses the permanent, eternal, and heavenly character of the written Word. Now there are several other passages we could turn to in the New Testament to demonstrate further the supremacy of the Written Word with this mark of permanence, eternity, and heaven. We will consider three.
The first one is in John 14 from Jesus himself. Jesus promises his disciples that the Holy Spirit will come and that the Holy Spirit's specific task would be to bring to their remembrance all that he had said and all that he had taught (Jn. 14:26). Now most Reformed, conservative commentators recognize this to be a text about the eventual writing down of Jesus' acts and words in the gospel records. But this text also suggests the supremacy and excellency of the written Word of God. You see, not everything Jesus spoke and did was written down. The gospel writers under the inspiration of the Spirit were selective in what they wrote down. As such, what was written down is what has authority for us. I am not trying to drive a wedge between what Jesus said and did and what was written down. John tells us later in chapters 20 and 21, that not everything that Jesus, the Son of God, did and said was written down, or could be written down—he said and did so much! But that which was written down—this has the authority and supremacy! And there is a reason for that. Note the context of John 14:26. Jesus is about to go away. He is leaving this world to ascend to the world which is above. A new era is about to begin for the people of God—an era without the physical presence of Jesus. Jesus in his physical presence is not permanent to this world. What is permanent? The Word that they would write down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The written Word of God, that is permanent to us now in this world, until Jesus returns.
The second text I have in mind is found in 2 Peter 1. I know that there is a debate over the proper interpretation of 2 Peter 1:19but I am convinced by those biblical commentators who say that the King James Version gets it right: the King James reads, "We have a more sure word of prophecy." In this chapter, the apostle Peter has been telling his readers about the glorious experience of being on the mount of transfiguration (vv. 16-18). He tells them that he heard the voice of heaven (v.18), but then he goes on to say that we, the church, have the more sure word—the written Word (v. 19). The word of prophecy is more sure than the experience he had on the mount? When he heard the voice of God himself? Yes! . . . that's what Peter says. Do you see what the apostle Peter is getting at here? This one who was an eyewitness and minister of Jesus' glorious transfiguration, who heard the words of God the Father from heaven, says that this personal experience and this spoken word from heaven is inferior to the more sure word of prophecy—the Written Word of God. The absolute supremacy of the written Word over even Peter's own experience in its permanent, eternal, and heavenly character is all the more heightened when you take note of the particular timing of Peter's declaration! Peter, the apostle, the eyewitness-minister, is about to go away. He is about to die (note v. 14); he is about to leave this world for the world above. Sound familiar?—sound like Jesus' statement to his apostles in John 14? This is the apostle's last will and testament. The end of the era of those who were eyewitnesses and ministers of Jesus' majesty. The end of the apostolic era is in sight and the post-apostolic era is dawning. And it is specifically in this context—this end of the post-apostolic era context—that we have the apostle Peter's clear and definitive statements on the absolute supremacy of the Spirit-inspired written Word of God (vv. 20-21). The apostle Peter, who as an eyewitness and minister of Jesus' ministry on earth belongs to the apostolic era, states that the written word of God is a more sure word of prophecy for us—the church: we who belong to the post-apostolic era, we who belong to the era in which there are no living apostles—no living eyewitness-ministers of the Living Word.
We may go farther! The fact that this emphasis upon the absolute authority of the written Word comes at the end of the apostolic era in anticipation of the post-apostolic era not only underscores the written Word's mark of permanence, eternity, and heaven, but it also stamps the written Word with eschatology. The writing enterprise, the writing down of God's Word is itself eschatological—it is definitive, it is final. Yes! The mark of eschatology, or the stamp of finality, is placed upon the written Word of God! In a representative way, the impending death of Peter anticipates the end of the apostolic era, and it is in this particular context that the apostle Peter makes plain to the church of Jesus Christ the absolute supremacy and divine inspiration of the written Word of God, as God's eschatological Word, as his last self-revelation to his church.
If you need more proof or clarification for what I am saying about his mark of eschatology—this stamp of finality—upon the inspired written Word of God, I call your attention to the other primary text given in support of the doctrine of inspiration 2 Timothy 3:16. You know this verse by heart concerning the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. But do you know, or do you remember, the particular timing in which the apostle Paul uttered this plain and powerful statement on the absolute supremacy and sufficiency of the Spirit-inspired written Word? You got it! Like Jesus, and like Peter, Paul declares this just before he is about to die. "For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come" (2 Tim. 4:6). It is his last will and testament addressed to the young pastor, Timothy. And it is in this context that the apostle Paul writes his last letter to the church. He is about to die and with the end of that era, the post-apostolic era is about to commence. And in this context, he sets before Timothy and the church, this clear and definitive teaching on the absolute supremacy and sufficiency of the written Word—the Bible.
In both 2 Peter and 2 Timothy, this end of the apostolic era context in anticipation of the post-apostolic era stamps the written Word with finality—God's Eschatological Word! The Bible is God's final word to you as the post-apostolic church in this world, and that until Christ returns—period! For the Christian, there cannot be, there must not be anything that equals or surpasses the written Word of God as the sole source of revelation and authority for your doctrine and life in this world! Yes, Scripture alone is sufficient. Think about it! If the spoken words of Jesus, which were not written down, and Peter's personal experience on the Mount suffer in comparison to the written Word, what may we say about such modern claims of personal divine encounters, angelic visions, and the like? Even claims to personal guidance apart from the Scriptures? Don't allow anything to displace the written Word of God as the sufficient and final source for your faith and life as a Christian.
In anticipation of the post-apostolic era, Luke writes down his gospel for Theophilus who represents the church of that era—and as "lovers of God" (the meaning of Theophilus's name) of this same era, he wrote it down with you in view as well. For you presently live in the era in which there are no living apostles, no eyewitness-ministers of Jesus' acts and word. The written Word has come down to you from heaven above, from God himself—his final Word having come, in these last days, to us through his exalted Son (Heb. 1:2). For it was the exalted Jesus' words and deeds that Spirit-inspired men wrote down and explained for us—as those who live in the post-apostolic era (Acts 1:1-2).
In the text, the written Word of God, we experience God! In the written Word, we have fellowship with him together with his Son, Jesus Christ—the Living Word. May "our hearts burn within us," as the Spirit of God preaches Christ to us in all the Scriptures that we might continue to cling to our Savior by faith alone—to the end that our life might more and more be conformed to our Savior's life, even as our life is more and more conformed to the Bible. We must not . . . we dare not neglect it!
Look to the Bible alone to feed your souls that you may know and embrace the gospel with all certainty, that you may not fall, that you may remain steadfast in your Savior, as members of his glorious body.
Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church