The Doctrine of Scripture: An Introduction

The Bible occupies an important place in Christian faith and spirituality. But what is the Bible? The Doctrine of Scripture: An Introduction answers this question in depth while remaining accessible to a lay readership.

“Taking the Bible seriously is taking Jesus seriously.”

In his introduction, Thompson presents three building blocks to a Christian doctrine of Scripture. He begins by placing the person of Jesus and the gospel at the centre of his enterprise. The Christian must adopt the same attitude to Scripture as Jesus. This leads to the second point, namely the supreme authority of Scripture, based on the person and example of Jesus. He authenticated it (for the Old Testament) and commissioned it (for the New Testament). Thus, “taking the Bible seriously is taking Jesus seriously” (22). A Christian doctrine of Scripture must therefore be built on Scripture itself as the supreme authority. A circular argument? Thompson shows that this is not necessarily an issue (25f.). He adds a final block to his argument. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father who comes in the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal God. If the doctrine of Scripture is to have Christ at its centre and the Bible as its supreme authority, it must find “its ultimate ground in the being and activity of the triune God” (30). That is why the heart of this book is “a theological account of Scripture, one that at each point relates it to the person and character of the God who has given it” (15).

In his first chapter, “Jesus and Scripture”, Thompson explores what Jesus shows us about the nature and attributes of Scripture from his earthly ministry. Since Jesus is the supreme revelation of God, the question of his attitude to Scripture is of the utmost importance. Thompson demonstrates from the Gospels that for Jesus, the Scripture is the final authority, the Word of God, brought the agency of men, intelligible, true, sufficient, and effective. This applies not only to the Old Testament, but also to the word of the apostles commissioned by Christ. Jesus, as the person who culminates in the centre of Scripture as its fulfilment, is the one who anchors the truthfulness of Scripture.

Thompson devotes the second chapter to the phenomenon of the word of God. How can God, who is spirit, speak? God is a “communicative being”, committed to communication (66). This is eternally expressed in intra-trinitarian relations (68). Communication is fundamentally not foreign to God. So it is not surprising that he communicates with his creatures (70). This communication to his creatures implies a form of accommodation: God speaks in words we can understand. Thompson then shows the progressive character of divine revelation. First through the prophets, with Moses as the paradigm (Deut. 18:18-20), culminating in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate. Thompson includes an illuminating discussion on the modes of inspiration and the Holy Spirit. Dictation, though present (Ex. 34:27-28), is not the most common mode, nor is it necessary to safeguard the integrity of divine inspiration. A proper understanding of divine concursus and the work of the Spirit gives a faithful account of the revelatory phenomenon. Thompson concludes: “There is no gap in God’s communication between who he is and what he expresses about himself, between what he intends to communicate and what he does in fact communicate” (85). It is about making the Bible divine, but about recognising that it is more than a vehicle of information, but an “instrument of relationship” with the living God (86).

“The church recognises the canon; it does not create it.”

How did we move from the spoken word of God to the written word? This is the subject of chapter 3. Starting with Exodus, Thompson emphasises that the writing of his word was ordered by God himself (Ex. 24:3-4). The nation of Israel grew with the concept of a canon since its inception (91), which was not simply for the first generation, but for subsequent generations as well (92). This written word is a “historical artefact” (98). The variety of authors and historical contexts in no way compromises that these words are indeed the word of God. Here Thompson introduces and defends the notions of verbal inspiration and plenary inspiration. Verbal inspiration means that the words and word order themselves are inspired by God, not just the idea behind them. This of course applies to the original languages, although Thompson shows that translation does not necessarily imply corruption (103). Plenary inspiration means that the whole of Scripture is fully inspired. There are no varying degrees of inspiration (a canon within the canon), and no uninspired parts. The whole is the word of God. This leads Thompson into a succinct discussion on the formation of the canon in which he argues that the canon “is a theological reality before it is a historical one” (110). Theologically and historically, it does not originate in a human decision. “The church recognises the canon; it does not create it”. (113)

In the final part of his book, Thompson presents four attributes of Scripture: clarity, truthfulness, sufficiency, and efficacy. These are attributed to Scripture because it is the word of God. They originate in the very character of God: his benevolence, his power, his moral purity (a God of truth who cannot lie). Anchoring these attributes in the text (with key verses), in the ministry of Jesus, and in the character of God makes his treatment very convincing. He takes care to define terms clearly and to set the necessary boundaries in relation to the purpose of Scripture (e.g. the Bible is not sufficient to learn how to cook…). His conclusion is worth quoting in its entirety:

“The character of the written word of God, affirmed or assumed by Jesus, attested throughout the Old Testament and the New, is inextricably tied to the character of God. The gospel of Jesus Christ always ultimately turns our attention to the person and purposes of the Triune God. The God who has given us this word, through the genuine human agency of the prophets and apostles, is an effective communicator. He is utterly and always truthful. He is never ignorant or misled, and he cannot lie. He provides abundantly for his human creatures, the objects of his love. And his word always accomplishes the purpose for which it was given”. (179)

Thompson ends his book with a short chapter inviting us to adopt a certain posture in our reading and study of the Bible. A posture of both humility and intellectual rigour, with a keen awareness of being in God’s presence and accountable to him for how we respond to it (183). But it is also a posture of joy and pleasure. The Bible is not a burden, but “a source of deep, rich, full-throated joy” (184).

Thompson, Mark. The Doctrine of Scripture: An Introduction. Short Studies in Systematic Theology. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2022.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *