The doctrine of Scripture has often been the battleground on which the fate of true and false religion is decided. In the seventeenth-century, Roman Catholics taught the authority of Scripture, while denying its sufficiency and clarity. Socinians taught the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture, while restricting their reading of Scripture by the dictates of human reason. A spectrum of views on Scripture has persisted to the present day. Some deny the verbal inspiration of the Bible while maintaining its experimental power in the lives of believers. Others outright deny its unique status as the Word of God. Still others argue that only some books in the standard Protestant canon of Scripture are genuine, usually recognizing only those that they can accommodate to a particular theological hypothesis. What is often missing in older and contemporary debates about Scripture is a careful study of the Bible’s self-evaluation and the multi-faceted attributes ascribed to Scripture in its pages.
Peter van Mastricht’s treatment of the eight properties of Scripture is valuable in this regard. His teaching both took the Bible’s view of itself seriously and, as a result, it was multi-faceted. His view was largely representative of classic Reformed theology. Building on the premise that because true theology was supernatural (“the doctrine of living for God through Christ”), he concluded that the rule, or first principle (principium), of theology must be supernatural as well (113). In this sense, Scripture is “our axiom” (117) and Scripture is the doctrine of living for God as it is set forth in books (119). While revelation is a broader category than Scripture, God chose to reveal himself to mankind through Scripture due to the increasing brevity of human life, the increasing number of people on earth and the size of the church, the liability of oral tradition to corruption, “the weakness of human memory,” for “the stability of heavenly teaching,” and against “the perversity of heretics” who abuse unwritten traditions (119). The entire Trinity is the author of Scripture, from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit (125) as God communicates through Scripture his will towards human beings for their salvation. Mastricht’s treatment of the eight properties of Scripture, which I will summarize below, can help us gain a fuller picture of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and its relevance today. Due to the depth of the subject, I will summarize rather than present all of Mastricht’s arguments:
1. Scripture possess divine authority (126)
Authority comes first because all other attributes of Scripture reflect this one. Reflecting the independent God, Scripture authority is “supreme and independent,” depending on God alone. He added that, according to 1 Peter 1:20, this is the “first article of faith” because without God speaking with authority in Scripture there could be nothing for faith to rest on. The power of Scripture comes from its authority. It decides controversies, directs our lives, and judges us all, “just as if God himself was speaking” (126).
2. Scripture is divine truth
Scripture can neither deceive nor be deceived. This means that doctrinal and historical aspects of Scripture correspond to the facts, practical statements agree perfectly with the will of God, prophecies, promises, and threats agree with future events, etc. (127). These things make Scripture preferable to every other form of divine revelation (citing Lk. 16:31; Gal. 1:8). The full canon of Scripture has also superseded them.
Third, Scripture has integrity.
This includes freedom from corruption and providential preservation (127). While Mastricht was aware of textual variants and diverse manuscripts, integrity meant for him what later authors would call the verbal inerrancy and infallibility of the original autographs of Scripture as well as the divine preservation of the text through transmission up to the present time (124).
4. Scripture possess sanctity, or holiness (127)
It is pure in itself and it is the source of our holiness through the Spirit’s blessing. This points out how Scripture reflects the character of God, who is its author. God has authority, he is the truth, he is sovereign, and he is holy. Therefore, Scripture bears the marks of its author.
5. Scripture is perspicuous (128)
This is why Scripture is called light, clear, and luminous. Perceived obscurities in Scripture are our fault rather than its fault. When we face difficulties in interpreting passages that appear obscure to us, then we must compare less clear texts with clearer parallel ones (analogia scripturae). This assumes that the Scriptures can be harmonized because the God of truth is their single author, even though he used a variety of inspired men with differing styles and personalities to write the biblical books.
6. Scripture is characterized by perfection (128)
It lacks nothing that we need to live to God, nor anything necessary for our salvation (2 Tim. 3:15-16). This included, in his view, both the closing of the canon and the content of the books within the canon. Scripture teaches these things explicitly and implicitly. Reason confirms this idea, as well, because Scripture could not be the rule of faith and morals unless it was perfect. It is perfect as the principiumof our faith; it is perfect in the whole because it is so in its parts; and the perfection of individual books points to the perfection of all of them considered together (128). The perfection of Scripture includes its sufficiency for everything that must be believed and done as well as for the edification of the church (129). This includes what the Bible teaches by implication, or, as WCF 1.6 put it around the same time period, “by good and necessary consequence.” While the sufficiency of Scripture has become a category of its own today, older authors enveloped it under the perfection of Scripture.
7. Scripture is necessary (129)
It is necessary for the true knowledge of the true God. The church and its members neither would nor could exist without Scripture. Keep in mind that this does not deny other forms of divine revelation prior to Scripture. Yet Mastricht gave several reasons why Scripture was superior to them all and why God chose to reveal himself in Scripture instead (130).
8. Scripture is effective (130)
This is why the Bible attributes power to Scripture. It is compared to things like a hammer, a two-edged sword, and thunder. Contrary to Lutheran opinion, which ascribed inherent power to the Word of God, Scripture is a moral instrument of the Holy Spirit with no independent power. He then listed ten ways that the Bible ascribes efficacy to itself, which readers can consult with much profit. In addition to the church fathers, Luther, and the Reformers, “a thousand other” believers have known the power of Scripture in their experience as well (131).
Mastricht’s treatment of the properties of Scripture is full and balanced. Note what appears to be missing, however. In modern debates about Scripture, infallibility has often taken pride of place, yet Mastricht does not name it explicitly. Yet infallibility is not excluded, if we understand the term rightly. Infallibility, in its modern senses, overlaps at least with “integrity” and “efficacy.” Many who deny infallibility treat it as a synonym for verbal inspiration. Others affirm infallibility by separating it from verbal inspiration, making it synonymous with providential preservation. Both options detract from Mastricht’s overall treatment of Scripture, which is representative of classic Reformed theology. We need a Bible that speaks to us with divine authority reflecting its divine author. It must be true in order to lead us to the God of truth. It must have integrity so that we can trust the God who gave it and who preserves it. It must be holy so that the Spirit can use it to make us holy. It must be perspicuous so that, with the Spirit’s help, we can understand it clearly for our salvation. It must be perfect and complete so that it is all we need for salvation through faith in Christ. It is most necessary because in it and through it alone that we hear Christ’s saving voice. It must be an effective instrument of the Spirit for our salvation; otherwise Christ’s voice will not penetrate our impenetrable hearts. Perhaps many false views of Scripture result from stressing one property of the Bible to the neglect of others. Mastricht gives us a wide picture of what Scripture is that is simultaneously biblical, Reformed, and refreshing.
Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.