A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by M. Blayne Powell
Having completed my doctoral studies on the topic, it was an absolute delight to be able to read and review Mark D. Thompson’s treatment of the doctrine of Scripture. The Doctrine of Scripture: An Introduction is one of the latest volumes in Crossway’s Short Studies in Systematic Theology series—and a classic work of systematic theology it is. This short volume stands alongside other classic works in defining and defending an orthodox view of Scripture.
Thompson organizes his discussion in accordance with the following chapters:
- Introduction: How Do We Give an Account of the Doctrine of Scripture?
- Chapter 1—Jesus and Scripture: The Christian Starting Point for Understanding God and the Bible
- Chapter 2—The Speaking God
- Chapter 3—From the Speech of God to “The Word of God Written”
- Chapter 4—The Character of Scripture (Part 1): Clarity and Truthfulness
- Chapter 5—The Character of Scripture (Part 2): Sufficiency and Efficacy
- Chapter 6—Reading the Bible as a Follower of Jesus
Intentional in its flow of thought, this work grounds the doctrine of Scripture in a distinctly Christological, yet Trinitarian, perspective and progresses succinctly through the doctrine, culminating in practical application for reading the Bible as a believer. The ordering of the chapters demonstrates the systematic and progressive argument that the author seeks to make. Starting with Christ, progressing to a discussion on the spoken and written word, continuing in reveling the various attributes of Scripture, and concluding with a practical summary of reading the Bible as God’s redeemed people, the book is both helpful and ambitious in its scope. And it delivers what it seeks to provide.
Two aspects of this volume should be noted from the onset. First, as the series title suggests, the book is indeed a short study of systematic theology. It is not comprehensive but concise in its treatment of the doctrine of Scripture. Likewise, it is merely an introduction to the topic. While most of the foundational elements of the doctrine of Scripture are addressed (i.e., authority, sufficiency, efficacy, inerrancy, etc.), not every question can be answered, nor nuance addressed, in a work of this length. This volume is helpful in invigorating the mind toward a deeper understanding of God’s Word.
It should further be noted—as the author clearly articulates—that this volume is not a work of Christian apologetics (32). Many have endeavored in their writings to defend and contend for an orthodox understanding of the Bible; however, this is not the aim of this volume—namely, to provide thorough reasoning as to why the Bible can and should be trusted. While apologetics and systematic theology are related disciplines, their goals are not always the same. Thompson’s aim was not to answer the objections of Scripture’s opponents, but to provide a thorough account of what it is that Scripture attests of itself.
An attribute of faithfulness, Thompson doesn’t say anything new or unique about Scripture; however, he does offer a refreshing perspective on ancient truths. For example, while Reformed commentators have spent the last several decades returning to a Christocentric reading of Scripture—consistent with saints of old—Thompson reminds readers that the uniqueness of Christian hermeneutics (i.e., Christocentric hermeneutics) is the trinitarian nature of our interpretation. That is to say, only a trinitarian interpretation of Scripture can be truly Christocentric (23, 33). Thus, believers should not discount the role of both the Father and Holy Spirit, while rightly understanding Jesus to be the centerpiece of Scripture (34-35). The biblical narrative—while certainly Christocentric—is the glory and honor of our triune God.
Similarly, while maintaining the long-held view of Christendom regarding Scripture—that it is the inerrant Word of God—the author grounds the Christian attitude towards the Bible in Jesus’s perspective. Since Jesus is Lord, Christians ought to understand the Scripture consistent with the mind of Christ, which they have been given (1 Cor. 2:16). He affirms the word, commissions, the word, and is truly the embodiment of the word. Therefore, while distinct from our own, Christ’s perspective should regulate how believers see the Bible. So, the author inquires, “What was Jesus’s attitude toward Scripture? The Gospels provide us with ample testimony to how Jesus viewed and used the Old Testament, as well as how he treated the words of his commissioned spokesmen, the apostles” (36). To summarize Thompson’s view, Jesus endorsed the Old Testament revelation and commissioned the apostles for New Testament revelation (22), thus, providing Christians with a great deal of confidence in the divine record of the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). This is perhaps one of the most thoroughly concise and immensely helpful explanations of Christ’s view, which I believe will aid Christians in understanding more simply what Jesus believed about the Bible.
For all the strengths and benefits that the book espouses, there did appear to be one gnawing issue that persisted throughout. I did not find that the author maintained a satisfactory distinction between the Word of God and Scripture. While I certainly believe Scripture to be the Word of God, the bleeding of the two concepts—the word spoken and the word written—at times made it difficult to follow the argumentation of the author. At any given moment, readers may have to decipher whether Scripture proper is being addressed or “the word of God” more generally. I would have preferred “Scripture” to be used consistently as the more technical term for the written word while using the “word of God” language more broadly to refer to all special revelation.
While such a distinction was largely inconsistent—although not altogether absent—I don’t believe that this was entirely an oversight on the part of the author. Rather, it appears that he was allowing for a degree of intentional ambiguity. His reason for doing so, as is made evident a few times in the book, was to emphasize the significance of the written word. Thompson strives to provide a premium place for written revelation. He writes, “Yet, despite [the] attitude of Jesus and his apostles, it has not been self-evident to all that the written word should bear the same authority as the word God has spoken, nor even that it should be described in the same way as the ‘word of God’” (88). He later writes, “The fact that these were written words (though in their original context many of them were spoken) did not mean they were less powerful. After all, the spoken and written words are not two altogether different things but two modes of the same things, the word of God” (170).
While I respect and agree with his point—that the written word is just as significant as the spoken Word, if not more so, since it has been persevered for all of God’s people in every era—I question whether this point is so explicitly needed, or if it may counterintuitively raise unnecessary questions in this volume. Again, this was my issue throughout the book. What is being addressed, special revelation or Scripture? It would seem to me that the point being raised would elicit unnecessary questions in a volume given particularly to the doctrine of Scripture. Did the early church—or for that matter, does the church today—believe the written Word to be less significant or authoritative than the spoken word? It appears, in my assessment, that the author may pose a question that interrupts the flow of thought. Dealing with 20th-century liberal scholarship—while certainly historically significant—does not bear considerable enough weight on the nature of Scripture to include it in a volume such as this. It would seem obvious that the written word would be given a premium position in the consideration of God’s people, especially considering the covenantal expectation and consciousness of new covenant believers in the first century (109).
While I appreciate the intentions of the author—to magnify the Bible—I wonder if by doing so in the above manner he may have obscured the overall topic. I found large portions of the book to be more a treatment of special revelation than Scripture specifically. While Scripture is certainly a manifestation of special revelation, the two are not precisely synonymous. Certainly, we would not say that every instance of divine revelation—whether it be through the prophets, apostles, or Christ himself—is recorded in the Bible. There would have been numerous circumstances in both the Old and New Testaments that were not recorded for the church universal in Scripture; however, they would nonetheless still be special revelation. At the same time, we would also not want to be so clumsy as to suggest that Scripture is insufficient in preserving God’s Word. Rather, Scripture is sufficient in preserving all that God meant for his people to have—thus, those portions of special revelation have been inscripturated. I would have preferred this distinction to be more explicit in the text.
Another question raised by the text was the nature of the inspiration of Scripture. Meaning, were the authors of Scripture inspired in their revelation, or was it simply the autographic texts themselves that bear the claim of inspiration? To me, this is one of the more difficult questions to address regarding the doctrine of Scripture, and I believe that the author—while certainly expressing his convictions—may be overly simplistic in his answer. He writes,
Whatever the precise process by which [the] particular biblical text came into being, the result is that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16, my trans.). This is what Christian theologians mean when they speak about the “inspiration” of Scripture, a term that comes from the Latin translation of theopneustos in 2 Timothy 3:16, divinitus inspirata est. Strictly speaking, what is described as “inspired” is the product (all Scripture), not those involved in the process (the writers)…[The Scriptures] are the product of a double agency, which, as we have already seen, is a special feature of God’s self-revelation to his creatures. That double agency is itself the result of God’s gracious decision to involve his creatures in accomplishing his purposes…Though Scripture itself is properly called “inspired” rather than the writers of Scripture, it has been difficult in practice to separate the product from the process that gave it to us (99-100).
Difficult, indeed! While it is Scripture itself that can be defined as inspired, that leaves theologians with the difficult task of expressing sufficiently the nature of the involvement of the human authors. The best explanation of the cooperative work of the Spirit and the human authors is that it was concursive. It is difficult, however, to know with certainty the precise nature of such a dynamic. While it is to Scripture itself that we ascribe inspiration, to what degree were the human authors inspired? Furthermore, were those who spoke on behalf of God, particularly in instances not recorded in Scripture, “inspired” technically speaking? What can be said conclusively is that,
God works in and with the creatures he has made, preparing them for the task he has for them, enabling them to do the task, and directing them in the task without compromising their creaturely integrity. God’s widespread and prior involvement in the lives of those he commissioned for their particular role enabled the human authors of the Bible to act consciously and creatively and still leave us with the words God intended (101).
A few final words of commendation for the book, especially sentimental is Thompson’s continual reminder of the sweet and kind providence of God in giving and preserving the Scriptures for his people (114-118). The Bible is a covenantal book meant to establish and sustain relationship between God and his children. While the Bible is not God—a point that is clearly made in the book—it bears the closest possible relationship and resemblance to God (chapter 4). Its attributes (i.e., clarity and truthfulness (chapter 4); sufficiency and efficacy (chapter 5) mirror that of its author—the Almighty Maker and Creator of all. Though we dare not worship the Bible—as it too is an aspect of God’s creation—we do marvel in the Creator of whom it reveals (97, 122, 146).
Much else can be said about this little book. The critiques I have offered relate more to the nature of the book rather than the scholarship and content itself. Thompson’s work will surely stand as an accessible and concise companion among many towering works on the doctrine of Scripture.
M. Blayne Powell
Buy the books
THE DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE: AN INTRODUCTION, by Mark D. Thompson