The More Sure Word
Robert L. Broline, Jr.
The Westminster Confession of Faith begins:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased [emphasis added].
With these words, we confess that the written revelation of God is at the heart of biblical religion. To support this paragraph, the Westminster divines cited the well-known texts 2 Timothy 3:15 and 2 Peter 1:19. In addition, they cited Luke 1:3-4.
In the prologue to his gospel, Luke places the written Word of God on center stage. He says that he wrote out his account for Theophilus so that he might 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 (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1). Here Luke tells us that the writing enterprise stands at the heart of biblical religion, that biblical religion actually moves toward the writing down of God's Word.
This was the consistent pattern throughout the history of God's dealings with his people. For Old Testament Israel, prophecy was primarily spoken, not written. We are familiar with men like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who wrote down their prophecies from God, often at his express command. But before them came prophets who did not write down their prophecies. Scripture calls Abraham a prophet, yet we have no writings produced by Abraham. Elijah and Elisha were also prophets, yet again we have no inspired writings from them. In the Old Testament revelation, there is a progression from the speaking prophets to the writing prophets. Throughout the history of divine revelation, the biblical religion moves toward the writing down of God's Word.
Writing down God's Word attaches permanence to it. Once the spoken word is uttered, it is gone. But when it is written down, it can be preserved permanently.
For that reason, many charge that writing it down makes it static and gets in the way of our own direct encounter with God. Not the Bible, they say, but direct experience brings vitality and spontaneity to our faith and life as Christians. And so liberalssuch as those in the so-called Jesus Projectcontend that the written Word is inferior to the oral tradition that came before it. And Roman Catholics contend that the written Word is inadequate apart from the authoritative tradition of the church. And charismatics contend that the written Word is lifeless apart from personal encounters with, and disclosures from, God.
But the recurring pattern of God's dealing with his people shows that in reality the very opposite is the case. The written Word is actually the superior mode of revelation. It replaces the spoken word because it is stamped with eternity, permanence, and heaven.
Luke's prologue demonstrates this in its movement from the oral accounts (to which he refers) to his written account. Luke specifically notes the transition from the former period, during which the New Testament church relied on the eyewitness-ministers' oral accounts of Jesus' acts and teachings, to the present period, in which the New Testament church relies on the written record of Jesus' acts and teachings. The oral period covered the gap between the time when Jesus' acts and teachings took place and the time when they were written down.
Verse 4 says that Luke wrote down his account so that "you [Theophilus] might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught." The verbal phrase "have been taught" is best understood as "have been orally instructed in." The relationship of those who were "eyewitnesses and servants [or, ministers] of the word" to those who were not (Luke 1:2) underscores this movement from the period of the spoken word to the period of the written Word. Note that Luke does not include himself among the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. Rather, he presents himself as a second-generation Christian, as one who comes after the eyewitnesses of Jesus.
Now, the era that pertains to the "eyewitnesses and ministers" is known as the Apostolic Age. By Scripture's own definition, an apostle is one who was an "eyewitness and minister" during the time of Christ's earthly ministry (with the exception of the apostle Paul, to whom Christ made a special appearance). However, Luke and Theophilus belong to the postapostolic period. Luke matches the movement from the oral to the written Word with the movement from the apostolic to the postapostolic era. This transition to the postapostolic era stresses the permanent, eternal, and heavenly character of the written Word of God.
2 Peter 1:19
Several other passages in the New Testament also demonstrate this point, but due to space constraints, we will consider only 2 Peter 1:19. There is debate over the proper interpretation of this verse, but I am convinced that the King James Version got it right"We have also a more sure word of prophecy." In the context, the apostle Peter has been telling about his glorious experience of being on the Mount of Transfiguration (vss. 16-18; cf. Matt. 17:1-8). He relates that he actually heard a voice from heaven (vs. 18). But then he says that we, the church, have "a more sure word"the written Word (vs. 19).
The apostle Peter saw Jesus' glorious transfiguration. He heard the voice of God the Father from heaven. But, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he says that this personal experience and this spoken word from heaven are inferior to the "more sure word of prophecy"the written Word of God. John Murray observes:
The reading and preaching of the Word are the voice of God as truly as when the disciples heard the Father's witness to his own Son on the holy mount. The sense of high privilege accorded Peter, James, and John on that occasion is reflected in Peter's words: "And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount" (2 Pet. 1:18). But the astounding feature of the apostle's teaching in this instance is the assessment of Scripture: "We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts" (2 Pet. 1:19). Scripture is continuously and abidingly the voice of God to us because, as "borne by the Holy Spirit, men spake from God" (vs. 21). (Collected Writings, vol. 1, pp. 239-40)
This absolute supremacy of God's written Word in its permanent, eternal, and heavenly charactereven over Peter's own experienceis all the more heightened by the particular timing of Peter's declaration. This apostle, an eyewitness-minister, is about to go away. He is about to leave this world (vs. 14) for the world above. So this is the apostle's last will and testament. It marks the close of the era of those who were eyewitnesses of Jesus' majesty. The apostolic era is ending and the postapostolic era is dawning. And, at this specific juncture, we have the apostle Peter's clear and definitive statement of the supremacy of the Spirit-inspired, written Word of God (vss. 20-21).
The apostle Peter, who belongs to the apostolic era, states that the written word of God is a more sure word of prophecy for us, the church, who belong to the postapostolic era, when there are no living apostles. In a representative way, the impending death of Peter anticipates the end of the apostolic era. And in this context Peter makes it plain to the church that the divinely inspired, written Word of God is supreme, as God's "more sure word"his last and final word to his church.
Think about it! If God's audible words and Peter's personal experience on the Mount of Transfiguration dwindle in comparison to God's written Word, then what should we think about modern claims of personal divine encounters, angelic visions, and the like? What should we think about claims to personal guidance apart from the Scriptures? God himself speaks "a more sure word of prophecy" in the written Word of God! It "is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword" (Heb. 4:12). We must never allow anything to displace the written Word of God as the final and sufficient source for Christian faith and life.
We live in the era in which there are no living apostlesno eyewitness-ministers of Jesus' acts and words. The written Word has come down to us from heaven above, from God himself. His final Word has come to us in these last days through his exalted Son (Heb. 1:2). It was the exalted Jesus' words and deeds that Spirit-inspired men wrote down for us (Acts 1:1-2).
In God's inspired, written Word, we hear God himself! In his inspired, written Word, we have fellowship with him together with his Son, Jesus Christthe Living Word. The Spirit of God preaches Christ to us in all the Scriptures, making our hearts burn within us (cf. Luke 24:32). May he enable us to keep clinging to our Savior by faith aloneto the end that our lives might more and more be conformed to our Savior's life, even as our lives are more and more conformed to his written Wordthat we might embrace the gospel with all certainty, that we may not fall, that we may remain steadfast in our Savior as members together of his glorious body, the church.
The author is the associate pastor at Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pa. Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2002.