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TEXT: II Timothy 3:16-17
SUBJECT: Midland Confession #4: Scripture (Part 1)
Today, with God's blessing, we will move on in our study of the Midland Confession of Faith. Drawn up by a fellowship of English Baptists back in 1655, it was adopted by this church in the mid 1980's as a fair summary of our faith.
The preface we added to it at the time is important. We said it defines our teaching position, it does not limit our church membership or our fellowship with other Christians. In other words, while we hope all our members are in rough agreement with the Confession, you don't have to sign off on its every jot and tittle to find a home here. We have never confused the Confession with the Bible. The latter is complete and infallible; the former is always open to addition, subtraction, or revision. Still, it's a first-rate Confession of Faith and I highly recommend it.
The framers of the Confession obviously put some thought into what they were doing. They didn't just come up with sixteen random ideas and slap them together. There's a logical progression in the document. It starts with the Eternal Life of God and ends with the Eternal Life He gives us in Christ. This is both logical and consistent with history.
The Confession begins with what God is, and that is a single infinite, almighty, unchangeable, and self-possessed Spirit. Then, in the second article, it tells us Who God is, and that is, a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living together in eternal love.
Article 3 tells us how God has revealed Himself to us. Before we get to that, let's be sure we know the background.
Firstly, if God wanted to hide Himself from us, He could have, and not even the most brilliant human mind could have found Him or come up with anything that resembles Him in the least. In other words, God cannot be discovered!
But, secondly, the God who cannot be found wants us to know Him and, to that end, He reveals Himself in two Sacred Books, the first of which is the Book of Nature. Scholars often call this general revelation. According to the Bible, everyone knows there is a God and has a pretty good idea of what kind of God He is. This is taught in sundry places, but especially in the first two chapters of Romans. Because we all know God to some degree, we are all responsible to Him, and because we all know that we've fallen short of what He wants us to be, we all know we're guilty. This is what general revelation does for us, or maybe I should say, what it does to us. It leaves us guilty before God.
If all we had was general revelation, no one could be saved. But the Lord did not want to leave us in our sin, misery, and hopelessness, and so He didn't stop with general revelation. He gave us a second gift, a gift whose value is beyond all pricing. He gave us special revelation, which is a fancy way of saying, the Bible.
This is what the third article of our Confession is about, the Bible, which, like Jesus Christ Himself, did not come into the world to condemn men, but that men might be saved. If we reject the Bible, it will be our Judge on the Last Day, but it doesn't want to be. It wants to bring us to Christ and everlasting happiness.
Don't make the Bible into a paper-and-ink Pharisee, always telling people what they're dong wrong and rushing them to eternal damnation! The Bible is an instrument of God in His purpose to save the world. Use it that way! What is the Bible? The Confession tells us--
We believe the Holy Scriptures, the Old and New Testament, are the Word and revealed mind of God, which are able to make men wise to salvation, through faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; that they are given by inspiration of God, serving to furnish the man of God for every good work; and by them we are (in the strength of Christ) to test all things that are brought to us under the pretense of truth.
This is what the original Confession says, but we added a sentence to address some of the issues of the present time, things that were not in dispute three hundred-plus years before--
As uniquely 'God breathed, the original Scriptures are inerrant in detail, infallible in doctrine, complete in content, and absolute in authority.
The article is too big to cover in one manageable sermon, so we'll today and--I hope--finish it up next week, God willing.
OLD TESTAMENT CANON
The first thing the Confession does is define the canon of Scripture. By the canon, I don't mean 'a big gun'. The word simply means 'a standard' and answers the question, 'What books belong in the Bible?' You know, of course, that the Bible did not fall from Heaven complete. It came to us over a span of about 2000 years. Hebrews 1:1 tells us that God spoke to His people at--
Sundry times and diverse manners.
If you read the Old Testament, you'll see how He did this. Moses wrote the Law centuries before Isaiah wrote his prophecy, in a very different place, and with a particular idiom. In other words, he used words that the people of his time understood, and not words that came into usage later.
This leads unbelieving scholars to doubt the integrity--or the oneness--of the Bible, but I think just the opposite is true: it's what you'd expect a Heavenly Father to do, speak to His children in their own language, introduce ideas when they're needed, and develop them over time.
How many books are in the Old Testament? We say 39. But why not 40? Or 38? Or leave the question open? This is an easy one to answer: the canon of the Old Testament is fixed by Jesus Christ Himself. There is no doubt that the Hebrew Bible that He had and its Greek translation (called the Septuagint), consisted of the same 39 books that we have. He often spoke of them as God's Word and contrasted them with human traditions; in other words, other books or sayings that--whatever their quality--are something less than the Word of God.
Thus the Old Testament is no less the Word of God than the Gospels of Jesus Christ or the Epistles of Paul. This stand is sharp contrast to an arch heretic of the Early Church named Marcion who said the Old Testament--and it's bloodthirsty god--were unworthy of the God we find in Christ in the New Testament.
NEW TESTAMENT CANON
The New Testament canon is a trickier matter. Since we don't have a Third Testament to confirm the authenticity of the Second, we have to come at this one in a slightly different way.
Books were produced in the First Century AD that claimed to be God's Word on par with the Law and Prophets. Some of these books were the 27 we call 'The New Testament'. But the fact of the matter is, other books made the same claim. Who sorted through the competing claims and set the canon?
If you read Catholic Apologists, you'll see the Early Church decided the issue, and this means--to their way of thinking--the Church has priority over Scripture. In other words, we know the Bible is true because the Church says so. And, Catholics argue, it also says the Magesterium (or official teaching of the Church) is true. Thus, while we cannot find let's say, The Assumption of Mary in the Bible, we ought to believe it because the Church says it's true, and the official voice of the Church is the voice of God.
Thus, unlike what Evangelicals sometime say (and many Catholics think) the Catholic Church does not have two authorities: the Word of God and the Word of the Church. It sees the two as the same thing, both the Word of God, just given to us as different times and ways.
Are they right in saying the Early Church 'decided' the canon of Scripture? It all depends on what you mean by 'decided'. Of course the Early Church first recognized the writings of Paul, Peter, and others as the Word of God, and said no to other books, some edifying such as Clement, and others not, he Gnostic Gospels, for example.
The problem is: 'Decided' is the wrong word! The right word is recognized. The Church did not 'decide' which books were inspired by the Holy Spirit and which were not; it did nothing more than accept the former and reject the latter.
Was there any debate? Sure there was. But, by 397 AD, the issue was settled, and the 27 books we have were recognized as the New Testament, and God's Final Word before the Second Coming of Christ.
How did the Early Church make its decision? Looked at from one angle, they were led by Jesus Christ through His Spirit. Why should we expect anything less?
Our Lord Himself said of the Spirit--
He will lead you into all truth.
And, of Himself, He said--
My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.
Our Lord's leading of His Church, however, was not an irrational guidance. He who gave His people brains also made use of them. When a book was presented as the Word of God, they asked three questions about it:
When these tests were applied, the only books to pass scrutiny were the ones you have on the right side of your Bible.
This leaves one important matter unaddressed. Could there be other revelations from God, other sacred books or utterances that possess the same authority as the Old and New Testaments?
I chose my words carefully. I didn't say, 'Is there another book?' I don't have the time or the expertise to evaluate the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and so on. But even though there's value in doing just that, we don't have to.
Our Confession, at least, seems to limit the Word and revealed mind of God to The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Of course, all this proves is that this particular group of Christians saw it that way. Many others have as well. Most or all Evangelical confessions of faith do the same.
Still, we can't rule it out, any more than the Ancient Jews could rule out a New Testament. Or can we? In other words, could God inspire another Book? Could He raise up new Apostles to add a Third Testament?
The answer is: No He couldn't. Because He has nothing more to say. How do I know this? Because Jesus is God's last word. That seems to be the unmistakable implication of Hebrews 1:1, John 1:1, John 14:9, Colossians 1:15 and 2:9.
God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spoke to the fathers in times past, has, in these last days, spoken unto us in His Son.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
Whoever has seen Me--Jesus said--has seen the Father.
In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.
Who is the image of the invisible God.
If Jesus is the Supreme Word and Unique Image of God, and if God has made Jesus known to us, no further revelation is needed and not even God can improve on what He's already spoken to us in Christ!
If you have Muslim or Mormon friends, it might be good for you to spend some time familiarizing yourself with their books of so-called revelation. But you don't have to! If Christ is God's Final Word, then Muhammad and Joseph Smith are not. Even if they were sincere men and believed by millions of decent people.
The questions, 'Are Muslims harder-working than Christians?' or 'Are Mormons more helpful than we are?' are completely beside the point. They may well be, and often are--but the truth of our books does not depend on how well we all live up to them.
Truth is objective. And the objective truth is: the Bible is the Word of God in a way that no other book or sermon or tongue or vision or anything else is.
The simple reason for that is because the Bible is given by inspiration of God while other books and sayings are not--including the most wholesome other books or sayings. We're not saying that 'Everything in the Koran is wrong or 'Everything in the Book of Mormon is garbage'; only that The Bible is inspired by God in a way that nothing else is.
The word, inspired, is taken from our English Bibles, and is the standard way of describing the Scripture, but I wish we could come up with a better word.
In common usage, inspired means 'uplifting' or 'elevating'. If a coach gives an inspiring speech at half time, his teams goes out and plays harder in the second half. Or, if I say, William Shakespeare was an inspired playwright, I mean his ideas and language are way above our own.
The Bible may well be this way, but it's not what we mean by The Bible is inspired by God. In the theological sense, the word means breathed out by God. In other words, in choosing their own words, the prophets and Apostles were also using God's own words. The writers of the Bible said everything God wanted them to say and nothing He didn't want them to say.
How did He do this? We don't know how He did it, only that He did it. The process of Inspiration doesn't matter; only the product does. Did God dictate the Bible, with men simply writing down the words the way a secretary would take dictation from her boss?
In a few places, that seems to be just what He did. Most of Leviticus, for example, feels this way to me. But most of the Bible is not this way. Jeremiah spoke with a different voice than Ezekiel; Paul's style is strikingly different than John's.
How do we explain this? One word: Providence. God gave the writers of the Bible their own particular brains, put them in their own particular places, with their own particular influences, and got them to say exactly what He wanted them to say.
A lawyer, for example, might well speak of God's saving acts in a legal way, while a doctor might describe it as a kind of healing, and a farmer as a planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting. The men who wrote the Bible were different kinds of men, living in different places under very different circumstances, and so it's no wonder their style and choice of words differed from each other.
What doesn't differ is the Message, what God wanted them to say and enabled them to say, just the way He wanted them to say it. II Peter 1:20 puts it this way--
No prophecy of the Scripture is of any private origin, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
In short, the inspiration of the Bible means the Bible says what God wants it to say, not roughly, but precisely what He wants it to say.
Can we account for this is purely human terms? Of course not, and we don't have to because--
With God all things are possible.
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