In this session of Secret Church 17, Pastor David Platt provides a biblical answer to the question, “Is the Bible divine?” Because the church agreed upon which books should be included in the canon of Scripture, some people claim that the Bible is the creation of men. However, it is more accurate to say that the canon was revealed by God and then later recognized by man.
In this session, David Platt deals with two aspects of God’s revelation—general communication and special communication. While God reveals some truths to all men in his general communication, special communication is revealed to particular persons at particular times in particular places. Only special communication provides men with the opportunity to be saved, for it reveals the gospel of Jesus Christ. We receive special communication today through the words of Scripture, though our sin and human weakness means that God must open our hearts to Scripture’s saving message.
- Did the Church Create the Canon?
- Or Did the Canon Create the Church
- The Canon: Revealed by God
- The Canon: Recognized by Man
- Is the Bible Divine?
This question will have one of the longer answers, because it’s the foundation for the others. We’re asking, “Who is the Author of this book? Is it God, or just a bunch of people like us?” The key word we’ll use a lot here is the word “canon.” Generally defined, that word means “an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture.” So the canon of the Bible is 66 books—39 classified as the Old Testament, 27 books in the New Testament.
Did the Church Create the Canon?
So a huge question is: Who decided these 66 books are the Word of God? Did the church create the canon? In other words, did people just make all this up?
Recognition of the Old Testament
If you look in history, you see recognition of the Old Testament as of the first century in three divisions. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian wrote this:
We have but twenty-two [books] containing the history of all time, books that are justly believed in; and of these, five are the books of Moses, which comprise the law and earliest traditions from the creation of mankind down to his death. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, the successor of Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time, in thirteen books. The remaining four documents comprise hymns to God and practical precepts to men.
So there is a total of 39 books recognized as the Old Testament in a way that was final or complete. That’s what I mean by “historic completion.” These specific books were recognized by the Jewish people as the Word of God. People saw them as such. They stood on them as such, even when it cost them. Josephus writes:
How firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them or take anything from them, or to make any change in them, but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willing to die for them. For it is no new thing for our captives, many of them in numbers, and frequently in time, to be seen to endure racks and deaths of all kinds upon the theatres, that they may not be obliged to say one word against our laws, and the records that contain them.
So Jewish people stood for those book as the Word of God.
Recognition of the New Testament
The recognition of the New Testament came about over the course of the next couple of centuries. Church historian J.N.D. Kelly writes:
By gradual stages, the Church both in East and West arrived at a common mind as to its sacred books. The first official document which prescribes the twenty-seven books of our New Testament as alone canonical (having that authority) is Athanasius’s Easter letter for the year 367, but the process was not everywhere complete until at least a century and a half later.
You can see that in this quote from Athanasius in 367 A.D.:
Again it is not tedious to speak of the books of the New Testament. These are the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.
The question then is did a bunch of Jewish people, and then some church leaders after them, just get together and say, “All right. We need a Bible, so what books do we want to include?” And these are the books that won out—these 66 books.
Is the Bible divine Or Did the Canon Create the Church?
Did people create the canon, or did the canon create the church? In other words, did people decide what books should have authority in Scripture, or did God decide that? And through the canon of Scripture, did He define His people? I love this quote from J.I. Packer about the New Testament canon specifically:
The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.
So how did we get these 66 books specifically defined as the Bible? And the answer I want to show you in history and in the Bible is that the canonicity was revealed by God. He revealed which books should be seen as His authoritative Word. And He did it in such a way that that canonicity was recognized by man. So God revealed it and His people recognized it. So how did that happen? I’m glad you asked.
The Canon: Revealed by God
The Bible itself is clear that we cannot know God unless God reveals Himself to us. John 3:27, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” In 1 Corinthians 2:9-11, Paul specifically speaks about the Holy Spirit, saying, “Who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” So 1 Corinthians 2 teaches that only the Spirit of God is able to know the thoughts of God. If we’re going to know the thoughts of God, He’s got to make those thoughts known to us by His Spirit.
Carl F.H. Henry, one of the greatest theologians in the 20th century, wrote a tome on God, revelation, and authority, a multi-volume work. He said:
All merely human affirmations about God curl into a question mark. We cannot spy out the secrets of God by obtrusive curiosity. Not even theologians of a technological era, not even Americans with their skill in probing the surface of the moon, have any special radar for penetrating the mysteries of God’s being and ways. Apart from God’s initiative, God’s act, God’s revelation, no confident basis exists for God-talk.
The Bible is divine because revelation is God’s communication to humans
So from the start, we have to see that revelation is God’s communication to people of truth they need to know in order to properly relate to Him. This is foundational. H.D. McDonald said, “The idea of God making Himself known is not so much a biblical idea as it is the biblical idea.” The whole point of the Bible is that God has chosen to make Himself known to us. Now, the Bible is not the only way God reveals Himself to us. Think with me about two categories of communication from God to us.
General communication can be divided into three primary spheres. First, God communicates to us in nature. In the words of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”
Second, God reveals Himself in history. Everything that’s happening in history is happening under the governance of God. Job 12:23 says, “He makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away.” Isaiah 10 recounts how God is sovereign over the work of nations. Daniel 2:21-22 is beautiful: “He changes times and seasons; he remove kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.”
So God reveals Himself in nature, in history, and third, He reveals Himself in humanity. In other words, God has put a spiritual impulse inside every person. Acts 17:22-23 speaks of our longing to worship something. That impulse comes from God. And even more than that, God has put in every single person a sense of morality. A sense of right and wrong is etched on every one of our hearts. There’s a sense of “ought” engraved on every one of our hearts. We see good and evil, and we instinctively know that we ought to do good and not evil. That instinct, that sense of ought, is no accident. It’s given to us by God. Romans 2:14-16 makes that clear when it talks about our conscience.
God reveals Himself
So through nature, history, and humanity—our own hearts—different things about God are revealed to us. We learn about His glory, about His governance, and about His moral essence. God generally communicates about Himself in all three of those spheres in two primary senses. So think about the “what” and the “to whom” of God’s general communication.
First, what do we know about God from nature, history, and what’s written on our hearts? The answer Scripture gives is that we know universal knowledge about God. We have knowledge concerning His existence over us and our sinfulness before Him. This is exactly what Romans 1 teaches us, that God reveals Himself clearly through creation: “His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived…in the things that have been made,” so that men “are without excuse.” Although men knew God, they didn’t glorify Him or give thanks to Him, but “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
So the whole point there is that God has revealed Himself in creation to all people, and we have turned aside from the one true God Who created all things and have worshipped other gods—namely ourselves—instead. And then Romans 2 talks about the sense of right and wrong that God has put on our hearts. He’s revealed something generally about Himself to us—He is a moral God. And something general about us: we are immoral people. All of us do wrong things.
General communication provides that kind of universal knowledge about Him, and even about us, in a way that has universal accessibility to all. That’s the “to whom” part. In other words, there’s no person in the world who doesn’t have God’s general revelation of Himself in these ways. The knowledge of God in general communication is available to all people at all times in all places.
All people have knowledge of God through these spheres—through nature, history and humanity—in such a way that Roman 1 says all people are without excuse. This sense of right and wrong is written on every single one of our hearts. Which then leads to one primary effect of general revelation. This is so key.
What’s the effect of God’s general communication in our lives? God’s general revelation leads to overall condemnation. This is the argument of Romans 1-3, culminating in Romans 3:19-20. In creation, history and humanity, God reveals that He exists. God also reveals that we have turned aside from Him and worshipped other gods instead, which means we all stand as sinners before God. That reality is established by God totally apart from His Word. God’s general communication reveals Who He is, how we’ve turned aside from Him, and as a result general revelation leads to overall condemnation.
We are sinners. It establishes that we are sinners before a holy God. Think about why that’s so important. Because if all we have is general communication from God—if all we’ve got is what’s in nature, history and our make-up as humans—then we stand before God condemned and we have nothing else from Him. End of story. God exists. We’ve turned away from Him. General revelation leads to overall condemnation. That’s all. If general communication is all God gives, then you and I—and every person in the world and in history—stand hopeless before a holy God forever. Period.
This is why we need special communication, more specific communication. And the good news is God has given it to us—again, in three primary spheres. First is history. Don’t think about just history in general, like we talked about above, but specifically in the way God in history has worked to save people from their sin. It started way back in Genesis, first in chapter three, and then again in Genesis 12:1-3. There we have God’s first promise to bless Abram as the father of the people of Israel. Then after Abraham, God revealed Himself through Moses to the Israelites, delivering them out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea.
In other various ways throughout history, God has worked to draw people back to Himself. Of course, that history culminated in the Incarnation, God becoming man in the Person of Jesus Christ. So it’s no coincidence that when John introduces Jesus, he said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Word John is talking about there is Jesus. He’s the revelation of God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14-18).
So how do we know Who God is? We look at Jesus. He is God’s revelation. I remember talking one day with a student who said to me, “I would believe in God if He would just come down and show Himself to me.” I said, “I’m so glad you said that, because He has!” Look at John 14:9, where Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And Revelation 19:13, “He is called The Word of God.” Jesus is the revelation of God.
So God has revealed Himself specifically in history, in His Son, and then in speech. God has spoken in different ways. He’s revealed in verbal speech. The world was created through the spoken word of God. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Creation was fashioned by His word. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6). We can think about God’s verbal speech in two ways.
First, it’s often direct. So in Genesis 2:16-17, God spoke directly to man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” That’s special revelation, God’s direct speech. Then there’s indirect speech, meaning God spoke to people through others, namely, the prophets.
Deuteronomy 18:18: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” So the picture there is that God would speak His word to His people through a prophet. God said the same thing to Jeremiah. “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Ezekiel says over and over again, “The word of the Lord came to me” (Ezekiel 12:1, 8, 17, 21, 26). And other prophets said this as well (Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1).
So you have verbal speech—direct and indirect—and then God also speaks in written form. Think about the Ten Commandments in Exodus 31:18, which references “the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” Then you have Joshua, who “wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God” (Joshua 24:26). You see other references in the Old and New Testaments referring to God’s written revelation, which is uniquely helpful, because it enables all kinds of things.
It enables personal study, so God’s people can take His written revelation and study it and teach it and talk about it. They can write it on the doorposts of their houses and gates to remember it. Written revelation also enables public study, like we see in 2 Chronicles 34:29-32, when Josiah reads the Book of the Law before the people and he leads them to commit to obey it. And obviously, that’s not just possible at a certain point in time. Because it’s written, such revelation enables continual examination on a regular basis—every day, every year.
In Deuteronomy 31:9-13 we read of a feast that happened every seven years, when they would pull out the Word of God on a particular topic. Written revelation enables continual examination, and clear explanation of that revelation, like we see in Nehemiah 8. It’s like we’re doing right now, with this Word in front of us. Written revelation enables this to happen.
Finally, written revelation enables ongoing edification. Things written down at one point in time have power to edify far beyond that point in time. Romans 15:4: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
In addition to enabling all those things, written revelation also ensures precision. In other words, there’s no question about what God has said when He’s written it down. It’s not a game of telephone, when you just whisper in the next person’s ear, and it goes to the next person, and the next person, and then you just hope the original message is preserved. No. This is written down in a way that ensures precision. It also ensures propagation, which means it can be passed on to others, and preservation, meaning it can be preserved for others. That’s why the Bible ends with these words:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)
God intends for His Word to be passed on exactly as He’s given it. He’s written it down for that purpose.
So to recap, when it comes to God’s special and more specific communication, you have three primary spheres:
- history, like redemption history, how God is saving people from their sins
- the Incarnation
- speech, verbal and written.
This special communication comes in two primary senses. Like we talked about earlier, it comes in the “what” and the “to whom.” But think about the difference here. With special communication, the “what” is specific knowledge about God. It’s not just general knowledge about God, that He exists. That’s what general communication does. This is specific communication about how God has provided redemption for us. We have examples of this in Exodus 3:2-8 and 6:28, showing how God specifically spoke to Moses, promising that He would deliver the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. So there’s specific knowledge about how God redeems His people.
There’s also specific knowledge about how we can be reconciled to Him—how sinners can be made right with God. Even more specifically, we’re told how we can enjoy relationship with Him. In John 15:5-11, Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” How do we abide in a love relationship with the God of the universe? By letting His Word abide in our hearts.
So we’re talking about specific knowledge about God, revealed to whom? This is the picture we see of a special blessing from God. This is a big difference when compared with general revelation, because general revelation—we have to remember—is universally accessible to all in creation, in history, on the human heart. But this special, specific communication is accessible to particular persons at particular times in particular places. Think about it. God didn’t reveal Himself to everybody through a burning bush. That was just Moses at a certain time and a certain place. God didn’t speak to everybody like He spoke to certain prophets. God didn’t speak to all people, like He did the people of Israel in the Old Testament.
The Bible is divine communication
So we have this picture in the Bible of specific, special communication from God that has one primary effect which is the whole point of special revelation. Remember the effect of general revelation was to lead to overall condemnation. General revelation is only sufficient to show us that God exists and we’ve sinned against Him. We need something more, and that’s where special revelation comes in. Special revelation leads to the opportunity for salvation. In other words, special revelation makes it possible for sinners to know how we can be saved from our sins, how we can be reconciled to God, how we can enjoy relationship with God. Special revelation is necessary for salvation. We cannot be saved from our sins apart from communication from God about how to be saved from our sins.
We’ll come back to that in a minute. But for now, here’s the bottom line for both general and special communication/revelation: we cannot know God unless God reveals Himself to us. All right? The reality is that God is infinite and we are finite. “His greatness is unsearchable…” (Psalm 145:3). “His understanding is beyond measure…” (Psalm 147-5). “The depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). God is infinite; we are not. We are finite. God is holy; we are sinners. We can’t see Him in our sinfulness. If we have any hope of knowing God, of seeing God, then we need a divine word. We need God to speak to us, to help us know Him, to help us see Him.
Which means we need a divine Spirit. We referenced that earlier from 1 Corinthians 2:10-14: “…who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” We need God, through His Word and in the power of His Spirit, to reveal Himself to us.
Now, Scripture is clear that God’s revelation is clear. In other words, God is not lacking in His communication ability. I have severe lackings in my communication ability. I remember when I was in seminary, I was in an interpersonal communication skills class, where they were talking about reflective listening and how to communicate better with people. So when they’d say something to you, you would kind of show that you understood what that person said by repeating it back to them. It was early on in marriage, so I went home that day and I was working when my wife came home.
She asked, “How was your day?” We started talking, so I thought, “All right. I’m going to work on this. I’m going to put aside my work, and I’m going to give her my full attention.” So I said, “How was your day?” She said, “Well, my day was fine.” I said, “So I hear you saying that your day was fine.” She’s like, “Yeah.” And then I said, “Well, tell me about it.” She tells me a couple things. “So I hear you saying this and this and this happened.” She’s like, “What’s…what’s your problem?” I said, “Ah, sorry.” I just went back to work and normal talking.
Scripture is divinely clear
So we have trouble in our communication. God does not have trouble. He has spoken clearly and He has spoken loudly. I love this quote from Carl F.H. Henry:
Divine revelation palpitates with human surprise. Like a fiery bolt of lightning that unexpectedly zooms toward us and scores a direct hit, like an earthquake that suddenly shakes and engulfs us, it somersaults our private thoughts to abrupt awareness of ultimate destiny. By the unannounced intrusion of its omnipotent actuality, divine revelation lifts the present into the eternal and unmasks our pretensions of human omni-competence. As if an invisible Concorde had burst the sound barrier overhead, it drives us to ponder whether the Other World has finally pinned us to the ground for a life-and-death response. Confronting us with a sense of cosmic arrest, it makes us ask whether the end of our world is at hand and propels us unasked before the Judge and Lord of the universe. Like some piercing air-raid siren it sends us scurrying from life’s preoccupations and warns us that no escape remains if we neglect the only sure sanctuary.
I wish I could have written that! That’s so good. So, God’s revelation is clear—that’s the point. The problem is our reception is clouded. The Bible talks about how our eyes are blind and our hearts are hard. Our hearts are hard because of sin. We’re finite sinners trying to understand an infinitely holy God. And as a result, we need God in His mercy to reveal Himself in His Word by His Spirit to us, if we have any hope of knowing Him.
Session 2 Discussion Questions
Study Guide pp.12-29
1. Why is it so critical that we believe the Bible is divine and not simply a book of helpful instructions?
2. Apart from Scripture, what are some ways God reveals Himself to us?
3. What is the difference between general and special communication?
4. Respond to the following statement: “People who have never heard the gospel will go to heaven if they simply believe in what they do know about God from nature.”
5. What must a person know and believe in order to be saved?
6. What are some benefits of having God’s special communication, i.e., the Bible, in a written form?
7. Why do unbelievers naturally reject God’s revelation? What role does the Spirit play in changing man’s response to God?
8. Respond to a friend who says, “I just wish God would reveal Himself to me—then I would believe.”
9. What does this session tell us about the privilege of hearing and understanding God’s Word?
10. What does this session teach us about the need to get God’s special communication—in particular, the gospel message—to those who have never heard?
Key Terms and Concepts
- Canon: an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The concept of canonicity deals with whether or not a particular writing should be included in the biblical canon.
- Revelation: God’s communication to humans of truth they need to know in order to properly relate to Him.
- The canon was revealed by God and recognized by man.
- Two Categories of Communication (types of revelation)
- General Communication
- It comes through nature (God’s creation), history (the rise and fall of nations), and humanity (man’s innate spiritual awareness and knowledge of right and wrong).
- It makes knowledge about God accessible to all people (ex: seeing the design of the physical creation).
- It leads to overall condemnation (insufficient for salvation).
- Special Communication
- It comes through history, Christ’s incarnation, and speech.
- It makes specific knowledge about God known to particular persons at particular times in particular places.
- It leads to the opportunity for salvation.The bottom line: We cannot know God unless God reveals Himself to us.
- General Communication
- The bottom line: We cannot know God unless God reveals Himself to us.