What about the biblical testimony itself? We are asking and answering a question over the last series of posts: “Can a Christian use extra-biblical words to express Christian doctrine?” Some say no. Sometimes it is assumed by those who promote this errant view that that their view is self-evidently the view of the Bible. But, as historian Tom Nettles points out, “Ironically, no one can demonstrate that the creed of ‘having no creed but the Bible’ can be established by careful biblical interpretation. In fact, biblical expectation of discipleship virtually mandates that followers of Christ make bold confession of propositional truth coherently arranged by which they declare their faith and test its existence in others,” The Baptists: Key People in Forming A Baptist Identity; Vol. 1, Beginnings in Britain, p. 33.
In Scripture, we always come away with the idea that the Bible is the supreme authority over all other authorities and that it is the ultimate source of truth but we never get the idea that the only authority or only source of truth. We come away with the idea that the words of Scripture are uniquely and truly God’s words but we do not come away with the idea that the only way we can say true things about God is to merely repeat the words of Scripture.
In practice, if this errant view were applied consistently then we could actually no longer have preachers of God’s Word. At best, we could only have enthusiastic readers of God’s Word. But this is not what we see in Scripture. We see preaching. We see explanation. We see argumentation. We see clarification. Using extra-biblical words is not the same as speaking unbiblically. To be a servant of the Word requires these things and we see them happening in Scripture with God’s approval.
For instance, in Nehemiah 8, the Law was being read and then also explained in words the people could understand and appreciate better. “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (v. 8). In fact, as Ezra read to the crowd from the platform, thirteen other men were going in and out of the people explaining what those biblical words that he was reading meant (v. 7). Certainly, in “giving the sense,” they were doing more than just repeating the same words that Ezra read, but at a closer distance.
Isaiah says the “LORD God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (Is. 50:4). Isaiah says he knows how to sustain a weary person with a word. This knowledge goes beyond merely repeating or reading God’s words. It means that Isaiah has an ability to articulate and apply God’s words in a way that sustains his hearers. He said he shares this ability with others “who are taught” (i.e. who learn to handle Scripture in this way). Since Isaiah says, “Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught,” I believe this is aside from what we would recognize as Isaiah’s specific inspired writing and prophecy which undoubtedly did not occur on a daily basis. This is simply Isaiah daily learning from God and daily learning to handle the word as a disciple.
In the New Testament, Timothy is exhorted by Paul to devote himself, not only to the “public reading of Scripture,” but also “to exhortation” and “to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Clearly, there is a difference between reading and teaching. Something more than a mere recitation of the words of Scripture is required here.
Paul says false teachers are those whose teaching “does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3). Notice that Paul speaks of agreement, not repetition. Faithfulness to Scripture means we have the same meaning, not necessarily the same wording. In other words, there must be agreement in substance, not duplication in actual verbiage.
Furthermore, it is very likely that there are ancient Christian creeds, which predate Scripture, and later came to be incorporated into the actual text of Scripture. For instance, Paul is well known for his references to “trustworthy sayings” in his pastoral letters. These were expressions that were well-known in the church in Paul’s day. And Paul is telling Timothy that these well-worn sayings that had become common in the church could be counted on as expressing reliable doctrinal truth. This shows (1) that the apostolic church generally felt the liberty to express theological truth in their own words and (2) the apostle Paul even gives his stamp of approval on several of the specific sayings (1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8). An example of a slightly larger creed that found its way into the canonical Scripture is in 1 Tim. 3:16. This is an early confession of faith that Paul quotes and many of the early Christians would have recognized. Most biblical scholars also recognize Colossians 1:15-20 to contain an ancient hymn that Paul quoted in order to tell the Colossian church about the preeminence of Christ.
Even pagans with no knowledge of Scripture can sometimes say true things about God. Paul quotes the words of pagan philosophers in Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12 in order to express and support Christian truth.
A pastor who is going to be faithful must be a servant of the Word of God. This means that he must be prepared to read it, quote it, sing it and pray it. But it also means that he must be prepared to explain, exhort, clarify, teach, preach, summarize, systematize and apply the Word. I don’t want to be understood to be arguing for less biblical preaching and praying. On the contrary, I want to argue for more biblical and more informed preaching and praying. If we limit ourselves to merely repeating the words of Scripture, we are creating a concept that is foreign to the Bible and we will not be faithful to Scripture itself.
“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2)