by Mike Ratliff
Much of the debate we have experienced on Possessing the Treasure over the last several months was centered upon whether the Bible is God’s Word or simply another book. The genuine Christian does accept the Bible as Sacred Scripture and a huge part of God’s revelation of Himself to them. Those professing Christians who decry this, however, insist that knowledge of God must be derived from non-communicative ‘encounters’ with Him. The problem with this should be obvious. If we hold to the truth that God’s revelation of Himself to us is primarily through the Bible as His verbal self-testimony then we are dependent upon it as unchanging and complete truth. However, if we hold that God communicates to us primarily via experience then there is no foundation. Truth becomes arbitrary and subjective.
John Owen, a great 17th Century Puritan theologian, understood this. He knew that the experiential model of receiving communication from God was flawed. Why? Sin exists within us all. There is an anti-God drive that we all have in our makeup. This is our inheritance from Adam. This fallenness within us guarantees a universal unresponsiveness to spiritual truth. This, of course, is hardness and blindness of heart. No matter how dynamic or correct a Bible teacher or preacher is, these truths hit those hard and blind hearts in total ineffectiveness. It is only through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, who opens the heart to God’s word, that understanding of, conviction about, and consent to, the things that God declares. Owen understood the tragic darkness and evil nature of the fallen human mind. He knew, and we must grasp this as well, the absolute necessity that the Spirit should work in preacher and teacher, hearer, and student alike, if effective communication of the things of God is ever to take place.
In Owen’s analysis of this communication from God he developed his exposition within five headings: (1) the giving of revelations; (2) the inspiring of Scripture; (3) the authentication of Scripture; (4) the establishing of faith in Scripture; (5) the interpreting of Scripture. Owen’s understanding was that each of these headings covers one distinct element in the complex of activities whereby the Holy Spirit introduces the thoughts that are in God’s mind into ours.
(1) The Giving of Revelations:
Owen normally used the word ‘revelation’ to denote any immediate informative communication from God, disclosing things which could not otherwise have been known. These take the form of a voice or inward impression, accompanied on occasion by a dream or a vision. Owen lumps all revelations under the head of prophecy. A good example of this would be Abraham in Genesis 20:7
“Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you, and all who are yours.” (Genesis 20:7 ESV)
This communication was the work of the Holy Spirit, the immediate author of all divine revelations. These prophecies evidenced themselves to their recipients in such a way that their origin being from God was never doubted. Adam, Abraham, Elijah, Moses, and Daniel never needed to ask what was the source of the message. They knew that it was from God. In order to preserve these prophecies, they were written down.
Before the committing of the Scriptures to writing, God had given the world an experiment, what keepers men were of this revelation by tradition; within some hundreds of years after the flood, all knowledge of Him, through the craft of Satan, and the vanity of the minds of men, which is unspeakable, was so lost, that nothing, but as it were the creation of a new world, or the erection of a new church-state by new revelations, could relieve it. After that great trial what can be farther pretended on the behalf of tradition I know not. – John Owen
Once the scriptures were written, and the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ was complete, no need remained for private revelations of new truths. Owen opposed those like the Quakers who put their trust in supposed revelations given apart from the word. In our day we have the example of the LDS or Mormons who have their own version of the Bible along with the Book of Mormon. Both are in this class. In Owen’s reasoning, if these “revelations” agree with Scripture then they are needless, and if they disagree then they are false.
(2) The Inspiring of Scripture:
Owen defined “inspiration” as the inbreathing of the Holy Spirit. It is through this that revelations are given, received, and transmitted, both orally and in writing. The human subjects of this revelation are passive during the process, in the sense of being non-originative: though their minds are active in a psychological sense, they are being acted upon, or simply ‘acted’ by the Spirit, ‘moved by the Holy Ghost’ (2 Peter 1:21).
The Spirit prepared them [the prophets] for to receive the impressions he made upon them, and confirmed their memories to retain them. He did not indeed so enlighten and raise their minds as to give them a distinct understanding and full comprehension of all the things themselves that were declared unto them. There was more in their inspirations than they could search into the bottom of [Owen is thinking of the statement in 1 Peter 1:10, 11 that the prophets themselves did not know the full meaning of their own words about Christ]. But he so raised and prepared their minds, as that they might be capable to receive and retain those impressions of his finger, and give out the sounds he intends…he himself acted their faculties, making use of them to express his words, not their own conception. – John Owen
There were, therefore, three things concurring in this work [the Spirit’s inspiring the writers of Scripture]. 1. The inspiration of the minds of these prophets, with the knowledge and apprehension of the things communicated unto them. 2. The suggestion of words unto them, to express what their minds conceived. 3. The guidance of their hands, in setting down the words suggested; or of their tongues, in uttering them unto those by whom they were committed to writing; as Baruch wrote the prophecy of Jeremiah from his mouth (Jer 36:3, 8). If either of these were wanting, the Scripture could not be absolutely and every way divine and infallible. – John Owen
This completeness of divine initiative and control did not mean, however, that the human personalities or characteristics of the writers were obliterated.
The Holy Ghost in His word on the minds of men doth not put a force upon them, nor acts them any otherwise than they are in their own natures, and with their present endowments and qualifications meet to be used and acted…the words therefore which he suggests unto them are such as they are accustomed unto, and he causeth them to make use of such expressions as were familiar unto themselves…We may also grant and do, that they used their own abilities of mind and understanding in the choice of words and expressions. So the preacher sought to find out acceptable words (Eccles 12:10). But the Holy Spirit who is more intimate unto the minds and skills of men than they are themselves, did so guide, act, and operate in them, as that the words they fixed upon were as directly and certainly from him, as if they had been spoken to them by an audible voice. – John Owen
The words of the biblical writers, therefore, have God for their ultimate author.
The laws they made known, the doctrines they delivered, the instructions they gave, the stories they recorded, the promises of Christ, the promises of gospel times they gave out and revealed, were not their own, not conceived in their minds, not formed by their reasoning, not retained in their memories from what they heard, not by any means beforehand comprehended by them (1 Peter 1:10, 11), but were all of them immediately from God; there being only a passive concurrence of their rational faculties in their reception. – John Owen
The Bible we have now in the 21st Century is the same Bible Owen had. It has the same manuscripts as its basis. There have been innumerable manuscripts discovered since Owen’s day, but none of them has changed the meaning of any part of scripture. The ‘divine originall’ of Owen, referring to the Scriptures, was to him that God spoke their contents long ago, when he caused them to be written, but also that he speaks the same content now: the Scriptures remain His contemporary utterance to every generation. Therefore, when attempts are made to change what the Bible teaches in order to make it culturally relevant then a huge error is taking place.
How is it, then, that some of us hold the Bible high and consider it to be Sacred Scripture while other professing Christians distrust it so? What is amiss? How does faith in ‘God’s word written’ come about?
(3) The Authentication of Scripture:
The Holy Spirit, the Author of Scripture, causes his work to be received with divine faith, as God’s word, by means of a twofold operation: His external witness and His internal witness. The latter is the ‘the internal work of the Holy Spirit on the minds of men, enabling them to believe’; the former is ‘the external work of the same Holy Spirit giving evidence in and by the Scripture unto its own divine originall’.
Owen states, “Herein consists that testimony which the Spirit gives unto the Word of God that it is so. The Holy Ghost being the immediate author of the whole scripture, doth therein and thereby give testimony unto the divine truth and original of it, by the characters of divine authority and veracity impressed on it, and evidencing themselves in its power and efficacy.” By this means “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, do abundantly and uncontrollably manifest themselves to be the word of the living God.”
How does the Holy Spirit do this? Owen states that He does this through threefold activity. The first is that He imparts to the Scriptures the permanent quality of light. (2 Peter 1:19; Psalm 119:105, 130) This light is that which dispels darkness and illuminates people and situations. The second activity is that the Spirit makes the Scriptures powerful to produce spiritual effects. These are evidenced as divine in origin because of their disruptive and recreative impact on people’s lives. The Word of God is quick and powerful and able to build up believers and is the power of God. (Hebrews 4:12; Acts 20:21; 1 Corinthians 1:18). The third activity is that the Spirit makes Scripture impinge on the individual consciousness as a word addressed personally to each man by God Himself, evoking awe, and a sense of being in God’s presence and under His eye. This is the majesty of Scripture.
(4) The Establishing of Faith in Scripture
The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, whereby the external testimony comes to be recognized and received, is not an inward voice, revealing facts otherwise unknown and unknowable (that is, a private revelation), nor is it an unreasoning conviction, objectively groundless, coming to us out of the blue; it is, rather, an activity of inward illumination, whereby a man’s natural spiritual blindness is removed, the veil is taken from the eyes of his heart, his pride and his prejudice are alike broken down, and he is given both an understanding and a ‘taste’(Hebrews 5:14) of spiritual realities. This is what the New Testament is referring to when it uses the verb ‘reveal’ in texts like Matthew 11:25-27 and Ephesians 1:17-19.
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matthew 11:25-27 ESV)
that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (Ephesians 1:17-19 ESV)
Those whose “eyes” of their hearts are opened like this now understand Scripture coherently. These Christians are enlightened by the Spirit and Scripture is no longer a bewildering jumble of isolated items. It is a total waste of time to try to explain this to an unbeliever. To these folks, since they cannot comprehend scripture through their “human reason,” anyone who claims to be able to understand it must be lying or pretending. Believers should rejoice that they have the ability to read and understand God’s Word, His communication to them.
(5) The Interpreting of the Scriptures
Owen’s first point under this head is that Scripture is perspicuous or transparent in the sense that every Christian who uses the means of grace as he should, can learn from it all that he needs to know for life and godliness. I agree with that, however, this formula is not a warrant for anyone to go off on his own with a Bible and expect to learn everything by reading it in isolation. Personal Bible Study is important, but it can’t be the only source of Biblical exposition we expose our hearts to. No, we need the corporate life of the Christian community. It is here that we “should” hear the public preaching of the word and informal discussion of it with other Christians.
God communicates with His people through what we have read here, to our soul’s health. What is it that He communicates to us? He give us knowledge of ourselves and of Christ. Let us end here with question 4 from the Westminster Larger Catechism.
Question: How does it appear that the Scriptures are the word of God?
Answer: The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation. But the Spirit of God, bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God.
This post was partially derived from Chapter Five – John Owen on Communication from God from A Quest For Godliness by J.I. Packer pp 81-96.