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Westminster confession of Faith 1.6 succinctly gives us an important summary of what God’s communication in Scripture is like:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, for man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
Scripture contains all that God wanted to say about His glory and our salvation, including what we should believe and do in response to His self-revelation. God graciously reduced His teaching on these things to Scripture, so that we can rely on the “more sure word” (2 Peter 1:19, KJV) of the Bible instead of supposed new revelations by the Spirit, let alone human traditions.
Scripture is necessary for us as nothing else is or can be. If Scripture can make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ, can make the man of God complete, and can thoroughly furnish the church for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15–17), then why would we ever look for God elsewhere?
It is one thing to say that the Scriptures contain all the spiritual wealth and riches we need to know Christ and glorify God. Yet it is another thing to learn how God expects us to get at its teaching. The Westminster Confession of Faith flags two primary tools for interpreting Scripture: express statements and deductions by “good and necessary consequence.” Though God’s Word is unique in origin, authority, content, and majesty, the principles we use to interpret it echo our approach to other forms of speech.
To begin with, express statements seem like an obvious path. If I expressly tell my children, “Do not go outside in a thunderstorm” or “Go clean up the yard,” then I reduce the wiggle room for missing my meaning. Yet some necessary implications lie behind such simple statements. For one thing, why should my children obey my prohibitions and commands? The contexts and relationships standing behind and implied in what I tell them make all the difference in the world. They should not go out into a thunderstorm because it is dangerous, and they should clean up the yard because they are part of a family. In both cases, the fundamental presupposition is that I have both the authority and the expertise to give them these kinds of commands. While this analogy is imperfect, we assume lots of things in our everyday speech that we imply along the way and without which what we say would lose its meaning. These deductions are good and necessary for meaning.
God’s communication excels our own. He not only chose what to say to us with perfect care and wisdom, but He also knows everything implied in, and standing behind, everything He says. This is why, on the one hand, the Bible can say direct things such as “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). And, on the other hand, Jesus can press home the truth of the resurrection by expecting readers to pay attention when God said, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Matt. 22:32). God’s telling us to believe in Christ and His assuming that He is still the God of the patriarchs, whom He will raise from the dead, have equal force in teaching us God’s will. Did not Jesus tell the Sadducees that by failing to deduce such conclusions by good and necessary consequence, they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God (v. 29)? This silenced the Sadducees, who knew that they should have known better (v. 34).
Necessary deductions bring out assumptions underlying biblical texts, assumptions without which we cannot understand those texts. Thus, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain” (Deut. 25:4, NKJV) assumes that God cares about giving wages to those laboring (1 Tim. 5:18), whether animals or people. Yet Paul points out the obvious truth that if God required this principle of animals, then how much more should it apply to people (1 Cor. 9:9)? In fact, almost every New Testament citation of the Old Testament rests on principles deduced from good and necessary consequence, from the fact that Psalm 16 must point to the resurrection of the Christ since David saw corruption in his tomb (Acts 13:35–37) to the need to call Christ out of Egypt to illustrate His covenantal and representative solidarity with His people (Matt. 2:15).
These examples are not enigmas for us to dismiss as we blame esoteric principles known to the Holy Spirit alone for our inability to understand the thought processes of biblical authors. Instead, they are an invitation to think like Christ and His Apostles, giving attention to the assumptions behind biblical statements and not merely to the statements themselves.
Neither is good and necessary consequence a license to do whatever we want with the Bible, turning it into a wax nose for us to shape as we please. Just because we know that the entire Bible points to Christ (Luke 24:27) does not mean that the Father wants us to find Him in every step of the House of the Forest of Lebanon. However, it does mean that the one God of Israel subsists in the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that the eternal order among the divine persons is the reason that God works from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, so that by one Spirit, we might come to the Father through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:18). It also means that the God who purchased the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28) is the Son of God, who cannot suffer and die, who became man, who can. That God is triune and that Christ is the second person of the Trinity incarnate, with two distinct natures in one divine person, are not just good conclusions that are compatible with Scripture. They are necessary deductions, without which everything else in Scripture falls to pieces.
Only by listening both to what the Bible says and to what the Bible assumes are we able to understand clearly the whole counsel of God. While doing so will take prayer, the Spirit’s help, and plain hard work, God expects no less from us. The good news is that the Father promises to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13), and He is the same Spirit who opened the understanding of the disciples to comprehend the Scriptures (Luke 24:45). Even this point illustrates deducing the thought processes assumed by Scripture, since the Spirit is not mentioned explicitly in the Luke text, but Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 3 that we can understand the Bible only through faith in Christ, and that it is the Spirit who unveils our eyes.
Together, express statements and deductions by good and necessary consequence press us to listen to the Bible as a whole. We should not be like children who break a window through carelessness, excusing themselves because their parents never told them not to break that window in particular. We need to read the Bible with eyes and ears attuned to who God is, how we know Him, and what He wants us to believe and do. We learn these things as much from our overarching relationship to Him as we do from the express statements and examples He gives us.
This leads to a broader point that Westminster Confession 1.6 does not lose sight of. We need to know how to interpret Scripture properly, but we need more than this. Understanding what God says and means is not enough: “The inward illumination of the Spirit of God [is] necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.” We need to be taught by God in our hearts (John 6:47), as the same Spirit who teaches us what to believe in the Word enables us to receive Christ in the Word through sincere faith (1 Cor. 2:12–14). The God who spoke in creation, bringing light out of darkness, must shine in our hearts, enabling us to know the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
While we might not understand everything in Scripture with equal clarity, sometimes not hearing what God is saying, yet the sheep hear the Good Shepherd’s voice (John 10:27). Do we know the triune God’s character, and do we recognize Him and His will behind and around Bible texts as well as in what He spells out for us explicitly?