In Mark 12:24–27, Jesus refutes the Sadducees concerning their rejection of the final resurrection.
Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? . . . and as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong. (ESV)
This seems to be a rather subtle argument. On initial reading, one could be tempted to think that Jesus is rather severe on the Sadducees. Would we immediately infer the resurrection from God’s covenant formula in Exod 3:6? However, Jesus is adamant: ‘you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God’. It was inexcusable in teachers of the law. They should know from the covenant formula that God is not God of the dead but of the living.
This deduction is not an isolated case in Jesus’ teaching. He challenges Nicodemus because he cannot see the necessity of the new birth from the Hebrew scriptures: ‘are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’(John 3:10).He argues for the divine identity of the Messiah from Psalm 110 (Mark 12:35–37). He rebukes the Pharisees for avoiding the practical consequences of the fifth commandment (‘Honour your father and your mother’) through their self-serving traditions (Mark 7:9–13). There is a living power in God’s Word when Jesus teaches—precisely because he follows through to the conclusions we must draw from it.
Nevertheless, Jesus is the Son of God! Would we dare to draw the consequences he did from scripture? It is worth remembering that in these examples, Jesus expected mostly hostile opponents to accept arguments that depended not on who he was but on what the Word requires. They might reject him; they could not reject what he said without rejecting the coherence of scripture itself.
Scripture is God’s Word, not just in its expressions but in its necessary consequences.
1. Consequences and the Westminster Confession
This important principle is also embodied in the Westminster Confession. Chapter 1, section 6 says:
The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, 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. (emphasis added)
This section deals with what we usually call the sufficiency of scripture. As God’s Word, scripture is not only our highest authority, but it provides all we need to know about who God is, what he has done for our salvation, and what he requires of us in the Christian life. We must not minimise what we mean by Scripture’s sufficiency: it does not simply provide advice or recommendations, but all things necessary for faith and Christian conduct. Scripture binds us. According to the Westminster Confession, the consequences of Scripture bind us too.
At the same time, the Westminster Confession carefully defines these consequences. They must be good. They must spring from the words and the matter of Scripture itself, bearing the imprint of God’s character, his Word and his works. They must also be necessary. They are the logically inescapable consequences arising from the witness of Scripture. For consequences to be binding, they need to be logically necessary as well as good. Therefore, the Confession is not seeking to cover all the possible applications that preaching or church practice might draw from God’s Word, but rather those consequences that ‘flesh out’ our understanding of Scripture’s sufficiency as a rule and authority over us.
Thus, when Gen 1:1 says that ‘in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’, it is both good and necessary to maintain that there is a distinction between God the Creator and nature the creation, and therefore that pantheism is wrong; or that God is before all things, and so the material creation cannot itself be eternal. However, when Heb 10:25 exhorts us not to neglect meeting together, it may be good to encourage everyone to attend the mid-week bible study and public worship on the Lord’s Day, but it cannot be a necessary or binding consequence.
Why did the framers of the Westminster Confession see this as so essential? This is because it ensured that Scripture is sufficient for proving and defending Christian doctrine and practice. How else could Scripture be useful ‘for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16)’ unless rational arguments can be drawn from it? They wanted a thick view of the sufficiency of Scripture, not a thin view. A thin view would require Scripture to be supplemented by other authorities, such as the ‘new revelations’ or ‘traditions of men’, which the Confession also mentions.
There were threats to scriptural sufficiency at the time of the Westminster Confession. They came from the ‘right’ and the ‘left’. To the right were some of the proponents of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, who argued that only the church’s authority could establish consequences from Scripture. This also allowed them to claim doctrines and practices that could not be logically deduced from Scripture—purgatory, papal infallibility, veneration of relics, etc.—but might find grounding in church tradition. To the left were the Socinians, largely forgotten today, a movement of biblical ‘rationalists’ arising from the radical Reformation. They accepted the Bible but rejected the whole structure of Christian orthodoxy drawn from Scripture—the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, original sin, substitutionary atonement, and other doctrines.
For the Westminster divines, the corruptions inherent in the Romanist position, and the heretical extremism found in Socinianism, were solemn warnings that we must deduce theological and ethical consequences from Scripture if biblical Christianity is to be preserved at all. This was not just a question of quarrying Scripture for their pet doctrinal schemes. The wisdom of God and the clarity of Scripture were at stake. As George Gillespie, one of the Scottish commissioners present at the Westminster Assembly, stated:
God being infinitely wise, it were a blasphemous opinion to hold that anything can be drawn by a certain and necessary consequence from his holy Word, which is not his will. This were to make the only wise God as foolish man, that cannot foresee all things which will follow from his words. Therefore we must needs hold, ‘tis the mind of God which necessary [sic] followeth from the Word of God.George Gillespie, Treatise of Miscellany Questions (Edinburgh, 1649), ch 20, 243.
2. Consequences and Christian Theology
If the consequences of Scripture are a display of God’s wisdom, then we have here a beautiful paradigm for the constructive work of Christian theology. We follow the example of Jesus and the apostles as we search the scriptures (John 5:39; Acts 17:11) and reason from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2). It is no surprise, then, that, in the language of Psalms 1; 19; 119, the path of the blessed is one of meditation, of having our eyes opened to wondrous things, of learning wisdom and discernment—all from God’s Word. We serve the God who is love. We love his Word (Ps 119:97). We expect to love what we may discover in and from his Word. We find love as we mine the depths of his Word.
What greater love is there than to be loved by the true and living God and to love him in return? Who is the true God if he is not the triune God? How can we know him if not in Jesus Christ, the ‘Word made flesh’ (John 1:14)? However, genuinely biblical teaching on the Trinity and Christology relies for defence and formulation on consequences drawn from Scripture. As Ryan McGraw outlines in his excellent primer on the subject,1Ryan M. McGraw, By Good and Necessary Consequence (Grand Rapid: Reformation Heritage, 2012), especially ch 3, 41–56. the early Church Fathers did not simply tally up obvious proof texts for the divinity of the Son and the Spirit, but drew inferences from the whole sweep of scriptural teaching. The scriptural record of the Gospels demonstrates Christ’s humanity (he ate, slept, endured bodily suffering), but also his divine knowledge and authority. God is one (Deut 6:4), but the baptismal formula even by itself demonstrates that the one God must subsist in the persons of Father, Son, and Spirit.
While they were men of their age, it has become too fashionable to dismiss the Nicene Fathers as bluntly imposing a philosophical template on Scripture and thereby deriving Christian ‘orthodoxy’. Lewis Ayres has ably demonstrated that they were committed to a careful and spiritually-minded reading of Scripture.2Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: OPU, 2006). They saw in Arianism a way of reading the Bible so rationalistic and narrowly literal that it framed God in terms ultimately unfaithful to Scripture itself. This drove them to formulate creeds to guard a genuinely biblical way of speaking about God and worshipping God. Non-scriptural terms like homoousios (the Son is ‘one substance’ with the Father) might be required, but this was a deduction from Scripture in order to defend the truth against those who, in the name of the Bible, would overthrow the God of the Bible, the triune God.
Still, is not relying on consequences drawn from Scripture inherently rationalistic? Are we not in danger of placing reason over the Bible? It is important to see that reason is the servant and not the master. Reason is the instrument used to uncover treasure found in the Word of God, not in human rationality. Just as we work hard to analyse the language of Scripture with all the linguistic tools at our disposal, so we should work hard to see the logical connections and inferences that can be made in and from Scripture. However, God’s Word always commands our submission. Of course, logical reasoning can be wrongly used. Arguments and opinions can be raised against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5). However, if we ‘take every thought captive to obey Christ’, then the spiritual power we rely on will at some stage have to take on ‘flesh’, as it were, in the arguments we draw from Scripture.
We can even see this process in Scripture itself. I mentioned earlier the inferences we can make from Gen 1:1. Does not Heb 11:3 draw the same conclusions? ‘By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.’ The text from Hebrews is God’s inspired Word, but even as other human processes of language and logic are used by God’s Spirit in the writing of Scripture, so here we can reverently trace out the inferences drawn from Genesis under the guidance of the Spirit. In Acts 10:46–47, Peter logically reasons from the Spirit being poured upon Cornelius and his household that Gentiles also are to be baptised. It is not said that he had received special revelation to that effect. There is a similar process of theological reasoning at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:6–11.
Drawing good and necessary consequences from Scripture is not just the preserve of confessionally Reformed types. It is the modus operandi of faithful Christian theology, whether in the hands of the Church Fathers, the apostles, or the Lord Jesus himself.
We live in uncertain times. The challenges to a biblical Christian faith are many and varied. Now is not the time to have a ‘thin’ view of the sufficiency of scripture! We want to devote ourselves to God’s Word, mining it for all the riches that it contains, and so be strengthened and encouraged for the challenges as well as the opportunities before us. We want to take the scriptures seriously, as the living Word. We want to take up its invitation to draw out its wisdom through the hard labour of thinking through its consequences. Thus, we want to love our God more fully, know him in Christ more richly, and understand our walk of service and obedience to him more broadly as we drink ever deeper from his Word.