Prolegomena – Preliminaries to the Study of Theology

The Bible, Van Gogh, 1885

The Bible, Van Gogh, 1885

Prolegomena – Preliminaries to the Study of Theology


Introduction – ‘Revelation’ as the basis of Theology

In theology “prolegomena” refers to the issues of theology that need to be learned before one can learn anything further.

Understanding the difference between ‘General’ and ‘Special’ revelation is one of those issues.

  1. The Doctrine of Revelation.

The word “revelation” comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which means, “to take off the cover.”

Revelation possesses a number of attributes:

  • Necessity: We need general revelation (nature) to reveal the existence of God the creator and special revelation (Scripture) to unveil God’s character and purpose.
  • Authority: Revelation possesses authority over us by virtue of its Divine Author.
  • Clarity (perspicuity): Revelation is clear, even if at times difficult to understand.
  • Sufficiency: revelation is sufficient for all of life.
  • Beauty: revelation, both nature and Scripture, are beautiful and consistent with the beauty of God.

Theologians divide revelation into two categories: “General” and “Special” (also called, “Particular”) revelation.

  1. What is General revelation?

The Bible teaches that the existence of God can be known through observation of the complexity and natural laws operating within the created Universe.

  • Psalms 19:1-3 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.”
  • In Romans 1:19–21 the Apostle Paul writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and Divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

All men witness the glory of God and owe Him allegiance.

  1. What is Special revelation?

Besides His existence, power, intelligence and benevolence, not much else can be known about God through Creation alone.

  • In order to know His personality, character, attributes, plans and purpose, God must choose to reveal those things to us Himself.
  • God has spoken directly and specifically in multiple ways throughout the history of redemption.
  • The Bible teaches that God has done this through the writings of His Prophets, i.e. the Scriptures, and through His Son Jesus Christ. “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds…” Hebrews 1:1-2.
  • Special revelation has culminated in the sixty-six books of the Bible, which point to Jesus as the Christ.
  1. Scripture on the Doctrine of Scripture.

Many passages of Scripture provide insight on the doctrine of revelation. Let’s examine two of them:

(1) In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 Paul writes to the church at Thessalonica. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he says, “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.”

  • Paul preached the Word to the Thessalonians, and this verse demonstrates that preaching and proclamation are crucial to regeneration and the Christian life.
  • Most importantly, Paul identified the message that went forth from him as the Word of God.
  • Paul noted that the Word of God was at work in the Thessalonian believers, transforming them as it took seed and grew within them.

This passage demonstrates that when Scripture is communicated, preached, and proclaimed; it is, in fact, the very Word of God; and it transforms believers into the image of Christ.

(2) In John 6:66–69, Jesus witnessed many of His disciples depart on account of His hard sayings, “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”

  • Peter acknowledged that if they did not follow Jesus – another direction would prove futile, as the words of eternal life sprang from Jesus alone.
  1. The Doctrine of Inspiration.

The word “inspired” comes from 2 Timothy 3:16 (Greek: theopneustos, literally “God-breathed”, or, “breathed-out by God”).

  • 2 Timothy 3:16–17 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
  • The authority of Scripture is emphasized by the fact that the origin of Scripture is from God. This truth differentiates Christianity and Scripture from every other religion and philosophy of life.

To say that the Bible is divinely inspired does not revoke human authorship.

  • The Biblical authors did not enter a trance-like state when they penned Scripture but employed their personalities and wrote in the situation of life in which they moved.
  • They wrote so that their readers and those who followed might understand what God had revealed to them.
  1. No private interpretation:

2 Peter 1:16 and 19-21 says, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty… And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

Many views on the doctrine of Scripture exist today, but at least three views remain prevalent:

  • The liberal view: Scripture is not the Word of God, but it may possess abiding truths.
  • A second view professes that the Bible is not the Word of God, but when the Bible is proclaimed, the Lord inspires this proclamation.
  • The verbal plenary view: every word of the Bible is inspired. This is the Scriptural view.
  1. The Doctrine of Inerrancy.

If Scripture is God’s Word the doctrine of inerrancy must follow.

  • Scripture, as the Word of God, reflects God’s character. Numbers 23:19 states, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?”
  • This passage links God’s Word with His character, which remains true, reliable, and trustworthy.

Scripture declares God’s Word to be true, and, consequently, Scripture is trustworthy. (Proverbs 30:5, 2 Samuel 7:28, John 10:35, In Romans 10 Paul uses the Old Testament to provide authority and proof of his argument, and, In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter places Paul’s epistles on the same level as the Old Testament Scriptures, indicating that they are inspired and inerrant.)

  1. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

In the 1960’s and the decades following, evangelical denominations around the world wrestled with the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. In response to this struggle, a group of pastors, theologians, and churchmen convened at Chicago for the International Council for Biblical Inerrancy. The council consisted of theologians such as R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, and James Montgomery Boice.

The council issued a definitive statement of the doctrine of inerrancy, declaring that the Bible is a truthful recording of human speech. (The Bible contains phenomenological language i.e. language used to describe phenomena experienced by a human author.)

The council declared that the origin of the Bible in God necessitates its veracity.

  1. The Bible is self-attesting.

Self-attestation refers to the internal testimony of Scripture to its own veracity.

  • Theologians refer to this doctrine as testimonium internum Spiritis Sancti, the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit”.
  • The Word of God does not derive its authority from the Church; it’s authority is derived from its origin in God. The Holy Spirit persuades God’s Church of this truth.
  • External data, such as historical studies and archaeological findings, support the truth of Scripture.

The final and most important question for the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy involves submission: are we willing to submit to the Word of God.

  1. The development of the Canon.

Why Sixty six books? The word “canon” derives from the Greek word kano-n, meaning “measuring rod, standard.”

  • Protestants and Roman Catholics arrive at a canon of Scripture using different methods.
  • In Roman Catholicism, the Roman Catholic Church “establishes” the canon.
  • Protestant Churches “recognize” the canon.
  • The process of canonization is the process of the Church recognizing which books are canonical and which are not.
  • The difference between these two positions is substantive.

Scripture establishes the canon of the Old Testament (containing thirty-nine books) internally.

  • The first section of the Old Testament is the Law, the first five books of the Old Testament (also called the Torah or Pentateuch).
  • Joshua 1:8–9 refers to the Book of the Law as the center of Israel’s life.
  • The prophets refer to the Law in this same manner, constantly pointing back to it and the covenant contained within to instigate Israel to live properly before the Lord.
  • These passages and others demonstrate the inspiration and authority of the Law.

Jesus also understood the Old Testament and its divisions as authoritative.

  • Jesus quotes from the book of Proverbs, attributing His quotes to God.
  • On the road to Emmaus, Jesus reveals all that was written about Him in the Old Testament, beginning with Moses and the prophets (Luke 24:13–35). Jesus reveals Himself to the disciples and explains that “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” Luke 24:44.
  • This passage refers to the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. The Tanakh is an abstraction from the three Hebrew words for the three sections of the Hebrew Bible: Torah; “law”, Nevi’im; “prophets”, and Ketuvim; “writings”.
  • Jesus’ use of these three sections of the Old Testament demonstrate that they are inspired and authoritative.
  • The New Testament does not provide a firm list of the thirty-nine Old Testament books.
  • One of the early Church fathers Melito, bishop of Sardis, issued a list of the canon containing the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, affirming the Jewish tradition of hundreds of years.

The canonization of the New Testament featured a different process.

The New Testament authors and early church fathers explicitly verify the inspiration and authority of much of the New Testament.

  • The epistles of the New Testament quote from the Gospels and refer to their content as authoritative (e.g. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, in regards to the Lord’s Supper).
  • Peter refers to Paul’s epistles as authoritative and on the level of Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).
  • The bishops and fathers of the early Church refer to much of Scripture as authoritative in their own writings and communications (e.g. Polycarp of Smyrna).
  • By roughly AD 100, the four Gospels, the letters of Paul, Acts, and some of the general epistles are recognized as canonical.

Outside of this, a number of works existed that did not receive universal acceptance but still circulated in the ancient Church. (Works like the Gospel of Judas and the Apocalypse of Peter, originating in the second century and beyond, circulated at this time.

The Muratorian Fragment

Discovered by Ludovico Antonio Muratori, sheds light on the process of canonization in the early church.

The fragment demonstrates that the church used three criteria for recognizing a canonical work.

  • The book had to be written by an apostle. (Apostles were eyewitnesses, an important feature of legitimate testimony in the ancient world. Apostles had an authority of office and spoke from God.
  • The book must have appropriate theological content. (The book must not contradict other Scripture. The Fragment renounces many Gnostic works, similar to the Gospel of Judas, for its contradictory message.)
  • The work must be accepted by the Church. (The church receives the work. It does not establish it. The Church must view the book as canonical.)

The testimony of Athanasius

In AD 367, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, writes a letter confirming the twentyseven books of the New Testament, and in AD 397, the Synod of Carthage convenes and agrees to the list of Athanasius for the New Testament and reaffirms Melito’s list of the Old Testament.

  1. The clarity of Scripture.

1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

  • Just as the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors, the Spirit illuminates the minds of believers to understand the Word. John 14–16 explains this role of the Spirit.
  • Despite this ministry of truth, differences of interpretation and understanding still exist among the Church.

Although Scripture is clear, this does not mean that it is simple.

  • Anyone can read Scripture and understand the basic message of the gospel. This message of the gospel is clear.
  • Other aspects of the Word of God are not so easy to understand.
  • True illumination and, consequently, clarity occur only when the Holy Spirit enables an individual to embrace the message of salvation with his whole being.
  • The Bible frequently refers to this illumination as a difference between darkness and light: an individual persists in darkness until the Spirit brings him into the light so that he might see.
  • Many interpretations of Scripture exist due to the nature of Scripture and the nature of humanity.
  • Human beings enter into the study of Scripture as fallen creatures with presuppositions and experiences that cultivate and dictate their understandings.
  1. The Sufficiency of Scripture.

The concept that an ancient book might offer sufficiency for life rubs against the grain of our postmodern culture. Our modern culture views the Bible as ancient and outdated, unable to measure up against scientific standards and insufficient for life. These worldviews have the potential to seep into our orthodox stance unwittingly and subtly.

  • Scripture is sufficient for all of life but it is not exhaustive. It does not provide instructions for every activity in life, but it does provide principles for every area and aspect of life.
  • 2 Peter 1:3–4a states, “…His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature…” This passage declares the sufficiency of Scripture for the Christian life.
  • 1 Peter 1:22–25 states, “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because ‘All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’

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