Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (3) Necessity – For what purposes is the Bible necessary? How much can people know about God without the Bible?

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In Wayne Grudem’s 6th chapter of Systematic Theology, he covers the third of four characteristics of Scripture: necessity. Grudem defines the necessity of Scripture as “the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining, spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’ character and moral laws.”

Scripture is required for knowledge in some areas, but is not required for knowledge in other areas. For instance, the Bible is required to teach certain things like the Gospel or way of salvation. In addition, it’s required for proper spiritual growth as well as certain knowledge of God’s will. However, it is not necessary to know that God exists, his character, or the existence of moral laws. God has revealed those things and others through general revelation.  

The Bible Is Required for Some Knowledge

According to Scripture, the Bible is required for some kinds of knowledge. For instance, the Bible is required to have knowledge of the Gospel. The Scripture declares in Romans 10:13-14b:

“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”

The Apostle Paul’s logic is clear: people are saved by calling on the Lord. But before they call on the Lord, they must first believe. Those who believed in Paul’s day believed the gospel – a unique message with saving power. The same principle applies today. People must hear the good news (aka the gospel) which is most clearly articulated in Scripture. No rock, penguin, or other book can take the place of Scripture. An evangelist may carry the message to someone so that person can be saved, but ultimately the preacher depends on the Bible that reveals a saving Jesus (Acts 4:12). 

In addition to the saving knowledge found explicitly in Scripture, the Bible is also required to maintain a healthy spiritual life. Replying to the devil in his wilderness temptation, Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4) To both Jesus and Moses before him (Deuteronomy 8:3), the Bible was to be a source of daily nourishment to believers. Food and water may be necessary to maintain physical life, but the Word of God is required for God’s people to be properly fed spiritually.

Finally, another area requires the Bible: certain knowledge of God’s will. The key verse in this vein is Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” There are simply some things the Bible teaches that are unavailable through other means.

One epistemological corollary to this idea is that the Bible is necessary for certain knowledge about anything. The fact is people do not know everything there is to know – we are not omniscient. Because of that, there could be undisclosed information in the universe that might negate everything we claim to know. For instance, we may think we know our own birthday. But it is possible that our parents lied about our birthday, forged the birth certificate, and otherwise propagated a ruse to deceive us about our birthday. The same could be true for every bit of claimed knowledge because of the vast amounts of unknowns in the universe. 

But we can escape from philosophical skepticism when we know someone who knows all the facts in the universe, namely God. God knows all things, never lies, and tells us true things through revelation, the Bible. So the Bible is necessary as a foundation for any knowledge because of the nature of his character and knowledge. Apart from Scripture, we cannot be certain about anything because of the creaturely limitations of our knowledge.         

The Bible is Not Required for Other Knowledge

At the same time, the Bible is not required to other types of knowledge. For instance, the Bible is clear that God’s existence is evident without the Bible. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1-2)

In another passage, God’s existence is evidenced through the blessings of rain, food, and gladness (Acts 14:16-17). To underscore everyone’s knowledge about God apart from Scripture, the Apostle Paul says wicked men are “without excuse” when they deny God (Romans 1:20). People don’t need a Bible to tell them God exists.

Moreover, God’s character and moral laws are plain to everyone even without a Bible. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul explains how everyone knows God’s character (Romans 1:20), certain sins (Romans 1:29-31), and the punishment attached to those who practice those sins (Romans 1:32). In other words, people have a conscience.

Theologians have termed this type of knowledge as ‘general revelation’. General revelation is the knowledge that God has given to people apart from Scripture, usually through observing nature, the inner sense of God’s existence, and an understanding about God’s moral requirements. General revelation is often contrasted with ‘special revelation’ which refers to Scripture or other ways God spoke to people (prophets, audible voice of God, etc.). 

Conclusion: The Blessing of Special & General Revelation

Special revelation through Scripture is a great blessing to people. Through the Bible, we can understand how to be saved through the gospel, grow spiritually, and have a more specific understanding of God’s will. The Lord was kind to give us this special revelation about himself, his ways, and his will for people. 

In the similar way, general revelation is a blessing to all people. Christians can find much in common with non-believers in the public sphere on proper conduct, business ethics, and acceptable pattern of behavior because of general revelation. All people know right and wrong to a greater or lesser extent because God gave that knowledge to people. The Bible is a great blessing to people, but general revelation is also a blessing through the knowledge it imparts.       

““The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Special Terms

  • general revelation
  • natural revelation
  • necessity of Scripture
  • special revelation

Resources: Wayne Grudem

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