Shouldn’t a Biblical Doctrine Be Explained Using Only Biblical Words or Concepts?
Evangelicals commonly refer to their view of Scripture using the Reformation slogan sola scriptura. While I rally behind this slogan along with my fellow evangelicals, we need to distinguish between sola scriptura and what some people call Biblicism, or perhaps we could call it hyper-Biblicism. Biblicism radicalizes sola scriptura in a way that goes beyond the view that all doctrine must be biblically grounded to the view that all doctrine must be spelled out explicitly in the Bible. There are two issues here that I wish to address in some detail.
Using Words Not Found in the Bible
Biblicism sometimes takes the form of maintaining that we may only express biblical truths using biblical terminology. Of course, this is a common a priori objection to the doctrine of the Trinity. There are several problems with the claim.
First, the restriction against using extrabiblical words is itself not taught in Scripture. The Bible never states that in expressing doctrine or theology we must restrict ourselves to using words found in the Bible. The closest the Bible comes to making such a statement would be Paul’s injunction to Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13 ESV). Here Paul refers Timothy to his “sound words” as a pattern or example of good teaching. Paul did not mean that Timothy was to use only the words that he heard Paul use. If he had, this might have precluded Timothy from using words found in other parts of the Bible that did not happen to be in Paul’s vocabulary!
Second, taken literally the restriction against using extrabiblical words would require us all to speak in Hebrew or Greek. If we may only use biblical words to speak about doctrinal matters, then we must use only words in Hebrew or Greek (or those Aramaic words that happen to be in the Bible). Not only is this patently absurd, but we have clear biblical precedent against any such restriction in the miracle at Pentecost, when the disciples spoke about God’s works to the people in Jerusalem in over a dozen different languages (Acts 2:5-11).
Third, non-Trinitarians typically use extrabiblical terminology to articulate their positions. For example, the terms Bible, biblical, and extrabiblical are all extrabiblical! So is the term Unitarian, although it is built on the word unity, which the Bible does use (though not in the context of the nature of God or in reference to the issue under dispute). Anthony Buzzard, a noted advocate of Biblical Unitarianism, uses the term unipersonal to describe God,1 even though this word is not in the Bible. He also describes Jesus as God’s “agent” or “representative,”2 terms that the Bible never applies to Jesus. Kermit Zarley (aka Servetus the Evangelical) dubs his position “exclusive God-in-Christ Christology” and describes it as a “functional” Christology.3
Fourth, using different words to express and correlate ideas is a necessary part of learning. Hopefully, all of us remember being taught in school to express ideas in our own words. If we merely repeat biblical words, phrases, or statements without expressing their meaning in words that address disputed issues, we will do nothing to show that we have understood what we are repeating. If I say, “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God,” what do you know about my beliefs? You would know precious little, beyond the fact that I believe in some sort of God. I might mean that Jesus is a highly advanced extraterrestrial, or the literal offspring of Heavenly Father and Mary, or a man who manifested the cosmic dimension called the Son of God, or the first angel God created, or a man elevated to semi-divine status after his death and resurrection, or the eternal Second Person of the Trinity.
Fifth, the doctrine of the Trinity can be stated without using extrabiblical terminology. Allowing for using words in English that correspond (generally) to the Hebrew and Greek words found in the Bible, it is quite possible to use biblical words alone to express the doctrine:
- There is one God, Yahweh (the LORD).
- The Father is God.
- The Son, Jesus Christ, is God.
- The Holy Spirit is God.
- The Father is not the Son.
- The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
- The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
No unbiblical terminology there! The doctrine can also be stated using actual sentences and lines from the New Testament:
- When we are “baptized,” we confess “the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
- We believe in “one God the Father…and one Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6).
- The Father is “the only true God” (John 17:3).
- Jesus Christ is “my Lord and my God,” “our great God and Savior,” “the true God and eternal life” (John 20:28; Titus 2:13; 1 John 5:20).
- Jesus Christ is “the Word” who “was in the beginning,” who “was God,” and who “became flesh” (John 1:1, 14). “In him dwells the fullness of the divine nature in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). “Although he existed in God’s form, he did not consider equality with God something to exploit, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and coming to be in the likeness of human beings” (Phil. 2:6-7).
- Jesus Christ is not “God the Father,” but is “the Son of the Father” (2 John 3). “The Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (2 John 4:14). He is our “Advocate [Paraklētos] with the Father” (1 John 2:1).
- The Holy Spirit is “another Advocate [Paraklētos]” like Jesus. He is not the Father but was sent by the Father in Jesus’ name (John 14:16, 26). Nor is he Jesus, but was sent by Jesus from the Father (John 15:26). “Now the Spirit is the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:17); he is “God” (Acts 5:3-4).
This is actually how the early church formulated its creeds. Most of the language of the major creeds (the Apostles, Nicene, and Chalcedonian creeds) came from the New Testament.
Using Concepts or Formulations Not Explicit in the Bible
A somewhat more subtle, if still a priori, objection to the doctrine of the Trinity is that the concept or formulation of the doctrine is not biblical. The argument runs as follows: The non-Trinitarian points out that Trinitarian scholars routinely acknowledge that the Bible does not teach the formal, systematic doctrine of the Trinity; that the concept of the Trinity is nowhere explicit in Scripture; that the biblical writers did not themselves think of God as triune or conceptualize God as triune; and so forth. The non-Trinitarian, aghast that such scholars would continue to adhere to a doctrine they admit they cannot find in the Bible, and commending them for their “candor,” concludes that tradition, creed, or ecclesiastical authority has evidently trumped Scripture for Trinitarians.
This objection also fails, for reasons similar to those mentioned above regarding the objection against using extrabiblical terminology. All non-Trinitarians adhere to some concepts or formulations that are not explicit anywhere in the Bible.
For example, the concept of two “canons” of Scripture, the Old Testament and the New Testament, is not formally, explicitly, or directly presented anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, many scholars argue that the very concept of “canonicity” is something that developed in the postbiblical era. I think that claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the division of Scripture into the Old and New Testaments is not a concept explicit in the Bible.
Specific concepts that non-Trinitarians present in opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity also are typically not explicit in the Bible. For example, no biblical writer sets forth the distinction that some Biblical Unitarians make between “the Holy Spirit” as another name for God the Father and “holy spirit” as the impersonal spiritual power of divine nature that God gives to believers.4 There may or may not be something to this conceptual distinction, but it is at best an inference, not something that any biblical writer sets forth explicitly.
Systematic theology is an intellectual activity or discipline that seeks to answer specific questions that arise from the reading of Scripture. The Bible may not answer these questions explicitly, but it may provide information or statements from which the theologian infers an answer. Did God create the world ex nihilo (out of nothing), ex Deo (from God’s own being), or ex materia (from preexisting matter)? The Bible does not answer this question explicitly, but the question, once asked, is unavoidable. The theologian does his best to answer it in a way most faithful to the teaching that the Bible does present. What is the relationship between the second coming of Christ and the thousand-year period mentioned in Revelation 20? One may adhere to amillennialism, premillennialism, or postmillennialism, but none of these is set forth explicitly in the Bible. Some of these questions are more important than others, but the point is that such questions are extremely common in theology and no serious student of Christian doctrine can or should avoid them altogether.
The Westminster Confession of Faith articulates the principle I am defending here:
“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” (WCF 1.6, emphasis added).
Again, the Bible, not this or any other confession, is the authority, but the above statement nicely expresses the historic evangelical Protestant understanding of the authority of Scripture. It realistically and faithfully recognizes that the authority of Scripture is such that not only what it explicitly states, but also what logically follows from what it states, is true and important for believers to know and accept.
In short, sola scriptura means that all doctrine must derive from the teachings of Scripture, not that we are restricted to using words found in the Bible or to using concepts that one or more biblical writers explicitly formulated.
1. Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound (Lanham, MD: International Scholars Publications, 1998), 15.
2. Ibid., 43-46.
3. Kermit Zarley (Servetus the Evangelical), The Restitution of Jesus Christ (by the author, 2008), xii.