It can be a little awkward when asked to review a book written by a friend, especially if that friend also happens to be your boss. You wonder if you will have to perjure yourself for the sake of preserving the relationship!
Fortunately, in the case of Mark Thompson’s recently released book, The Doctrine of Scripture: An Introduction, any anxiety has proven to be entirely needless. This book, which is the latest contribution to Crossway’s Short Studies in Systematic Theology, is, in my opinion, the finest succinct study of this most wonderful gift of divine revelation that I have come across.
With his trademark clarity, Thompson has delivered a rich, well-documented study of this doctrine that is remarkably comprehensive for all its relative brevity.
I expect it will be a stimulating, informative, and spiritually enriching resource for the full gamut of God’s people: specialist, student, pastor, and layperson alike. What I most appreciate about this book is how it explores the theological reality of Scripture by recognising its distinctive place within all of God’s acts. Textbook discussions of the doctrine of Scripture have typically been arranged around a set of ‘properties’: its authority, truthfulness, inspiration, clarity, sufficiency, and so on.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it can sometimes feel like you are in a lab describing an inert lump of something staring back at you in a test tube.
In Thompson’s book, all these important matters are skilfully addressed, but the entire discussion is structured and animated by a conviction that flows out of our faith itself: that Scripture is the instrument
God has chosen to awaken us from our sinful rebellion and draw us into a personal relationship with himself. There is deliberately no chapter on the authority of Scripture, for instance, as if it can merely sit as one isolated attribute among many. Rather, the whole book aims to come to terms with the fact that Scripture is no less than the mighty ‘arm’ of the sovereign Lord himself, or in the expression Hebrews gives us, ‘the living and active word of God’ (Heb. 4:12).
If this central conviction is one that Thompson deftly illustrates with the able assistance of great theologians from the past like John Calvin and Martin Luther, or more recent voices like John Webster and Kevin Vanhoozer, he is much more eager to take us straight to the testimony of the one who is at the heart of our faith itself, Jesus Christ.
And that’s where the book begins (chapter 1). In beginning with Jesus’s own testimony about Scripture—a testimony which of course is contained within Scripture itself—Thompson is not saying these words are somehow more authoritative than any other statement within the Bible. The ‘verbal’ and ‘plenary’ inspiration of Scripture, where every word is equally affirmed to be the Word of God, is a key claim Thompson wishes to uphold. Instead, the point is simply this: if Jesus is uniquely the eternal Word of God made flesh—the one who fashioned the world out of nothing, the one who exclusively reveals his Father in his own very person, and the one, then, who exclusively gives us access to his Father—surely anything he has to say about his own relationship to the words of Scripture is going to be particularly instructive.
Thompson shows how at every turn Jesus has chosen to define his identity and mission, as well as to communicate his authority, by means of Scripture, which he unmistakeably declares to be the very ‘Word of God’.
It’s a point that’s eloquently underlined by his own willingness to submit to its authority in his incarnate life, so the authority of Jesus and the authority of Scripture can never be prised apart. Indeed, every attribute we associate with Scripture—its clarity, truthfulness, sufficiency, and efficacy—is readily attested to by Jesus himself.
After beginning here, the bulk of the book then unfolds these attributes of Scripture in much more detail. Chapter 2 shows how the phenomenon of a God who speaks to his creatures through intelligible words is something that is ultimately grounded in his own triune life. It is no exaggeration to say that the intelligibility of God in Scripture, communicated by his inspired human mouthpieces, is a gracious overflow of what is eternally summed up in the Son’s own relationship to his Father as his eternal ‘Word’.
Chapter 3 gives attention to the phenomenon of the ‘book’ we call Scripture itself. Its central question is this: how did a Word, originally delivered through the ministry of prophets and Apostles, eventually come to be written down, settled or ‘closed’ as a Canon, and preserved for all posterity?
Chapters 4 and 5 then tackle the character of Scripture in two parts. First, there is a discussion of the clarity and truthfulness of Scripture (Chapter 4). It is a profound, immensely useful, yet straightforward explanation of what is and isn’t being claimed by these concepts, offering a cogent defence of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture against many of the usual objections that are raised.
In chapter 5, there is a brilliant treatment of the sufficiency and efficiency of Scripture, bringing the book back full circle to the central place God has given Scripture in communicating his saving mercies to his people and in administering his authority over all things.
Last, but not least, chapter 6 concludes the book appropriately with an exhortation to honour the significance of Scripture for our Christian discipleship. The nature of Scripture demands a certain posture in its readers, marked above all by a reverent, prayerful, and ultimately joyful submission to its teaching, as in it we recognise the voice of our great Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Faithful though it is, this book is so far from being a dull and predictable repetition of the church’s teaching on Scripture. It is in every respect a fresh, incisive, and spiritually uplifting read which I pray will instil among its readers ever-greater confidence in the divine power of Scripture to raise the dead and bestow upon them the priceless gift of immortality in Christ.