I’m writing a short book about what Christians believe by doing an exposition of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith. This is a beautiful Baptist confession that’s the basis for the GARBC Articles of Faith, and the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message 2000, among others. My audience is the ordinary, interested Christian. I explain the Confession by asking a series of questions of each Article. Here’s the first section …
We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true centre of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 1
1.1. What does it mean that the men who wrote the Scriptures were “divinely inspired?”
The Apostle Paul said all scripture was “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), which means He gives it life, animates it, creates it. It means the Holy Spirit guided the authors to write just what He wanted, down to the level of individual word choice, while still retaining each author’s unique personality, style, and voice. God makes us as we are—shaping us from birth, molding our personalities and gifts. This means when He used, say, the Apostle John or Moses to write scripture, He was using special people He’d been preparing for a long time. The Apostle Peter explained spoken prophecy a similar way when he wrote that the Holy Spirit “led” people to speak for God (2 Peter 1:21).
So, this isn’t dictation, as if God seized the Apostle Peter’s hand and guided him like a robot, the way the rat Remy directed the hapless boy Linguini to cook, in the movie Ratatouille. Instead, it seemed to be an almost unconscious partnership, where God provided thoughts and impressions to people, who wrote what He wanted them to write, which is what He’d planned all along. The Holy Spirit worked on people’s hearts and minds, moving them to remember and understand God’s truth, and to record it as He wanted. This is why Luke tells us the Holy Spirit spoke through David (Acts 1:16), and the Apostle Peter referred to the Book of Deuteronomy and said, “God spoke long ago through his holy prophets,” (Acts 3:21).
1.2. In what way is Scripture a “perfect treasure” for us?
Because it has everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). A long time ago, one Baptist theologian wrote “[t]he Bible is the collection of writings which explains to him the life he has found in Christ.” Like a fantasy epic, it slowly unfolds the true story of reality. It tells us how creation began, who we are, why we’re here, what’s wrong in this world, what’s wrong with us, how we find hope, and how this world will end. In this way, it’s a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction.
It is important to note that scripture does nothing in and of itself—it’s simply a vehicle for God to work. In order for this “perfect treasure of heavenly instruction” to work on us, we need a divine encounter + the message of the scripture + an honest reception and acknowledgment by a believing heart. In other words, the bible isn’t an IKEA instruction manual. You can’t read John 3, do what it says by rote, and “be all good.”
There must be an initial divine encounter. God must confront you for salvation in the person of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. He then confronts you for growth as you grow in the faith and read the scripture, applying the message to your life, enabling your heart to receive and be instructed by that message.
1.3. What does it mean that the Bible has “salvation for its end”?
It means the Bible’s purpose is to tell us about the salvation God offers through Jesus Christ. There are many ways to sum up the Bible’s message. But, the basic “story” is that God is choosing and rescuing a special people to be with Him forever in His future kingdom community. Why is God saving or “rescuing” people? John 3:16 doesn’t exist for its own sake—it’s in aid of something more … something like a kingdom community. Revelation 21-22 shows us this.
Here is one way to picture the Bible’s story of “salvation for community” as an eight-episode mini-series:
1.4. Truth without any mixture of error? Is the Bible without error?
Solomon said God’s words were “tried and true, a shield for those who take refuge in Him,” (Prov 30:5). His promises are pure (Ps 12:6). The first thing to know about God’s word is that it’s true (Ps 119:160). Jesus said His word is truth (Jn 17:17). The Apostle Paul declared that God must be true, even if every person on earth is a liar (Rom 3:4).
Some Christians prefer to say the Scriptures have no errors and are therefore “inerrant.” But, as the passages above suggest, it’s more helpful to say the Scriptures are totally truthful in all they affirm, and are therefore His safe and reliable guide for His adopted children. This is more helpful because you’re framing it in a positive manner. You could say your child is “never bad.” But, it’s better to say “Peter is a nice, sweet boy.” It’s the same way with God’s word—it’s totally truthful and reliable.
The Scriptures came to us from many writers over 1,500 years. Each book came from the unique personality of its writer, each book uses the culture of its own time as the vehicle for revelation, and the writers used very different genres or styles. This means we must take very good care to be sure we’re understanding it correctly, according to those personalities, cultures, and genre.
For example, regarding personality, the Apostle Paul was a very educated man, which is why he wrote the Letter to the Romans and Peter did not. On culture, you’ll find it difficult to understand the prophet Hosea’s thunderous denunciation of the Northern Kingdom unless you know that he wrote it during Jeroboam II’s reign, when that kingdom was at its secular and economic zenith. When it comes to genre, if you understand that, say, Zechariah and Revelation were written in an apocalyptic style that’s intended to paint large, abstract pictures with startling imagery using figures that made sense to their own authors, in their own time … then you won’t spend time “decoding” the color of horses (Zech 1:7-17) or looking for a woman on top of a seven-headed monster (Rev 17:3f).
The problem is when people confuse their interpretation of the Bible with the Bible itself. If you do that, when you find someone who has a different interpretation, you might say, “he doesn’t believe the Bible!” Maybe. Or, maybe not! You must always remember two things; (1) your interpretation is not always the same thing as the Bible, and (2) some questions are really hard, and scriptural evidence may indicate more than one reasonable conclusion.
Finally, remember that the scriptures aren’t an encyclopedia, a geology book, or an astronomy text. They’re a collection of books which tell us how we got here, what went wrong, how God can rescue us, and what His plans are. God could have given us inspired texts about biology, physics, chemistry, and more. But, He didn’t. He gave us revelation that is “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction” which has “salvation for its end.” Evaluate its total truthfulness in that light. “We must let the Bible tell us its own story and not hold it to false standards and tests.”
1.5. What are the principles by which God will judge us all, one day?
There are two great questions every person will face: (1) have you repented and believed the Gospel, and if so, (2) have you served Christ with your life since your conversion?
You can think of the first question as a screening process—those who do not pledge loyalty to Christ don’t get the second question. The first question determines eternal destiny. The second question is about your faithfulness as Christ’s servant during the rest of your earthly life—your life will show what’s in your heart (Mt 12:33-35, 15:16-20, 16:24-25).
Jesus was clear about the first question. He told people to repent and believe His good news (Mk 1:15). His Gospel was about more than individual salvation; it was the promise to bring justice to a new society and liberate the oppressed (Isa 11:1-12; esp. v.4; Ps 72:4), to kill the wicked (Isa 11:4), to reverse the curse of the Fall (Isa 35:5-6; Mt 11:2-6)—all on the condition of loyalty, allegiance, of faith. It was the promise to fix this world and to fix each of us—everyone who comes for rescue. If you don’t believe the Son, God’s angry judgment remains on you (Jn 3:36).
The second great principle is about what a Christians builds atop the foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:10-15). You’re a Christian—now what? What kind of “house” are you building on that foundation; a cheap one or a quality one? Do you use the cheapest materials, like wood, grass or hay? Or, do you use the finest ones—gold, silver, precious stones?
Christians often want to know what these “gold, silver, and precious stones” are! This isn’t the place to make a list, but surely things like (1) reading God’s word, (2) prayer, (3) a life of repentance, (4) a thirst for God to gradually change your heart, mind, and life to reflect Christ’s image, (5) membership in and service to your church community, and (6) sharing the Good News (which can take a whole lot of forms) must be on the list.
The scriptures tell us about all of this, in so many ways. It reveals these two great principles by which Christ will judge us.
1.6. What does it mean that the Bible is the “true center of Christian union?”
Christians can theoretically be on the same page, because we have the same book. The Apostle Paul said, “I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose,” (1 Cor 1:10). How do we overcome rivalries? By bowing down, together, under the authority of God through the scriptures. By evaluating our denominational traditions and habits through the filter of the Word.
In another place, Paul wrote this:
… make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.Ephesians 4:3-6
How can Christians from different traditions not see themselves as enemies, but as family? How to preserve unity? By remembering that we’re each part of one body, because God called us by the same hope. There is one, triune Lord to love, one faith in Christ to confess, one baptism by the Spirit that changes our hearts, and one God the Father of us all. Where do we learn about all this, so we can be brought back to these truths? In the scriptures. This is why the Bible is the true center of Christian union. It’s the reference point for all matters of faith and life.
The question inevitably comes—why, then, are there so many Christian denominations? Well, because we disagree about interpretations of that faith and life. These are inter-family disputes that don’t change the fact that all true Christians are family. It’s a sad thing that some believers forget that.
The next question—who is a true Christian? How do we know who is inside the family, so we know with whom we ought to seek union? If a person has repented, believed the Gospel, and has Christian fruit in her life as a mark of the new birth, then she is a Christian.
1.7. Says who? The Bible as the “supreme standard.”
Teachers are good. Pastors are called by God. Books are a blessing. But, the only infallible source of authority for the Christian life are the scriptures. This is why the bible is the “supreme standard” by which you measure anything else.
 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; 2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Sam. 23:2; Acts 1:16; 3:21; John 10:35; Luke 16:29–31; Psa. 119:111; Rom. 3:1. 2.
 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 1:10–12; Acts 11:14; Rom. 1:16; Mark 16:16; John 5:38, 39.
 Prov. 30:5, 6; John 17:17; Rev. 22:18, 19; Rom. 3:4.
 Rom. 2:12; John 12:47, 48; 1 Cor. 4:3, 4; Luke 10:10–16; 12:47, 48.
 Phil. 3:6; Eph. 4:3–6; Phil. 2:1, 2; 1 Cor. 1:10; 1 Pet. 4:11.
 1 John 4:1; Isa. 8:20; 1 Thess. 5:21; 2 Cor. 13:5; Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:6; Jude 3:5; Eph. 6:17; Psa. 119:59, 60; Phil. 1:9–11.
 See Augustus H. Strong’s discussion of the “dynamic theory” of scriptural inspiration, in Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), pp. 196, 211f.
 Alvah Hovey, Manual of Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (New York: Silver, Burdett and Co., 1900), p. 63.
 Edgar Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression (Philadelphia: Roger Williams Press, 1917), p. 153.
 For more on this, see especially Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), pp. 201-214. For specific principles at the intersection of science and scripture, see Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 17-117, 347-351.
 Donald Bloesch wrote, “The truthfulness of the Bible resides in the divine author of Scripture who speaks in and through the words of human authors, who ipso facto reflect the limitations and ambiguities of their cultural and historical milieu,” (Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), p. 37).
 Mullins, Christian Religion, p. 153. Blosech makes a similar point, “The biblical text is entirely truthful; when it is seen in relation to its divine center, God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ,” (Holy Scripture, p. 37).