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Scripture is a biblical term that refers the written revelation of God—that is, the books of the Old and New Testaments. The word Scripture is an English translation of the Greek word graphē—which simply means “writings.” The New Testament sometimes applies the term to the entire canon, sometimes to the Old Testament canon, sometimes to a particular passage from the Old Testament, and sometimes to the body of writings from a particular inspired author.


The word Scripture is a basic way that the inspired authors of the New Testament speak about the written revelation of God in both testaments. In the New Testament, this word refers to the sacred writings that were breathed out by God through the prophets and Apostles and that He has entrusted to His church. The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the content of Holy Scripture when it states, “Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testament.” The confession then proceeds to list the sixty-six books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Since the Reformation, Protestants have accepted these books—and only these books—as inspired revelation from God. Other ancient writings from the same period during which Scripture was written, such as the books of the Apocrypha, may have historical value, but they cannot be used to establish doctrine or settle theological matters.

The majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (the language of the old covenant people of God). A small portion of it was written in Aramaic (the common language of the Jews when in exile in Babylon and in Israel during the time of Christ). The New Testament was written in Greek (the common language of the Roman Empire during the Apostolic age).

In the patriarchal era, God began revealing Himself and His will through dreams, visions, and prophecy. He raised up prophets through whom He mediated His revelation (e.g., Enoch, Noah, and Abraham). These prophets were distinct from those who belonged to the prophetic order in Israel that began with Moses. However, all that God revealed to them was passed down by way of oral tradition. Theologians refer to this single revealed revelation as the prisca theologia (primitive theology). Dr. R.C. Sproul explained this principle when he wrote: “The original program and prescription for the worship of the living God was sacrifice. Adam told it to Cain, Abel, and Seth. Seth told it to Enoch, and he told it to his sons and they to their sons and so on. It was taught to Abraham. It was taught to Isaac. It was taught to Jacob. It was taught to Joseph. It was taught to Moses. It was also taught to Ishmael and to Esau, and so the idea of the requirement of sacrifice in faith pervaded the whole human race.”

The first form of written revelation explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament was the divine writing of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 17:14). God then instructed Moses to write down the laws that He revealed in the Mosaic covenant at Sinai (Ex. 34:27). Jesus and the Apostles specify that Moses wrote the majority of the Pentateuch (Matt. 8:4; 19:7–9; Luke 20:37; Rom. 9:15; 10:5, 19; 1 Cor. 9:9).

Though God instructed Moses to codify His revelation, the book of Job might be oldest extant inspired text of Scripture; it was possibly written in whole or in part during the time of Abraham and the other patriarchs of Israel. The tribal nomenclatures connected to Job’s friends (Temanites, Shuites, and Naamathites) reveal that they descended from those who were alive near the time of Abraham (Gen. 25:2; 36:15).

The progress of written revelation in the Old Testament is structured by God’s covenantal arrangements with key figures (Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David). Additionally, it is comprised of historical, wisdom, and prophetic literature. In ancient Judaism, the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament were often organized into the threefold division of the Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). This Hebrew canon is identical to the Protestant canon in terms of the books included, but it has twenty-four books because the Jews commonly counted each of the following groups of books as one book each: 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles, Ezra–Nehemiah, and the twelve Minor Prophets. This threefold division was widely accepted by the Jews of Jesus’ day.

In the Gospels, Jesus refers to the Old Testament canon as “the Scriptures” (Matt. 21:42; 22:29; 26:54, 56; John 5:39; 10:35). He spoke of Isaiah 61:1–2 as “Scripture” when preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:21). Additionally, He spoke of Isaiah 53:12 as “Scripture” in Luke 22:37. Luke refers to the Old Testament canon as “Scripture” when noting that Jesus—in His postresurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus—“interpreted . . . in all the Scriptures the things about Himself” (Luke 24:27, 32). Jesus appealed to the threefold division when He taught His disciples everything about Himself “in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). Luke referred to this corpus as “Scripture” (Luke 24:45). Significantly, in all His disputes with the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and priests, there is no debate over which books were inspired Scripture.

The Apostles use the word Scripture when speaking of the inspired canon of the Old Testament. The most familiar passage in which God’s inspired written revelation is referred to as Scripture is 2 Timothy 3:16, where the Apostle Paul wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Paul speaks of Deuteronomy 25:4 as Scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18.

The Apostles also referred to each other’s writings as Scripture. The Apostle Peter acknowledged that Paul was writing Scripture under inspiration of the Spirit, when he put his letters in the same category as “the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16), a clear reference to the Old Testament canonical writings. The twenty-seven books of the new covenant Scriptures—classified as the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation—are Scripture given by the inspiration of God in the same sense as the Old Testament Scripture.

The sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament Scriptures are connected by the single, unified message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the salvation of sinners. Every part of Scripture—whether poetry or historical narrative, wisdom maxims or prophetic utterances, law or gospel—are given by God to lead His people to see their need for the Logos, the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.

When approaching the subject of the usefulness of Scripture, Protestant and Reformed theologians have emphasized the significance of the attributes of Scripture—namely, its authority, necessity, sufficiency, and perspicuity. These attributes are drawn from the self-authenticating Scriptures themselves, since they are the only inerrant and infallible rule of faith and practice for believers. In this way, Scripture was foundational to the Protestant Reformation in contradistinction to its place in Roman Catholicism. Rome added the Apocryphal writings to the Old Testament, thereby including uninspired writings in the canon of Scripture. Additionally, Rome undermined the authority, sufficiency, and perspicuity of Scripture by making tradition and the Magisterium divine authorities equivalent to or even, in practice, superior to the Old and New Testaments. Rome’s rationale for the inclusion of the Apocrypha rests on the fact that numerous early church fathers used the word Scripture when referring to those books. However, as William Henry Green has noted, “The fathers, in giving such titles to these books, may have meant no more than to designate them as belonging to the category of sacred in contrast with profane literature, or books upon secular subjects. . . . It was to be expected that they would, in consequence, be regarded with a respect and veneration which was not felt for other human productions.” In other words, the earliest Christians respected the Apocrypha much as we would respect modern devotional writings and writings from well-regarded theologians, but they did not treat them as divinely inspired or fit for having the final word in making doctrinal assessments.

Green’s assessment harmonizes with what the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England says about the Apocryphal books: “The other Books . . . the Church does read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet does not apply them to establish any doctrine.” Stronger still is the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith regarding the noninspiration of the Apocrypha. It states, “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture; and, therefore, are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (WCF 1.3).


The Reformation plank of sola Scriptura—‘Scripture alone’—is actually constructed of the four key words describing Scripture. Because it is authoritative, necessary, clear, and sufficient, Scripture is our ultimate standard in matters of faith and practice. Consequently, Scripture must be preached, read, studied, and published abroad. The Reformation was built on the sure foundation of God’s Word.

Stephen J. Nichols

The Doctrine of Scripture

Tabletalk magazine

Who is it who decides what part of the Bible really belongs to the canon? Once we remove ourselves from a view of tota Scriptura, we are free then to pick and choose what portions of Scripture are normative for Christian faith and life, just like picking cherries from a tree. To do this we would have to revisit the teaching of Jesus, wherein He said that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. We would have to change it, to have our Lord say that we do not live by bread alone but by only some of the words that come to us from God. In this case, the Bible is reduced to the status where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. This is an issue that the church has to face in every generation, and it has reappeared today in some of the most surprising places. We’re finding, in seminaries that call themselves Reformed, professors advocating this type of canon within the canon. The church must say an emphatic ‘no’ to these departures from orthodox Christianity, and she must reaffirm her faith not only in sola Scriptura, but in tota Scriptura as well.

R.C. Sproul

Tota Scriptura

Tabletalk magazine