God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture
by Matthew Barrett
$24.99 | 400 pp.
This volume is part of Zondervan’s recent Five Solas Series, with the other offerings being: Christ Alone (Stephen Wellum), Faith Alone (Thomas Schreiner), God’s Glory Alone (David VanDrunen), and Grace Alone (Carl Trueman). On the eve of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, this series aims to help “understand the historical and biblical context of the five solas and how to live out the relevance of Reformation theology today.”
Barrett, a Tutor of systematic theology and church history at Oak Hill Theological College in London, is the author of this volume, and also the editor for the series as a whole. Here, he addresses the Protestant notion of sola Scriptura, a Latin phrase that literally means, “Scripture alone.” As it states on the back of the book, this sola carries with it the idea that the Bible is “the final decisive authority for God’s people.”
One of the first things the reader notices in opening up this book is the plentitude of endorsements. No less than four pages of commendations are included, by those such as Vanhoozer, Carson, Frame, and Horton. After these comes a foreword by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where Barrett did his doctoral work). In it, Mohler stresses the importance of this particular sola, writing: “Scripture alone is the ultimate authority for life and doctrine. In a sense, Reformed theology hangs on the accuracy of that singular proposition.” (15) After all this buildup, one comes to the actual content of the book, which breaks down into three parts.
Part 1 is titled, “God’s Word under Fire, Yesterday and Today.” In this section, Barrett presents an historical treatment of biblical authority. He begins, in chapter 1, by focusing on the sixteenth century, and the events that precipitated the Reformation. Luther, Zwingli, Tyndale, and Calvin are all featured here, along with a discussion of the distinction between sola and nuda Scriptura, and a brief account of the Council of Trent. Next, in chapter 2, Barrett highlights modern shifts engendered by the Enlightenment and Liberalism. Here, the influence of figures such as Kant, Descartes, Spinoza, Lessing, Schleiermacher, Wellhausen, and Barth is discussed. Finally, in chapter 3, he addresses present day tensions between Evangelical and Postmodern views of biblical authority. In this chapter, watershed events such as Fuller Seminary’s “Black Saturday,” and the penning of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) are front and center.
In Part 2, “God’s Word in Redemptive History,” Barrett moves from an historical to a redemptive-historical handling of biblical authority. He starts, in chapter 4, by addressing “God’s Word in the Economy of the Gospel.” This chapter functions as a prolegomena to the two chapters the follow. In particular, it unpacks the concepts of general and special revelation, argues for the insufficiency of the former, and highlights the redemptive, covenantal, and trinitarian aspects of special revelation. Chapters 5 and 6, then, present a concise biblical theology of the ‘word of God’, encompassing the many uses of this term (e.g., oral word, written word, divine presence, the gospel message, and so on). In doing so, the aim is to “situate” the “doctrine of Scripture in the economy of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the character of God himself.” (164)
Part 3, “The Character of God’s Word and Contemporary Challenges,” moves beyond history and redemptive history to address, from a systematic theological standpoint, the nature of Scripture. This is done by dealing with four topics: inspiration, inerrancy, clarity, and sufficiency. Chapter 7, which concerns inspiration, commences by asserting—via reference to Calvin and 2 Tim. 3:16—the notion that, “the authority of Scripture is grounded in its inspiration.” (223) After rehearsing different theories of inspiration, he commends the ‘verbal, plenary’ theory of inspiration, and then seeks to defend that view through exegesis of key OT and NT texts. Chapter 8 deals with the topic of inerrancy. As far as the connection between inerrancy and inspiration, Barrett writes, “There is no such thing as inspiration which does not carry with it the correlate of infallibility.” (264) His logic is that if God breathed out Scripture, and God cannot lie, then Scripture must be inerrant. Thus, to say that Scripture errs in any way is to denigrate the character of God. Furthermore, if Scripture is not inerrant, sola Scriptura is lost.
In Chapter 9, Barrett moves on to the notion of Scripture’s clarity. Just as he earlier argued that the Bible’s truthfulness is grounded in God’s character, he now asserts that the same linkage may be made in regards to the Bible’s clarity: Scripture is clear, because, “God is an effective communicator.” (303) Barrett borrows from speech-act theory to assert that God’s Word in Scripture is not just inert revelation, but that it acts. As such, biblical clarity is tied to a conviction that when God speaks, his speech actually accomplishes what he intends it to. Toward the end of the chapter, Barrett addresses some common misconceptions concerning the Bible’s clarity (e.g., the doctrine of biblical clarity does not mean there are no passages in the Bible that are difficult to understand, and it does not mean that the Bible can be rightly understood apart from the illumination of the Spirit).
Finally, in chapter 10, the author turns to the matter of the Bible’s sufficiency. Here, then, is where Barrett draws the threads of inspiration (and authority as a consequence), inerrancy, and clarity together, and in so doing gets at the essence of sola Scriptura: “It is only because Scripture is authoritative, God-breathed, trustworthy, and clear that we can also say it is sufficient for the Christian life.” (332) Thus, at this point, all the main facets of Barrett’s definition of sola Scriptura have been identified. That definition is: “only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.” (333) Barrett concludes by identifying three pressing contemporary challenges to sufficiency: traditionalism, science and reason, and experience and culture.
Having provided the above summary of the book, a few brief comments are in order. First, I must say that the scope of this work is far reaching, the presentation is clear and compelling, and its navigation of the material is, for the most part, sure-footed. As such, it provides a salutary introduction to a variety of topics related to the doctrine of Scripture as a whole (not just its authority). Further, the organization of the book into sections dealing with historical theology, biblical theology, and then systematic theology supplies the reader with a glimpse into Scripture’s authority considered from three distinct though interrelated perspectives. However, while the book as a whole is remarkably comprehensive, there are nonetheless a few areas where I wish a bit more detail was provided.
One thing I wish Barrett had fleshed out a bit more is his treatment of Scripture as the ‘Word of God’. To be sure, Barrett recognizes that the term ‘word of God’ is not univocal. (163-64) Still, on the whole, when correlating Scripture with God’s speech/word, Barrett does not (unless I missed it) go much beyond simple identification. Without a bit of qualification here, undesirable implications can result. Indeed, given Barrett’s statements in chapter 7 like, “Jesus used ‘Scripture’ and ‘God’ interchangeably,” I would say that additional qualification is an imperative: God most certainly is not Scripture, full-stop! While Barrett criticizes Barth’s attempt to nuance the distinction/relationship between the Bible and God’s Word (with his threefold Word of God), he does not go on to really address the substance of the matter that Barth was trying to address, namely how it is that a creaturely product (texts written in human languages) can be confessed to be God’s self-communication (e.g., his speech), without folding contingent creation back into God’s necessary self-existence.
As far back as Augustine, theologians have wrested with this issue. To deal with it, the Protestant scholastics set forth four categories: the eternal Word, the incarnate Word, the external Word (an expression of the divine mind, either orally or in writing), and the internal Word (illumination of the external Word). Metaphorical, sacramental, and instrumental categories have also been used to explain the distinction/relation between the Bible and God’s word/speech. However, the closest that Barrett gets to dealing with this issue is referring to God’s binding of himself to the text as a covenantal document (his brief appeal to speech-act theory might be brought up here as well). While this is fine as far as it goes, I believe that Barrett ought to have pressed into the issue a bit more.
Another place where I would have liked to see a bit of qualification is in statements like, “Luther and the Reformers believed that for the early church fathers, Scripture alone (as opposed to Scripture and Tradition) was inspired by God,” and thus supremely authoritative. (45) This is not wholly inaccurate, but it makes the matter sound a bit more clear-cut than it likely is. For example, as Richard Muller points out (a scholar that Barrett elsewhere relies upon), inspiration “was not an issue elaborated at great length either by the Reformers or by the Protestant orthodox.” Luther’s view of inspiration, in particular, is subject to intense scholarly debate, and admits of no consensus. Further, in documents that seek to concretize Reformed teaching (such as the Leiden Synopsis, penned in the wake of the Synod of Dort), inspiration is understood to be a type of revelatory divine action including, but not restricted to, the production of the canonical writings. As such, according to this influential Protestant compendium of doctrine, there are non-canonical writings that can be said to be ‘inspired’ (such as lost letters of Paul). While these authors uphold—in keeping with the Reformed stream—the notion of sola Scriptura in its strictest sense, their position is much more ramified and nuanced than a statement like Barrett’s above might lead one to believe.
With the above grumblings aside, I would nonetheless recommend this book for the sake of its many strengths. It truly is a searching exploration of an essential topic, especially as we approach the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. And, if there was ever a time to revisit and even retrieve the core convictions of the Reformers, it is now.
 Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 230.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.