What The Bible Actually Is: Its 5 Attributes (+ A Helpful Acronym)

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D.

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., writes about theology, mental health, marketing, and fitness. Paul has been writing on PaulMaxwell.co for over a decade.

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It’s important for us to understand the attributes of Scripture so that we know how to receive it. How does it speak to us? What can we expect from it?

Should we expect the Bible to give us definitive solutions to psychiatric issues? Should we expect the Bible to give us definitive solutions to issues regarding the gospel? How do we draw the line and why?

Here, we’re going to look at 5 attributes of Scripture:

  • Infallibility

  • Sufficiency

  • Necessity

  • Authority

  • Perspicuity (Clarity)

It’s an acronym—ISNAP. It could mean anything. If you’re a cat person, it could mean “Is Nap.” If you’re a caffeinated person, it could be “I snap!” If you’re a normal person, it’s just I-SNAP. We’ll look at exactly what these five attributes are, how we get them from Scripture, and why they matter for how we know and love God.

Infallibility

This is the foundation of the other attributes. Because the Bible is inspired, it does not fail to be sufficient, necessary, authoritative, or clear. This attribute of Scripture actually begins with an attribute of God. You’ve all heard of various attributes of God.

Omnipotence. Omnibenevolence. Omniscience. Well there is another—omnicompetence. What God does, he is infinitely good at doing. One of the primary things God does toward us is speak. And when he speaks, whatever he intends to do with that speech, he does it with infinite excellence. God says in Isaiah: “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)

Since God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), that means whenever he speaks, he is so good at not lying and he is so good at speaking, that his word is without error. Theologians call this “inerrancy.”

When God intends to speak through someone, he does it without error. This means that, while people make errors in speech and theology, whatever books he stamps with his seal of canonical authority, he stamps the entire text. God chose to speak to us in closed texts—in scrolls. This, too, was part of his perfect intent. There is nothing rushed, overlooked, or divinely unintended in Scripture. Every detail is there by divine plan. There is no “Whoops!” in Scripture.

This doesn’t mean there are no imperfections in the document—some biblical authors misspell words and use poor syntax. But this does mean that whatever imperfections exist, God intended in order to perfectly communicate his intended truth. Theologians call this “inspiration.” And, because God is omnicompetent, he is infinitely good at speaking through human text so that it is inspired speech. Therefore, when we trust Scripture, we are not trusting Isaiah, but God’s competent use of Isaiah to speak to us.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

During the Reformation, this doctrine was referred to as “The Perfection of Scripture.” It doesn’t mean that we don’t need any sources from outside the Bible to understand the world. It doesn’t even mean that we don’t need outside knowledge to understand the gospel.

It means that the canon is closed. We do not need more revelation than God has given us in order to know the gospel. Jude writes: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)

Scripture has been once for all delivered to us, and even Jude and Paul and all the biblical authors consciously knew that their writing was part of the final phase of that deliverance. The sufficiency of Scripture means that we don’t need 67 books in the Bible, and we don’t need new revelation today to teach us more about the Jesus. Christians don’t need secret knowledge, special insights, or mystical experiences in order to know for certain that God exists, Jesus is his Son who died and was raised for our salvation, and that the Holy Spirit is our seal and assurance of our final inheritance with him.

The Necessity of Scripture

The necessity of Scripture cuts a few different ways. The Bible is necessary for us for several reasons. In order to understand exactly how, it will be helpful for us to read Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 2:9-13. He says:

“Just as it is written,

‘Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him.’

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.” (1 Cor. 2:9-13)

Paul makes several important points here:

  • Eye has not seen and ear has not heard. You can’t discover the gospel through science or mystical experience. The only object in the world that communicates the truth of the gospel is Scripture.

  • Have no entered the heart of man. You can’t reason your way to the gospel. God has to tell you about it. You can’t rationalize your way to faith in Christ. Reason can play a role, but there is no such thing as a sufficient knowledge of Christ without access to God’s special revelation. No corner of the earth contains this truth except Scripture and the writings of those who accurately exposit its truth about Christ.

Paul makes the case even further: The Gospel is a reality that God has achieved in Christ. The truth about God is an idea that God must give to us. Paul argues that we couldn’t know God any more than we could read each other’s minds. But fortunately for us, God has disclosed his thoughts to us in Scripture through the Spirit’s inspiration of the text and illumination of our hearts. The necessity of Scripture is another way of articulating the necessity of making contact with God’s Spirit in order to know him.

The Authority of Scripture

When Scripture makes claims, it makes absolute claims. This doesn’t mean we can’t wrestle with the claims of Scripture or question how it could be true. Often, this wrestling leads to a deeper understanding of the text.

God said to Joshua: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.” (Joshua 1:8)

We see this tradition of reverence for the authority of God’s word carried out in the Gospels. Luke writes: “As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28)

This woman was trying to make personal experience the ground of revelation rather than the word of God. Jesus practices reverence for the authority of God in Scripture by telling the woman: If you want to know me, read Scripture, and don’t think for a second that touching me, experiencing me, or hanging out with me will give you one ounce more faith than you already have.

The Apostle Paul summarizes all of it this way: “16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16) Paul applies an interesting adjective to God’s speech here. He calls it “profitable.”

What is a profit? It is a revenue minus the cost of production. There is a genuine cost to understanding Scripture. It’s hard. It’s complicated. It takes study. It takes long, deep sessions of reflection. But it is always profitable if your aim in these things is teaching the church, correcting someone in error, becoming a more righteous Christian, and fulfilling God’s plan to make you more like him.

The authority of Scripture is profitable because is gives us absolute truths. The Bible isn’t true the same way The 5 Habits of Highly Effective People is true. It’s true because God says it.

The Perspicuity of Scripture

The doctrine of the perspicuity—or clarity—of Scripture means that what God has said, he has said it clearly enough that a reasonable person can understand it. That doesn’t mean that portions of Scripture are not infinitely deep and complex. There are dimensions of looking at the perspicuity of Scripture.

Dimension 1: The necessary things are plain.

The Apostle Peter himself finds the Apostle Paul’s biblical writings difficult to understand: “Consider also that our Lord’s patience brings salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him. He writes this way in all his letters, speaking in them about such matters. Some parts of his letters are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

The problem with those who twist Paul’s letters is that they make the simple and straightforward parts seem complicated, and the complicated parts seem simple. The rubric for understanding how perspicuity functions here must be coordinated with the sufficiency of Scripture. Whatever is necessary to salvation is sufficiently expressed.

As we noted earlier: God is omnicompetent, and therefore his speech is perspicuous. The 4th Century church father John Chrysostom puts it this way: “All things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain.”

Dimension 2: There are no wasted words in Scripture. 

There is another side of perspicuity: Nothing in Scripture is utterly indiscernible. While the Bible does reveal mysteries to us, there is nothing in the Bible which humans couldn’t possibly understand. There is no text that requires the visitation of an angel in order to make sense of it.

Dimension 3: Clarity is accomplished after the canon is closed.

Jesus making Scripture more perspicuous through his own revelation: “He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” … Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:25-26, 45).

Doesn’t this disprove the last point? Doesn’t it mean that Scripture isn’t clear if Jesus had to open their eyes to it? No. Since revelation is no longer progressing, we can trust that what was once necessarily mysterious is now fulfilled. When Christ returns, we will understand more, but that will be an apocalyptic event that inaugurates a new age. The Bible is intended to be used by the church in this age, and for that purpose, everything is as clear as it needs to be.

Conclusion

It will be helpful to have this acronym in our back pocket as we deepen our investigation of systematic theology. Remember the attributes of Scripture with: ISNAP.

  • Infallibility

  • Sufficiency

  • Necessity

  • Authority

  • Perspicuity

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