The Nature of Scripture Inspiration
The answer that we are to give to the question, ‘What is Christianity?’ depends quite largely on the view we take of Scripture. If we believe that the Bible is the very word of God and infallible, we will develop one conception of Christianity. If we believe that it is only a collection of human writings, perhaps considerably above the average in its spiritual and moral teachings but nevertheless containing many errors, we will develop a radically different conception of Christianity, if, indeed, what we then have can legitimately be called Christianity. Hence we can hardly over-estimate the importance of a correct doctrine concerning the inspiration of the Scriptures.
In all matters of controversy between Christians the Scriptures are accepted as the highest court of appeal. Historically they have been the common authority of Christendom. We believe that they contain one harmonious and sufficiently complete system of doctrine; that all of their parts are consistent with each other; and that it is our duty to trace out this consistency by a careful investigation of the meaning of particular passages. We have committed ourselves to this Book without reserve, and have based our creeds upon it. We have not made our appeal to an infallible Church, nor to a scholastic hierarchy, but to a trustworthy Bible, and have maintained that it is the word of God, that by His providential care it has been kept pure in all ages, and that it is the only inspired, infallible rule of faith and practice.
That the question of inspiration is of vital importance for the Christian Church is easily seen. If she has a definite and authoritative body of Scripture to which she can go, it is a comparatively easy task to formulate her doctrines. All she has to do is to search out the teachings of Scripture and embody them in her creed. But if the Scriptures are not authoritative, if they are to be corrected and edited and some parts are to be openly rejected, the Church has a much more difficult task, and there can be no end of conflicting opinions concerning either the purpose of the Church or the system of doctrine which she is to set forth. It is small wonder that determined controversy rages around this question today when Christianity is in a life and death struggle with unbelief.
It should be noted that the Church has not held all of her other doctrines with such tenacity, nor taught them with such clearness, as she has this doctrine of inspiration. For instance, there has been considerable difference of opinion between denominations as to what the Bible teaches concerning baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, inability of the sinner to do good works, election, atonement. grace, perseverance, etc.; but in the Scriptures we find this doctrine taught with such consistency and clearness that all branches of the Church, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, have agreed with instinctive judgment that the Bible is trustworthy and that its pronouncements are final.
But while this has been the historic doctrine of Christendom, and while today it remains embedded in the official creeds of the churches, it is apparent on every side that unbelief has made serious inroads. Perhaps no event in recent Church History has been more amazing than the swing away from faith in the authority of the Scriptures. Even Protestants, who at the time of the Reformation took as their basic principle an authoritative Bible rather than an authoritative Church, have shown a great tendency to neglect the Bible. While numerous books and articles have been written on this subject in recent times, it must be admitted that most of these have been designed to explain away or to tone down the doctrines which the Church has held from the beginning.
The indifference which the Church has manifested toward sound Scripture doctrine in recent days is probably the chief cause of the uncertainty and of the internal dissension with which she is faced. Ignorance concerning the nature of the doctrine of inspiration, or want of clear views concerning it, can only result in confusion. Millions of Christians today are like men whose feet are on quicksand and whose heads are in a fog. They do not know what they believe concerning the inspiration and authority of the Bible.
Much of this uncertainty has arisen because of the searching critical investigation which has been carried on during the past century, and we often hear the claim made that the historic Church doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures must be given up. Hence the burning question today is, Can we still trust the Bible as a doctrinal guide, as an authoritative teacher of truth, or must we find a new basis for doctrine, and, consequently, develop a whole new system of theology?
The marvelous unity of the Bible can be explained on no other ground than that of divine authorship. It is confessedly one book, yet it is made up of sixty-six different books, composed by not less than forty writers, spread over a period of not less than sixteen hundred years. The writers moved in widely separated spheres of life. Some were kings and scholars with the best education that their day afforded; others were herdsmen and fishermen with no formal education. It is impossible that there should have been collusion between the writers. Yet there is but one type of doctrine and morality unfolded. The Messianic spirit and outlook pervades the Old Testament, beginning early in Genesis where we are told that the seed of the woman is to bruise the head of the serpent, and continuing through the ritual of the sacrificial system, the Psalms, the major and minor prophets until Malachi closes the Old Testament canon with the promise that ‘the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to his temple.’ And ‘Christ crucified’ is the theme of the New Testament. The marvelous system of truth that is begun by Moses in the book of Genesis is brought to completion by John in the book of Revelation. In the development of no other book in the history of the world has there ever been anything that even remotely approaches this phenomenon that we find in the Bible.
That there is a wide and impassable gulf between the Bible and all other books is apparent to even the casual observer. ‘Holy, holy, holy’ seems to be written on its every page. As we read, it speaks to us with authority and we instinctively feel ourselves under obligation to heed its warnings. It is certainly furnished with an influence which is possessed by no other book, and we are forced to ask the question, Whence comes it? And since it is so unique in the power which it exerts, so lofty in the moral and spiritual principles which it sets forth, and since it so repeatedly claims to be of divine origin, are we not justified in believing that claim to be true, that it is in fact the very word of God?
The terms ‘plenary inspiration’ and ‘verbal inspiration’ as used here are practically synonymous. By ‘plenary inspiration’ we mean that a full and sufficient influence of the Holy Spirit extended to all parts of Scripture, rendering it an authoritative revelation from God, so that while the revelations come to us through the minds and wills of men they are nevertheless in the strictest sense the word of God. By ‘verbal inspiration’ we mean that the Divine influence which surrounded the sacred writers extended not only to the general thoughts, but also to the very words they employed, so that the thoughts which God intended to reveal to us have been conveyed with infallible accuracy — that the writers were the organs of God in such a sense that what they said God said.
INSPIRATION NECESSARY TO SECURE ACCURACY
That this inspiration should extend to the very words seems most natural since the purpose of inspiration is to secure an infallible record of truth. Thoughts and words are so inseparably connected that as a rule a change in words means a change in thought.
In human affairs, for instance, the man of business dictates his letters to his secretary in his own words in order that they may contain his exact meaning. He does not assume that his secretary will correctly express important, delicate, and complicated matters which might be given him in general terms. Much less would the Holy Spirit say to His penman, ‘Write to this effect.’ The Bible assumes to speak concerning a number of things which are absolutely beyond the reach of man’s wisdom — the nature and attributes of God, the origin and purpose of man and of the world, man’s fall into sin and his present helpless condition, the plan of redemption including our Lord’s substitutionary life and death, the glories of heaven, and the torments of hell. More than a general supervision is necessary if the truth concerning these great and sublime subjects is to be given without error and without prejudice. Inerrancy requires that God shall choose His own words. All men who have tried to explain these deep things without supernatural revelation have done little more than show their own ignorance. They grope like the blind, they speculate and guess and generally leave us in greater uncertainty than before In the nature of the case these things are beyond man’s wisdom. We have only to look at the pagan systems or at the arrogant and speculative theories of our own philosophers to find What the limits of our spiritual wisdom would be apart from the Bible. Whether we turn to the philosophers among the Greeks, to the Mystics of the East or to the intellectuals among the Germans, the story is the same. In fact many of the world’s supposedly advanced thinkers have even doubted the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. God alone is capable of speaking authoritatively on these subjects; and of all the world’s books we find that the Bible alone gives us on the one hand an adequate account of the majesty of God, and on the other hand an adequate account of the sinful state of the human heart and a satisfactory remedy for that sin. It shows us that neither laws nor education can change the human heart, that nothing short of the redemptive power of Christ can make man what he ought to be.
A mere human report of divine things would naturally contain more or less error, both in regard to the words chosen to express the ideas and in the proportionate emphasis given the different parts of the revelation. Since particular thoughts are inseparably connected with particular words, the wording must be exact or the thoughts conveyed will be defective. If it be admitted, for instance, that the words, ransom, atonement, resurrection, immortality, etc., as used in Scripture have no definite authority or meaning behind them, then it follows that the doctrines based on them have no definite authority. In Scripture’s own use of Scripture we are taught the stress which it lays upon the very words which it employs, the exact meaning depending upon the use of a particular word, as when our Lord says that ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35); or when He answered the Sadducees by referring them to the words spoken to Moses at the burning bush where the whole point of the argument depended on the tense of the verb, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Mark 12::26); or when Paul stresses the fact that in the promise made to Abraham the word used is singular and not plural — ‘seed,’ ‘as of one,’ and not ‘seeds, as of many;’ ‘And to thy seed, which is Christ’ (Gal. 3:16). In each of these cases the argument turns on the use of one particular word, and in each case that word was decisive because it had divine authority behind it. Oftentimes the exact shade of meaning of the original words is of the utmost importance in deciding questions of doctrine and life.
A DEFINITE SYSTEM OF THEOLOGY
For any serious study of Christian doctrines we must erst of all have the assurance that the Bible is true. If it is a fully authoritative and trustworthy guide, then we will accept the doctrines which it sets forth. We may not be able to grasp the full meaning of all of these things, there may in fact be many difficulties in our minds concerning them; but that they are true we shall never doubt. We acknowledge our limitations, but we shall believe in so far as the truth has been revealed to us. The fortunes of distinctive Christianity are in a very real sense bound up with those of the Biblical doctrine of inspiration, for unless that stands we have nothing stable.
If we have a trustworthy Scripture as our guide, we shall have an evangelical, as distinguished from a naturalistic, humanistic or Unitarian system of theology; for we find the evangelical system clearly taught in the Bible. But if the Bible is not a trustworthy guide, we shall then have to seek a different basis for our theology, and the probability is that we shall have but little more than a philosophical system left. To undermine confidence in the Bible as an inspired Book is to undermine confidence in the whole Christian system. This truth is rather painfully impressed upon us when we attempt to read some of the recent religious books, even systematic theologies, in which the writers appeal not to Scripture but to the teachings of various philosophers to prove their points. If the Bible is not trustworthy we might as well save ourselves the labor of ‘revising’ our creeds. We might as well throw them away and make a fresh start, for we shall then have to develop a whole new theology. To date we have accepted the distinctive doctrines of the Christian system because we found them taught in the Bible. But apart from the Bible we have no authoritative standard.
Unless the Bible can be quoted as an inspired book its authority and usefulness for public preaching, for comfort in sickness or death, and for instruction in every perplexity, have been seriously impoverished. Its ‘Thus saith the Lord’ has then been reduced to a mere human supposition, and it can no longer be considered our perfect rule of faith and practice. If it cannot be quoted as an inspired book, its value as a weapon in controversy has been greatly weakened, perhaps entirely destroyed; for what good will it do to quote it to an opponent if he can reply that it is not authoritative? Today, as in every past age, the destructive critics, skeptics, and modernists of whatever kind center their attacks on the Bible. They must first be rid of its authority or their systems amount only to foolishness.
The inspiration for which we contend is, of course, that of the original Hebrew and Greek words as written by the prophets and apostles. We believe that if these are understood in their intended sense — plain statements of fact, figures of speech, idioms and poetry as such — the Bible is without an error from Genesis to Revelation. While it leaves much unsaid, we believe that all that it does say is true in the sense in which it is intended. We do not claim infallibility for the various versions and translations, such as the American Standard or King James versions, and much less do we claim infallibility for the rather free one man translations which have attained some vogue in recent years. Translations will naturally vary with each individual translator, and are to be considered accurate only in so far as they reproduce the original autographs. Furthermore, some of the Hebrew and Greek words have no full equivalent in the English language, and sometimes even the best scholars differ as to the exact meaning of certain words. And further still, we must acknowledge that we have none of the original autographs, but that our oldest manuscripts are copies of copies. Yet the best of the present day Hebrew and Greek scholars assert that in probably nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand we have either positive knowledge or reasonable assurance as to what the original words were, so accurately have the copyists reproduced them and so faithfully have the translators done their work. Hence he who reads our English Bible as set forth in the American Standard or King James version has before him what is, for all practical purposes, the very word of God as it was originally given to the prophets and apostles. Certainly we have reason to thank God that the Bible has come down to us in such pure form.
This has been the historic Protestant position concerning the authority of Scripture. It was held by Luther and Calvin, and was written into the creeds of the post-Reformation period. The Lutheran doctrine of inspiration was set forth in the Form of Concord, which reads: ‘We believe, confess, and teach that the only rule and norm, according to which all dogmas and all doctors ought to be esteemed and judged, is no other whatever than the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testament.’ The doctrine of the Reformed Church was stated in the Second Helvetic Confession as fol lows: ‘We believe and confess, that the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of each Testament are the true word of God, and that they possess sufficient authority from themselves alone and not from man. For God Himself spoke to the fathers, to the prophets, and to the apostles, and continues to speak to us through the Holy Scriptures.’ And in the Westminster Confession of Faith the Presbyterian Church declared that ‘It pleased the Lord, at sundry times and in divers manners, to reveal Himself and to declare His will unto His Church; and afterward… to commit the same wholly unto writing.’ ‘The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the word of God.’ And further that both the Old and New Testament have been ‘immediately inspired by God and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages.’ In more recent times it has been reasserted by Hodge, Warfield and Kuyper. That these men have been the lights and ornaments of the highest type of Christianity will be admitted by practically all Protestants. They have held that the Bible does not merely contain the word of God, as a pile of chaff contains some wheat, but that the Bible in all its parts is the word of God.