What is Our Bible?
The theme of this Article is the Bible, or more specifically, "Where do we stand with respect to the Bible?" I want to begin by making as clear as I can that this is the proper form of the question, and not, "Where does the Bible stand with respect to us?" It is the most basic presupposition of Christianity that we stand under the judgment of the Bible, the Bible does not stand under our judgment.
Indeed, we may properly contrast the historic Reformed position on the Bible with other positions, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, by pointing out that the Reformed position attempts to carry out most consistently this point, that we, and everything else must stand under the Word of God, so that, as my esteemed teacher, Dr. Cornelius Van Til loved to quote Paul, "every thought might be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:5)
The topic given to me for this conference is, "The Bible – The Historic Position." I believe I can be of the most use to you by focusing upon one basic point in the historic Reformed view of the Bible, and that is the nature of the Bible as the product of inspiration. There are a number of other points that could claim our attention, such as the nature of inspiration itself, but the heart of the question facing the church today is "What is Our Bible?"
In seeking to answer this question, we must, because "true faith" is "holding for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word," look to the Bible itself for our answer. While this procedure will seem wholly inadequate to the mind which pretends objectivity, it is the only one that is fair to and consistent with the nature of the case. If the Bible does speak for God, then what the Bible says about itself is the only acceptable witness to what it really is.
What, Exactly, is it that is Inspired?
Many people happily use the word "inspired" in reference to Scripture but there is wide-ranging opinion about what this means. When we ask what it is that is inspired, we have to make a basic distinction, realizing that several things in the Bible have been called "inspired." Some hold that the thoughts of the writers were inspired, others that what the Bible says about faith is inspired, still others, like the present writer, that inspiration extends to every word of Scripture.
The Bible comes to us in words. As the Belgic Confession states, "God commanded his servants ... to commit His revealed word to writing;" in the Bible we are dealing with words. At the same time, we must realize that the words by themselves are just words; it is the message the words convey that is the purpose of the words. The words are the servants of the message.
A good dictionary, for example, will contain all of the words we find in the Bible, but in the dictionary these words do not convey a message. Dictionaries are peculiar books in the sense that they convey no overall message. Here the point must be clear that we need not just the words, but also the "Word," the message of the Bible.
At the same time we are making this distinction, we must understand that the message of the Bible is inextricably bound up in the words that convey its message. In other words, while we may make a distinction between words and message, we may not separate, (or make a dichotomy), between words and message, or we will destroy them both. You simply cannot have the message without words that convey that message. Furthermore, it is totally illegitimate to have and hold the words of the Bible and then to ignore the particular message those words convey.
One way in which the Bible is under attack today is by Neo-orthodoxy. It is the nature of Neo-Orthodoxy to separate words from message and to assert that the message of the Bible is "true," but its words are often in error. This is the problem with the "form" versus "content" view of the Bible presented by Dr. Howard Van Till. The method of separating "form" and "content" and concluding that the Bible is only "metaphorically" God's "Word" releases those who hold it from conforming their teaching to what the words say when taken in any serious sense.
We see this kind of dealing with God's Word as being like that of the serpent in the Garden of Eden when he said, "Yea, has God said?" meaning, "Did God really say that? He must have meant something else." God, of course, meant every word He said about eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We must believe that He also means everything else He says in Scripture.
One further point must be explored about this business of words and message. That is the point that the same message may come in several different sets of words. We may say, "he died," "he passed away," "he was taken from this life," "he cashed in his chips," or "he kicked the bucket," all meaning the same thing. However, while we freely admit that a variety of words might communicate the same message, in the Bible we are dealing with only one set of words. We have only one Bible, not a variety of Bibles. We rephrase and explain the Bible in preaching and teaching, but we do not replace it.
The Bible Itself Teaches VERBAL Inspiration
When we look into the Scriptures themselves to find out exactly what is inspired, we find that the Bible refers not to "thought" or "message" inspiration, but to "word" inspiration. This is very important; the message of the Bible is the infallible "Word" of God because it is conveyed by inspired words, words which inerrantly record WHAT God SAID. Get this, the infallibility of the Bible's message is based upon the fact that its words are God's words. Infallibility rests upon inerrancy; the two cannot be separated from each other in our thinking about the Bible. A common device of liberalism is to say that the teachings about spiritual things in the Bible are infallible, although its words and history may be in error. The problem then is, who decides what in the Bible is infallible, and what is not?
The evidence for this particular understanding of the product of inspiration is found in those texts which are constantly (and rightly) quoted to prove inspiration. Prophets do not say, "I am thinking an inspired thought," they say, "this is what the Lord says." David, in 2 Samuel 23:2, says, "The Spirit of the LORD spoke by me, and his word was in my mouth." So also in 2 Timothy 3:16, the focus is on words, "all scripture (Greek – 'each writing') is God-breathed," declares Paul. And, in 2 Peter 1:21 the emphasis is on words, "the holy men of God spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." Finally, in Matthew 5:18, our Lord speaks of the "jot" and "tittle" of the Law being permanent. Jots and tittles are written letters and punctuation marks, they indeed are but servants to communicate the message, but they are what will not pass away.
This view of Scripture as the written words of God which convey His message to human beings in their own language is the historic Reformed position. Biblical theologians, whether Paul or his followers, have always exegeted the words of Scripture; they have never discarded them as so much "wrapping paper." This is why Reformation theologians, like Calvin, have often been accused by modern commentators of believing a "mechanical" view of inspiration. The truth is that Calvin never held a mechanical view of inspiration, but he did hold that the result of inspiration is "that the teaching of the law and the prophets came to us not by the will of man, but as dictated by the Holy Spirit." (Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16) He goes on in the same place to say, "So, the first point is that we treat Scripture with the same reverence that we do God, because it is from God alone, and is unmixed with anything human." These, of course, are words on which the modernist chokes.
Honest study will show that Calvin did not at all reject the idea that God used the minds and words of the writers of Scripture to produce His own word; this view is today called "organic inspiration." But Calvin's view of reality was such that the words of Scripture were both 100% Paul's (for example) and at the same time 100% God's. What has happened today is that most people, including many who think of themselves as "Reformed," have taken what this writer calls the "Arminian presupposition about reality." This Arminian presupposition is that in looking at an event we must choose between the will and act of God, and the will and act of man, as the source of the event. The Arminian holds that since I must believe unto salvation, faith must be produced in my heart completely out of my own ability without the intervention of God. When he hears a Calvinist say, "Regeneration must come before faith," he throws up his hands and says, "Oh, then we are just puppets."
Calvinism, on the other hand, believes the biblical teaching that both God and man can be and are active in the same event. This is true, even when man sins, in such a way that God is not the author of sin. Peter teaches, in Acts 2:23 concerning the crucifixion of Christ, for example, that this happened according to the "determining counsel and foreknowledge of God," and yet that those who crucified Christ were sinning. In the single event of Christ's crucifixion, man was acting sinfully, while God was acting in love and mercy to save his people from their sins. God and man do act in the same event, God in perfect love and righteousness, man in rebellious sin!
This point has direct application to the inspiration of Scripture. It is a serious mistake to think that we have to make a choice between the Bible as man's word and as God's word. It is fully and completely both, and that without contradiction. Thus the words of the apostle Paul are fully Paul's words, reflecting his understanding and grammatical choices; yet at the same time they are the very words the Holy Spirit inspired him to write. That this is the case is further demonstrated by the fact that the Holy Spirit at times inspired men to write words they themselves did not completely understand. Direct mention of this fact is made in 1 Peter 1:10-12, and there are dozens of examples of Old Testament prophecies that were not fully understood by anyone until they were fulfilled in Christ.
God, of course, knew that we would be stuck with words. This was His plan from the beginning and He therefore saw to it that we could trust those particular words He inspired to be His words. This word-for-word inspiration of Scripture is further demonstrated by the use Scripture makes of itself. Jesus, for example, rests his case for the continued life of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on that fact that God used the present tense when speaking to Moses about them at the burning bush (Matthew 22:32). Again, Paul rests his case in Galatians 3:16 that Christ is the "Seed of Abraham" to whom the promises were made on the fact that God uses the singular, "seed," not the plural, "seeds," when speaking to him. Changing a word, changes the message.
Because of all of this, the church has depended upon the grammatical-historical meaning of the words of the Scripture to understand what message they communicate. Calvin, in his commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:6-10 ("the letter of the law") argues strongly for this view, in opposition to Origen's allegorical methods of interpretation. The claim that the Scripture says something else than what its words communicate is not new, nor should we have difficulty in finding a Reformed answer to this claim.
Implications of the Nature of Scripture for the Life of the Church
In John 8:31-32 Jesus tells his disciples, "If you continue in my words ... you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." In Christ's teaching, truth is something we can know through words! He then goes into a discussion with the Jews, whom he shows have Satan, the father of lies, as their father, and he concludes of them, "because I tell you the truth, you do not believe me." It is significant that our first parents fell into sin by believing a lie. Since then the natural man cannot and will not believe the truth. It should then be no surprise to us that people play games with the words of the Bible.
This means that when we are dealing with the Bible as Christians we must be very careful how we read it. In the strictest sense, we should not "interpret" the Bible, but really only listen to it. Our exegesis, our hermeneutics, should simply be means for listening carefully to what the Bible says, always remembering the Scripture is its own best interpreter. Such listening, of course, is often called "interpretation," and it is legitimate. But notice that this kind of "interpretation" stresses the primacy of the Bible, it does not allow for "interpreting" the Bible on the basis of anything outside of itself. Neither history, nor science, nor philosophy, nor personal religious experience provide legitimate bases for "interpreting" Scripture. On the contrary, all of these must bow to the interpretation given to them by Scripture.
This is where the waters get muddy very quickly. "But, but, but," I hear people shouting, "everyone has some basis outside of the Bible on which he interprets what he finds there." To which we must retort with Calvin, that the first principle with which we come to Scripture must be, "it is from God alone, and unmixed with anything human." It is no problem that this fact is not seen by all men, "For, even though the majesty of God is displayed by it, only those illumined by the Spirit have eyes to see what should be evident to all men, but in fact is seen only by the elect" (Both quotes from Calvin on 2 Timothy 3:16).
This discussion about the Bible and truth should make it evident that for the Christian Church, the Bible, as it comes to us in words, is the only valid standard of truth. As Isaiah already declares, "...if they speak not according to this word, is it not because there is no light in them." Again, in the words of Christ, "And if I say the truth, why do you not believe me? He that is of God listens to the words of God: you therefore do not listen to them because you are not of God." It is hard for the Pharisees to wriggle out of that one, and for us too!
But this discussion also has implications for salvation. Jesus equates rejecting his words with rejecting him personally. In John 12:48 we read, "He who rejects me and does not receive my words..." The tremendous ignorance of Scripture and audacity of unbelief in our day is demonstrated by the widespread opinion that it does not matter what you believe, you will be saved if only you are sincere. Without the authoritative words of the Bible, we cannot have the Christ of the Bible. Can anyone doubt that when Christ says to those who reject his words that they "are of your father, the devil," that he is threatening them with eternal damnation? Or, that when he describes those who "hear my words and do not do them," as building their house upon sand, that he is not talking about danger of real destruction?
A final implication of this view of Scripture is for the unity of the church. Our point here is that true unity is only by discipline which is focused on who is truly listening to God's Word. True Christians believe the same things and that makes them one. The Greek word for "confession" means literally "to say the same thing." Christians confess by saying the same things because they believe the same Word of God. Again, it is of interest in this light that the apostle Paul speaks in terms of "words." He writes in 1 Timothy 6:3-5, "If anyone teaches otherwise, and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing ... from such withdraw yourself..."
We do well to consider the Bible seriously, for we must be unified in our view of Scripture. But no matter how unified we are in our views, if we do not act on the implications of those views, we are not different, from many of the rulers of Christ's day, who indeed believed on him, but they would not confess him for fear of being excommunicated from the synagogue – because, as gentle John observes – "they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God."