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THEOLOGY

Scripture: God's Written Word -- Chapter 6

By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
Theologian

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

 


Chapter Six

The Character of the Inspired Text


The character of the Scriptures is now to be considered. We shall observe, in turn, that the Scriptures are unalterable, infallible, and completely trustworthy.

A. Unalterable

Since the Scriptures are God’s written word, they are in no way to be altered or changed. The Psalmist speaks of how God’s word is "firmly fixed in the heavens" (Psalm 119:89); it is no less firmly fixed in writing on earth. The Scriptures, for all their great extent and variety, make up a complex composite that must remain intact through all generations.

One of the most striking verses attesting this unalterability is found in John 10:35—"scripture cannot be broken." These words are spoken by Jesus to His adversaries after quoting a text from Psalms 82:6—"I say, You are gods." Jesus argues from this text to His own statement about being the Son of God, but only does so by asserting that Scripture cannot be broken (annulled, set aside58). It is worth observing that this strong statement about the irrefragability of Scripture is actually made of a seemingly rather insignificant and even marginal text. If that text cannot be broken, i.e., annulled or set aside, then, a fortiori, how much more the Scripture!

In this same vein Jesus, early in his ministry, regarding the law and the prophets, says: "I have come not to abolish59 them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17). Jesus has no intention of setting aside anything in law or prophet. Indeed, to make it all the stronger He adds: "For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot,60 will pass from the law until all is accomplished." In other words, the law—representing all of Scripture61—is absolutely unalterable. To be sure (as we have before discussed), law and prophets are not "fulfilled," that is brought to completion, until Jesus proclaims His message. Only then is the inner meaning fully set forth, and the higher righteousness exhibited. But what is declared, in the Old Testament, is nonetheless the unalterable word of God.62

One further representation of the unalterability of Scripture is found in some of the closing words of the book of Revelation: "I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city" (22:18-19). The warning could hardly be more vigorously put, or the unalterability of even a single word more clearly asserted.

All of this has its quite significant effect upon the one who would truly hear the message of Scripture. Nothing in Scripture is dispensable: everything has some place and purpose as God’s written word. Hence, since there is ruled out any need to decide which Scripture "belongs" and which does not (as unfortunately some seek to determine), the believer—whether relatively untutored in biblical matters or the most scholarly exegete and expositor—can rejoice to place himself under total direction of holy Scripture.

B. Infallible

Since the Scriptures are God’s written word, they are unerring in what they declare.63 The word "infallible" expresses both incapability of erring as well as the fact of inerrancy.64 The Scriptures are the infallible word of God.65

1. Grounds

Let us observe several grounds for this affirmation of infallibility. Infallibility, first, is implicit within the total biblical witness. There is no statement in the Bible that directly declares inerrancy; however, it is implied throughout: "all Scripture" as "God-breathed," "Scripture" and "God" sometimes used interchangeably, Scripture inspired to is every "iota" and "dot," Scripture as impossible to "break" or annul—on and on. Everywhere there is the implication that Scripture is infallible, inerrant, indefectible.66

The infallibility of Scripture, second, is grounded in the attitude of Christ and the apostles regarding Scripture. We have noted some of the statements of Christ and His apostles (Peter, Paul, John) about Scripture: it is apparent that their attitude was one of unhesitating and unwavering trust. They never call in question, challenge, or dispute any Scripture; they quote, or make various uses of Scripture, with the unquestioning certitude that whatever is contained therein is the truth of God. It is impossible to think, even for a moment, of Christ or the apostles as viewing Scripture any other way than infallible. Christ once said, "Ye do err," but not of Scripture, rather of people "not knowing the Scripture" (Matthew 22:29 KJV). The Scriptures are an unerring guide to erring people. Truly our Lord’s whole attitude—and His apostles’—was that the Scriptures are the infallible word of God.

The attitude of Christ and the apostles to Scriptures surely must have critical bearing on any Christian attitude. If they held without the slightest hesitation to the total integrity, indeed the infallibility, of Scripture, this would seem to call for a like attitude on the part of all who are their true followers. It is difficult to imagine a proper Christian response to be: "Well, they may have thought so, but I beg to differ." Whether this is said from a presumably more enlightened viewpoint (twentieth century over the first) or a more informed viewpoint ("critical" understanding of the Bible over a "nave" one), it places a Christian in the strange and uncomfortable position, at least at this point, of moving away from the original Founder and witnesses of faith. Even worse—it must be added—if Christ and the apostles are mistaken in their view of Scripture, how can we be sure of their view or teaching about anything else? Maybe Jesus’ attitude toward God as His Father, or the apostles’ attitude about Jesus as a Savior, was likewise off base. One does not need to add more: the whole edifice of Christian faith comes near to toppling down. In other words, to put it bluntly, if Christ and the apostles cannot be trusted about Scripture, can they really be trusted in other matters?

Third, it is significant to observe that the historic church tradition through the centuries has held the Scriptures to be God’s infallible word. The early church Fathers affirmed such; for example, Irenaeus claimed that "the Scriptures are perfect, seeing that they are spoken by God’s Word and his Spirit,"67 and Augustine wrote concerning the Scriptures of his conviction that "no one of the authors has erred in anything, in writing."68 Such total acceptance of Scripture implicitly undergirds all the great creeds and confessions, and becomes explicit in later Protestant and Roman Catholic formularies. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) speaks of "the entire perfection"69 of Scripture, and Vatican Council I (1870) affirms that Scriptures "contain revelation with no admixture of error…because, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author."70 The infallibility of God’s written word has been generally affirmed through the centuries by the great church traditions.

2. Form

It is important, next, to state the form of infallibility is to be observed from the phenomena of Scripture. In speaking of Scripture as being infallible or inerrant, we need to see how this works out in the actual composition of the Bible. A mistake sometimes made is that of seeing error where a proper understanding of the form of Scripture would rectify this judgment. Let me note a few things.

First, there is freedom in Scripture in the matter of quotation. If a New Testament writer quotes the Old Testament with variation from the original text, such is no error. The Holy Spirit is not bound to a prior utterance, and may wish to bring out something other, perhaps new, in additional revelation.

Second, there is often a diversity of historical and geographical data within the Scriptures. There are frequently divergences between various Old Testament historical books (for example, between Kings and Chronicles) and likewise among the four Gospels in the time, place, and sequence of events. Such divergences are no denial of inerrancy. Rather do they represent the diversity of God’s intention and expression as well as the situation of the writers.

Third, there are occasional irregularities of grammar and spelling. The Holy Spirit takes what he finds, and makes use of various human instruments. He does not change uneducated men into educated (except in the ways of the Lord!); thus the Scriptures may and do vary in literary character and quality. So, when the human form is properly recognized, there is no denial of infallibility.

Fourth, there are instances in Scripture of non-exact, even hyperbolic language. For example, the statement that "Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea" (I Kings 4:20), while not literally true, expresses, in hyperbole, their rapid growth and God’s blessing upon them. It would be naive to say that the writer of Kings erred because the Israelites were not "as many as the sand"!

Fifth, and in a similar vein, biblical writers are often less concerned about precision in detail than might be expected. For example, a name in a genealogy may represent more than one person, an event may be reported in various accounts with differing participants, and the words spoken in a given situation may be reported differently in parallel narratives. All such variations rather than denying inerrancy represent the freedom in which the Scriptures are set forth.

Sixth, Scriptures are written in popular, non-technical language. We are not therefore to expect precise, scientific terminology. The forms of expression inevitably belong to the time and culture of the writers of a given portion of Scripture, and will be colored thereby. This does not mean error, for within differing forms of expression the truth is resident.71 Also it is to be recognized that scientific truth may be set forth in other than scientific form, and be none the less factual.72

Seventh, Scriptures must always be read with the given or implied purpose in mind. If this is not done, error may be supposed where there is none. For example, the Gospel of Luke is declared to be written for the purpose of setting forth "an orderly account" (1:3) of events; the gospel of John is said to be written "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). Hence we should not expect quite the same concern for historical sequence in John as in Luke. Thus John may have some different ordering of events. Accordingly, Scripture is not to be adjudged as in error if there is diversity here. To repeat: the given or implied purpose must be kept in mind when speaking of the inerrancy of Scripture.

---------------

It is apparent from the preceding paragraphs that the form inerrancy takes is not to be presupposed, but to be recognized from the way Scripture was actually written. Alien approaches to the Bible will bring other, and possibly negative, results.73 However, when there is proper understanding of the biblical phenomena, the infallibility of Scripture is all the more fully grounded.

It is of no small significance also to observe that with the passage of the years so-called discrepancies in Scripture are increasingly being resolved.74 It is, further, quite significant that with the advance of historical and archeological studies, the credibility of Scripture rather than being undermined is being more confirmed.75 There are, to be sure, many problem areas remaining, but the contemporary trend is toward the recognition of Scriptural integrity.

C. Completely Trustworthy

Since the Scriptures are God’s written word, they are completely trustworthy. All that has been said about the Scriptures as unalterable and infallible leads to the further affirmation of their total trustworthiness. We may be fully assured that in every portion of Scripture God’s word is being expressed.

There can be no question, therefore, as to whether the Scriptures are true; the only real issue is whether we are properly using them. Shortly before Paul writes the words to Timothy about all of Scripture being "God-breathed," he says to him: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (II Timothy 2:15). With the full assurance that the Scriptures are totally trustworthy we may give ourselves to the task and challenge of their "right handling."

To say that the Scriptures are trustworthy does not mean that they are the object of our trust. Our trust is in the Lord—in a personal relation to Him. The Scriptures cannot take the place of Him who is Author of Scripture. However, since He has given us His word in writing, we can have full confidence in its trustworthiness.

The total trustworthiness of scripture is a fact in which we may greatly rejoice.

Footnotes

58 "Set aside" is the NEB translation. The Greek word is luthenai.

59 Katalusai in Greek. The root, luo, is the word used in Jn. 10:35. Both words may be translated as "annul."

60 "Iota" is "the Greek equivalent of the Aramaic yod, which in the original form of the saying represented the smallest letter of the alphabet" (Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1979]). The word translated as "dot," keraia, is literally "hook," the little projection which distinguishes some Hebrew letters from those otherwise similar.

61 In the previously noted conversation with His adversaries about "gods," where Jesus quoted from the Psalms, He asks: "Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, You are gods.’" The word "law" apparently includes the Psalms, and, by extension, all of the Old Testament. Incidentally, Paul does not hesitate to assign passages from the Psalms and Isaiah to the Law (see Romans 3:19 for the former, I Corinthians 14:21 for the latter).

62 This does not mean that Old Testament statutes and ordinances that related to the peculiar circumstances of Israel are necessarily still in effect. Many of the judicial and ceremonial requirements were temporary, and ceased with the New Testament dispensation. For example, over against the many Old Testament stipulations concerning clean and unclean foods, Jesus (according to Mark 7:19) "declared all foods clean." Nonetheless—and in relation to our point concerning unalterability—at the time when they were given the requirements were binding, not to be broken, hence the unalterable word of God. This, again, is a case of progressive revelation and—we should add—of the fulfillment Christ has brought about.

63 We are referring to the Scriptures as originally written. Some copyist errors in transmission have occurred, as is shown by comparing extant O.T. and N.T. manuscripts (no originals remain). However, that deviations from the original text are quite minor is shown by their relative fewness. We may rest assured that God’s inerrant word stands behind the slight variations in the several manuscripts.

64 In the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" (drafted October, 1978, by a number of evangelicals)a distinction is made between infallibility and inerrancy, infallibility referring to Scripture being "true and reliable in all the matters it addresses," inerrancy to "being free from all falsehood, fraud, and deceit" (Articles XI and XII). However, it is also asserted that infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated" (Article XI). The distinction is so slight that we shall use the two terms interchangeably. (For a copy of the complete statement, write The Coalition on Revival, Box A, Sunnyvale, CA 94087.)

65 The opening article in the Regent University "Philosophy of Education" affirms "that the Holy Bible is the inspired, infallible and authoritative source of Christian doctrine and precept."

66 The word "indefectible" while less common than "infallible" or "inerrant" has a specific value in combining the idea of permanence (not subject to failure or decay) and flawlessness (free of every fault or error). It is the latter meaning, of course, that more specifically relates to the subject at hand. The Scripture is "without defect," i.e., indefectible. See Psalm 12:6—"the words of the LORD are flawless" (NIV).

67 Against Heresies, ii. 28.

68 Ep. ad Hier. 1xxxii. 3.

69 Chap. 1, Sect. 5. Also after listing the 66 books of the Bible, the Westminster Confession says: "All which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life" (Chap. I, Sect. 2).

70 Vatican Council I, Chap. II, "Of Revelation." It is further significant to note that Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical of 1893 vigorously states: "It is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to parts of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred" (see Modern Catholicism by Walther Loewenich (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1959), p. 125. Vatican Council II (1963-65) also declares that "the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error" divine truth (Vatican II, Chap. III, Sect. 11, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation"). Unfortunately as we have previously noted, the Roman Catholic Church elevates tradition to a place of equality with Scripture. Nonetheless, our point here is that in regard to Scripture, Roman Catholicism is at one with historic Protestantism.

71 This, e.g., is the case in the opening chapter of Genesis where though much of the language reflects an ancient era, the truth remains intact and may be apprehended as a guide for our own time. See my Renewal Theology, Vol. 1, Chap. 5, on "Creation."

72 This may also include historical data: "Scientific and historical facts can be presented in popular, figurative and symbolic form—and still be just as factual as a more literal account" (Davis Dictionary of the Bible, p. 141). This comment relates specifically to the words in Scripture about the grain of mustard seed.

73 In "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" there are the significant words: "We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage and purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selection of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations" (Article XIII).

74 See, e.g., An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, J. W. Haley (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977).

75 Nelson Glueck, noted archeologist, writes: "It can be stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference" (Rivers in the Desert: A History of the Negev [New York: Grove Press, 1960], p. 31). Historical references in the Bible are likewise being more and more substantiated.


Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

 

Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.

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