The term “Christianity” designates that stage in the unfolding of God’s redemptive purpose which began with the advent of the Son of God in the flesh.
We are prone, however, to overlook the fact that Christianity never existed apart from the inscripturated Word of God. When Christianity originated, this Word was embodied in the Old Testament.
Jesus And Scripture
For Jesus the Word of God was that which was written, and for him that which was written was infallible. It is not irrelevant to appeal in this connection to such well-known texts as: “The scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) and “Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). These texts expressly affirm the indestructible character of what was written.
Besides such express assertions indicating our Lord’s attitude to Scripture, copious additional evidence shows that for him Scripture merited and constrained absolute reliance. There is something desperate about the supposition that in reference to Scripture Jesus accommodated himself to current Jewish conviction. It is impossible to adjust the total attitude to Scripture reflected in the Gospel records to any such view of accommodation.
The Mouth Of God
During the temptation in the wilderness, our Lord was in deathly encounter with the archenemy. Satan’s assaults were aimed to defeat the very purpose for which the Son of God came into the world. Only the verity and finality of an infallible Word could have provided the wherewithal to resist temptations that themselves had been buttressed by Scripture misused. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). And when Jesus quotes two other words from the Old Testament the only possible interpretation is that he relied upon these words because he recognized that they proceeded out of the mouth of God. That is Jesus’ concept of what was written; that is the definition of Scripture which alone explains the confidence of Jesus’ appeal to it. Scripture is God-breathed.
No Retreat From Scripture
On another occasion Jesus appealed to what was written: “The Son of man goeth even as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed” (Matt. 26:24; cf.Mark 14:21; Luke 22:22). Jesus was face to face with the indescribable ordeal of agony that lay before him and with the tragedy of Judas’ betrayal. Our Lord could contemplate neither without agony of spirit. When he says, “The Son of man goeth,” he is thinking of the abyss of woe about which he was later to pray, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). And with respect to Judas it was the outcome of irreparable woe that engaged our Lord’s thought. These were circumstances that called for an immovable foundation on which to rest his feet. Can we escape the significance of the word, “as it is written”? If we have any sensitivity to the demands placed upon our Lord in this situation, we can tolerate only one thesis, that of what was written there was no gainsaying and from it there was no retreat. In what was written Jesus deciphered God’s determinate counsel and the certainty of its accomplishment. Nothing less than the intrinsic certitude of the written Word is engraven on this appeal to Scripture.
The Spoken Word Of Jesus
If we think of Christianity as the movement associated with the life and ministry of Jesus in the days of his flesh, centered, of course, in Jesus himself but exemplified in the company of disciples whom Jesus had chosen, we must recognize that it never existed apart from another infallible word. It is not in this instance the inscripturated word but the spoken word of the Word incarnate.
That Jesus was infallible in all that he spoke and taught is the indispensable premise of all Christian thought. To put it negatively, the supposition that he was fallible in any word he spoke is a suggestion from which the Christian must instantaneously recoil. Infallibility is the correlate of his being God with us. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).
If it be objected that Jesus was also human, and that fallibility inheres in the limitations which belong to human nature, then we have made the mistake of equating limitation with fallibility and partial knowledge with error. It is true that Jesus was also human, and that in respect of his human knowledge he was not omniscient any more than was his human nature infinite.
But in order to know truly and to speak truly it is not necessary to know everything. Our Lord was perfect in his human nature and he was therefore perfect in his human knowledge as in his human will, though infinite in neither. Besides, when Jesus said that his words would not pass away, he uttered these words in human nature and it would be impossible to regard the claims he made for himself and for his words as not applying to that human nature in which he manifested himself. When Jesus claimed to be “the truth,” it was of his divine-human self in the unity and integrity of his person that he spoke.
We have thus two respects in which infallible word determined, conditioned, and directed Christianity from its inception. Christianity never existed apart from these two norms and sources of infallible revelation. It is futile to maintain that Christianity can be abstracted from inspiration. For inspiration means simply God-breathed word. And if the testimony of Jesus is our norm, Old Testament Scripture “proceeds out of the mouth of God,” and his own words are as irrefragable as the Scripture itself.
It would be necessary to pursue this same line of evidence as it applies to Christianity after the ascension of our Lord. Suffice it to say that the promises of Jesus, particularly the promise of the Holy Spirit, and his appointment of the apostles as his authoritative witnesses are the guarantees that when Jesus ascended on high Christianity was not deprived of that authoritative and infallible word required by, and appropriate to, that stage in the unfolding of God’s redemptive purpose which was signalized by the session of Jesus at God’s right hand and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—an infallible word embodied for the church in due time in the documents of the New Testament.
Inspiration As Verbal
It is a strange phenomenon, therefore, that the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture should evoke so much opposition within evangelical Christianity. Such opposition fails to reckon with the facts of Jesus’ own witness as well as with the facts of the origin and the early history of Christianity. And it is likewise strange that the term “verbal inspiration” should evoke so much dissent, if not scorn. When we speak of the inspiration of Scripture, we refer to Scripture as written; otherwise we should not be speaking of Scripture. But there is no Scripture without words, and, if we are to speak of the inspiration of Scripture at all, we cannot dispense with the inspiration of words. B. B. Warfield has written: “The Church … has held from the beginning that the Bible is the Word of God in such a sense that its words, though written by men and bearing indelibly impressed upon them the marks of their human origin, were written, nevertheless, under such an influence of the Holy Ghost as to be also the words of God, the adequate expression of his mind and will. It has always recognized that this conception of co-authorship implies that the Spirit’s superintendence extends to the choice of the words by the human authors (verbal inspiration), and preserves its product from everything inconsistent with a divine authorship … (Revelation and Inspiration, New York, 1927, p. 173). Or if we are thinking of revelation in word—revelatory word—we cannot think of revelation nor of the inspiration that guarantees the veracity and supplies the content of that revelation apart from words. Furthermore, inspiration is organic and must never be conceived of apart from the redemption that is the central theme of the Bible. Inscripturation is the guarantee of the veracity, divinity, and authority of the redemptive revelation that the Scripture embodies. The guarantee of these qualities is verbal inspiration. And it is quite untenable to attempt to abstract what has been called “spiritual truth” from historical truth. Redemption is intrinsically historical, and the historical is, therefore, profoundly “spiritual.”
No word of our Lord offers more evidence of the esteem with which he regarded the Old Testament than that quoted above: “One jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). It shows that he posited for the minutiae of the law an inspiration that guaranteed their divine character and veracity. We are not to suppose that Jesus is speaking of these details in themselves apart from the words and clauses and sentences in which they appear. He is not speaking of jot and tittle in abstraction for the simple reason that what represents a jot is no longer a jot if it exists in abstraction. Jesus is thinking of jot or tittle in construction and combination with relevant words, clauses, and sentences. In these relations they have the greatest significance, for to change one jot changes the meaning of the whole. And inspiration, of course, extends to the jots and tittles because it extends to the combinations of which they are integral elements. It is easy to see the force of what Jesus said. If there is inspiration at all, it must take care of the smallest details that are indispensable to the conveyance of the truth enunciated. Likewise, when we speak of verbal inspiration, we are not thinking of the words in abstraction and independence. Such words are not inspired because they do not exist in the Scripture. But words in relevant relationship must be inspired if that in which they have relevance is inspired. Inspiration must extend to the words if it extends to the truth which the words in construction and combination convey. It is impossible, therefore, to think of inspiration without verbal inspiration.
To predicate verbal inspiration and infallibility of the Scripture is the same as to speak of its inerrancy. Something cannot be infallible if it contains errors of judgment or representation. We see, therefore, that the concept implicit in our Lord’s use of Scripture and in his express estimate of it is that Scripture is the inerrant Word of God.
A native Scotsman, John Murray, M.A., Th.M., has been for some years Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. His published writings include works on such themes as redemption, Christian baptism, and divorce. His latest work, Aspects of Biblical Ethics, is soon to be published by Eerdmans. He is a contributor to the Westminster faculty symposium on The Infallible Word.
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