A seminary president’s view of God’s infallible word

In this time of world-shaking revolution, all of us, despite the comparative peace in the United States, are like prisoners chained in a jail on the edge of a volcano. The volcano has begun to erupt; the door has been locked and the key thrown away. We cannot escape, and there is no place to hide.

Immunity against destructive violence cannot be obtained at any price. Governments are being blown to pieces. Cultures are shattering, and it will apparently take a long time to piece their fragments together in some new pattern. Nor can we buy immunity against disintegrating criticism. Traditional beliefs are being turned inside out. To mention one striking example, we now have atheists who insist they are Christians—provided, of course, that Christianity has been properly redefined. No wonder our Humpty-Dumpty epoch is full of noise and confusion. As the angel Gabriel exclaims in Marc Connelly’s Green Postures, “Everything nailed down is coming loose!”

And in this explosive era we are called to serve Jesus Christ! At times we may wish God had called us to serve his Son in some age long vanished, an age of security when things stayed nailed down. But here we are, twentieth-century Christians, and here we must serve Jesus Christ. What can we anchor ourselves to?

The Bible, the Word of God, gives us truth immutably, infallibly, inerrantly. It furnishes a firm basis for faith and hope, for theology and ministry, for life and for all eternity.

First let us consider what Jesus Christ said about the need for a firm foundation:

Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will show you to whom he is like: He is like a man which built a house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it; for it was founded upon a rock. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built a house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great [Luke 6:47–49].

In and through the Bible God reveals the truth about himself, his Son, and us. In the Bible we have the foundation we need, because there we have the truth about Jesus Christ without any error.

Second, let us recall the high value Jesus Christ placed upon Scripture and his use of it as the errorless, changeless Word of God.

It is important to remember this, because there are some believers who do not share our conviction about the Bible. That they are fellow believers cannot be challenged, unless one wishes to denounce them as hypocrites. They avow passionate loyalty to every fundamental of Protestant orthodoxy—except the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. They hold that the foundation of our faith and hope must be not inscripturated truth but incarnate Truth. They tell us we are taking as our foundation for life and eternity a dead book rather than a living person. These fellow believers argue that evangelicals have long been guilty of a subtle bibliolatry. In a misguided zeal for Scripture, they say, we have fallen into the trap the Pharisees fell into; by forgetting that the book is merely an instrument, we have elevated it to a kind of idol.

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But the criticism goes further. Sooner or later, our brethren predict, we are going to discover that the Bible is not inerrant. We are going to discover that, while the foundation of Scripture is dependable, it is not so exempt from cracks and fissures as we have naïvely fancied. And when we who are committed to inerrancy discover that Scripture is flawed—historically, scientifically, and actually—our faith in Jesus Christ may be undermined. This is liable to happen, we are told, because our faith in the Saviour has been built on faith in a book fancied to be infallible. Since for us Saviour and Scripture stand or fall together, what of our faith in Jesus Christ, once we are forced to abandon our indefensible view of Scripture?

This is the criticism leveled by some fellow believers—themselves avowedly evangelicals. What shall we say in reply? Must the traditional view of Scripture be abandoned? Must we agree that God’s truth comes to us only in personal form rather than in propositional form as well? Is faith in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, independent of faith in the inscripturated Word, the Bible? Can faith in Jesus Christ be retained only if our view of the Bible is modified?

For one thing, we ought to say this. No intelligent evangelical is guilty of bibliolatry. To be sure, he treats Holy Scripture with reverence and gratitude and submission. But he recognizes fully that the Bible is an instrument to use, not an idol to worship. It is an inspired instrument given us by God through history; it is the sword of the Spirit, fashioned from the steel of truth without any alloy of error. But it is an instrument, nevertheless—a created instrument, not an idol; a Christocentric instrument, yes, but in the end still an instrument.

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Years ago Victor records were advertised by a picture of a dog listening intently to a phonograph; the accompanying slogan was, “His Master’s Voice!” That is the function of the Bible. It is indeed a record, a record of God’s mighty deeds in time and space, a record of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, a human record (not mechanically transcribed like the phonograph record) that is at the same time a divine revelation, a revelatory record through which the Creator speaks to the creature and speaks so plainly that the listening soul joyfully hears his Master’s voice.

A simple hymn sums up a vast amount of good theology:

Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord to me,

As thou didst break the loaves beside the sea;

Beyond the sacred page I seek thee, Lord;

My spirit pants for thee, O living Word.

Thou art the bread of life, O Lord, to me,

Thy holy Word the truth that saveth me;

Give me to eat and live with thee above;

Teach me to love thy truth, for thou art love.

O send thy Spirit, Lord, now unto me,

That he may touch mine eyes, and make me see;

Show me the truth concealed within thy Word,

And in thy Book revealed I see the Lord.

This is a discerning statement of the classic evangelical position on Holy Scripture. Is the sacred page an idolatrous end in itself? Certainly not. It is an instrument, a means to the end of knowing the living, incarnate Word:

Beyond the sacred page I seek thee, Lord;

My spirit pants for thee, O living Word.

It is an instrument, a means to the end of encountering Jesus Christ in all his redemptive fullness:

Show me the truth concealed within thy Word,

And in thy Book revealed I see the Lord.

That is the traditional position of evangelicalism. The Jesus we know honored and used God’s written Word as utterly reliable. No matter how critics dissect the Gospels and minimize their reliability, there is one fact they cannot expunge: Christ’s use, in his own unique vocation, of God’s written Word. Consider these propositions:

Jesus Christ knew the Scriptures.

Jesus Christ believed the Scriptures.

Jesus Christ studied the Scriptures.

Jesus Christ expounded the Scriptures.

Jesus Christ venerated the Scriptures.

Jesus Christ obeyed the Scriptures.

Jesus Christ fulfilled the Scriptures.

In short, Jesus Christ endorsed the Scriptures, dogmatically, without any qualification—as the authoritative, errorless Word of God.

Our Saviour carried on his ministry within the framework of a decadent Judaism. No wonder, then, that he criticized venerable institutions. Yet he never criticized the written Word. Although he contradicted accepted interpretations, he never contradicted Scripture itself. He opposed cherished beliefs, but he never opposed Scripture. He never belittled it or set it aside. On the contrary, he made the Bible, as he had it then in its Old Testament form, the very basis of all he said and did.

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Jesus Christ said, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one title shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18). He said: “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). He said, “… scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). He said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). He said, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished” (Luke 18:31). He said, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” (Matt. 26:53, 54). He said, “But all this was done, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56). He said, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.… For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?” (John 5:39, 40, 46, 47).

In other words, Christ viewed his life and death and resurrection as one sustained act of obedience to God speaking in Scripture. He regarded his career from start to finish as a fulfillment of Scripture and hence an unqualified endorsement of Scripture. Moreover, the only Jesus we know is the Jesus of the Bible. And this Jesus consciously and conscientiously brought his whole career into precise alignment with Scripture. Thus the Jesus of the Bible by his own example bids us cherish the Word of God as our infallible rule of belief and behavior. He points us unwaveringly to the written Word as a firm foundation of our faith and hope. That is why we do not admit any dichotomy between the authority of the inscripturated Word and the authority of the incarnate Word. They presuppose each other. They demand each other. They sanction each other. The Bible binds us to Jesus, who as the incarnate Son is greater than the Bible; and Jesus binds us to the Bible.

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In the third place, consider the lamentable consequences of setting aside God’s Word.

Some time ago, a letter appeared in Commonweal from Dr. Paul Meehl, a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota who a few years ago capitulated to Jesus Christ. The letter was a response to an article on authority by Robert McAfee Brown.

Every one of these central doctrines of historic Christianity is at times denied, more often by-passed, and most often “re-interpreted” by a sizeable proportion of Protestant clergy in every major Protestant denomination except the Fundamentalist wing which Dr. Brown typifies by “Southern Baptist,” and possibly the Christian Reformed. I can testify of my own knowledge, as the lawyers say, that there are Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Northern Baptists, Congregationalists, and now—alas—even Lutherans, both lay and clerical, who disbelieve one or more of these core Christian teachings. Over the last thirty years, I have myself conversed with clergymen in all these denominations who held—when pressed, and prevented from avoidant tactics and double-talk—views indistinguishable from Pantheism, Humanism, Arianism, Unitarianism, Buddhism, or plain Agnosticism.… Unless I am badly mistaken, it is an easily defensible generalization that whenever a Protestant body achieves sufficient scholarliness and intellectual honesty to abandon Fundamentalism, it next proceeds to undergo a steady erosion of Christian faith and practice.

Now, I take sharp issue with part of what Dr. Meehl says. One can be scholarly and honest and still hold fast to “fundamentalism,” if by that is meant passionate loyalty to all the fundamentals of the faith. But Dr. Meehl’s conclusion stands: Whenever Protestants abandon fundamentalism, the linchpin of which is an inerrant Bible, they are in danger of abandoning the distinctive elements of Christian faith and practice.

One comment must be added. Very fortunately, few of us carry through the logic of our positions with unrelenting thoroughness; and that explains why some continue to be Christians after they have abandoned faith in God’s Word as infallible. But, as history shows and as Dr. Meehl points out, when men abandon the traditional view of Scripture and attempt to build a theology on the foundation of their own reason, experience, or intuition, spiritual tragedy is liable to follow.

We must build our ministry on the Bible. We must preach God’s Word in the confidence that it is God’s Word and that, as we preach the written Word under the power of the Holy Spirit, it becomes the instrument for revealing the incarnate Word in all his redemptive fullness.

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