Under the impact of the Enlightenment, Professor E. W. Hengstenberg of Bonn became a decided rationalist; in fact, he formulated the principles of rationalism for his university. He was a brilliant scholar and had calls to chairs in several institutions, and in time he left Bonn for a post in Berlin.
But God touched his heart in a Moravian service, and through a simple study of the Bible he became a firm believer in the Gospel. Accordingly, in his first lecture as professor of Oriental languages at Berlin he declared: “It matters not whether we make a god out of stone, or out of our own understanding, it is still a false god; there is but one living God, the God of the Bible.” Years later, at the end of a fruitful life, Hengstenberg’s last audible words were, “That is the nothingness of rationalism: the fundamental thing is Christ.…”
The Source Of The Doctrine Of Inspiration
In tracing the doctrine of inspiration, we go first to teachers whom we know are trustworthy.
Jesus and His Apostles. When our Lord was living visibly among men, he took his seat humbly at the feet of the Old Testament Scriptures. He assured us that not one jot or one tittle of the law will pass until all be fulfilled. He answered every thrust of the Tempter with, “It is written.…” He told the Sadducees that they erred because they knew not the Scriptures or the power of God. He rebuked the disciples for being foolish and slow to believe all that the Old Testament writers had said of the Messiah—that he must suffer and enter into his resurrection glory, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations. He bade men search the Scriptures, for they testified of him. Jesus and his apostles do not hesitate to use the words “God says” or “he says” in citing various scriptural passages that do not specifically name God as speaker; conversely, references to passages where the Old Testament expressly calls God the speaker are often introduced by “Scripture says.”
The Reformers and Confessions. With Erasmus there came a turn in Renaissance scholarship from good literature to sacred literature. Zwingli acted on this turn. As a young disciple of Erasmus he devoted himself to classical studies and philosophy, but like his teacher he turned to the Scriptures. At first he came to the Bible somewhat as a dilettante, thinking of Christianity as perhaps the best of many religions. But as he read, studied, and preached the Word, the living God spoke to him, particularly through a time of desperate sickness. He writes, “I came to the point where, led by the Spirit of God, I saw the need to set aside such things [as human teaching] and to learn the doctrine of God from his own Word.” Accordingly, the Theses of Bern begin, “The Holy Church of God, of which Christ is the only Head, is born of the Word of God, abides in it, and hears not the voice of strangers.”
Luther tells us that the Holy Spirit opened the meaning of Romans 1:16–18 to him in the Black Tower at Wittenberg. After that he plunged ever deeper into the Word. The number of scriptural citations in his writings is almost astronomical, and he gave a tremendous amount of time to putting the Bible into the language of the people.
By his Word, God suddenly subdued Calvin until the Genius of Geneva devoted himself to the exposition of Holy Scripture. Calvin lifted the old banner of God’s Word to regather his scattered followers into “a new catholicism solely founded on the Word of God.” A similar account could be given of the British Reformers, such as Knox and Cranmer. In the light that leaped from the proclamation of his Word, God carried forward the Reformation.
The Reformers received the Word as “the mouth of God”; in the words of Luther: “God the Creator of heaven and earth, speaks with thee through his preachers, baptizes, catechizes, absolves thee through the ministry of his own sacraments. These are not the words of Plato or Aristotle: it is God himself who speaks.”
“The Word” is used in three senses. In the Westminster Confession, as in the Confession of 1967, the Bible is spoken of as “the Word of God written.” In the Second Helvetic Confession, the faithful exposition of Scriptures in the Church by lawful ministers is described as “the very Word of God preached.” And, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ is recognized as the eternal Word who became incarnate for us and for our salvation (John 1:1–18). Thus, it is under Christ’s wing that we can best enter the Holy Scriptures. He is made unto us wisdom from God. As his disciples, we should take his attitude toward the Scriptures, to fulfill our desire to receive their witness to him. Our banner carries these insignia: The Bible’s Christ and Christ’s Bible. Or as R. Lennox put it, “it is God who is the Author of his written word, Christ who is its message, and the Holy Spirit who is its final interpreter to our hearts” (Inaugural Address, Presbyterian College in Montreal).
The Holy Spirit Inspires And Applies Scripture
The Holy Spirit works in at least three ways: in inspiring the prophets and apostles in writing the Word, in illuminating the preachers so that the exposition of the Word became the chief means of God’s grace shown to men, and in opening the hearts of the hearers so that they accept the personal authority of Christ speaking by his Spirit in his Word.
Production. First, then, we confess the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the prophets and apostles in the production of Holy Scripture. No prophecy ever originated in the human will. Borne along by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God, so that every Scripture is “breathed out” by God. The essence of Calvinism is the effort to see every doctrine from the viewpoint of God, to start our formulations with God rather than man. Thus the Reformed faith teaches the divine authorship of Scriptures by means of human authorship. That is, God in his sovereignty so superintended and supervised and contributed to his chosen instruments that they wrote as responsible persons but wrote better than they fully knew. The New Testament writers and the Reformers do not conceive of the Scriptures as primarily a human product, more or less inspired by the divine Spirit, but as a divine product that has proceeded from the mouth of the Lord by the ministries of men. For them, the prophets have not simply spoken their own minds but have declared what they received from above. “These words were spoken by the mouth of God,” asserted Luther.
Proclamation. The New Testament and the Reformation present the Bible primarily as the tool that the Holy Spirit uses to give us grace. It is the fundamental means of grace and is to be construed primarily as a means of grace. As John Albert Bengel put it, “Scripture was divinely inspired not merely while it was being written, God breathing through the writers, but also while it is being read (and expounded), God breathing through the Scripture.” According to the Reformed faith, “when this Word of God is now preached in the Church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is preached, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be feigned, nor to be expected from heaven” (Second Helvetic Confession).
Reception. As the Word is the instrument forged by the Spirit through centuries of God’s gracious dealings with his people, so it is the means the Holy Spirit effectually uses in calling us to Jesus Christ. As for Luther “God’s Word is an instrument and a tool through which the Holy Spirit works,” so for Calvin “Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit.” Since it is primarily God who is at work, Christ does not need to be preached with a furious tempest of words. The power of the Gospel is not in the lungs of a man but in the might of the Spirit.
Only as the Holy Spirit opens the Scripture is it understood. He both opens the heart to receive the Word and is effectually present by and with the proclamation of the Word. In creating faith, the Spirit works along with the Word and not apart from it, as Calvin’s definition of faith and the statement of regeneration in the Scots’ Confession indicate: “Regeneration is wrought by the power of the Holy Ghost, working in the hearts of the elect of God an assured faith in the promise of God revealed to us in His Word, by which faith we apprehend Jesus Christ.”
This means that the Spirit directs us primarily to Christ, Christ clothed with his Gospel. Although Calvin began with the Word, it did not lead him to bibliolatry; rather, he writes, “The channel which conveys to us such a copious stream to satisfy our thirst must not deprive the fountainhead of the honor which belongs to it.” For Calvin, the object of saving faith is none other than the Mediator, and invariably in the garments of sacred Scripture. Or as Regin Prenter has more recently phrased it in Spiritus Creator, “In this Word the risen Christ is present as God’s gift to us and thereby directs the motion of faith [away] from all self-righteousness to Christ as our alien righteousness.”
The Dogma Of Inspiration
“The authority of the Scripture is not a matter to be defended, so much as to be asserted.… ‘There is no need for you to defend a lion when he is being attacked, all you need to do is to open the gate and let him out’ (Spurgeon). We need to remind ourselves frequently that it is the preaching and exposition of the Bible that really establishes its truth and authority.” So writes D. M. Lloyd-Jones (Authority, p. 24).
In different places the Westminster Standards say that the Bible contains, that it is, and that it becomes the Word of God. With the Shorter Catechism we recognize that the Scriptures contain the special revelation that God has made of himself, particularly in Jesus Christ. Second, we understand Christ and his apostles to teach that it is the inspired record of this revelation, so that in the ordination vow we confess it to be the Word of God written, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Third, we recognize that our firm persuasion of its infallible truth and divine authority comes from the divine work of God, the Holy Spirit; that is, by his personal action it becomes the saving Word of God to us. God authenticates his own Word.
As the Reformers formulated the dogma of inspiration from the revelation God made of himself to them by means of his Word, the Spirit led them to three great affirmations: the authority, the clarity, and the sufficiency of the Word.
Authority of the Word. Under their preaching of the Word, men knew a more comforting authority than that of the church of Rome. Faith became not merely intellectual assent but trust in the gracious Father, founded on the Word of promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Now, faith does not feed on itself. Indeed, it is a self-alienating principle. Faith stands leaning on his Word. For Calvin, take away the Word and there is no faith left. So close is the connection between the two that the Word may be used metanymically for faith. In The Liberty of a Christian Man, Luther shows that faith receives the blessing promised as it accepts the promise, that by means of the promises it receives and rests upon Jesus Christ with all his blessings. For all the promises are Yea and Amen in Christ. Thus it honors the gracious God of the promises by receiving his Word as worthy of all trust.
As the authority of Holy Scripture means that it is truthworthy for faith in the living God, so it also means that this Word is to be obeyed in life and in church worship and government.
Instead of misusing Augustine’s precept “Love and do what you will” to relativize the Ten Commandments, as some advocates of situational ethics are doing, Calvin taught that “the chief good consists in the practice of righteousness, in obedience to the commands of God; and the ultimate end of a happy life is to be beloved of Him.” Temptations to sexual sins are best answered with the words of Joseph, “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” For the believer, they are the will of our loving heavenly Father for his children. “This God and the Bible, his commanding and its commanding, are not to be separated,” said Barth, and the Decalogue “is the foundation statute of the Divine covenant of grace and valid for all ages” and for “all the situations of our lives” (Church Dogmatics, II/2).
The authority of the Word means that it belongs to Christ’s majesty from his throne of grace to govern his body the Church through his Word and Spirit by the ministry of men. Here we have, not a democracy in which the ultimate power is in the hands of the people, but a Christocracy with authority where God has placed it, in the hands of Christ. Barth has well said, “The Church is no longer the Church where it does not know a higher authority than its own, or an obedience other than that of self-government” (Church Dogmatics, I/2).
Thus the doctrine of the Word finds its relevance in the recognition that it is trustworthy for faith and authoritative for obedience. On the truth of God’s gracious acts in Christ we trust our souls; to the obedience of his precepts faith bows our stubborn wills. And this authoritative instruction is not abstract legality but personal obedience to him who still loves us, who redeemed us from our sins with his blood (Rev. 1:5). The risen Christ is himself the Head and King and Lord of his body the Church, governing her through his Spirit and Word by the ministry of men.
Clarity of the Word. Luther insisted that the Scripture is most open, interpreting itself. One of Zwingli’s early sermons is On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God. Certain scholars are putting this Reformation doctrine in jeopardy today by assuming that God has revealed himself only in acts, deeds, and events and that he left the writers of Scripture to supply their own words, unaided by divine inspiration.
The “new hermeneutic” stresses “the word-event,” “the language-event,” as it proclaims faith’s doctrine of language. Faith depends on Word, God’s word, his saving word of love in Jesus. Yet for Ernst Fuchs, “God’s revelation consisted simply in letting men state God’s own problems in their language, in grace and judgment.” His close friend Manfred Mezger avers that John 20:6 f. “is translatable today only in radically contrary formulation to that of the text” (Robinson and Cobb, editors, The New Hermeneutic, 1964, pp. 55, 241, 135, 59). The following sentence from Rolf Rendtorff may be typical of the Pannenberg discussion on history and theology: “The Word has here an essential share in the occurrence of revelation” (Robinson-Cobb, Theology as History, 1967, p. 58). On his visit here, Eduard Schweizer agreed with the emphasis of advocates of the new hermeneutics on the currents acts of God in giving faith and forgiveness, and concurred with the Pannenberg school in magnifying the mighty historical acts of God in Christ; he added that we need a greater recognition of the necessity of Scripture in interpreting to us the meaning of the acts of the Almighty for us and for our salvation.
In Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics, Professor Claus Westerman of Heidelberg shows that one can speak meaningfully about God’s intervention in history only if his acts are connected with the Word, that is, if God’s words of promise are fulfilled in the hour of distress by a gracious deliverance. “The only basis for a creed is that a factum is recognized as a dictum.” The deliverance at the Red Sea began with a word to Moses that God had seen and heard and was come to deliver. Thus the history of God with his people comes to pass in that overarching continuity that binds the word of promise to the promised deliverance. For Professor G. E. Wright, “biblical theology is first and foremost a theology of recital.” Thus there is promise—deliverance—recital.
Professor James Barr and Professor T. H. Vriezen have stressed “direct verbal communication between God and particular men on particular occasions,” or on “this revealing word” or statement, as a means of revelation.
Likewise, for Birger Gerhardsson, the God of the Bible not only acts but speaks, and the comprehensive term “revelation” is an announcement that communicates facts and an interpretation of the essential content of these facts.
Kenneth S. Kantzer, writing about “The Christ-Revelation as Act and Interpretation,” cites such scholars as Emil Brunner, C. H. Dodd, Vincent Taylor, and Oscar Cullmann to the effect that revelation consists in both the event as such and its interpretation. And, conversely, not only the interpretation but also the event is regarded as revelation.
God has revealed his own gracious character and has made the way of salvation and the duty of man clear in the Holy Scriptures, which record his acts and his words, his deeds and their meaning. It is the speech of God accompanying the event that clarifies its meaning.
The particular passages of the Word become clearer as we keep in mind the situation for which or to which the message is primarily addressed. As Galatians was specifically needed by the churches to which Paul wrote, so was the Epistle of James directed to another particular need.
Robert W. Funk recognizes New Testament Greek “as a special phenomenon,” “the language of the community of faith” (Robinson-Cobb, The New Hermeneutic, pp. 82, 83).
Brevard Childs of Yale insists on a biblical interpretation within “the framework of faith which is the Bible as the Word of God” and as “a living vehicle for a divine action which lays claim upon its reader” (Interpretation, XVIII, No. 4). With Paul Minear one remembers that this Sitz im Glauben is often more important that the Sitz im Leben for the true understanding and proclamation of the biblical passage. For example, the Gospels are written from faith to faith. The failure to realize this has, in my opinion, marred a number of translations that treat the Gospels too much as secular histories.
In still other cases there is a Sitz im Loben, or a writing in a milieu of praise or worship. Thus the Lukan birth narratives are set in the context of Elizabeth’s Benedicta, Mary’s Magnificat, Zacharias’s Benedictus, Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis, and the angels’ Gloria in Excelsis; and through the generations they have been so used in the Church.
Sufficiency of the Word. Finally, the Reformers insisted upon the sufficiency or completeness of Scripture, particularly for the purposes for which God ordained it, namely, the revelation of his way of salvation for men, the obedience of faith to which he calls his people, and their life and worship together in his Church. The Reformers affirmed sola scriptura against the Romanist view of Scripture plus church tradition, the humanist view of Scripture plus reason, and the enthusiast view of Scripture plus private revelation.
According to Luther, “God wills that we should exclusively direct ourselves to hold fast upon the Word. He wills that we should select the core and not the shell and esteem the housefather more than the house. In Peter and Paul, he wills that we should not admire or adore the apostolic office but Christ who speaks in them, and God’s own Word which proceeds from their mouth.”
In the words of the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism, “We reject all theology and criticism that refuses to bring itself under the divine authority of Holy Scriptures, and all traditionalism which weakens that authority by adding to the Word of God.”
God has expressed his saving truth into the human words of the Good Book, making the Bible a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our pathway. We trust in, we entrust ourselves to, the God of grace; but we do so by the instrumentality of the revelation that he spreads before us in his Word and that by his Spirit he illumines our hearts to receive. We take refuge primarily in God our Saviour, God in Christ, and then in the precious promises and the great acts of his intervention for us and for our salvation.
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