We have seen that the evangelical view of the Bible has two great presuppositions, revelation and inspiration. It also has two important implications.

Implication One: Authority

The view that in Scripture God has revealed himself as the Redeemer of his people and that the Bible writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit means first of all that the Bible has no less than divine authority. These are big words, divine and authority, yet we cannot say less. Here again we notice a great difference with the other two views of Scripture. In liberal theology, both in its older and in its newer form, there is no place for such a conception of authority. Liberal theologians are willing to ascribe some authority to the Bible, but it is always rather limited. John Macquarrie, for instance, says there are three authorities: Scripture, tradition, and reason. He is willing to call Scripture the “basic authority,” but the other two authorities must always be taken into account as well. First, Scripture must be interpreted in accordance with the mind of the whole community, both as extended in space and as stretched through time. Secondly, reason and conscience (i.e., practical or moral reason) must also have their critical authority alongside Scripture and tradition, for only so can the ancient teaching be renewed, reinterpreted, and made relevant to new conditions.

In neo-orthodox theology Scripture has a more central place, but here too there are severe limitations. Karl Barth, for instance, distinguishes between Deus dixit (God has said) and Paulus dixit (Paul has said). The two expressions are not on a par, says Barth. What Paul says is by itself no more than a human witness. God may use it, and then it becomes “God says,” but by themselves Paul’s words are just human words.

Evangelicals find such a distinction unacceptable for the simple reason that they cannot find it in the Bible itself. Again we refer to the attitude toward the Old Testament of Christ himself and his apostles. There is no indication of any dualism in the sense of Barth’s Deus dixit and Paulus dixit. Still less is there any indication of the liberal view. Whenever the Old Testament is quoted, it is quoted as having divine authority. When Christ in the temptation in the wilderness is attacked by the devil, his only reply is: “It is written.…” When the devil, very cleverly, also begins to quote Scripture (Psalm 91), Christ does not start an argument about the devil’s wrong exegesis of the psalm; he simply quotes another word from the Old Testament that authoritatively decides the whole argument: “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’ ” (Matt. 4:7; cf. Luke 4:12).

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Naturally we have to guard against misconceptions. While it is quite correct to speak of divine authority, it is also necessary to qualify the term. What is the nature of this authority? The only correct answer is that it is revelational or revelatory authority. This is the reason why every discussion of the doctrine of Scripture must start with a discussion of the concept of revelation. As we have seen, in its essence revelation is always God’s self-revelation, and redemptive revelation is his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Consequently, the authority of Scripture is essentially a revelational authority.

It would be quite incorrect to introduce other concepts of authority—to ascribe scientific authority to Scripture, for example. Some conservative Christians are inclined to do this. With us they believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that in this book God himself speaks to us. But then they go on and find all kinds of scientific statements in the Bible. Usually they will admit that the Bible is not primarily a book of science, but they also maintain that it nevertheless contains scores of modern scientific truths. They believe that there are many references that reveal a modern perspective, to the point that this perspective would seem inexplicable apart from divine revelation.

Such an approach to Scripture, however well meant, is wrong. Here the authority of Scripture is divorced from the nature, scope, and purpose of Scripture. Scripture was never meant to give us scientific data. Admittedly, at times it touches upon matters related to the realm of science, and when this happens we believe that what the Bible says on these matters is entirely trustworthy. For instance, when the Bible teaches that the whole human race derives from one single pair of people, Adam and Eve, we accept this as a truthful statement about the origin of the human race.

We also believe that Scripture has much to say about the presuppositions of all sciences. Yet we may never lose sight of the fact that the aim of Scripture is to call us to faith in God and his salvation in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is very clear from the closing statement of John 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” The same is said in Second Timothy 3:15–17: “The sacred writings are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All Scripture is inspired and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

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Implication Two: Infallibility

The second important implication of the fact that the Bible is the Word of God is its infallibility. This is a natural consequence and corollary of the evangelical view of Scripture. In fact, it has always been the teaching of the Church. The church fathers believed it, as did the theologians of the Middle Ages, the Reformers, and the post-Reformation theologians, and all evangelicals up to this very day have believed it. It is also the official view of the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican II stated emphatically: “Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers affirm, should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must consequently acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (On Divine Revelation). Evangelicals agree with this. They too believe that “the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scripture.”

At this point too evangelicals differ from—yes, stand over against—both the neo-orthodox and the neo-liberal theologians, who agree that the Bible is fallible and contains errors. On this score Barth and Bultmann, for instance, agree. Of course, in their actual use of the Bible they are quite different. Barth is very moderate in his criticism. In all the volumes of his Church Dogmatics there are very few instances in which he openly criticizes Scripture. Bultmann, on the other hand, is very radical. He believes that both Old and New Testaments are full of mythology, based on an antiquated picture of the world. Yet in principle both agree: The Bible is fallible and contains errors, not only in fact but also in theology.

Evangelicals cannot possibly accept this. If the Bible is really and truly the Word of God, then, of course, it is infallible. God’s Word is “truth.” But while saying this we must at the same time guard against misconceptions. We should not come to the Bible with preconceived ideas of infallibility; we should listen to the Bible itself. Not we but the Bible itself determines the nature of this infallibility. Again we should bear in mind that the Bible claims to be revelation, God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This means that its infallibility essentially is a revelational infallibility. That is, in this book God reveals himself as he really is. We never need to fear that God or his message of salvation will be different from what we read in this book. As we read in Psalm 12, “the promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.”

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Does this mean that in all other respects the Bible is not infallible? That would be a wrong conclusion. Cardinal Augustin Bea, one of the main authors of Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation, wrote an important commentary on this document in which he rightly says that we may not set a limit to the inerrancy of the Bible. We may not say that “only” the things that directly concern our salvation are without error, but that in other details there may be errors. He declares that the inerrancy “applies to all that the inspired writers, and therefore all that the Holy Spirit by this means, affirms” (The Word of God and Mankind).

We agree. The Bible as the Word of God is infallible in all that it asserts. But then we immediately add that such a statement has to be seen within the context of the actual process of revelation. According to Scripture itself, revelation is always a matter of condescension on God’s side. We see that very clearly in the Incarnation, which is the center and at the same time the pattern of all revelation. When God’s Son comes into the world, he becomes flesh, that is, he takes upon himself our weak human nature. This is true of all revelation: it is always God’s condescension to our level.

Following the example of the church fathers, Calvin used to speak of God’s “accommodation” in his revelation. In his revelation God used men belonging to a certain period of history to speak to the people of that period. He used their forms of thought, their ways of expressing themselves, the whole cultural pattern of that time. Hence the Bible is a Semitic book through and through. On every page it shows its Semitic origin and background, culture and outlook, and in our interpretation of Scripture we must continuously take this into account. But this does not in any way detract from the infallibility or trustworthiness of the Bible. On whatever subject the Bible speaks, it speaks truthfully and therefore can be trusted.

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The same is true of the fact that in many ways the books show their genuinely human authorship. Since the rise of critical scholarship we have increasingly become aware of this; the various critical methods have shown it conclusively. As evangelicals we have no difficulty in acknowledging this (cf. Second Peter 1:21—“men spoke from God”). Nor do we have any reason not to use these critical methods for ourselves. This is true of all the well-known critical methods: textual criticism, literary criticism, form criticism, and, the most recent of them all, redaction criticism. There are elements of truth in them all, and as evangelicals we may make use of them.

At the same time we must also say that we cannot use them in the same way as the critical scholars. They use these methods with some basic presuppositions that are usually unacceptable to us. Modern form criticism of the Gospels, for instance, proceeds on the following assumptions: first, that in the so-called twilight period of oral tradition (c. 30–60 A.D.), the gospel stories and sayings circulated as separate units in the various Christian communities; second, that in this period these units were gradually altered and embellished under the influence of the beliefs held in the various Christian communities, and that the task of the form critic is to find the original unit. The result of this scheme is that the New Testament is submitted to the subjective judgment of the theologian, and finally the message becomes quite different from what the Gospels themselves say.

This whole procedure is unacceptable to us. Here the scientific method is used not to obtain a better understanding of the message but to alter the message according to the opinions and tastes of the theologians concerned. The only legitimate use of all critical methods is one that leads us to a better understanding of God’s Word. Ultimately this is the whole aim of all theological work: that we may hear the Lord speak to us and to the Church of our day.

The Work Of The Holy Spirit

This leads to our last point. Understanding the Bible as the Word of God, hearing the living voice of God in it, is first of all a matter of the Holy Spirit. This is another very important aspect of the evangelical witness to the Bible as the Word of God: The Bible as the Word of God may never be separated from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit not only was the divine author of Scripture, by moving the men of old, a few thousand years ago; he still is the author of Scripture today. It is only through the work of the Spirit that we can understand Scripture.

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First, the Spirit causes us to recognize Scripture as God’s Word. Calvin strongly emphasized this in his doctrine of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Over against the Church of Rome of his day, which said that we need the authority of the church in order to accept the Bible as the Word of God, Calvin maintained that this certainty derives from the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts. The Spirit himself convinces us that here God speaks to us.

Secondly, not only the recognition of the Bible as the Word of God but also the understanding of what the Bible says is the work of the Spirit. The illumination of the Spirit opens the secrets of the text to our minds and hearts.

Thirdly, the Spirit leads us to obedience to the Word. The truth of Scripture is not just an intellectual truth; it is a truth that must be believed and done. In First John 1:6 we read that we must “do the truth.” Second John 3 speaks of “following the truth.”

Word and Spirit can never be separated. The Word without the Spirit means intellectualism and orthodoxism. The Spirit without the Word means subjectivism and mysticism. Only when the two go together will there be a real knowledge of God. As Calvin wrote:

By a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit, so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds, when the Spirit who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize Him in his own image, namely, in the Word [Institutes, I, ix, 3].

In other words, it is God’s work from the beginning to the end. God himself takes possession of us by his Word and Spirit, and when this happens, we simply cannot escape from him. Our rebellious hearts have to submit themselves. Our arrogant minds have to give in to the divine truth. We no longer seek to do our own selfish will but we ask: Lord, what do you want us to do?

And then the miracle happens. The Lord speaks to us through his Word. In this word, written by men, we hear his voice. Then, indeed, it is fully and truly God’s Word for us, and we say with Psalm 119: “How sweet are thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

Klaas Runia is vice-principal and professor of systematic theology at the Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Victoria, Australia. He holds the degrees of B.D., M. Th., and Th.D. from the Free University, Amsterdam. Among his books is “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture.”

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