BTh Essays – Module 1 – Introduction to the Bible

Introduction

Divine revelation is seen as essential to Christianity across the spectrum. Ball (2012) says that any knowledge one may have of God is solely “the outcome of God’s gracious initiative and of his will to be known” (p. 13), while Bahnsen (1996) goes as far as saying that God’s revelation is the very foundation of knowledge. Of all forms of divine revelation, written revelation—the Scripture—was ultimately necessary to preserve all we need to know in order to relate properly to God (Erickson, 1985).

Thus, the question of whether Scripture has a divine origin is crucial. There are those who consider Scripture wholly the product of divine dictation, and those who state it is only the product of human input. Must we choose either? Internal and external evidence both suggest a human element in Scripture is undeniable. Yet the ontological divide between God and man requires a divinely authored Scripture (Zuck, 1991).

The doctrine of inspiration attempts to provide an answer. In a broadly conservative definition, Scripture is said to be inspired if it ultimately originated from God whilst at the same time having been authored by men. However, we shall soon review several established views of inspiration, each leading to more or less conservative definitions of the doctrine; different theories that try to answer the question of divine authorship by attempting to discover the process of inspiration and its extent.

Presenting a new model is certainly not the scope of this essay. Rather, we shall be content with establishing that, whatever the process, Scripture originates from God; that it was indeed authored by men; and that transmission issues, such as textual variants and translations, do not affect God’s message to us.

Our focus will then be divine authority. We argue that of all features that may be ascribed to Scripture, divine authority is the one that hinges on inspiration. And if divine authority is established, then divine origin is undoubtable.

Inspiration: common views and their problems

Views on inspiration can be catalogued in two broad categories: liberal and conservative. On the liberal side we find the intuition and the illumination theories (Erickson, 1985). For the former, inspiration is merely a high degree of religious insight on the part of the writers, with no divine influence whatsoever. The latter sees the Holy Spirit simply “heightening their normal powers” (Erickson, 1985, p. 206); essentially, the illumination theory is a Spirit-aided variant of the intuition theory. The neo-orthodox view[1] also retains liberal features, despite originating as a reaction to 19th century and early 20th liberalism (Enns, 2008). Neo-orthodoxy sees revelation only as a “personal encounter between God and man” (Erickson, 1985, p. 184); the Bible is not divine revelation, but a record of occurrences of revelations. Thus, inspiration in neo-orthodoxy can only be placed at the point of reading (or listening), where for an individual the Bible may become revelation if God decides to use it in that moment for a personal encounter (Erickson, 1985).

The extreme conservative view held by fundamentalists is the dictation theory; this teaches that God dictated each word to the biblical authors (Erickson, 1985). The more common conservative view is the plenary verbal inspiration theory, which states that the work of the Holy Spirit is such that each word in Scripture is the exact word God desired to be used to express a given message, yet writers remained free to express their style and characteristics. Though one may find it difficult to distinguish plenary verbal inspiration from the dictation, adherents to the former firmly distance themselves from the latter (Erickson, 1985). Finally, we have the dynamic theory, where God directs thoughts and concepts, which are then freely penned by the authors in their own style (Erickson, 1985).

Liberal theories all account for the human element in Scripture, but it is obvious how an inspired text as such becomes unconceivable, as God is not the author of it in any possible sense. The intuition theory leaves us with insightful religious people providing man-made wisdom; the illumination theory is exactly the same, except that it is the Holy Spirit making these men particularly insightful. Neo-orthodoxy shifts to the realm of subjective personal experience, where the text of the Bible is not even considered revelation, rendering any discussion about divine authorship void.

The conservative views are not free from problems either. The dictation theory explains divine authorship but ignores the human element altogether. Moreover, the natural consequence of this theory is that today we no longer have the inspired text, since we know that “textual criticism cannot yet produce certainty about the exact wording of the original” (Wallace, 1991, p. 169). Mechanical dictation, as it is also known, makes translation practically vain, since by translating we would no longer have the original words God dictated. This, in fact, is the very position assumed by Muslims, who are reluctant to translate the Quran and regard existing translations as paraphrases or summaries (Peters, 2003).

Scholars such as Warfield (1980) insist that plenary verbal inspiration is indeed the orthodox and biblical view of inspiration. Yet all definitions of this theory seem to leave an open door to the same problems we found with the dictation theory.

When instead we consider the dynamic view, we see how this moves away from what Warfield considers orthodoxy: we no longer have the words of God, but His thoughts only.

Finally, none of the conservative views on their own seem to clearly explain the human elements present in Scripture (Luke 1:1-4; Romans 16:21-23), but ideas like Packer’s “concursive action” of the Spirit of God (Marshall, 1995) or Warfield’s “providential preparation” (Warfield, 2015) are interesting proposals in this area.

Further considerations on inspiration

The starting point of all the theories we reviewed seems to be that inspiration is indeed true. However, we have seen how all of them redefine inspiration, some even in a seemingly extrabiblical fashion, due to the great effort made by scholars to try and understand the actual process of inspiration.

That, however, assumes that the Bible gives us enough details to understand that process; thus, the question remains: what does the Bible mean by “All Scripture is inspired by God” as stated in 2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB), perhaps the foundational verse for the doctrine of inspiration? The Greek word for Scripture[2] is treated like a technical term meaning “holy writings”; “inspired by God” translates a single word[3] referring to God “breathing out”. This certainly does not provide enough data to define a detailed process of inspiration. Additional passages (e.g. 2 Peter 1:20-21; John 10:35; Matthew 5:18) also do not seem to provide aid in this regard. In a word, the Bible simply does not tell us how God inspired Scripture, just that He did (Warfield, 2015).

Further reflection comes from the less conservative camp. Barr (1984) thinks that the wording in 2 Timothy 3:16 does not clarify whether God inspired the production of Scripture or He breathes through it now, which leaves room for either or both views to be true, opening the door to neo-orthodoxy as well as to John Calvin’s view that inspiration is required both of the text and at the point of inner illumination (Goldingay, 1994).

As Begbie (1992) reports, Barr also argues that the inspiration process extends to canonisation, thus we may say, to preservation too.

Divine authority and the human element

Defining a model of inspiration is a tedious task, as the Bible does not provide enough details. However, we mentioned how we are concerned about establishing divine authority, and how inspiration is necessary for it, i.e. they imply one another. We argue that we could determine divine authority from a different standpoint, thus validating the Bible’s own claim to inspiration. All we need is God’s own view of Scripture.

The uniqueness of Christianity is that revelation is intertwined with history, and the pivotal historical event on which Christianity stands or falls is Jesus’ resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:14). Since we can have high confidence in the text of the New Testament (Wallace, 1991), as well as in its historical reliability (Moreland, 1987) —which in itself does not require inspiration— we may affirm with conviction that Jesus’ resurrection was witnessed by hundreds (1 Corinthians 15:3-8);[4] by that resurrection He was declared the Son of God (Romans 1:4), thus validating all of Jesus’ claims, including those to divinity. This means we can now turn to Jesus to have God’s view of Scripture.

Amongst His very first recorded words there are His appeals to Scripture to rebuke Satan (Matthew 4:4,7,10); amongst His last words to the disciples, more appeals to the written oracles (Luke 24:44-46). In between, He repeatedly appeals to Scripture as inspired: He grants divine authority to David’s words (Mark 12:10,36), and in many of His public rebukes points back to Scripture as the final arbiter, e.g. Matthew 19:4-6; 21:16. Warfield (2015) also notes that in Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus makes God the author of the Genesis passage He’s quoting. Yet the passage itself is not a record of God’s speech, but words of Scripture itself.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable passages highlighting Scripture’s authority is Luke 24:13-35: in His resurrection body, Jesus points the disciples to Scripture rather than to His own resurrection. Similarly, Jesus presents belief in the Scripture as a necessary precondition even to belief in the resurrection (Luke 16:31).

There can be no doubt that Jesus viewed Scripture as divinely authoritative. However, we have so far addressed the Hebrew Scriptures. What about the New Testament? As noted earlier, this uses “Scripture” as a technical term meaning “holy writings”, predominantly used to address the Old Testament; yet we see Paul quoting as Scripture one of Jesus’ statements also recorded in Luke 10:7 (1 Timothy 5:18), and Peter recognising Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16) in the very same epistle where he says that no prophecy was ever produced apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in man.[5] We must also not forget that in John 14 we see Jesus telling His disciples that the Holy Spirit will have both taught them and reminded them of all things He had already told them.

Likewise, Jesus upholds the humanity behind the production of Scripture. In Mark 12:36, for instance, the human element is both recognised as vital and validated by Jesus. In Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus makes God the author of words penned by Moses. Lastly, the Scripture Jesus sees as divinely authoritative call the “law of God” also the “law of Moses” (Nehemiah 8:1,18).

Transmission and preservation

Having established Jesus’ (thus God’s) view of Scripture as divinely authoritative writings, we can now briefly analyse a few last points.

Do translations deprive us of God’s intended words to us? When we consider the impact the Septuagint has had on the text of the New Testament (McLay, 2003), we can affirm that translation does not affect divine authority.[6] Some, in fact, have gone as far as calling the Septuagint “God’s blessing on translation” (Anderson, 1998, p.12).

Similarly, we can be sure that textual criticism has left God’s message to us intact; Wallace (1991) reminds us that we possess all of the original text of the New Testament mixed with a minor portion of possibly spurious text. But never have we had less than the original text.

Conclusion

God’s view is that Scripture is indeed inspired, and that the human element is also evident and unaffected; in fact, it is necessary, as it is the means by which God’s revelation is more deeply intertwined with history and reality. We have also seen that potential transmission problems such as translations and textual issues do not affect God’s original message to us.

The task of defining a model of inspiration remains challenging. What we can say with certainty is that the liberal views are the farthest away from Jesus’ view of Scripture. Conservative views such as dictation also do not fit the biblical data.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves: even if we produced a theory of how the Bible is in fact God’s inspired Scripture, how could we know our theory is indeed true? (Marshall, 1995)

Bibliography

Anderson, D. E., (1998, October). The Septuagint: God’s Blessing On Translation. Quarterly Record, The Magazine of The Trinitarian Bible Society (545), pp. 12-17.

Bahnsen, G. L., & Booth, R. R. (1996). Always ready: Directions for defending the faith. Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation.

Ball, B. W. (2015). Revelation and the authority of scripture. In B. W. Ball, & R. K. McIver (Eds.), Grounds for assurance and hope: Selected biblical and historical writings of Bryan W. Ball (pp. 23-43). Cooranbong, Australia: Avondale Academic Press.

Barr, J. (1984). Escaping From Fundamentalism. London: SCM Press.

Begbie, J. (1992). Who is this God?—Biblical Inspiration Revisited. Tyndale Bulletin, TYNBUL 43:2, pp. 259-282.

Enns, P. P. (2008). The Moody handbook of theology. Chicago: Moody.

Erickson, M. J. (1985). Christian theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Goldingay, J. (1994). Inspiration. In J. Coggins & J. L. Houlden (Eds.), A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (pp. 314-316). London: SCM Press.

Grieve, V. (2017). Your verdict on the empty tomb. Welwyn Garden City: EP Books.

Grudem, W. (2011). Systematic theology: An introduction to Biblical doctrine. Leicester: Inter-Varsity.

Marshall, I. H. (1995). Biblical inspiration. Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster.

McLay, R. T. (2003). The Use of the Septuagint in New Testament Research. Grand Rapids (Michigan): Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Moreland, J. (1987). The Historicity of the New Testament. In Scaling the secular city: A defense of Christianity (pp. 133-158). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Peters, F. (2003). The Scriptures: Bible, New Testament, and Quran. In The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition, Volume II: The Words and Will of God (pp. 1-34). Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Thomas, R. L. (1990). Dynamic Equivalence: A Method of Translation or a System of Hermeneutics? The Master’s Seminary Journal, 1 (no. 2), pp. 149-176

Wallace, D. B. (1991). The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical? Bibliotheca Sacra, BSAC 148:590, pp. 151-169

Warfield, B. B. (1980). The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (S. G. Craig, Ed.). Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing.

Warfield, B. B. (2015). Inspiration: The Undeniable Truth About the God- Breathed Scriptures [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.co.uk.

Zuck, R. B. (1991). Basic Bible interpretation: A practical guide to discovering biblical truth. Colorado Springs, Co: Victor Books.

[1] The neo-orthodox view is not always seen as a theory of inspiration as such, rather a theory of revelation. Erickson (1985) makes a distinction between revelation and inspiration (p. 200), and regards neo-orthodoxy as a “mode of special revelation” (p. 183-186).

[2] Strong’s Greek 1124.

[3] Strong’s Greek 2315; perhaps more accurately rendered “God-breathed” or similar by translations such as NIV or ESV.

[4] We may also add that the sceptics’ alternative theories do not have a fraction of the resurrection’s explanatory power (Grieve, 2017).

[5] And on this particular passage, Warfield (2015) makes a case that “prophecy” can be taken to mean the whole of Scripture.

[6] As long as the translation approach does not introduce too great a level of interpretation. This, for example, is the accusation Thomas (1990) moves against dynamic equivalence, which he sees more as a hermeneutical system.

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