Article of the Month
by Douglas Vickers
The doctrine of Scripture embedded in the Reformed theology was crystallized in the seventeenth-century confessions: “The Old Testament in Hebrew . . . and the New Testament in Greek . . . being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.”2 And “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”3
Certain propositions follow. The Bible as we have it is, in its original autographs, the Word of God. The Bible does not contain the word of God. It is the Word of God. By inspiration, the ultimate author of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, has determined that the very words of Scripture, in all their singularity and plurality, are the words of God. We hold, therefore, to the plenary, verbal, inspiration of the Scriptures. By virtue of their divine authorship the Scriptures are completely inerrant and authoritative and are the infallible rule of life and belief. As to their authority, the Scriptures are self-attesting, and as is true of all doctrines of Christian belief we hold to the Scriptural doctrine of Scripture. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16). “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21). And the pages of holy writ are redolent with the claim that “Thus saith the Lord.” The providential preservation of the Scriptures means that in proper translation we have at this time the Word of God. The canon of Scripture has been closed. Revelation has come to an end, and God has said his last word to man. God has nothing to say to man that he has not already said. But the Word of God is to be mined for the full understanding of its doctrinal content and directives, and progressive illumination thereby accrues to the Christian in his faithful submission to it.
I shall address some of those propositions in what follows, but my objective is not to stay with the well-established Reformed doctrine of Scripture and with the conventional categories of its necessity, authority, sufficiency, and perspicuity. Nor is it possible in the present space to advert to the historic development of the doctrine.4 My intention, rather, is to look briefly at our commitment to Scripture in the context of some wider doctrinal emphases and against certain contemporary aberrations and their pressure on the belief of the church. I shall conclude with some summary comments on the lessons arising from current debates on the doctrine of Scripture.
Some preliminary considerations
First, the Scripture is only indirectly the first principle of knowledge. The Reformed theological tradition has referred to the first principle of theology, the principium essendi, as the fact that “all of our knowledge of God has its origin in God himself.”5 God is the principium essendi of theology. The question follows of the means by which God’s knowledge, or the knowledge that God requires us to have of him, is conveyed to us. The Scriptures, then, provide the principium cognoscendi of theology. Or more precisely, we refer to the Scriptures as the principium cognoscendi externum, the objective source of knowledge, and to the faith that God gives us and whereby we believe as the principium cognoscendi internum, or the subjective source or instrument of knowledge.6 As God is “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being. . . and truth,”7 he can and does speak only truth, and for that reason we hold to the infallibility and inerrancy of what we shall see he has said in the Scriptures.
Second, our approach to the doctrine of Scripture is therefore determined by what we hold as our basic apologetic presupposition. That is the presupposition that God is. God does not exist at the end of a logical syllogism structured by autonomous human thought. God is not knowable because we have conjured God or reached him by an evidential-inductive process of reasoning. God is knowable and known because he has revealed himself. The chain of disclosure runs from God to man, not from man to God. God is known because he has spoken, because in real time and real history he has made a self-disclosure. Meaning resides, not in what we ask about God or imagine we can discover about God, but in what God has said to us. The reality is that God exists and has made a revelation to us, and because we see that in the Scriptures they convey to us the authority to which we refer. We know that the Scriptures are the Word of God because in them we hear the voice of God speaking. In that, we shall see, the Scriptures attest their own scripturicity.
Third, from what has been said two implications follow. First, it is only as God has taken the initiative and revealed himself that knowledge is possible. Knowledge is possible for us because, as to our knowledge and as to our being, we are the analogue of God. Because by creation we have been established as the image of God we are necessarily open to God’s communication to us. We stand inevitably and inescapably before the face of God. “In him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Second, that in turn determines the fact and the necessity of God’s revelation as that is conveyed to us in the Scriptures.
Fourth, we say more particularly that the necessity of God’s revelation follows from the finitude in which we were created. We hold in all our theological formulation to the Creator-creature distinction. While the necessity of revelation follows from our finitude, the necessity of inscripturated revelation and the content of it follows from our sin. The Scripture became necessary because of the natural defilement, by reason of sin, of oral transmission of the dicta of God. That proposition leaves aside the question whether, if Adam had not sinned, there might have been an inscripturation of God’s word to man. We do not know in detail what Adam’s life might have been if he had not fallen, and to address that question at length is to fall beyond the Scriptures into idle speculation; we know only that Adam would in due time have been elevated to eternal life, confirmed in moral status, and his nature changed accordingly. I am saying that the necessity of inscripturation follows from our sin (as distinct from revelation as such that follows from our finitude) because Adam did sin, and God’s grace from that point on is directed to the redemption of the elect who descended from Adam.
Fifth, along with our basic apologetic presupposition that God is, we hold to a fundamental hermeneutical principle. That is that in his speech to man God has revealed his own thoughts (of which, as has been said, by reason of our finitude we may possess a knowledge analogically), and he has made known to us his purposes, including his redemptive-salvific purposes, with relation to the reality that he spoke into existence. That hermeneutical principle, or the fact and the meaning of God’s stated covenant, determines the manner in which we hear the Scriptures speak. That principle and our apologetic presupposition that God is are correlative in their impact and effects. It follows that God’s revelation is to be understood as a covenantal revelation, and the inscripturation of revelation as a covenantal inscripturation.
When I say that we must understand God’s inscripturation of his Word as a covenantal inscripturation I intend the following. As all reality external to the Godhead is covenantally structured, as man himself is a covenant creature, as all of God’s dealings with man whom he created in his image are to be seen and understood under the rubric of covenantal fulfillment, as the eternal glory of God to which creation and the redeemed host of God move is the grand objective of what God has covenantally decreed, so, I am now saying, all of God’s actions in the course of history are aspects of his sovereign covenantal realizations. Those actions include, as we are now discussing it, the inscripturation of his Word. I shall observe at a later point that similarly, the incarnation of the Second Person of the Godhead is to be understood as a covenantal incarnation. The implication follows, as will be discussed at length, that both the union of the divine and human natures in the Person of our Lord and the divine and human character of the Scriptures are aspects of God’s fulfillment of what was necessary to the realization of the objectives of the covenant of redemption. As Douglas Kelly has observed at the beginning of his recent Systematic Theology, “God reveals Himself . . . by means of His Word and Spirit personally within the context of the covenant community.”8
Sixth, it follows that in the speech of God in the Scriptures he has made an anthropomorphic communication to us. That is to say, “God reveals himself to man according to man’s ability to receive his revelation. All revelation is anthropomorphic.”9 God has condescended to speak to us in the language of men. Calvin comments on Ezekiel 9:3-4: “God cannot be comprehended by us, unless as far as he accommodates himself to our standard. . . . God is incomprehensible in himself”; and on 1 Corinthians 2:7, Calvin comments that “God . . . accommodates himself to our capacity in addressing us.
The Scriptural doctrine of Scripture
We shall return below to the important fact that as to the composition of the Scriptures a distinction is to be made between the primary or ultimate and the secondary authors. The words of Scripture are the words of the Holy Spirit. But clearly, every book of the Bible has a human author. That in no sense means, however, that the Scriptures bear the mark of human fallibility and that error must therefore be contained in the Bible. In short, by reason that the Holy Spirit is the divine author of the Bible, and by reason of the fact that it cannot be said that the primary and the secondary authors are equally ultimate, the possibility of error in the original manuscripts does not exist. That fact will provide an entry to what has become a matter of principal debate at the present time, that having to do with the so-called incarnational understanding of Scripture. It will anticipate our comments on the work of Abraham Kuyper, for example, to note his conclusion that an analogy exists between the sinlessness of the incarnate Christ and the fact that the Scriptures are without error. But our immediate concern is with the testimony the Scriptures bear to their own scripturicity.10 And that establishes the absence of error in the light of secondary human authorship. In other words, the Scripture claims inerrancy for itself. Murray observes that “the basis of faith in the Bible is the witness the Bible itself bears to the fact that it is God’s Word. . . . The doctrine of Scripture must be elicited from the Scripture just as any other doctrine should be.”11
In support of that conclusion Murray advances several arguments, some of which can be noted briefly. First, the Scriptures do not bear any negative evidence. “Scripture does not adversely criticize itself.”12 That is to say, a unity and a harmony exist between the several parts of Scripture. Second, as to positive evidence, the Scriptures repeatedly introduce the words of the prophets with the assertion, “Thus saith the Lord,” thereby claiming for themselves divine origin and authority. Third, it is noted that at John 10:30 Christ asserted his deity in the statement that “I and my Father are one,” and by adducing a brief statement from Psalm 82:6 he rebutted the cavil of the Jews that he had spoken blasphemy. In pivoting his defence on that Old Testament text, our Lord indicated that he considered the Scriptures as unassailably definitive and trustworthy. For as he went on to say, “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). He thereby “expresses . . . his own view of the inviolability of Scripture.”13 Fourth, the self-attestation of the Scriptures is attested again by the reflection of the apostle Paul who, in reference to the Old Testament text, stated that “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). And again, in the context preceding the apostle’s conclusion that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), he referred to the “holy scriptures” that Timothy had known from his childhood, Scriptures which, Paul said, “are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). What is thereby being said is that “The organic unity of both Testaments is the presupposition of the appeal to the authority of the Old Testament and of allusion to it in which the New Testament abounds.”14
It can be added that the Scriptures’ claim to their own scripturicity is confirmed by the progressive manner in which the revelation of God’s covenantal purposes is contained in them. There is noticeably and beyond doubt a progressive development of Scriptural revelation, while there is not, of course, any progressive development of God’s eternally declared plan and purpose. It is beyond our present scope to trace the manner in which, in the Old Testament witness, the terms of that covenant are unfolded and the progressive implementation of it is realized, through the patriarchs, Abraham, Moses, David, and the pre- and post-exilic prophets. But for the devout enquirer there lies on the very surface of the text an inescapable unity and harmony in the revelation.
That covenantal disclosure continues to the “new covenant” that was foreseen by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31), and the consistency of the prophecy and fulfillment is established by the conjunction of Joel 2:28-32 and Acts 2:16-18. There we have the promise and the fulfillment of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church in a new fullness, a crowning aspect of the realization of the “new covenant” in Christ that Jeremiah had foreseen.
It is an aspect of the Scriptures’ self-attestation that the apostle Paul regarded his own words as carrying divine sanction and authority. At 1 Corinthians 14:37 he claimed that “the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.” At 1 Corinthians 2:10 he referred to things that “God hath revealed unto us by his Spirit.”
It is apposite to recall that the confessional statement we adduced at the beginning continues with reference to the Scriptures: “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.”15 Much has accordingly been made in this connection of the “internal testimony of the Spirit.” But the nature of the reality involved has not always been clearly understood. It will be well known that in the neo-orthodoxy that was current in the early part of the last century the claim was advanced on similar lines that the Bible was not in itself the word of God, but that it became the word of God to the reader by reason of the witness it bore to the Word of God. In that, we have assumptions of subjective human consciousness supplanting the objectively given Word of God as the source and canon of belief. Developments of that kind have reappeared in the subsequent history of the church. For example, in the existential theology of the early twentieth century the saving relation that an individual might sustain to Christ was deemed to turn on what was referred to as an existential encounter with him, to the neglect of the Scriptural call for repentance and faith in Christ who is our only redeemer. Similarly, the “New Perspective on Paul” theology of recent times, in the hands, particularly, of its influential proponent, N.T. Wright, claims that “the ‘gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. . . . The gospel is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship [and] all those who have this faith [in Jesus’ lordship] belong as full members of this family [the family of Abraham now redefined around Jesus Christ], on this basis and no other”16 What is being said there is that those are justified, and they are thereby reckoned to be within the kingdom of God, who declare that Jesus is Lord. The gospel of justification by faith in Christ as Savior is again replaced by a subjectively generated statement of concurrence with Christ’s lordship. That concurrence is reckoned to be provoked by hearing the declaration of Christ’s lordship, but how that conviction is brought about is not made clear. The flattening of justification to such a mere statement of belief in Christ’s lordship, with the rejection which it carries with it of the imputation to the sinner of Christ’s forensic righteousness, once again replaces the objectivity of the Scriptures as the Word of God with a not-very-well-defined human subjectivity.
To all such claims we respond, on the ground of arguments we have already adduced, that the Bible is fully and objectively the Word of God, inherently and qualitatively, and that its authority in no sense depends, and cannot be conceived to depend, on any subjective human construction of what it says. That that is so is clearly confirmed by the very fact that the Bible is unrelenting in disclosing and insisting on the natural depravity of the human mind and the entailment of sin into which all mankind had fallen as a result of Adam’s dereliction. It is the “internal testimony of the Spirit” that remedies that natural incapacity and enables the truth of the Scriptures’ own attestation to be seen.
But two things are to be said in that connection. First, the internal testimony of the Spirit is not to be construed as a bare testimony or a telling to the individual person that the Bible is the word of God. On the contrary, the internal testimony is the work of the Holy Spirit in so informing the mind that the darkness of blindness is taken away and the individual is now able to see what was always there to be seen but was obscured by the enslavement to the god of this world that the natural state of sin involved. The internal testimony of the Spirit, Murray has observed, “is regeneration on the noetic side [an opening of the mind] because it is regeneration coming to its expression in our understanding in the response of the renewed mind to the evidence Scripture contains of its divine character.”17 John Owen made the point in characteristic seventeenth-century language: “There is an especial work of the Spirit of God on the minds of men, communicating spiritual wisdom, light, and understanding unto them, necessary unto their discerning and apprehending aright the mind of God in his word, and the understanding of the mysteries of heavenly truth contained therein.”18 In anticipation of what we shall refer to as the divine ordination of the form as well as the content of Scripture, Bavinck has brought together those joint considerations in his response to the question of the internal testimony of the Spirit. That witness of the Spirit “comes to us indirectly in all the divine characteristics (criteria, marks) which are imprinted on the content and form of Scripture. It also comes to us directly in all those positive pronouncements Scripture contains with respect to its divine origin.”19
It is germane to the issues we have raised to observe that Kuyper addressed a similar question in his running debates with what were referred to in his time as the Ethical theologians. In the course of a discussion of “Apostolic Inspiration” Kuyper observed that the Ethical theologians effectively maintained that inspiration was simply “a peculiarly high degree” of the illumination that had been received in the grace of regeneration.20 But the Reformed doctrine is very much to the contrary. The apostles were the recipients and custodians of a special, objective revelation that carried with it the unique inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As has been said, the words they wrote were the words of the Holy Spirit. As Kuyper concludes, “The unique position and extraordinary power of the apostles . . . was granted to them alone and to no one else.”21 The inspiration of which they were the beneficiaries for purposes of the discharge of their unique office and function was in no sense to be confused with a mere elevation of the grace of regeneration.
The form and authorship of Scripture
Against the foregoing statements and conclusions two questions deserve more precise notice. First, what is to be said of the relation between, on the one hand, the fact of the primary or ultimate and the secondary authorship of the Scriptures and, on the other hand, the form in which the Scriptures have been given? And second, what is to be said of the modern (in fact, the not entirely modern) claim that importance attaches to what we shall see as the analogue between the phenomenon of Scripture and the incarnation of our Lord? I shall take the first question first.
The question at issue concerns the extent to which, while it might be agreed that the Holy Spirit was in a unique way influential in the production of Scripture, the precise formation of the words of Scripture and the formation of the finished product were nevertheless the work of the human authors. When we refer to the form of Scripture we have in mind both the actual format of a specific human writer’s presentation and the structure of the biblical corpus as a whole, as, it is to be claimed, it presents a complete and unified statement of the revelation that God has chosen to make.22 Our conclusion will be that the form of the Scriptures is a divine design and ordination, that it was designed and ordered as part of the divine intention before the foundation of the world, and that it is in no sense attributable to the organizational skill and originality of autonomous human authors. That is clear from the fact that the Scripture is God’s Word and that in designing and giving it he has done all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11).
We may observe Kuyper’s claim of a “predestined Bible,” which, he says, “was spoken of in Reformed circles, by which was understood that the preconceived form of the Holy Scriptures had been given already from eternity in the counsel of God.”23 More particularly, as to the formation of the Scriptures, “according to a plan, known to God alone, a structure is gradually raised on which . . . different persons have labored without agreement, and without having seen the whole. . . . Thus the plan of the Holy Scriptures was hidden, back of human consciousness, in the consciousness of God, and He it is, who in His time has so created each of these writers, so endowed, led and impelled them, that they have contributed what He wanted, and what after His plan and direction was to constitute His Scripture. The conception, therefore, has not gone out of men, but out of God,” and the result was “of such a content and in such a form, as had been aimed at and willed by God.”24 In those claims Kuyper is fully in line with the seventeenth-century dogmatics. Owen, for example, observes that “the Holy Spirit of God hath prepared and disposed of the Scriptures so as it might be a most sufficient and absolutely perfect way and means of communicating unto our minds that saving knowledge of God and his will which is needful that we may live unto him, and come unto the enjoyment of him in his glory.”25
The fact that the Bible has come to us in a preconceived form warrants the conclusion, as we have already observed, that the inscripturation of God’s revelation is a covenantal inscripturation. Our doctrine of the Scriptures falls far below what is worthy of their own attestation if we do not see and maintain that, as is the case with all other aspects of God’s salvific intentions, the giving of the Scriptures is again a covenantal fulfillment. God has said what he has said, and he has said it in the form he has, as part of his overarching covenantal purpose of ordering all things, including notably the salvation of his elect, for his own eternal glory. When we see that the Scriptures thus assume their place in the divinely ordered fulfillment of God’s salvific covenant, the dual questions of the necessity and the authority of the Scriptures are clearly resolved. For first, the inscripturation of God’s purposes in salvation and the modus operandi of it underlines starkly the necessity of the Scriptures. The Scriptures became necessary by reason of our sin, and in them God has accommodated his speech to our perilous condition. It follows, then, that the authority of Scripture is suspended on its necessity. God in his wisdom and grace having deemed the Scriptures necessary for the reason stated, they immediately assume the status of authoritative. The Scripture is authoritative, that is, firstly because it contains the speech of God, and secondly because in it God has said all that he has to say to man in his state of sin. There is no other word from God. The Scriptures alone are his definitive and final word to us. There is therefore no other authority that can or does provide both an entrance to meaning on all levels of reality, knowledge, and existence and, in particular, the understanding of what it is that the sovereign God, redeemer and judge, requires of us.
When we have said that the form as well as the content of the Scriptures is due to the sovereign ordering of the Holy Spirit, it is not necessary for our present purposes to labor the fact that the human authors were in every relevant respect providentially prepared by God himself for the work they were destined to do. It is necessary, of course, as Edward J. Young has put it in his very valuable Thy Word is Truth, “to do full justice to what the Bible has to say about the human side.”26 Suffice it to say that God providentially prepared the human authors, in their personal histories, endowments, temperaments, and developments of learning, culture, and maturity of mind for the task to which he called them. We can say with Young at that point that “Very wondrous was God’s providential preparation and equipment of those men whom He had appointed to be the human instruments in the writing of Scripture. Thus He prepared and raised up an Isaiah, a Jeremiah, a John, and a Paul. His work of providence and His special work of inspiration should be regarded as complementing one another.”27 That being so, we have already said that the very words of the Scripture are the words of God, implying that by reason of the superintending influence of the Holy Spirit, the human authors, with their own particular levels of learning, style, personality, temperament, and source availabilities, consistently wrote what God intended to be written. Given, as Bavinck maintains, his so-called “organic view of revelation and inspiration . . . ordinary human life and natural life . . . is also made serviceable to the thoughts of God.”28
Kuyper refers to “the secondary authors” as “amanuenses of the Holy Spirit.”29 But from what has been said it is clear that that can in no sense be taken to imply that the human authors were mere mindless automata. To say that they were, and that they were simply the recipients of dictation, as some critics have argued, is a parody and misrepresentation of the Scriptural doctrine of Scripture. Calvin, it is true, as Young notes, states in his comment on 2 Timothy 3:16 that “Whoever then wishes to profit in the Scriptures, let him, first of all, lay down this as a settled point, that the Law and the Prophets are not a doctrine delivered according to the will and pleasure of men but dictated by the Holy Spirit.”30 But it is clear from Calvin’s fuller argument that by his use of the word “dictated” he intends to speak consistently with the thought of the Bible itself and to accord divine origin to the words of the Bible. He does not mean “dictation” in its modern connotation.
In what we have seen as the importance of keeping clear the relation between the primary or ultimate and the secondary authors of Scripture, Bavinck is one with his near-contemporary Kuyper. Bavinck rejects decisively “a mechanical notion of revelation [which] one-sidedly emphasizes the new, the supernatural element that is present in inspiration . . . This detaches the Bible writers from their personality, as it were, and lifts them out of the history of their time. . . . it allows them to function only as mindless, inanimate instruments in the hand of the Holy Spirit.”31 “God . . . treats human beings, not as blocks of wood, but as intelligent and moral beings.”32 And again, in summarizing his view of “organic inspiration,” Bavinck captures the relevance and importance of what we have already drawn attention to as the divine ordination of the form as well as the content of Scripture when he says: “Scripture is the word of God; it not only contains but is the word of God. . . . Form and content interpenetrate each other and are inseparable.” In the Scriptures, “The human has become an instrument of the divine; the natural has become a revelation of the supernatural; the visible has become a sign and seal of the invisible.”33 In referring to the church fathers, some of whose comments might be thought to point in other directions, such as their “comparing the prophets and apostles, in the process of writing, with a cither, a lyre, a flute, or a pen in the hand of the Holy Spirit,” Bavinck is quick to conclude that “In using these similes they only wanted to indicate that the Bible writers were the secondary authors and that God was the primary author.”34 The distinction in view has been well preserved, of course, in the subsequent history, in the English language writers such as Warfield, Murray, and Young, for example, as referred to in footnote 4 above. In that connection it is instructive to compare the Dutch consolidation of the Reformed doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, in Kuyper, and Bavinck, for example,35 with that of the English language writers referred to.36 An expanded discussion of the post-Reformation history of the doctrine of Scripture has been provided also by Richard Muller.37
Inspiration and incarnation
The remaining question has to do with the claims of several theologians that an analogy exists between inscripturation (inspiration) and the incarnation of Christ. I shall explain the grounds of those claims as we proceed. The question has come pointedly to issue in recent times and has raised a good deal of disturbed debate as a result of the work of Peter Enns. That is due principally to his Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which has been seen as undermining the Scriptural doctrine we have so far adduced.38 I shall refer again to that work and to some critiques of it and also to further writing of Enns. But we should note immediately that the question of whether a parallel exists between inspiration and incarnation has a longer history. I shall indicate that Kuyper and Bavinck addressed the question at some length, and J.I. Packer drew attention to it in his ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God. It is worth taking brief note of Packer’s analysis.
The problem Packer identifies is that certain critics had accused the evangelicals of falling prey to the false doctrine of Monophysitism, with its denial of the true humanity of our Lord, and from that they had argued that evangelicalism failed also to do justice to the human character of the Bible. If, that is to say, Christ was of only one nature, and that a divine nature (to which, it was said, the evangelicals tended to give excessive regard to the neglect of the fact that Christ was also human), then by analogy it could be thought that the Bible also was only divine, to the neglect, as a result, of its human character and nature. The critics therefore thought their position to be superior in that it had regard to both the human and the divine natures in Christ and, analogously, to both the divine and human character of the Bible. Packer, quoting Gabriel Hebert and R.H. Fuller, notes the latter’s remark that “we have to discern the treasure in earthen vessels: the divinity in Christ’s humanity . . . the Word of God in the fallible words of men.”39 We shall see that there is a sense in which the Christological parallel does exist and is legitimate, but the critical claim to which we have just referred falls, of course, by reason of its reference to the “fallible” words of men. It will be seen, however, that the “fallible” comes back into the debate in the work of Enns.
Packer is himself cautious about embracing the parallel and finds that the analogy “can be only a limited one.”40 He agrees that “human as well as divine qualities are to be recognized in Scripture . . . [and] we do in fact recognize the reality of both.”41 But he wishes to state carefully the meaning of whatever analogy is properly involved. In doing so, he puts his finger on the vitally necessary elements of the parallelism: “as our Lord, though truly man, was truly free from sin, so Scripture, though a truly human product, is truly free from error.”42 The error of the critics who had also adduced a parallel between Scripture and the incarnation was that it followed from their claim that as there were errors in the Bible so Christ, as man, had erred and thereby sinned.
Benjamin Warfield, we may note, makes the very necessary point in establishing a true and sustainable analogy between the Scriptures and the incarnation of Christ. His summary is worth quoting for the bearing it will have on our further discussion: “as, in the case of Our Lord’s person, the human nature remains truly human while yet it can never fall into sin or error because it can never act out of relation with the Divine nature into conjunction with which it has been brought; so in the case of the production of Scripture by the conjoint action of human and Divine factors, the human factors have acted as human factors, and have left their mark on the product as such, and yet cannot have fallen into that error which we say it is human to fall into, because they have not acted apart from the Divine factors, by themselves, but only under their unerring guidance.”43 Warfield had cautioned us in the same context as to the sense in which, finally, we should hold to the inscripturation-incarnation analogy: “It has been customary . . . to speak of the Scriptures, because thus ‘inspired,’ as a Divine-human book, and to appeal to the analogy of Our Lord’s Divine-human personality to explain their peculiar qualities as such . . . But the analogy with Our Lord’s Divine-human personality may easily be pressed beyond reason. There is no hypostatic union between the Divine and the human in Scripture.”44
We can say, however, that though there is no hypostatic union in inscripturation, a correspondence or parallel exists between inscripturation and incarnation in the following respect. In Reformed Christology, following Chalcedon, the divine nature of our Lord is the essential locus of personality and the human nature is contingent, dependent on the divine, yet real in itself. Similarly, in Scripture, the divine, the authorship of God the Holy Spirit, is essential, and the human, the secondary authorship, is contingent, yet again in itself real.
Before we turn to consider the contemporary controversy on this point we note two issues arising from Warfield’s comments. First, the review we have given establishes that in the mainstream of Reformed theology a parallel or an analogical relation between inscripturation (inspiration) and the incarnation has been understood to exist. But second, it is necessary to understand more clearly why, or the grounds on which, that parallel is doctrinally meaningful.
The issue turns on what we have already argued as the necessity of God’s revelation, grounded as that is not only in our finitude, but, in the instance of inscripturation, in our sin. We can bring that into conjunction with our previous remarks on the divine origin not only of the content of Scripture but also of its form. Consider the manner in which the writer to the Hebrews made the point: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). Our focus is on the Word of God, the Logos, who has communicated to us in those various forms. Kuyper grasped the relation that is now involved: “If man is created after the image of God, and thus disposed to communion with the Eternal, then this Word of God also must be able to be grasped by man; and even after his fall into sin, this Word of God must go out to him, though now in a way suited to his condition. This takes place now, since man has received being and consciousness, in two ways. In the way of the esse [or being] by the incarnation of the Logos, and in the way of consciousness as this selfsame Logos becomes embodied in the Scripture. Both are the spoken Word; but in one case it is the Word ‘become flesh,’ in the other ‘written,’ and these two cover each other. Christ is the whole Scripture, and the Scripture brings the esse of the Christ to our consciousness.”45 The analogy, or the parallel, between the Scripture (inspiration) and the incarnation exists, then, and is doctrinally sustainable by reason that in both, in their respective ways, we have the revelation of the divine Logos, the Word of God. Here, then, “the parallel maintains itself between the incarnate and the written Logos. As in the Mediator the Divine nature weds itself to the human, and appears before us in its form and figure, so also the Divine factor of the Holy Scripture clothes itself in the garment of our form of thought, and holds itself to our human reality.”46 “It is the one Logos which in Christ by incarnation, and in the Scripture by inscripturation goes out to humanity at large,”47 and “From this special principium in God the saving power is extended centrally to our race, both by the ways of being and of thought, by incarnation and inspiration.”48
Bavinck concurs in that conclusion: “The revelation that thus comes to us objectively from the side of God is to be differentiated into a general and special one. . . . Special revelation . . . is that conscious and free act of God, by which he, in the way of a historical complex of special means (theophany, prophecy, miracle) that are concentrated in the person of Christ, makes himself known . . . to those human beings who live in the light of this special revelation . . . Both this general and this special revelation are primarily objective; and included in this objective special revelation, accordingly, is the revelation that occurs in the consciousness of prophets and apostles by addressive and interior speech, by divine inspiration in the sense of 2 Timothy 3:16.”49 And again the correlation between incarnation and inscripturation is decisively established: “Inasmuch as in his person and work Christ fully revealed the Father to us, that revelation is fully described for us in Scripture. . . . In Christ God both fully revealed and fully gave himself. Consequently also Scripture is complete; it is the perfected Word of God.”50 But it quite properly follows for Bavinck that “The incarnation of Christ demands that we trace it down to the depths of its humiliation, in all its weakness and contempt. The recording of the word, of revelation, invites us to recognize that dimension of weakness and lowliness, the servant form, also in Scripture. But just as Christ’s human nature, however weak and lowly, remained free from sin, so also Scripture is ‘conceived without defect or stain’; totally human in all its parts but also divine in all its parts.”51
It would repeat our earlier argument to observe at length that the divine origin of the Scriptures in the manner just referred to establishes its necessity, authority, and sufficiency. It is more important for our present purposes to recall what I have proposed as an important dimension of the doctrine we are investigating but to which, it appears, the existing literature has not accorded the significance it deserves. I refer to the fact that in the same way as the incarnation is to be seen in its full-orbed meaning as a covenantal incarnation, so inscripturation is again to be seen as a covenantal inscripturation. That conclusion is only confirmed by what has been adduced as the divine origin of the form as well as the content of Scripture.
The contemporary debate
Clearly, a full review of the contemporary literature that takes varying positions on the doctrine of Scripture, particularly as certain postmodern motifs have been brought in dispute against the confessional statements we have referred to, cannot be offered in this space. It will suffice for our present purposes to give brief attention to the differences of view surrounding the work of Peter Enns already referred to. In doing so, I shall confine my comments substantially to what Enns’ work has to say in relation to the issues I have raised to this point, notably the relation between inspiration and incarnation. Enns speaks in this connection of “incarnational analogy.” But what, precisely, we shall have to ask, is Enns’ own understanding of the implications of his “incarnational model” of the proper approach to Scripture? The “incarnational analogy” itself reflects Enns’ conviction, as he states it, that the Word of God as Scripture and the Word of God as Jesus Christ became incarnate, are fully divine and fully human.52 But it is the relation between those characteristics in the Scriptures that drives Enns’ arguments to a level, we have to conclude, somewhat below the traditional Reformed doctrinal expressions.
It might be thought that Enns sets out to write in the tradition of the inscripturation-incarnation analogy we have seen to be a sound and well-established part of the historic Reformed theology. For at the very beginning of his Inspiration and Incarnation he states: “The starting point for our discussion is the following: Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible. . . . This way of thinking of Christ is analogous to thinking about the Bible. In the same way that Jesus is - must be - both God and human, the Bible is also a divine and human book.”53 And in his paper on “An Incarnational Model of Scripture” he refers with approval to some of the same instances of the analogy that we have noted in the work of Bavinck, as well as to the same relation in that of the Princeton writers, Warfield and the two Hodges.54 But the expectation that Enns falls solidly within the Reformed tradition finally dissipates. Indeed, while Enns’ work was found by the administration of Westminster Theological Seminary not to be within the boundary of the Westminster Confession, the assumed confessional basis of the Seminary, on the occasion of the termination of Enns’ professorship there it was stated, nevertheless, “that his teaching and writings fall within the purview of Evangelical thought.”55 Such a statement indicates, unhappily, the breadth of the deviation from historic Reformed theology that the broad stream of evangelicalism, what has been referred to as “Post-Conservative Evangelicalism” (PCE),56 countenances at this time.57
A full review of Enns’ work reveals that in presenting what he sees as “challenges to traditional, evangelical views about Scripture”58 the problems that can be charged against him are due to his view of the human side of Scripture. Not to be unduly expansive at this point, the first matter to be called in question alerts us to what is undoubtedly a problem area in evangelical thought at this time. That has to do with theological and hermeneutical method. For Enns’ approach to the Scriptures requires him to conclude, on the basis of his reconstruction of the historical and cultural milieu of the time in which the Scriptures were written (the early chapters of Genesis and the subsequent stories of the patriarchs being prime examples of what is in view), that “the Bible, at every turn, shows how ‘connected’ it is to its own world.”59 By that it is meant that “what modern scholarship demonstrated was that the Bible shared many of the standards, concepts, and worldview of its ancient Near Eastern neighbors.”60 “Israel’s ancient stories were composed first orally in the context of the well-established ancient Near Eastern cultures of the day,” and “although the biblical stories existed earlier in oral form and only later were written down in Hebrew, one cannot argue that this oral prehistory insulated them from the influence of the ancient Near Eastern stories present in the surrounding cultures.”61 No doubt some such influence may have existed. But the question arises as to whether, then, “there is myth in the Old Testament.”62 For if, to follow Enns for the moment, the pre-biblical stories (such as the Gilgamesh story of an ancient flood) are taken to be “myth” as Enns defines it, “one might ask why it is that God can’t use the category we call ‘myth’ to speak to ancient Israel,”63 with the implication in Enns’ argument that God does do just that.
Enns repeatedly looks at the Old Testament through the lens of early non-biblical history and culture and finds in the latter, for example, “a helpful starting point from which to understand the origin of Israel’s creation story. . . . The reason the opening chapters of Genesis look so much like the literature of ancient Mesopotamia is that the worldview categories of the ancient Near East were ubiquitous and normative at the time.”64 Or again, as to the law that was given to Israel, “we see much of the same thing. Even though Israel’s law was revealed by God through Moses on Mount Sinai, these laws were by no means unique to them. It is hard to imagine that, until Mount Sinai, neither the Israelites nor the surrounding ancient Near Eastern nations had any idea that murder was wrong . . .or that one should honor one’s parents . . .”65 Enns is here raising the question as to whether the revelation as we have it in the Old Testament is unique. His answer implies that it is not.
Two observations can be made in the light of what Enns has thus advanced. First, it is noteworthy that throughout his work he has used his conception of the relation between the Scriptures and the worldview characteristic of its cultural milieu, with the implications of the latter’s storied history, to call in question the persuasions and methodological preoccupations of what he refers to as “conservative” scholarship. “Conservatives have tended to employ a strategy of selective engagement, embracing evidence that seems to support their assumptions . . . but retreating from evidence that seems to undercut these assumptions . . . for conservative scholars doctrine was everything, regardless of the historical evidence that challenged doctrine . . . [and] the doctrinal implications of the Bible being so much a part of its ancient contexts are still not being addressed as much as they should.”66
It is a worrying aspect of Enns’ work that by reason of its heavy preoccupation with the history and culture of the times and the influence which that has bequeathed to the biblical corpus, he concludes that “when new evidence comes to light, or old evidence is seen in a new light, we must be willing to engage that evidence and adjust our doctrine accordingly.”67 The argument for doctrinal flexibility and instability does not sit well with the confessional statement that “The authority of the holy scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God the author thereof.”68 Again, Enns concludes that “What the Bible is must be understood in light of the cultural context in which it was given.”69 It would seem that in his preoccupation with the historical and cultural evidences that influenced the human authors in the writing of Scripture Enns moves toward a certain kind of “kenoticism,” or a divine emptying in the origin of Scripture.70 On that critically important point, the report of Westminster Seminary’s Historical and Theological Field Committee observes that “While it is appropriate and important to seek to understand biblical passages in terms of their cultural context, it is inappropriate, in a Reformed, confessional context, to let those phenomena determine what the Bible is (i.e., a doctrine of Scripture). Such a methodology denies that we determine our doctrine of Scripture in terms of its self-witness alone; it denies that a doctrine of Scripture is gleaned by virtue of what Scripture says about itself.”71 Enns writes that “One would have to be somewhat self-absorbed to think he or she can have anything final to say on what the Bible is and what we should do with it.”72 It should be clear that such a conclusion does not accord with the theopneustos, or breathing out, or inspiration claimed in 2 Timothy 3:16.
Second, let it be supposed for the sake of argument that, as was suggested above, the Bible is not unique (in the sense Enns intends) by reason that the non-Israelitish nations as well as Israel knew that murder was wrong. The question arises, then, as to why that might have been so. Why, that is to say, was the extra-Israelitish culture in that respect what it was? It is to be said that by reason of God’s initial communication to Adam in his capacity as the federal head and representative of the race, and by virtue of God’s common grace in the years and decades that followed, there was born in the human consciousness a conception of the law of God, darkened and shadowed and indistinct though that may have been as a result of man’s fallenness and sinful state. Enns gets near to the point when he suggests “a deeper reality, that God has set up the world in a certain way and that way is imprinted on all people.”73 But Enns does not allow the force of such a realization to impact his interpretive construction of the meaning of Scripture. Rather, the conclusion follows that “understanding the Old Testament in its Near Eastern setting will raise the question of how normative certain portions of the Old Testament are: if the Old Testament is a cultural phenomenon, how binding is it upon us whose cultural landscape is quite different? . . . It simply will not do to assume that what was binding on Israel is binding on us because it is written in the Bible, and the Bible is God’s word, and therefore all of it is of equal weight through all time.”74
We must leave aside for the present the detailed arguments Enns presents regarding what he refers to as the diversity of the Scriptures.75 By that he means that tensions and contradictions occur in the Old Testament.76 His claims provoked an interesting and illuminating response by Waltke, who examines Enns’ exegesis of certain Old Testament texts.77 Leaving aside the details of Waltke’s arguments, it is salutary to be reminded that “[I]t is a basic rule of hermeneutics that in cases of ambiguity, one interprets an unclear statement in light of a clear one.”78
In the same context Enns addresses the New Testament’s use of the Old. In doing so, he claims that the “incarnational analogy” should again come to our aid because of what it implies for “apostolic hermeneutics.”79 That, he argues, consistently with his perspective that brings to prominence the determining significance for the biblical text of the writers’ cultural milieu, requires us to understand “the interpretive world in which the New Testament was written,”80 or, as Enns states it, “the New Testament authors’ cultural moment.”81 What Enns means by his adducing again at that point the “incarnational analogy” is that doing so rescues us from the “very real risk of trying to understand the Bible in fundamental isolation from the cultures in which it was written.”82 That complex of thought deserves close examination for Enns’ understanding of the “apostolic hermeneutic.” That, as he sees it, is a “christotelic” hermeneutic83, meaning that for the apostles “the coming of Christ is so climactic that it required [them] to look at the Old Testament in a whole new light.”84 That is, “To read the Old Testament ‘christotelically’ is to read it already knowing that Christ is somehow the end to which the Old Testament story is heading.”85 That is all very well. But we dissent from Enns at that point in so far as his concept of “christotelic hermeneutic” fails to acknowledge that the New Testament interpretation of Old Testament texts is, in fact, part of the original meaning of the Old Testament text as its ultimate author, the Holy Spirit, intended.86
What Enns’ position amounts to is that “the incarnate written word (Scripture) is, like Christ, beyond our ability to grasp exhaustively: we can speak of the incarnate Christ meaningfully, but never fully. We should not think that the Bible . . . is any less mysterious.”87 That implies for Enns that “there is no absolute point of reference to which we have access that will allow us to interpret the Bible stripped of our own cultural context.”88 Therefore, “Although the Bible is clear on central matters of faith, it is flexible in many matters that pertain to day to day.”89
Reason exists to cast doubt, finally, on Enns’ understanding of the meaning of Scripture, notwithstanding his lengthy claims on the point, in that he diminishes the reality and presence of “an error-preventing inspiration”90 that emanates from the supervising work of the Holy Spirit in the production of the Scriptures. Enns states frequently that the Scripture is what the human authors, or what the first hearers or readers of the text, might have understood it to mean. But there is an error in grounding the meaning of Scripture simply or solely in human authorial intent. For the meaning of Scripture is what its ultimate author, the Holy Spirit, intended to convey by it. And the human authors cannot be said necessarily to have held in mind all that God the Holy Spirit intended. Enns’ argument is that in order to understand the Scriptures as they have come to us from the apostles it is necessary to understand “the interpretive world in which the New Testament was written,”91 and that was the interpretive world of the Second temple period.92 But in spite of Enns’ repeated emphasis in that manner on the significance of the biblical writers’ contemporary cultural milieu, we reject his notion, as Scott has put it, of an enculturated Scripture.93
But we do not lose sight of the fact that Enns has presented his work as informed by an “incarnational analogy,” and on that level it is to be set against what we adduced as the legitimate inscripturation-incarnation analogy of historic Reformed thought. Enns, then, has spoken of the analogical relation between the Scriptures and the incarnation in the very broad and general sense that in some respects both our Lord by incarnation and the Scriptures are both divine and human in character. In other words, the incarnational analogy is established by the fact that the Bible is recognized as God’s word. Enns refers to “Scripture as God’s incarnate word.”94 But from what we have now seen, Enns’ understanding of the divine element of the Scriptures is such that what God has said in them is really not too different from what was already known by men in general, and as a result, highly questionable light is thrown on the Scriptures’ uniqueness, authority, and plenary inspiration. That is the final failure of Enns’ work, which has not only distanced him from the historic confessional doctrine but has left him comfortably in what, unfortunately, may be an “evangelical” tradition (Post-Conservative Evangelicalism?), recognizably outside of the historic Reformed theology and doctrine.
We may sum up Enns’ failure in a different way. We have drawn attention to Warfield’s caution that there is in the case of Christ’s incarnation, but there is not in the case of the Scriptures, a hypostatic union of the divine and the human. But we have observed that in the case of both incarnation and inscripturation the divine is essential and the human is contingent, though real. Enns’ incarnation model or analogy is silent on that important datum and on, therefore, the essentiality of the divine. He is too ready to allow the meaning of Scripture to be determined, not by the priority of the divine action that is inherent in it, but by external evidential data. In that, Enns is outside of the boundaries of the Reformed confessions.
I revert to the point at which I began. The Bible is the Word of God. It is the speech of God to us in our state of sin. God, in the Person of his Holy Spirit, is its author. Further, we understand the Bible to be the word of God because it is self-attesting as to its scripturicity, inspiration, and authority. The full persuasion to that effect turns, on the level of our Spirit-induced apprehension of its truth, on the awareness that the inscripturation of God’s revelation is a covenantal inscripturation. God, moreover, has accommodated his speech to us to our sinful condition. His inscripturated word, as is to be said of all of his revelation, is anthropomorphic. We can see a legitimate analogy between inscripturation and incarnation, in that the divine-human natures in Christ are reflected in the divine-human nature of Scripture. That analogy holds while at the same time, however, it is realized that the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in Christ is not, and of course cannot be, precisely reflected in the same sense in the Scriptures. Finally, when we say that our doctrine of Scripture, of what the Scripture is and what it means, is determined by the Scripture’s self-attestation and what it says of itself, we reject the claim that it is flexibly determined by any external cultural or evidential data. By the internal testimony of the Spirit, who in the grace of regeneration takes away the darkness of soul and enables us to see what was always there to be seen, and by the grace of illumination with which he blesses our journey, we know that the Scriptures are the word of God because in them we hear God speaking. We know that the Scriptures are inerrant and infallible by reason that God who is their author is a God of truth. The meaning of the Scripture is the meaning that God intended, and it does not depend simply or only on human authorial intent or what it might have meant to original readers or hearers.
The Scripture as given, then, is the only rule of life and belief.
AuthorDouglas Vickers is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts. Among his recent titles in doctrinal and apologetic theology are When God Converts a Sinner; The Texture of Truth; Divine Redemption and the Refuge of Faith; Christian Confession and the Crackling Thorn; and The Fracture of Faith.
This article is under Copyright © 2009 Douglas Vickers. All rights reserved. Prepared for delivery at the meeting of the New England Reformed Fellowship, September, 2009. Mr. Vickers has graciously given permission to reproduce this article to The Highway. We would like to extend our appreciation to him for his generosity in allowing us to share his writings.
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