J. Gresham Machen

 

In the last two talks in this series, I have been speaking to you about the question how God may be known. He may be known, I said, only as He has been pleased to reveal Himself. But He has been pleased to reveal Himself in two ways. In the first place, He has been pleased to reveal Himself through nature — by the wonders of the world and by His voice within, the voice of conscience — and, in the second place, He has been pleased to reveal Himself in an entirely different way that we call “supernatural” because it is “above nature.” We were talking about that supernatural revelation in the last talk. In that supernatural revelation God has spoken to men not through the wonders of the world that He has made and not through His voice planted in our hearts, the voice of conscience, but directly and specially, in a way analogous to the way in which one person here on earth gives a piece of information to another.

I said at the close of the little talk that all of that “supernatural” or special revelation that we know is contained within the pages of one book, the Bible. Was I right in saying that?

Well, I think that I was just about right. Supernatural revelation, along with the miracles, ceased when the last of the Apostles of Jesus died. If you want information as to why the miracles ceased, and with them supernatural revelation, I think you will find it if you will turn, for example, to the admirable book by the late B. B. Warfield, entitled Counterfeit Miracles.1

But why should we not obtain information, in addition to that recorded in the Bible, about supernatural revelation given, indeed, not later, but in Bible times? Well, it is perfectly conceivable that we might do so. It is perfectly conceivable, for example, that there might turn up in Egypt bits of papyrus affording true information about words of Jesus not contained in the four Gospels. But the bits of papyrus which have actually turned up so far hardly seem to provide such information. It is, for example, on the whole unlikely that Jesus really spoke the words recorded in one such fragment: “Lift up the stone, and there thou shalt find me; cleave the wood, and there I am.”2 On the whole, speaking broadly, we can certainly say that all the supernatural revelation that we can be at all certain about, although no doubt other supernatural revelation was given in Bible times, is recorded in the pages of one book, the Bible.

But then the question forces itself upon our attention: “How about that record?” We have said that the record of supernatural revelation outside the Bible is uncertain, to say the very best for it. But is the record in the Bible any better? Can we really depend upon the record?

I want to try to answer that question today. I want to try to tell you what I think the right view of the Bible is.

In doing so, I am perfectly well aware of the fact that in the opinion of a good many people I shall be putting my worst foot forward. I shall be giving expression to views which put me out of accord with the main trend of opinion both outside the Church and inside of it. Should I not be wiser if I took this thing more gradually, if I adopted a more apologetic line of approach, if I decided, in the first part of my little series at least, to conceal somewhat the full unpopularity of my opinions?

In reply, I just want to say that I do not think that if I adopted that method I should be treating you quite fairly. Here we are, sitting down together quietly. Cannot we at least be friends? Cannot we at least try to understand each other, whether we can agree with each other or not? I do not think that I should be doing my part toward that mutual understanding if I concealed from you the real basis of what I am going to say.

Hence I am going to tell you at once, just as briefly and plainly as I can, what I think about the inspiration of the Bible.

As I do that I am afraid I shall have to relinquish any ambitions of being brilliant or sparkling or eloquent. A simple, summary presentation of a large subject does not lend itself to the exercise of these qualities. So I must resist the temptation of exhibiting my eloquence. That is just too bad! But I do not think I can estimate my self-sacrifice in this particular too highly. You see, I am greatly assisted in my battle against the temptation of exhibiting my eloquence by the fact that I have no eloquence to exhibit.

At any rate, whether because of necessity or because of choice, I am subordinating all other ambitions in these little talks to the one ambition of being plain. I do want to try to help you to get certain things straight. They may seem to be simple and even elementary, and yet there is the strangest confusion about them today. You may not agree with me about these things, but at least I hope that if you are broadminded enough to listen to me at all you may obtain a fairer conception about what certain much abused people — we who believe in the inspiration of the Bible — really hold. After all, there are a good many people in the world who believe, as I do, that the Bible is the Word of God; and you cannot really be broadminded, you cannot really have an intelligent view of the state of humanity as a whole, if you listen only to what is said about these people by their opponents and never take the trouble to listen to what they have to say for themselves.

Of course, I cannot conceal from you the fact that I have also another and a higher purpose in these little talks. I want not only to clear away misconceptions from your minds as to what we believe, but I want to win some of you to believe the same thing yourselves. I want not only to show you what are the views of people who believe that there is a God and that He has spoken to men, but also to try to lead some of you to listen to the voice of God for yourselves. I know I cannot do that by any mere persuasions or arguments of mine. I can do it only if I have the blessing of God. But if I can just be the instrument, in these little talks, to clear away the mists and to enable you to see God, above all if I can bring you a message from God’s Word as to how you can come into God’s presence and become His child — if I can do that even for a single one of you — then these little talks will have been well worth while.

What, then, shall we think about the Bible? I will tell you very plainly what I think we ought to think. I will tell you very plainly what I think about it. I hold that the Biblical writers, after having been prepared for their task by the providential ordering of their entire lives, received, in addition to all that, a blessed and wonderful and supernatural guidance and impulsion by the Spirit of God. so that they were preserved from the errors that appear in other books and thus the resulting book, the Bible, is in all its parts the very Word of God, completely true in what it says regarding matters of fact and completely authoritative in its commands.

That is the doctrine of full or “plenary” inspiration of Holy Scripture. It is not a popular doctrine. It is not in accordance with the wisdom of this world. A man cannot hold to it seriously (and really act in accordance with it) and at the same time enjoy the favor of the world or the favor of the ecclesiastical authorities in many of the churches of the present day. Yet it is a very blessed doctrine all the same, and if a man founds his life upon it he can be very joyous and quite undismayed in all the sorrows and all the battles that may come upon him in this world.

Now I want to talk to you a little about that blessed doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible. It is certainly worth talking about, because it belongs not to the superstructure but to the foundation. If a man really holds to it, everything else for that man is changed.

But can a man hold to it? Is it a reasonable thing to believe in the plenary inspiration of the Bible? And if it is a reasonable thing, how can we show that it is a reasonable thing? I cannot attempt to answer that latter question with any fulness in the rest of the present little talk. But I do believe that some of the objections to the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of the Bible disappear the minute a man observes clearly what that doctrine is, and in particular the minute he observes what that doctrine is not. The strangest misconceptions prevail, even among people who otherwise are educated people, about what we believers in the plenary inspiration of the Bible really hold. Perhaps I can perform a service by clearing away one or two of those misconceptions now.

In the first place, then, let it be said that we believers in the plenary inspiration of the Bible do not hold that the Authorized Version or any other form of the English Bible is inspired. I beg your pardon for saying anything so obvious as that, but, do you know, my friends, it is necessary to say it. There are scarcely any limits to the ignorance which is attributed to us today by people who have never given themselves the trouble to discover what our view really is. Let it be said then very plainly that we do not hold that the Authorized Version or any other form of the English Bible is inspired. We are really quite well aware of the fact that the Bible was written in Hebrew and in Greek. The Authorized Version is a translation from the Hebrew and the Greek. It is a marvelously good translation, but it is not a perfect translation. There are errors in it. The translators were not supernaturally preserved from making mistakes. It is not inspired.

In the second place, we do not hold that any one of the hundreds, even thousands, of the Greek and the Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible is free from error. Before the invention of printing the Bible was handed down from generation to generation by means of copies made by hand. These copies were written out laboriously by scribes. Before one copy was worn out or lost another copy would be made to take its place, and so the Bible was handed down. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps — no one knows how many — of such copies or “manuscripts” were made. Several thousand of them, some of these containing of course only parts of the Bible or only parts of either Testament, are now in existence. These are just remnants from among the vast number that are lost. Now we believers in the inspiration of the Bible do not believe that the scribe who made any one of these manuscripts that we have was inspired. Every one of the manuscripts contains errors; no one of them is perfect. What we do believe is that the writers of the Biblical books, as distinguished from scribes who later copied the books, were inspired. Only the autographs of the Biblical books, in other words — the books as they came from the pen of the sacred writers, and not any one of the copies of those autographs which we now possess — were produced with the supernatural impulsion and guidance of the Holy Spirit which we call inspiration.

At that point an objection to the doctrine arises in the minds of many people. I am inclined to think it is a widespread objection, and I am inclined to think it troubles many thoughtful and intelligent people. “What is the use of the inspiration of the Bible,” people say, “if no form of the Bible that we now have is inspired? Why should God have worked a stupendous miracle in order to preserve the writers of the Biblical books from error and make the autographs of their books completely true if He intended then to leave the books thus produced to the mere chance of transmission from generation to generation by very human and often careless copyists?”

Such is the objection. I have deep sympathy with the people who raise it or who are troubled by it. It is such a very human objection. We are all of us so prone to say: “If God did this, why did He not also do that?” We are all of us so apt to demand of God just a little bit more than He has given us. We are all of us so reluctant to say to ourselves that perhaps God’s way is best, and that in not giving us all, He has given us just exactly what it was good for us to have.

But, human though such reasoning is, it is very wrong. What we ought to do as a matter of fact is to take with thankfulness what God has been pleased to give us and not say that because He has not been pleased to give us something else, therefore what He has been pleased to give us is of no use.

Certainly in this case with which we are dealing now what He has been pleased to give us is a very great deal, and it is far more than some people seem to think. He has given us the supernatural inspiration of the writers of the Biblical books. That is much. But, according to our view of the Bible, that is not all that He has given us. He has also, according to our view, given us a marvelously accurate, though not a supernaturally accurate, transmission, from generation to generation, of what those inspired writers wrote.

The objector says to me, “How strange, according to your view, the view of you believers in the plenary inspiration of the Bible, it is that God should leave the transmission of a supernaturally inspired book to the chance of transmission by fallible human copyists!” What do I say in reply? I say: Hold on there, brother; what is that you said? Did you say that according to our view God left the transmission of the Bible to chance? If you said that you said something that is quite wrong. That is not our view at all. No, God certainly did not, according to our view, leave the transmission of the Bible to chance. He did not leave anything to chance; but it is particularly plain that He did not leave that to chance. Was it by chance that in the early days the text of the New Testament books was so diligently copied from one piece of papyrus to another that knowledge of what the sacred writers had written was not lost during the period when that very perishable writing material was used? Was it by chance that about the beginning of the fourth century the wonderfully durable writing material, vellum, or parchment, came into use, so that two great manuscripts of the Bible made in that century are for the most part just as clear and easy to read today as if they had been made yesterday? Was it by chance that one of these manuscripts, the great Codex Sinaiticus, was so strangely preserved in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai until it was found by Tischendorf in 1859? Was it by chance that a perfect photographic reproduction of that manuscript has been made, so that although the manuscript itself was well worth the half-million dollars that the British Museum is said to be paying the Soviet government for it, you can obtain to all intents and purposes just as much information about the manuscript as if you had the manuscript itself in your hand, any time you will just come to the library of Westminster Seminary, for example, and look at the photographic reproduction? Is it by chance that the evidence for the original text of the Bible is so vastly more abundant than for the text of other ancient books in the case of which, nevertheless, nobody doubts but that we have a very close approximation indeed to what the authors wrote? Was it by chance that the King James or Authorized Version of the English Bible was made in the most glorious period of the English language and by men so wonderfully qualified for their task?

No, my friends, these things did not come by chance. God did these things. He did not do them by a miracle. But it was just as much God that did them as it would have been if He had done them by a miracle. He did them by His use of the world that He had made and by His ordering of the lives of His creatures. Very wonderfully and very graciously, according to our view of the Bible, has God provided for the preservation, from generation to generation, of His holy Word.

What is the result for you, my friends? The result is that you can take down your Authorized Version from the shelf, the version hallowed, for many of you, by many precious associations, and be very sure that it will give you good information about that which stood in the autographs of the Word of God. The study of the manuscripts of the Bible is a wonderfully reassuring thing. The Greek text of the New Testament, for example, from which the Authorized Version is taken is based not upon the best manuscripts but upon inferior manuscripts. Yet how infinitesimal is the difference between those inferior manuscripts and the best manuscripts — how infinitesimal in comparison with what they have in common! I do not mean that we ought not to take care in the use of the Bible; I do not mean that we ought not to try by every means within our power to determine what the exact wording of the authographs was. I do think that careful Christian scholarship is a very important thing. Yet God has provided very wonderfully for the plain man who is not a scholar. You do not have to depend for the assurance of your salvation and the ordering of your Christian lives upon passages where either the original wording or the meaning is doubtful. God has provided very wonderfully for the transmission of the text and for the translation into English. The Bible is perfectly plain in the things that are necessary for your souls. God will make other things in it clearer to you as the years go by. Read it, my friends. It is God’s Book, not man’s book. It is a message from the King. Read it, study it, trust it, live by it. Other books will deceive you, but not this book. This book is the Word of God.

Many things have been left unsaid this afternoon. Many things are left at loose ends. I do not like to leave things at loose ends when I am talking about the Bible. This theme is so momentous that I always wish when I talk about it that I could say everything at once. I am so afraid of leading somebody astray by telling just a part of the truth. So I do hope you will listen to me in the next one of these talks. I want to say certain things that simply must be said. I want to say something more about what the inspiration of the Bible means. Does it mean a mechanical treatment of the Biblical writers as so many people say it does? In what sense is it, and in what sense is it not, “verbal” inspiration? I want to talk to you about that question. I also want to talk to you about the question whether it is enough to say that the Bible contains a record of supernatural revelation or whether we ought rather to say that it is as a whole itself a supernatural revelation from God.


 Notes

  1. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, 1918, pp. 1-33.
  2. For text and translation, see Hugh G. Evelyn White, The Sayings of Jesus from Oxyrhynchus, 1920, pp. 35f.

 Author

John Gresham Machen (1881-1937), was an American Presbyterian scholar and apologist. Born in Baltimore, he was educated at Johns Hopkins, Princeton University and Theological Seminary, Marburg, and Gottingen. He was ordained in 1914. He taught NT at Princeton Seminary from 1906 to 1929, apart from a brief period of YMCA service in France. As a defender of the classic Reformed position, he was influenced by his teacher B.B. Warfield. When Warfield died in 1921, the mantle of leadership for the “Princeton Theology” fell upon Machen. He resigned in 1929 due to the Liberal realignment of the seminary. Machen was a principal founder of Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) and what is now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936). He served as president and professor of NT at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA from 1929 to 1937.

In 1935 he was tried and found guilty of insubordination by a presbytery convened at Trenton, New Jersey, on charges brought by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. It condemned him for activities in connection with an independent mission board. He was forbidden to defend himself and was suspended from the Presbyterian (PCUSA) ministry. Machen is regarded by friend and foe as a leading conservative apologist in the modernist-fundamentalist era. Among his most significant publications are The Origin of Paul's Religion (1927); Christianity and Liberalism (1923): most definitive of his thought; New Testament for Beginners (1923); The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930) and What is Faith? (1925).

This radio address is taken from Dr. Machen’s book, The Christian Faith in the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936).


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