(Prof. Herman C. Hanko can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org )
The following were a series of four articles which appeared in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journals of April and November, 1990, and April and November, 1991. Prof. Herman C. Hanko is professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grandville, Michigan.
Perhaps no single issue has dominated the agenda of the Reformed and Presbyterian church world today more than the issue of Hermeneutics. This is not only because various methods of interpretation have been proposed in the last few decades which have more or less made concessions to higher criticism, but many other issues which the church has faced are rooted to Hermeneutical approaches to Scripture. Evolutionism vs. Creationism, homosexuality, marriage and divorce, women in ecclesiastical office -- all these issues and more are at bottom hermeneutical. The answers which theologians and ecclesiastical assemblies have given to these questions have depended upon how Scripture is to be interpreted. The door has been opened wide to every heresy within the church; evolutionism has become almost the only way to teach science; women have been ordained into the offices of minister, elder, and deacon; homosexuality has been condoned and homosexuals have not only been permitted church membership, but have even been ordained into office; and all this has happened on the basis of specific and concrete theories of hermeneutics. The way in which one interprets the Scriptures has determined one's position in all these matters.
In many, if not most, seminaries in the country higher critical views of Scripture are taught, whether these seminaries stand in the Reformed or in the Presbyterian tradition. Concessions of every conceivable sort have been made to higher criticism and defended even by those who claim to hold to the doctrine of infallible inspiration.
And that is the root of the matter. One's hermeneutics is, after all, determined finally by the view one takes of inspiration. How did the Bible come into existence? That it is the Word of God almost no one within the mainstream of evangelical thought will deny. That God used men to write the Scripture is also too obvious from Scripture itself to contradict. But when the question arises concerning the relation between God's work and His use of men in writing the Scriptures, there is a great deal of disagreement. The larger the role given to the human instruments, the more reliance one places on higher criticism with its various techniques.
And yet one cannot help but gain the impression that the debate, in the final analysis, is not a debate over various techniques in Hermeneutics; one cannot escape the conclusion that not even the doctrine of inspiration is the real point at issue. One is constantly led to the conviction that when all else is said and done, the issue is a profoundly spiritual one. That is, the debates, while swirling around academic discussions concerning a proper biblical Hermeneutics and concerning the truth of inspiration, carry with them spiritual implications. By this I mean that the debate is finally one concerning the authority of Scripture.
Now that in itself is something of an academic question, of course. But the point is that when one begins to speak of the authority of Scripture, one is confronted with the fact that Scripture is unlike any other book. It does not come to us for verification. It does not present its case to be examined on evidence outside itself as to whether or not it ought to be believed. It is not a text on the philosophy of history which presents startling views on how one must explain history, views which are open to examination and questioning. It is the Word of God which comes to man with the "Thus saith the Lord." It carries with it the authority of the sovereign God Himself before which all men are required to bow in humility. Upon this hangs the issues of heaven or hell. It is this spiritual question which is the basic and underlying issue at stake. Will you bow humbly before the authority of God? To a certain extent, hermeneutical issues are smoke screens to cover the more basic issue. Or, to put it differently, various theories are proposed in the field of Hermeneutics and inspiration to escape the compelling and inescapable authority of the Word of God.
Our chief purpose in writing about these things is a positive one. Although some attention will have to be paid to modern higher critical views of Scripture, we are concerned about presenting principles of Hermeneutics which can be used by the child of God in studying God's holy Word.
This latter is important. If modern theories of hermeneutics are to be used in the study of Scripture, Scripture is effectively taken out of the hands of God's people as a book incapable of being understood except by those who are adept at applying, e.g., literary-historical criticism to biblical interpretation. This is a great evil and has been, at least in part, the cause of a disinterest in Bible studies among those who sit in the pew. Quite reasonably the people of God argue that if expertise is required to understand the Word of God, there is little point in taking the time and dissipating the energy required to turn to God's Word themselves. They are better off leaving these esoteric matters in the hands of the experts. If, e.g., Genesis 1 does not mean what it says, why read it to begin with? But this is a denial of the great Reformation truth of the priesthood of all believers.
Our intention of being primarily positive sets up some limitations in this study. Although we shall have to say some things about the doctrine of inspiration, we do not intend to examine this question in detail.1 Further, although we shall have a few things to say about modern theories of Hermeneutics, we do nor intend either to describe them in detail or analyze them completely. Insofar as we describe and discuss them, we do so only to demonstrate what such theories have done to Scripture's inspiration and to proper Hermeneutics.
There are many things which need badly to be said. If others would rise and say them, these articles would not have to be written. But the ecclesiastical press is strangely silent on these matters, and, insofar as they are discussed at all, they seem to be inadequate to answer the stinging attacks of higher criticism. Only occasionally and then from unexpected places can one find what is an acceptable answer to higher criticism and what constitutes a Hermeneutics which the man in the pew is able to use. It is in the interests of helping the man in the pew that we turn to this subject.
God's Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light upon our path. This is the song of the Psalmist in Psalm 119:105. Every child of God, whether a small child or an aged patriarch, whether a parent weighed down with the responsibilities of the home or a student studying in a college, whether a saint caught in the throes of persecution or battling false doctrine and the onslaughts of the evil one -- every child of God sings this song of the Psalmist triumphantly and joyously. If he cannot sing it. his life is reduced to despair. He must have the confidence to take God's Word with him wherever he goes, whether it be to the graveyard or his work place. He must be comforted when others seek to snatch God's Word from his hands. He must rest assured that he can understand the Bible as well as any theologian, for "the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him" (I John 2:27).
May God's people everywhere be persuaded that God's Word is truly the light they need on life's pathway, that it shines clearly and brightly for them, that no one need teach them, and that walking in the way of that Word there is joy and peace.
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From a certain point of view, the child of God needs no instruction in Hermeneutics. If Hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation, it follows from the very nature of Scripture itself that no formal instruction is necessary for a regenerated saint to be able to understand what God is saying in His Word. Countless saints over the centuries have read the Word of God without ever knowing the first thing about Hermeneutics, without even having heard the word. They have read Scripture, understood what God was saying to them with stark clarity, and have taken that Word into their hearts.
It is true that we teach Hermeneutics in Seminary as a required course for prospective ministers of the gospel. Students are obligated to learn the principles of biblical interpretation and to apply them to Scripture. But if they, with their acquired learning, think that by these studies they have gained an edge on God's people, they are sadly mistaken.
It has always been a principle of the Protestant Reformation over against Roman Catholicism that Scripture is easy to understand. Objectively, Scripture is perspicuous, i.e., clear and understandable by anyone who is able to read. Subjectively, the truth of the priesthood of all believers means that all God's people have the Spirit of truth in their hearts to lead them into all truth. Any child of God, therefore, is able to understand God's Word. It makes no difference what his age, education, or station in life is, he can know what the Spirit says to the church. He has no need of anyone telling him in a formal classroom setting what the principles of Hermeneutics are.
Why then talk about Hermeneutics at all? It seems redundant. And, let it be clearly stated that, in a sense, instruction in Hermeneutics is redundant. The child of God, led by the Spirit, knows, as it were instinctively, intuitively, without being able to give an account of it, what the Scriptures teach. If you should ask him what a given passage means, he will be able to tell you. If you should pursue the matter further and inquire of him how it is that he can understand the Bible, what principles of Hermeneutics he has applied to his study, he will not usually be able to tell you. The Bible is, from that point of view, like any other book. If he can read anything written in the language which he speaks, he can read the Bible. If he can understand what is being conveyed by the tongue he uses, he can understand what the Bible says. The Bible means what it says. The literal meaning of God's Word is the correct one, as we are wont to say.
All this does not mean that the Scriptures are not inexhaustible in their truth. They surely are. The perspicuity of Scripture, as we shall notice, does not mean that Scripture is shallow and devoid of content. Perspicuity is part of the wonder of the miracle of Scripture. This can be easily illustrated. One of the simplest passages of Scripture is Luke 2:7: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." While a very little child is able to understand this passage of Scripture without difficulty, at the same time no theologian has ever been able to plumb its depths, and more books than can be counted have been written concerning this profound truth of the birth of Christ.
Why then do we study Hermeneutics?
The answer is a very limited one. All Hermeneutics really does is crystallize, systematize, and articulate principles which are intuitive to every child of God. When a child of God hears, perhaps for the first time, what the principles of Hermeneutics are, his response ought to be (and will be, if the Hermeneutics is correct), "I knew that all the time." It makes clear and brings to consciousness that which has all along been assumed. Hermeneutics has nothing new to say, no new thing to communicate, no new insights to give information to a man who has been a serious student of holy Scripture.
This is humbling -- as it ought to be. A mastery of a course in Hermeneutics does not give a man a position of superiority over God's people. It does not give him insights into Scripture which the man in the pew cannot gain on his own with careful and diligent attention to God's Word. It does not set him apart in a class by himself, as a possessor of a body of knowledge which God's saints cannot acquire without the same formal course. It does not put in his possession a key to unlock the treasure house of Scripture, which key no one else has who has not taken his postgraduate courses. If he thinks it does, he doesn't belong on the pulpit. He possesses an arrogance which makes him unfitted to be a teacher in Israel.
Every minister of the Word, even if he has gained a top grade in his course in Hermeneutics, had better listen to what God's people say when they tell him of their own understanding of God's Word. They will have something worthwhile to say, something that he can learn, something that will enrich his own understanding of what God has to reveal to the church.
This is especially true when we consider that so often the minister does his exegetical work in the ivory tower of his study and makes his work of explaining the Scriptures the object of intense intellectual activity. The people of God speak of what God's Word has meant to them in their life and calling. The Holy Spirit has sealed the truth upon their hearts in the distresses and sufferings of life. They know, know in a way which only a minister who lives with them, prays with them, suffers with them, can know. They know together, within the communion of the saints as they admonish each other, help each other along the difficult pathway of this life, and join together in praises to the God of their salvation.
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We must say something concerning various theories which have been proposed in Hermeneutics, if for no other reason than that it will help us to see what others have done to destroy any proper interpretation of God's Word, so that we may avoid these evils like the plague.
All views of higher criticism have their roots in modern philosophy.
Modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, was rationalistic; i.e., it appealed to the human mind as the standard and arbiter of the truth. In reaction to the synthesis philosophy of the Scholastics, it made a distinction between philosophy and theology. Philosophy was the domain of reason; theology was the domain of faith. Philosophy answered the basic questions of the universe, of man and of his ability to know; theology dug its material out of the Bible.
The earlier philosophers of the modern period maintained, at least outwardly, their orthodoxy and did their philosophizing in a separate area from their theologizing. They held, as it were, to two bodies of truth: one acquired from their reason as it probed the mysteries of the universe, the other acquired through a study of Scripture. It was hoped that the two would never conflict, that in fact philosophy could serve as a bulwark for theology, a foundation for faith, a rational justification for biblical truth. But conflict between the two did not overly bother them.2
This could not continue. It was a false dichotomy in knowledge. The questions of philosophy concerned ultimate things necessarily involving theological questions. And most of the time the conclusions of reason were in direct conflict with the theology of Scripture. And so some kind of solution had to be found. No man can, ultimately, live with such conflicts and be serious about what he believes.
The philosophers began, therefore, to turn their attention to theological matters. But the viewpoint, the perspective, the approach was one of reason, for the philosophers were committed to the autonomy of human reason. Whether these were the continental rationalistic philosophers or the empiricists of England, reason was the criterion of truth. That which met the standards of man's reason could be accepted; that which failed the test of man's reason had to be rejected. And it was inevitable that as efforts were made to square theology with philosophy, philosophers would turn their attention to Scripture and the doctrine of inspiration.
The sad part of all this is that their views found ready acceptance in the church. The insidious influence of rationalism devastated the church, partly because these rationalists professed orthodoxy in matters of faith, and partly because the church itself had in the latter part of the 17th and in the 18th centuries entered a period of dead orthodoxy which made them vulnerable to rationalism.
A few of these early ideas are worth mentioning.
Deism, which arose chiefly in England but spread to the continent, spoke of the universe as a closed system, operating under its own laws. It was, so to speak, a mechanism created by a divine Creator much like a watch-maker manufactures a watch which is able to run by itself after it is wound. So God created the universe with its own laws by which it operated so that no longer was any divine interference necessary. All the phenomena of creation could be explained in terms of the laws by which it ran.
It is evident that this excludes much of the Christian faith. The Deists attacked Scripture's accuracy, therefore, in the historical facts and the miracles of which Scripture spoke, for they were incompatible with the assumptions of Deism. It is not hard to see that the theistic evolutionists, if such they may be called, are basically deistic in their reliance upon scientific observations as an explanation for the origin of the universe.
Also in the 18th century a school of thought arose which posited the notion of a natural religion. Leibnitz and Christian Wolff spoke of such a natural religion which was independent of Scripture and based upon scientific observation and proof. It was a religion, not formulated by a study of Scripture, but simply expressing what elements of deity were to be found in a study of the universe. Lessing in Germany carried this idea a bit further and spoke of the fact that all religions in the world were evidences of this natural religion and thus have value for us today. And Herder included in the history of this natural religion, the Bible which recorded the ancient religions of the Jewish people especially. The evil of this position was that it denied the truth of revelation and refused to believe that the origin of the religion of the Jewish people and the church had its origins in divine revelation.
Immanuel Kant, the influential German philosopher from Koningsburg, had more influence on higher criticism than any other individual. He spoke of the human intellect as being limited in its acquisition of knowledge by time and space so that it was incapable of knowing anything at all beyond this present creation and the time and space which bound it. He was an intellectual agnostic and ruled out any knowledge of spiritual things. Yet, although he pushed God out of the front door of the universe, he attempted to drag God back in through the back door. He spoke of the fact that all men could know God through the "Thou shalt" of God's moral law. The result of this was the notion that religion is nothing but morality. The incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, e.g., is nothing more than the personalization of the moral idea as it is in God. And the church is a moral society to train men to live morally upright lives. Scripture is not the written record of God's revelation but a lesson in morals which has come down to us from ancient peoples in their own superstitious beliefs.
Hegel and Schleiermacher followed these ideas of Kant to a certain extent. Hegel was a philosophical idealist and a theological pantheist. In his thinking. Christ was nothing but the highest God-consciousness which could be found among men. History is the absolute being of God relativized in creation and returning to the absolute. Consciousness is the highest reality, God coming to consciousness in man and especially in the Lord Jesus Christ. Schleiermacher held that God is essentially unknowable to the mind, but comes to be known through the feelings, particularly the feeling of dependence. Man has an indestructible sense of dependence upon a higher being, and this is essentially all religion. Inspiration is really holiness which comes through contact with the one holy Being. Scripture is a divine-human book which is the best of all Christian writings, but a product of the church in past years and of the general spirit in the church which arises from a collective consciousness of God. No longer must Scripture be considered of divine origin; it is only divine insofar as it expresses the sense of divinity in the church as the community of believers in every age made a record of their experiences in religion as they expressed their dependence upon a higher Being.
From all these notions which prevailed in the 18th century, it soon became necessary to explain how Scripture could include in its records of miracles and supernatural events. How was it, e.g., that the church came to believe that Christ, was born of a virgin that He suffered and died for sin, and that He arose again from the dead? David Frederick Strauss set about explaining that. He studied under both Hegel and Schleiermacher and wrote his Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Christ) in 1835. In this influential book he set forth what became known as the mythical theory of biblical interpretation. The church expressed her faith in the form of myths as being an acceptable mode of speaking, conducive to conveying their beliefs to the age in which they lived. That which is miraculous in Scripture is nothing but a mythological way of expressing one's faith. Christ was, therefore, a mere man who wanted to reform his nation. Gradually He became persuaded that He was the Messiah of which the Old Testament Scriptures had spoken. At first He was alarmed at the thought, but gradually He came to accept it with such fervency that He was willing to die for it. So He was a man of such high moral caliber that He was willing to give His life for what He believed.
Two important schools arose during this same period. The first was the Tubingen School of F.C. Baur. Concentrating especially on the New Testament, it explained the New Testament in terms of basic differences between the Pauline and Petrine parties in the church. The Petrine party stood for close reliance upon the Old Testament laws, while the Pauline party wanted a newer and more radical doctrine. The whole history of the apostolic church was to be interpreted in terms of this conflict and its final resolution. The result was that each book of the New Testament was examined closely to determine what role each played in the conflict. And, quite understandably, most of Paul's epistles were rejected as being authored by the apostle to the Gentiles. It is not difficult to see that such an interpretation of Scripture has nothing to do with its divine origin.
The other school was the Graf-Kuenen-Welhausen School which concentrated especially on the Old Testament. Special attention was given to the Pentateuch; its Mosaic authorship was denied; and it was explained as basically the work of editors who put it together from four separate documents which had survived many hundreds of years of Israel's history. These documents were called by the letters, J, E, D, and P. 3
These views laid the groundwork for all of modern Hermeneutics.
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Before we discuss specific views of more modern times in the field of Hermeneutics, there are a couple of things which must be understood.
In the first place, the views which we are about to discuss range over a broad spectrum of thought. They can be placed on a line, the one end of which is very modern and liberal Hermeneutics which basically denies the divine character of Scripture altogether; and the other end of which is the more "conservative" view of Hermeneutics which holds to Scripture as the Word of God in whole or in part. That they together belong to destructive higher criticism is my thesis. I am not unaware of the fact that many "conservative" Bible scholars would deny this and insist that they believe in inspiration and, in fact, the infallible inspiration of Scripture. In spite of these claims, it is my firm conviction that they belong to destructive criticism for all that and that they must be repudiated by one who holds to Scripture as God's Word. Their disclaimers are not persuasive, and we do not hesitate to characterize their views as being rationalistic approaches to Scripture which destroy Scripture's fundamental character and rob God's Word of its final authority.
The second point which needs to be made is that one need not necessarily pick out one of the views which we are about to discuss as being the preferable way to interpret Scripture. One can hold to several of these views at the same time.
It is one of the striking features of modern Hermeneutics that every year brings different theories forward concerning methods of biblical interpretation. One can hardly keep up with them all. Each new pet theory is another way which is supposed to offer us insight into biblical interpretation and becomes another tool in the hands of the interpreter of God's Word to help explain Scripture. But the proposing of a new theory does not necessarily mean that older ones have been abandoned. Those who promote, e.g., Form Criticism may at the same time hold to literary and historical criticism. The views overlap. More than one can be used.
With this introductory note, we turn to a brief discussion of some of these views.
On the more liberal end of the spectrum we find several such views which are rather common today even though proposed many years ago.
A very commonly held idea and one which has gained wide acceptance is Form Criticism. While there are variations of this view, basically it holds that especially the New Testament books of the Bible must be interpreted in terms of writing down what were originally oral traditions. The idea goes something like this. During the years of our Lord's ministry, gradually gospel stories and sayings of the Lord were formulated as people told others about what they had seen and heard, or what they had received from others. These stories, as stories have a way of doing, became somewhat stereotyped so that they took on a fairly fixed form.
After the Lord died and went to heaven, these stories and sayings circulated as separate units --in various Christian communities as the gospel spread throughout the world. Some of them were even written down in old documents, no longer available to us, but lying at the basis of the gospel narratives. Such documents are supposed to be the explanation for the similarities between the gospel narratives. An investigation of all this is the method used to solve the so-called "synoptic problem," which addresses itself to the question of why there are similarities but also differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke.4
These units of oral tradition entered their twilight period during the years A.D. 30 - 60. Gradually they were altered and embellished under the influences of the beliefs in different Christian communities mainly for the purpose of being used effectively for communicating the gospel to others outside the church, and they were finally put into fixed form by the gospel narrators.
The result is basically four layers in the gospel narratives. The lowest layer is Jesus' own words and the authentic memories of His deeds. The next layer is the contributions made by the Post-Easter community. The third layer is the contributions of the Hellenistic community. And the final layer is the contributions of the evangelists themselves as they put all these traditions into their final form.
It is the task of the critic to discover in the gospel which parts are truly original and authentic.
It is clear that the efforts to discover what elements in the gospels are original and authentic are going to be determined by one's presuppositions. Hence, very liberal critics find very little which is truly reliable. One critic went so far as to say that when we finally penetrate all the layers and discover what is really authentic, we can conclude only that there once lived a man who was called Jesus. More conservative critics find much more that is authentic and are even willing to concede that most, if not all, we find in the gospels can be relied upon as trustworthy.
Another view, somewhat related to Form Criticism, is the approach to Scripture called Gemeinde Theologie or, Church Theology. This view holds to the notion that the church at the time Scripture was written formulated her beliefs concerning Christ which she incorporated into various documents. These beliefs were the response of the church to all God's speech. Scripture is the record of the believers' reaction to what God has said in Christ. Scripture is a kind of confession which the church makes concerning her faith. And this is, of course, something in which the church still engages.
A distinction was often made also between Historie and Geschichte. While both German words can be translated by the one word "history," the idea of the distinction is this: Historie refers to the facts of history itself; Geschichte emphasizes the mutual encounter of persons as they participate in and personally interpret Historie. This Geschichte involves various "encounters." It involves the original encounter of a person or persons with the facts of history, the encounter of the recorder who sets about recording such data, and the encounter of the interpreter. Other aspects of such an encounter can be added. The idea of calling all this "encounter" is that through the entire process one encounters Christ Who comes through the kerygma, i.e., the proclamation of Christ.
Bultmann developed this idea further when he spoke, e.g., of the resurrection of Christ as being the Geschichte of the Historie of the cross.
It might be well to pause for a moment and examine this, for there are a couple of interesting elements about it. For one thing, it is an example of the deception of some higher critical studies. If, e.g., one would ask a man whether he believed that the resurrection of Christ was history, his answer could (and, perhaps, would) be: Yes, but he would mean this in the sense of Geschichte and not Historie since both words mean the same thing. Thus by means of the distinction the historical reality of the resurrection is denied, for the resurrection narrative is only in mythical form. What the church believed concerning the cross; i.e.. that the dead Messiah continues to live in the life and consciousness of the church.
Bultmann was the one who also proposed a de-mythologizing of Scripture in order to get at what was authentic and historically factual. He interpreted a myth as being anything which was contrary to the modern scientific world-view of our time. This included a denial of the concept of a three-story universe with hell below earth and heaven above. It included also a denial of the intervention of supernatural powers including devils and angels. And it included the possibility of miracles. All these are contrary to science and cannot be accepted by the modern man. All in Scripture, therefore, which speaks of these things must be considered as myth. And the only way to understand Scripture is to de-mythologize it. What we have left when all the myths have been stripped away is the notion that the cross and resurrection of Christ mean that judgment is brought into the world with the possibility of a new life opened for man.
Another rather popular method proposed is the Sitz im Leben theory of inspiration which must be taken into account in Bible interpretation.5 The idea of this view, although more involved than we can explain here, is that the biblical writers were influenced by their own "situation in life so that their own cultural viewpoints were incorporated into their writings. This has become increasingly popular in our day as the view that the biblical writers were culturally conditioned in their writings. The statements of Paul, e.g., which deny the right of women to hold ecclesiastical office are only his cultural conditioning and not to be accepted today as normative for the life of the church.
Many different techniques are applied to Scriptural interpretation in modern Hermeneutics. Form Criticism, e.g., concentrates upon the literary form in which Scripture comes to us. Redaction Criticism emphasizes that the final products of Scripture which we have in our possession are the work of editors who assembled traditions, writings, and other available material in one coherent document. Source criticism makes an effort to determine the sources which the biblical writers used whether they were rabbinical writings, Old Testament writings, apocryphal writings, genealogies, early forms of the gospels, or whatever.
All of these belong, more or less, to what is commonly known as literary-historical criticism. This form of criticism examines the documents of Scripture to determine such things as their literary genera and their historical setting. So popular has this become in our day that there is scarcely to be found anyone in the major Seminaries of the country who does not hold to this view of biblical interpretation.
A striking example of this is to be found in Tremper Longman III's book, Literary Approaches to Biblical Criticism. 6 Tremper Longman Ill is professor of Old Testament in Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is, therefore, a "conservative" Bible scholar who would undoubtedly claim to hold to the infallible inspiration of Scripture. After discussing in Chapter 1 Source, Form, and Redaction Criticism, he devotes his book to a study of the problem involved in literary criticism. 7
He speaks first of all of the fact that the writer may be an editor or a redactor and that he may have used sources. In considering this aspect of Scripture one must take into account the writer's purpose in writing as well as his cultural milieu.
Secondly, one must consider the narrator in the writing who is usually different from the writer. Sometimes he is a real person, sometimes fictional. One must determine his purpose in speaking and his cultural milieu, taking into consideration the fact that he may be omnipresent and omniscient. One must also take into consideration the narratee within the story and how he hears. But even then one is not finished. One must reckon with the person or persons to whom the writing is addressed; the reader, not always the same as the one to whom the writing is addressed; and later readers.
Thirdly, one must consider the setting of a writing, the genre (whether poetry, narrative, prophecy, etc.), the figures of speech; the devices used (e.g., Matthew makes an analogy between Christ's life on earth and Israel's forty years of wandering); 8 and, finally, the plot.
Now apart from any other consideration, one wonders how in all God's world it is possible for even a trained exegete, much less an untrained child of God, ever to discover what Scripture means if all these things are necessary. Not only is the process much too long and complicated for anyone to apply it successfully, but most of the information that has to be gained by this method in order to understand the biblical text is sheer speculation and almost totally unavailable to us. The whole structure is a house of cards which tumbles by its own weight. Every man has his own idea of who the narrator (whether real or fictional) is; of who the narratee and the addressee are. The simple fact of the matter is that Scripture is not pleased to reveal this to us in many instances, quite obviously because all this stuff is not necessary to understand the Word of God.
The difficulty is that Longman and others who take this same approach justify it on the grounds that this is really nothing more than an application of the old and traditional grammatical and historical method of exegesis. This method goes back to the early church and the School of Antioch; it was used by the great fathers in the church with more or less consistency; it was the method of the Reformers; it continues to hold a treasured place in the life of the church to this day.
But the question is: is this appeal justified? We shall have to give an answer to this question in a later article, an answer which will give us opportunity to discuss various other aspects of the problem.
For the present, we may draw several conclusions. In the first place, it is not difficult to trace many contemporary views in Hermeneutics to rationalistic philosophy. That ought to give us pause. The approach of these modern methods of Hermeneutics is the approach of rationalism, and rationalism stands directly opposed to faith. It is the antithesis of faith vs. unbelief, of Christ vs. Belial. In the second place, wherever on the spectrum of higher criticism one may stand whether towards the liberal end or towards the conservative end -- it is fundamentally all of one piece. Even such a brief survey as we have offered demonstrates clearly how many modern views in Hermeneutics share a common ground with suggestions and ideas promoted by the early philosophers who applied the principles of rationalistic philosophy to Bible studies. In the third place, one cannot doubt even for a moment that all such views ultimately make biblical interpretation impossible for the untrained believer.
And this is, after all, what we are most concerned about. To apply the principles of Hermeneutics outlined in our survey necessarily forces one to take one of two positions. He must either admit that the Bible is in whole or in part not the Word of God, or he must fall back on the old Medieval distinction between two levels of meaning in Scripture: one level that of the simple meaning open to any child of God; the other a deeper level of meaning available only to the expert. And that accursed notion also effectively takes God's Word out of the hands of His people.
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As we noticed in the last issue of the Journal many theories have been proposed as ways to interpret Scripture. We are not now interested in the more liberal views which have been held by Bible critics over the years, views which blatantly and openly deny infallible inspiration; we are concerned about the views of those who claim to hold to a conservative position on Scripture, i.e., a position which affirms the inspiration of Scripture and its infallibility, but who adopt some kind of biblical criticism and claim that this is not incompatible with Scripture's infallible inspiration. 9
Before we proceed with our discussion, it might be well to define some terms.
One form of biblical criticism currently in favor is called "redaction criticism." Redaction criticism is of particular interest because it embraces many other types of criticism as well.
In the October 18, 1985 issue of Christianity Today, a symposium was published on redaction criticism in which five scholars participated and in which the whole idea of redaction criticism was thoroughly discussed. The participants were Kenneth Kantzer, dean of the Christianity Today Institute and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Divinity School who moderated the forum; D. A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Divinity School; Harold W. Hoehner, professor of New Testament literature and exegesis at Dallas Theological Seminary; Vern S. Poythress, then associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; and David M. Scholer, professor of New Testament and dean of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Downers Grove, Illinois.
A definition of redaction criticism was offered as follows:
A synonym for redacting is editing. Someone who redacts a piece of writing edits it, as a newspaper editor polishes a reporter's news story.
"Criticism" in this case means a study of what these early "editors" did.
Thus redaction criticism is the study of how editing has been done. It's the attempt to ascertain the viewpoint of a gospel writer/editor: How did he select his material? How did he arrange his material? How did he phrase the material and direct it toward particular themes or purposes? Note that we're not talking about the editor creating new material. We're talking about selection and focus (p. 2-1).
One of the participants in the symposium related redaction criticism to other forms of criticism and demonstrates that various forms of criticism are not incompatible with each other; all can be used in the one process of redaction criticism.
Text criticism looks at what happens after the completion of the final product, the actual book of the Bible.
Redaction criticism explores the step before that final editing.
Source criticism looks at the step previous, where the author chooses his sources, usually written.
Form criticism looks at the oral stage in back of that (p. 3-1)
While warning against the excesses and wrong applications of redaction criticism, all the members of the symposium agreed that there was a proper use of this tool in biblical interpretation. For example, the moderator of the symposium writes:
it is not principles distinctive of redaction criticism that have led to these objectionable conclusions but rather their faulty presuppositions and invalid applications (p. 11-1).
And in the course of the discussion it was observed:
Some critics say that the method of redaction criticism itself is wrong. What's really wrong are some of the presuppositions some redaction critics start with (p. 6-1).
It is striking, however, that one major plea for the use of redaction criticism was the insistence that only in this way can evangelicals effectively communicate with other scholars. In response to the suggestion that, instead of "trying to reclaim the term for use by evangelical scholars," it might be well to "do away with it altogether and use another," the following reactions were given.
I don't think that works.
The term redaction criticism is simply too broadly used in biblical scholarship to try to mount a campaign to do away with it. It's better to define responsible redaction criticism.
If you want to influence liberal scholarship, you must be able to communicate -- and that means using their terms, but defined so we can accept them. If you don't, communication becomes almost impossible (p. 6-1).
It is clear that all the participants agreed to a proper use of redaction criticism with all that implies, even though issuing words of caution. 10
The viewpoint of redaction criticism (which includes form criticism, source criticism, literary and historical criticism) approaches Scripture from a distinctive viewpoint. It argues that, because God was pleased to use men in the writing of the Scriptures, the proper understanding of Scripture involves a careful and detailed analysis of how they did their writing. This careful analysis involves many different aspects. It involves determining what sources the secondary authors of Scripture used: what written sources and oral sources. It involves determining how Matthew and Luke, e.g., put the material they collected together. It involves how the gospel writers depended upon each other's writings (the so-called synoptic problem). It involves the purpose each had for writing -- which consideration in turn includes those to whom a particular book of the Bible was addressed and what problem in that group was the chief consideration in writing. It involves a careful analysis of the type of literature they used: whether they used poetry, letter-form, narrative, or prophecy. It involves all the final work and editing which Mark (or any other writer) did in order to put his document in its final form. It is a lengthy and involved study to learn the history of a document and to subject it to careful literary and historical analysis. Without finding answers to all these questions, it is impossible to come to a clear and definite answer to the meaning of Scripture.
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The question is: How do those who support this method of biblical interpretation square it with their commitment to infallible and inerrant inspiration?
While repeatedly assuring us that they indeed do believe in infallible inspiration, a discussion of this question is not easy to find in their writings. The answer we give, therefore, is, at least in part, our own deductions from what they write.
The argument goes something like this. The church has, from a time very early in the history of the New Testament period, adopted what has been called the "grammatico-historical" method of exegesis. It was first developed by the school in Antioch, practiced by such great preachers as Chrysostom with more or less consistency, firmly maintained by the Reformers and followed by all the great preachers in the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions. It was a method of exegesis which was developed out of the character of Scripture itself. Scripture is, though divinely inspired, a book which was written in human language (the Hebrew of the nation of Israel and the Greek spoken in the world of Christ and the apostles) by human authors for particular and definite purposes. The Psalms were written to be sung in the worship of God in the temple; the letters of Paul were written to historical churches or persons with problems which Paul ad-dressed. Galatians, e.g., was written to the churches in Eastern Asia Minor to combat errors of Judaism which threatened the truth of salvation through the cross of Christ alone. Not only was the language used the common language of the people of the time in which Scripture was written, but the whole setting of Scripture reflects the culture of these times. For example, Jesus, in His parable of the four kinds of soil, spoke of broadcasting seed as it was then done, not as it is done today with tractors and multi-row planters. Furthermore, because God used men to write the Scriptures. God used men in such a way that their own personality was indelibly impressed upon their writings. Isaiah's soaring prophecies reflect his personality; Paul's close argumentation differs markedly from John's intuitive gifts; David's poetic soul produced poetry of unparalleled beauty, and it is inconceivable that he could write the down-to-earth prophecy of Amos, the herdsman from Tekoa.
And there is more. The men whom God used were not mere automatons who simply wrote by dictation, almost always penning ideas and stories of which they had no knowledge other than through divine inspiration. John was, as he himself testifies, an eyewitness of everything which he wrote. Matthew could very well have consulted the genealogies in the records of Bethlehem in order to construct the genealogy of our Lord which he included in his gospel account. Luke who had no firsthand knowledge of the events of Jesus' life may very well have received some knowledge of the events which he records from others.
Because all this is true, so the argument goes, it is not only legitimate but very essential to know and understand all these things in order to come to a proper understanding of Scripture. One can hardly preach, e.g., on the text, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean" (Psalm 51:7) unless he has also some knowledge of the hyssop plant which was native to Palestine. The grammatico-historical method of exegesis, so long in use in the church and accepted by every orthodox theologian throughout the entire new dispensation, implies that Scripture be interpreted by taking all these things into account. Redaction criticism, if rightly understood and not abused by those who are not committed to destructive criticism which denies infallible inspiration, is nothing else but a more exact application of what is meant by the time-honored method of exegesis called the grammatico-historical method.
In fact, so the argument goes, if you repudiate redaction criticism or literary-historical criticism, you are ipso facto committing yourself to a theory of inspiration which denies the great truth that God used men in writing of this magnificent book. You are committing yourself to a dictation theory of inspiration which fails to do justice to what kind of a book Scripture actually is. And, worst of all, you are becoming guilty of the horrendous sin of bibliolatry.
Because, therefore, the grammatico-historical method of exegesis has a long and noble history, because every orthodox theologian of all time has used it, because it alone does justice to the obvious character of Scripture as written by human men, it is that method of biblical interpretation which leads to a correct understanding of Scripture. Redaction criticism is no different essentially from the grammatico-historical method of exegesis. It simply applies the revered grammatico-historical method in some detail. Redaction criticism is the only justifiable way to engage in biblical interpretation.
So goes the defense of redaction criticism.
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What are we to say about all this?
Let it be clearly understood first of all that we agree with much that has been written about the Scriptures being written in the particular historical setting of old dispensational and early new dispensational times. Not only do we agree with much of all this, but it is an obvious fact that no one of any standing in the whole history of the church has to my knowledge ever held to any kind of dictation theory of inspiration -- a theory which simply ignores the fact that God used Moses and Habakkuk, e.g., with all their gifts and abilities, their training and upbringing, their culture and personality to write His Word. The great exegetes and preachers of all ages have held to this view and it would, on the very face of it, be insane to deny it.
We will even go a step further. If all this was not true, Scripture would not really be Scripture. Not only is it the beautiful book that it is because of the way it was written, but it could not be the Word of God to the church of all ages unless it was written in exactly the way God chose to write it.
We agree, therefore, that Obadiah wrote differently than Jonah, that Peter wrote in a way in which James could never write, that each book bears the imprint of the man whom God used to write it. It is too obvious to belabor.
We agree too that Scripture was written in the language of the day, the street language, if you will. It was not written in some unknown tongue. It was not even written in the jargon of professional classes. It was written for "the man in the street," in language which he can understand.
It was also written by people who lived in a particular time in the world's history, were a part of a particular culture, made use of all the historical, geographical, biological, zoological, cultural, and ecclesiastical characteristics of their time. Scripture is full of such references, and the argument need not be pursued.
We also wholeheartedly adopt the obvious truth that Scripture contains various literary genera: poetry, historical narrative, prophecy, etc. God was pleased to write Scripture, not as a mathematical text book, not as a work in Dogmatics, not as an essay, but in many different literary forms, all of which were used to bring out the truths of revelation in all their riches and beauty.
It is also true that the men whom God used to write the Scriptures received some information from other sources. Peter was surely acquainted with Paul's writings (II Peter 3:15, 16). Matthew may have consulted the genealogical tables of Bethlehem to write his first chapter. Mark may have received information for his gospel from Peter (see Mark 16:7). 11 The acts of the kings of Israel and Judah recorded for us in the two books of the Kings and the two books of the Chronicles could very well have been written, at least in part, by consulting the written records that were kept as part of the official archives of the kingdom.
And we do not hesitate to affirm that a knowledge of all these things is helpful in understanding the text of Scripture. All this is indeed implied in the grammatico-historical method of exegesis.
What then is our argument? Why are we so insistent that redaction criticism be cast far from us as a plague on exegesis and Scripture?
Before we enter the substance of our answer to redaction criticism, some less important, though crucial points must be raised.
The members of the symposium referred to above speak again and again of the dangers of redaction criticism even though, without exception, they are prepared to adopt it. The moderator of the panel, in a concluding essay, entitles his article, "Redaction Criticism: Handle With Care." The fear of danger is not only rooted in the fact that the term "redaction criticism" is used by destructive critics who give to the term freight which more conservative Bible scholars refuse to carry. The concept itself is fraught with danger. One can, so it is argued, carry this method itself too far even though one rejects the presuppositions of liberal Bible critics. It is a worthwhile tool, but handle with care. It is a good hammer, but don't pound too hard. This sort of an argument does not impress me. When we are dealing with Scripture, God gives us a right method to interpret His Word. There are right methods and wrong methods. Use the right one with all your vigor and enthusiasm. Shun the wrong one like a plague. If redaction criticism is right, use it without fear. I would find it extraordinarily difficult to teach my students a right method, but then try to show them how they must handle it with care lest it lead to a denial of infallible inspiration. The very fact that it can be used wrongly ought to give one pause before he employs this method.
Another difficulty with redaction criticism is its obvious limitations. It simply is a fact that the answers to the questions which redaction criticism seeks to find are often unavailable to us. We do not know with certainty (or even at all) who wrote many of the books of the Bible. We do not know who wrote Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Kings, I & II Chronicles, many of the Psalms, Hebrews, and others. We can make educated guesses, and many have been made. But the answers are as varied as the men who engage in guessing.
We do not know why many of the books were written, if we are considering the matter from a purely historical viewpoint. We do not know why Esther was written by whomever wrote it if there was a historical reason for writing it rooted in the times and circumstances of Israel's history. We may guess and may even come up with reasonable answers. But we do not know, we just do not know.
We can never be sure about the sources (if any) which were consulted in the writing of books. Maybe Matthew did consult the genealogical records of Bethlehem, but who can tell with certainty? He did not follow them slavishly -- that we know. Maybe Mark did get some of his information from Peter, but we can never be certain. What role did oral tradition play in the formation of books? We cannot tell.
It might be well to pause here and take note of the fact that in connection with this matter of sources, there is a hidden presupposition of some importance. That presupposition is that the men whom God used to write Scripture wrote everything with the knowledge which they acquired from various sources. That is, they wrote only what they knew. But this is not true and is incompatible with divine inspiration.
If we are wholeheartedly convinced that God is the Author of Scripture, there is no reason in the whole world why God could not have communicated to those whom he used to write the Scriptures things which they did not know apart from direct communication from God. Even Isaiah was astounded at the truth of the suffering Servant of Jehovah (Isaiah 53:1). The prophets searched diligently their own writings in order to understand them better, for they themselves did not fully know what they were inspired to write (I Peter 1:10-12). That God revealed to them many truths concerning the work of salvation in Christ which they could never have known from a thousand sources is an obvious fact. That God revealed to them historical data from the past or from their own times that came to them directly by inspiration is not only possible, but almost certainly true. Moses surely received information concerning God's work of creation which could not have been known in any other way than through direct revelation from God. Sources containing this information were simply non-existent.
At any rate, learned men may write lengthy treatises speculating about all sorts of things concerning sources, but the interpretation of Scripture does not ultimately depend upon this.
That this is true is evident from the fact that a great deal of knowledge which we have acquired which is relatively certain concerning the background of Scripture has only recently been discovered. If our understanding of Scripture depends upon all this, then it follows with inescapable logic that the church for centuries and even millennia did not really know what Scripture was all about. They had no access to such knowledge.
Even if the matter is a relative one, it remains an unanswered question whether the proponents of redaction criticism with their wheelbarrows full of books about sources and literary genera have a better understanding of Scripture than Calvin did. I think not.
These things are not essential to an understanding of Scripture. And they are not essential simply because God did not see fit to reveal them to us. If a knowledge of the author of a book is crucial and decisive to an understanding of it, why did not God (Who gave us Scripture to be understood) tell us who wrote Hebrews? Now you can have your pick. Paul? Apollos? Peter? Aquila? Priscilla? All have been suggested. Every one has been defended in a most learned way. But we do not know. We cannot tell.
And this brings up the important point of Scripture's perspicuity. While it is not our purpose to discuss this doctrine in detail at this point, the position of redaction criticism touches on this truth. If the redaction critics are right, then it simply is true that the uneducated and untrained child of God cannot understand Scripture. We have discussed this already in our first article, and we need not repeat what was said there. But let this clearly be understood. If one must find his way through the labyrinthian passageways of redaction criticism one gets lost no matter what the quality of his scholarship. It is a matter of every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Everyone disagrees with everyone else not only, but no one can follow the involved and convoluted arguments in favor of this theory of dependence or that one. It is a hopeless task. Not only has the Bible been effectively taken out of the hands of the untrained child of God, but it has even been taken out of the hands of the man who devotes his life to a study of Scripture, for the questions that need answering have no answers. The Bible remains an enigma. The stirring cry of Tyndale then takes on a hollow ring: "If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth a plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou doest."
The issue of perspicuity is an important one. Herschel P. Smith writes of "Form Criticism and Reformed Theology" and addresses himself to that question.
There is no question that to require a reader to know the "history" of a document and to play an input and feedback game with the text to arrive at the correct understanding is diametrically opposed to the Reformed doctrine of the Scripture....
If understanding is necessary for salvation, and if we cannot arrive at the correct understanding of Scripture without the aid of elite theologians and their literature games, then we have returned to the days in which a "Romish" clergy can portion out salvation as deemed appropriate. 12
Smith is correct. The Reformed doctrine of Scripture means that God gave His Word to the least of His saints. It is theirs to know it and understand it. Any theory that takes Scripture from them is anathema.
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Yet all of these matters do not bring us to the heart of the issue.
We can perhaps call the method of Hermeneutics which has been used in the church throughout the ages the grammatico-historical method, but this really does not do justice to what exegesis is all about. I am not sure that a better name can be found, nor is that really necessary, for we are not all that concerned about names as such. Perhaps the name grammatico-historical-spiritual method is better, although it is not immediately evident from the addition of the word "spiritual" what we have in mind.
The point is that exegesis has as its primary goal the study of Scripture which results in learning the meaning of the Holy Spirit. And this is what we mean by the addition of the word "spiritual."
The rules for the interpretation of Scripture are determined by Scripture itself. The character of Scripture determines how Scripture must be interpreted.
Dr. Abraham Kuyper discusses in his Encyclopedia the whole field of Hermeneutics and speaks of the fact that, after all, the science of Hermeneutics can be applied to any written and spoken word. But he faces the question of whether it is possible to speak of Hermeneutics as a theological science in distinction from Hermeneutics in other branches of learning. He argues that it is indeed correct to speak of Hermeneutics as a theological science because of the unique character of Scripture. He writes:
Just exactly therefore, it is difficult to see with what right one would maintain Hermeneutics as a theological science when one emphasizes the rule that Hermeneutics, in relation to the writings of the Old and New Testaments, is and must be the same as for other writings. Hermeneutics is applicable in each science which has to do with texts, but in the organism of science it has its own proper place only in the science of Philology. To the remaining sciences is hardly to be applied what the science of Philology finds in it. Thus if nothing else takes place in the exegesis of Holy Scripture than that one applies philological Hermeneutics to it, then there can be even less talk of a theological than of a medical, juridical or physical Hermeneutics. Then Hermeneutics would be for theology, just as for jurisprudence, nothing but a helping-science borrowed from elsewhere which is not connected organically with the principle of theology. In opposition to this however, is the historical fact that Hermeneutics, much more yet than in Philology, has found her students exactly in the theological discipline; so much so that upon hearing of Hermeneutics, not a few think exclusively of Biblical Hermeneutics. If Hermeneutics can also in the future maintain itself as a theological branch of study, then it must be demonstrated that an element comes into play in the interpretation of Holy Scripture with which general Hermeneutics cannot reckon since this element does not exist in the interpretation of other documents; and further that the treatment of this element belongs not to Philology but to Theology. This element is due exclusively to the special factor which connects itself to natural life in the area of revelation without proceeding out of this natural life. First because of it surely this element would be "in a class by itself" from the elements with which general Hermeneutics has to reckon; and exactly out of this "unique class" proceeds then the right to speak of a theological or Scriptural Hermeneutics. 13
The point which Kuyper is making is that the unique character of Scripture gives to Hermeneutics, when applied to Scripture, its own unique principles.
Now it is evident that the principles of Hermeneutics are not found explicitly stated in Scripture. This would be out of keeping with the nature of Scripture, which is the written record of God's revelation in Jesus Christ. Scripture is not a textbook, not even of Hermeneutics.
But the character of Scripture determines the rules for its interpretation. This is, of course, true of any book. In a way, the rules for the interpretation of a discourse, whether written or oral, are unconsciously applied by the hearer or reader. They are implicit in the language itself and in the fact that language is a means of communication. And, while mostly one is unconscious of the rules of interpretation which he subjectively applies to any discourse, these naively applied principles can be explicated, organized, and examined.
The same is true of Scripture. Scripture is written in human language with all the rules of grammar, syntax, and word usage which apply to any language. But in connection with Scripture, we face an additional fact, a fact which we are forced to face because of Scripture's unique character. Scripture is, on the surface, like any other book in the world. But at the same time it is also the written record of the revelation of God in Christ given by the infallible inspiration of the Spirit.
n important question which arises in this connection is: How do we know that Scripture is infallibly inspired by the Holy Spirit?
The answer to this question has a great deal to do with our discussion of Hermeneutics, and we ought to give an answer to that question before we go on in our discussion.
The answer to this question of how we know that Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit is the testimony of Scripture itself. It is not an exaggeration to say that every page of Scripture testifies of its divine origin. One cannot read the Scriptures without hearing this testimony ringing loud and clear. Every child of God who has taken the Scriptures in his hand will testify of this.
Yet, at the same time, this presents a problem. Critics have argued that this line of argumentation is basically a false argument. It is, so it is claimed, a petitio, i.e., an argument in a circle. How do we know that Scripture is God-breathed? Scripture itself says so. But how can we believe that this testimony of Scripture concerning its divine inspiration is true? Is it not possible that Scripture makes a claim for itself that is not true? The answer is: No, for Scripture is infallible, and its testimony that it has come from God is itself infallibly inspired. But this is arguing in a circle. We presuppose what we are trying to prove. We accept as true that which needs to be demonstrated. Hence, Scripture's claim that it is the Word of God has to be proved on other grounds than Scripture's own claim.
Now this argument is, in itself, true. From a certain point of view we admit its cogency. But that is by no means the whole story.
And yet, this argument has apparently had force with students of Scripture. And by virtue of the force of the argument, efforts are continuously being made to prove, with evidence outside of Scripture that Scripture's claims are true.
Even "conservative" students of Scripture fall repeatedly into this trap. One can find many who attempt to "prove" Scripture's divine inspiration by means of appeal to historical and literary criticism. They will, e.g. argue that Scripture is trustworthy in all its historical claims as is evident from the findings of archeology. They will argue that countless men throughout the centuries have accepted Scripture as God-breathed. They will go into detailed argumentation to prove that the gospels, in fact, do not contradict themselves, that there is an abundance of historical material taken from secular writings of the period in
which demonstrates the truth of Scripture's claim.
A good example of this is to be found in the discussions with which almost every recent commentary is introduced concerning the authorship of a given book. The epistle of Paul to the Colossians is said, in the sacred writing itself, to be written by Paul: "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse. . ." (Colossians 1:1, 2). Now if Scripture is infallibly inspired, then these words are also infallibly inspired. That means, obviously, that because the text says so, this book was written by Paul. And yet commentators will go to great lengths to refute the attacks of higher critics which question Pauline authorship. They will marshal abundant evidence that proves, from an historical and literary viewpoint, that Paul indeed wrote this epistle. In other words, the mere testimony of Scripture is not enough. Data outside Scripture have to be summoned to prove the truth of the simple statement in Colossians 1:1, 2.
It is this whole method of interpretation which we categorically reject. And it is our contention and firm conviction that this line of argumentation basically destroys biblical interpretation. Defenders of this view may indeed come to the conclusion that Paul surely did write Colossians, but their conclusions are based on a line of argumentation which lies outside Scripture's own testimony. They may even cite this proof from literary and historical considerations as additional proof that the Scripture is accurate in all it says. But we repudiate this nonetheless as a major and fundamental error which concedes the argument of higher criticism. We refuse to accept the Pauline authorship of Colossians on any other basis than the simple fact that the text itself says so.
The error which is made is important and crucial for the argument.
By "proving" with historical and literary arguments that Colossians was written by Paul, critics simply affirm that the proof lies outside of Scripture itself. This is an implicit denial of infallible inspiration, all caveats to the contrary notwithstanding.
This line of argumentation is an implicit denial of infallible inspiration because it is a basically rationalistic approach to Scripture; i.e., it is an effort to place Scripture under the judgment of our own minds. It is an effort to subject Scripture's own claims to our rational scrutiny and prove by means of rationalistic argumentation that which Scripture itself claims for itself.
If this approach is consistently followed, the results will be that we often find the evidence less than satisfactory, and we have entered the morass of higher and destructive criticism.
It is said by those who defend this approach that this is the only way to deal with genuine higher critics who make misuse of redaction criticism. We must, so it is said, meet the arguments of the unbelievers and those who deny infallible inspiration. It is said that if we refuse to follow this line of argumentation, we take a less than scholarly approach and make our writings irrelevant to current discussions in the field of Hermeneutics.
In answer to the question of whether we ought to use the terminology of the higher critics, specifically the term "redaction criticism," D A. Carson argued, "However -- and this is an important point -- by mixing it up in the international scholarly marketplace, we can help provide not only good scholarship, but a buffer for the next generation of students coming through. . . . The writings of Leon Morris. . . gave me more credence with my professors than I might have had otherwise."14
The Reformed student of Scripture believes firmly in scholarship. Scripture itself requires the most careful study simply because it is the Word of God. But if scholarship means concessions to higher criticism, then scholarship is anathema to the Reformed man. If scholarship according to higher critical standards is the only way to receive recognition in scholarly circles and Journals, the price required is too high to pay. The truth of God's Word may not be sacrificed on the altar of scholarship. And he who is willing to do this is unfaithful to God's Word and to God Himself. Those who are willing to argue with higher critics on their ground allow the enemy to choose the battlefield. And every officer in every army knows that to allow the enemy to choose the battlefield spells disaster. If we are relentlessly committed to defend Scripture on the fundamentally rationalistic grounds of higher criticism, we have lost the battle before we begin.
What is the proper approach?
How do we know that Scripture is the Word of God? How do we know this with that total conviction that brings the child of God into humble submission to the Word? How do we know this truth so that we are willing to lay down our life for it? Because some skilled and knowledgeable redaction critic has proved it with an involved argument from literary and historical sources? God forbid.
We know this by faith. Faith believes the Scriptures and the testimony of the Scriptures. Faith alone bows in humble submission to God's Word.
This is not to say that the argument of the critics that to rest one's case on Scripture's testimony is a petitio, an arguing in a circle, is correct. Basically we reject that charge. To accept Scripture on the basis of the testimony of Scripture itself is not, in any true sense, a petitio. This can be easily demonstrated. Even in a court of law the self-testimony of a man or of a document is accepted as true unless there is overwhelming and utterly convincing proof to the contrary. Then a man is proved to be guilty of perjury and a document is branded a forgery. And those are after all the options. Scripture is what it claims to be or it is a forgery. One or the other must be true. When a book claims to be written by a certain author, when I pen to this article my name, it is accepted by all that the claim is true. It is not considered necessary to summon all kinds of other evidence, whether literary or historical, to substantiate the claim. The claim stands and is only rejected when there is unassailable proof that the claim is false. Such self-testimony is the strongest kind of evidence which can be presented.
Why is it then that when the Bible claims to be written by God this is rejected? Why is every other book in the world accepted as written by the man who says he wrote it, and the claims of the Bible are rejected? The answer, very simply, is: Unbelief. One either accepts the claims of Scripture at face value or one rejects these claims. To attempt to support Scripture's claims by appeals to historical and literary arguments is basically to reject what Scripture itself says.
But this very truth makes the whole matter of faith the crucial issue. The battle which has been joined in our century is not a battle between two opposing groups in which battle the outcome is determined by who has the best arguments. The battle is simply one phase of the great battle of the ages, the battle between faith and unbelief. There the battle must be fought. And that is why faith can never be vanquished, for faith is the victory that overcomes the world.
That immediately brings up also the question of what we mean when we speak of faith. What is the faith which accepts without doubt and questioning the Scriptures as God's very Word?
Various definitions of faith have been offered over the years. Some explain faith to be the acceptance of that which is unprovable. While, of course, the question is: What is meant by "unprovable," we reject that definition. It is argued, e.g., that the doctrine of the trinity cannot be proved, but we accept it nonetheless. And what is meant is, obviously, that the doctrine of the trinity cannot be proved by any line of rationalistic argumentation. So we accept it on other grounds.
And while it is true that we accept the doctrine of the trinity on the grounds that Scripture teaches it, nevertheless, we must not think that this constitutes the basic idea of faith.
Some who wish to emphasize the idea of faith as trust or confidence use other figures. A grade-school teacher once illustrated faith to her class by saying that when we put a letter into a mail box we lose control of the letter, but nevertheless expect that it will arrive at its destination because we have faith (i.e., trust and confidence) in the postal service. And while it is true that faith is such trust, this is not the essence of faith either.
The Scriptures teach that faith is fundamentally the living bond that unites the elect child of God to Christ. The knowledge of faith and the confidence of faith both arise out of this fundamental characteristic of faith. By faith we are united to Christ in Whom are all the blessings of salvation. By faith we belong to Him, live in Him and out of Him, receive all our salvation from Him, and rest upon Him in life and in death. By faith we are incorporated into the body of Christ and become members of that body. Only when that aspect of faith is understood, can we also understand why faith is so essential to our discussion.
Faith is the proof then that Scripture is the Word of God. Perhaps that can be illustrated. The knowledge of faith is not an abstract, theological "scholarly" knowledge which resembles our knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem. The knowledge that is a part of faith, just because faith is the living bond between the believer and Christ, is a personal and intimate knowledge of fellowship and communion. It is the knowledge from personal acquaintance. It is the knowledge of friendship. It is the knowledge that a husband and wife have of each other. It is a knowledge that rests on infinitely higher "proof" than rationalistic argumentation.
If I am standing in the rain waiting for a bus, cold, wet, shivering, and wretchedly uncomfortable, and someone comes to me and asks for proof that it is raining, my answer would be, provided that I could restrain myself from hitting him in the nose: If you cannot tell that it is raining when you stand there as I do, wet and miserable, there is no proof which I can muster which will convince you that it is raining.
Or to use even a more appropriate figure: if I am sitting on the sofa with my wife talking with her about things of importance to the family, and someone has the courage to ask me for proof that the woman with whom I am speaking is my wife, then my response is not a long line of rational proof that she is indeed my wife, which includes hauling out our marriage license and various pictures of my wife taken at the wedding. My answer is: I know with such total certainty that she is my wife that if you cannot believe this, there is no line of proof which can convince you of it.
When a reporter once asked a prominent preacher for his opinion of the then current "God-is-dead" theology, his response was, appropriately, "I know He is not, for I talked with Him just this morning."
If a critic had come to Adam in Paradise I and asked him for proof that God exists, Adam would have been compelled to say: "If you cannot hear His voice in the singing of the birds, in the shining of the sun, in the trees and flowers and animals, how can I find proof that will convince you?"
Faith brings the believer into communion with Christ, and through Christ with God. It is that intimate and personal fellowship which knows God. Faith hears the Word of God in Scripture. Faith recognizes it as God's Word. Faith has no doubts about it at all, for God speaks to Him.
How crucial and important this is.
Faith is the power of salvation. The one who has faith has salvation. The one who has no faith has no salvation. The unbeliever, void of faith, is the enemy of God and of His Christ. He hates God, hates His Word, hates all that belongs to God. This is what we all are in ourselves. To be saved is to be given that priceless gift of faith. It is to have hatred and rebellion, sin and opposition to God forever banished from our lives. It is to be brought into fellowship with God and into submission to His Word. It is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent. It is to have eternal life.
It is that faith which receives Scripture as God's Word, simply because God says it is His Word. Faith makes this possible. Faith removes rebellion and opposition. Faith knows because faith is worked by the Holy Spirit. We receive the Scriptures, therefore, as God's Word, as all the Reformed Confessions testify, because of the objective testimony of the Spirit in the Word itself and the subjective testimony of the Spirit in our hearts:
We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts, that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling (Belgic Confession, Art. V).
If I am separated by circumstances from my wife and I receive a letter from her, I need not summon all kinds of evidence from sources outside the letter itself to prove that indeed the letter is from her. I know, with an unassailable certainty, that she has written it. To enter into endless discussions concerning the authenticity of the letter would prevent me from hearing what the letter says and would cast doubt and suspicion on her. The Scriptures are that kind of a letter, a love letter from the Bridegroom in heaven to His beloved bride. His bride takes that letter with joy and receives it from Him. She knows it is His, for His love has been shed abroad in her heart.
It reminds me of a story. An old minister was preaching on the Scriptures as the Word of Christ when he was interrupted by a critic who scornfully asked for proof for his assertions, proof that the Bible was indeed Christ's very Word. The minister responded rather gently, but much to the point: "I understand why you have these questions. You have been opening and reading someone else's mail."
The conclusion is that the correct Hermeneutical principle of interpretation is not simply the grammatico-historical method, but the spiritual-grammatico-historical method.
This principle has many implications for the true method of interpreting Scripture. But this must wait for a further article.
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Earlier we argued for a method of the interpretation of Scripture which is not the traditional so-called "Grammatico-Historical Method," but the "Spiritual-Grammatico-Historical Method." The word "Spiritual" must be added because of the truth of the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit and the consequent necessity of interpreting all of Scripture so that the meaning of the Holy Spirit is the object of our search of the Scriptures.
Before we turn to a discussion of the meaning and importance of the "Spiritual" aspect of inspiration, it is important that we understand clearly what is meant by Scripture's inspiration by the Holy Spirit.
It is not our intention to enter into a long discussion of the doctrine of inspiration. 15 We intend only to list a few of the attributes of Holy Scripture with a brief description of each. This will be sufficient for our purposes.
That we have clearly before our minds the truth concerning inspiration is evident from the fact that the rules for the interpretation arise out of the character of Scripture itself. The Bible is not a textbook on Hermeneutics any more than it is a textbook on any other science. It is the infallibly inspired record of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. We cannot turn to a particular verse in Scripture to find any rule of Hermeneutics explicitly stated.
But the character of Scripture determines the rules for its interpretation. This ought to be obvious, for, in general, this is true of any piece of writing. A sonnet, an essay, a book on Mathematics, a novel -- each, by virtue of its inherent character, determines the rules for its own interpretation. A poem is interpreted in a way quite different from a textbook on biology. The rules for the interpretation of a piece of writing are unconsciously applied by the reader, for he learns these rules as a part of learning language. Yet these naively applied principles can be explicated, examined, organized, and crystallized in one's thinking.
The same is true of Scripture. Scripture is given by God for purposes of communicating. God tells us of Himself and of His great works which He performed and performs through Christ. But, because God communicates knowledge to us, He does so in a way in which we who are creatures can understand what He is saying. He stoops low, as Calvin said, to speak to us. He mumbles and talks baby talk. At the same time, however, He speaks in such a way that truth, the truth concerning Himself is given.
On the one hand, therefore, Scripture is like any other book written in human language. It is written in Greek and Hebrew. It is written in a language in which all the rules of grammar, syntax, word usage, etc., apply. It is not different from any other book in the genera used for its composition. it was written in historical circumstances as a part of history and with specific purposes. It was addressed to specific historical realities. It spoke to a people at a given time. And this is true because the revelation of God, of which Scripture is the record, was woven into the warp and woof of history.
On the other hand, however, Scripture is also the Word of God. It is God-breathed -- as Paul tells us in II Timothy 3:16. Every Scripture is God-breathed. This can be said of no other book. It is not the Word of God and the word of man. It is not the Word of God in or through the word of man. It is not the Word of God in spite of its being also the word of man. It is God-breathed.
This then is the question: What does Scripture mean when it claims for itself that it is God-breathed?
We must distinguish between revelation and inspiration. Revelation came long before inspiration and was, in fact, begun with the dawn of history. Inspiration did not begin until the time of Moses.
Revelation came in many different ways. It came by means of the direct speech of God to man, as in the first pronouncement of the promise of Christ to Adam and Eve immediately after the fall. It came through angels and prophets who spoke the Word of God. In came in visions, dreams, and trances. It came in the signs, wonders, and miracles of Scripture. It came centrally and principally in Christ in His Person, words, and works. Our Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way: "Whence knowest thou (the Mediator)? From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise, and afterwards published by the patriarchs and prophets, and represented by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and lastly, has fulfilled it by his only begotten Son" (Q & A 19).
In a broad sense of the word, inspiration did not always differ from revelation. This was especially true of the prophets, for they received what they spoke by the inward inspiration of the Spirit of Christ. The Word of God burned as a fire within them. This was also true of the apostles in the writing of their epistles. They wrote what was revealed to them, and this revelation was itself inspiration.
When, however, we speak of the inspiration of Scripture, we speak of "graphic inspiration." That is, when the men whom God used to write the Scriptures wrote what they did, they were inspired by the Spirit in such a way that the Spirit was the Author of what they wrote. Paul tells us in II Timothy 3:16 that "every Scripture)" i.e., every writing of the Bible, "is God-breathed." God told the men who wrote the Scriptures what to write. And He did so, through the Spirit, in such a way that God the Holy Spirit is always the Author.
Some ask the question: How is this possible? How can inspiration take place in such a way that every written Scripture is God-breathed, while at the same time Scripture is written in such a way that the literary style, e.g., of Paul differs markedly and noticeably from that of Isaiah or John? How can God inspire the Scriptures so that He did not merely dictate to them what to write as a president of a corporation dictates correspondence to a secretary. 16 How were the personal abilities, characteristics, and stylistic peculiarities of each individual writer preserved?
Whether we can finally answer this question to the satisfaction of a critic is immaterial to our discussion. Scripture is a miracle performed by God in the age of miracles. It is organically connected with the whole of the miracle of the revelation of God in Christ and is a part of that miracle. It is no more possible to explain, in terms of human thought, the wonder of the Scriptures than it is to explain the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.
That Scripture belongs organically to the wonder of salvation in Jesus Christ specifically means that it is a part of that great work of God whereby He saves His people. Scripture is a necessary part (according to God's wisdom and purpose) of the work of salvation. It not only reveals salvation to us, but it is an essential ingredient in accomplishing salvation. Scriptureis written to the church and for the church. Through that Scripture the church is saved. It is not only an objective record of God's work; it is itself the content of the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. And because the whole work of God in Christ is the miracle, also as Christ's work is applied to the church, Scripture, as a part of that work, is a part of salvation.
Thus Scripture has certain attributes and characteristics, important to understand because these attributes determine the principles of interpretation.
The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture means that Scripture is verbally inspired. In brief, this means that the words of Scripture are precisely the words which the Spirit wanted to be included in Scripture and by which He chose to record the revelation of God. Every word is the Spirit's Word. Not one word is of man's choice.
This truth does not rule out the obvious fact that other documents that were not inspired were consulted. Perhaps Matthew consulted the genealogical records of the line of David before he wrote Matthew 1. It does not rule out the fact that some of the material incorporated in the infallibly inspired records of Scripture may have been obtained from oral reports. Moses surely knew the oral traditions of earlier periods handed down from generation to generation. Luke almost certainly spoke with Mary, the mother of the Lord. Mark probably received some of his material from Peter. But the accuracy and reliability of Scripture does not depend upon the accuracy of oral tradition; it rests exclusively upon the infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit governed the whole process. He determined the collection of the data when He was pleased to use this. He guaranteed the accuracy and surely made corrections if such were necessary. He determined the arrangement of the material and the order which even narratives follow. He made the choice of words which were incorporated in the inspired manuscripts. He eliminated what He chose to eliminate. He included what He wanted to include. And if there was material which was not available or known to His servants, He provided that material by His own inspiration within them prior to their writing it. The result was that every word of Scripture is the Spirit's Word, guaranteed as to truth and accuracy by Him Who cannot lie.
There are instances when the Holy Spirit deemed it wise to tell the church the name of the man whom He used to write a part of Scripture, Paul's letters being obvious instances of this. There are also times when the Holy Spirit did not consider this important, Hebrews being a notable example. There are times when the Holy Spirit chose to tell us the specific historical reason for a given piece of Scripture. Paul wrote to combat Spirit chose not to reveal this. We may guess and ponder. We may write learned articles for theological Journals in which we set forth our guesses with scholarly reasons why our guesses ought to be accepted and the guesses of others rejected. But the Holy Spirit makes our guesses look silly, because He did not consider this information in a given situation to be relevant. And all this is true because the Holy Spirit gives us in Scripture the great truths of God's revelation in Jesus Christ as the God of our salvation.
Scripture is an organic whole. This follows from the truth of organic inspiration.
An organism is a unity of and in diversity. The organism of an oak tree is the unity of one single living biological plant in and of a diversity of roots, trunk, leaves, branches, acorns, and chemicals which make it up. The organism of a human body is the unity of one rational and moral man in and of a diversity of arms, legs, eyes, ears, torso, etc.
So is also the organic unity of Scripture. Its principle of unity is the one revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Its diversity is the diversity of different testaments, different genera (poetry, narrative, letters, prophecies), different styles of writing. We may compare it all to a portrait. A skillfully done portrait is a picture of one individual. It is composed of many different parts. It has the details of its background, its size, the various elements of the features of the subject, the expression on the face, the pose which the subject assumed, etc. So also is Scripture. It is the one gloriously beautiful portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ in Whom we seethe Father. Every part of the portrait is perfect. Every part contributes in its own way to the whole. Some parts are more important than other parts: the eyes of a man are more important than the clothing he wears; the book of Ephesians is more important than the book of Esther. But each is important for a perfect portrait. From a perfect portrait nothing can be taken, and to it nothing can be added, without destroying the perfection of the whole. It is in this way that all of Scripture - from Genesis 1:1 to the last verse of Revelation 22 - is the perfect, Spirit-inspired portrait of Christ.
Scripture is perspicuous. That is, Scripture is clear. It is easily understood. It is not the obscure book which the Roman Catholics have always claimed it is, and it is not the mysterious and unintelligible book which the proponents of theistic evolution claim it is when they make the first chapters of Genesis (and more of Scripture) myth or saga. It is so clear that it can be understood by the child as well as by the adult, by the young man and woman as well as by the elder in the church. It is so clear that covenant parents can confidently take their small children on their laps and read to them from it without any hesitation concerning the ability of these children to understand what God says.
But we must be clear on this idea of perspicuity. It rests, first of all, on the truth that the literal meaning of Scripture is the correct and only meaning. This truth was boldly proclaimed by the Reformers over against Roman Catholicism which spoke of a fourfold level of meaning - if not more levels than four, as some medieval theologians insisted. Any document with deeper and deeper levels of meaning is going to be impossible to understand except by trained theologians who are adept at penetrating various levels and uncovering hidden and obscure meanings. Only a book, the literal meaning of which is correct, is perspicuous. 17
We may compare the perspicuity of Scripture to a clear pool of water. I have stood a number of times at the side of Emerald Pool in Yellowstone National Park. A characteristic of this pool is that periodically it erupts. Prior to the eruption one can see the huge bubbles of gases arise from the bottom of the pool and watch them as they make their way to the surface. One can watch these bubbles travel for a long time, indicative of the fact that the pool is very deep and the waters are so clear that one can see deeply into its depths. But the bottom lies beyond sight. In fact, the longer one looks into the pool, the farther down one can see; but never is the bottom visible. So it is with Scripture. It is easy to see the meaning of Scripture. But the longer one studies it, the more profound does Scripture reveal itself to be. And we can never probe its great depths. One can read any book which man has written; and, after reading it, one sets it aside and says: "Now I am finished with that book. I know what it says. I do not have to read it again." But he can never do this with Scripture. Though he reads it a hundred times from cover to cover, and though he makes it the object of a lifetime of study, always there are new truths and riches to discover, new treasures to mine from its bottomless depths. Even a little child can understand the simple words of Luke 2:7: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." But the world's greatest theologians have pondered the mystery of that simple verse and have not been able to understand the depths of the riches of the knowledge of God. Thousands of books have been written on it, but they all fall short of penetrating the mystery of Christ become flesh.
This great wonder of Scripture is possible only because it is God's inspired Word.
A recent feature article appearing in U.S. News and World Report graphically portrays what is done to Hermeneutics when these truths are denied. The article is entitled, "Who Wrote The Bible?" In an introduction to the article, the editors write:
The Bible is often called "The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." But Jesus didn't write a word of it. And while some of the writings bear the names of those who walked with Him on the dusty roads of Judea, centuries of scholarship have turned up little convincing evidence that His 12 closest disciples did much writing, either.
In a section devoted to the gospels we find the following:
Yet today, there are few Biblical scholars-from liberal skeptics to Conservative evangelicals who believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually wrote the Gospels. Nowhere do the writers of the texts identify themselves by name or claim unambiguously to have known or traveled with Jesus. The majority of modern scholarly opinion holds that all four books were compiled from a variety of oral and written sources collected over a period of decades following Jesus' crucifixion, as the prologue to Luke suggests.
Once written, many experts believe, the Gospels were redacted, or edited, repeatedly as they were copied and circulated among church elders during the first and early second centuries.
The article goes on to discuss the whole "synoptic problem" and assures the readers that no one anymore believes that the gospels are of independent origin. Other writings lie behind the gospels, and the form in which these gospels appear in our Scriptures are due to extensive borrowing and editing.
Turning to Paul's epistles, the article states:
For most of Christian history, Paul's authorship of the 13 letters bearing his name was widely accepted. But modern scholarship has raised serious questions, based on content as well as writing style, suggesting that some of the letters are pseudonymous--written by others who used Paul's name to lend them authority. Such was Paul's reputation in the first century A.D.
Paul's authorship of seven of the letters remains virtually undisputed .
Who, then, wrote the disputed letters? Most scholars believe that after Paul died, his followers, sometimes called the Pauline school, continued writing in his name ....
A recent book by Prof. Harold Bloom even goes so far as to state that "the author of the oldest parts of the Bible--the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph and Moses--was a woman, a descendant of King David working in the 10th century B.C."
And so the article goes on, citing liberal and conservative scholars. It seems never to occur to anyone that the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit puts every one of these questions to rest once and for all. But the article is a vivid illustration of what happens when men are considered the authors, when human authorship is introduced into the doctrine of inspiration, and when a human element is found in the Bible. The truth of Scripture is soon lost.
May God save us from modem scholarship.
The truths of Scripture which we have outlined determine its interpretation.
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By the spiritual interpretation of Scripture we mean: the meaning of the Holy Spirit in the text of the Word of God. This is of crucial importance in our interpretation of Scripture. We are not primarily interested in what Paul said, or in what Isaiah wrote, or in what Moses taught. We are interested in what the Holy Spirit has said to the church.
It is precisely here that we part ways with any form of higher criticism. Literary-historical Criticism in concerned with the meaning of the "secondary authors." For the most part such critics are content to ascertain what Peter had in mind when he penned his two epistles. All sorts of literary and historical questions are faced as one attempts to discern Peter's sense. And, because of the very nature of Literary-historical Criticism, exegesis usually ends here. But, as we have pointed out, this is not the chief concern of the exegete of Scripture.
It is true, and we gladly concede the point, that insofar as the Holy Spirit is pleased to reveal these things too in the Scriptures, they enter into our efforts to understand the Word of God. But they are strictly subordinate and of secondary importance. Standing foursquare on the truth of the infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we interpret Scripture to hear what the Spirit says to the church. So important is this latter that it controls and governs all our interpretation. And Scripture is explained only when we have discovered in Holy Writ the Spirit's words and meaning. All the aspects of grammatico-historical interpretation must be subservient to this truth.
This important principle involves us in the question: What does it mean that the Spirit's truth must be ascertained?
Basically, the meaning of the spiritual aspect of interpretation is simply the age-old principle: Scripture interprets Scripture.
The importance of this rule can never be under-emphasized. It stands as the one all-encompassing rule. It is the one principle than which there is no rule more important. It not only stands at the very head of all the rules as rule number one; it is the rule which governs all subsequent rules. If one could state just one rule of interpretation than which there is no other, it would be this simple, yet crucially important rule: Scripture interprets Scripture.
What is the meaning of this rule?
Although it may not be immediately evident, this rule means simply that the Holy Spirit, the Author of all Scripture, is the only Interpreter of Scripture. Being the kind of book it is, authored by God the Holy Spirit, it follows with inescapable logic that the Author is the only One Who can interpret Scripture. No man can do this. And when man arrogates to himself the ability and the right to interpret God's Holy Word, then we sink into the dismal swamp of higher criticism. The Scriptures belong to the Holy Spirit. He authored them. They are His book. He alone can explain them.
But we must give content to this truth. What does it mean that the Holy Spirit is the only Interpreter of Scripture?
This principle means two things.
It means, in the first place, that the Spirit is the Interpreter of Scripture objectively. That is, the Holy Spirit explains the Scriptures by means of the Scriptures themselves. Or, to put the matter a bit differently, the Holy Spirit tells us the meaning of any given part of Scripture by means of a study of Scripture as a whole. We are not able to ascertain what a given passage of Scripture means. The Holy Spirit will tell us what He means by telling us what the whole of the Scriptures teach.
Perhaps an illustration of this will underscore the point. Studying a passage in the gospel according to John in class, I once appealed to a passage in Paul's epistle to the Colossians in support of a given explanation of a concept in the text. The response of the teacher was: "Your appeal to the writings of Paul is irrelevant, for we are dealing here with Johannine literature and not with the corpus of Pauline writings." In other words, the teacher was saying that an appeal to another part of Scripture was of no help in the explanation of a text in John's gospel because what John wrote is unrelated to what Paul wrote; both wrote as different men, out of different historical circumstances, with different purposes, and to explain different ideas. From this position arises the whole notion of a Pauline theology, and that in distinction from a Johannine theology. My reaction to this was: Are we not interested in the theology of the Holy Spirit?
The Scriptures, as we have been at pains to emphasize, are an organic whole. The principle of this organic unity is the Spirit-inspired record of the one revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Comprising an organic unity, every part of Scripture sheds light upon every other part; and any given part can be understood in the light of the whole.
We may appeal once again to the example of the organism of a tree. The tree is an organic whole. One may, in a very specialized study, concentrate his attention only on a leaf. But if he studies the leaf only as a leaf, and not as a part of the entire tree, he will never be able to come to a correct understanding of the leaf. It functions as a part of the whole tree and has meaning and significance only as it is related to the whole organism.
That does not mean that the leaf has no characteristics of its own, characteristics which make it identifiable as an individual part of the tree differing from the root and the trunk. But it does mean that the leaf has meaning only in connection with the entire organism of which it is a living part.
So also with Scripture. Each part has meaning in its own right which gives it individuality and unique identity within the whole. But each individual part has meaning and significance only as a part of the whole.
Our critics are probably waiting to pounce on the truth we have outlined above and to accuse us of failing to reckon with the historical circumstances and times in which any given part of Scripture was written. They are more than eager to point out that the Old Testament Scriptures, e.g., were written by men who did not understand as clearly as the saints after Pentecost the doctrines of the Christian faith.
We are aware of this. Certainly Abraham did not understand as clearly as Paul the truth of the resurrection of the body. 17 God's revelation, which is infallibly recorded in Scripture, is progressive. Beginning with the revelation of the promise to our first parents, God did not immediately reveal all the truth concerning Christ. In the Old Testament times, the truth concerning the fulfillment of the promise of God was revealed in types and shadows and progressed through the ages until it was fulfilled in Christ. And this must be taken into account in any exegesis. But all this does not destroy our thesis that the Scriptures are an organic whole and that the whole of Scripture must be taken into account in our study of any of the given doctrines of Scripture.
This principle pertains to every aspect of interpretation. The meaning of words, the connotation of concepts, the formulation of doctrines, the determination of principles of the Christian life -- all these must be determined by Scripture itself. The Holy Spirit will tell us what He means by a given word when we compare the text in which the word is found with every place in Scripture where that word appears.
To cite but one example. Scripture often in the New Testament uses the word keerussoo, which means, "to proclaim, to preach." This word is, of course, a Greek word which had a certain definite meaning in the Greek used in the day in which Scripture was written. That meaning, in brief, was: "to proclaim as a herald." While Scripture retains that formal connotation of the word (something it would obviously do if Scripture was to be at all intelligible), Scripture also gives to that term a unique connotation which is not found in any secular writing. It applies that word to the specific task of the ordained ministry in the work of proclaiming the gospel, a gospel which is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. Paul shouts loudly: "But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God" (I Corinthians 1:23, 24).
Any given doctrine of Scripture can be determined by an examination of the whole of Scripture. This study of the church has resulted in the great confessions of the church, beginning with the creed of Nicea-Constantinople, and including the Post-Reformation creeds of the 16th and 17th centuries. They contain what has been called, "the rule of faith." And they are called this because they contain what the whole of Scripture teaches with regard to any given doctrine. They are formulated by the church as she compares Scripture with Scripture and ascertains what the Holy Spirit teaches concerning the truth of God in Christ. Anyone, therefore, who ignores the creeds of the church makes it impossible for himself to interpret properly the Scriptures.
Much preaching is done today without paying attention to this great truth. The result is that texts are ripped out of context, dealt with only as individual texts without any consideration of the whole of Scripture, and are horribly mutilated. No one who practices such exegesis can claim to speak authoritatively according to the meaning of the Holy Spirit. And the most bizarre and far-fetched interpretations of Scripture are foisted on an unsuspecting congregation which marvels at the "exegetical insights" of the preacher.
Indeed, much false doctrine has been covertly brought into the church by means of such dealings with the Word of God.
Luther was already profoundly conscious of this. In his book, Captive To The Word, A. Skevington Wood shows clearly how important this principle was to the Reformer of Wittenburg. He points out that Luther was conscious of how the heretics refuse to respect the oneness of Scripture, are able in this way to make Scripture teach anything they please, and fall into error because their "fragmented conception" of Scripture brings about failure "to balance one area of biblical teaching with another." He quotes Luther as saying,
At first they deny only one article, but afterwards all must be denied. it is as with a ring; if it has only one defect, it can no longer be used. And if a bell cracks in only one place, it does not sound any longer and is useless.
When the devil has succeeded in bringing matters so far that we surrender one article to him, he is victorious, and it is just as bad as though all of them and Christ Himself were already lost. Afterwards he can unsettle and withdraw others because they are all intertwined and bound together like a golden chain, so that if one link be broken, the whole chain is broken, and it pulls apart. And there is no article that cannot be overthrown if it once comes to pass that reason intrudes and tries to speculate and learns to turn and twist the Scripture so that it agrees with its conclusion. That penetrates like a sweet poison. 18
In another chapter of his book, Wood drives this point home. He writes:
A further elaboration of the Spirit's hermeneutical role is to be found in Luther's axiom that Scripture is its own interpreter. "One passage of Scripture must be clarified by other passages," was a rule which he often reiterated. It was only another way of saying that the Holy Spirit is the true interpreter. To interpret Scripture by Scripture is simply to let the Holy Spirit do His own work On this manner," he declared, "Scripture is its own light. It is a fine thing when Scripture explains itself . 19
The Spirit is Scripture's Interpreter, for Scripture is the Spirit's book.
But there is also a subjective side to this truth.
The Holy Spirit is not only Scripture's Interpreter objectively in the Scriptures themselves, but He is also the Interpreter subjectively in the hearts and minds of the human exegete.
Of this too Luther spoke; and we turn again to Wood's book to make this clear. Wood writes:
(Luther) began by laying it down as axiomatic that the Scriptures are not to be pushed around at the whim of the commentator. He would have none of such cavalier methods.... The right apprehension of Scripture, declared Luther, "does not arise from the human heart or mind," since it is "a teaching revealed from heaven." Nor can it be grasped by the self-opinionated. The man who seeks to impose his own will on Scripture will find it closed and barred to him. "He will never smell or taste a spark or a tittle of the true meaning of a passage or a word of Scripture. He may make much noise and even imagine that he is improving on Holy Scripture, but he will never succeed."
The interpretation of Scripture is the prerogative of God and not of man. "If God does not open and explain Holy Writ, no one can understand it; it will remain a closed book, enveloped in darkness." ... "The Holy Spirit must be the Teacher and Guide." It was "the work of the Holy Spirit alone" to illumine the heart of Joseph so as to be able to explain Pharaoh's dreams; it is His function to expound the Scriptures. The disclosures of God "required the Holy Spirit as an interpreter." The "divine and heavenly doctrines" of "repentance, sin, grace, justification, worship to God" to be found in Scripture, cannot enter the heart of man "unless they be taught by the great Spirit."
"Proper understanding" of Scripture comes only through the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to possess the revelation of the Word: it is also necessary to have the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit so as to know its meaning . He concluded that "in the end only the Holy Spirit from heaven above can create listeners and pupils who accept this doctrine and believe that the Word is God, that God's Son is the Word, and that the Word became flesh, that He is also the Light who can illumine all men who come into the world, and that without this Light all is darkness." 20
We must understand clearly what Luther is saying here. He does not mean to deny that, because of Scripture's perspicuity, anyone, whether believer or unbeliever, can understand God's Word. Probably the devil understands the Scriptures more clearly than any single man, for he has 6000 years of experience in dealing with the Word and has the benefit of countless saints who have studied Scripture and set forth its meaning in clear and unmistakable language.
But the man who has not the Spirit in his heart is an enemy of God. As such he hates the Scriptures even as he hates God. The result will be that, out of this deep-seated and ineradicable hatred of God, he will pervert Scripture to suit his own purposes. Hence, only the man whose hatred has been eradicated and whose heart has been made holy can be a proper exegete of God's Word.
The nature of Scripture is of such a kind that it is not a book which can be picked up, read, and considered on the basis of its inherent worth. It is not like a textbook on astronomy. It is not a history book which professes to record bygone deeds of men. It is not even like Charles Hodge's Dogmatics. Every book written by men, we can pick up, read, evaluate, and set down. We may profit from it; we may gain no benefit from the time spent with it; we may admit that it exercises some influence on our thinking and life; we may be skeptical of its use; we may even ignore it and take no position on its contents. But Scripture can never be treated in this way. It is the. inscripturated Word of God. It comes with the authority of God Himself. It demands obedience and acceptance. Neutrality towards it is impossible. One can never say about it: I need do nothing about it; I need take no position in relation to it. Even neutrality is opposition toward this one great book of God. Jesus makes that clear: "He who is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:20). One hates it or loves it. One obeys it or disobeys it. One bows before it or, as Luther so graphically expresses it, one twists its nose.
And this is true because in this book one is confronted with Christ. This is inescapable. Every time one picks up Scripture to read it, every line one hears it read or proclaimed, one stands confronted with the Christ of the Scriptures. To reject the Scriptures is to reject Christ -- and God. To mock it is to mock Christ -- and God. To set it aside as irrelevant is to set aside as irrelevant Christ -- and God. But to believe it, is to believe Christ, and believing Christ is to believe God, for Christ is the Son of God. To bow before Scripture is not "bibliolatry"; it is to bow before the Christ of the Scriptures and to worship God. To take the Bible as a lamp unto our feet and a light upon our path is to take Christ as our only light. To feed on Scripture is to eat Christ. To arm ourselves with Scripture is to arm ourselves with the strength of Christ. It is all one and the same thing..
The issues are not a passing grade in our senior year in college; they are not a step towards a doctorate; they are not even issues which could perhaps enrich our general knowledge of things. The issues are life and death, blessing and cursing, heaven and hell. To reject the Scriptures is to incur the fierce wrath of God almighty, to sink into death, to go to hell. To believe the Scriptures is to walk in God's favor, to have life, to go to heaven.
Apart from the sovereign work of grace performed by the Spirit of Christ, the same Spirit Who inspired the pages of Holy Writ, no man is able to understand the Scriptures or be their interpreter. This is Luther's point. This is the point of all faithful exegetes of Holy Writ. We are, apart from grace, blind and dead. We are unable to see the great light of the Word. We stumble around in the dark night of our death until we trip and fall into the abyss. If you shine the brightest spotlight into the eyes of a blind man, it makes no difference. He cannot see that light. God's Word is a lamp and a light (Psalm 119:105), but not to the blind. A flashlight on a dark night means nothing to the man whose optic nerves are dead. All the light of the Word cannot be seen by spiritually blind people who grope around in their blindness and congratulate each other on how well they see and how well they are making their way in the world -- while they totter on the edge of the chasm of hell. So Scripture means nothing to the spiritually dead sinner, and his blindness prevents him from understanding the truth of God's revelation.
Only when we are so transformed by the amazing power of grace that our wills are coerced by the irresistible work of the Spirit and our minds are enlightened by the cleansing and purifying work of grace, can we also see the Scriptures for what they are. Only when hatred has been banished from our souls and replaced with the sweet love of God in Christ can we in turn love Christ's Word and so properly understand and interpret it.
There is an analogy of sorts in our human relations. Admitting all the while that it does not do justice to our relation to Scripture, we can nevertheless understand the point when we consider a letter written by a husband to his wife of forty years. Another may read that letter, but will understand very little of what it says even though he has a formal understanding of the words. He will know nothing of the allusions made, nothing of the shared experiences referred to, nothing of the intimacy of love which shines in every page. But the wife will read it and understand it all. Each word will bring floods of memories. Each thought will convey to her the love of her husband. Each line will have three lines "between" so that she truly reads "between the lines" and knows exactly what her husband is saying.
On a far higher plane is this true of Scripture. Every one who has not the Spirit will hate that book, for he hates the Christ of that book and hates the God revealed in Christ. But the believer, wedded to Christ, will drink deeply at its refreshing waters and revel in the great mystery of the love of Christ which knows no human bounds.
The true interpretation of Scripture is open to the one who is enlightened by the Spirit because of the very way in which the Spirit works. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, Who is promised by Christ Himself as His gift to the church to lead the church into all truth (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7-13). The work of the Spirit is never apart from the Word. All mysticism, subjectivism, Pentecostalism, etc. separates the work of the Spirit from the Word. But when He works through the Word in such a way that the believer is enlightened by His work, that very Word is impressed upon his consciousness and indelibly engraved upon his heart. The believer not only hears someone telling of a man who died on Calvary of whom some allege that he died for sin; the believer, by the work of the Spirit, hears of the Christ of God Who came into the world to make atonement for sin, and for his sin. He reads what God has done for him in Christ. But this takes on such intensely personal characteristics because of the Spirit's work which, through the Word, brings the truth of the Word into the life and experience of the child of God. That man alone can be an interpreter of Scripture.
When the child of God, be he a preacher, a theologian, a parent, an aged saint, a little child, comes to the Word, he comes to that Word not as to an interesting piece of ancient literature, not as to a book which records the religious experiences of people from long ago, not as to a collection of ancient tales of deeds and exploits of people from the distant past, not even as to a book containing some gems of wisdom handed down over the years. He comes to Scripture as to the very Word of God. He comes with the prayer of Samuel on his lips: "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth."
The proper and appropriate position is to be on one's knees in worship and adoration. How wicked are the arrogant claims of critics who will tell us of all the literary, historical, archeological, rabbinic information which we need if we are to see what Luke means in his writing. How proud the rationalist who sets himself over the Scriptures and ruthlessly passes judgment upon huge sections of Scripture, relegating much to the area of myth and saga, characterizing whole sections as "time- and culture-conditioned" opinions of ancient men. Peter has a word for them: They wrest Scripture to their own destruction (II Peter 3:16). And in contrast to this awful characterization, comes Christ's word to us: "Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness" (II Peter 3:17).
This is the spiritual interpretation of Scripture. It is the chief, the only rule for interpretation. It is the man who uses this rule who will be able to understand and explain the meaning of Holy Writ.
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In past articles on this subject we have examined the various issues which arise out of higher criticism in the area of biblical Hermeneutics. We have pleaded for a view of Hermeneutics which rests firmly on the truth of infallible inspiration, particularly the truth that the Scriptures as the infallibly inspired Word of God, contain no human element.
For this reason, we have adopted a method of Hermeneutics which we called the Spiritual-Grammatico-Historical method, a method which gives priority to the word "Spiritual." By this, as we pointed out in the last article, we mean that the Holy Spirit, who is the One who has inspired the Scriptures, is also the Scriptures' sole Interpreter.
That the Holy Spirit is the sole Interpreter of the Scriptures means two things: It means that the Holy Spirit interprets the Scriptures with His own book, the Bible itself: the principle of "Scripture Interprets Scripture"; and it means that the Holy Spirit interprets the Scriptures by His saving work of grace in the heart of the human interpreter so that his mind is enlightened, his will made conformable to the will of God, and his entire life a readiness to be subject to the authoritative rule of the Scriptures.
We have yet to discuss that aspect of the Scriptures which involves the "Grammatico-Historical" elements of proper Hermeneutics. To this we turn attention in a concluding article.
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Among higher critics, all attention is paid to the aspect of biblical interpretation called the "Grammatico-Historical" method. It is often argued that, though the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, they are also written by men. These men did not function as mere automatons, so it is said; nor were they merely amanuenses of the Holy Spirit. They were rational and moral men who lived in a certain ancient culture, believed current ideas, possessed their own unique gifts and personalities, addressed their writings to specific circumstances in the culture in which they lived, and reflected all these unique characteristics in their writings. The Holy Spirit used them as they were. Hence, they were the human "authors" of the Scriptures, and the Scriptures, consequently, possess a human element. Hermeneutics, so it is said, must take this into account. The Grammatico-Historical method of Hermeneutics does exactly that.
While, as we pointed out in an earlier article, those who take such a position concentrate so exclusively on this human element that the work of the Holy Spirit is all but ignored, and thus all but denied in practice, the question remains: Do the Scriptures carry in them this impress of the men whom God used to write the Scriptures? And if they do, is it not legitimate to consider this element in any proper interpretation of the Scriptures?
Both of these questions must be answered in the affirmative. The Scriptures indeed carry with them the impress of their human writers; and, indeed this must be taken into account if one is to understand the Scriptures properly. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with Holy Writ knows that the Psalms of David are the songs of a poet and differ sharply from the careful reasoning of the apostle Paul, who was trained at the feet of Gamaliel. The soaring prophecies of Isaiah are markedly different from the writings of the sheepherder of Tekoa. The writings of the intuitive apostle John stand in sharp contrast to the passionate writings of James, the Lord's brother.
God willed the Scriptures to be written in this way. The men whom God used functioned as men, not robots. Their writings reflect their culture. Their personalities are indelibly stamped on what they wrote. This is part of the wonder of Scripture. We must not be tempted to deny this element in the Scriptures because of the perverse use of it made by those who defend higher criticism.
However, when higher critics, addicted to literary-historical criticism or any other kind, apply the Grammatico-Historical method of Hermeneutics to biblical interpretation in such away that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is effectively denied, they automatically open the door to "errors" in the Scriptures. Critics use this method to find much in the Bible which is "time-bound" and "culturally conditioned." Thus one not only finds in the Scriptures grammatical, historical, and scientific errors, but much of the Scriptures, while true in their own time, are no longer relevant and authoritative for our day. What is relevant is limited to the basic truths of redemption and salvation, although it remains a serious question: Who is to determine what in the Scriptures belongs to salvation?
It is this very line of argumentation which lies behind the support of evolutionistic teachings in today's colleges, universities, and seminaries. It is argued that creation is not something related to redemption; that, therefore, we must not look to the Scriptures for any information on the question of how the worlds came into being. For such information we must look only to science, and science shows conclusively that higher forms of life evolved from lower forms.
It is also this line of reasoning which is used to support the position that women may hold the special offices in the church. The most honest of those who support this position admit that the Scriptures are opposed to it. But they argue that, in these respects, the Scriptures speak only to their own times, reflect the position of the Scriptures' human authors, and address themselves to current problems in the church of that day. But any application of these verses to our modern situation is erroneous, for the Scriptures are, after all, time-bound and culturally-conditioned.
One often hears the charge that those who ascribe the Scriptures to God the Holy Spirit alone are guilty of Gnosticism. Gnosticism is an ancient new dispensational heresy which denied the reality of the human nature of Christ and claimed that the human nature of Christ was only an appearance. In a similar way, those who claim that the Scriptures are God's Word alone, with no human element in them at all, and who interpret the Scriptures as only God's Word, are said to do injustice to and even deny the human element in the Scriptures. They are said then to be guilty of Gnosticism.
The charge of Gnosticism is a serious one which we emphatically repudiate. The charge is based upon an analogy between the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Scriptures -- an analogy which everyone has to admit has no biblical basis. But let us suppose for a moment that the analogy is acceptable. If it is, and if it is used to support the idea of human authorship, it in turn becomes a kind of Nestorianism.21 Although it is true that Christ possessed not only a divine nature but also a true, complete, and perfect human nature, these two natures were nevertheless united in the one person of the second person of the holy Trinity. The eternal Son was the person of the human nature as well as the divine, and the subject of all the activity of the human nature. Or, to put it a bit differently, God the Son is the subject of all the deeds of Christ's human nature.
If, therefore, the analogy is allowed to stand between the incarnation and the inspiration of the Scriptures, the analogy would apply to the Scriptures in this way: God the Holy Spirit, though He used men, remains the sole Subject of the whole of the Scriptures so that no human authorship or human element remains in it.
However all that may be, a more fitting analogy is the analogy between the inspiration of the Scriptures and the work of salvation in the hearts and lives of the elect for whom Christ died.
The legitimacy of this analogy rests upon the fact that the inspiration of the Scriptures belong organically to the work of salvation and are a part of it. God gave the Scriptures as a part of His work of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Consider the following points.
1. If we may speak hypothetically for a moment, Adam's fall was the immediate historical occasion for the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. 22 That is, if Adam had not fallen, no Scriptures would ever have been given. The Scriptures are given as part of the work of the salvation of fallen man.
2. The content of the Scriptures is the infallibly inspired record of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus who is the divine Son in our flesh through whom all salvation is accomplished.
3. The Scriptures are given by God to the church. They have as their central message salvation in Christ. They are given by God that His elect people may know the salvation revealed in and accomplished through Christ. While surely the Scriptures have a broader application in their divine call to all men to follow the way of repentance and faith, this does not detract from the fact that the Scriptures are meant for the elect people of God. Even the call to repentance and faith, which comes to the elect as well as to the reprobate, has its primary purpose in the salvation of the elect. The Scriptures are the "love letter" of the Bridegroom Christ to His elect bride.
4. The Scriptures are the means by which God saves His church. The Scriptures are the instrument of salvation as they are preached. God never saves in any other way than through the Scriptures. They contain the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.
5. The Scriptures are the rule for the faith and life of the saints. Departing from the Scriptures leads to everlasting hell. Faithfulness to the Scriptures brings salvation in this life and in the life to come.
Hence, all of salvation is wrapped up in the Scriptures just as God intended when He gave the Scriptures to His church as an organic part of their salvation.
Hence, we may compare the inspiration of the Scriptures to the work of salvation.
This has two aspects to it.
On the one hand, an elect child of God is saved in such a way that he is saved as an individual with the personality and character which God has given him. Salvation does not change him physically and psychologically. It changes him spiritually from a corrupt and depraved sinner to a saint. He remains the same person from birth to death and on into eternity. So true is this that even the good works which he does are distinctly and uniquely his own so that no one else is capable of performing them in exactly the same way he performs them. They are hisgood works, for which he shall be rewarded.
But on the other hand, the whole work of salvation is the work of God. Not only is this true in the sense that salvation is earned for the undeserving sinner by the cross of Jesus Christ; but that salvation is sovereignly applied to the elect sinner by the efficacious work of the Spirit so that the whole work of salvation is God's work alone. The sinner contributes nothing to his salvation. it is all of grace. Ephesians 2:8-10, in explaining that salvation is of grace alone and not of works, describes the place which works occupy in the life of the believer by ascribing them to God's workmanship. The Canons of Dordt (III, IV:14), in speaking of the crucial place which faith occupies in the work of salvation, rejects the notion that faith is offered by God to be accepted or rejected at man's pleasure; it rejects the notion that God bestows the power or ability to believe, and "then expects that man should by the exercise of his own freewill, consent to the terms of salvation" and actually believe. It rather insists that God, "who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe, and the act of believing also."
This work of salvation the Canons describe as "a supernatural work, most powerful., and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation, or the resurrection from the dead" (III, IV:12).
So it is with the inspiration of the Scriptures. It is solely God's work which He performs, so that the Scriptures are the very work of God Himself and are God's infallible and inerrant Word. Even the fact that God used men to write the Scriptures does not negate this, for God works in giving the Scriptures in the same way in which He works in salvation. Just as there is no human factor or element or authorship in the work of salvation, so there is no human factor or element or authorship in the preparation of the Scriptures. They too came into being in a "most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable" way.
He who interjects a human element in the Scriptures interjects a human element in salvation and falls into the trap of Arminianism.
It is in this way that the use of men must be understood in the work of the inspiration of the Scriptures. And it is in this way that the grammatico-historical method must be understood.
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The Grammatico-Historical method of interpretation implies certain truths about the Scriptures.
It implies, in the first place, that God used men to write the Scriptures, men of differing personalities and character, men of different gifts and callings, men of different education and abilities. Each has left the stamp of his own character on what he wrote. That the Scriptures nevertheless remain God's Word is possible because each man is himself God's creation. God chose him from all eternity as one whom God determined to use to write the Scriptures. God elected him as a member of the church. God redeemed him through the blood of the cross. God gave to each his own character and ability, perfectly suited for the task of writing that part of the Scriptures which God had determined he should write God controlled, through the wonder of providence, all the man's upbringing and education, all the man's gifts and abilities, all that was necessary for that man to write the portion of the Scriptures which God used him to write. All this was God's work. He shaped and formed the instrument.
In the second place, the Grammatico-Historical method implies that each man wrote within a given culture, under given circumstances, to a given people, for a given purpose. The Psalms were written in connection with the temple worship of the old dispensation, to be sung in connection with the worship of God in the temple. Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians as a corrective against the errors of Judaism which had crept into the churches in this eastern part of Asia Minor. Moses wrote in the early days of Israel's history. Matthew wrote as a record of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus which he had witnessed. Luke wrote in the days of the Roman empire. Haggai wrote after Judah's return from the captivity. Each wrote in connection with the times, the historical events, the circumstances, the culture of his time and place in the world.
Furthermore, each wrote in a human language, whether in the Hebrew which Israel spoke, or in the Greek which was the universal language during the period of the Pax Romana.
Yet, although all this is true, the Word which each wrote is the very Word of God Himself.
The languages in which the Scriptures were written were not simply men's inventions, nor part of the evolutionary development of the human race. They were languages which were specially prepared by God to serve as the vehicles of divine revelation. They were uniquely adapted for that purpose. They were given to men that they might serve as the verbal means to convey God's revelation in written form. The eternal Word of God, centrally Christ, was given in human form.
Some have objected to verbal inspiration on the grounds that the infinite God cannot be made known through finite forms or finite languages. The infinite (God) cannot, they say, be contained in that which is finite (human language). This is a flat denial of revelation. After all, the whole creation, formed by the Word of God, reveals God. So also the Scriptures. In human languages God spoke so that these human, finite words convey the true and full knowledge of God Himself and the work of salvation which He performs in Christ.
No one who believes in infallible inspiration would deny that this is also miraculous. But it is no less miraculous than that God should make the waters of the Red Sea open before Israel, the iron axe head swim, the leper be cleansed, the dead rise, the sun and moon stand still at the prayer of Joshua. If God can make the walls of Jericho fall and bring water out of the rock, God can give His own Word in Christ in the form of human language.
It is true that God, to use Calvin's expression, stoops down and talks to us in baby talk. But this does not detract from the fact that what God says is very truth, truth as it is in Himself. And the greatest wonder of it all is that God, through that Word, saves sinners. This is a miracle which compares in power and efficacy to the creation of the worlds when God called into being things that were not as though they were. He who denies the Scriptures must of necessity deny any miracle, not the least of which is the miracle of the salvation of sinners.
If we believe in providence then we must also surely admit that all the cultural and historical circumstances under which the Scriptures were written were ordained by God and brought to pass by His sovereign direction and control. And that these circumstances were of such a kind that they served as precisely the circumstances under which and within which God chose to reveal Himself ought not to surprise us. Revelation belongs to history. God's revelatory Word was spoken in history. But no less is it true that history itself is the work of God in its most minute details. The two belong together. God not only created all things, but He brings all things to pass according to the counsel of His will. As a part of that history, not in any dualistic sense, God caused the Word of Christ to be spoken in every age. The Word of Christ itself is a part of history. The creation and history are the stage on which is enacted the great drama of salvation through Jesus Christ. The protevangel was spoken in history to our cowering and fearful first parents. The moon and sun stood still in our solar system. Water came out of the rock in Rephidim, in the desert of Sinai. Elisha raised the son of the Shunamite in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Christ was born in the cattle stall in Bethlehem while Caesar Augustus ruled the world. His cross was planted on Calvary just outside Jerusalem in the year of our Lord, A.D. 33. He rose from Joseph's garden and ascended from Mount Olivet, places in this earthly creation where history takes place. All is a part of history, interwoven with it, belonging to it according to the purpose of God.
And the writing of the Scriptures are also a part of history. David wrote Psalm 23 while sitting on a rock near the pasture where Jesse's sheep grazed. Jeremiah re-wrote his prophecy after Judah's king had burned it page by page in his fireplace. Paul took pen in hand while in prison in Rome to write his letter to the saints in Philippi. The Scriptures, as the record of revelation, were themselves written as a part of revelation; and both are so intertwined with God's history that they form not only a part of it, but the central meaning of all of it.
All Scripture was written with particularly historical purposes in mind. But the occasions for the writing of each part were also sovereignly brought into being by the hand of God. God wanted songs to be sung in the temple -- and the sweet singers of Israel wrote them. God brought Nebuchadnezzar against Jerusalem -- and inspired Jeremiah to bring the Word of God to Judah under those circumstances. God raised the Judaizers in the Galatian churches and inspired the apostle to write against them.
And so the Scriptures were written in the language of the times, under the circumstances of the historical moment, with historical occasions in mind, by men who were men of their times, not. twentieth century Christians. They walked the roads of Palestine and the Roman Empire. They dressed according to the accepted dress of the day. They spoke Hebrew and Greek. They watched farmers sow their seed. They witnessed apostasy and spiritual battles. They heard the cries of soldiers fighting with swords and arrows. They lived in homes such as every man lived in. They saw the bustle of the cities and the quiet hush of eventide on the Sea of Galilee. They were not unfamiliar with the flora and fauna of Palestine and the near East.
And all these things they wrote about and described as they wrote the Word of God. They spoke, as they wrote God's Word, of hyssop and the Rose of Sharon, of towering mountains and fertile valleys, of belts tied around the waist to hold up long flowing robes, of earrings, nose rings, bracelets, and what ever else was used to adorn women. They used quill pens and papyrus paper to write, and addressed those to whom they wrote in keeping with all the culture of the day. But they wrote God's infallible Word which enters thunderously into this world's history by the wonder of grace. They walked with Christ and talked with Him, and understood that a cataclysm had taken place when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. They wept at the foot of Calvary and saw their hopes dashed into a thousand pieces, but shouted aloud for joy when they gloried in nothing else but Christ crucified. They stood with mouths agape at the empty grave, but exalted in the truth that now is Christ risen from the dead. They carried their loved ones to the grave and did so in the hope of the resurrection.
Thus, though the Scriptures are written in a given time and under given circumstances, they are the Scriptures that are eternally relevant to the church of all ages. Jacob's struggle with the angel at Peniel is of relevance to twentieth century man. God's Word through Isaiah to Moab is a Word which still thunders against the kingdoms of this world. Christ's lofty teachings concerning the wide and narrow gate still summon believers everywhere to a life of humility and self-denial. Paul's sharp castigation of immorality in Corinth echoes into our sex-saturated twentieth century culture.
How can it be that a Word spoken so long ago is a Word of relevance today?
The basic reason why this is true is that the Word of God is always and eternally the same. "All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away; but the word of the Lord endureth for ever"' (1 Pet. 1:24, 25). It is that one Word which God speaks to reveal Himself. It is the Word spoken through Christ by which God reveals the riches of His own trinitarian life by the great work of salvation in Christ. Every part of the Scriptures are that one Word of Christ. That Word is given to us in the Scriptures. Even though that Word was spoken and inscripturated from the beginning of history to the final revelations of the apostle John, and, therefore, also spoken in specific cultural settings, it is the living and abiding Word of God which can never change.
That Word is, therefore, always relevant and always authoritative. History advances; man increases in culture; times change; but one Word of God remains the same. And, although change is an integral part of life, and although the twentieth century A.D. is different from the fifth century B.C., there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. Human nature is always the same, for man from the moment of the fall is a totally corrupt and depraved man who is incapable of doing any good and who commits the same sins in every generation -- even though those sins may take on some different forms as man uses different inventions to give expression to the corruption of his heart. Man is still an idolater, an image worshiper, a blasphemer, a Sabbath desecrator, a hater of authority, a murderer, an adulterer, a thief, a slanderer, and a covetous man.
The elect church of Christ is always saved in exactly the same way through Jesus Christ. Salvation is always in the way of regeneration, faith, conversion, justification, sanctification, and the hope of everlasting life. The patriarchs looked for a better city, that is, an heavenly; so do we. It is all the same, for salvation is always by grace through Christ.
The calling of the church in the world is always the same. It is always to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Noah was called to this holy calling; so are we. Whatever the circumstances of life may be, in whatever age we live, in whatever period of history God calls us to walk our pilgrimage, this calling remains the same.
The problems of life which every believer faces are the same. The battle of faith is the same in every age, for the enemy is the same enemy: the devil, the wicked world, our own sinful flesh. The weapons we use in this battle are the same: the weapons of the Word of God and prayer. The heresies are never any different. Paul had to warn the Galatians against the heresy of Judaism which taught a salvation by works. Today Rome teaches the same, and the error reappears throughout history in Pelagianism and Arminianism. Still today as always the believer is beset by temptations, is burdened with the cares of life, endures sorrow and heartache, faces death as the last enemy; but he also is called today as in the days of the Lord Jesus, to walk in quiet trust in God, to submit to God's will, to look to the city which hath foundations, to humble himself under the mighty hand of God, to take up his cross and follow Christ.
In every age God's people, though saved by grace, are saved incompletely. They still sin with the same sins of the Old Testament saints. They still must confess their sin, flee to the cross, and find forgiveness and pardon in the blood of their Savior.
Truly the glory of man is as the flower of the field. But the Word of the Lord endures forever.
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The Grammatical Method of Hermeneutics presupposes that the Scriptures are written in human language. And because they are written in human language, the ordinary rules of language apply to the interpretation of the Scriptures as well as to any written document. The rules of grammar, syntax, and logic apply to the Hebrew and Greek of the Scriptures just as they apply to any document written in these languages. The same rules applied to Virgil's Aeneid which apply to the Scriptures.
While this rule may seem at first glance to be obvious, it is the basis for the great Reformation principle that the literal meaning of the Scriptures is the correct one, a rule so obviously violated in our day in an effort to make the Scriptural account of creation agree somehow with the findings of evolutionistic scientists. And because the literal meaning of the Scriptures is the correct one, the simple and obvious meaning of the Scriptures is the meaning of the Holy Spirit.
We need not go into detail here, but it is well to point out that when we speak of the literal meaning of the Scriptures, we do not mean to ignore the fact that the Scriptures contain thousands of ordinary figures of speech, that the Holy Spirit was pleased on occasion to reveal the riches of salvation through visions and dreams with their many symbols, that in the old dispensation the truth was revealed typically. The Scriptures are not a mathematics textbook or a technical scientific journal. They cannot be such for they are the infallible record of revelation given in history.
Furthermore, that revelation came to the church in history means that it came in such a way that all that is said about revelation is from the viewpoint of the place which the earth occupies in God's world and the place which man occupies on the earth.
Many, who are intent on giving the Scriptures some meaning other than their literal one, appeal, e.g., to Joshua's prayer that the sun and moon stand still over Gibeon and the valley of Ajalon. Higher critics are quick to point out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, but that the earth is in orbit about the sun. Thus, it is claimed, Joshua was bound by an unscientific world-view. This appeal is childish and pedantic. Do such want Joshua to pray that the earth cease momentarily its revolutions on its axis which is tilted 23 1/2 degrees to the plane of the sun? Would Joshua express in the fervency and urgency of his prayer astronomical expressions which are scientifically precise? Or, is it not more in keeping with the Scriptures that Joshua would use expressions similar to the same expressions which we still use today in our modern scientific era when we speak of the sun rising in the East and setting in the West? It is the nonsense of unbelief which would think otherwise.
The literal meaning of the Scriptures is the correct one. It had better be so, for if this is not true, the ordinary believer can no longer understand the Scriptures which were written for him. If the literal meaning of the Scriptures is not the meaning of the Holy Spirit, then the Bible is a closed book to everyone who is not an expert in the fields of the natural sciences, in archeology, in rabbinic writings, in ancient pagan and Greek thought, in the technicalities of literary composition, and whatever else higher critics deem important for a proper understanding of a complex book. 23 The Scriptures are an open book to every child of God, be he but a toddler, when the Spirit of Christ fills him.
One of the beauties of the Scriptures is the fact that they contain different kinds of literary material. They contain historical books, poetic books, prophetic books, and epistolary books. These different types of literary genera have their own distinct literary rules of interpretation within the general rules of grammar, syntax, and logic. But in every case they are written in such a way that every child of God can understand them. Does a ten-year old girl of the covenant need to understand the rules of poetic composition to know what the Scriptures mean when they say: "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want"?
That proper Hermeneutics takes into account the Historical Method means exactly that revelation is given in history. Christ entered our history and lived in our history. He was born in history, lived, suffered, and died on the cross in history, and rose from the dead in history. And all the revelation of God which has its focal point in Christ comes in history.
The books of the Bible were written for different people with a different way of life, in a distant time, with a specific historical purpose. Revelation was woven into the warp and woof of history, for it is God's purpose in Christ to make all history serve the great salvation which shall be revealed when Christ comes again. The Psalms were written by David and Asaph and other poets in Israel for use in the temple. The prophets spoke of particular conditions in the nation of Israel and surrounding nations. The epistles were written to historical churches with problems which they faced.
And all this requires that the faithful believer of the Scriptures understand as much as he can of the historical background of the Scriptures. It will help him to know what David means when, with heart-wrenching sobs, he prays: "Purge me with hyssop," if he knows what kind of a plant hyssop is. It will help the believer to know what Jesus meant by the parable of the four kinds of soil if he understands how seed was sown in Palestine in the days that the Lord was on earth.
This brings up an important question. Does an understanding of the Scriptures depend upon such knowledge? The devotees of literary-historical criticism seem to think that it does. Must a believer have a firm grasp of the flora and fauna of Palestine and the geography of the Near East to understand God's Word? Must one read and master Edersheim's Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ in order to understand the parable of the ten virgins? So it would seem if one pays too much attention to what scholars write today of Hermeneutics.
But all this is nonsense. It is true, of course, that an understanding of these things helps in understanding the Scriptures. But it is not crucial.
Perhaps an illustration will help to clarify this point. While biology has always interested me, I have never had the time to engage in such a thorough study of it that I can speak of the maple tree in my front yard with any scientific precision. I do not know anything about the various layers in the trunk. I cannot explain the process of photosynthesis and the chemical formulas involved as that maple takes in water and carbon dioxide and, under the power of the sun, manufactures sugar which in turn is changed to starch and stored in the roots. But I know that tree is different from the black walnut tree in the back yard. I know that it is a beautiful creation of God. I know that its colors in the Autumn are magnificent. I know that it gives delicious shade from the heat of the sun. I know that it can be cut down and the wood used to build many things. I know that it grows taller every year. In short, I know that tree. And, what is more important, I know that tree is a magnificent creation of God.
I would never deny that my appreciation and knowledge of it would still be greater if I understood all that the scientist knows about that tree. But I comfort myself in the certain knowledge that the world's most knowledgeable biologist does not know all there is to know of that tree. He cannot even explain the principle of life in it which makes it grow and flourish. Is an exhaustive knowledge of all God's creation necessary before we can know anything about it? Obviously not, for, if this were the case, we would know nothing at all about anything until the Lord returns.
So with Scripture. There can be no question about it that the more one understands of the historical background of the Scriptures, the more fully one can know the Scriptures. But the depths of the riches of the Scriptures will never be discovered on this side of the grave and of the return of the Lord. But such knowledge is not necessary to know the Scriptures. A little child, just barely able to understand language, already knows that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. He knows it with absolute certainty. He knows it as a marvel of the God who gave us Christ. So we know. And as we increase in knowledge and understanding we know more. But always we see through a glass darkly. And only beyond the grave shall we see Christ face to face. It is more important for me, who will never have the time to take courses in biology, to know my maple tree as God's gift to our family, than to understand photosynthesis. It is more important for God's believing and trusting saint to know Christ crucified than to understand rabbinic writings, something he will probably never have the opportunity to study.
Hermeneutics is really all very simple. When everything is said and done, it is as simple as receiving the Scriptures as the Word of God, bowing in humility before them, submitting one's self to them, and daily giving thanks for them. Then these Scriptures, for every saint, are a lamp unto his feet and a light upon his path.
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(Those who might want to ask further questions or make comments on the above article, can write to Prof. Herman C. Hanko at: email@example.com ).
1. A book is presently being prepared for publication by the RFPA which contains a Reformed view of the truth of inspiration. It was originally prepared by Prof. H.C. Hoeksema as a series of lectures which were delivered as an elective course in the Seminary, which he intended to prepare for publication but which work was prevented by his departure to glory. It is intended to be a supplement to Rev. H. Hoeksema's Reformed Dogmatics, currently available from the RFPA. Return
2. Something of the same idea is followed today by the defenders of theistic evolution. They hold that general revelation teaches an old earth, the creatures of which came into existence through evolutionary processes. Special revelation teaches a different view of origins. When the two conflict, problems arise. Some are not overly troubled by these conflicts and simply claim to accept them. Others twist Scripture to fit their evolutionary theories and thus force biblical teachings into the mold of reason. Return
3. A discussion and critique of this theory can be found in Rev. R. Harbach's Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Return
4. Cf. for a detailed discussion of this subject, my article in the Theological Journal, Vol. I, No.2, pp. 27ff. Return
5. This view is discussed and defended in an article by Bastiaan VanElderen in Carl F.H. Henry, ed., Jesus of Nazareth: Savior and Lord (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 111ff. I have discussed this view in the Theological Journal of our Seminary in the article mentioned earlier. Return
6. Zondervan Publishing House, 1987. Return
7. It is interesting that, in Chapter 2, Longman refers to common grace as the ground for accepting the findings of higher critics. See p.49. Return
8. One wonders how Longman can be so sure of this. Return
9. We do this because we are concerned in these articles, not with outright denials of Scripture's infallible inspiration, but with the Hermeneutical approach of those who claim to confess the truth of inspiration, but hold also to some form of biblical criticism. This is of primary interest to our readers. It is our thesis that the truth of Scripture and a proper Hermeneutics cannot be maintained if one accepts any kind of biblical criticism. Return
10. One writer in this issue of Christianity Today disagreed with redaction criticism: Robert Thomas, Professor of New Testament in Talbot Theological Seminary. He wrote his Caveat in a separate article and did not participate in the symposium. Return
11. The intensely personal and moving touch of the words, "and Peter" may very well have been branded on the soul of the disciple of the Lord who had denied Him so shamelessly and who received these words from the mouth of the risen Lord as balm to his wounded soul. Return
12. The Trinity Review, Number 58, November/December, 1987. Return
13. The translation is mine. The Dutch quotation is taken from the syllabus used in our Seminary and prepared by Rev. Herman Hoeksema. Return
14. Christianity Today, Op. Cit., p.7-I. Return
15. By the time this article appears the RFPA will have made available a new book by the late Prof. Homer Hoeksema on the doctrine of inspiration. This book is available from the Seminary at the address on the inside of the front cover. We urge our readers to purchase this important book. Return
16. We are aware of the fact that this statement as it stands must be understood in the light of the fact that Scripture abounds in figures of speech, symbols, types, parables, etc. We are also aware of the fact that this question of a literal meaning is one of the issues between amillennialists and premillennialists. But it is not our purpose to enter into these things here. Our statement stands. Return
17. Although we hasten to add that, contrary to some who deny it, Abraham certainly did believe this truth (see Hebrews 11:17-19). Return
18. Wood, A. Skevington, Captive To the Word, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1969, p. 150. Return
19. Ibid. pp.161, 162. Return
20. Wood, op. cit., pp.159-161. Return
21. Nestorianism is the name of a heresy which appeared in the fourth century and carries the name of its chief proponent, Nestorius. It so separates the two natures of Christ that it ascribes to Christ two distinct persons, a divine and a human. Return
22. Without going into detail on this point, we call the attention of the reader to the fact that a distinction must be made between "revelation" and "inspiration." God did not begin to give the Scriptures to His people until the time of Moses, 2,000 years after the fall. But during that entire period before Moses, God revealed Himself to His people through the promise of Christ in sacred history. Revelation always precedes inspiration. God made Himself known in many different ways (see Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A 19). This revelation was infallibly recorded for the church through the miracle of inspiration. Return
23. This does not in any way deny the fact that the Scriptures are an inexhaustible treasure of truth the depths which will not be plumbed before the Lord returns. We have discussed this in an earlier article when we dealt with the question of Scripture's perspicuity. Return