Biblical Inspiration and Authority

Editorial
July/August, 2013
Volume 48, Number 4

The last time the Church of the Brethren Annual Meeting addressed the issue of Biblical inspiration and authority was in 1979. One conclusion of the official statement approved by Annual Conference (titled Biblical Inspiration and Authority) was:

We affirm that the Bible, rightly interpreted, is a fully trustworthy guide for our lives. In this sense we reaffirm our historic understanding of scripture as an infallible rule of faith and practice. With these and other expressions we honor and acknowledge the unique authority of the Bible for the church.

The term “infallible” is a stronger word than “inerrant.” Inerrancy, when applied to the Bible, means that the Bible does not make mistakes. Infallibility, on the other hand, means that the Bible cannot make mistakes.

There is a revisionism going on about the 1979 Biblical Inspiration and Authority paper, even in conservative and evangelical circles. Somehow, the idea has been promoted, that the 1979 paper enshrined a liberal non-inerrancy perspective in the Church of the Brethren. This revisionism, however, overlooks the overwhelmingly liberal perspectives held by those in staff and elected positions across the Church of the Brethren during the 1940-1980 era. People like D. W. Kurtz, M. R. Zigler, Norman Baugher, and Dan West were all in the liberal camp. That position already was the default position of many in Brethren leadership. The majority of the 1979 study committee favored liberal understandings.

The 1979 paper recognized five viewpoints of Biblical inspiration, of which this one would be that of Brethren Revival Fellowship:

A second group’s position [has] a more Anabaptist, traditional Brethren point of view. The Bible is without error in the original autographs and any conflicts within the text are only seeming discrepancies due to our own lack of understanding. The King James Version is not the only English translation considered reliable. Scripture passages are studied in light of their context, the laws of grammar, and the form of biblical writing they represent. The total Bible is uniquely inspired and has the highest authority for life.

The minority position on the study commit tee,was the conservative one. There was originally going to be a Committee report, and a minority report. The committee wanted a united report, and so the “two-column” approach was adopted, which included the minority report as a regular part of the paper.

In doing so, the 1979 paper then actually recognized the validity of the conservative inerrantist position (quoted above) as a authentic Brethren viewpoint. While it is hard to understand it as that now, the inerrancy view was actually understood (at the time when the paper was adopted) to represent a significant advance on the part of conservatives and evangelicals in the Church.

So instead of abandoning inerrancy in 1979, the Church of the Brethren—for the first time explicitly—acknowledged inerrancy, as an ongoing Brethren perspective. The paper called for a more complete representation of persons holding different viewpoints on the Bible’s inspiration and authority at all levels of the church’s life, including the [Mission & Ministry Board], national and district staff, seminary faculty, writers for church publications, and Annual Conference committees.

The official ascent of evangelical perspectives into the life and ministry of the national Church of the Brethren—in the midst of a time when liberal theology had been pervasive among Church staff—traces its beginnings to the 1979 paper, even though at some levels, particularly the seminary, this call has not been seriously heeded.

Brethren Revival Fellowship simply affirms what the 1979 paper itself affirms, and would hope for a strengthening of Brethren adherence to the Bible as the absolutely trustworthy Word of God, and to its sufficiency as our rule of faith and practice.    

—Craig Alan Myers


Biblical Inspiration and Authority

By Harold S. Martin

The message in this issue of the Witness concentrates on a concern that is basic to the Christian faith. It is primarily a reprint of a message we published more than 35 years ago. The topic is an item on the agenda for the 2013 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference held at Charlotte, North Carolina.

The early Brethren left their mark wherever they went. We believe that this can be attributed to the fact that they adhered closely to the Scriptures as their source of authority. They were truly “a people of the Book.” Today there has been a shift away from emphasis upon the Bible as the textbook for life, to an emphasis on human planning and program. And when the Bible is referred to, the historical-critical method of interpretation is often used—and frequently new definitions are craftily assigned to familiar Bible precepts.

The gradual turn away from the historic acceptance of the divine inspiration and authority of the Scriptures is a basic concern of BRF. This article is an attempt to help the reader gain a new appreciation for the written Word of God.

Many church leaders no longer accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God. They have difficulty believing that: “If it is taught in the New Testament, then it ought to be diligently observed.” They have a variety of doubts about the reliability and authority of the Bible.

Some deplore the doctrinal departures that have taken place within the Church of the Brethren during the past century—the softening on baptism, the elimination of the eldership, the laying aside of the scriptural headveiling, the questioning of the reliability of the Apostle Paul’s writings, etc. At the heart of all these departures is a false view of the authority of the Bible. The trustworthiness of the Bible message is the foundation upon which the entire edifice of Christian truth is standing—and if this foundation is not reliable, the whole Christian faith goes with it. We believe the Bible is the fully inspired Word of God.

1. THE MEANING OF INSPIRATION

The Word “inspiration” (when used in connection with the origin of the Scriptures) means that the Holy Spirit caused the writers of the Scripture to accurately record what God wanted them to write. The 2 Timothy 3:16 declaration that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God”—means literally that the Scriptures are “God-breathed.” The Bible has been given by the breath of God. The sacred odor of heaven permeates the Scriptures. The individuals who wrote the Bible did not write merely from their own intellect; they wrote as God breathed His message into their minds and souls.

Second Peter 1:21 is another passage that speaks about the Bible’s origin. We read that “Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” The word “moved” is literally “carried along.” As the writers wrote, they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. The same word (in the original Greek) is used of a ship that is carried along by the force of the wind. Acts 27:17 tells about the shipwreck on the Mediterranean. The storm became so bad that the sailors could do nothing and “so were driven.” The word ‘driven” (in Acts 27:17) is the same as the word “moved” (in 2 Peter 1:21). Just as the ship was driven along by the wind, so the Holy Spirit came upon the writers of Scripture, and blew them wherever He desired.

We must note, however, that “inspiration” is not the same as “dictation.” God did not dictate word for word to the writers of the Bible. Some passages were dictated by God (for example, the Ten Commandments). These were written with the finger of God and recorded word for word in the Book of Exodus. But the normal procedure in inspiration was not dictation.

The Holy Spirit controlled the thoughts and judgments and words of the writers, yet at the same time, the writers expressed these thoughts in terms reflecting their own style of writing and their own personalities. Mark’s style of writing, for example, is altogether different from that of Luke’s. Each writer had freedom to use his own vocabulary and yet when he had finished his writing, he had written the very words that God wanted recorded. The Holy Spirit had complete command of the operation. Some will say, “But that’s impossible; it’s supernatural.” True. It is supernatural. The Bible is a supernatural book. It produces supernatural results. Those who deny the supernatural may as well forget all about Christianity.

Note also that inspiration does not suggest that God approves all the Bible’s statements. God does not approve all the remarks of the devil (nor of Job’s friends), for example, in the Book of Job. The inspiration of the Bible guarantees that all these remarks are accurately recorded, but God told Eliphaz in Job 42:7, “My wrath is aroused against you.. .for you have not spoken of Me what is right.” The words of the three “friends” in the Book of Job—what we read there—are exactly what they said, but God did not necessarily approve of what they said. This is one reason why we need to study the Scriptures carefully, and be diligent about rightly dividing the word of truth.

Bible inspiration is verbal. The Holy Spirit accurately guarded the words. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:13 that he writes the things God has given him “not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches.” Every word of the Bible (in its original form) has been guarded by the Holy Spirit.

Inspiration is plenary. This word comes from the Latin word “plenus” which means “full.” All Scripture is inspired, not merely part of it. That includes the book of Jonah and also the book of Genesis. That includes the parts you can’t understand as well as the parts you can understand.

All Scripture is inspired of God. The whole Bible originated with God. True—it is not all equally rich in spiritual content, but every part of the Bible is equally reliable and trustworthy. Nehemiah 7 (with all its names and numbers) is just as much inspired as a favorite New Testament passage such as John 14. The original documents of the Bible were God-breathed.

Inspiration is final. God’s written word comes to a close with the Book of Revelation. His complete will for man is given in the Scriptures. All that the guilty sinner ever needs to know, and all that the obedient saint can ever anticipate, is stored away in this Divine Library. Revelation 22:18 pronounces a solemn curse upon all who would try to add to the words of Scripture. The Holy Spirit will illuminate and give a fuller apprehension of the truth, but God’s truth itself is complete and final.

2. THE EVIDENCES OF INSPIRATION

One evidence for the divine inspiration of the Bible is the miracle of survival. The Bible has been the most persecuted book in all history. It has been burned and ridiculed and attacked in many ways, yet today it stands as strong as ever.

Some printed material circulated today literally explodes with hatred for the Bible. One pamphlet says the Bible is filled with contradictions, absurdities, cannibalism, impossibilities, insane sex ideas, injustice to women, etc. The writer goes on to say that if bad books are ever burned, the largest bonfire should consist of Bibles.

But why all this hatred for a Book that’s led thousands of people to live a better life? No one hates Andersen’s Fairy Tales. No one starts bonfires with Aesop’s Fables. Why all the hatred for the Bible? Some human beings hate this Book because it tells them what they are; it condemns sin; it makes demands upon their lives. Someone said to an infidel one time, “Why are you always criticizing the Bible; why don’t you let the Bible alone?” His answer was revealing. He replied, “Because it doesn’t let me alone.”

Some hate the Bible, and as a result it has been the victim of one attack after another down through the centuries, but today it stands as strong as ever. Critics have preached the Bible’s funeral ten thousand times, but they’ve never been able to get it buried! If the Bible had been a fraudulent book, it would have disintegrated long ago. Isaiah says, “The Word of our God shall stand forever.”

Another evidence for the Bible’s divine inspiration is the proof of prophecy. Many events in the life of Jesus, for example, were foretold in accurate detail long before they occurred. His virgin birth was foretold by Isaiah; the town of His birth was foretold by Micah; the flight into Egypt was mentioned by Hosea; His resurrection was foretold by David. The twenty- second Psalm alone contains more than thirty exact descriptions of Jesus on the Cross—and even though the Psalmist was writing approximately one thousand years before the events took place, his descriptions are so exact that it seems like he was standing at the foot of the Cross when he wrote.

Perhaps one of the most impressive fulfillments of prophecy is that concerning the city of Tyre, written in Ezekiel 26. While the city was at the height of prosperity, Ezekiel prophesied that it would be ravished by many nations, that its walls would be broken down, and that eventually the city would be flattened out like the top of a huge rock. Ezekiel said the ruins would become a place for fisherman to spread their nets, and he concludes, “And you shall be built no more, for I the Lord have spoken, says the Lord God.”

Now all that was prophesied has literally taken place. The ancient city of Tyre was located along the Mediterranean coast. Part of the city was built on an island off shore. When the city was destroyed, rocks and debris from demolished buildings were pushed into the sea (between the part of the city on the island and the part on the coast), and fisherman have used this spot for generations for the spreading of their nets. Any book which gives such accurate prophecies concerning future events must have as its author, the One who knows the future— and the only One who knows that is God.

The crowning evidence for the accuracy of the Bible is the testimony of Jesus. Jesus declared in John 10:35. “The Scripture cannot be broken.” He put His seal on the Old Testament when He quoted Exodus 3:6 (as recorded in Matthew 22:31) and said: “Have you not read what was spoken to you by God?” Jesus says the writings of Moses were spoken by God. During His earthly ministry, Jesus quoted from all parts of the Old Testament. He spoke of man’s creation, the institution of marriage, the days of Noah, the destruction of Sodom, God’s appearing to Moses in the burning bush, manna from heaven, lifting up the brazen serpent, the life of David, the glory of Solomon, the history of Abraham, and the sign of Jonah—and in all this record we have of Jesus’ words– there is not even the slightest intimation that the Scriptures might be untrustworthy at some point. Jesus never contradicted nor disagreed with anything in the Old Testament.

Concerning the New Testament, Jesus said, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name…will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).

The question is sometimes asked, “What guarantee do we have, that in the reports of the Gospel writers, we are given an accurate account of the words of Jesus? How do we know that the Gospels are true? Might not the writers have forgotten what Jesus said and misreported his words?” And the answer is that, indeed, they might forget! They were human beings. But Jesus himself tells us that they would not be left to their own fallible memories—but that the Holy Spirit would bring to their memories all that He had said to them. And so, in the Gospels, we have not the Apostles’ recollection of what Jesus said—but we have the Holy Spirit’s recollection—and He never forgets.

To Jesus Christ, the Scriptures were the infallible Word of God. Not one statement could possibly be broken. Are we going to part company with Jesus? Are we going to say Jesus was mistaken? The miracle of survival, the proof of prophecy, and the testimony of Jesus –these are all evidences that the Bible is a uniquely written, and a divinely inspired Book.

3. THE CONSEQUENCE OF INSPIRATION

Because the Bible is divinely inspired, it is a profound book. The Bible is not composed of the simple writings of human beings. It is divinely inspired and it is not always a simple book for the human mind to understand. Take for example the verse which says, “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.” That verse is really beyond human comprehension. We can learn many things about the atoning blood, and we can experience its cleansing reality in our lives, and receive new insights into its meaning—but to understand the full miracle of how the blood of Christ cleanses sin is impossible.

Because the Bible is divinely inspired, it is an authoritative book. It demands our obedience.  It is “the supreme court” from which there is no appeal. An old bishop used to say, “Show me something in the Bible that I don’t teach, and I’ll start teaching it; or show me something I do teach that’s not in the Bible, and I’ll cease teaching it.” When the Bible speaks, we can be sure that it is the voice of God speaking, and therefore it demands our obedience. The Bible is the mind of God and therefore it is essential that we believe it and obey it.

Because the Bible is divinely inspired, it is a profitable book. The concluding portion of 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “…and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” It is profitable for doctrine—for teaching (it teaches us the way to God); it is profitable for reproof—it shows us where we’re wrong; it is profitable for correction—it tells us how to get right; it is profitable for instruction in righteousness—it tells regenerated persons how they ought to live. The Bible is useful and profitable in that it teaches truth.

The Bible is a God-breathed book, and for this reason we can build our lives, and by His grace, base our eternal destinies on what it says. The child’s song expresses the truth: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells  me so.” The Scriptures tell us about Jesus Christ. They tell us how He died; they remind us that we have sinned; and they assure us that whoever believes on Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. The Bible was written to reveal a Person. It was written that men and women and boys and girls might believe, know, love, understand, and follow Jesus Christ (John
20:30-31).

Some church leaders today are saying that those who believe the verbal inspiration of the Bible are “bibliolaters,” and that Bible-believers are making a black leather-bound book the object of their devotion. They say we must not worship a dead book but rather a living person. That kind of statement sounds very pious indeed, but when we examine the argument carefully we see that it is faulty.

Our true object of worship is Jesus Christ, but what do we know about Jesus Christ except for what we find in the Bible? How do we come to know Him except through the message of the Bible? Our only source of information about the character and attributes of Jesus Christ is the Bible. It is from this inspired Book that we learn of Jesus Christ. And if the Bible is filled with errors and contradictions, then it might also be in error concerning Him.

We don’t worship the Bible (the paper and ink and leather covers), but we do love the Bible because of its message. Our love for Jesus Christ grows every day when we meditate on the pages of the Book. Our belief in an infallible Bible does not obscure our love for the Savior—rather, it deepens our devotion to the Lord of Glory! Those who declare that to believe a perfect Bible is to worship the Book instead of the Christ—are themselves worshipping something other than Christ. They worship the human mind. They believe that humans themselves have the intelligence and the capacity to decide that is true about life here and life hereafter.

The Bible should be carefully studied, and each passage is to be interpreted in light of its context, the laws of grammar, and the form of biblical writing in which it is found. The Bible is uniquely inspired and it is proper to accept the New Testament as “our rule of faith and of practice.” What can be seen only vaguely (in the Old Testament)—can now be seen more clearly (in the New Testament), which is God’s complete and perfect revelation of Himself to the human family.

From an Anabaptist Christian point of view, the New Testament is the supreme standard by which all human conduct and religious belief should be tried. It is the hope of Brethren Revival Fellowship that more and more Brethren in places of responsible leadership will embrace the infallibility view—for the Bible itself indicates the trustworthiness of its claims in numerous places.

Alexander Mack (first elder among the Brethren) spoke derisively of those who “no longer take counsel from the writings of he apostles,” and he was burdened by haughty persons who opposed the “statutes and laws which the Son of God and His apostles have ordained.” Mack declared that those statutes are “the perfect will of the true Lawgiver” (Durnbaugh, European Origins of the Brethren, pages 383-387).

Surely it is correct to say that the doctrine of biblical infallibility was not a new doctrine which the fundamentalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries adopted, but the teaching was so widely accepted by early Christians that there was no need to write much about Bible authority.