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The Authority of the Bible—Revelation and Inspiration

by Pastor David Glesne (Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fridley, Minnesota)

Date unknown


[Note: This paper was originally presented at a workshop at the 2006 Montana Synod Assembly and a WordAlone chapter meeting in Montana.]

photo of Dr. GlesneWhat I am going to be doing today is looking with you at this matter of the authority of the Bible and the question of revelation and inspiration. In my mind, the question of Biblical revelation and inspiration is the theological watershed in the contemporary theological scene.

On many occasions I have had lay people come up to me and say, “Dave, I just don’t understand. How can people who say they are working out of the same book come up with such opposite beliefs? I read the Bible and it seems clear to me on so many issues and then this friend or pastor gets something entirely different out of it. I just don’t get it!” It is puzzling isn’t it? And although it is a complex thing, I am going to try to make at least some preliminary sense of how we have come to this place of theological pluralism in the modern church.

Indeed, the church is being forced to face some crucial questions today:

  • Is the Reformation conviction of sola Scriptura still supreme for the church’s faith and life? What role does church tradition, human reason, and human experience play in moral and ethical guidance? What is the church to do when new interpretations of biblical passages contradict the long-standing understanding of the church’s teaching?
  • Are people accepted and approved by God because of the grace and love of Jesus Christ regardless of their attitudes toward Him and their behavior with others? Or is a person called to repentance and faith in Christ, which brings forgiveness of sins and issues forth in growth in holiness of life?
  • Is the situation ethic of love alone as the criterion by which to judge every human relationship an adequate moral guide today? Should the church approve of all sexual activity that is loving in nature even though this activity takes place outside the bounds of the traditional limits of gender, marriage and the family?
  • Should the church approve of alternate life styles in its sexual morality? Or is there a core biblical sexual ethic that negates such alternative life styles?

These are central questions that both laity and leaders of the church need to be asking and working through in our day. Here is the thesis I will be attempting to develop. It is this: answers to these critical questions before our church lie finally not at the feet of hermeneutics, i.e. differences in how we interpret the Bible, but they lie ultimately at the feet of revelation, which is the question of Biblical authority.

Here is the track we will be running on:

  • First, I want to put the importance of Biblical authority and the need of having knowledge and understanding from God for our lives in historical perspective.
  • We will then look at three (3) different views of authority and some alternatives to full authority put forth today.
  • This will be followed by looking briefly at how we have come to the present crisis.
  • Then I want to end with a strong encouragement to hold fast in our day to the Bible as the final authority over us in all matters of faith and life.

First, then, is this matter of the Bible’s authority really all that important?

The Progress of Dogma by James Orr

In his classic work, The Progress of Dogma, James Orr contended that the Christian Church, in each great epoch in its history, has been forced to come to grips with one particular doctrine of crucial significance both for that day and for the subsequent history of the Church.

In the first great epoch, the Patristic era, the era of the Early Church Fathers, the issue was the relation of the persons of the Godhead, and particularly the Christological problem of Jesus’ character. The ecumenical creeds represent the success of orthodox, Trinitarian theology in turning back the heresies of the day, any one of which could have permanently destroyed the Christian faith.

The second great epoch, Medieval Christianity, faced the issue of the meaning of Christ’s atonement. Anselm’s “Latin doctrine” in spite of its scholastic inadequacies, gave solid expression to biblical salvation-history as represented by the Epistle to the Hebrews.

In the third great epoch, the Reformation Era, the overarching doctrinal problem was the question of the application of redemption in justification. Luther’s stand for sola gratia and sola fide arrested the man-centered trend which could well have turned the Christian faith into a pagan religiosity.

And what about the fourth great epoch, Contemporary Christianity? Writing from his vantage point at the end of the 19th C. James Orr thought the crucial doctrine the Church would face would be eschatology, i.e., matters regarding the end times. I believe subsequent events in 20th and 21st century Christianity have shown his judgment wrong. I would submit that the doctrinal problem, which, above all others, demands resolution in the modern Church, is that of the authority of Holy Scripture.

The huge question that is vexing the Church today is, “What authority does Scripture have?” “What is the extent of biblical reliability?” “Does the Scripture have a full authority? Or does it have a limited authority?” Perhaps it is not surprising that the 2005 ELCA churchwide assembly adopted a memorial that called for a report to the April 2006 meeting of the Church Council to address “foundational issues” of the authority of Scripture and principles of biblical interpretation.

Knowledge and understanding from God

Now one cannot underscore strongly enough importance of this issue. Because there are several central areas to our lives in which we are dependent upon the Scriptures for knowledge and understanding.

First, it is from the Scriptures that we have knowledge of the meaning of existence. We look at our western society today and lots of people don’t know what human life is all about. Some will be familiar with Woody Allen who I think expresses well this very clear problem people in our day have in not understanding what human life is all about. At the end of one of his films, a girl says to him, “What do you believe in?” She asks him if he believes in God, he says, “No.” “Do you believe in the state?” “No.” “Do you believe in any kind of religion?” “No.” “Do you believe in the president? This? That?” “No.” She gets more and more confused as he says “No” to everything and then she asks, “Well what do you believe in?” He says, “I believe in sex and death because they are the only two final experiences.” Woody Allen expresses very clearly, this sort of dilemma that many people in our age are in, of not knowing what human life is all about. Why we are here. Where we are going. Now the Scriptures give us knowledge of who we are, that we are creatures made by God in His image for a relationship with him, which will last forever, either with him or separate from him. The Scriptures give us a meaning to existence.

Secondly, the Scriptures give us knowledge of the source of sin and suffering and pain and death. It tells us that this world is abnormal since the rebellion of Adam and Eve. The Christian can understand why there is sin and guilt and suffering, pain, and death in the world. And again people in our society have a huge dilemma at this point. They have no solution to death and suffering and no real explanation as to why it is there, or any hope that it will ever be different. They can only say, “That’s what is. This is the way life is.”

Thirdly, we have knowledge of salvation from the Scriptures. They give us knowledge of Christ, of the love of God displayed in history in sending his own Son to die on the cross to redeem us. This gives us a solution not only to the problem of our own moral guilt, that we are all sinners, that we stand in judgment before God, but it will also ultimately give us a solution to the problems of suffering, pain, death, and the curse there is on the world because the Scriptures look forward to an age when we will all be raised from the dead and there will be no more sickness, pain, or tears. Even the earth itself will be made new and the curse removed from it. Again, our society has no salvation. It has no hope in terms of its future, where it is going. Even when people try to be optimistic, they have no real basis for hoping that the future will hold anything better than the present.

Fourthly, the Scriptures give us knowledge of how we should live. What is right and what is wrong for human existence. They give us a set of morals that never change which are based upon the moral character of God himself. God tells us as his creatures what he has made us for and how he has made us to live. He has given us his law. Now again our society is completely lost at this point. It has no basis for knowing finally what is right and what is wrong. It has no basis ultimately for morality.

The Scriptures are the source of our knowledge in all these areas. So it is a very important question to ask, “What kind of authority do the Scriptures have? Is it a divine book? When it speaks into these different areas a) of the meaning of existence, b) of the source of sin, c) of the hope of salvation, d) of a basis of morals, is it a sure foundation? Is it a Word from God into our human existence to tell us these things certainly? Or is it a simple human book with here and there glimmerings of the divine showing through it? Is it trapped in the sinfulness and finiteness of man like all other human statements or is it something that really comes from God?

So the issue of authority - how much authority and what kind of authority - the Scriptures have is of fundamental importance.

What is our final authority? Three different views

Now as we look at the history of the Church and the question, “What is our final authority?” There have been several different answers given. We could divide them up in different ways and add something here and there but we can say basically there are three different views.

The first would be to say that the final authority for the Christian is simply the Bible, that it has a complete authority, that it is absolutely true and stands in judgment over all human thinking and action. It stands as a source of knowledge, which cannot be controverted in any area in which it speaks – whether it is faith or morals or history or science, that it is a Word from God in all of these areas.

Historically, this is the view held by the orthodox and evangelical Church. It has held to the full authority of Scripture. As we look all the way back to the early Church, then to the first generation of Christian writers after the Apostles, this was their view. This was the view held by Martin Luther and the Reformers of the 16th Century. Martin Luther’s cry was that the church’s faith and practice needed to be based on the Word alone, sola scriptura. Up until the recent past, orthodox and evangelical Christians have held to sola scriptura, the full authority of Scripture, that the Bible is the final source of authority and that its authority is complete.

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard said, “Anyone who sews has first to tie a knot in the thread somewhere.” Only in tying one’s knot somewhere can you keep your work from unraveling. The Lutheran conviction has always been to tie the knot of authority in the Holy Scriptures, period!

The second view, which could be held, is the view the Medieval Roman Catholic Church held and we might say orthodox Catholicism until quite recently. Initially, as we look at orthodox Catholicism, it seems there are two sources of authority: 1) the Bible and 2) along side it the tradition of the Church. You read the declaration of the Council of Trent and it says this quite simply. The Council of Trent in reaction to the 16th C. Reformation states that the Bible is authoritative but that the tradition of the Church, i.e. the things that have been handed down by the Church and declared by the Church, is authoritative as well. They held to an infallible Scripture guaranteed and interpreted by an infallible magisterium. This, of course, led to the final declaration of the infallibility of the Pope in the 19th C., i.e. that the Pope, when he was making ex cathedra statements could speak infallibly with the same absolute authority as Scripture.

As one looks closer at orthodox Catholicism, however, it isn’t that simple, i.e. that there are two sources of authority. The reason is, in the end one cannot have two final sources of authority. For human beings at the end of the day there will be only one source of authority. Something has to have the final place. What we see in fact in orthodox Catholic theology is that when push comes to shove, the Church has the final place of authority, because in the orthodox Roman Catholic view, it is the Church that gives us the Bible. It is the Church that declares which books of the Bible are canonical – authoritative. So it is the Church that has preserved the Bible and gives us the Bible, they say. So the Church stands over the Bible and the Church was the infallible interpreter of the Bible. Consequently, the Church’s authority was final.

I trust we see the difference between the Reformation view and the orthodox Roman Catholic view. Whereas in the Reformation view, the Word of God, the Scriptures, is the final arbiter of truth in all matters of faith and life, in the Roman Catholic view the Church stands over both the Giver of the Bible and the Bible itself as the final arbiter of truth. The Church becomes the final authority rather than the Word of God in Scripture. So even though in traditional Catholic theology there was a full affirmation of the infallibility of Scripture, when it came to crunch time – like matters of justification through faith alone or purgatory or whatever – the tradition of the Church stood higher than the authority of Scripture and what it says.

Continuing Kierkegaard’s analogy, the classical Roman Catholic conviction has always ended up tying the final knot of authority in Church tradition.

The third possibility in terms of final authority is that man’s own religious consciousness is the final source of authority as to what is true. In this third possibility it is the individual Christian who ultimately stands there before God and the Scriptures and his own religious consciousness is the final arbiter of what is true and what from the Scripture is accepted as true and what can be rejected.

Now this has a long history, of course, and just to illustrate, I’ll share an example from the 17th C. and one from today. From the 17th C. we look at Lord Herbert of Cherbury, a cousin of the poet, George Herbert. Lord Herbert of Cherbury put in the place of the authority of the Bible, the religious consciousness of the individual, in fact, not just the consciousness of the individual but also the consciousness of all men. He said the universal consent would be the sovereign test of truth. There is nothing of so great importance than to seek out these common notions and to put them each in their places as indubitable truth. In other words, what the majority of men believe religiously, that is what is finally true.

It is interesting to look at the things that he said all men believe. He said they all believe in 1) a personal God who created the world; 2) that there would be a judgment; and 3) that there is an afterlife; i.e., all sorts of things that many people would reject today. But in the end, he was placing the religious consciousness of man, of the individual over the authority of Scripture. So he felt quite free to reject many of the statements of Scripture in areas where he didn’t agree with them or he didn’t like what was said.

Now this is being done in all sorts of ways today. Someone looks at Scripture today and says, “Well, I think it is the Word of God but I don’t like what the O.T. says about judgment,” or “I don’t like the destruction of the Amorites in the land of Canaan under Joshua,” or “I don’t think that a merciful God could ever send people to hell and therefore I won’t regard those statements of Scripture as being authoritative.”

We must understand that if one takes such a view, even though one is claiming to hold to the authority of Scripture, one is saying in the end that my own moral consciousness is the final source of truth, the final authority in matters of faith and practice in terms of what I believe about God and his actions in the world. So religious consciousness is placed over Scripture. It is essentially a subjective authority and it would change with every individual and it can change during the individual’s lifetime in terms of what one believes. Again, I trust we see how different this view is from the Reformation view.

Much current theology ties the knot of authority at the place of personal consciousness – at the place of human experience and reason.

So this question of authority is a central question. “What is the final authority?” James Packer says in his book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, that,

“. . . the problem of authority is the most far reaching and fundamental division that there is or can be between Christian people. The deepest cleavages in Christendom are those which result from disagreement about authority. Radical divergences are only to be expected when there is no agreement as to the proper grounds for believing anything.”

He is absolutely right! If we have taken either the authority of the Church or the authority of the individual consciousness as our final arbiter of Truth rather than the Bible, of course we are going to end up with very different views in terms of what we believe. And Packer says again:

“. . . the problem of authority is the most fundamental problem the Church ever faces. This is because Christianity is built on Truth, that is to say on the content of a divine revelation. Christianity centers on salvation through faith in Jesus Christ in and through whom that revelation came to completion. But faith in Jesus Christ is possible where the Truth concerning him is known.”

But how do we know it? All people who claim to be Christian would say they believe in Christ in some sense or other. But how do we know about Christ? How do we know about what salvation means? We know it from the Scriptures.

  • We don’t know it from our own individual consciousness. If one says one knows Christ from what one feels he ought to have been like, if one accepts what one likes about him in the N.T. and rejects what he does not, essentially one has a Christ in one’s own image rather than the Christ who is declared to us in the pages of Scripture.
  • Finally, we don’t know about Christ or what salvation means from the Church.

It is a very fundamental question: “Where is the source of our authority?”

Views of Limited Biblical Authority

As I have said, from the days of Martin Luther and the Reformation, historically Lutherans have held to the full authority of Scripture. In modern times, however, some Lutherans have followed other Protestants and Catholics in moving to views of limited Biblical Authority. So in our day there is a great debate over the extent of the Bible’s authority. So when people in the church say to me, “I don’t understand how people who each speak highly of Scriptural authority end up believing such opposite things, what has happened?” I say to them that a change has taken place with regard to the extent of Biblical authority.

There are many today who, while trying to speak highly of Biblical authority – and would use such language – nevertheless end up denying the Reformation view of the full authority of the Bible. Let me give you a couple examples of what is said by those who deny its full authority.

First, the view is held that the Scripture is in some sense a revelation from God but that human finiteness and sinfulness have not been overcome in its giving. This would be one alternative to a view of full authority. While we regard the Scripture as being revelation from God in some sense, in the end human finiteness and sinfulness have not been overcome in terms of the book we have in front of us.

Let me give the example that we all are very familiar with – the homosexual issue. It is said today that the statements in Leviticus or the statements of the Apostle Paul about homosexuality are culturally bound and that we know today that homosexual relationships, which are loving and faithful and monogamous, are acceptable to God. This is a very important issue when we ask, “What kind of authority does the Bible have?” Has God given us a book in which He has presented to us His Word so that human fallibility and sinfulness are not present in it so that we don’t have to pick and choose, or has He given us a book where in fact human fallibility and sinfulness are present so that in the end the final arbiter is our own religious consciousness as we say we seek the leading of the Holy Spirit. Because make no mistake, those who claim that loving, faithful, monogamous homosexual relationships are acceptable before God are trying to say it in a very pietistic way. They are saying that the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our day, that the Holy Spirit is leading us today to know that Paul’s statements in this area are culturally bound and no longer binding on us. So it raises a huge issue. It is not just little things that are involved but things dealing with sin, forgiveness, repentance and salvation.

The second kind of possibility one often comes across when one denies the full authority of Scripture is to say that Scripture is authoritative in matters of faith and practice, but not where it speaks in the area of history and science. The historical details of the life of Christ, the creation and fall accounts in Genesis, the accounts of the kings in Kings and Chronicles must not necessarily be taken as all historically true.

The problem with such a view is that Christianity, in contrast, to other religions is a religion that is based upon history or it is nothing at all. If you read the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the Hindu holy books, for example, it makes no attempt to root its statements in history. It is a set of philosophical or ideological statements. The Bible is very different. From the beginning to the end, it roots what it says in a particular history of people and places and times. The Bible is not a book of ideas spun up into the air but a book of history. And the redemptive teaching of the Bible is deeply enmeshed in this historical web. (Luke 3:1-2) And without that history, as Paul says so clearly in I Corinthians 15, without the historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there is no Christian faith. So one encounters a huge problem if one starts saying one will believe as fully authoritative the Bible’s statements in the area of faith and morals, but not its statements about history because the two are so inextricably wound up together. So make no mistake. If we say the Bible’s authority is not full but rather that it is limited, there is no end to what we are going to say in terms of how limited it is.

By way of illustration: In an ELCA News Service article dated May 18, 2006 (the day before the movie, ‘The Da Vinci Code,” was released in the U.S.), entitled “ELCA Seminary Professors, Film Reviewer Comment on ‘The Da Vinci Code,’” the news release stated, “But I also would recommend that people of faith read the book and see the movie. What fear is in that? If we realize that faith is not history nor science that (is) based on fact, but on a mysterious gift of spiritual blessing, it may even strengthen one’s belief….”

The source of the Bible’s Authority?

Luther’s cry was sola Scriptura, the Word alone. Historically, this has been the Lutheran Church’s view of the Bible’s authority. Scripture is the final arbiter of truth in all areas into which it speaks. But now we need to press the question. Where then is the source of the Bible’s authority located?

Here we get down to brass tacks in terms of authority. Again, let me use the current debate regarding homosexuality to illustrate. When discussing the phenomenon of homosexuality, at some point someone undoubtedly will make an appeal to the Scripture. They will say, “Such and such a text says this about homosexual behavior.” But as soon as Scripture is brought into the conversation something inevitably happens. Whether in formal debate or one-on-one casual conversation, the moment comes when someone cries out, “But it all depends on your interpretation!” The debate quickly turns from there into a quotation contest centered narrowly on a handful of texts in which everything is reduced to the pitting of one interpretation against another. Each person has an expert theologian or author they quote who can trump the expert theologian or author that the other person quotes.

What is often not seen or acknowledge is that there is something deeper here than merely some simple application of some ancient text. There is something far more crucial here than the pitting of interpretations one against the other. What is not perceived is that the appeal to the biblical-historical understanding of Scripture is essentially an appeal not to hermeneutics but to revelation. It is an appeal to God’s Word to us. In the current debate on homosexuality, the crucial question is, “Do we have a Word from God? Has God communicated His will to us regarding human sexuality and homosexual behavior?” If in fact God has not spoken into the world and told us what is right and what is wrong, there is no solid basis for any moral distinctions, nor is there any knowledge of what those moral distinctions are. If he has not spoken, we are left only with finite human opinions and we are in no position to say that one is better than another.

The essential understanding of the Scriptures of those who deny that God has spoken into this world is that the Scriptures were written by humans who were using their own experiences to try to understand God’s ways.

In this view the authority of the Bible comes essentially from man’s initiative. Authority is tied to the latest discourse and hypothesis of science, as contemplated by learned professors. The vicissitudes of human experience are drawn upon heavily to give insight and meanings. A person’s religious consciousness shaped by reason and experience are the ultimate authority in the interpretation of the ancient biblical texts. This view sees the human interpretation of the text as the final authoritative word.

In contrast, the Reformation view of sola Scriptura sees the source of the Scripture’s authority as God himself and his revelation to us. The understanding of Scripture here is that the words of the Bible are essentially the effort of God to help us understand our experiences. In this view the authority of the bible comes from God’s initiative. Scripture is understood as God’s revelation to us. It is God’s Word to us and its authority is derived from the One who gives it.

Now there are two charges often brought today against those who continue to rely on the bible as God’s peculiar revelation to man. The charge is made that we are “literalists” who take the literal meaning of any and every word in the Bible. It is a hollow charge. The truth is there are no such literalists. They don’t exist. I have never run across anyone anywhere who believes literally that the mountains clapped their hands. I don’t know of anyone who thinks that King Herod ran around on four legs with a bushy tail, even though Jesus called him “that fox.” Yet the charge is made that these people believe the Bible in this way.

The charge is further made that those who believe that God’s Word is spoken in the words of the Bible are “bibliolaters.” The accusation is that they are guilty of worshiping the Bible for they actually put their trust in the Bible itself! Our trust is to be in God, they ridicule, not in pages of paper. This claim also has no substance. I know of no one who worships the pages of a book. It is a straw man. These accusations of literalism and bibliolatry against those who place their faith in the Bible as God’s revelation need to be exposed for what they are – false and without foundation.

In what way then shall we understand the Bible as God’s revelation to us? What is the Lutheran lens through which we see and understand God’s revelation to us? George Muedeking in a paper titled “Christ’s Scripture or Scripture’s Christ – Is It an Either-Or?” gives us an extremely helpful exercise in helping us understand the relationships between God, Scripture and faith. Muedeking says, “Imagine receiving a telephone message at work that says, ‘David, your house in on fire. Better get home quick!’” What do you do?

In order to believe any message like this one given over the phone, first, you must quickly determine if the messenger is trustworthy. If the messenger is known to be a liar, a prankster, or capricious, you will most likely have good reasons to disregard the message. If he is trustworthy, however, you will undoubtedly act on the message. The messenger who speaks the message in the Bible is Jesus Christ Himself. It is Jesus who “authenticates” the words of the Bible. We trust the words of the Bible because we trust the messenger. He is the Authority for the authority of the Bible over us.

Secondly, and quite separately, in order to believe “your house is on fire,” you must certainly also believe the message itself, that the words themselves are valid. It is possible to believe in the trustworthiness of the messenger and yet not believe in the message he brings. While fully believing in the messenger, I may think that what he is telling me so urgently is not to be believed: the house he is talking about has to be the one next door; he has been dreaming and just woke up thinking it was really happening; he may be pulling an “April Fool” joke on me!

For me to act on the message and go home quickly, I must have confidence in both the message and the messenger at the same time. In the same way, for me to have eternal life and to live the new life there is in Christ, I must believe both in the words of the Bible and the Christ who so graciously offers them to me.

Martin Luther spoke of the Scriptures as the manger in which Christ lies. In light of Luther’s theology of the Word, this analogy would mean that we are to believe both in the manger and in the Christ Child. Without the manger we have no knowledge of the Christ. Without Christ we have no manger. I must believe in both the messenger and the message he brings.

In our day, Luther’s picture of the manger and Christ has been misconstrued and manipulated to make Luther say something different than what he in fact said. How often do we read or hear someone say something like, “Like Luther says, the Word of God is found in the Bible like Christ is in a manger. We need to separate him from the straw and wood.” But that is not at all what Luther said. Luther uses this particular analogy in an Epiphany sermon and here is what he in reality says:

“...despises Scripture and sets it aside, will never find him. We heard earlier that the angel gave a sign to the shepherds [Luke2:12]; but to Mary or Joseph or to any other man, however pious they may have been, he gave no sign except the swaddling clothes in which he was wrapped, and the cradle into which he was laid, that is, the Scripture of the prophets and the law. In these he is enclosed, they possess him, they speak of him alone and witness to him and are his sure sign…”

What Luther is saying is that Christ is found in the O.T. Scriptures like the baby Jesus is found in the cradle of the manger. It is argued today that Christians do not worship the manger (the Bible); rather they worship the Christ whom the manger contains. It is argued that we are to have confidence in the God of the Bible, not in the words of the Bible themselves. So Luther’s writings are meticulously screened to find any statements that might hint of any distrust of the Scripture’s words in favor of his having found his faith from his relationship with Christ himself. The search has been unsuccessful, however, because of Luther’s frequently expressed personal gratitude for the revelation that the Scriptures alone gave him about how a person comes into a right relationship with God.

We do not “believe in the Bible” in exactly the same way that we do not “believe in the telephone” that conveyed the message that told me my house was burning down. Rather, we believe in both the message and the messenger. We speak of the Bible, then, as a means of grace. The Bible is the means, the instrument, the telephone – if you will – that God uses to speak His words to us. It is important in our day to emphasize this reality of God speaking to us in the Bible in words. God’s revelation to us is in language. The Bible presents God as a personal God who has created us in his own image. A distinct part of that image of God is our ability to communicate in language like our Creator. It is therefore perfectly fitting that God has communicated to us in the same way as he has created us to communicate with each other.

  • So in Ex. 20:22, after God spoke the words of the 10 Commandments, when God says to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites: ‘you have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven,’” we believe God spoke with Moses in the Hebrew language.
  • Or again when Saul fell to the ground on the Damascus Road and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me,” we believe the risen Christ spoke to Saul in the Aramaic language.

The words of the Bible are the means the messenger has chosen to communicate his message to us. That is why God is the Authority for the authority of the Bible over us. Both the messenger and the message are the object of our faith at the same time. Both must be present in our hearts if we are to live responsibly as Christian believers.

Now here is where we come to the central question with regard to the crises of biblical authority today. It is a question of revelation. If God has spoken to us in language then the Bible has the full authority of God behind it. If God does not speak to us in language, then we have a very different kind of authority. And it is this very different kind of authority that we are facing today. Let me give you three examples.

First, I’ll read a quote from a modern theological textbook. It is a quote from Hans Kung in his book, On Being a Christian. He says, “Christianity is not a book religion. The Scripture’s themselves are not divine revelation. They are merely the human testimonies of divine revelation in which the humanity, independence, and historicity of the human authors always remains in tact.” Then he says, “There is not a single text in Scripture asserting its freedom from error.” An astonishing statement. But you see what he is saying. Revelation doesn’t come to man from God in language, i.e., in the words of the Bible. God’s revelation does not come from God to man in language that is true. Revelation comes in a person not in words. In a great deal of modern theology there is this de-evaluation of language.

The second, example is Karl Barth - who has influenced an entire generation of theologians and pastors. In Barth there is a strong emphasis on God being unknown and unknowable and that it is idolatrous to put labels on him. In Barth’s view, God is so transcendent, so wholly other, that any attempt to grasp words and say, “This is who God is” is essentially idolatrous and again this undermines the value of language. It obviously undermines any view of the Scriptures being a revelation of God. Scripture simply becomes a record of people’s meetings with God which they have then sought to express in language which is limited and expresses those people’s own mistaken understanding, sometimes even sinfulness, their errors. That’s what Scripture becomes. If God cannot be spoken about in a true way ultimately, if He is ultimately unknowable, then Scripture cannot be an authoritative statement in propositions, in language about Him.

The third example is Paul Tillich who says something very similar. He suggests in fact that the attempt to make statements about God, what he calls traditional theism (i.e. the Reformation view) is ultimately atheism. He says that any attempt to define who God is, to say this about God or that about God is ultimately idolatrous, that we must have the courage to say God cannot be known. Nothing can be known about him. Now again this undermines the value of language and any possibility of regarding the Scripture as being a revelation from God. The whole idea of God speaking to man in language becomes an impossible idea in such a view.

Why is it impossible? It is impossible because of the view that man’s ultimate problem is metaphysical. What do I mean? This view sees that the ultimate problem is that man is finite and God is infinite. Man is small and can’t do anything, while God is infinite in power and knowledge. I would say, yes, we are unlike God in the sense that we are finite and limited whereas God has infinite and knowledge and we don’t. But one must understand that in the Bible man’s finiteness and God’s infiniteness is not seen as a problem.

The problem for man in the Bible is that man is sinful, that he has disobeyed God in his behavior and thoughts. In other words, man’s problem is a moral problem. The Bible sees no barrier between God and man because man if finite. In fact, the Bible affirms that man is made in the image of God, the he is made like God as a personal being and that therefore God can and does communicate to man in language, that God, far from being unknowable or unknown and not having a particular character, that God is a Personal God, in fact three Persons who have communicated with each other and loved each other before the world was made.

  • So you even find the members of the Godhead using language to speak to each other.
  • You can think of Jesus praying to the Father. Jesus saw language as a perfectly adequate medium for communication with God the Father.

So language is a valuable tool for communication between God and man.

If John’s Gospel says, “He who believes on the Son has everlasting life,” that is a statement to which we can hold God. And when in his Word he declares the promise, “if you believe in the Son you will have eternal life,” it is a true statement. It is not an exhaustive statement. It doesn’t say everything about Christ that can be known but what it says is true.

So then language is an adequate tool for speaking about God. The fact that the Bible is in human language is no problem for its authority. It is no problem at all philosophically. Simply because God’s revelation is in human language, it cannot be ruled out as being an inadequate medium which is fundamentally what modern theology is saying at that point.

  • We say “No,” man is made like God and God communicates with God in language and it is adequate.
  • Also, we can communicate with God in prayer in language and that is adequate. That’s how Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” It is a good means of communication with God, because God is not the totally other. God is a Personal being who has made himself our Father in Jesus Christ.

So when a person asks today “What has happened? How can two people working out of the same Bible come up with such opposing views,” we point them to the change in views of revelation. From the beginning of the Church, revelation from God in human language was the view of all theologians, Catholic and Protestant alike, right down into the 18th C. This was the Reformation view – Luther and Calvin’s view. And there were not many exceptions to this. But then in the 18th, 19th, 20th Centuries, the view radically changed and I want to briefly point to this change by reading just a few brief comments on the whole idea of revelation in language.

  • Karl Barth called this a “spook.”
  • An Englishman, J.S. Whale, who authored The Protestant Tradition, said, “Verbal inspiration is obscurantism.”
  • Harry Emerson Fosdick called it “bibliolatry.”
  • Professor Cottons said it is heresy.
  • A man named Elliot writing to Christianity Today some years ago said this, “I consider adherence to the infallibility of Scripture demonic. Hatred for the doctrine of the perfect book is very strong in a large segment of ecumenical leadership. And I can hardly be considered irresponsible and ecumenically inauthentic in voicing this hatred.” He is saying that God speaking through the words of the Bible a true word to man is inconceivable and utterly impossible. There has been a huge change.

Now some modern theologians have tried to deny that there has been a change and have tried to claim that they and not we stand in the historic stream of Christianity and Christian thought and have tried to claim that divine revelation in language is a modern heresy and they have made attempts to dress up Martin Luther and John Calvin as existential theologians. I think this is simply unfair, deceptive, and dishonest.

I found a very telling remark from Kirsop Lake who was a liberal scholar in the early part of the 20th century. He says,

“It is a mistake often made by educated persons who happen to have little knowledge of historical theology, to suppose that fundamentalism, is a new and strange form of thought. It is nothing of the kind. It is the partial and uneducated survival of the theology, which was once universally held by all Christians. How many were there, for instance, in Christian churches in the 18th Century who doubted the infallible inspiration of all Scripture. A few perhaps, but very few. No, the fundamentalist may be wrong, I think that he is. But it is we who have departed from the tradition, not he. And I am sorry for the fate of anyone who tries to argue with the fundamentalist on the basis of authority. The Bible and the Corpus Theologicum of the Church is on the fundamentalist’s side.”

This is a remarkable admission from a man who is not on the fundamentalist side. I trust we are not put off by his use of the term fundamentalist, a term with which I myself wouldn’t identify, but to understand that he is speaking of the Church’s historic view of biblical authority centered in God’s revelation to man through the means of language.

Doors into the age of the loss of authority

How have we come into this new age, into the age of the loss of authority? There is no time for detail, but I want to point out two key men who have brought us through the door. The first is Immanuel Kant and his distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal. Kant’s idea was that the phenomenal refers to that realm which we may know through our senses. The noumenal refers to all other things – including God. Then he went on to say that reason and understanding are limited to the phenomenal world. The noumenal world on the other hand is the realm of faith. Now you see what Kant did. All of a sudden, he has precluded the possibility of propositional knowledge of God, because words need logic and rationality, and rationality has no place in the noumenal realm, the realm that includes God. I think in a nutshell this is what Kant’s contribution to the present day seems to have been.

The second man is Frederick Schleiermacher, known as the father of liberal theology, and he lived in the time of 18th Century rationalism. What Schleiermacher tried to do was to save Christianity from the attack of rationalism by abandoning the concept of revealed truth altogether. What Schleiermacher put forth – and this sounds very beautiful – is that God reveals himself and not truths about himself. That really sounds great! That really sounds great! And yet it is contentless and subjective in the extreme, absolutely incommunicable, indiscussable and what Schleiermacher did was he fled from the storm of rationalism into the shelter of sheer subjectivity and again, he has undermined the possibility of propositional knowledge about God.

Now from these two men theology developed in two directions, both building on Kant and Schleiermacher.

  • The one direction is known as neo-orthodoxy and this tried to describe what the Bible DOES, namely that the Bible mediates a personal encounter with God. In the Bible we encounter God himself, not truth about God. You see this goes back to Schleiermacher and to Kant.
  • The other direction theology went (and the two are complimentary) is known by various names – salvation history, holy history, biblical theology. This tried to describe what the Bible IS. It says that the Bible is a witness to revelation, not the revelation itself and whenever you see the phrase “witness to revelation” wake up and understand what you are reading.

So you have these two views:

  • the neo-orthodox view describing what the Bible does
  • the salvation history view describing what the Bible is

Both of them are a partial truth. Both of them posit a false antithesis and both of them are ultimately subjective and eventually deprive us of all content and hence all communicable truth. Both of them deny that God speaking to us in the words of the Bible through human language is possible. Both deny that we can make any statement about God that corresponds to the reality of who God is. No objective knowledge of God is possible.

A Place to Stand

Now in closing, I want to encourage us who hold to historic Lutheran view of the Bible’s full authority, who believe the Bible’s own claims about itself to be God’s revelation to man in human language. I want to encourage us to keep on having full confidence in the reliability of God’s Word to us.

One could give several studies on this subject – the claims of the O.T. for itself, the claims of the N.T. for the old – but I want to look just at three classic texts in the N.T. which speak of the absolute reliability of the Scriptures and the confidence we can have in God’s Word.

A. II Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

This speaks of the nature of Scripture and the value of the Bible, namely, that it's profitable for teaching etc. is connected with its source, i.e. that it is inspired by God. The operative word in this verse is the word “inspired by God.” But the English word “inspired” can be misleading because it is capable of many different meanings. It is not used here in the sense of an “inspired performance” as though the writers are really high – really inspired. It is not “When I read the Bible, I get a lift.” Now that ought to be true, but it is not the primary meaning. It is not an inspiring book in this sense.

Literally, the word is “God-breathed.” Again, when we say all Scripture is God-breathed we don’t mean that it was somehow there and then God breathed into it making it a Spirit-filled book. We could say this of a lot of good Christian books that the author was really led of God in this writing and that God really breathed into the book. We mean something much stronger. When the Scripture asserts that it is “God-breathed” it means that it is the product of the creative breath of God.

All through the Scripture, the breath of God is a figure for God’s creative agency. In the O.T. God created man by forming him from the dust of the earth and then breathing into him the breath of life. It was a creative act. Or in Ps. 33, speaking of creation, v. 6 says, “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made. And by the breath of his mouth all their host.” This is always the figure for God immediately and directly creating something. So when we say that all Scripture is “God-breathed” it is an assertion that the whole Scripture is a created product of the divine mind. This is the strongest statement on the nature of the Bible.

B. II Peter 1:19-21: Very briefly, start in v. 15 to get the context: vv. 16-21: “And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

This is the strongest statement we have on the mode of inspiration. What Peter is saying here is that what happened on the Mt. of Transfiguration was not something mythical or a fable, but that the was there in a space-time historic situation and he saw with his eyes Jesus glorified and he heard with his ears the audible voice of God speaking in human words from heaven, but then he says that we have an even more sure thing. The strongest thing in his faith was not that experience on the Mt. of Transfiguration but rather the prophetic Word. Peter had something even more sure than that tremendous experience.

Then he says in v. 20b, “that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that the pope has to interpret it for you. I think he explains himself in the following clause, v. 21, “for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” So when he says it is not a matter of one’s own interpretation, I think what he means is that we cannot understand it apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit because man did not write it without the aid of the Holy Spirit. I think that is the point here.

Peter says, “men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” And as I say, this is the strongest statement we have as to exactly “how” the Scripture was inspired. The words are “borne along” or “carried along.” Men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. So what is being said here is that the Holy Spirit so led the human authors, that when they wrote down what they wrote down, it was exactly what God wanted them to write down. They were carried along in their writing.

C. John 10:35: Let me read vv. 31-36: “Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ ‘We are not stoning you for any of these,’ replied the Jews, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be god.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods?’ If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came – and the Scripture cannot be broken – what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world: Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son?’”

I think here we have the clearest comment on the extent of inspiration. Now what is going on here? He is, of course, answering the Pharisees who accuse him of blasphemy and his answer is a bit weird. What Jesus is saying is, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Isn’t there somewhere back in the O.T. where the word G-o-d is applied to mere human beings? Now we all know that the Scripture doesn’t make any mistakes at all. Therefore, why are you on my back for claiming to be God when I really am God.” And we might ask why Jesus argues in this way. Well, it might be that since they were in the habit of arguing from their own knit-picking exegesis, that Jesus simply does it himself and turns it on them.

But the point I want to underline is that Jesus argues from a point conceded by both sides, for both the Pharisees and Jesus would agree that the Scripture cannot be broken. The Scripture makes no mistakes and he applies this to the most minor, incidental, inconsequential phrase in the O.T., for it is just an assertion out of the middle of the Book of Psalms where G-o-d is applied to the human rulers.

So I think that the mentality here, and what is being stated here, is that the Bible down to its smallest detail is reliable. This is our clearest statement on the extent of inspiration. One could do much, much more on just the Bible’s claims for itself, but this is not the place.

The biblical view – which would be the Reformation view – would be that the Scripture is God speaking in language – verbally, propositionally – to man which tell man true things about God himself, about ourselves, and about the rest of reality.