Clifton J. Allen
We begin with the affirmation—the Bible is the Word of God. But we must not stop at this point. Christians must do more than praise the Bible. They must be prepared to grapple with serious questions about the Bible. These questions are raised not by cynics and skeptics only; they are raised also by devout and searching students of the Bible. To engage in such searching study involves the necessity for facing all valid questions about the nature and authority of the Bible and openmindedness in evaluating the validity of its claims and the integrity of its witness. We have no reason to avoid these questions. The Bible is in no danger of embarrassment or liquidation!
Christians must also become more aware of the realistic, but often hostile and skeptical, questions of the unbelieving and secular world about the Bible. These questions call for answers which come from accurate and thorough knowledge and from reverent faith nurtured by intelligent understanding of the Bible. A view of the Bible which has not encountered attack from ignorance, prejudice, unbelief, or humanistic pride may be unreliable because it has not been tested. A faith that asks no questions is scarcely faith because it seeks no meanings.
We properly ask about the Bible: What is its nature? How did it come to us? What is the basis of its authority? What is its relevance and significance? As we consider these questions it is essential to keep in mind what the Bible is about. More than anything else, it is a record and an interpretation of God’s self-disclosure to man: it is the authentic account of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ for the redemption of man. It is the story of salvation:, particularly pp. 11—12. the saving purpose, the saving acts, the saving grace, and the saving power of the Lord; the saving mission of the people of God; and the consummation of God’s saving work through the lordship of Christ. This concept as to what the Bible is about is the basic perspective from which this article will seek to explore important questions about the Bible.
It is in order now to ask, What is the nature of the Bible? In what sense is the Bible the Word of God? Why is it so difficult to understand? How can such an ancient book have timeless relevance? Answers to these questions—and others of like importance—call for a mature understanding of what the Bible is and penetrating insight as to its background, its characteristics, and its central purpose.
First of all, let it be observed that the Bible is of ancient origin. The first chapters tell about the creation of the universe and of man, of God and his dealings with men from the beginning of the world, and of events which antedate exact historical identification. And then the narrative begins to tell the story of Abraham and his descendants, the era involved beginning about 2000 b.c. The written account of the continuing story of God and his people extends on to cover the first century of the Christian era. Thus the Bible must be understood as a very ancient book.
Further, the Bible has come to us out of a Semitic setting, that is, the setting of the ancient Near East. The Bible has to do primarily with the descendants of Abraham, God’s chosen people, who inhabited the land of Canaan, a narrow strip along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. This small area was a sort of bridge or connecting route between the people of the Tigris-Euphrates
Valley in the east and the people in the Nile Valley to the southwest. Abraham himself was representative of the Semitic people who lived in southwest Asia—Babylonians, Assyrians, Aramaeans, Canaanites, and Phoenicians.
We recognize also that the people of the Bible reflected the culture which was their heritage and their setting. The Old Testament reflects the agricultural background and experience of the people of Israel; but it reveals also the growing influence of urban development. The way the people thought about God in anthropomorphic terms, as intimately associated with the things of nature, as vindictive, and as being partial toward the people of Israel reflected the impact of their cultural heritage. The way the people thought of the family—of the authority figure in the husband and the father, of the subservience and inferiority of women, and of the importance of having children—was also affected by their culture. Their concept of the material order as the immediate expression of the presence and power of God and their strong leaning toward idolatry showed the impact of cultural concept and practice. The thought forms and concepts which appear throughout the Bible are the natural expression of the experience of the people.
By the time of the New Testament, Jews in Palestine felt strong antipathy, even bitter hostility in many cases, toward Gentiles. Throughout the Roman world, involvement in commerce and trade in the great cities of the empire contributed to communication, understanding, and in some cases a degree of goodwill. The New Testament itself, however, with its dynamic gospel of God’s redemption in Christ, reflects its origin and cultural setting in the Judeo-Christian heritage of the Graeco-Roman civilization. The New Testament has come to us out of a Jewish background, through the Greek language, from life under the control of Rome, and out of a divine intention that the gospel knows no difference of race or language or culture and is meant for all peoples, all cultures, and all generations.
The Bible is much more than a collection of religious writings. To be understood adequately, it must be seen as literature of different kinds and forms. If one analyzes the Bible carefully to distinguish varying literary forms he will find examples of the following: history, law, poetry, drama, prophecy, wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature, hymns, anthems, sermons, addresses, letters, epics, acrostics, genealogies, statistical lists, parables, allegories, and stories. For practical purposes, a knowledge of the more refined distinctions of literary forms is not essential; but for a mature understanding of the Bible, a recognition that it is literature of varying kinds is imperative.
The first five books of the Bible came to be called the Law. But the Pentateuch is much more than law, as a literary form. The book of Genesis is historical, biographical, and theological. There is like material in the next four books. But in these four books we have the laws which became the mandate and guide for the worship of God, for man’s moral conduct, and for man’s living in community and in interpersonal relationships. Inevitably, many of the laws reflected the impact of Israel’s cultural situation, the immaturity of the people in their spiritual and moral development, and the effort of divinely called leaders to cultivate faithfulness to God and righteousness and justice among the people.
The next part of the Old Testament is usually thought of as a section of historical books. In the Hebrew Bible, the books from Joshua to 2 Kings were known as the Former Prophets. The Latter Prophets included Isaiah and Jeremiah and the last twelve books of the Old Testament. These two groups, regularly called the Prophets as a section of the Hebrew Scriptures, thus included most of the historical material in the Old Testament and nearly all of the prophetic materials—a combination of history and prophecy.
History—and this would include books other than the ones named above—tells the story of people and events: of suffering, struggle, success, failure, apostacy, repentance and renewal, fidelity, and rebellion. The facts of history were recorded with realism, showing the people at their worst and their best, showing how the people misunderstood the purposes of God and at times acted in ways utterly foreign to the nature of God though they claimed to be doing the will of God, and showing how God acted to reveal himself, to execute judgment, to bestow mercy and blessings, to overrule the ignorance and perversity of his people, and to carry forward his purpose in Israel.
The history of Israel cannot be understood apart from prophecy. And let it be remembered that the prophets declared the word of God to the people of their respective generations. Prophecy is not primarily a prediction of future events, but a proclamation of judgment or consolation or duty or purpose in relation to the people at the point of their need. We understand the prophetic writings best not as mystical foretellings of future events but as fearless declarations of the purpose of God for his people in their immediate situation. Granting this, however, we must not overlook that many of the prophets declared the word of God with application to the future, pointing out the directions of God’s purpose for his people, the sure promise of his redemption for all people, and the certain consummation of his kingdom of righteousness and peace.
Much of the Old Testament is poetry. Aside from the strictly poetical books, poetry is found in books of law, books of history, and books of prophecy. It is important to realize that poetry must be understood as poetry, though it be a medium of divine revelation. It depends on images and figures of speech. The element of feeling and emotion is dominant. Truth is expressed imaginatively and must be understood through imagination. An effort to understand poetry on the basis of the literal phrasing ignores the nature of poetry and leads to sure misunderstanding of meaning.
The poetry of the Bible, in keeping with the nature of real poetry, is the expression of intense feeling, which will include fear as well as trust, wrath as well as kindness, lust as well as purity, hate as well as love, selfpity as well as self-confidence, and despair as well as hope. The clue to interpretation will call for the application of poetic insight.
The book of Job is almost entirely poetry. But it is also an example of drama. Hence another literary form is utilized to teach the need for a true understanding of the problem of human suffering. The intensity of Job’s suffering and the nature of the problem faced made drama all the more effective as the medium of truth, the truth finally revealed to Job through God’s self-revelation of his sovereignty, his righteousness, and his greatness.
Another kind of literature is known as wisdom literature. It is represented particularly by Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament and the letter of James in the New Testament. The book of Job may also be identified as wisdom literature. The wisdom writings, though adopting various literary forms, represent the distilled wisdom of human experience and set forth the values and virtues, the principles and insights, that may well make up one’s philosophy of life, particularly in terms of choosing goals and following patterns that contribute to integrity, harmony, reverence, chastity, diligence, self-confidence, and achievement.
When we turn to the New Testament we are immediately confronted by the Gospels. As to the literary form, they combine history, biography, parable, extended discourse, dialogue, and prayer. But the Gospels are unique. They are documents of faith. They tell about one central figure, Jesus Christ. They are the dramatic record of Jesus in action, of what he said and did, of the impact of his personality on other persons, of what other persons thought about him and how they reacted to him, and, finally, of Jesus’ self-giving on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. The Gospels as literature can never be separated from the living reality and dynamic impact of the Son of man.
The book of Acts is the second part of the Luke-Acts story. It, therefore, sustains the closest possible relation to the Gospels—and is almost a series of feature stories. It tells of what the followers of Jesus did and taught in the consciousness of his living presence with them and through the power of his Spirit.
The letters in the New Testament have much in common as a literary form, but they vary greatly in length and purpose and style of writing and intended audience. Some were addressed to churches, some to individuals, some to scattered groups of Christians, and some to unidentified recipients. These letters, including those to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, constitute an interpretation of the gospel of Christ, a portrayal of New Testament church life and practice, and a record of ministry and fidelity and persecution and struggle and hope on the part of persons engaged in service to Jesus Christ. A characteristic of these letters, naturally, is the personal element, the relation of the writer to his readers (in some cases, to one person). He wrote to share his experience and concern, conscious of the bond of Christian fellowship.
The Bible includes still another kind of literature known as apocalyptic. The two principal books of apocalyptic literature are the book of Daniel and the Revelation. This kind of literature was the product of times of intense crisis for the people of God. It was marked by a strong eschatological con-cern and expectation and a focus on the dynamic manifestation of God in judgment. The style of apocalyptic literature was the presentation of truth by means of images and symbols which represented evil forces, the sufferings and rewards of God’s people, and the mighty acts of God in judgment and deliverance and victory. One should come to it with intelligent awareness that the framework of symbols and images points to persons and events and forces in the long distant past. Even so, the truth about the complete sovereignty and eternal purpose of God which gave encouragement and consolation to his people in the past is equally relevant for God’s people through the unfolding centuries.
We will therefore understand that the Bible is an example of varying literary forms. God used the skills and interests of many writers as the medium of his self-revelation. The many kinds of writing contribute to richness of meaning and diversity and depth of human interest. Awareness of characteristic elements of literary style and form will provide clues to a fuller understanding of the message of truth.
The Bible is a divine revelation. This is indeed the most significant aspect of its nature, the explanation of its significance, and the ground of its authority. We must not stop, however, with these affirmations. We must explore in depth what is meant by revelation, what is meant by inspiration, how these are related, and how they are to be understood in the light of all we can know about the nature of the Bible and how it has come to us in the providence of God.
What is revelation?—Revelation is the truth which has come to us from God. God has spoken to man in many ways—through the world of nature, through judgments in human history, through providences in personal experience, and through the inner voice of conscience. But the Bible is the unique account of God’s self-disclosure. It is the written record of his words and acts.
From the beginning to the end, the Bible declares that God has revealed himself to man and that the Bible is itself a trustworthy account of this revelation. Such phrases as the following occur repeatedly throughout the Old Testament: “God said”; “the Lord spoke”; “God commanded”; “the word of God came”; “God made known”; * the Lord appeared.” These are representative of a much larger number of revelation formulae. The Bible also tells again and again of what God did, of his acts of creation, of judgment, of deliverance, of election, of guidance, of consolation, of destruction, of manifestation, of healing, and of overruling sovereignty. God acted to make himself known to his people and to accomplish his purpose through them.
But the supreme act of God’s self-revelation about which the Bible tells was his coming in Jesus Christ. ״The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). The word of God was spoken to man by the living Word. ״In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). This sublime statement from the letter to the Hebrews gathers up the full truth about revelation and gives us the clue to the Bible as the revelation of God. The Old Testament pointed to the coming of One who would be the agent of God’s redemption. The New Testament tells of his coming, of his sinless life and self-giving ministry, of his death, of his resurrection, of his saviour-hood, and of his lordship; and it declares that in him the whole fulness of deity dwelt bodily (Col. 2:9).
We are now prepared to look at the Bible as a whole. It is to be seen in the light of God’s perfect revelation in Jesus Christ. The supreme revelation of God is a Person. All that the Bible tells us about God and his nature and his acts and what various persons understood about him or attributed to him must be interpreted and brought into harmony with the nature and truth and love and purpose of God in Christ. This recognizes that many persons to whom God spoke “in many and various ways” before the coming of Christ did not understand God perfectly, did not apprehend his purposes fully, and could not know his will clearly.
Old Testament examples of seeming conflict with the fact that God is love, it is claimed by many persons, are simply mysteries of omniscience and therefore should not be questioned. Such persons will approach any number of baffling mysteries in the Scriptures in this way and be satisfied. On the other hand, many other persons will insist that the Bible, though the completely authoritative revelation of God, can be rightly understood, rightly interpreted, only in the full fight of the truth of Jesus Christ, the living Word, the complete and perfect revelation of God. Such persons will hold that this is in harmony with the eternal purpose of God that all things in heaven and on earth and under the earth shall come under the lordship of Christ. The Holy Scriptures are to be best understood in the fight of what he taught and what he did and who he is as the Word of God.
Inspiration and revelation.—Two Scripture passages immediately come to mind: first, Paul’s word to Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17); second, from 2 Peter, “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1:20-21). These passages, and others either directly or indirectly, affirm that the Bible is an inspired revelation.
Such terms as the following are usually applied to inspiration: verbal inspiration, plenary inspiration, and dynamic inspiration. The connotation or meaning attached to these words varies widely. The question revolves largely around the degree of inerrancy in the words of the Scriptures and the concept of unity in the message of the Scriptures.
The view of verbal inspiration is usually applied to the Scriptures in the original languages rather than to subsequent translations, though actually this view is often understood and championed chiefly on the basis of the King James Version. While again there are variations in the meaning attached to verbal inspiration, the supporters of this view would claim that the writers of the Scriptures were inspired to the degree of using the very words given by God as the medium for his truth. The Scriptures therefore are inerrant and infallible.
This obviously reduces the writer almost to the equivalent of a tool in the hands of God and makes him virtually the completely controlled agent of God. While few thinking persons would agree that verbal inspiration is essentially divine dictation, written down almost mechanically, the process leaves almost no room for responsible action or personal involvement on the part of the writer. There are many persons who hold this view of inspiration and find it fully satisfying in keeping with their concept of God’s sovereignty and wisdom and God’s initiative in revelation. They feel that any compromise of this position leads to an undermining of biblical authority.
Another view of the Bible may be described as plenary inspiration. The term has varying connotations. The heart of this view is that the Bible is fully inspired but not verbally inspired. The writers were not controlled agents to the extent that they did not utilize their background of experience and knowledge. But they were all so completely enlightened and guided and empowered by God’s Spirit that they were preserved from any error in transmitting the divine revelation. Hence the Bible is fully inspired and the revelation inerrant as to fact and event and doctrine. Such a view of inspiration, satisfying and acceptable to a great number of sincere and thoughtful Christians, including competent scholars, seeks to avoid something of the extreme literalism and rigidly controlled elements of verbal inspiration while at the same time maintaining a concept of practical inerrancy of the whole Bible and its several parts.
Still another concept of inspiration may be identified as dynamic. Admittedly, the term lacks preciseness because the reality which it identifies is marked by mystery and complexity. Essentially, however, this view holds that the Holy Scriptures came into being and derived their character as the authoritative revelation of God through the activity of God’s Spirit whose quickening and enlightening and guiding power made chosen men the medium of God’s purpose. The Scriptures are indeed inspired (“God-breathed”) because their truth is from God and about God. “Men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). In ways which we cannot understand and through processes which we cannot identify, God chose and equipped many persons to record his acts, to interpret his purposes, and to declare his word.
According to this view, the inspiration of the Bible is much more its completeness and adequacy as the written record of God’s self-revelation and as the guide for man in all matters of faith and practice than it is amatter of inerrancy in wording and analogy and certain details about persons and events. Inspiration is more a matter of the message of God’s salvation than the method or process by which it was reduced to written form. The authority of the Bible is in its wholeness and unity in the fight of the truth of God in Christ.
The view of dynamic inspiration rests solidly on the repeated declaration in the Scriptures that through them God speaks to man. This view rests again on the inherent nature of the Scriptures as a unique treasure of divine wisdom which fits the totality of human experience as to religious faith, moral duty, and ethical responsibility. The Bible continues to speak in basic principle to every generation with relevance and currency: it continues to declare the word of the living God to living man in the contemporary human situation.
This view rests further on the fact that the Scriptures are effective in human experience for the purposes of God. Relevant examples of this truth are found in the following passages: Psalm 119:9,11; John 5:39; 20:31; Romans 15:4; Hebrews 4:12; 2 Peter 1:16-19; and Romans 1:16. The evidence and proof of the inspiration of the Scriptures is that they are indeed “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The truth of the biblical revelation is God-breathed. It is indwelt by the living Spirit of God. It is effective for regeneration and sanctification. It is redemptive and reconciling. Consequently, a dynamic view of inspiration focuses on the truth which has its essence and purpose and authority in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, a dynamic view of inspiration is not dependent on a mystical, inexplicable, and unverifiable inerrancy in every word of Scripture or on the concept that inspiration can allow no error of fact or substance. Rather, it accepts the Bible in wholeness and unity as inspired: inerrant as the only completely authentic witness to God’s selfrevelation in Christ and his salvation through Christ; inerrant because its truth is the perfect instrument of the Spirit to bring men to faith and righteousness and hope; and inerrant because its teaching, interpreted by the life and work of Christ, is the infallible guide as to how the people of God ought to live and what they can surely believe under the leading of the Spirit of Christ.
There is perhaps need at this point to stress the fact that the different views of inspiration are not without problems, not without unanswered questions. These should be faced with honesty and objectivity.
The following problems are inherent in a view of verbal inspiration:
A view of plenary inspiration involves most of the problems already mentioned with respect to verbal inspiration, the differences being chiefly a matter of degree. Particularly, this view involves the problems of a divine will virtually imposed on the writers of the Scriptures, the submergence of the findings of critical studies as controverting full inspiration, and attributing to God attitudes and actions seemingly out of harmony with his revelation in Christ. It legitimizes many statements of Scripture as revelation, though they seem to be the result of human weakness and a misunderstanding of God. This view gives little recognition to the progressive aspect of revelation.
The view of dynamic inspiration likewise involves problems—problems peculiar to itself. (1) It faces the necessity to recognize and to give due weight to many biblical statements which seem to imply or emphasize the element of full if not verbal inspiration. Also, it must explain these without the bias of presupposition and interpret such statements without losing the thrust of their supernatural implication. (2) This view involves the temptation to depend too strongly on human criteria and wisdom to distinguish between the clearly spoken word of the Lord and the misunderstanding of men about the purpose and will of the Lord. (3) This view involves the tendency— which becomes real in all too many cases— to minimize the element of divine inspiration and to give more attention to the human medium of inspiration. (4) This view involves the obligation—often overlooked by critical scholars—to recognize the element of reverent faith as the clue to the understanding of the Scriptures and to recognize that many difficult questions about the nature of the Bible are not answerable by the resources of critical research but by trust in God with humility. (5) The supporters of this view are under obligation to bring to the Bible a greater degree of disciplined study to find the deeper levels of truth and a greater degree of sensitivity to the dynamic of the living Spirit to hear the word of the Lord through the Spirit.
To the writer of this article, the problems of the dynamic view of inspiration, though real, do not invalidate this view of the Scriptures. The problems are resolved by reverent faith in the Lord of the Scriptures and in the Scriptures themselves as the Word of God, in wholeness and unity in Christ. They are resolved by openmindedness to truth and the fruits of objective research. And they are further resolved by submission to the Holy Spirit who interprets the Word of God in Christ to all persons who desire to know the mind of Christ and to do the will of the Lord.
Persons of earnest purpose toward God and of strong conviction about his revelation in the Scriptures will have different views about inspiration. Each person may well seek for fuller understandings about the Bible as the basis for the view that makes the Bible more meaningful in his own experience.
Some summary statements relative to revelation and inspiration are now in order. (1) One’s view of revelation and inspiration should not ignore the findings of objective research and critical examination. (2) An acceptable view of revelation and inspiration must allow for the translation of the original languages of the Scriptures and the variations in the available texts of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures and their implications based on irrefutable knowledge. (3) Many questions have no prospect of being answered. “Proof” in any exact or dogmatic sense is hardly appropriate to one’s view of revelation and inspiration. Belief in the fact of inspiration is crucial; a view of the method of inspiration is secondary in importance. (4) It should be remembered that titles and inscriptions and matters of this kind in the Bible are editorial additions, not parts of the original texts of the Scriptures. (5) Some statements about revelation are the result of the Hebrew affinity for anthropomorphism—as the statement that God gave to Moses two tables of stone written by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18). (6) Proof texts are often applied to a view of revelation and inspiration to support questionable conclusions. For example, Jesus said that not an iota or a dot will pass from the law— evidently the Mosaic law—until all is accomplished (Matt. 5:18); and this is said by some to establish inerrancy and infallibility. Surely Jesus with infinite wisdom used a figure of speech to emphasize a truth. He could hardly have meant a literal reference to tiny particles of writing—else how could he set aside explicit words of the Law (Matt. 5:33-34,38-39; cf. Ex. 21:24; Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 19:21; 23:21)? (7) The Scriptures are an unfolding revelation of God and hence a progressive revelation with their perfect and absolute culmination in the Word made flesh in Christ. (8) The fact of divine revelation and inspiration is in no sense dependent on a particular view of inspiration and is in no jeopardy from critical research and scholarly study.
God’s use of human media.—Through these means the inspired revelation is given to men. The Bible is a divine-human book. God revealed himself to living persons. God spoke to men, and they reported what he said: they told of what he did. They passed the record on to the next generation, and the next, and the next, and so on. For an unknown period of time revelation was communicated almost wholly by oral tradition. In the course of time oral tradition became written accounts of the words and acts of the Lord. When this first transpired and to what extent, no one knows. Moses wrote the words of the Lord (Ex. 24:4). How much Moses wrote cannot be determined with any exactness, but references to his part in communicating God’s revelation—particularly commandments and statutes—justify the conclusion that what he wrote was an important source on which many years later the writers of the Pentateuch drew for a trustworthy account of God’s revelation to and dealings with the children of Israel.
The point of emphasis here is that God ordained human media as the means of a written revelation. How many writers? We do not know. Who were they? We do not know. Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, and Ezra—God used them. Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—God used them. But there were others, many others, known and unknown, extending over a period of several centuries, who were moved by the Holy Spirit to put in writing the word of God. And along with writers there should be remembered those who copied and collated the writings and finally gave to them the form in which they ultimately became the Hebrew Scriptures.
Likewise the New Testament. How many writers and who they were—we cannot be certain. We call the familiar names—Paul, Luke, Mark, Matthew, John, James, Jude, and Peter—and evidence is strong to confirm their contributions. But evidence likewise raises questions at least about some of them. The identity of other writers is even more a mystery.
The fact that the revelation of God came through human media explains much about the Bible. It explains to a large degree its variety of literary form and quality, aspects of its human interest and varying moods, and varying levels of spiritual insight and ethical witness.
Let this principle of revelation be stressed. The treasure of inspired revelation, the truth of the biblical revelation, has come to us in “earthen vessels.” The writers were men. They were finite and fallible. They were human, and hence subject to limitations of knowledge and understanding. But they were persons through whom the transcendent power of God operated—quickening, illuminating, guiding, and enabling them to be the media of the saving message of God in Christ. The Holy Scriptures have their essential character in their nature as the inspired revelation of God. Pointing to Christ and finding their meaning and unity in Christ, they are the Word of God.
Another needful question for consideration is: How did the revelation of God become the Book of Holy Scripture? The developments are not traceable by objective evidence, cataloged and verified. They are arrived at by implications and deductions from the internal witness of the Scriptures and what one believes about the way God accomplishes his purpose to reveal himself.
At first revelation was preserved and communicated by oral transmission, which became in the course of time oral tradition. Tradition here in no way implies unreality or something unreliable. From the time of the creation of man, God revealed himself to man; and man began to pass on to succeeding generations the account of experience and the deposit of truth growing out of God’s dealings with him and his understanding of the purposes of God.
The Hebrew mind seems to have had a peculiar capacity for memory. Hence the varied cultural experience of people and places, of geography and history, of ritual and worship, of laws and customs, was committed to memory. Leaders of tribes and families assumed a responsible role in passing on these traditions, the most important being those having to do with the words and acts of the Lord.
The developing religious experience of the people who worshiped God became another medium of receiving, interpreting, and communicating revelation. God dealt with his people—disciplined them, gave commandments to them, manifested his glory to them, executed judgment on them, delivered them, blessed them, entered into covenant with them, and called leaders and prophets to declare his words to them. Years became decades and decades centuries. All the while the religious experience of the children of Israel, enriched at times by the observance of the feasts and fidelity in worship and perverted at other times by idolatry and iniquity and hypocrisy, became a medium for revelation.
The events of history involving the people of Israel were still another medium for revelation. God placed his people in the land of Canaan, surrounded by the nations of the ancient Near East. They were on the highway of the nations and inevitably in the current of history. What happened within and without Israel, never apart from God’s sovereign purpose and power, furnished a medium of revelation events.
In this same context of religious experience and historic events, God called prophets to declare his word to his people. The word of God came to the prophets, and they declared it faithfully. The prophetic ministry became the climactic medium in the life of Israel for the deposit of revelation. It was the prophetic message, both spoken and written, that enunciated most fully and interpreted most clearly the truth about God, his purpose for his people, and his will and way for all men.
All these were sources, both direct and indirect, from which priests and scribes and kings and prophets drew to write the Old Testament Scriptures. In many cases God spoke directly to chosen individuals who wrote the truth revealed to them. In many other cases, the evidence strongly suggests, writers reported the events and commandments and experiences of earlier traditions and records. And thus the oracles of God became the written revelation of the Old Testament.
Exactly when the several parts, the many books, of the Old Testament were written cannot be determined. The writing covered hundreds of years. There is a rather general consensus among scholars that editors collated written material, produced out of the sources described above, and gave it permanent form. Trustworthy biblical study shows that the Pentateuch existed essentially in its present form by 400 b.c. The books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings were known by the Jews as the “Former Prophets” and likely came largely into their present form between 650 and 550 b.c. The “Latter Prophets”—the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and from Hosea to Malachi—were likely in their present form by 200 b.c. The “Writings”—the poetical books along with Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Ecclesiastes, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles—were written over a long period of time and became a collection by 132 b.c. A council of Jewish rabbis about a.d. 90 accepted the 39 books of the Old Testament as the Hebrew Canon of the Scriptures. The same 39 books have been likewise accepted in Christian tradition.
Something of the same kind of development took place—in principle but not in pattern—relative to New Testament writings. The supreme difference was that Jesus Christ came, the living Word among men. Some of the writers saw him in the flesh, heard him, saw him, felt him, and knew the magnetism of his physical presence as well as the power of his living Spirit within them. The apostles were persons who com-panied with Jesus from the baptism of John until the time of Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:21-22). The other writers, we may safely assume, like Luke, knew and talked with some “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). Thus the New Testament came out of the face-to-face acquaintance of the apostles with Jesus and their face-to-face conversations with him after his resurrection, out of the oral traditions of eyewitnesses of the Lord, out of the redemptive experience of believing followers, out of the historic events of apostolic witness, out of the koinonia of the living church, out of trials and sufferings and persecution for the name of Christ, and out of the vision of the living Christ and the direct communication of his word of truth and grace and victory.
As with the Old Testament, the time of writing of the 27 New Testament books cannot be fixed definitely. Each book, in some sense, stands alone. Scholars have varying views, and these will be dealt with in the introductions of the book treatments. Evidence generally accepted places the actual writing from a.d. 50 to 100, though some evidence supports a later date for some books, for example, some of the general letters. During the same period many Christian books were written. The question arose as to which of all the writings should be acknowledged as authoritative and counted as part of the Scriptures. The test of their acceptance and worth for more than three centuries—guided, we may be certain, by the Holy Spirit—led to the acceptance of the 27 books which became the New Testament. By the end of the fourth century these books had won their acceptance as being God-given revelation for Christians throughout the ages to come. “The canon was determined by usage, by the common consent of the Christian community, testing the books in its daily life over centuries; not by formal authority” (F. W. Beare, IDB, I, 531).
One word must summarize the truth and give the key to the mystery and the reality of inspired revelation becoming the Holy Scriptures—the sovereign Spirit of God. He called and enlightened, guided and enabled, and moved men to speak from God and for God.
The significance of the Bible rests on obvious and important characteristics, namely, its authority and its relevance.
The authority of the Bible of course grows out of its being the inspired revelation of God. Looked at in wholeness and unity, it is the Word of God. Hence it has the authority of God behind it. It is the divine mandate for the religious faith and moral duty of mankind.
But much more needs to be said. How is the authority of the Bible related to Jesus Christ? He claimed all authority in heaven and on earth. He exercised authority over nature and sickness and demons and death. God “made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The final and ultimate authority over all persons and all things is the living Christ. It follows, therefore, that the authority of the Bible must always be seen in the light of the lordship of Christ. Its authority is not in inerrancy of word and phrase or perfect consistency of all numbers and events or perfect understanding of God by his chosen servants. Instead, its authority is in its authentic witness to Jesus Christ as the Word of God. And let it be emphasized that one’s understanding of who Christ is as the Son of God and the Word made flesh, of his saving work through his death and resurrection, and of his eternal lordship must be tested by the New Testament. A true understanding of Christ and what his authority means cannot be determined by subjective judgment and experience alone. The authority of the written Word is found in the authority of the living Word through the guidance of the Spirit. On this basis the New Testament is to be accepted by Christians as the authoritative guide for all matters of faith and practice.
The authority of the Bible, therefore, is not something legal and judicial, not the compulsion of literalism or the obligation of proof, but the freedom of the lordship of Christ and the voice of his Spirit. The authority is confirmed by inward acceptance instead of outward declaration. Therefore, to conclude, “the authority of Scripture is found in the power of the living Lord to authenticate himself as he speaks to the human heart through the words and Scripture” (Rolston, The Bible and Christian Teaching. p. 34).
Again, the significance of the Bible is due to its relevance. It speaks to every generation. This is true because it is the Word of God, who is eternal and unchangeable. Also, it speaks to persons at the deepest levels of human experience, to their needs and aspirations and possibilities and responsibilities as persons in the image of God. The Bible is always contemporary because it is the word of life from the Lord of life.
The relevance of the Scriptures is seen also in their universal dimension. They declare God’s message to man as man—hence to all cultural groups, to all races, to all nations, and to all persons irrespective of social or economic status, whatever their human situation.
The Bible is relevant for all mankind because it declares the message of salvation. It tells the good news of God’s love for a sinful race, of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ, of his desire that all persons should come to repentance, and of the riches of grace in Christ whereby whoever will call on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10:13). At no point is the Bible more relevant than when it declares the fact of man’s universal guilt for sin, the fact that Jesus died for the sins of the world, the fact that Jesus arose from the dead, and the assurance that Jesus Christ “is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always fives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). For this reason, above all, the Bible is the Book of the Christian faith.
The Bible is relevant because it confronts Christians with the meaning and demands of Christian discipleship. For them the Bible is the authoritative guide for doctrine and practice, for worship and ministry, for fellowship and witness, for assurance and hope. Since Jesus is Lord, the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament and the example of his life in the flesh must be the criteria for living the Christian life in the world.
The relevance of the Bible is reflected by the compassionate concern of God for the well-being of all men. Hence it declares the dignity and worth of every man, whatever his race or situation, as a person in God’s image. It declares also the judgment of God on persons who by pride and greed and lust exploit other persons and rob them of rightful opportunities to realize the highest potential of personhood. The Word of God rings out against oppression and injustice and corruption and pleads for the hungry and sick and helpless. The Bible declares the lordship of Christ over the totality of life, over the social order and all persons in it. Man is to love his neighbor as himself. The Book of the Christian faith is a charter for justice and peace on earth and a commission for ministry to persons in need everywhere.
The relevance of the Bible derives from the fact that it speaks meaningfully and confidently to the issues of mankind in a dynamic universe. Science, technology, cybernetics, research, space exploration, atomic energy, and social change reflect the laws of the universe. We find in the Bible the word that gives us a Christian perspective: God in Christ is the creator of all things (John 1:3); ״in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). The God who created and controls the material universe is fully capable with infinite wisdom and power to control the moral universe. With Job we can say, “I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted” (42:2).
The Bible is relevant because it confronts honestly the searching questions of mankind: Who is God? What is God like? What is man? What is man’s destiny? How can man know God? If a man dies, will he live again? What is the meaning of existence? What is the meaning of history? What is life for? Answers are to be found not in logic or dogmatics or scientific proof but in man’s experience of God through faith in Jesus Christ and in trustful communion with him through the Spirit.
The Bible is relevant because it encourages hope in Jesus Christ. His resurrection from the grave declared his victory over sin and death. His kingdom is everlasting. He will come again in glory and triumph. “According to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). The eternal purpose of God for the redemption of man will come to fulfilment in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10).
Since the Bible is the Word of God for the life of man, and since it is the authoritative guide for all areas of moral and spiritual experience and for all matters of religious faith and moral conduct, what is the proper approach to the Bible? With what attitude and objectives should Christians read and study the Bible?
For Further Reading
Cartledge, Samuel A. The Bible: God’s Word to Man. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961.
Dodd, C. H. The Authority of the Bible. London: Collins Clear Type Press, Revised Edition, 1960.
Henry, Carl F. H.Revelation and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958.
Hunter, A. M. The Message of the New Testa-ment. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1944.
Huxtable, John. The Bible Says. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1962.
Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962. See articles: “Canon of the Old Testament,” R. H.Pfeiffer, Vol. A-D; “Canon of the New Testament,” F. W. Beare, Vol. A—D; “Inspiration and Revelation,” G. W. H.Lampe, Vol. E-J; “Scripture, Authority of,” Alan Richardson, Vol. R-Z.
Kelly, Balmer H., Editor. Introduction to the Bible.“The Layman’s Bible Commentary,” Volume 1. Richard: John Knox Press, 1959.
Rolston, Holmes.The Bible in Christian Teaching. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1962.
Rowley, H. H. The Relevance of the Bible. Carter Lane, England: James Clarke and Co., 1941.
Smart, James D. The Interpretation of Scripture. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961.