“Jesus didn’t treat Scripture as infallible”: really?

Having given a copy of an NT Wright’s “Surprised by Scripture” to someone for Christmas, knowing that they sympathise with his “neoevangelical” theology and voluminous writing style, I was surprised when they thanked me, and commented that they also liked Brian Mclaren’s new “We make the Road by Walking” on the Bible.

I came across this article in which McLaren (above) summarises his position. In a nutshell I think it is fair to say that he is against the notion of the infallibility of the Bible, seeing this as a modernist and restrictive doctrine, and that his diagnosis is that post-modern humility following two World Wars and a Holocaust demands that we recognise not just that the Church (tradition) is fallible, but that the Bible is too. And he claims to justify this from the teaching of Jesus.

Biblical scholar BB Warfield described a century ago1 how the Bible writers use words like “revelation” to describe God’s communication to mankind. The words (Hebrew גָלָה, galah, Greek αποκαλυψισ, apocalypsis) describe seeing what was veiled before, hidden things being laid bare.

The idea that the Bible is trustworthy rests on this habit of it describing itself first as a “revelation”, a divine oracle not a manmade work.

In 2 Peter 1:19-21 Peter describes the apostles of Jesus as eyewitnesses  of Jesus’ glory. He also goes on to say that this revelation is “made more sure” by the words of the Old Testament prophets :

no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit“.

Those whom God enabled to write the Scriptures had their unique personalities. They were not simply buckets into which God poured his undifferentiated revelation.Yet all of the Bible writers were speaking from God. So the New Testament writers always refer to the Old Testament writings (their “bible”) as true and authoritative, whether calling them “the Scriptures” (eg 1 Corinthians 15:3,4) or “Scripture” (as here), or whether referring to God who “spoke” in the past (Hebrews 1:1-3) or who “speaks” through those ancient writings still (Hebrews 3:7).

The Bible is inspiredGod speaks

Peter says that the prophets who wrote the Old Testament were “carried” by the Holy Spirit. This is not the same as saying they were “guided” or “led”. To be guided means I play a part, but to be carried is to be entirely passive. The Bible writers are wholly reliant upon the Spirit of God in them to bring the Word of God through them.

In fact the translation “inspired” (2 Timothy 3;16) is better translated “breathed-out” by God (Greek θεοπνευστοσ, theopneustos)2. It is not that God breathes into Scripture but that God breathes out Scripture . That is why the prophetic message is “made more sure” or “completely reliable” (NIV translation, 2011). It’s not made up by man in some words. It is breathed out or inspired by God  in every word.

Hence God said to  Jeremiah “I have appointed you a prophet…I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:5-9) and the repeated refrain of his colleagues is “Thus says the LORD“. Apostles like Paul were aware of a similar authority to speak God’s words. This is very different from me today saying “I think God might be saying…” and is the unique privilege of the Bible writers, because they were “carried along” by the Spirit.

So it is because God in his love chose to reveal himself that he inspired the Bible, and because he inspired the Bible that he reveals Himself in it. I think it is right to criticise theologians (however right in other ways) who last century hesitated to affirm what Peter says here about verbal inspiration. It is not enough to say  like Barth that Christ is the true Word who encounters us when we read the (fallible) Bible (McLaren sounds so close to Barth here),  or like von Rad that God only revealed himself in the great redemptive acts of history like the Red Sea.

He revealed and still reveals Himself in God’s written Word, through which we encounter Christ His living Word.

The Bible is infallible

Theologians call this being “infallible” or “inerrant” (though there is a difference in that the latter is a narrow version of the former). Liberal Bible readers dislike either word, because they prefer to see parts of the Bible as untrue or contradictory. But when we say the Bible is inspired and therefore infallible we are not saying it gives a literal account of evolution (it does not intend to teach science) or of time (the great ages of some people in the Bible are sometimes symbolic of blessing).

No, we are saying that the Bible is absolutely true and trustworthy (the positive way of saying it is infallible) in what it intends to say about about God, humanity, the world and salvation. (Inerrancy however is often taken to mean that the Bible is correct in every factual statement it appears to make and I find this less helpful).

The Protestant Reformation bequeathed some very helpful clarifications of how this works. First, the New Testament sheds light on the Old through showing prophecy  being fulfilled. Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jericho, Ruth and Jonah  all make more sense when seen as pointing ahead to the salvation God will send through Jesus. Biblical theology, and Tom Wright’s “five-act model”3 of the Bible, follow from this. Second, parts of the Bible should be harmonised. Rather than setting parts of the Bible against others (for instance, Paul’s emphasis on faith and James’ on works) as if one or other is mistaken, we should make the effort to see how each contributes a unique perspective without contradicting the other.

So the (Reformation) Church of England statement of faith, the 39 Articles, says in Article VII, “the Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for in both everlasting life is offered to Mankind through Christ“. Article XX goes on “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”

Theologians and Archbishops are not infallible. Nor are sermons of clergy and decisions of Synods. Even the church creeds are potentially fallible because written not by Spirit-inspired Bible writers but by later church leaders. They are only to be trusted, says Church of England Article VIII, because “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture“.

“Almighty God, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; so help us to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen”.

(Collect for the Last Sunday after Trinity)

The next post on how we view the Bible will look specifically at Jesus’ attitude to the Scriptures.

BB Warfield “The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible” (1955 Edition), p97

2 Ibid, p133

3 Scripture and the Authority of God, 2005


Do you “love” the Bible?

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever means they use, they all tend to this end.” (Blaise Pascal (below), Pensees).


This insight that desire, the pursuit of what is good, is common to all human beings is found not only in philosophers like Aristotle but great Christian thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas – and Pascal.

The surprise to many Christians, however, is that desire, far from being a wicked thing, is at the heart of real faith. So in a lecture entitled “The Weight of Glory”, CS Lewis famously said  that true desire is directed towards God, who is goodness itself, and all desire is weak and false if expressed without reference to Him .

“If we consider the unblushing rewards and staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak…We are far too easily pleased.”

Love (as opposed to suffering) is after all one of the cardinal virtues according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, and joy (not misery) is the fruit of the Spirit.

 Desiring God’s Word

Is it extreme, though, to talk not only about “loving God” but also “loving the Bible”? I’ve often heard passionate Christians express disapproval of those who “idolise the Bible” when they should be loving God. Is this, though, necessarily two different things?

Psalm 119 is beautifully constructed in 22 poetic stanzas, in which each line begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet (א, ב, ג, etc). This beautifully neat “A-Z in praise of God’s Word” makes us wonder at the Bible’s beauty. Then almost every line refers to (what we would call) the Bible – the law of the Lord, his statutes, his ways, his precepts, his decrees, his commands, his word (see verses 1-9).

I delight in your decrees” he says in v16. “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches” (v14).

Is such love for the Bible really meant to be my experience, or was the Psalm writer a bit extreme? Is he a bit like a cricket nut who delights in knowing the most obscure laws of that eccentric sport?

No, we are meant to delight in the Bible, and we will be deeper people if we do. The hint of why this is true is in that word “your”. To delight in the Bible is not to worship the words of a mere man (which is foolish) or of a distant god (which is superstition) but to love the words of someone we personally love. Your Lord. To hear his Word  is like playing a favourite piece of music again and again for the joy it brings me, or rehearsing the words of love spoken to me by a lover or parent.

The second hint is in verses like 77 which make God’s character and His Word equivalent to each other. “Let your compassion come to me that I may live; for your law is my delight” Likewise v.81 “My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word”. There is no separation between God’s Word and God’s person (as Aquinas identified). His Word comes as an expression of his thoughts. So I cannot love God without loving His Words. Similarly, to love His written Word is to love His incarnate Word (John 1) – His Son Jesus – and vice versa.

That is why to live by His Word is also to live under His personal guidance (“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path“, v.105) and His protection (“You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word”, v.114).

So the writer concludes, “Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I delight in them.” (v.129)

Dwelling in, and on, God’s Word

So here it is, the Bible: “true about me, true about people, true about the world, true about the future, true about the past, true about the good life, and true about God” (Kevin De Young, Taking God at His Word, p17), demanding obedience and delivering goodness. What should I do with it? As De Young summarises:

Sing it, speak it, study it, store it up , obey it, praise God for it, pray God would act according to it.

The following posts (which are edited from a longer series on the website of the church I pastor) will explore how and why the Bible is trustworthy, adequate, vital and accessible to us all in what it says. But, hard as they are to understand at some points, dry as personal Bible reading can be at times, let’s delight in the Scriptures too.

What is worth killing for?

charlie hebdo shooting

In the pre-enlightenment Western world, it was common to put someone to death for holding all kinds of view that society or religion deemed blasphemous. In the same century that Anglican Reformers were being burnt at the stake in Oxford for their views on the sacraments, Servetus, anabaptist and antitrinitarian, had the dubious privilege of being burnt in effigy by the Catholics in France and in actuality by the Protestants in Geneva.

But mercifully, the enlightenment, largely through its discovery of the dignity of the created human person in the Bible, has taught the Western world the value of freedom of speech, as well as freedom of conscience. We no longer burn heretics or put blasphemers to the sword. We may seek to persuade the mind and heart, but we respect the person.

We have also learnt that the best response to outrages such as this is tolerance, meeting hatred with unity and xenophobia with acceptance. Again, I suspect that we have learnt these values from the Christian faith which has so influenced Western culture: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” said Jesus (Matthew 5:44).

Freedom has been coming under trial as Biblical faith in the West, having largely been the river through which it flowed into our culture, is ironically finding its own freedom of thought and belief under threat in moral and ethical areas. But freedom of speech is still a precious Western value which we need to unite with all in prizing.

The attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo is unsurprising to many, given both the satirical style of that magazine (its cartoons are justifiably seen as potentially offensive) and the Islamic fanaticists’ response to their work (firebombing the same place in 2011). If anything the taking of hostages in a kosher supermarket the next day is even more horrifying since totally without provocation.

Most of us became aware of this hard-edged and intolerant side to Islam when Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988) was condemned and he was placed under Fatwa. Observers of the journalistic and Islamic world suggest we will see more of this clash of fundamentalist ideology and free speech in months to come. Failure to speak up more in defence of Rushdie then, suggests Padriag Reidy in the Telegraph, has enabled Islamic extremism’s denial of free speech to grow influential since  unopposed.

Historian Tom Holland has recorded TV programmes about the ideology underneath Islamic terrorism and writes in The BBC Magazine about the need to be clear about protecting free speech as a value worth dying for. Although sceptical eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire (in some ways, patron saint of secular revolutionary France) is not an obvious icon for orthodox Christians at this time, he did champion freedom in a way that needs to be remembered today. Tom Holland prefers his lampooning of self-promoting authority of all kinds to the terrorists’ execution of perceived blasphemers.

I suspect we will need to have the same clarity about defending freedom of conscience, as well as speech, in future too: there will be in the West, as already elsewhere, those who want to kill people not only for the provocative cartoons they draw, but for the peaceful creed they follow.

Sweeter than honey?

bible literacy

A few years ago Bill Hybels, pastor of the influential Willow Creek church in Chicago, drew the attention of many of us to “Reveal” (summarised here), some research a team of his had done on what helps church members to find and grow in faith. (Articles like this one have also pointed out some ambiguity in the conclusions). The study showed that attending services, hearing sermons and joining study groups does indeed help people, especially in the exploring or early stages of faith. They also found that one thing that helps people grow closer to Christ across all stages of faith is the daily habit of Bible reading.

Of course noone is saying “read the Bible and you will become a better person” or “Read the Bible and God will love you more”. We are a people saved by grace alone through faith alone (John 6:28-29Ephesians 2:8, etc) (Article 11 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England). This is not a project of salvation by works, even the “good work” of Bible reading. But it is a recognition of the simple truth familiar to the strongest Christians going back centuries, that deep people and deep faith are grown not by the radical things we do and spectacular events that we attend, but by the ordinary habit of daily Bible reading and prayer.

(This post was recently published on the website of Christ Church Cockfosters and introduced a blog series on the doctrine, inspiration and value of Scripture, interacting with Kevin De Young’s book “Taking God at His Word”, which can also be found there).

Start 2015 wisely

GBC something sweet

Following the advice of Proverbs 4:4 “Take hold of my words with all your heart”, we are giving a huge encouragement to all our members at Christ Church to daily Bible reading in 2015.

As we saw in my recent posts on the church website and in our autumn book of the term (“Taking God at His Word” by Kevin De Young), the Bible is “sweeter than honey” to those who read it with faith. To this end we are recommending the brilliant, simple and faithful Bible reading notes here  from The Good Book Company. There is an edition for every age of person, from Preschool to adults, and an app for some so that you can access Bible help on your phone or tablet too. For a few pence a week you and I can know God better and find faith, hope and love growing.

Let’s make 2015 a year to draw closer to Christ and become more like Him because we took up the habit of meeting with Him daily through His Word.