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Quotables: The Real Problem of Inspiration

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Dr. Briggs is more blunt and more explicit in his description of the changes which he thinks have been wrought. “I will tell you what criticism has destroyed,” he says in an article published a couple of years ago.” It has destroyed many false theories about the Bible; it has destroyed the doctrine of verbal inspiration; it has destroyed the theory of inerrancy; it has destroyed the false doctrine that makes the inspiration depend upon its attachment to a holy man.”

And he goes on to remark further “that Biblical criticism is at the bottom” of the “reconstruction that is going on throughout the Church” — “the demand for revision of creeds and change in methods of worship and Christian work.” It is clear enough, then, that a problem has been raised with reference to inspiration by this type of criticism. But this is not equivalent to saying that the established doctrine of inspiration has been put in jeopardy.

For there is criticism and criticism. And though it may not be unnatural for these scholars themselves to confound the claims of criticism with the validity of their own critical methods and [the soundness of their own critical conclusions, the Christian world can scarcely be expected to acquiesce in the identification. It has all along been pointing out that they were traveling on the wrong road; and now when their conclusions clash with well-established facts, we simply note that the wrong road has not unnaturally led them to the wrong goal. In a word, it is not the established doctrine of inspiration that is brought into distress by the conflict, but the school of Old Testament criticism which is at present fashionable. It is now admitted that the inevitable issue of this type of criticism comes into collision with the established fact of the plenary inspiration of the Bible and the well-grounded Reformed doctrine of Holy Scripture based on this fact.

The cry is therefore, and somewhat impatiently, raised that this fact and this doctrine must “get out of the way,” and permit criticism to rush on to its bitter goal. But facts are somewhat stubborn things, and are sometimes found to prove rather the test of theories which seek to make them their sport.

Nevertheless, though the strain of the present problem should thus be thrown upon the shoulders to which it belongs, it is important to keep ourselves reminded that the doctrine of inspiration which has become established in the Church, is open to all legitimate criticism, and is to continue to be held only as, and so far as, it is ever anew critically tested and approved. And in view of the large bodies of real knowledge concerning the Bible which the labors of a generation of diligent critical study have accumulated, and of the difficulty which is always experienced in the assimilation of new knowledge and its correlation with previously ascertained truth, it is becoming to take this occasion to remind ourselves of the foundations on which this doctrine rests, with a view to inquiring whether it is really endangered by any assured results of recent Biblical study. For such an investigation we must start, of course, from a clear conception of what the Church doctrine of inspiration is, and of the basis on which it is held to be the truth of God. Only thus can we be in a position to judge how it can be affected on critical grounds, and whether modern Biblical criticism has reached any assured results which must or may “destroy” it.

The Church, then, has held from the beginning that the Bible is the Word of God in such a sense that its words, though written by men and bearing indelibly impressed upon them the marks of their human origin, were written, nevertheless, under such an influence of the Holy Ghost as to be also the words of God, the adequate expression of His mind and will. It has always recognized that this conception of co-authorship implies that the Spirit’s superintendence extends to the choice of the words by the human authors (verbal inspiration and preserves its product from everything inconsistent with a divine authorship — thus securing, among other things, that entire truthfulness which is everywhere presupposed in and asserted for Scripture by the Biblical writers (inerrancy).

Whatever minor variations may now and again have entered into the mode of statement, this has always been the core of the Church doctrine of inspiration. And along with many other modes of commending and defending it, the primary ground on which it has been held by the Church as the true doctrine is that it is the doctrine of the Biblical writers themselves, and has therefore the whole mass of evidence for it which goes to show that the Biblical writers are trustworthy as doctrinal guides. It is the testimony of the Bible itself to its own origin and character as the Oracles of the Most High, that has led the Church to her acceptance of it as such, and to her dependence on it not only for her doctrine of Scripture, but for the whole body of her doctrinal teaching, which is looked upon by her as divine because drawn from this divinely given fountain of truth.

Now if this doctrine is to be assailed on critical grounds, it is very clear that, first of all, criticism must be required to proceed against the evidence on which it is based. This evidence, it is obvious, is twofold.

First, there is the exegetical evidence that the doctrine held and taught by the Church is the doctrine held and taught by the Biblical writers themselves. And secondly, there is the whole mass of evidence ¾ internal and external, objective and subjective, historical and philosophical, human and divine — which goes to show that the Biblical writers are trustworthy as doctrinal guides.

If they are trustworthy teachers of doctrine and if they held and taught this doctrine, then this doctrine is true, and is to be accepted and acted upon as true by us all. In that case, any objections brought against the doctrine from other spheres of inquiry are inoperative; it being a settled logical principle that so long as the proper evidence by which a proposition is established remains unrefuted, all so-called objections brought against it pass out of the category of objections to its truth into the category of difficulties to be adjusted to it.

If criticism is to assail this doctrine, therefore, it must proceed against and fairly overcome one or the other element of its proper proof. It must either show that this doctrine is not the doctrine of the Biblical writers, or else it must show that the Biblical writers are not trustworthy as doctrinal guides. If a fair criticism evinces that this is not the doctrine of the Biblical writers, then of course it has “destroyed” the doctrine which is confessedly based on that supposition.

Failing in this, however, it can “destroy” the doctrine, strictly speaking, only by undermining its foundation in our confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture as a witness to doctrine. The possibility of this latter alternative must, no doubt, be firmly faced in our investigation of the phenomena of the Bible; but the weight of the evidence, be it small or great, for the general trustworthiness of the Bible as a source of doctrine, throws itself, in the form of a presumption, against the reality of any phenomena alleged to be discovered which make against its testimony. No doubt this presumption may be overcome by clear demonstration. But clear demonstration is requisite.

For, certainly, if it is critically established that what is sometimes called, not without a touch of scorn, “the traditional doctrine,” is just the Bible’s own doctrine of inspiration, the real conflict is no longer with “the traditional theory of inspiration,” but with the credibility of the Bible. The really decisive question among Christian scholars (among whom alone, it would seem, could a question of inspiration be profitably discussed), is thus seen to be, “What does an exact and scientific exegesis determine to be the Biblical doctrine of inspiration?”


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