The Book That Changed History
It is subversive literature. It has led to the overthrow of governments, sparked mass migrations across oceans, and more than once changed the course of history.
Governments — from the 16th-century English monarchy to the communist Soviet Union — have gone to great lengths to restrict or even prevent its printing and distribution. Yet it has outlasted its enemies. It is the most popular book ever printed. No other has been translated into so many languages and few have had such impact on the development of those languages.
It is, of course, the Bible, portions of which have been translated into over 2,000 of the 5,000 languages of the world. This includes 318 languages into which the entire Bible has been translated. No other book even comes close to these numbers.
The Bible, like no other book in history, has withstood vicious attacks from its enemies. Many have tried to ban it, burn it and outlaw it … from the days of the Roman emperors to the present-day tyrant-dominated nations.
In 303 A.D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian issued an edict to destroy Christians and their sacred book. An imperial letter was sent everywhere, ordering the razing of the churches to the ground and the destruction by fire of the Scriptures, and proclaiming that those who held high positions would lose all civil rights, while those in households, if they persisted in their profession of Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty. The historic irony of this edict to destroy the Bible is that Constantine, the emperor following Diocletian, 25 years later commissioned Eusebius to prepare 50 copies of the Scriptures at the expense of the government.
Voltaire, the noted French infidel who died in 1778, said that in one hundred years from his time Christianity would be swept from existence and passed into history. But what has happened? Voltaire has passed into history, while the circulation of the Bible continues to increase in almost all parts of the world, carrying blessing wherever it goes. We might as well try to stop the sun on its burning course, as to attempt to stop the circulation of the Bible. Concerning the boast of Voltaire on the extinction of Christianity and the Bible in 100 years, only 50 years after his death the Geneva Bible Society used his press and house to produce stacks of Bibles — another irony of history!
Suppression of the Word of God has been an ongoing battle waged by the vain philosophies of the world and the devil. It was once illegal to own a Bible in the former Soviet Union and communist China. Suppression by the Bible was even advocated by the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible was on the Vatican’s “list of forbidden books” until the 20th century.
This only testifies to the indestructibility of this greatest book. If every Bible in the world was destroyed, the entire book could be restored by piecing together quotations from books on the shelves of public libraries. This example is given to show how often the Bible has been cited in the works of the world’s literature.
Historian Philip Schaff describes the uniqueness of the Bible and its influence: “This Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Mohammed, and Napoleon: without science and learning. He shed more light on things human and divine than all scholars and philosophers combined: without the eloquence of schools. He spoke such words of life as were never spoken before or since, and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line. He set more pens in motion, and furnished themes for more sermons, orations, discussions, learned volumes, works of art, and songs of praise than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times.”
Bernard Ramm, a Christian apologist, elaborates: “There are complexities of bibliographical studies [on the Bible] that are unparalleled in any other science or department of human knowledge. From the Apostolic Fathers dating from 95 A.D. to the modern times is one great literary river inspired by the Bible — Bible dictionaries, Bible encyclopedias, Bible lexicons, Bible atlases, and Bible geographies. These may be taken as a starter. Then at random, we may mention the vast bibliographies around theology, religious education, hymnology, missions, the biblical languages, church history, religious biography, devotional works, commentaries, philosophies of religion, evidences, apologetics, and on and on. There seems to be an endless number.”
Kenneth Scott Latourette, in his History of Christianity, concludes: “It is evidence of His importance, of the effect that He has had upon history and presumably, of the baffling mystery of His being that no other life ever lived on this planet has evoked so huge a volume of literature among so many people and languages, and that, far from ebbing, the flood continues to mount.”
The Book That Has Survived Its Enemies
The Bible is unique in its survival. This does not prove that the Bible is true, but it does prove that it stands alone among books. A student seeking truth ought to consider a book that has these qualifications.
The interest of individuals in the Bible has often changed the course of history. Cultural historian David Hall of Harvard University argues that “the history of spirituality in Europe and America coincides closely with the printing of the Bible and its dissemination.”
The translation of the Bible by a 14th century monk, John Wycliffe, did much to reform the political structure of England. He laid the foundation of reform of not only the Church, but also the State. Wycliffe resolved to introduce the common people to the New Testament by translating it into the vernacular of the Saxon peasants.
Before the 15th century, every Englishman who could read was able to question the teachings of the Catholic Church with regard to both civil and ecclesiastical government. Because of the perceived threat of Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, who distributed and taught from English New Testaments, the Roman Catholic Church banned translation of the Bible in 1408. The only copies that continued to exist in English were hand copies of the Wycliffe originals.
In the 1440s, Johannes Gutenburg began experimenting with new, mysterious ways of approaching printing. Skilled in engraving and metal working, Gutenburg invented movable typeset and printed 200 copies of the Latin Bible. By the time Martin Luther was born in 1483, Germany had several large printing presses capable of printing hundreds of books at a time. The Protestant Reformation was fueled by the translation of the entire Bible in the German language by Martin Luther. Within a hundred years after the invention of printing press, the Bible began to be translated and printed in every major language of the world.
In 1521, William Tyndale, an Oxford scholar, began to translate the Bible into English. He did so because he was shocked to find that the people of England were so scripturally illiterate. Tyndale translated the entire Bible into English, printed copies of his version at Antwerp, and illegally smuggled the Bibles into England. In 1535, he was betrayed by a fellow Englishman and was burnt at the stake. His last words, reportedly, were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” Our freedom to own a Bible was won by the blood of the martyrs.
The basis of the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther’s teaching on the universal priesthood of the believer: Every Christian is a priest before God and is capable of interpreting the Bible for himself with the aid of the Holy Spirit. In turn, every Christian wanted to own a Bible and felt responsible to learn to read in order to more effectively commune with God. The result of this teaching brought what some scholars believe to be the highest literacy rate in the history of the world. Consider that in 1525 in northern Germany, only five percent of the population was literate. Yet 150 years later in New England, 95 percent was literate. This great advance was the result of the Protestant Reformation which began to dominate the religious life of northern Europe.
The Puritans, although never a large group, have done more to influence the shape of civil government in the world than any other group of people in modern history. The Puritans were the architects of a new form of government — Christian self-government with union — which later became the basis for America’s constitutional form of government. This was the end result of the Puritan’s belief that the Bible holds principles that are applicable to every area of human life.
Today, there is a resurgence of interest in the Bible and reading the Scriptures in America. A 1990 Gallup poll found that 42 percent of Americans view the Bible as God’s Word, up from 38 percent in 1978. Asked if they read the Bible daily, 17 percent of the people in the same survey said they did, versus 12 percent in 1978. In 1990, 21 percent of those polled said they belonged to a Bible study group, compared with 19 percent in 1978. Although not gigantic shifts, these results indicate that interest in the Bible in America is on the upswing.
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has led to an unprecedented hunger for the Bible. In China, the lifting of restrictions by the government have led to the printing of millions of Bibles in Chinese. Bible publishers expect that Cuba will be one of the next strong fields of interest as that nation redefines its freedoms.
The Authority of the Word of God
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14).
The name given to Jesus is the Word. The authority of the Word of God comes from the fact that it is the testimony Jesus Christ has given of himself: “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true … I am one who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me.” (John 6:14,18).
The authority of the Word of God does not come from the study of the historical accuracy of the Bible; the study of archaeology to prove the validity of the Bible; nor the study of science to prove the account of creation. Instead we believe the authority of the Word because it was given by Jesus Christ. This is called “presuppositionalism.”
Presuppositionalism, a definition: The authority of the Word of God is presupposed (believed ahead of time). If you have been born-again, you are under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Word. The Bible is the supreme source of authority for your life. The authority of the Word of God does not come from us being able to prove that it is true. The authority of the Word of God comes from the fact that it is God’s Word. God spoke it; it is truth.
Presuppositionalism is the opposite of evidentialism, the idea that we must seek to prove that the Bible is true by offering evidence. Evidentialism is not wrong, for it is important to defend what we believe. However, it is impossible to “prove” Scripture using evidence from philosophy, history, archaeology, science, and other rational proofs. To do so would be to claim that these proofs had the infallible authority of Scripture.
The Word of God preached is all the evidence of the truth man needs in order to be saved. We do not need to “prove” the Gospel in order for it to be effective. The Word of God preached is a living and powerful sword which pierces the heart of man. In fact, the Word preached is the only weapon of our warfare.
Presuppositionalism does not deny evidentialism completely. Paul preached a presuppositional sermon in Athens (Acts 17:23-31), but also appealed to evidences that God exists from Greek philosophy. The Gospel message for all time is this: “In the past you were ignorant, now you are hearing the Gospel and are responsible to repent and believe!”
There is already much evidence of the truth in natural revelation (Rom. 1:20). But the truth preached, not the evidence that the truth is true, is the only effective message of salvation. “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).
Two Question Test
The following is a two question self-test for deciding whether you are a presuppositionalist or an evidentialist.
1. Where is your starting point for deciding what is true?
A. The evidence that supports the truth of the Word of God.
B. The Word of God alone.
2. What does man need in order to be saved?
A. Man needs more evidence so that he can decide what is true — Man can only accept salvation once he understands the truth.
B. Man needs to repent and believe the gospel — God sets man free by giving him knowledge of the truth.
Truth is revealed not by evidence, but by the Word preached. Man’s problem is not that he lacks understanding and needs more information. His problem is that he is a sinner and needs repentance.
The Authority of the Word of God
Authority of the Bible is implied by the fact that we call it: “God’s Word.” Inspiration is the means by which the Bible received its authority. Canonization is the process by which the books of the Bible received their final acceptance.
The people of God have played a crucial role in the process of canonization through the centuries. In order to fulfill this role they had to look for certain earmarks of divine authority. How would one recognize an inspired book if he saw it? What are the characteristics which distinguish a divine declaration from a purely human one? Several criteria were involved in this recognition process.
*The Principles for Discovering Canonicity**
False books and false writings were not scarce. Their ever-present threat made it necessary for the people of God to carefully review their sacred collection. Even books accepted by other believers or in earlier days were subsequently brought into question by the church.
Operating in the whole process were some five basic criteria:
1. Is the book authoritative?
Does it claim to be of God?
2. Is the book prophetic?
Was it written by a prophet of God?
3. Is the book authentic?
Does it tell the truth about God, man, etc.?
4. Is the book dynamic?
Does it possess life transforming power?
5. Is the book accepted as being inspired of God?
Is this book received or accepted by the people for whom it was originally written?
The Authority of a Book
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).
“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” (2 Peter 1:20,21).
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the Word of God” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Each book in the Bible bears the claim of divine authority. Often the explicit “thus says the Lord” is present. Sometimes the tone and exhortations reveal its divine origin. Always there is a divine mandate. In didactic (teaching) literature, there are commandments for believers to obey the “Word of the Lord.”
In the historical books, the exhortations are implied. The authoritative “Word of the Lord” is about what God has done in the history of His people. If a book lacked the authority of God, it was not considered canonical and was rejected from the canon.
The books of the prophets were easily recognized by this principle of authority. The repeated, “And the Lord said unto me,” or “The word of the Lord came to me,” is abundant evidence of their claim to divine authority.
Some books lacked the claim to be divine and were thereby rejected as noncanonical. Perhaps this was the case with the book of Jasher and the Book of the Wars of the Lord. Other books, such as Esther, were questioned and challenged as to their divine authority but finally accepted into the canon.
Not until it was obvious to all that the protection and therefore the pronouncements of God on His people were unquestionably present in Esther was this book accorded a permanent place in the Jewish canon. Indeed, the very fact some canonical books were called into question provides assurance that the believers were discriminating. Unless they were convinced of the divine authority of the book it was rejected.
The Prophetic Authorship of a Book
Inspired books come only through men moved by the Holy Spirit and known as prophets (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Word of God is given to His people only through His prophets. Every biblical author had a prophetic gift or function, even if he was not a prophet by occupation (Hebrews 1:1).
Paul argued in Galatians that his book should be accepted because he was an apostle, “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Galatians 1:1). His book was to be accepted because it was apostolic — it was from a God-appointed spokesman or prophet. Books were to be rejected if they did not come from prophets of God, as is evident from Paul’s warnings not to accept a book from someone falsely claiming to be an apostle (2 Thessalonians 2:2) and from the warning in 2 Corinthians about false prophets (11:13).
John’s warnings about false messiahs and trying the spirits would fall into the same category (1 John 2:18-19; and 4:1-3). It was because of this prophetic principle that 2 Peter was disputed by some in the early church. Until the Church Fathers were convinced that it was not a forgery, but that it really came from the Apostle Peter as it claimed (1:1), it was not accorded a permanent place in the Christian canon.
The Authenticity of a Book
Another hallmark of inspiration is authenticity. Any book with factual or doctrinal errors (judged by previous revelations) could not be inspired of God. God cannot lie; His word must be true and consistent.
In view of this principle, the Bereans accepted Paul’s teachings and searched the Scriptures to see whether or not what Paul taught them was really in accord with God’s revelation in the Old Testament (Acts 17:11). Simple agreement with previous revelation would not therefore make a teaching inspired. But contradiction of a previous revelation would clearly indicate that a teaching was not inspired.
Much of the Apocrypha was rejected because of the principle of authenticity. Their historical errors and theological heresies made it impossible to accept them as from God despite their authoritative format. They could not be from God and contain error at the same time.
Some canonical books were questioned on the basis of this same principle. Could the letter of James be inspired if it contradicted Paul’s teaching on justification by faith and not by works? Until their essential compatibility was seen, James was questioned by some. Others questioned Jude because of its citation of inauthentic books, the Pseudepigrapha (Jude 9, 14). Once it was understood that Jude’s quotations granted no more authority to those books than Paul’s quotes from the non-Christian poets (see also Acts 17: 28 and Titus 1:12), then there remained no reason to reject Jude.
The Dynamic Nature of a Book
A fourth test for canonicity, at times less explicit than some of the others, was the life-transforming ability of the book. “The word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). As a result it can be used “for teaching, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Bible has the ability to convert the unbeliever and to build up the believer in the faith. Untold thousands have experienced this power. Drug addicts have been cured by it; derelicts have been transformed; hate has been turned to love by reading it. Believers grow by studying it (1 Peter 2:2). The sorrowing are comforted, the sinners are rebuked, and the negligent are exhorted by the Scriptures. God’s Word possesses the dynamic, transforming power of God. God vindicates the Bible’s authority by its evangelistic and edifying powers.
The apostle Paul revealed that the dynamic ability of inspired writings was involved in the acceptance of all Scripture as 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 indicates. Paul said to Timothy: “The holy scriptures … are able to make you wise unto salvation” (v. 15).
The Bible indicates that indicates that the Word of God preached is the means of grace God has provided to draw sinners to salvation (Romans 10:14). The Word of God is also powerful in the life of the believer.
1. Nourishment — Craving the milk of the word is a sign that you have been born-again.
“For you have been born-again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For all men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever. And this is the word that was preached to you. Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like new born babes, crave pure spiritual milk, so that you may grow up in you salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 1: 23-2:3).
“It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God … It is written again: You shall not tempt the Lord your God … Get away from me, Satan! For it is written: You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:4,7,10).
“I have not departed from the commands of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my daily bread” (Job 23:12).
“When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O Lord God Almighty” (Jeremiah 15:16).
“We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by now you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not meat! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But meat is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11-13).
2. Cleansing — Reading the Word of God is one of the means of grace God has given us for our sanctification — the cleansing of the heart and mind from sin.
“Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:26,27).
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:22-25).
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).
3. Devotions — There is a distinction to be made between devotions and devotion. Devotions are a time set aside for the reading of the Word. Devotion is to God, and is the highest reason for reading Scripture in our daily walk with God.
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-3).
“My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises” (Psalm 119:148).
“I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night” (Isaiah 62:6).
“I will bring him near and he will come close to me, for who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?” (Jeremiah 30:21).
“Could you men not watch with me for one hour?” (Matthew 26:40).
4. Spiritual Warfare — The Christian life is likened to a spiritual warfare. The power of the Word is likened to a living blade by which we may win the battle.
“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12,13).
“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world … He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 10:4-6, 3:6).
“Take the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:10-17).
The Acceptance of a Book
The final trademark of an authoritative writing is its recognition by the people of God to whom it was initially given. God’s Word given through His prophet and with His truth must be recognized by His people. Later generations of believers sought to verify this fact. For if the book was received, collected, and used as God’s work by those to whom it was originally given, then its canonicity was established.
Communication and transportation was difficult in ancient times. It sometimes took much time and effort on the part of the Church Fathers to determine acceptance of a book. For this reason the full and final recognition by the whole Church of the 66 books of the canon took many, many years.
The books of Moses were immediately accepted by the people of God. They were collected, quoted, preserved, and transferred to future generations. Paul’s epistles were immediately received by the churches to whom they were addressed (1 Thess. 2:13) and by other apostles (2 Peter 3:16). Some writings were immediately rejected by the people of God as lacking divine authority (2 Thess. 2:2). False prophets (Matt. 7:21-23) and lying spirits were to be tested and rejected (1 John 4:1-3), as indicated in many instances within the Bible itself (Jer. 5:2; 14:14).
Other messages and books were rejected because they held out false hope (1 Kings 22:6-8) or rang a false alarm (2 Thess 2:2). Thus, they were not conducive to building up the believer in the truth of Christ. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). False teaching never liberates; only the truth has emancipating power.
Some biblical books, such as Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, were questioned because they were thought by some to lack this dynamic edifying power. Once they were convinced that the Song was not sensual but deeply spiritual and that Ecclesiastes was not skeptical and pessimistic but positive and edifying (e.g., 12:9-10), then there remained little doubt as to their canonicity.
This principle of acceptance led some to question for a time certain biblical books such as 2 and 3 John. Their private nature and limited circulation being what it was, it is understandable that there would be some reluctance to accept them until they were assured that the books were received by the first-century people of God as from the apostle John.
It is almost needless to add that not everyone gave even initial recognition to a prophet’s message. God vindicated His prophets against those who rejected them (e.g., 1 Kings 22:1-38) and, when challenged, He designated who His people were. When the authority of Moses was challenged by Korah and others, the earth opened and swallowed them alive (Numbers 16). The role of the people of God was decisive in the recognition of the Word of God. God determined the authority of the books of the canon, but the people of God were called upon to discover which books were authoritative and which were not. To assist them in this discovery were these five tests of canonicity.
The Procedure for Discovering Canonicity
We should not imagine a committee of Church Fathers with a large pile of books and these five guiding principles before them when we speak of the process of canonization. The process was far more natural and dynamic. Some principles are only implicit in the process.
Although all five characteristics are present in each inspired writing, not all of the rules of recognition are apparent in the decision on each canonical book. It was not always immediately obvious to the early people of God that some historical books were “dynamic” or “authoritative.” More obvious to them was the fact certain books were “prophetic” and “accepted.”
One can easily see how the implied “thus says the Lord” played a most significant role in the discovery of the canonical books which reveal God’s overall redemptive plan. Nevertheless, the reverse is sometimes true; namely, the power and authority of the book are more apparent than its authorship (e.g., Hebrews). In any event, all five characteristics were involved in discovering each canonical book, although some were used only implicitly.
Some principles operate negatively in the process. Some of the rules for recognition operate more negatively than others. For instance, the principles of authenticity would more readily eliminate noncanonical books than indicate which books are canonical. There are no false teachings which are canonical, but there are many true writings which are not inspired. Likewise, many books which edify or have a dynamic are not canonic, even though no canonical book is without significance in the saving plan of God.
Similarly, a book may claim to be authoritative without being inspired, as may of the apocryphal writings indicate, but no book can be canonical unless it is really authoritative. In other words, if the book lacks authority it cannot be from God. But the simple fact that a book claims authority does not make it inspired. The principle acceptance has a primarily negative function. Even the fact that a book is received by some of the people of God is not a proof of inspiration.
In later generations some Christians, not thoroughly informed about the acceptance or rejection by the people of God to whom it was originally addressed, gave local and temporal recognition to books which are not canonical (e.g., some apocryphal books).
Simply because a book was received somewhere by some believers is far from proof of its inspiration. The initial reception by the people of God who were in the best position to test the prophetic authority of the book is crucial. It took some time for all segments of subsequent generation to be fully informed about the original circumstances. Thus, their acceptance is important but supportive in nature.
The most essential principle supersedes all others. Beneath the whole process of recognition lay one fundamental principle — the prophetic nature of the book. If a book were written by an accredited prophet of God, claiming to give an authoritative pronouncement from God, then there was no need to ask the other questions. Of course the people of God recognized the book as powerful and true when it was given to them by a prophet of God.
When there were no directly available confirmations of the prophet’s call (as there often were, cf. Exodus 4:1-9), then the authenticity, dynamic ability, and reception of a book by the original believing community would be essential to its later recognition. On the other hand, simply establishing the book as prophetic was sufficient in itself to confirm the canonicity of the book.
The question as to whether inauthenticity would disconfirm a prophetic book is purely hypothetical. No book given by God can by false. If a book claiming to be prophetic seems to have indisputable falsehood, then the prophetic credentials must be re-examined. God cannot lie. In this way the other four principles serve as a check on the prophetic character of the books of the canon.
The Bible Is Inspired of God
Through the centuries Christians have been called upon to give a reason or defense for their faith (1 Peter 3:15). Since the Scriptures lay at the very foundation of their faith in Christ, it has been necessary for Christian apologists to provide evidence for the inspiration of the Bible.
It is one thing to claim divine inspiration for the Bible and quite another to provide evidence to confirm that claim. Before examining the supporting evidence for the inspiration of Scripture, let us summarize precisely what it is that inspiration claims.
The inspiration of the Bible is not to be confused with a poetic inspiration. Inspiration as applied to the Bible refers to the God-given authority of its teachings for the thought and life of the believer.
Biblical Description of Inspiration
The word inspiration means God-breathed, and it refers to the process by which the Scriptures or writings were invested with divine authority for doctrine and practice (2 Timothy 3:16,17). It is the writings which are said to be inspired. The writers, however, were moved by the Holy Spirit to record their messages. Hence, when viewed as a total process, inspiration is what occurs when writers moved by the Holy Spirit record God-breathed writings. Three elements are contained in this total process of inspiration: the divine causality, the prophetic agency, and the resultant written authority.
The Three Elements in Inspiration
The first element in inspiration is God’s causality. God is the Prime Mover by whose promptings the prophets were led to write. The ultimate origin of inspired writings is the desire of God to communicate with man. The second factor is the prophetic agency. The Word of God comes through men of God. God uses the instrument of human personality to convey His message. Finally, the written prophetic utterance is invested with divine authority. The prophet’s words are God’s Word.
The Characteristics of an Inspired Writing
The first characteristic of inspiration is implied in the fact that it is an inspired writing; that is, it is verbal. The very words of the prophets were God-given, not by dictation but by the Spirit-directed employment of the prophet’s own vocabulary and style. Inspiration also claims to be plenary (full). No part of Scripture is without divine inspiration. Paul wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God.”
In addition, inspiration implies the inerrancy of the teaching of the original documents (called autographs). Whatever God utters is true and without error, and the Bible is said to be an utterance of God. Finally, inspiration results in the divine authority of the Scriptures. The teaching of Scripture is binding on the believer for faith and practice.
Inspiration is not something merely attributed to the Bible by Christians; it is something the Bible claims for itself. There are literally hundreds of references within the Bible about its divine origin.
The Inspiration of the Old Testament
The Old Testament claims to be a prophetic writing. The familiar “thus says the Lord” fills its pages. False prophets and their works were excluded from the house of the Lord. Those prophecies which proved to be from God were preserved in a sacred place. This growing collection of sacred writings was recognized and even quoted by later prophets as the Word of God.
Jesus and the New Testament writers held these writings in the same high esteem; they claimed them to be the unbreakable, authoritative, and inspired Word of God. By numerous references to the Old Testament as a whole, to its basic sections, and to almost every Old Testament book, the New Testament writers overwhelmingly attested to the claim of divine inspiration for the Old Testament.
The Inspiration of the New Testament
Matthew 16:13-19 establishes the authority invested in His apostles who were the authors of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. We have the testimony of Christ himself that the Apostles were given the “keys to the kingdom.” These were men who had the authority to compile the Scripture of the New Covenant.
The New Testament was written by the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry — by His disciples, Peter, John and Matthew — and by apostles that later arose in the first century Church — Paul, Luke, Mark, James and Jude.
Eusebius, the 4th century historian, drawing information from Papias, who was the Apostle John’s student, tells us that the Gospel of Mark was actually Peter’s Gospel of Jesus Christ as told to his student Mark: “The Elder (John) used to say this also: ‘Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down everything that he mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not, however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord; but afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adapted his teachings as necessity required … So then Mark made no mistake, writing down in this way some things as he (Peter) mentioned them; for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, not to include any false statement among them.”
The apostolic writings were boldly described in the same authoritative terms which denoted the Old Testament as the Word of God. They were called “scripture,” “prophecy,” etc. Every book in the New Testament contains some claim to divine authority. The New Testament church read, circulated, collected, and quoted the New Testament books right along with the inspired Scriptures of the Old Testament.
The contemporaries and immediate successors of the apostolic age recognized the divine origin of the New Testament writings along with the Old. With only heretical exceptions, all of the great Fathers of the Christian church from the earliest times held to the divine inspiration of the New Testament. In brief, there is continuous claim for the inspiration of both Old and New Testaments from the time of their composition to the present. In modern times this claim has been seriously challenged by many from inside and outside Christendom. This challenge calls for substantiation of the claim for inspiration of the Bible.
Sola Scriptura: The Authority of Scripture “alone”
It is the authority of Scripture alone, known as the doctrine of sola scriptura, that tells us who God is, and what is the true path to salvation. In addition, the Bible is central to all other knowledge. The Word of God gives all other disciplines their truth and credibility, not vice versa.
“When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, ‘Who do men say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven’” (Matthew 16:13-19).
In this passage, Peter confesses plainly and clearly that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus declares Peter to be blessed. He adds that he had named him Peter (in the Greek: Petros). The word translated “rock” (petra) in this passage is similar. By this Jesus Christ indicates that someone who truly believes that He is the Messiah and God is solid and cannot be swayed in his obedience to the Lord’s commandments or doctrines.
The Roman Catholic Church has interpreted this verse to mean that Peter is the Rock, and have derived their doctrine of infallibility of the pope from this scripture. Yet it is clear from the Greek grammatical structure of the passage that this in “this rock” refers to the prior sentence: “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you.” Although it is clear that Jesus was using a play on words to drive home His point, it is also clear that “this rock,” petra, is not Peter per se, but namely the revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Jesus declares the authority He would invest in Peter and all His disciples who make up the Church. His disciples were liable to mistakes and sins in their own conduct, but they were kept from error in stating the nature of God, the way of salvation, the rule of obedience, the believer’s character and experience, and the final doom of unbelievers and hypocrites. In such matters, their decision would be correct, and would be confirmed in heaven. No one can forgive sins, but God only. But the Church is given the mandate to declare God’s judgment on sin ahead of time. The “binding and loosing” signified “forbidding and allowing,” or to teach what is lawful or unlawful according to the Word of God.
The Scriptures declare the authority of Jesus Christ over all things and the authority He has given the Church to declare the Truth:
“Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder, when he opens no one will shut, when he shuts no one will open” (Isaiah 22:22).
“I am the First and the Last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Revelation 1:17,18).
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this” (Revelation 3:7).
From the time of the Apostles to the first lists of books in the New Testament recorded by second and third century Church Fathers, there was a consensus as to which writings were apostolic and thus scriptural in origin.
The Church Fathers also taught the “Rule of Faith” — essentially an early form of the Apostles Creed and a catechism (a body of apostolic teachings) — which was memorized and passed on orally by the early bishops who were ordained by the Apostles. The stewards of Truth during this interim period were known as the Apostolic Fathers. They were those who had had some contact with one or more of the Apostles. The first century “Apostolic Fathers” — Clement, Ignatius, Papias and Polycarp — are so named because of their association with one of the Apostles. We look to the Church Fathers in determining the succession of the true faith between the time of the Apostles and the time when the canon of the New Testament was received.
Christ gave His disciples authority, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19), so this authority is derived from the Word made flesh. But somewhere during the time of the early Church, Scripture had to be written, judged, and included in what we now know as the New Testament canon. This is why we need to recognize that strong authority was invested in the Church from the beginning in deciding what was correct doctrine.
Protestants believe that final authority comes from Scripture alone. If we believe sola scriptura, then who decided what books belong in the Bible? Jesus did not write the Bible, and since the Bible could not have written itself, this obviously implies an authority separate from Scripture. The fact is, the Church preceded the Bible; the Bible did not precede the Church. The Apostles and their associates defined the Word of Truth and the Church of the first and second century received the books that were canonical and rejected books that were not.
Sola scriptura does not mean that every believer with a Bible is a pope unto himself. Sola scriptura does not mean the Bible alone should be interpreted without reference to the counsel of Church history, the creeds and councils of the Church.
Sola scriptura means that only the Bible is infallible, and that Scripture alone tells us all the Truth we need to know about saving faith. It does not mean (in fact, it cannot mean) that there is no authority outside of Scripture. Men may make mistakes and they may sin; but Jesus’ Apostles, those they ordained, and the Church councils who were invested with the authority of the Holy Spirit maintained orthodoxy in their teaching on the way of salvation and the basic doctrines summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
Jesus gave His Apostles infallibility through the Holy Spirit in being able to expound on Truth. The Holy Spirit also guided the Church in being able to receive writings which were genuinely apostolic, divinely inspired, and infallible.
The individualistic “Christianity” of the modern age would never have stood the test of time throughout the early Church period. Today’s Christians are inclined to believe that one cannot read any of the Church Fathers uncritically. Evangelical Christianity has taught that the “Rule of Faith” of the Church Fathers must first have a biblical reference to validate it and filter out the imperfections in their thinking. But this is a contradiction since the “Rule of Faith” is what was used to measure what was perfect.
God’s Word alone is perfect, but we need to include in our idea of Scriptural infallibility that God used imperfect men to write Scripture and that imperfect men later received the books that belonged in the Canon — without error.
While the Apostles and the Church Fathers themselves were fallible men, we must understand that what the historic Church said about Scripture is true. Rather than seek to conform the doctrines of the Church Fathers to our own understanding of Scripture, we must look at my understanding of Scripture and ask: “Does our understanding of Scripture conform to the understanding of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church?”* Editor’s note: I have made use of the writings of Josh McDowell whose material has been edited and paraphrased in the sections following: “Principles for Discovering Canonicity.”