The Christian Faith in the Modern World

Topic: Revelation Type: Book Author: J. Gresham Machen 

Chapter 5


In the last talk I was speaking about the inspiration of the Bible. The writers of the Biblical books, I said, received a blessed and wonderful and supernatural guidance and impulsion by the Spirit of God, so that they were preserved from the errors that appear in other books and thus the resulting book, the Bible, is in all its parts the very Word of God, completely true in what it says regarding matters of fact and completely authoritative in its commands. That is the great doctrine of the full or "plenary" inspiration of Holy Scripture.

I had to break off what I was saying to you about that doctrine. In fact, almost all that I had time to do was to clear away certain misconceptions. Now we get more into the heart of the subject.

I think I can help you to get into the heart of the subject if I just ask you to consider with me for a minute or two what I suppose is one of the commonest if not the very commonest of the objections to the doctrine of full or "plenary" inspiration. You see, this business of considering objections is a good thing in more ways than one. Not only may it possibly help people who are actually troubled by the objections, but also it may enable all of us to get the thing more nearly straight in our minds. There are few better ways of seeing clearly what a thing is than the way of setting it off sharply in contrast with what it is not.

Well, what is this common objection to the doctrine of plenary inspiration? It is that the doctrine of plenary inspiration represents God as acting upon the Biblical writers in a mechanical way, a way that degrades those writers to the position of mere machines.

People who raise this objection sometimes ask us: "Do you believe in the ‘verbal’ inspiration of the Bible?" When they ask us that, they think that they have us in a dreadful hole. If we say: "No, we do not believe in verbal inspiration," they say: "How then can you hold to your conviction that the Bible is altogether true? If God did not exercise some supernatural control over the words, then the words will surely contain those errors which are found in all human productions." If, on the other hand, we say: "Yes, we do believe in verbal inspiration"—then they hold up their hands in horror. "How dreadful, how mechanical!", they say. "If God really provided in supernatural fashion that the words should be thus and so, then the writers of the Biblical books are degraded to the position of mere stenographers; indeed, they are degraded even lower than that, since stenographers are human enough to err and also to help, whereas in this case the words would be produced with such perfect accuracy as to show that the human instruments in the production of the words were mere machines. What becomes of the marvelous beauty and variety of the Bible when the writers of it are regarded as having been treated in this degrading way?"

Such is the hole into which we are thought to be put; or, if I may change the figure rather violently, such are the horns of the dilemma upon which we are thought to be impaled.

How can we possibly escape? Well, I think we can escape very easily indeed. You ask me whether I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible. I will answer that question very plainly and quickly. Yes, I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible; but I do insist that you and I shall get a right notion of what the word "verbal" means.

I certainly believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible. I quite agree with you when you say that unless God provided in supernatural fashion that the words of the Bible should be free from error we should have to give up our conception of the Bible as being, throughout, a supernatural book.

Yes, inspiration certainly has to do with the words of the Bible; in that sense I certainly do believe in verbal inspiration. But if you mean by "verbal inspiration" the view that inspiration has to do only with the words of the Bible and not also with the souls of the Biblical writers, then I want to tell you that I do not believe in verbal inspiration in that sense. If you mean by verbal inspiration the view that God moved the hands of the Biblical writers over the page in the way in which hands are said to be moved over a ouija board—in such a way that the writers did not know what they were doing when they wrote—then I do hold that that kind of verbal inspiration does utterly fail to do justice to what appears in the Bible very plainly from Genesis to Revelation.

The writers of the Bible did know what they were doing when they wrote. I do not believe that they always knew all that they were doing. I believe that there are mysterious words of prophecy in the Prophets and the Psalms, for example, which had a far richer and more glorious fulfillment than the inspired writers knew when they wrote. Yet even in the case of those mysterious words I do not think that the sacred writers were mere automata. They did not know the full meaning of what they wrote, but they did know part of the meaning, and the full meaning was in no contradiction with the partial meaning but was its glorious unfolding.

I believe that the Biblical writers used ordinary sources of information; they consulted documents, they engaged in research, they listened to eyewitnesses.

I do not, indeed, believe, that they were limited to such sources of information. They were sometimes, as they wrote, the recipients of fresh supernatural revelation—supernatural revelation not previously given to others but given for the first time to them in the very moment of their writing. I believe also that sometimes even when they used ordinary sources of information or when they consulted their memory their use of such means of information went far beyond what is possible, except with supernatural assistance, to the human mind.

In one sense, of course, their use of such sources of information always went beyond what is possible to the human mind. To err is human, and these men did not err. They were always protected, in supernatural fashion, from the errors which appear in ordinary books.

But what I mean is that sometimes that supernatural heightening of human powers consisted not only in the invariable prevention of error in matters where uninspired writers might in any individual case have avoided error, but also in the prevention of error in matters where uninspired writers could not possibly have avoided error.

I am thinking, for example, of the discourses of Jesus reported in the Gospel according to John. It is often urged as an objection against the authenticity of those long discourses that no one who heard the discourses could possibly have remembered them so long afterwards with anything like accuracy. That objection no longer troubles me as much as it formerly did. Did not our Lord Himself tell the Apostles, including the writer of this Gospel, that after His departure the Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance whatever He had said to them? (JOH 14:26). May we not suppose that the report by the Beloved Disciple, writer of this Gospel, of the things that Jesus had said when He was with the disciples on Earth goes far beyond what is possible to the unaided human memory and is due in part to that mysterious and supernatural work of the Holy Spirit of which Jesus spoke?

But such considerations ought not to obscure the fact that the Biblical writers did use ordinary sources of information where they were reporting things that had been said and done on this Earth. Indeed, they often lay great stress on the fact that they used such ordinary sources of information. The author of that very Gospel about which we have just been speaking, and in which we were inclined to find something that goes far beyond what is possible to the unaided human memory—even the author of that Gospel lays particular emphasis on the fact that he was an eyewitness of the life of Jesus. He reported what he had seen and heard. He did not tell these things just because they had been revealed to him at some later time in some supernatural experience. No. He was there when Jesus said certain things and did certain things. As an eyewitness he insists that he is worthy of belief. Even before his hearers or his readers should come to believe in any supernatural inspiration of which he was the recipient they ought to believe him as men believe a credible witness when he takes his seat on the witness stand.

So the Apostle Paul appeals to the witness of the five hundred brethren who had seen the risen Lord. So the Evangelist Luke tells in the prologue of his Gospel about the historical researches in which he had been engaged. Yes, the Biblical writers used ordinary sources of information, and when they were eyewitnesses they used their own memory of what they had seen and heard.

It is very important indeed to insist upon these facts, because they give the Bible such evidential force. Suppose a man comes to the reading of the Bible without any belief in inspiration. Even then he ought to give credence to what he reads. It can be shown him even before any acceptance on his part of the doctrine of plenary inspiration that the writers were men who had opportunities of knowing the facts, that they were honest men, that they knew how to distinguish truth from falsehood. If he will only consider these Biblical books with the same fairness as that with which he approaches other sources of historical information, he will accept what they say as being substantially true. Then, on the basis of that conviction that they are substantially true, he will go on to see that the books are not only substantially true, in the way in which other good books are true, but that they are altogether true because of the supernatural work of the Spirit of God.

We do not therefore merely admit that the Biblical writers used ordinary sources of historical information. We insist upon it. It is tremendously important for the witness which the Bible renders to those who have not yet come to believe.

What is more, the Biblical writers did not merely use ordinary means of obtaining information, but also they followed their own individual habits of style. When people say that the doctrine of plenary or full inspiration of the Bible fails to do justice to the individuality of the Biblical writers, they simply show that they do not know what they are talking about. Yes, what a wonderful variety there is in the Bible. There is the rough simplicity of Mark, the unconscious, yet splendid eloquence of Paul, the conscious literary art of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the matchless beauty of the Old Testament narratives, the high poetry of the Prophets and the Psalms. How much we should lose, to be sure, if the Bible were written all in one style!

We believers in the full inspiration of the Bible do not merely admit that. We insist upon it. The doctrine of plenary inspiration does not hold that all parts of the Bible are alike; it does not hold that they are all equally beautiful or even equally valuable; but it only holds that all parts of the Bible are equally true, and that each part has its place.

That wonderful variety in the Bible did not come by chance. It came by the gracious providence of God. It was God who superintended the varied education of those writers to prepare them the better for their mighty task. It was God who watched over the prophet Amos when he was "a herdsman and a gatherer of sycamore fruit." It was God who watched over Paul when he sat at the feet of Gamaliel. When I consider the wonderful variety among the Biblical writers, and the wonderful unity of the Book amid this variety, I am tempted to use a figure of speech to describe what is really beyond all human figures. I am tempted to think of the writers of these sixty-six books as though they were a great orchestra, not composed of poor mechanical strummers but of true musicians, carefully chosen, carefully trained, individual, different, yet contributing by their very differences to the unity of some glorious symphony under a great Director’s wand. In that marvelous harmony of Holy Scripture even the least considered parts of the Bible have their place. None could be lacking without offending the great Musician’s ear.

But, you say, this doctrine of inspiration is certainly a great paradox. It holds that these men were free, and yet that every word that they wrote was absolutely determined by the Spirit of God. How is that possible? How could God determine the very words that these men wrote and yet not deal with them as mere machines?

Well, my friend, I will tell you how. I will tell you how God could do that. He could do it simply because God is God. There is a delicacy of discrimination in God’s dealing with His creatures that far surpasses all human analogies. When God deals with men He does not deal with them as with machines or as with sticks or stones. He deals with them as with men.

But what needs to be emphasized above all is that when God dealt thus with the Biblical writers, though He dealt with them as with men and not as with machines, yet He accomplished His ends. He ordered their lives to fit them for their tasks. But then, in addition to that providential ordering of their lives, in addition to that use of their individual gifts of which we have spoken, there was a supernatural work of the Spirit of God that made the resulting book not man’s book but God’s Book.

That supernatural work of the Spirit of God extends to all parts of the Bible. People say that the Bible is a book of religion and not a book of science, and that where it deals with scientific matters it is not to be trusted. When they say that, if they really know what they are saying, they are saying just about the most destructive thing that could possibly be imagined.

Is religion really independent of science? Well, "religion" is a very broad term. I will not say just how broad a term it is. Possibly it is even broad enough to include an attitude of the human soul that is independent of all facts with which science may legitimately deal. I am not saying whether such an attitude may or may not be called "religion." I am not much interested in the question. What I am interested in and what I am certain about is that whatever may be true of religion in general, the Christian religion is most emphatically dependent upon facts–facts in the external world, facts with which "science" in the true sense of the word certainly has a right to deal.

When you say that the Bible is a true guide in religion, but that you do not care whether it is a true guide when it deals with history or with science, I should just like to ask you one question. What do you think of the Bible when it tells you that the body of the Lord Jesus came out of that tomb on the first Easter morning nineteen hundred years ago? That event of the resurrection, if it really happened, is an event in the external world. Account would have to be taken of it in any ideally complete scientific description of the physical universe. It is certainly a matter with which science, in principle, must deal. Well, then, is that one of those scientific matters to which the inspiration of the Bible does not extend, one of those scientific matters with regard to which it makes no difference to the devout reader of the Bible whether the Bible is true or false?

There are many people who say just that. There are many people who do not shrink from that logical consequence of their division between religion and science. There are many people who say that the Bible would retain its full religious value even if scientific history should show that it is wrong about the resurrection of Jesus and that as a matter of fact Jesus never rose from the dead.

I say there are many people who say that. But the people who say that are not Christians. We Christians know that we are sinners; and we look to the Bible for something far more than inspiring poetry or soul-stirring exhortation or expert instruction in the art of being religious. We look to the Bible for facts.

What good does it do to me to tell me that the type of religion presented in the Bible is a very fine type of religion and that the thing for me to do is just to start practicing that type of religion now? What good does it do to tell me that I have a fine pattern of religion in the account of Jesus in the Gospels whether that account is history or an inspiring ideal? What good does it do to tell me to cultivate my religious nature in the manner in which the religious nature was cultivated with such eminent success by Jesus or by Paul or by Isaiah?

I will tell you, my friend. It does me not one tiniest little bit of good. You are just mocking me when you talk to me like that. You are ignoring my true condition. You are ignoring the fact that in my own right I am a sinner under the wrath and curse of God, and that in my own strength I am under the awful bondage of sin. What I need first of all is not exhortation but a gospel, not directions for saving myself but knowledge of the way God has saved me. Have you any good news for me? That is the question that I ask of you. I know your exhortations will not help me. But if anything has been done to save me, will you not tell me the facts?

The Bible does tell me the facts. It tells me Jesus died on the cross to save me; it tells me He rose from the dead to complete His saving work and be my living Lord. What do I say when it tells me that? Do I say: "That is history and not religion: I am not interested in it; it may be true or it may not be true for all I care; the Bible is a book of religion and not a book of science or a book of history"? No, my friends, I do not say that. I say rather: "Praise be to God for that blessed story of the resurrection and the cross; upon the truth of it all my hope depends for time and for eternity; how I rejoice that God Himself has told me in His holy Book that it is true!"

Here is a rule for you, my friends: no facts, no good news; no good news, no hope. The Bible is quite useless unless it is a record of facts.

Thank God, it is a record of facts. The Spirit of God, in infinite mercy, was with the writers of the Bible not merely when they issued God’s commands, but also and just as fully when they wrote the blessed record of what God had done.

What a dreadfully erroneous thing it is to say merely that the Bible contains the Word of God. No, it is the Word of God. It is the Word of God when it records the facts. It is the Word of God when it tells us what we must do.

Hear it as the Word of God, my friends. It will probe very deep into your life. It will reveal the dark secrets of your sin. But then it will bring you good tidings of salvation as no word of man can do.

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This Page Last Updated: 12/07/98 A. Allison Lewis