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Developments in

the Doctrine of Scripture

Although our focus is on post-reformation developments in the doctrine of Scripture, we must begin with the reformation itself. It is important to remember that the inspiration of the Bible was not the central issue at stake in the 16th century. The RCC fundamentally agreed with the reformers on the nature of Scripture but differed over the latter’s sufficiency. In other words, it wasn’t the noun Scriptura but the adjective Sola that became the focus of debate.

A.        The Roman Catholic Doctrine of Scripture and Religious Authority at the time of the Reformation

1.         The RCC is the custodian and guardian of Scripture – The Bible was not given to the world, nor even to believers, but was deposited in the Church, to which was entrusted the exclusive right of interpretation and teaching (the so-called magisterium).

2.         Although acknowledging the Bible’s inspiration, the RCC denied its sufficiency – Revelation, according to Rome, takes two forms: written (the Bible) and oral (tradition). The latter is an uninscripturated body of truth that has come to expression in the pronouncements of church councils and papal decrees. Bellarmine (1542-1621), noted Jesuit theologian, divided tradition into three classes: divine (those which Christ himself taught and deposited with his followers to be transmitted orally generation after generation), apostolic (those derived from the apostles, though not written), and ecclesiastical (conciliar and papal decrees accumulated through the centuries). In practical effect, Scripture is subordinate to tradition, as Ramm explains:

“Obscure and partial teaching of the Scripture is to be explained by the fuller teaching in the unwritten tradition of the Church. The Roman Catholic believes that he has two sources of revelation which mutually interpret each other. Scripture makes clear matters of the unwritten tradition, and unwritten tradition makes clear obscure matters in Scripture. Hence the Catholic scholar does not feel it necessary to find full teaching of all his doctrines in the Bible but allusions are sufficient (e.g., prayers for the dead, veneration for Mary, confession, the supremacy of Peter). The Catholic Church does not intend to limit itself entirely to the word of Scripture. Its source of revelation is the Deposit of Faith in an unwritten and written form. The unwritten tradition may then be used to fill out what is deficient in the written form (Scripture)” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 43-44).


B.         The Reformers’ Doctrine of Scripture and Religious Authority

1.         Sola Scriptura – The concept of Scripture alone most characterized the reformers of the 16th century. It was Luther who most clearly stated the principle of the “infallible Word of God” (verbum Dei infallibile) over against the “fallible word” of the Church and its extra-biblical traditions. [An excellent discussion of Luther’s view is provided by J. I. Packer in “Sola Scriptura in History and Today,” in God’s Inerrant Word, ed. by John W. Montgomery.] Contrary to Rome which insisted that the Church should determine what the Bible teaches, Luther argued that the Bible determines what the Church ought to teach.

2.         Scripture is the Interpreter of Scripture (or, scriptura scripturae interpres) – In other words, the Bible is, in a manner of speaking, a world of its own. It can and does interpret itself to the faithful from within, apart from any appeal to tradition, council, or pope. The Reformers enclosed the interpreter within the pages of Scripture and insisted that the obscure text yield to the clear. Says Packer:

“This was part of the meaning of ‘only’ in the slogan ‘by Scripture only’; as Scripture was the only source from which sinners might gain true knowledge of God and godliness, so Scripture was the only judge of what the church had in each age ventured to say in her Lord’s name” (45).


This is closely related to the principle of the analogy of faith (analogia fidei). Rome interpreted Scripture by means of the marginal glosses and catena of citations from the Fathers. Luther insisted, instead, on the organic theological unity of the Bible. All relevant biblical material on any given subject was to be collected so that the overall pattern of divine revelation might be apparent and obscure texts might yield to clear ones.

3.         The Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit – All study of the Scriptures is futile apart from the bestowal of enlightenment or illumination by the Holy Spirit. Said Luther: “The Bible cannot be mastered by study or talent; you must rely on the influx of the Spirit.” The only authoritative interpreter of a book is its author!

4.         The Clarity or Perspicuity of Scripture – Rome in part justified withholding Scripture from the laity by arguing that its meaning was inaccessible to the untrained mind. Only those duly authorized by the church and endowed with the essential skills can interpret Scripture. The Reformers, on the other hand, argued for the essential clarity of the Bible’s fundamental message. Luther wrote this to Erasmus:

“I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent us knowing all the contents of Scripture” (Bondage of the Will, 71).


5.         The Unity of Scripture – Whereas Luther placed more emphasis on the Law / Gospel motif than did Calvin, both saw Christ and his redemptive work as the overall unitive theme of the Bible.

6.         Grammatical-Historical Interpretation – Both Luther and Calvin opposed the allegorical hermeneutic of the medieval period. They emphasized grammatical exegesis, philology, contextual, historical, and cultural analysis of the Scriptures.

A brief word is in order concerning the doctrine of Scripture in both Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxy (the theological heirs, respectively, of Luther and Calvin).

Lutheran Orthodoxy – Here I have in mind the likes of John Gerhard (1582-1637), Abraham Calov (1612-1686), John Andrew Quenstedt (1617-1688), and Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586; Chemnitz was more of a contemporary than an heir).

Two characteristics are worth noting: (1) Scripture is not simply another article of faith, it is the foundation or first principle for all other articles of faith. (2) “What Scripture says, God says.” On occasion, this principle approximated the concept of dictation: “The Holy Spirit not only inspired in the prophets and apostles the content and the sense contained in Scripture, or the meaning of the words, so that they might of their own pleasure clothe and furnish these thoughts with their own style and their own words; but the Holy Spirit actually supplied, inspired, and dictated the very words and each and every term individually” (Quenstedt, Systema, P.I, C.4, S.2, q.4).

Calvinistic Orthodoxy – Two individuals in particular to be noted are Theodore Beza (1519-1605) and Francis Turretin (1623-1687). Turretin argued not only for the plenary inerrancy of Scripture but also for the inspiration of the Hebrew vowel points!

C.        Modern Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture

1.         The Doctrine of Scripture in the Princeton Theology – Here I have in mind Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), Charles Hodge (1797-1878), A. A. Hodge (1823-1886), and Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921). These men consistently affirmed the complete inerrancy of the text:

“And could it be shown that the evangelists had fallen into palpable mistakes in facts of minor importance, it would be impossible to demonstrate that they wrote anything by inspiration” (A. Alexander, Evidences of the Authenticity, Inspiration, and Canonical Authority of the Holy Scriptures, 1836, 229).


The elder Hodge said that Scripture “is free from all error whether of doctrine, fact or precept” (Systematic Theology, I:152). Inspiration was “not confined to moral and religious truths, but extends to the statements of facts, whether scientific, historical, or geographical” (I:163). A. A. Hodge and Warfield jointly published a famous article entitled, “Inspiration” (The Presbyterian Review, April 1881), in which their view was set forth in five theses:

(1)        Scripture is plenarily or fully inspired.

(2)        Scripture is verbally inspired.

(3)        Scripture is inerrant on all matters upon which it touches.

(4)        Since inerrancy applies only to the original manuscripts of Scripture, what we see as apparent errors or discrepancies need not disprove the theory.

(5)        By the proper use of historical and critical methods of interpretation such “errors” can be resolved or shown to have enough ambiguity as to constitute no threat to the doctrine of inerrancy.


D.        The Doctrine of Scripture in Religious Liberalism

Theological liberalism was and is “a creative appropriation of and accommodation to the spirit of Enlightenment man” (Pinnock, “Three Views of the Bible in Contemporary Theology,” Biblical Authority, 50). Thus whatever is not in harmony with the educated mentality and the moral sensibilities of modern man is to be rejected. Reason, informed by the scientific method, is the ultimate religious authority. Liberalism’s view of the Bible entails several points.

1.         The Bible is largely, if not entirely, a human book – Liberalism seeks to strip the false veneration accorded Scripture because of its supposed divine origin and authorship. Since the Bible was written, copied, translated, and interpreted by sinful people, it necessarily contains all manner of internal contradictions, moral absurdities, legend, myth, saga, etc. It is worthy of special respect only insofar as it is a unique witness of those in whose lives God once worked.

2.         The Bible is not divinely inspired, but it is divinely inspiring – The Bible is not the inscripturated revelatory disclosure of God. Rather, “the inspiration of the Bible is its power to inspire religious experience. Revelation is redefined as human insight into religious truth, or human discovery of religious truths” (Ramm, 64-65). Thus, according to orthodoxy, inspiration is what God does to the Bible. According to liberalism, inspiration is what the Bible does to us.

3.         The supernatural is marginalized – The supernatural is often redefined to refer to those activities by which we reach beyond the material order to God (through prayer, ethics, mystical thought, etc.), rather than the activity of God by which he manifests his presence and power in the created order of things. Insofar as science assumes the regularity of nature, miracles are by definition excluded. The biblical record of “miraculous” events is no more than folklore, mythology, or the poetic elaboration of a people who lived and interpreted their experience in a pre-industrial, pre-scientific age. They are no more than the forms by which first century folk give expression to their religious beliefs.

4.         The interpretation of the Bible is subject to an evolutionary presuppositional framework

5.         The principle of accommodation – Much, if not all, of the theological statements of the text are cast in the shape of the transitory, culture-bound thought forms of the ancient world.

E.         The Doctrine of Scripture in Neo-Orthodoxy

So-called neo-orthodoxy was born from a reaction to the extremes of classical religious liberalism. “Neo-orthodoxy or dialectical theology,” notes Pinnock, “provided a haven for liberal refugees fleeing from the disenchantment with a devastating consistency of their own optimistic humanism. Ostensibly, it marked a return to classical Protestant orthodoxy and, although the change was noticeable, certain similarities with liberalism remained” (164). As a theological movement, it began with the publication of Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans (Romerbrief) at the end of WW I.

1.         The Neo-orthodox concept of revelation – The neo-orthodox refuse to identify revelation with Scripture. Revelation is not propositional or conceptual (i.e., dianoetic). It is existential, dynamic, and personal. Revelation is not words about God. Revelation is God himself, experientially and dynamically present to my religious consciousness. William Temple writes:

“What is offered to man’s apprehension in any specific revelation is not truth concerning God but the living God himself. There is no such thing as revealed truth. There are truths of revelation; but they are not themselves directly revealed” (Nature, Man, and God, 316, 322).


God does not reveal information by communication: He reveals himself by communion. Revelation is a personal meeting of God with man. It is a meeting of mind with mind or person with person, but not subject (person) with object (propositional truth).

2.         The Neo-orthodox concept of Scripture – If revelation is not itself propositional truth, the Bible itself cannot be revelation. Rather, the Bible is a witness to or a record of revelation. The Bible is the account given by certain people of their own or someone else’s encounter with God. Thus it bears witness to and testifies concerning revelation, but the words of Scripture are not themselves that revelation. Pinnock explains:

“For neoorthodoxy, the Bible is the Word of God only in a restricted and derivative sense; namely, as it becomes the Word by a miracle in the heart, by which its fallible witness mediates an encounter. As witness to revelation, the Bible is an indispensable, though human, document because it occupies a preeminent place chronologically in the Christian faith. The Spirit uses the fallible, human text to induce a dynamic revelation encounter in contemporary man” (BR, 164).


For example, in the first century God revealed himself in the event of the cross and in the religious experience of those individuals whose lives were transformed because of it. The Bible is a recital of these incidences of revelation. The recorded meaning of these events in the words of Scripture is neither revelation nor inspired. The “Word” of God cannot be “frozen” in Scripture. God may certainly use the words of Scripture as a medium to encounter the human soul in a revelatory experience, but those words are not themselves the revelation. To identify the words of Scripture with divine revelation would be to imprison the Spirit of God and subject God himself to human control. The locus of revelation is thus transferred from the text of Scripture to the soul of the individual who encounters God through it. Ramm summarizes:

“Revelation is when, and only when, God speaks. But God’s speech is not words (orthodox view) but is His personal presence. ‘The Word of God’ is God Himself present to my consciousness. The ‘objective’ form of this speech is Jesus Christ which is God present in mercy, grace, and reconciliation. When God addresses me by Jesus Christ and I respond, then revelation occurs. Revelation is thus both God speaking to me of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ and my response of faith to this personal address” (71-2).


3.         The Neo-orthodox confusion of Revelation with Illumination – By “revelation” is meant that act of God by which he communicated to men a knowledge of himself and his will. By “inspiration” is meant the influence of the Spirit on the minds of selected individuals rendering them organs or instruments for the infallible and inerrant inscripturation of that revelation. By “illumination” is meant the divine quickening of the regnerate mind by virtue of which it is enabled to understand and enjoy the truth that has been revealed and inscripturated in the text. It would appear that neo-orthodoxy has confused these concepts by virtually identifying revelation with illumination.

F.         The Debate on the Inerrancy of Scripture in Contemporary Evangelicalism

Here I will focus only on the concept of limited innerancy. One of the better defenders of this view is Daniel Fuller (see his two articles, “The Nature of Biblical Inerrancy,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, June 1972; and “Benjamin B. Warfield’s View of Faith and History,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society, XI, 2, Spring 1968). Elements of his view:

·        The “inerrancy” of a book or piece of literature can be evaluated solely in light of the author’s intention or purpose. Does the author fulfill his/her purpose in writing? If so, the work is inerrant. If not, it is not.


·        The purpose of the Bible is to make us “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). The purpose of the Bible is not to make us wise unto botany or geology or astronomy or history. Fuller writes:

“The Biblical writers make it clear that their purpose was to report the happenings and meanings of the redemptive acts of God in history so that men might be made wise unto salvation” (“Inerrancy,” 47).

·        By this criterion, says Fuller, the Bible is inerrant. It perfectly lives up to its purpose. It never fails to fulfill its purpose or intent of making the reader wise unto salvation.


·        Since inerrancy should only be expected in the case of those biblical assertions which teach or rightly imply knowledge that makes man wise unto salvation, Scripture can and does err in other matters. I.e., there are passages in the Bible which are but incidentally related or entirely unrelated to its primary purpose. These incidents or texts are called by Fuller, non-revelational matters; i.e., biblical statements on such topics as geology, meteorology, cosmology, botany, astronomy, geography, history, etc. Since the principal aim or authorial intent of Scripture is not to teach truths on such matters as these, the latter may err while the former remains inerrant. The Bible is inerrant on those matters it intends to teach, those matters that are essential to make us wise unto salvation. These, and these alone, are revelatory.

·        Fuller is not saying that the Bible cannot err on revelational matters. He is saying that on non-revelational matters there may indeed be errors in Scripture (indeed, there are), but that on revelational matters he has discovered none yet and hopes he never will:

“I sincerely hope that as I continue my historical-grammatical exegesis of Scripture, I shall find no error in its teachings. But I can only affirm inerrancy with high probability” (“On Revelation and Biblical Authority,” JETS, XVI, 2, Spring 1973, 67-69).